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More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

So what’s up with that National Guard story?

Hell, I don’t know.

Governors can deploy troops for numerous reasons, from natural disasters to border security.

But observers found it rare to the point of extraordinary when the Texas National Guard revealed that Gov. Greg Abbott has directed troops be prepared to respond to disturbances after the Nov. 3 election in major cities across the state.

Abbott has not explained his reasons, so far.

Ben West, a security analyst at the RANE subsidiary Stratfor, a consulting firm, said he anticipates most of the forces will be sent to Houston and Austin, which saw the bulk of the state’s racial justice protests this summer. Guard officials have compared the new mission to its response in June to the unrest.

While an election-related deployment is uncommon, 2020 might be the exception, West said.

“When everything is just upside down, things that in any other year would have been extraordinary get lost in the wash,” he said.

The governor has pushed hard in recent weeks to convey to voters his allegiance to law enforcement, and has proposed new laws that would stiffen punishments for unruly protesters, including mandatory jail time.

The Guard said Monday it would send up to 1,000 troops to Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio as early as this weekend. A top guard official, retired Maj. Gen. James K. “Red” Brown, said the deployment was in case of “postelection” disturbances, to support local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

He said the guardsmen’s role would be similar to that during last summer’s George Floyd protests, and the troops would act “as we previously did to deter any civil disturbance at sites in various cities in Texas.”

This was the original story. Since then, Abbott has assured officials in San Antonio there will be no troops sent there after they complained, and there was a clarification that none of the troops would be sent to polling locations. On Wednesday, Abbott finally spoke about the issue.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday answered questions about the deployment of Texas National Guard troops to Texas cities on Election Day, saying they will play no role whatsoever in the election process.

“Our job is to make sure that cities are safe and along those lines, we want to make sure that in the event there are any protests after the election that we will have adequate personnel in place to make sure that we will be able to address any protests that could turn into riots,” the governor said.

When asked specifically about the assignment of troops to Houston, Abbott indicated those decisions will be made on an as-needed basis.

“It is erroneous to say we will have a presence here,” he said.

My guess is that this was a typical politics-first move by Abbott that wasn’t very well thought out and neither took into account any stakeholder input, nor anticipated their reactions. It will probably not amount to much in the end, which is also typical of Abbott. I suppose this is as good a place as any to point out that violence from far-right groups is a much greater threat than people protesting police brutality, though I know there’s a zero percent chance Abbott knows or is much interested in that. It is what it is, as they say. The Press and the Trib have more.

Here comes another rideshare company

Seems like a less than optimal time to be expanding, but here we are.

Alto, a new rideshare company based in Dallas, will roll into view in Houston as it looks to expand its reach and compete with Uber and Lyft.

The app-based service, which [arrived] in Houston Thursday, looks to distinguish itself in the market by offering what it calls a consistent experience by managing its own fleet of 200 luxury Buick sports utility vehicles and hiring employees to drive them rather than relying on independent contractors, as competittors such as Uber and Lyft do.

[…]

Alto’s expansion comes as a debate rages in California over how companies such as Uber and Lyft should treat its drivers. There, a new state employment law requires the gig economy companies to classify drivers as employees, but voters could exempt the companies via a ballot measure in November.

Alto also is expanding as the coronovirus pandemic batters the ride-hailing industry. Uber, the market leader, reported a 75 percent decline in ridership during the quarter ended June 30, as people grew wary of leaving the house and entering enclosed spaces.

Alto’s business has shrunk, too. Business is still down about 30 percent from pre-pandemic levels, [Alto CEO Will] Coleman said. “There’s some people in Dallas that are going to continue to not get into cars,” he said, “so our total customer base is smaller.”

That makes expanding into new territories more important to the company’s growth, Coleman said. Houston seemed like a natural next step, he said, given its proximity and size — it’s the nation’s fourth largest city. It also appealed because the company caters to the business community, which in Houston is large and international.

Business travel from the airport was a big sales driver before the pandemic, he said, and is beginning to pick back up. “People are looking for safe ways to move again,” Coleman said.

Not surprisingly, Alto costs more than Uber; the story does not do a comparison to a taxi fare, which would have been interesting. As someone who thinks Uber and Lyft treat their drivers like trash, I like Alto’s model, I just don’t know what their prospects are, even without factoring the pandemic into the equation. But if you’re the type of person who uses this type of service, and you’ve been wishing there was an alternative to Uber and Lyft, here you go.

(Also, can we please come up with an alternative term for “rideshare”? That doesn’t fit all that well any more for Uber and Lyft, and it makes even less sense for Alto, which actually owns the vehicles and employs the drivers. They’re basically a livery service, but that word makes me think of horse-drawn carriages with footmen. I am open to suggestion here.)

Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

We’re trending in the right direction, but…

Still a ways to go.

The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the Houston area have improved significantly since July, but the pandemic remains a serious threat here.

The Houston region added 1,957 cases on Saturday, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, bringing the total to 104,650.

Texas as a whole added 4,988 cases and added 138 deaths. The Chronicle has tallied a total of 12,664 virus deaths in the state, though the true figure is likely higher.

The positive test rate fell slightly, from 12.3 percent to 12.2 percent. A troubling sign, however, was a jump in the state’s rolling average of new cases, from 4,997 to 5,369.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations declined for the 11th straight day, to 4,273.

