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Civil Rights Act

The next ridiculous lawsuit we’re all going to have to endure

Grit your teeth, here it comes.

A University of Texas at Austin professor has sued Texas A&M University claiming a new faculty fellowship program designed to increase diversity at the flagship university in College Station discriminates against white and Asian male candidates.

Richard Lowery, a finance professor at UT-Austin who is white, filed the federal class-action lawsuit on Saturday against the Texas A&M University System and its board of regents, Annie McGowan, Texas A&M’s vice president and associate provost for diversity, and N.K. Anand, Texas A&M’s vice president for faculty affairs.

Lowery is represented by America First Legal, a group created by Stephen Miller, a policy advisor for former President Donald Trump, and Jonathan Mitchell, a former solicitor general for Texas and the legal architect of Texas’ six-week abortion ban.

In the lawsuit, Lowery claims that a new fellowship program announced this summer within Texas A&M’s faculty hiring program called the Accountability, Climate, Equity and Scholarship Faculty Fellows program, or ACES, violates Title VI and Title IX, of the federal Civil Rights Act as well as the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

While the ACES program focuses on hiring recently graduated PhD students who want to enter academia, the new ACES Plus Program focuses on “mid-career and senior tenure-track hires from underrepresented minority groups, that contribute to moving the structural composition of our faculty towards parity with that of the State of Texas.” It sets aside $2 million over the next two fiscal years to help match a fellow’s base salary and benefits, up to a maximum of $100,000.

According to Texas A&M’s announcement of the new fellowship program on July 8, the university identified under-represented minority groups as African Americans, Hispanic/Latino Americans, Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

“Texas A&M’s proclaimed goal of establishing a faculty whose racial composition attains “parity with that of the state of Texas” seeks to achieve racial balancing, which is flatly illegal under Title VI and the binding precedent of the Supreme Court,” the lawsuit argues.

And that was as far as I got in the article before my monitor spontaneously combusted in a heroic but ultimately futile effort to preserve my sanity. I would like for there to be some new main characters in the Texas news now.

Border and immigration news roundup

Same deal, too much news, yadda yadda yadda…

As Abbott orders state police to return migrants to border, critics on the right say it’s not enough.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday authorized state law enforcement to return migrants suspected of entering the country illegally to southern ports of entry, though he stopped short of instructing officials to expel them from the country, as some conservatives have urged him to do.

It was not immediately clear what practical impact the directive would have. Under his border initiative, Operation Lone Star, Abbott has already ordered state police and Texas National Guard soldiers to apprehend those who cross the border and turn them over to federal immigration authorities, where they are then deported or released back into the country to await their asylum hearings.

The move comes two days after a group of local officials called on Abbott to declare Texas under “invasion” and start expelling migrants suspected of crossing the border illegally. That action would be unprecedented for the state, but some conservatives argue it would be justified because of the Biden administration’s push to roll back Trump-era border policies.

Even without deporting those who cross the border, Abbott’s order further expands Texas’ border security role, testing constitutional and legal limits that reserve those duties for the federal government.

[…]

An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. The governor previously expressed unease about the idea of state authorities unilaterally expelling migrants from the country, which he said could be legally tricky.

“There are federal laws that law enforcement could be prosecuted under if they were to take someone, without authority, and immediately return them across the border,” he said in April.

Some legal experts believe the “border invasion” strategy would run afoul of U.S. asylum laws, along with legal precedent that gives the federal government broad discretion in setting and enforcing immigration policy.

Justice Department lawyers used that argument last summer when they successfully sued Texas over Abbott’s push to stop and search drivers suspected of transporting migrants into the state.

The “invasion” argument would be an entirely new concept to immigration law, said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney based in D.C. Fresco said Abbott’s order seems designed to invite litigation before state and federal courts, where Texas and other Republican-led states have increasingly turned to try and shape immigration law.

“They want to tee that issue up,” he said.

Cuccinelli and other supporters of local-led deportations say states have the constitutional right to protect themselves from “imminent danger” when they believe the federal government has failed to.

That argument may not hold up under an some readings of the Constitution, Fresco said, since it could mean the U.S. was technically under invasion between the writing of the Constitution and 1882, when the first federal law restricting immigration was enacted.

