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Who wants to enforce Greg Abbott’s mask order?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Gov. Greg Abbott called on police across Texas to step up enforcement of his mask order amid the mounting pandemic, explaining Thursday that they can either “be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Facing a revolt over the mandate within his conservative base, the governor acknowledged in a new round of interviews that masking is inconvenient, but said the alternative of locking the state down again is far worse.

“We have a short period of time in the next couple of weeks to bend the curve of this explosion in cases and hospitalizations,” he said in an interview on KSAT in San Antonio. “If we can enforce this, we will be able to keep the state open and reduce hospitalizations.”

Some local law enforcement officials, including the sheriffs in Montgomery and Gillespie counties, have refused to enforce the new order, citing personal liberties or enforcement logistics. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

It’s more than just a few.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in public, he gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases.

A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer. And a handful of other local governments have insisted that they won’t enforce the order even though they don’t qualify for the opt-out provision. Officials cited a desire to preserve personal freedoms or concerns about enforcement.

“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.

In a press release announcing the order, Abbott said that “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Public health experts broadly agree that masks slow the spread of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face coverings for anyone 2 or older in public settings.

The order came as coronavirus cases have grown quickly in the state. As of Thursday, more than 9,600 people were hospitalized with the virus.

In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.

Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”

But a few local officials without that freedom are also choosing not to enforce the order. In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a press release. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”

Yeah, so maybe “>undermining the rule of law was not a great idea. Greg Abbott could be in a position to insist that his order be enforced, if only Greg Abbott hadn’t so clearly demonstrated that Greg Abbott’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 are just suggestions.

That said, some places are more serious about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled his encouragement Wednesday to Austin city leaders to move forward on “additional enforcement mechanisms” related to a recent order Abbott issued requiring Texans to wear masks in most public spaces.

In a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said the city’s consideration of new enforcement measures “to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

“As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advise from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” he added.

The Austin-American Statesman reported Wednesday that the City Council will meet Thursday “to vote on a resolution that would allow for a fine of up to $2,000 for anyone violating a ‘health authority rule’ like not wearing a mask” and to take “civil action against any person who maintains a business or site that does not comply with minimum health standards.”

Another riddle solved, apparently. That resolution passed unanimously on Thursday. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Hotze contingent files a lawsuit against this, but in the meantime it’s something. (Hey, Greg! Now do letting counties issue stay-at-home orders.)

Now to be fair, if I’m going to advocate for letting local authorities have some of their authority to make local decisions back, I’m going to be circumspect about criticizing a small rural county with a still-low infection rate for not wanting to enforce a mask order. But let’s be clear that all parts of the state are vulnerable, and those lightly populated places also tend to be many miles away from hospitals, so their residents are in greater jeopardy should they get sick. The approach I’m looking for here is one that says “this is the minimum that counties must do – they can go above and beyond it within reason, but they have to do at least this much”. That philosophy has been distinctly lacking in recent years in this state.

But here we are, and here we once again face the worst case scenario, at least as far as Greg Abbott is concerned.

With Texas continuing to break records for new coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations this week, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated Friday afternoon that things will continue to get worse. And if people keep flouting his new statewide mask mandate, he said, the next step could be another economic lockdown.

“Things will get worse, and let me explain why,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The deaths that we’re seeing announced today and yesterday — which are now over 100 — those are people who likely contracted COVID-19 in late May.

“The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”

Texans will also likely see an increase in cases next week, Abbott said, and people abiding by his face mask requirement might be the only thing standing between businesses remaining open and another shutdown.

“The public needs to understand this was a very tough decision for me to make,” Abbott told KLBK of his face mask mandate. “I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”

And then when sheriffs in heavily Republican counties refuse to enforce that, then what? Say it with me now: None of this had to happen. But it did, and it’s Greg Abbott’s fault.

Masks up

We solved Greg Abbott’s riddle, so all is well now, right?

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent blessing, Bexar and Hidalgo counties have imposed a new mask rule for local businesses, saying they must require employees and customers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The move appears to open a new way for local officials to require mask use in certain public spaces after Abbott stymied prior efforts by local officials to put the onus on residents.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s orders comes after Abbott issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public.

Wolff’s order states that, starting Monday and running through the end of the month, businesses in Bexar County must require face masks “where six feet of separation is not feasible” before the business risks facing a fine of up to $1,000. Cortez’s order states businesses in Hidalgo County will risk being fined starting Saturday and will remain in effect until further notice.