I last posted about this a few days ago, so things aren’t that much different. This story doesn’t have any charts in it, but you can go to Ready Harris and see what they have. (There’s a large blip in the Harris-not-Houston numbers for the past two days, which I’m going to guess is an artifact of test results coming in as a cluster.) As with San Antonio and Dallas and the state as a whole, the numbers are down from the peak but still well above where they were before they began that massive increase in late June. The thing that has made the difference is wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding indoor crowds. If we can keep this up, we can get to a point where maybe having kids back in school doesn’t seem like a crazy idea. It’s just that the last time we thought we were making progress, we declared victory and totally let our guard down. Can we please not do that this time? Thanks.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

We’re still not doing great with the Census

There’s still time, but we have a lot of work to do.

Despite an extended deadline, local government cash infusions and grassroots campaigns to improve Houston’s 2020 census response rate, almost half of Houston households are still missing from the official count.

As of July 5, 52.5% of Houston’s estimated 2.32 million residents have completed the decennial survey, according to the most recent census data. In Harris County, the response has been about 56 percent.

But Houston is not alone. Across the country, many other large metropolitan areas are also struggling to get their populations counted, reporting similar self-response rates to Houston’s. In Los Angeles, the household response rate is 51.6%, while Chicago polls higher at 54.5%, and 53.1% in New York City.

Other cities in Texas have slightly greater household response rates so far, with Austin hovering around 60.4%, Fort Worth at 58.9%, and Dallas at 53.4%.

Texas ranks 40th in state census response, according to recent census findings. The state’s response rate of 56.7% lags behind the national rate of 61.9%. In 2010, the response rate was slightly higher at both the state and national levels, according to a recent report from Understanding Houston, which analyzed census data. The state had a 64.4% self-response rate compared with a national self-response rate of 66.5%.

With the deadline extended to Oct. 31, the hope is that more Texans will complete the survey, pulling the response rate up.

[…]

A 2019 study by Lopez Negrete Communications found that one helpful tool for ensuring people participate was through community action— which has become increasingly difficult with stay-at-home orders in place. Traditional forms of influence noted in the report include churches, schools, public events and community health clinics, yet many of these cultural and community centers remain closed.

It’s not hard to see why it’s been a challenge to get people to do the Census. If we can’t go door to door and can’t engage with the community, there’s only so much that can be done. It’s bad enough that the Lege didn’t appropriate any money for Census outreach, now we have Greg Abbott’s lousy handling of the pandemic acting as headwinds. Maybe we’ll be lucky and things will improve enough by October to make some more progress. I sure hope so.

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 Hair Affair

I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this story, so to save myself a little brain power I’m going to outsource it.

Lisa Falkenberg:

Let’s be clear about something: Shelley Luther, the Dallas-area salon owner-turned-folk hero, wound up in jail this week because of her very public, very theatrical refusal to follow Abbott’s very own order.

Abbott’s executive order, which preempted local orders, delayed the reopening of salons as part of a phased-in approach to restart the Texas economy responsibly.

And like Abbott’s other orders issued during this outbreak, it specified stiff consequences for noncompliance: A fine not to exceed $1,000, up to 180 days in jail, or both.

So why, as soon as Luther’s case got widespread attention, did he begin to condemn local authorities who enforced it?

“Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical, and I will not allow it to happen,” Abbott said in a statement.

Allow it? Technically, he ordered it. Even Northeast Tarrant Tea Party leader Julie White McCarty saw through Abbott’s hypocrisy: “Governor Abbott gave orders putting severe limitations in place,” she wrote on Facebook. “Governor Abbott is now condemning the enforcement as if he’s innocent.”

[…]

But Luther held court for days in front of TV cameras. She didn’t just violate an order to close her salon – she tore it up. When a veteran, 65-year-old Dallas judge gave her an easy out if she’d just apologize and follow the law, she scoffed in defiance. So, he did what judges do: found her in contempt in court.

She could have taken the deal and gone home to her kids and waited until she could open legally on Friday.

Clearly, Luther and her legions of admirers had turned her into a cause. That’s why she went to jail — to draw attention to what she believes is a violation of her rights. And that’s the point of civil disobedience. While others have advanced noble causes such as suffrage and equality, Luther did it to defend her right to work even if doing so puts her workers, neighbors and customers at risk amid a deadly pandemic.

But hey, if she wants to be the hero, a rebel with a cause, the patron saint of social distancing scofflaws, she can’t play the victim, too.

Christopher Hooks:

The conflict really kicked off on April 25, at a protest in front of the Frisco City Hall calling for the reopening of shuttered businesses. Shelley Luther, the owner of Salon à la Mode, took center stage. She had gained local publicity for reopening her business in defiance of Governor Greg Abbott’s shutdown order. By way of enforcing it, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins had sent her a cease and desist order—and, as Abbott had laid out in his order, a $1,000 fine. (The governor also threatened violators with up to 180 days in jail.) In front of a cheering crowd, Luther ripped up the document. There she stood: she could do no other.

Your move, governor. On April 27, at a press conference, Abbott laid out his vision for unwinding his shutdown order. On May 1, his “phase one” would go into effect, allowing retail businesses and restaurants to partially reopen, as long as they followed certain guidelines. In mid-May, assuming things had gone well and COVID-19 infection numbers weren’t spiking, he declared that he would move Texas to “phase two” and allow more businesses to open. Hair salons, barbershops, gyms, and bars could welcome customers back in once the state had collected “two weeks of data to confirm no flare-up of COVID-19” after phase one, he said.

