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The SPURS bills

I admit that I tipped my cap to this one.

What if it took an act of Congress to keep the Spurs in San Antonio?

With the team playing two games in Austin this season and Austin billionaire Michael Dell buying a 10 percent share of the team last year, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales worries it might, even as the Spurs’ owners have sought to reassure fans and local officials that they have no plans to move.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and there’s absolutely smoke,” the San Antonio Republican said.

“Look what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics,” Gonzales said of the now-Oklahoma City Thunder; or the San Diego Chargers or St. Louis Rams, both of which now call Los Angeles home.

“No one would ever imagine the Spurs would leave San Antonio, but what if they do?” Gonzales said. “Sometimes when we say it takes an act of Congress, sometimes we have to take that seriously.”

So Gonzales is filing legislation to stop any possible move up Interstate 35 for the Spurs, and to prevent other small market teams from ditching communities that have invested time, tears — and a whole lot of cash — in them.

His bill, The Strengthening Public Undertakings for Retaining Sports Act — or SPURS Act for short — would set up strict requirements for teams to relocate. A franchise would have to lose money for five years in a row, plus prove that its stadium is inadequate or that local governments are flouting its agreements with the team.

The legislation would require teams to give a year’s notice if they want to relocate, and it would allow local governments to veto the move. It would also force teams that do move to reimburse whatever financial assistance or incentives were provided to them, such as special tax incentives or arena financing. Local governments could sue teams for damages, as well.

[…]

The legislation comes after Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt in May wrote an open letter to fans seeking to ease months of suspicion that the team might be eyeing a move. The Spurs are under a non-relocation agreement with Bexar County that runs through 2032, but county commissioners have agreed to a one-year pilot program allowing the team to play “home” games in Austin and Mexico City.

The team has said it’s all part of an effort to broaden the fan base as attendance has plummeted amid a franchise record three-year playoff drought.

“We will keep making memories, together, inside of Bexar County,” Holt wrote.

Gonzales said he believes Holt, but worries about future owners. Dell buying a share of the team could be the first step toward building an ownership more open to a move, he said.

Some background reading on this if it’s all new to you. I don’t know if this bill makes any sense legally or economically, but if you want to find a non-partisan issue to support that might draw you some crossover voters, it would be hard to top a pro-Spurs-in-San-Antonio bill for a guy who represents a lot of their fanbase. Whatever happens to this – I will bet you $1 right now that it doesn’t get a committee hearing in this Congress – it’s a brilliant piece of politics.

Unifying the opposition to massive urban highway projects

Good idea, ought to have some effect, but changing the overall culture and philosophy about transportation in Texas is a very big lift.

Opponents of some of Texas’ largest transportation projects are unifying their messaging, pushing state highway officials to think differently about metro regions, where road widening can claim hundreds of homes and businesses, and urging them to consider alternatives to automobiles rather than adding more lanes.

“If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result, then the Texas transportation system is insane,” said Robert Storch, an El Paso resident opposed to a plan to widen Interstate 10 in the city.

Led by organizers from Houston with the Stop TxDOT I-45 effort, protesters from most of the state’s biggest cities descended last week on the Texas Department of Transportation’s Austin headquarters, where officials approved a 10-year $85 billion plan for state road projects. The aim, organizers said, was to send a Texas-wide message to a statewide agency by focusing on the root issue of freeway design in urban areas.

“People in communities should have the right to decide what mobility means for them,” said Ann Zadeh, executive director of Community Design Fort Worth and a former City Council member and mayoral candidate.

In many Texas metros, Zadeh said, the focus needs to shift from traffic flow to “mending the divisions” those freeways caused, especially in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

That case can be better made if it comes from numerous sources, said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, an opponent of the state’s plans to widen I-10 through the downtown of the West Texas gateway city.

“I think it is important to come together because we are talking about the same agency and the same issues,” Stout said.

Among the projects drawing alarm:

Each of the projects is aimed at addressing growing traffic congestion, enjoys political support from the regional planning officials in the major metro areas, and has years of TxDOT-driven study to justify its design.