“How can an invasion be people coming to America without America’s permission, since that was the state of affairs in America for the first 100 years of the republic?” Fresco said.

I guess that depends on how seriously SCOTUS believes its own bullshit about how everything is rooted in 18th and 19th century traditions. I can’t wait to see the lawsuit that will happen when some overzealous state cop hauls a natural-born citizen to the border by mistake. In the meantime, if you look up the word “flailing” in the dictionary, you will see Greg Abbott’s picture. (Related story: Republican county officials in South Texas want Gov. Greg Abbott to deport migrants. Only the federal government can do that. What could possibly go wrong?)

Justice Department is investigating Texas’ Operation Lone Star for alleged civil rights violations.

The Department of Justice is investigating alleged civil rights violations under Operation Lone Star, a multibillion-dollar border initiative announced last year by Gov. Greg Abbott, according to state records obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

The Legislature last year directed more than $3 billion to border measures over the next two years, a bulk of which has gone to Operation Lone Star. Under the initiative, which Abbott said he launched to combat human and drug smuggling, the state has deployed more than 10,000 National Guard members and Department of Public Safety troopers to the border with Mexico and built some fencing. Thousands of immigrant men seeking to enter the country have been arrested for trespassing onto private property, and some have been kept in jail for weeks without charges being filed.

Since the operation’s launch, a number of news organizations, including ProPublica and the Tribune, have outlined a series of problems with state leaders’ claims of success, the treatment of National Guard members and alleged civil rights violations.

An investigation by the Tribune, ProPublica and The Marshall Project found that in touting the operation’s accomplishments, state officials included arrests with no connection to the border and statewide drug seizures. The news organizations also revealed that trespassing cases represented the largest share of the operation’s arrests. DPS stopped counting some charges, including cockfighting, sexual assault and stalking, after the publications began asking questions about their connections to border security.

Another investigation by the Tribune and Army Times detailed troubles with the National Guard deployment, including reports of delayed payments to soldiers, a shortage of critical equipment and poor living conditions. Previous reporting by the Army Times also traced suicides by soldiers tied to the operation.

Angela Dodge, a DOJ spokesperson, said she could not “comment on the existence or lack thereof of any potential investigation or case on any matter not otherwise a part of the public court record.”

“Generally, cases are brought to us by a variety of law enforcement agencies — federal, state and local — for possible prosecutorial consideration following their investigation into a suspected violation of federal law,” Dodge wrote in an email. “We consider each such case based on the evidence and what can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a federal court of law.”

But at least two Texas agencies involved in carrying out the border initiative have pointed to a DOJ investigation in records obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune through the Texas Public Information Act.

In an internal email in May, DPS officials said that the DOJ was seeking to review whether Operation Lone Star violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin by institutions receiving federal funding.

According to the emails, the federal government requested documents that include implementation plans, agreements with landowners and training information for states that have supported Operation Lone Star by sending law enforcement officers and National Guard members to Texas.

“If you are not already aware, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ is investigating Operation Lone Star,” Kaylyn Betts, a DPS assistant general counsel, wrote in a May 23 email to a department official. She added that the agency should respond in a timely and complete manner.

In a letter sent Friday to the state’s attorney general, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice also cited a “formal investigation” of Operation Lone Star by the DOJ. The agency, which manages the state’s prison system, pointed to the investigation while fighting the release of public records sought by the news organizations.

In the letter, the department’s deputy general counsel wrote that the DOJ is investigating whether the state agency is subjecting people who are arrested as part of the border operation to “differential and unlawful conditions of confinement based on their perceived or actual race or national origin.”

I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence of unlawful behavior to be found. The big question to me is whether there are any sanctions that can be levied that would provide an incentive to not keep on doing that bad behavior. I don’t think the consequences that are currently available are up to the task, but I’m reluctant to push for there to be greater punishments given the way the federal government was weaponized against the personal enemies of the previous occupant of the White House. What we really need is greater respect for the law and the rule of law by the likes of Greg Abbott and the seething mob of radicals that influence his behavior. You can tell by the way I wrote that sentence that I’m not optimistic about that.