Why the different standards? Well, barbering and hairstyling involve sustained intimate contact, in an environment where customers are coming and going over the course of the day. Barbershops and salons provide a much more potent risk for viral transmission than, say, a Home Depot. And why two weeks? That’s the minimum period required to get a sense of whether the virus is in submission, according to public health experts. Though the coronavirus has a median incubation time of about five days, some of those infected don’t show symptoms until about twelve to fourteen days after infection.

Abbott got pushback from all sides. Some thought he was moving too fast while others complained that he was acting too slowly. Setting that aside, he deserves at least a little credit for the fact that unlike some governors—the fella who rules over our unfortunate brothers and sisters in Georgia, for one—Abbott at least had a plan. With dates. A 66-page manual. An order of operations. Something you could make into a flowchart. Less dangerous businesses first, more dangerous businesses later. Capiche?

[…]

Now, the question of what to do with those who violate public health directives—who put the public at risk indirectly—is a tricky one. Many liberals and conservatives now find agreement in the idea that no one should be put in jail for nonviolent crimes. The situation is trickier when, like Luther, violators are given many, many chances to conform to the law and refuse. It’s a question that we’re probably going to have to face again, as we struggle to adjust to having COVID-19 as a neighbor, and it’s going to be difficult every time.

Citizens of South Korea or Denmark may like big government telling them what to do to stay safe, but we’re America, baby, and we’re high on Alex Jones’s brain-healing powder. We’re a country that’s fighting a culture war about whether wearing masks makes you a wimp, and where men complain loudly on television that the pandemic is making it hard to buy lawn fertilizer.

It’s notable, perhaps, that Shelley Luther shows up in at least one other pandemic-related local news story in the last few months. On March 11, KHOU interviewed Luther and her boyfriend, Tim Georgeff, as they boarded a cruise ship in Galveston. Were they worried about getting on an enormous floating petri dish in the middle of a pandemic, not long after the entire Diamond Princess had been quarantined in Japan? “Well, for one, I have a real good friend who’s a doctor,” Georgeff told the reporter. “It’s really nothing more than a severe cold.”

But there’s one point that’s worth triple-underlining, and it’s the strangest part of the whole salon saga. Judge Moyé has been cast as the villain, the oppressor, whose puppetmaster is Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. It’s important to listen to Moyé’s words as he sentenced Luther. He was convicting her, he said, because of the rather sensible proposition that “the rule of law governs us … Society cannot function when one’s own belief in the concept of liberty permits you to flaunt your disdain for the rulings of elected officials,” Moyé said.

Here’s the thing. One of the “rulings” in question here is by Abbott, who, if you need reminding, is the Republican governor of Texas. Moyé, a Democrat, is defending Abbott’s prerogative in ordering business closures for public health reasons. Abbott isn’t alone in this, of course. The president, the governor of Texas, the Dallas county judge, and an assortment of both Democratic and Republican mayors in North Texas all agreed that Americans should cool it in April. This group may never agree on anything ever again, but they agreed on this. And yet the Republican officeholders are urging conservatives to train their fire on Moyé and Jenkins.

Ross Ramsey:

She’s not the only Texas beautician arrested for tending to customers during the pandemic — just the one who got the attention of the top politicians in Austin. Consider the story of two women in Laredo busted in April for offering nail and eyelash services in violation of pandemic-spurred restrictions. Ana Isabel Castro-Garcia was arrested by Laredo police after arranging to do the nails of an undercover cop posing as a customer. Brenda Stephanie Mata was arrested for a similar transgression, offering eyelash services to an undercover officer. Nails and lashes weren’t on the list of essential services under that city’s “COVID-19 Emergency Management Plan.”

Illegal grooming is hardly of interest to the average neighborhood crime watch or the FBI — whether it takes place in Laredo or in Dallas — but the law is the law.

Maybe it’s a big-city thing. State officials got after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for a mandatory mask law that included fines for violators caught without masks in public. That furor also didn’t reach Laredo, where state officials had ignored a similar law for weeks. Maybe state officials just don’t pay attention to Laredo, or the Houston masks and the Dallas hair were just convenient attention-getting distractions for stressed-out politicians in the middle of a scary pandemic.

Whatever the case, salons can reopen in Texas on Friday to 25% of their regular capacity, freeing the state’s politicians to argue about other essentials.

Dale Hansen:

Those who blame the judge, saying it was a political stunt to put her in jail, are ignoring the real stunt here.

Luther’s GoFundMe page has raised more than half a million dollars, because it is true, there really is one born every minute. But I’m assuming she can feed her family now, and she will share her bounty with all those who can’t.

No one likes the position we’re in now. The virus has made it incredibly hard on almost all of us. But to excuse the actions of Luther, would create a society that I don’t think any of really want to live in.

[…]

We’re not in this together, we never have been. And all the sweet commercials won’t make it so.

Gov. Abbott and our other state leaders have proven again that the rule of law doesn’t matter, and court orders can be ignored as long as you are well-to-do and white.

If Shelley Luther’s beauty salon was in South Dallas the lieutenant governor would’ve never paid her fine and she’d still be in jail. And not a single one of you would be blaming the judge.

There. May Shelley Luther sink back into obscurity, and may we all remember the words of a long-ago statesman who said “We must all hang together, or we will surely hang separately.”

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.

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.

How about an Arizona/Florida/Texas plan for MLB?

Call it the MLB Plan 3.0 for having a season.