But opponents argue that they also are based on doing things largely the way TxDOT always has done them in metro regions that are becoming more urban. They also say those regions’ residents and some leaders are clamoring more for housing closer to jobs, maintained sidewalks and frequent transit instead of ever-expanding freeways.

“What could we do positively in our communities with $10 billion,” I-45 critic Walter Mallet told the Texas Transportation Commission on Tuesday.

I’m a little surprised that this kind of coordination hadn’t happened before, but I’m glad to see it now. Given that TxDOT has already approved that $85 billion in spending, I’m not sure how much can be accomplished at this time, but it’s worth trying. To me, the big prize here would be electing Beto O’Rourke Governor, because that would allow him to start naming new people to the Texas Transportation Commission, and I feel very confident saying that we’re going to keep getting the same old thinking on the TTC for as long as we have the same old people serving as Commissioners. I know I sound like a broken record, but it really is the case that very little will change in this state until we start electing different people to office. I mean, why not try it and see? What do we have to lose?

Investigating abortions is Houston’s “lowest priority”

So says Mayor Turner, and I’m glad to hear it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Thursday that investigating abortions under the state’s near-total ban is the city’s “lowest priority” when it comes to crime.

Turner said the city would continue to marshal its limited law enforcement resources toward driving down violent crime. While the city cannot ignore the law, Turner said, he wanted to assure medical professionals and pregnant Houstonians that police here will not seek to interfere in sensitive health care decisions.

“I want women to get the best health care that we can offer in this city, and I don’t want doctors or health care providers or practitioners to second-guess themselves in providing the best health care,” Turner said at a City Hall news conference. “We cannot undo the law, it is on the books. It is what it is. We cannot supersede it, but we certainly can prioritize how our resources will be used in this city.”

[…]

Matt Slinkard, the city’s executive assistant police chief, acknowledged the city is duty-bound to enforce the law, but said Houston Police Department officers would remain “laser-focused” on violent crime. Police officials told City Council this week that violent crime is down 10 percent year-over-year, though it remains above pre-pandemic levels.

Slinkard said he was not aware of any complaints filed with the department since the law took effect last week. The mayor also sent a letter to District Attorney Kim Ogg outlining those priorities.

Turner spoke at City Hall along with members of the city’s women’s commission and council members, a majority of whom are women.

Like I said, good to hear. As you know, multiple other Texas cities have taken similar action, via the passage of an ordinance called the GRACE Act. Those have spelled out the things that the city and its law enforcement agency intend to de-emphasize to the extent that they can. One thing those cities have in common is that they all operate under the weak mayor/city manager form of government. I feel pretty confident that’s why they passed these ordinances via their city councils – their mayors don’t have the executive authority to set those policies on their own. It’s possible there could still be a Council vote of some kind on this, but for the most part I’d expect this to cover it. I really hope it’s all an academic exercise, that in a few months we’ll have a Congress and a Senate that can pass a national abortion rights law. Until then, every bit of local action is appreciated.

Dallas passes its ordinance to protect abortion access

Good job.

Dallas City councilmembers almost unanimously passed the “Grace Act,” an ordinance aimed at deprioritizing investigations into abortions by local police departments.

[…]

This new resolution prevents city resources from being used to create records for a person seeking an abortion, or to provide governmental bodies or agencies about pregnancy outcomes or to conduct surveillance to determine if an abortion occurred.

Investigations or prosecutions of abortion allegations will also be the lowest priority for law enforcement under the “Grace Act.”

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia was in attendance for the City Council meeting and was asked before the ordinance passed how the Dallas Police Department would enforce the resolution while complying with their sworn oath to enforce state law.

“We don’t know yet,” Garcia said plainly. “Myself and other chiefs in other cities don’t know exactly how this is going to look.”

Once DPD gets some direction from other cities or the state, Garcia said he would work with the city manager to figure out what standard operating procedures will be with the new resolution in mind.