But there are consequences anyway, just not necessarily for those who need them: Understaffed, and under federal investigation, Texas juvenile detention system halts intake.

Texas’ juvenile detention system has shut its doors and won’t accept any new kids because it is “hemorrhaging” staff, and officials fear they can’t ensure the safety of the nearly 600 youths already in their custody.

According to a Texas Juvenile Justice Department letter, released to The Texas Tribune on Wednesday, the state’s five youth lockups were implementing emergency protocols “as the staffing strength at each secure facility becomes more grim.”

“The current risk is that the ongoing secure facility staffing issue will lead to an inability to even provide basic supervision for youth locked in their rooms,” Shandra Carter, the agency’s interim director, wrote to juvenile probation leaders across the state last week. “This could cause a significantly impaired ability to intervene in the increasing suicidal behaviors already occurring by youth struggling with the isolative impact of operational room confinement.”

The agency has 331 vacant positions for juvenile corrections officers and only 391 officers available to cover its facilities, an agency spokesperson said Thursday.

Minors sentenced to serve sentences at a TJJD facility will remain at local detention facilities, many of which have their own shortage of beds. In her letter, Carter said 130 juveniles were waiting in county facilities before intake was halted.

Carter said the agency is trying to restart intake as soon as possible by shifting people to different units, stopping intensive intervention programs for those who have committed violent crimes and looking into whether any youths could be eligible for release.

Texas’ juvenile lockups have long been plagued by physical and sexual abuse and dangerous environments for youths detained there. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was investigating ​​whether the agency provides “reasonable protection from physical and sexual abuse by staff and other residents, excessive use of chemical restraints and excessive use of isolation.”

Carter was appointed to run the agency by the Texas Juvenile Justice Board in April, when former director Camille Cain quit without notice after four years at the helm. Hours before Cain’s departure was made public, Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was taking money from her troubled agency to continue funding Operation Lone Star, his multibillion-dollar border security operation.

Cain, who previously worked for Abbott, has not publicly discussed the reasons for her departure. Records obtained by the Tribune show Cain requested $31,225,360 in coronavirus relief funds from Abbott’s office in April, weeks before the governor took the same amount of money from her agency.

In a statement, TJJD said Thursday that the funds transferred out of their hands by Abbott had a “net-zero” budget impact. A spokesperson said the agency had used federal coronavirus relief funds to pay salaries that would typically have come from their general revenue.

“Once those expenditures from the federal dollars were made, we returned the same amount of funds from our General Revenue,” TJJD spokesperson Barbara Kessler said in the statement.

On Thursday afternoon, an Abbott spokesperson said the transfer of funds only acted as a placeholder and “did not impact the agency’s operational budget in any way.”

Sure, Jan. I mean, as noted in the story the TJJD is a stinking mess that really ought to be burned to the ground. It’s just that this isn’t a good way to do that. The priority still needs to be the welfare of the children in its care. But hey, issuing traffic tickets to people in border counties is a more urgent need, so here we are.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

[…]

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.

What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

HUD approves updated GLO proposal for Harris County

Interesting, but there are still a lot of moving pieces out there.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday said it would accept the Texas General Land Office’s proposal to give Harris County $750 million in federal flood mitigation money, 10 months after Houston and the county were shut out of a state competition for post-Harvey disaster funding approved by Congress.

The announcement does not amount to an approval of the GLO’s overall plan for distributing some $4.3 billion in federal flood mitigation funding, a HUD spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“Let’s be clear: all the amendment taking effect means is that Texas submitted all information required to avoid disapproval,” the statement said. “This does not constitute, and should not be seen as, approval of the state’s implementation of the activities in the plan.”

HUD earlier this month issued a ruling that the GLO violated civil rights law and discriminated against minority residents when it it awarded the $1 billion in Harvey funds following a competition that did not give Houston or Harris County a penny, even though the area suffered more deaths and damage than than any of the other 48 counties declared as disaster areas.

HUD urged Texas to voluntarily find a way to distribute funds in a way that resolves the alleged civil rights violations — a request that could redirect millions of flood relief dollars to Houston. “If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for judicial enforcement,” the spokesperson said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo promised “to apply this substantial influx of dollars fairly, equitably, and quickly.”