With the spread of the novel coronavirus threatening Major League Baseball’s 2020 season, the league and the union continue to seek ways to salvage the year as best they can. Predictably, that has entailed any number of proposals and contingency plans, including those that would see teams either all isolated in Arizona, or split between Arizona and Florida. On Monday, multiple league sources informed CBS Sports about a different idea that has been discussed in recent days.

In this arrangement, the league would have teams stationed in one of three hubs: Florida, Arizona or Texas. The clubs would then make use of the local major- and minor-league (or spring training) facilities and play regular season games behind closed doors without fans.

One source even expressed guarded optimism about the idea’s chances of coming to fruition.

Ballparks in St. Petersburg (Florida), Phoenix (Arizona), and Arlington (Texas) each have roofs, retractable or otherwise, that would safeguard against rainouts and other extreme weather, allowing for multiple games to be hosted at those sites per day. Theoretically, MLB could also ask teams stationed in Florida and Texas to drive three-plus hours to other MLB parks (Houston’s Minute Maid Park and Miami’s Marlins Park).

It’s unclear if MLB would assign 10 teams to each metropolitan area, or if it would opt for an unbalanced approach that would see 12 teams in one area and eight in another.

[…]

“From our perspective, we don’t have a plan, we have lots of ideas,” [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] told Fox Business. “What ideas come to fruition depends on what the restrictions are, what the public health situation is, but we are intent on the idea of making baseball a part of the economic recovery and sort of a milestone on the return to normalcy.”

See here and here for the previous iterations of this idea. The DMN adds more details.

While teams would need to drive as much as two or three hours in Florida to visit certain sites, Texas can offer two Major League stadiums: Globe Life Field in Arlington and Minute Maid Park in Houston. There are also numerous minor league facilities such as Dr Pepper Ballpark in Frisco and The Dell Diamond in Round Rock. There are also numerous top-tier college facilities, if those are made available.

[…]

Among things to be decided if Texas becomes more realistic: How would MLB temporarily realign from two 15-team leagues to three 10-team leagues? Under the Arizona/Florida idea, rather than having teams divided into the National and American Leagues, they would compete in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.

Also, which teams would be asked to give up the relative comforts of their own spring training facilities to temporarily plan in Texas? If MLB moves towards a league that is geared simply to be TV-friendly without fans, it might make sense to have leagues set up based on time zones, with East Coast teams in Florida, teams in the Central in Texas and the rest of the teams in Arizona.

There are eight teams with Central Time Zone home bases: Both Chicago teams, St. Louis, Kansas City, Minnesota, Milwaukee, Houston and the Rangers. Colorado is a Mountain Time Zone-based club, an hour behind the Central. A team from the Eastern Time Zone, perhaps Detroit, might need to be added.

Another question: Would the Rangers be able to use all of the numerous state-of-the-art amenities afforded them in Globe Life Field? Or would teams playing in their home stadiums have to give up some access to major league amenities if the majority of teams are playing in minor league stadiums?

Teams would also need some secondary bases for depth options since the minor league season is becoming more and more unlikely. That’s where minor league and college facilities could become more of a point of conversation.

As the Chron notes, Texas A&M has expressed interest in letting its stadium be used in this scenario. I’m sure other colleges would as well. Normally, even the biggest college stadium would be far too small for an MLB game, but with there being no spectators, that’s not an issue. So who knows? One other obstacle, as the CBS story notes, is that some prominent players, like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, have said they don’t want to be separated from their families for the four months this would take (assuming no return to regular stadium action in the interim). I feel like that is surmountable if this ever gets past the “there are no bad ideas” stage of the discussion. For now, MLB is just making sure that it has something it can try to execute in the event that things have improved enough to move forward with a season.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

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.

The robot nurse

We are living in the future, for better and for worse.

https://www.instagram.com/p/B01H56Fn8_0/

A friendly one-armed, bright-eyed robot is roving the hallways of Medical City Dallas’ Heart and Spine hospitals, helping nurses with routine tasks that previously took time away from patient care.

Nicknamed Moxi and regarded as one of the staff, the robot is equipped with sensors to help it navigate, and even anticipate people’s movements, as it travels across hospital floors. Medical City Dallas partnered last fall with Austin-based artificial intelligence firm Diligent Robotics Inc. to become the first North Texas hospital to employ a robot full time in a clinical setting.

“When we were opening up the hospital back in October, one of the things we wanted to really focus on was being an innovation center and bringing new technology to the health care setting,” Medical City Chief Operating Officer Josh Kemph told The Dallas Morning News.

When a nurse is interacting with it in a way that would normally trigger an error message, Moxi instead emits pleasant beeps and chirps to notify them. Some patients even have their own names for the assistant, which has its own Instagram account run by Diligent.

But Moxi is so much more than just a pretty face.

Texas will face a shortage of more than 71,000 nurses by 2030, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. And with the demand for nurses expected to only continue increasing, Medical City Dallas director of surgical and procedural services Stefanie Beavers says she hopes it will also make it easier for the hospital’s existing workforce to optimize their day-to-day work.

“This really offers health care facilities an opportunity for the nursing workforce to focus on patient care and be directly at the bedside versus taking them away, and allowing their time to be truly dedicated to patient care tasks,” Beavers said.

It never crosses the threshold into patient care, instead delivering things like blood samples back and forth to a lab and updating patients’ medical records instantaneously for hospital staff.

“She’s really meant to be a team member that’s supporting you in the background,” Beavers said.