The orders also state that, consistent with Abbott’s executive order, “no civil or criminal penalty will be imposed on individuals for failure to wear a face covering.” Later in the day, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg signed an update to his emergency health order to express support for and adopt Wolff’s order, saying that, as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the city, “masks are our best line of defense.”

[…]

“I’m pleased that the Governor has changed his mind. I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the Commissioner’s Court to look at very soon,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement, who said he’s already looking into whether he’ll follow suit.

A spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they are checking with the county attorney’s office on Wolff’s order, adding that “we’re not any safer today than we were in March. There is no vaccine. No cure. We remain very concerned about the trajectory of hospital admissions.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had already warned officials in big cities, including San Antonio, to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that featured stricter coronavirus restrictions than those of the state, while hinting of lawsuits if they do not. Paxton’s office declined to comment on Wolff’s order Wednesday.

See here for some background. The city of Austin has already issued a similar order, and I figure it’s just a matter of time before Harris and Dallas and a bunch of other places follow suit. I feel confident saying that the wingnut contingent will not take this lying down, so the question is whether they fight back via Hotze lawsuit, or do actual elected Republicans with their own power and ambition like Ken Paxton get involved? And when they do, what inventive technique will Abbott find to shift the blame to someone else this time?

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Abbott issues disaster declaration following protests

Where we are now.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday afternoon that the entire state of Texas will be placed under a disaster declaration in response to demonstrators in several Texas cities protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed Monday in Minneapolis police custody.

The declaration allowed Abbott to designate federal law enforcement officers to perform the duties of peace officers in Texas.

Thousands of protesters marched in Texas cities on Friday and Saturday, outraged after Floyd was filmed crying out for help as a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

“Every Texan and every American has the right to protest and I encourage all Texans to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, violence against others and the destruction of property is unacceptable and counterproductive.”

His announcement comes a day after he activated the Texas National Guard “in response to protest violence” across the state. In several of the state’s large metropolitan areas — including Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — protesters clashed with police who sometimes used rubber bullets and tear gas.

Abbott also sent state resources to Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Saturday afternoon and said he’s spoken to the mayors of all four cities, as well as law enforcement officials. He said Sunday that he also increased those resources for cities throughout Texas and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deployed tactical teams to assist state and local law enforcement.

[…]

Prior to Abbott’s announcement, several Texas cities took measures into their own hands. On Saturday evening, the mayor of San Antonio imposed a curfew as a result of escalating tensions due to the protests.

In Dallas, where officials defended the use of tear gas at protests for Floyd, Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall said Sunday afternoon that a 7 p.m. curfew will go into effect Sunday and end at 6 a.m. “for the next several days,” The Dallas Morning News reported. In Austin, meanwhile, organizers canceled a protest planned for Sunday afternoon out of fear that “white agitators and other agitators of color” would co-opt the event and put black Texans in harm’s way.

The single best thing that can happen right now is for law enforcement agencies around the country to stand down and stop being violent themselves. After that we’ll see, but people have been pushing for moderate and incremental police reforms for a long time now with little success. What are people supposed to do now?

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

Coronavirus and the Census

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

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

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

Then came the coronavirus.

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

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

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

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

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

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

SXSW canceled

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

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

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

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

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

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

Texas Central and Lone Star Rail

Noted for the record.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Abbott, Austin, and homelessness

What Chris Hooks says.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Other counties also considering property tax rate hikes

I have four things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

It’s up to cities to make the Census work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The real goal of SB2

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Sometimes, bad bills do die

The calendar giveth, and the calendar taketh away.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Austin’s scooter study

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the findings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Senate passes all of its SB15 alternatives

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

Sen. Brandon Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram in space!

Far out. Like, literally.

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

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

But you’ve got to start somewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give the aliens all our best, Janet.

World’s worst pastors drop Austin equal rights lawsuit

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

Another scooter casualty study

To be done in Austin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

The down side of scooters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take a Tesla to Austin

Because sure, why not?

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

Dallas is just $400 away.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

We’re already on the next generation of scooters

And of course, they’re coming to Austin.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Hitch-ing a ride

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

High-tech hitchhiking has arrived in Texas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

MLS comes to Austin

Welcome to the big leagues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

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

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

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

Exactly what you’d expect from these jerks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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