“Having a policy that says you will not enforce a law on the books would be a violation of our police officer’s oath,” Garcia said. “Using discretion is different than saying you will not enforce a law in the State of Texas.”

See here for some background. As we know, Austin, Denton, and San Antonio have already taken similar action. We’re still waiting for Waco, and I have no idea if this is on the radar for Houston. Only Mayor Turner can put it on the Council agenda, and I have not seen any quotes from him about his thinking on the matter. I’ve no doubt such an ordinance would pass, but so far I don’t know if one will be introduced. If you have some insight on this, I’d love to hear it.

Multiple cities sue streaming services over franchise fees

This has been coming for awhile, it seems.

A lawsuit filed Thursday by 25 Texas cities claims that Disney, Hulu and Netflix have for years stiffed the cities out of dollars the streaming giants are required to pay under state law — and now cities are coming to collect.

Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth are among the cities that sued the streaming services in Dallas County to recover money they say they has been owed since 2007 and to require the services to pay each year going forward. Under state law, the services have to pay cities a franchise fee — which traditional cable providers also pay — in exchange for using communication lines over public rights of way to transmit their services into homes.

As more people abandon cable subscriptions in favor of streaming services, cities have lost franchise fee revenue — money that goes to fund city services like police and fire protection as well as roads, parks and libraries.

Cities haven’t made up that revenue with fees from streaming services, said Steven Wolens, a former Texas lawmaker and lead attorney for the cities. Even though state law classifies them as video service providers that must pay the fees, the major streamers haven’t paid cities a dime, Wolens said.

“They should have been paying this fee from the very beginning,” Wolens said. “Shame on them because they are using the public right of way that every other company pays the city to use.”

Exactly how much the streaming giants owe Texas cities isn’t known, Wolens said. For a smaller city, the losses could number in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. For a larger city, that figure could be in the millions.

Other Texas cities that joined the lawsuit are Abilene, Allen, Amarillo, Arlington, Beaumont, Carrollton, Denton, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Nacogdoches, Pearland, Plano, Rowlett, Sugar Land, Tyler and Waco.

The cities are seeking funds dating to when the services launched — Netflix in 2007, Hulu in 2008 and Disney+, The Walt Disney Co.’s streaming service, in late 2019.

The city of Beaumont, which as you can see is involved in this litigation, filed its own lawsuit against these three streaming services in February. I could not find any news about that lawsuit since then, so I don’t know if it has been dropped in favor of the current litigation or if there are now two separate actions. My searching did find that several cities were working on this at least as far back as last year. I’d sure like to see a more in depth story about this, but for now this is what we have. Any lawyers want to offer an opinion on their odds of success? The Chron has more.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

San Antonio will make its statement for abortion rights

More symbolic than anything, but it still has meaning.

Five San Antonio City Council members and the mayor stood in support of a largely symbolic measure Wednesday that would attempt to “decriminalize” abortion locally.

Council is expected to approve a resolution during a special meeting called for Tuesday that would essentially condemn Texas’ abortion ban and recommend that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to the ban.

“Women and individuals who are seeking access to abortion need to know that their elected officials are standing by them and will not allow city resources to be used to collect any data to potentially criminalize or prosecute them,” Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who drafted the resolution and held the press conference outside City Hall, told the San Antonio Report after the event.

The resolution cannot prevent local enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, Castillo acknowledged, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to the city’s charter.

“But it’s a step in the right direction and it’s a step to build upon and implement additional policy,” she said.

Castillo didn’t elaborate on what additional policies council might consider, but said she was looking forward to hearing ideas from the community and her colleagues.

Castillo and Mayor Ron Nirenberg were joined by council members Mario Bravo (D1), Phyllis Viagran (D3), Melissa Cabello-Havrda (D6) and John Courage (D9); together, the six represent a majority of council.

The resolution is similar to the GRACE Act that the Austin City Council approved this week. That, too, was a symbolic policy recommendation, as Austin’s charter has similar rules around the direction of law enforcement.