For now, at least, Moxie is a modern version of the FBI mail robot, which does simple drudge work like delivering specimens and allowing the human nurses to do more important things. It’s also a lot cheaper to employ than human nurses, or human nurses’ aides, and in the way of driverless cars, it’s just a matter of time before they have the capability to cross that threshold into patient care. That may be 20 or 30 years down the line, but it’s out there somewhere. I just hope we can have a productive conversation about what that will mean for the rest of us before it happens.

The people who oppose the high speed rail line still oppose the high speed rail line

In case you were wondering.

In the same room where many mobilized against the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor freeway project 15 years ago, critics of a proposed Houston-to-Dallas bullet train promised to shoot that down, too. No matter how long that takes.

“Unfortunately, we are five years in and I can see five more years,” said Kyle Workman, president of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

At a Wednesday night town hall organized by the group and attended by local and state officials along with U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, elected leaders promised the crowd a fight starting in Washington, where regulators are expected to release safety requirements for high-speed trains and consider whether the Texas Central project is a federally-recognized railroad.

“After we stop them again in Washington, this battle shifts back to Texas,” Brady told the crowd of landowners, mostly from Grimes, Montgomery, Waller, Harris and Madison counties.

[…]

In a statement, Texas Central said it remains committed to the project, noting the support of more than 100 groups and organizations.

“It is not surprising that those few detractors would also attempt to be vocal as progress is being made,” the company said.

I don’t think anything has changed recently. Either Texas Central can get to a point in their construction where they’re basically unstoppable, or the opposition may be able to put up a roadblock they can’t overcome. At this point it looks like they may have to survive one more legislative session, and who knows where that may go. I think as long as the US House stays Democratic it’s fairly unlikely that such an obstacle will come from there, as the Democrats from Houston and D/FW are not going to support anything to kill this. The courts remain a wild, but they may also be too slow-moving to be a factor. One way or another, the race is until construction really gets started.

Our slowing population growth

Noted for the record.

Texas remains one of the fastest growing states in the U.S., but a report published by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank showed a significant reduction in the number of people moving to Texas since 2015. That’s left employers — who are already having a difficult time finding workers amid historically low unemployment rates — in an even tougher position.

Since 2016, the share of population growth in Texas from people moving to the state is half of what it was previously. Each of Texas’ four largest metro areas — Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas — has experienced a reduction in domestic migration and overall population growth.

“We’ve seen really good growth, and yet we’re seeing slowing of migration — and that’s not because we’re less attractive. It’s because outside of Texas, things are also very good,” said Keith Phillips, senior economist at the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve.

In other words, the so-called Texas Miracle — the state’s unrivaled ability to create jobs and economic opportunity — now has rivals. Nationwide, most workers can find jobs if they want them, making a cross-country move to Texas in search of a paycheck less appealing.

In the five years from July 1, 2010, through July 1, 2015, Texas saw more than 138,000 people on average move to the state each year from elsewhere in the country. But from July 2015 to July 2018, Texas added just under 96,000 people each year from domestic migration — a 31 percent annual drop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

[…]

Some industries — such as information technology — have a harder time finding workers than others.

David Heard, CEO of TechBloc, the San Antonio technology industry group, said the city has had difficulty standing out to potential workers among cities across the nation with promising tech industries, such as Nashville, Tenn., or Columbus, Ohio.

With tech workers in demand in metro areas across the nation, the decision often comes down to which city offers the best quality of life, Heard said.

“These people tend to get paid well,” he said. “Wherever they go, they’re in demand, so the issue is about how being competitive on salary and having job availability often aren’t what charge their decision. It really comes down to lifestyle issues.”

Most cities looking to attract tech workers and other “creatives” have been following the same gospel — investing in public and cultural amenities such as lush parks and concert halls to lure talent — for nearly two decades. The slowdown in migration to Texas makes the challenges for tech companies even more daunting.

The Dallas Fed projects that around 90,500 Americans will migrate to Texas from elsewhere in the country in 2019. That tops the 82,500 people who migrated to Texas last year, but it’s down from the years following the Great Recession, when 123,000 people on average came to the state annually.

“Domestic migration is usually an indication of employment opportunities or a lack thereof,” Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer, said. “Essentially, it’s an indicator of a slowdown of at least one sector of the economy … The confusing aspect of it is that we have very low unemployment.”

Potter said the decline in people moving to Texas is difficult to parse because of the differing regional economies across the state.

We’ve talked about some of this before, in the context of Houston’s slowing population growth and the Latino population growth engine that keeps our state moving forward. I think it’s unlikely that these trends will continue over the longer term, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on this stuff and thinking about what underlying causes there may be. And it’s another reminder that a complete and accurate Census count is vital, because otherwise we’re just guessing. Sure would be a bad idea to let the Trump administration screw that up.

The Houston Roughnecks

Meet your new XFL team.

When the XFL kicks off in February, the Houston team will be known as the Houston Roughnecks.

The XFL unveiled team names and logos for all eight teams in the league Wednesday.

The Houston Roughnecks logo is a bit reminiscent of the old Houston Oilers with an oil derrick featured prominently. The team opted to go away from the Oilers’ Columbia blue though, and went with a more Texans-like red and blue.

[…]

The Roughnecks will be coached by June Jones, who was an NFL head coach with the Falcons and Chargers as well as an assistant for the Houston Oilers and Houston Gamblers. The team will play at the University of Houston’s TDECU Stadium. Season tickets are available here.