She also called out the GLO for originally awarding none of the funds to Texas’s hardest-hit county. “As the third largest county in America, ground zero for Harvey damage and vulnerability to flooding, and home to the nation’s energy industry, there’s simply no excuse to have been shut out from these infrastructure funds in the first place.”

[…]

On Friday, as HUD approved the amendment sending $750 million to Harris County, its spokesperson said it would consider the current civil rights violation allegations in the future when Texas receives disaster grants, and may place conditions upon such grants to “mitigate risk.”

“HUD will closely monitor and pursue any and all enforcement actions against Texas as necessary to help the state provide equal access and opportunity through its mitigation funds,” the spokesperson said.

This is the followup to that story from January in which HUD halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas essentially because of a paperwork error on the Land Commissioner’s part. All this story is saying is that that error has been fixed. It does not have anything to do with the civil rights complaint about how the GLO determined the way it would distribute funds. There’s no clear indication when that might either be resolved or taken to the next level of enforcement on HUD’s part. There’s still another half of the money to be awarded, so this story is far from over. (HUD also basically told H-GAC to go pound sand, which was the appropriate response from them.)

There was still a fair bit of complaining following this story.

Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval of an amendment to the Texas General Land Office State Action Plan as a sanctioning of “discrimination.”

Turner expressed his disappointment in the Friday decision to accept GLO’s plan to send $750 million to Harris County in flood mitigation, just 10 months after both the city and county were barred from receiving any of the $4.3 billion post-Hurricane Harvey flood aid.

“Only a few weeks ago, HUD found that the GLO discriminated against Black and brown communities when it initially denied federal Hurricane Harvey funds to Houston and Harris County,” Turner stated, citing a March 4 HUD report that found discrimination in the GLO’s Hurricane Harvey State Mitigation Competition to distribute flood aid.

In a a joint press release, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Sylvia Garcia on Saturday called for Justice Department intervention, citing discrimination against the Houston residents if any aid is spent under the current distribution system.

[…]

The issue is not with the other areas who received the funding, but rather, the fact that Houston received nothing, Jackson Lee said Friday night.

“I support all of the dollars that were given to our local jurisdictions. I don’t have a quarrel with any of that. What I have a quarrel with is that Houston got zero,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s a glaring, glaring, glaring act of malfeasance on the part of the General Land Office. The housing and urban development, through their decision that came out today, indicated that there are problems with how the GLO handled this.”

I basically agree with everything they’re saying here. It’s just not clear to me that HUD is finished here. It may very well be that they will need to hand this off to the Justice Department for a larger stick to use against the GLO. I don’t trust anything that office does right now. It’s just not clear to me yet that they have been unable to persuade the GLO to take any corrective action. I wouldn’t wait too long on this, but I’d like to hear HUD say unequivocally that option has failed first.

As for the Harris County reaction, we got this from County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday:

We’ll see what that means. The end goal is correct, we just have to find a way to get there.

Keep your hands off of the Harvey money, H-GAC

Seriously. You’ve done enough already.

First, a regional council of government officials left Harris County and most of its cities out of a plan to distribute $488 million in federal flood mitigation funds stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

As justification, the Houston-Galveston Area Council — a regional planning board covering 13 counties — cited a separate, $750 million allotment proposed for Harris County itself.

Now, H-GAC wants to control that $750 million, as well. The council’s board voted Tuesday to ask the Texas General Land Office, which manages the relief money, to route the $750 million to H-GAC instead, allowing it to divide the pie among the broader region.

The resolution has no practical effect, unless the GLO decides to grant the request. It would require the GLO to submit an amended plan for federal approval, a process that often takes months. The GLO has been waiting for approval of its latest amendment, including the $750 million allocation to Harris County, since November.

[…]

Houston At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the board, was the lone vote against the resolution. She said the entire debate is moot until the GLO addresses the HUD decision, which likely would change the amount of funds headed to Houston and Harris County. She said the mitigation funding has shown that “the HUD-to-GLO pipeline is broken.”

“We’re not talking about the right pot of money. We need to wait until the GLO deals with the issues presented in the (HUD) letter,” Alcorn said. “The city and county were originally planning on both getting a billion…. We’re going to try everything to get the money we deserve. It’s too bad it’s taking so long.”