See here for some background on Austin’s actions, about which you know what I think. I’m curious at this point to see how many other Texas cities follow in these footsteps. If it’s still relevant next year, – if there hasn’t been a federal law passed to reinstate abortion rights, and if the Lege hasn’t passed some crazy law to shut this down, and if this cause hasn’t been taken up yet here – I’ll be asking every candidate for Mayor and City Council that I interview what they think about doing the same thing in Houston. Texas Public Radio and the Current have more.

Austin takes its shot at protecting abortion access

I wish them great success. I don’t think the fanatics in the Legislature will let them achieve it, but we’ll see.

Austin City Council unanimously (in the absence of lone Republican Mackenzie Kelly) approved four items on Thursday, July 21 that aim to provide people within the city some legal protection should they seek or perform an abortion.

The special meeting was called following the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. last month, which overturned its prior Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood decisions guaranteeing a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. In Texas, 2021’s Senate Bill 8 already made those providing or “aiding and abetting” abortion care after about six weeks (before many people know of their pregnancies) liable to civil lawsuits that can be filed by anybody.

[…]

The item most likely to have immediate impact is known as the GRACE Act (Guarding the Right to Abortion Care for Everyone), a measure introduced by Council Member Chito Vela which directs the Austin Police Department to “deprioritize” investigations into criminal offenses related to abortion.

Effectively, that means Council is asking APD (technically, they’re asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to ask APD Chief Joseph Chacon) not to devote any financial resources or labor to investigating cases related to abortions. Exceptions in the measure include instances where an abortion is being coerced, or when a provider is accused of negligence.

For now, APD has not indicated how it will respond to the GRACE Act. Chacon will have to work with his executive team and the city’s Law Department on implementation, but have not provided insight into what that might look like or how long it might take. In response to questions from the Chronicle, an APD spokesperson said, “We are working through the resolution and we’ll present next time when we come back to Council.”

The unanimous Council (Kelly missing the meeting due to a previously scheduled surgery) also approved an ordinance initiated by CM Vanessa Fuentes to protect people who’ve received “reproductive health actions” from discrimination in housing, employment, or access to public services. The other two resolutions adopted at the meeting were both from Mayor Steve Adler and related to “long-term birth control,” including vasectomy. One directs Cronk to explore a public education campaign about birth control options and to ensure that city employees’ health insurance covers “low-cost birth control.” (From an insurer’s perspective, vasectomy and tubal ligation are lower-cost than ongoing hormonal or barrier birth control.) Cronk is expected to report back to Council no later than Sept. 30.

Adler’s second resolution asks staff to recommend budget provisions that would enable city employees to have “reasonable access to reproductive health care services that are no longer lawfully available in Texas.” This resolution does not include a report-back date, but presumably staff would need to offer recommendations soon if they are to be adopted along with the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget on Aug. 17.

Rockie Gonzalez, deputy director of the Austin Justice Coalition and founder of the Frontera Fund, which has organized around abortion access in the Rio Grande Valley since 2014, told the Chronicle that she was encouraged by the items Council passed. “The most important thing for advocates right now is to get decriminalization measures and protections in place for folks seeking abortions, those providing abortions and those helping other folks to get the abortion care that they need.”

The GRACE Act does not protect organizations, like the Lilith Fund in Austin, that had been helping individuals coordinate and pay for access to abortions. Depending on how APD implements the direction, however, it could protect someone who decides to help a friend or family member access an abortion. Still, Gonzalez said, the measures will help abortion care advocates in Austin because they will not have to focus as much on the criminalization of abortion in Texas.

“Locally, impact on abortion advocates is going to be a little bit of wiggle room and protection to do the advocacy work that we need to continue to do,” Gonzalez told us. “In Austin, at least, we won’t need to focus as much on creating bail funds and securing legal support for folks who might be criminalized” for seeking an abortion. She also hopes advocates can work together to pass similar measures in other cities throughout Texas.