See here for the background. There are eight teams, including one in Dallas, and each city with the exception of Saint Louis has an existing NFl team. (A sore subject in St. Louis, that.) I dunno what the market for not-NFL football outside of the usual football season is – the last league to try it didn’t make it till the end of their first season – but we’ll see. I’m all about basketball and spring training by then, but your mileage may vary. Texas Monthly and the Press have more.

Uber’s vision for the future

I feel like this is more wishcasting than real planning. Still, some of it may happen, and if nothing else we should be aware of what it’s all about.

When Uber envisions the future, it not only wants to put urban air taxis and drones in the skies. It also wants to transform how people navigate cities and how they live in them.

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said the San Francisco-based tech company wants to turn today’s cities that are getting denser and more polluted into “cities of the future that are fundamentally green and built for people.” To do that, he said, cities need transportation options that range from cruising down the street on an electric scooter to commuting through the skies.

“We want not just to be the Amazon of transportation but also the Google of transportation,” he said.

One of the first places Uber wants that to play out is Dallas-Fort Worth: It’s one of the first three markets for Uber Elevate, an initiative to launch the aerial ride-sharing service.

[…]

Uber gave a progress report and made splashy announcements at its third annual Uber Elevate Summit. It announced the first international market for the air service: Melbourne, Australia. It revealed that Uber Eats is working with McDonald’s to deliver Big Macs and fries by drone. It touted the progress of six aviation companies that are designing the aircraft. And it dived into specifics, such as economics, safety and FAA-required certification. It showed off its different modes of transportation, from its new self-driving Volvo SUV to electric scooters.

Through splashy presentations and showroom floor exhibits, Uber and its business partners tried to build the case that urban air taxi service is not a far-fetched idea but one that’s coming to fruition.

Uber went public in May. The tech giant’s growth has been fueled by venture capital, but it is spending billions of dollars and has yet to turn a profit. That hasn’t slowed development of its aerial ride-sharing service. It expects to start flight demonstrations next year and launch commercial service in a few cities, including Dallas, in 2023. Eventually, it wants the urban air taxis to become autonomous.

Mark Moore, Uber’s director of engineering for vehicle systems, said he’s already seen some of the aircraft take flight. He declined to name the companies that are flight testing, saying they’re keeping quiet for competitive reasons.

“It’s incredibly impressive,” he said. “They’re nothing like helicopters.”

We first heard of Uber Elevate back in 2017. They had a goal at that time of rolling out a demo in 2020, so as far as their public pronouncements go, they’re on schedule. There re other operators in this space, one at Texas A&M that is working on flying motorcycles, with a test date of 2020, and a different kind of flying vehicle, based on battery power, that is farther away from reality. Beyond those two, we’ll just have to take Uber at their word that there are other companies testing prototypes now.

The challenges are not just technical.

Moore said the next four years will focus on demonstrations that “prove out the safety, noise and performance” of the vehicles.

In 2023, he said it will launch to paying customers in Dallas — but with a limited number of vehicles and limited operations. He said he expects five aircraft per manufacturer at launch. That will grow to about 50 per manufacturer in 2024. But, he said, some manufacturers may not be ready in time.

In Dallas, the average trip is expected to be 20 to 25 miles, Moore said.

But one of the major questions is whether Uber can win over regulators and the public. Unlike other tech innovations, early adopters won’t just use a new kind of technology. They’ll fly in public, so that affects the people driving, walking or living on the ground below, whether or not they choose to opt in.

[…]

“Uber is obsessed with making these vehicles as quiet as possible,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, said he’s enthusiastic about urban air taxis but acknowledged that their development gives him more to worry about.

“Everyone is riveted by this, especially me, but then I put on my FAA regulator hat and I got a whole new bucket of stuff to lose sleep over,” he said in a speech at the summit. “What you see is the ideal way to transporting people across cities. When I look at it, I see car-sized vehicles with multiple rotors hanging over dense urban populations.”

All that was discussed in the first Uber Elevate link I posted above. Noise is also a concern – much is done to abate highway noise for residences, but the only way to do that for aerial vehicles is to make the vehicles themselves as quiet as possible. How t ameliorate the “death from above” concerns, well, that’s going to be a key question. All this from a company that burns money faster than 747s burn jet fuel. I’ll keep an eye on this, but don’t be surprised if the next major update is that the timelines have been pushed back.

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.

The case for a second MLB team in the Metroplex

It’s an interesting argument, with a lot of aspects to it.

[T]he 2019 Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook contains an article (“Where to Next?” by G. Scott Thomas) rating the top 20 metro areas [for potential MLB expansion]. More than 100 reporters and editors filled out a report card (using grades from A to F) for each contender. In ranking order, the results are: Montreal, Portland, Nashville, Charlotte, Las Vegas, San Antonio, Vancouver, Raleigh-Durham, Mexico City, Austin, Monterrey, San Juan, New Orleans, Indianapolis, New Jersey (i.e., North Jersey), Havana, Sacramento, Columbus, Orlando, and San Bernardino. I was a bit surprised to see Nashville rank so highly, but otherwise the top 10 more or less line up with the favored locales of other pundits.

One viable metro area is missing from the list, however. That’s might be because it already has one team. I refer here to Dallas-Fort Worth, the Metroplex, or simply North Texas as it is increasingly referred to. Just as the Southern California conurbation eventually evolved into SoCal in popular discourse, North Texas will likely progress to NorTex (admittedly, it sounds like a public utility or a petroleum corporation) in the near future. Remember, you heard it here first.