The city’s other representative, At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, did not attend the meeting.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the county, also was absent, but sent a scathing letter about the resolution. He said he was not sure “whether my attendance would be welcome, anyway.”

“The resolution considered today serves no practical purpose other than to send a message. And I am not sure it is the message H-GAC wants to send,” Garcia wrote. “The message HGAC will be sending, loud and clear, will be to (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), and it will be that HGAC is a willing partner in the GLO’s scheme to deprive the most impacted, most racially diverse jurisdictions of funds that Congress intended.”

[…]

Last month, H-GAC, citing the $750 million allotment, scrapped Harris County and all of the cities it includes from its plans to distribute a separate $488 million allotment the GLO gave the regional council. City and county officials lambasted that move, as well. H-GAC’s decision was based on the assumption that Harris County would share the $750 million among cities within it.

The council now is saying it wants to add the $750 million to the $488 million it originally received, and then divide that $1.2 billion among the broader region with a formula that does include Harris County, Houston and other cities within county limits.

That formula would leave Harris County itself with $266 million, about a third of what it is set to receive in the direct allotment. Houston, currently slated to receive nothing from the GLO and about $9 million from H-GAC to address parts of the city outside Harris County, would get $445 million. Those two numbers together add up to $711 million, still short of the direct allotment.

Smaller allocations to other cities in Harris County — including about $25 million for Pasadena, $8 million for Bellaire — would bring the total sum within Harris County to about $790 million. H-GAC argues that means its formula would represent an increase of about $40 million for the entire county.

It would, however, take decisions about how to divide the money out of the county’s hands and put that power in H-GAC, instead.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder that the process that the GLO used to award that $750 million to Harris County and zero to Houston was found to have been discriminatory. H-GAC’s new math here is an illusion and an insult, and once again I question why Houston and Harris County remain a part of this unrepresentative organization. I’m sure it had a useful purpose in the past, and as a theoretical matter we certainly need regional coordination and cooperation. But that ain’t what we’re getting here. What we’re getting here is screwed, and we can and must do better.

HUD finds the GLO’s process to screw Houston out of Harvey funds “discriminatory”

Good. Now get us the funds we deserve.

In a decision that could redirect millions of dollars in flood relief to Houston, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the Texas General Land Office discriminated against minority residents and ran afoul of federal civil rights protections when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

At issue is the process used by the state agency to dole out more than $2 billion in federal funds, awarded to Texas in early 2018, to pay for projects aimed at tempering the effect of future storms. Because there were not enough funds to cover every project sought in the 49 eligible Texas counties, the GLO held a competition and developed scoring criteria to find the best applicants.

Though Houston and Harris County expected to receive roughly half the funds, matching their share of the damage, the land office — led by Land Commissioner George P. Bush — initially awarded nothing to the city and county. Bush, facing bipartisan criticism from Houston-area officials, later asked federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid. The total still fell short of the funding sought by local officials, however, and it remains unclear when the money will arrive.

Prompted by a complaint filed last year by two local advocacy groups, the Biden administration investigated the GLO’s distribution of the Harvey funds, focusing on the complaint’s allegation that Bush’s agency “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin through the use of scoring criteria that substantially disadvantaged Black and Hispanic residents.”

In a 13-page finding, HUD said the exclusion of Houston and Harris County “caused there to be disproportionately less funding available to benefit minority residents than was available to benefit white residents.” The federal agency singled out a scoring metric that effectively penalized large jurisdictions, such as Houston, by measuring what percentage of an applicant’s residents would benefit from a project.

“The City of Iola applied for a project benefitting 379 people. This project received 10 points out of 10, because Iola has only 379 residents,” the finding raised as one example. “The City of Houston applied for a project benefitting 8,845 people in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. This project received 0.37 out of 10 points, because Houston has approximately 2.3 million residents.”

[…]

HUD also said the GLO unfairly divided the competition into two uneven categories: the most impacted and distressed areas as defined by HUD, an area that included Houston and Harris County; and more rural counties that also got a presidential disaster declaration.

Both categories fought for separate pots of essentially equal money. That meant about $500 million was available for residents in the most distressed areas, and $500 million available to counties added by the state.