See here and here for some background. If the Austin PD is amenable to this, then there ought to be some decriminalization benefit, at least in the short term. We know the forced-birth caucus in the Legislature will find ways to shut this down, but it’s still something for now.

The bigger problem in the meantime is the threat of SB8, the vigilante bounty hunter law, which hasn’t been used yet but is being prepped for weaponization as we speak. There’s not only nothing that the city of Austin can do to prevent those attacks, the city may find itself on the wrong side of SB8-enabled lawsuits as a result of these actions. Again, I hate to sound like a doomsayer, but these people aren’t subtle and they won’t hold back. The only way to really fight back is at the state and federal level, where the levers available to take action are much more powerful. I wish this kind of ground-level resistance could be successful. My fear is that it will be steamrolled. I hope I’m wrong. The Texas Signal has more.

Chron story on the proposed new City Council map

Remember, you heard it here first.

Houston’s proposed City Council maps for 2023 elections make only minor changes to district boundaries near Rice University, Freedmen’s Town and parts of downtown.

Overall, less than 3% of Houston’s 2.3 million residents will change districts under the proposal, which is designed to balance district populations based on 2020 Census data, while complying with city requirements and the Voting Rights Act, according to City Demographer Jerry Wood.

By law, none of the 11 districts should vary by more than 10 percent from the average district population of approximately 209,000 residents. This means that Houston’s three most populous districts – Districts C, D and G – will lose some of their lands. Meanwhile, Districts H, I and J will need to expand.

“Unlike redistricting for legislative districts, there’s a lot more identification with a neighborhood that the civic leaders have and also the relationship that they establish with their council members,” Wood said. “So the desire is to create as little disruption as possible.”

[…]

In recent months, the public has repeatedly requested the city to keep super neighborhoods together, Wood said, something that demographers did not have in mind when initially dividing up the population.

The proposal managed to move Braeburn, a super neighborhood on the southwest side, into a single district and bring together most of Eastex – Jensen, one in north Houston. But Wood said he was not able to unite Greater Heights in north central or South Belt on the southeast side.

“Sometimes there are requests that simply are impossible,” Wood said.

The city has hired a law firm in anticipation of legal challenges. For one, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, has promised to sue the city over what its advocates characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos on the City Council.

The lawsuit hopes to replace the city’s five at-large seats, which represent voters citywide, with single-member seats, which cover a certain geographical area. Sergio Lira, a Houston-based leader with LULAC, said his team is on track to file the lawsuit later this month.

“We anticipated that there would not be any major changes to the maps this time and that the city was not going to disrupt things too much,” Lira said. “It’s going to take a lawsuit in order to change the system.”

See here for my post on the new map, along with the schedule for public hearings, and here for my post about the promise of a lawsuit to ditch the At Large Council seats. Several cities have moved partly or fully away from At Large Council systems to all-district or hybrid systems in recent years, some with more of a fuss about it than others – Austin, Pasadena, Irving, Farmers Branch. It’s hard to say how litigation on this matter might go in this current climate, but on the other hand if the city lost in a federal district court it’s not clear to me that they’d pursue an appeal. This is an excellent place to get caught making dumb predictions, so I’ll stop myself before I go too far. I’ll wait and see what happens when LULAC files their complaint. In the meantime, attend one of those hearings if this interests you.

That’s an awful lot of tunnels

I’d say the over/under for the number of these that actually gets built is 1, and I’d bet the under.

On Monday, May 30, Bloomberg reported that it had obtained documents that showed Elon Musk’s Boring Company had pitched eight plans for projects in Texas. The documents, which stretch back over a year, included plans for connecting I-35 and MoPaC; a tunnel between Tesla’s Giga Texas factory, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and downtown; and multiple tunnels in Pflugerville, where the Boring Company is now headquartered.

But a newly obtained document outlines an August 2021 Boring Company pitch for an even more ambitious project: plans to connect Austin and San Antonio via a system of underground tunnels. As of now, it is unclear how far the proposal reached, or which segments of the plan are being actively pursued.