Now it might seem unfair if not downright bigamous to bestow a second team on a metro area when so many other suitors are out there. On the other hand, such fairness was not a factor when Los Angeles and New York were awarded franchises in the first round of expansion. But a realistic case could be made for those teams then. The same is true for a potential NorTex franchise now.

First of all, did you know that NorTex is the largest market in the US with only one team? Yep, it’s true. One smaller metro area, San Francisco-Oakland (4,728,484 as of 2018) has two teams, though in past years some have opined that is one team too many. If the A’s can’t find a new home in the East Bay, they may be proved right. At any rate, the Bay Area has roughly 2.8 million people fewer than NorTex does, and has had two teams for more than half a century.

NorTex has 7,539,711 people according to a 2018 estimate (way up from 2,424,131 in 1970, two years before the Rangers hit town). That’s good for fourth place in the metro area population sweepstakes. Of course, New York and LA lead the pack and are not within striking distance. But third-place Chicago has “only” 9,498,716 people.

More important, however, are the metropolitan growth rates. NorTex has grown 17.33 percent since the 2010 census. Chicago is virtually stagnant with a growth rate of just 0.4 percent. This is not only much lower than DFW, it is lower than any of the other top 25 metro areas, including such renowned meltdown towns as Detroit and St. Louis. You have to go all the way down to Pittsburgh (No. 27 metro) to find a lower growth rate – in fact a negative rate of -1.34 percent. (The only other major league metro area in the red is Cleveland at -0.97 percent.)

You don’t have to be a math wizard to see that NorTex will likely surpass Chicago for third place within the lifetimes of many if not most of the people reading this article. As Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weathervane to see which way the wind blows.”

It’s a good read, so check it out. Obviously, MLB has to be in expansion mode for any of this to be a possibility. My guess is that when the expansion to 32 teams comes around, D/FW will not be on the short list, but if and when 36 teams are the target, it will be. How long that may take, I have no idea, but however long it takes I’d bet D/FW will still be in the picture.

How good a stepping stone is Mayor of Dallas?

Stephen Young notes that being Mayor of Dallas has not been particularly helpful to others’ ambitions.

Rep. Eric Johnson

If he’s anything, Dallas mayor-elect Eric Johnson is an ambitious guy. He’s got degrees from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, and took his seat in the Texas House of Representatives before turning 40. In the legislature, he’s sought out high-profile fights, sparring over things like criminal justice reform, gentrification and corruption in municipal politics. The resume that Johnson’s put together is almost too perfect for someone who aspires to hold higher state or federal office.

That’s what makes his current position so interesting. Saturday night, Johnson won the keys to one of the most useless big-deal jobs in the United States. Dallas’ mayor is, essentially, just an at-large member of the City Council. He or she gets to run the council’s meetings and can place an item on the council agenda if he or she wishes to do so, but the city manager draws up the city’s budget and has all the real power. Johnson has long been at the top of the list whenever people talk about potential replacements for longtime Dallas U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, but one has to wonder if that’s changed, given the mayor’s office’s challenges and history.

To find a former Dallas mayor who sought and won higher office after leaving city hall, one has to look at the way back to Earle Cabell, who resigned as mayor in February 1964 to run for Congress against incumbent Republican Bruce Alger. Since Cabell’s successful campaign, former mayors Wes Wise, Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert have all run unsuccessful campaigns for the U.S. House or Senate. Laura Miller, Kirk’s successor, couldn’t even win a Dallas City Council race 12 years after leaving office, getting trounced by incumbent Jennifer Staubach Gates in May.

I noted when Mayor-elect Johnson won the runoff that he was a politician with ambitions. Does this mean those ambitions are doomed? I don’t think so. I can’t speak to Wes Wise’s experience, but Ron Kirk ran for Senate as a Democrat in 2002, while Tom Leppert joined a primary that already had David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz. I wouldn’t extrapolate much from that.

I’d say three things will matter. One, does a good opportunity come along at a good time? I’d suggested Johnson might want to run statewide, but Young notes he has had his eye on Rep. Eddie Berniece Johnson’s CD30 seat. Maybe the timing will work for one of those options, and maybe it won’t. Two, does he build up his fundraising network enough to be a force in a more expensive race? And three, does he does a good enough job to make him look like an appealing candidate for whatever comes next? It’s not rocket science. This is one of those times where past history isn’t a great guide, but the basic fundamentals still apply.

Let the HD100 candidates come on out

With State Rep. Eric Johnson now also known as Dallas Mayor-Elect Eric Johnson, that means a special election for his legislative district is in the offing.

Rep. Eric Johnson

Dallas community advocate Lorraine Birabil has launched a campaign to replace outgoing state Rep. Eric Johnson, becoming the first of what’s expected to be a large field of contenders.

She told The Dallas Morning News that it’s critical for lawmakers to help develop criminal justice reform, access to affordable health care and quality public schools.

“This district has been home for me, and I know it’s important that we have opportunities for all,” Birabil said. “When we address these impediments, every Texan will be able to reach their full potential.”

Birabil won’t have the field to herself. The race to replace Johnson, who won Saturday’s runoff for Dallas mayor, is expected to be highly competitive.

At least 11 people have expressed interest or have been mentioned as possible candidates to fill his unexpired term in the Texas House.

That number could grow by the time Texas Gov. Greg Abbott sets a special election, presumably in November, to fill Johnson’s seat.

“People are interested in being involved,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “The fact is, a state representative seat doesn’t come open that often.”

Johnson has not resigned, and Abbott has not indicated when or if he’ll call a special election.