The most distressed areas, though, had eight times as many residents as those identified by the state. They also had 90 percent of the minority residents in the entire eligible population.

“Specifically, approximately $458 per resident was made available to State MID applicants, while just $62 per resident was made available to HUD MID applicants,” HUD wrote. “Put differently, State MID areas were eligible for seven and a half times the funding per resident than HUD MID areas.”

See here for the background on the complaint. This has been a screw job from the beginning, and I really hope this finally brings some accountability to the GLO and the overall process. I mean, it’s been 4.5 years since Harvey, and there are people still waiting to be made whole. It’s beyond shameful that it has taken this long. It may take even longer from here, as P Bush’s attack poodle spokesperson is threatening that the office will file a lawsuit against HUD. Given that will just add further delays, it’s hard to see such action as anything but vindictive and retaliatory. But not unexpected, not even a little. Please pay attention to the Democratic primary runoff for Land Commissioner and support whoever wins, because that’s likely going to be the fastest path to actually getting this resolved. The Trib has more.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

RIP, William Wayne Justice

One of the great protectors of civil rights has passed away.

U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice — beloved by some, loathed by others — changed Texas civil and inmate rights in ways few political figures have over the past half-century. Justice, who spent 30 years on the bench and once was dubbed “the real governor of Texas” for his rulings, died Tuesday at age 89.

Black children across Texas attend public schools because Justice enforced federal desegregation laws in 1970.

Hispanic children gained the same rights as blacks because of Justice’s rulings. His orders prompted bilingual education in Texas.

Texas must educate all children regardless of their immigration status because of a Justice decision.

Juveniles convicted of crimes were moved from incarceration in work camps to modern rehabilitation facilities at his command.

The most sweeping change of all was the Ruiz prison reform case that ended brutal conditions for inmates and prompted a massive building boom that gave Texas one of the largest and most modern incarceration systems in the nation.

Civil rights activists praised Justice during his lifetime, but in his hometown of Tyler he often was scorned.

“I’m basically a very shy, retiring person, but fate has put me in a situation where I’ve been in the midst of controversy,” Justice told biographer Frank Kemerer for a 1991 book. “Controversy is now kind of a way of life with me. But I have never particularly liked it.”

The Tyler Morning Telegraph, from his onetime hometown, has a nice writeup as well. They don’t make ’em like that any more. Rest in peace, Judge Justice. Stace and Harold Cook have more.

Metro passes civil rights review

Good.

The Federal Transit Administration told the Metropolitan Transit Authority in a letter last week that the civil rights review, which began in February, is complete. In July, the FTA informed Metro that it was deficient on two out of 12 requirements.

The agency needed better documentation in order to prove that recent fare and service changes, like the introduction of the electronic Q Fare Card, did not disproportionately affect low-income and minority customers. The FTA also told Metro that it needed to improve services to customers with limited English skills.

All transit agencies that receive federal money must comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and undergo periodic reviews of how its services affect low-income and minority communities.

Metro’s civil rights program has been deemed “in compliance” until September, 2012. At that point, the agency will have to submit a new report to the federal agency.

One focus of the review was recent changes to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s fare policy. Metro eliminated free route transfers for cash customers in early 2008. It later raised its basic fare from $1 to $1.25.

Metro told reviewers that the implementation of the Q card actually benefited low-income customers by automating discounts. Customers get five free rides on the card after 50 paid rides.

Metro also said that under the previous fare system, customers who could pay large sums up front got bigger discounts. The Q card system offers discounts to all riders, but more frequent riders—who tend to be low-income and minority—get more frequent discounts.

Just a thought here, but since Metro’s fare structure has been the subject of discussion lately, it seems to me that increasing the frequency of the free rides that Q cards can accumulate might be a decent way of reducing the cost of riding for low-income folks. Maybe for every other 50 paid rides you get 10 freebies instead of five, or something like that. I think the idea of rewarding total number of rides rather than an amount of up-front cash is a good one, and if the goal is to keep fares from getting too onerous for lower income riders, that’s the way to go. You could even index the number of free rides given to the fare, so that for the true frequent riders, the cost per ride never really goes up. Greg has an alternate suggestion to achieve the same goal. What do you think?