Chap Ambrose, a man who lives next door to the Boring Company test site in Bastrop County, received the document as part of a public information request via the City of Kyle and posted it to Reddit. In the two emails between Boring Company business development lead Brian Gettinger and a Kyle official whose name has been redacted, they discuss involving the suburb south of Austin in its larger plan.

The plan, as outlined by Gettinger, is three-fold:

  • The Boring Company would “deploy individual systems in San Antonio and Austin.”
  • A connection between the cities, “likely collaborating with TxDOT” would follow I-35
  • Different city utilities would create segments to connect to the San Antonio to Austin system as follows:
    • Kyle to Austin
    • New Braunfels to San Antonio
    • San Marcos to Kyle
    • New Braunfels to San Marcos

In April, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg expressed his displeasure over a proposed plan to construct a Tesla-exclusive tunnel connecting San Antonio International Airport and downtown.

“We have a lot of transportation issues that we want to solve here in Texas and in San Antonio, frankly. That doesn’t solve any of them,” Nirenberg said on Inside Texas Politics.

[…]

Ambrose has spoken in front of city officials in his hometown and in Kyle about the opacity with which he believes the Boring Company operates in Central Texas.

“Business as usual for TBC,” he tells MySA via text message. “Trying to pull strings in the background. I think they’d catch more fish with transparency.”

In a reply less than two hours later, the Kyle official asks for cost specs so that they can find a location and consider funding.

“We would love a connection into downtown Austin AND ABIA,” the official writes.

On May 3, Kyle City Council approved a professional services contract to build a railroad pedestrian underpass to connect to its Vybe trail network.

Good luck with that. You may recall this all started with a proposal to build a tunnel from the San Antonio Airport to downtown SA, which later on morphed into a possible San Antonio to Austin tunnel project. There’s a lot of skepticism about how this could possibly work, and so far all of the price tags I’ve seen for this seem suspiciously low. We’re in the Elon Musk Zone here, it doesn’t have to make sense. The full list of projects includes one in our backyard, a drainage tunnel for groundwater under SH 288, as well as the first mention of hyperloops I’ve seen in a couple of years. Good times. Tune in at some unspecified point in the future to see if any of this has moved from the conceptual phase to something else. The Current has more.

There’s only so much that Austin (or any other Texas city) can do to protect abortion rights

I appreciate this, I really do, but it’s important to remember that it can only ever be a band-aid, and very likely a temporary one.

The city of Austin is attempting to shield its residents from prosecution under a Texas law that would criminalize almost all abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned — the first push by a major city in a red state to try to circumvent state abortion policy.

Councilmember Chito Vela is proposing a resolution that would direct the city’s police department to make criminal enforcement, arrest and investigation of abortions its lowest priority and restrict city funds and city staff from being used to investigate, catalogue or report suspected abortions.

“This is not an academic conversation. This is a very real conversation where people’s lives could be destroyed by these criminal prosecutions,” said Vela, who shared the details of the resolution first with POLITICO. “In Texas, you’re an adult at 17. We are looking at the prospect of a 17-year-old girl who has an unplanned pregnancy and is seeking an abortion [being] subjected to first-degree felony charges — up to 99 years in jail — and that’s just absolutely unacceptable.”

[…]

The new resolution doesn’t explicitly decriminalize abortion but rather directs police to make it their lowest enforcement priority in an effort to skirt conflict with state law, Vela said. But it highlights the tension between red state and the blue cities, where a new front in the battle over abortion rights is opening as the Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision on Roe in the coming weeks.

A city of Austin spokesperson said in a statement that “the city is prepared to take the steps necessary to implement this resolution upon passage by City Council.” The council passed a similar measure in 2020 that effectively decriminalized marijuana by ending arrests and fines for low-level possession, which the police department has followed.

Vela said he is having “ongoing conversations” with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the proposal and hopes the department will comply with the directive. A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

“The police do not want to be in the middle of this controversy. The police right now in Austin are struggling with staffing,” Vela said. “I don’t think the police want to dedicate resources to these types of, what I would call, ‘political crimes.’”

A spokesperson for state Attorney General Ken Paxton did not respond to a request for comment. Paxton, a Republican, has been at the vanguard of restricting abortion access in Texas, which has been in the spotlight since the state’s six-week abortion ban, enforced through a private right of action, took effect in September 2021.

Austin’s proposal, which aims to protect both patients and providers, comes as an extension of the city’s efforts to preserve abortion access despite the state’s restrictions. The city has, for instance, provided logistical support for abortion access, including transportation, lodging and child care, since 2019 — a model St. Louis is now looking to replicate.

More cities in Texas could be next. Julie Oliver, executive director of Ground Game Texas, a group that pushes for progressive, local ballot measures, said they are looking at pushing similar measures in San Antonio, Houston and Dallas. If that isn’t successful, the group plans to turn to the local ballot initiative process.

“Home rule charter cities have a tremendous amount of leeway and self-governance, and part of that is deciding which laws you’re going to prioritize,” Oliver said. “And so, because you have a finite number of resources in a finite budget, cities are constantly deciding which laws they’re going to enforce and which ones they are not.”

I support the idea and I love the creativity, as we have discussed what progressive cities can do to protect abortion rights. That includes proactive measures to thwart prosecution, which is very much in a city’s purview. The problem with this approach is simply that as long as the state is run by Republicans, they will pass laws to prevent cities from taking these measures and will punish them for even trying. I’m sure I don’t have to recite to you the long list of attacks on local control lately, but we have already seen reporting to say that the Briscoe Cain uterus-invasion caucus will file bills in 2023 to allow other counties to pursue prosecution of anyone who violates the new forced-birth laws if the local DA refuses. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine state troopers being given the authority to investigate these claims, which I’d bet will come with a bunch of money to hire more staff specifically for that purpose. I’m sure there will be more private vigilante bounties included as well, to help fund the effort. If recent history is any indicator, they will go much farther than anything Austin tries to do, to send a clear message that they will not tolerate any dissent. Do we really want to test that hypothesis?

Please note that I am not saying that any action on our part is pointless and we should just give up. Not at all! I am just saying – again, and again, and again – that we need to win some statewide elections. The Republicans can only do this as long as they are in control, and they will only be incentivized to do this as long as they perceive there’s no price to pay for it. The antidote for that is obvious. I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m certainly not saying that this will be an opportune year to do it. I’m just saying that as clever and well-intentioned as these ideas sound, they’re sand castles against the tide. The problem is bigger than anything a city can do. We have to solve it at that level if we want to get anywhere. Reform Austin, KVUE, and Daily Kos have more.

Who wants to have their dinner delivered by a robot?

Here’s your chance.

Heads up, Houston: the robots are coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one argument for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin aims for pot decriminalization

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cities and the freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Back to school, kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 2021 election results

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

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

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

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

UPDATE:

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

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

UPDATE: In re: those last ballots:

Another look at I-35 expansion

From Slate:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elections of interest elsewhere in Texas

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

Frank Ramirez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight over widening I-35

Hold tough, Austin. We feel your pain here.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Four House members to step down

In order of announcement…

Rep. Scott Sanford.

Rep. Scott Sanford

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Celia Israel.

Rep. Celia Israel

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Chris Paddie.

Rep. Chris Paddie

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

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

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

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

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

Rep. Jim Murphy.

Rep. Jim Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driverless Lyft service coming to Austin

We’ll see what the demand is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

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

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

Speaking of the appellate courts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the meantime:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using the dress code to skirt the ban on mask mandates

Brilliant!

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

And sigh speaking of Paxton:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later in the day, there was this story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And second:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

UPDATE: Interesting:

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

UPDATE: This too:

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

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

Mayor Turner tells city employees to mask up

We’ll see how it goes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

UPDATE: This is also good.

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

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

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

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

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

The Austin Bills?

Noted for the record.

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

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

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

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

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

More masking

In Travis County.

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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