Looks like Inauguration Day for Johnson is Monday, June 17, so he’s going to have to resign before then. That leaves plenty of time to call a November special election, which I presume is what will happen. Assuming that is what does happen, whoever wins (in the runoff, of course) ought to be in good position to win the primary, which is what will really matter, as this special is only for the unexpired term. First, we need the resignation, and everything follows from there.

DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

May runoff results

With 303 of 474 precincts reporting, State Rep. Eric Johnson was leading in the runoff for Dallas Mayor over Scott Griggs, 57% to 43%. At the time I started writing this I didn’t see any news coverage declaring the race to be over, but it sure looks to me like Johnson is going to win. So congratulations to (I presume) Mayor-elect Eric Johnson. You know what this means: There will be another special legislative election, which I would bet will be in November. Johnson’s HD100 is solid Dem so a flip is not in play, but expect there to be a big field.

On a side note here, Johnson knocked off longtime Rep. Terri Hodge (who would soon after be convicted of federal tax fraud charges) in 2010. He’s always struck me as someone who had his sights on bigger things. Having just achieved one of those bigger things, look for him to start getting mentioned in future conversations about statewide candidacy. I could definitely see him taking aim at Dan Patrick in 2022, or Ted Cruz in 2024. Just something to keep in mind.

In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg held on.

Incumbent Ron Nirenberg retained his position as San Antonio’s Mayor after defeating Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) in the runoff election on Saturday.

Brockhouse officially conceded at 9:12 p.m.

With 96.98 percent of precincts counted, Nirenberg held 51.07 percent of the vote to Brockhouse’s 48.93 percent.

Nirenberg opened the night with a slight lead in early voting, which tightened as more precincts were counted. The margin was just 1.44 points with 78 percent of the precincts voting before a late surge gave Nirenberg the victory.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life to make sure that this city was well represented than over the last two years, but certainly over the last month where we had to remind folks that we can be a city for everyone,” Nirenberg said.

Unofficial results are here. Brockhouse, who among other things was a shill for Chick-fil-A, went on to whine about how The Media Was Out To Get Him. I’m sure you can hear my eyes roll at this, but it did lead to my favorite tweet of the evening:

Every once in awhile, Twitter proves itself worthy of existence.

Finally, I’m sad to say that Nabila Mansoor failed to win her runoff in Sugar Land. She trailed by almost 600 votes early and closed the gap a bit on Election Day, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story on the two Mayoral runoffs.

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.

May 4 election results

The hottest race was in San Antonio.

With more than 81 percent of the precincts counted, Mayor Ron Nirenberg took a nearly 3-point lead against Councilman Greg Brockhouse, but it likely won’t be enough to avoid a runoff to determine San Antonio’s next mayor.

Nirenberg, who led by two points following early voting pushed his lead to 48.42 percent with Brockhouse garnering 45.82 percent. However, a winning candidate would need to cross the 50 percent threshold to secure victory.

If neither candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held next month.

“Did any of you think it was going to be easy?” Nirenberg said Saturday night to a group of supporters, volunteers and staff assembled at Augie’s. “We’re in for a long night. But guess what, this long night’s because this city deserves it. We will wait here and we will grind away at the progress earning every single vote and rechecked in the politics of division until we walk away winners. Because that’s what this city deserves. This is a city for all.

“This is about the future of San Antonio, it’s not just about one election. And we’re going to win, because this city needs to sustain progress.”

Here are the results. Nirenberg increased his lead over the course of Election Day and was up by a bit more than 3,000 votes. The runoff between the progressive Nirenberg and the not-progressive Brockhouse will be contentious, and important.

In Dallas, State Rep. Eric Johnson led the big field for Mayor.

With 149 of 529 precincts reporting, State Rep. Eric Johnson has 21 percent of the vote, Dallas City Councilman Scott Griggs has 17 percent, Lynn McBee has 15 percent, Mike Ablon has 13 percent and Regina Montoya and Miguel Solis have 10 percent.

Nine candidates ran for the open seat.

Mayor Mike Rawlings could not run again due to term limits.

Since no candidate got more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff between the top two candidates.

That runoff will happen on Saturday, June 8.

Those results are here, and they are more or less the same with 317 of 528 precincts reporting. Johnson is in his fifth term in the Lege and if he wins the runoff he’d vacate his seat, thus causing the fourth legislative special election of the cycle. In this case, it would be after the legislative session, so unless the Lege goes into overtime there would be no absence in Austin.

Elsewhere, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price won again, holding off former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples; those results are here. In races I was following, Nabila Mansoor was headed for a runoff in Sugar Land, collecting 34.22% of the vote to Naushad Kermally’s 39.16%. Steve Halvorson fell short again in Pasadena. The three Pearland ISD candidates also lost.

Congratulations to all the winners, and we’ll look to the runoffs in June.

Still waiting to see if an anti-Texas Central bill passes

There’s still time, and anything can happen in the Lege, but so far it’s looking like Texas Central will make it through more or less unscathed.

High-speed rail developers have been eyeing a 240-mile stretch of mostly rural land sandwiched between the urban hubs of Dallas and Houston for years. Their goal: buy it up and build America’s first bullet train.

But several rural landowners don’t plan on giving up their private property without a fight. And their supporters in the Legislature have filed so many bills that could disrupt Texas Central Partners LLC’s plans that there’s an entire subcommittee tackling the ongoing battle over the multibillion dollar project.

“We know why all the bills before this subcommittee were filed,” said W. Brad Anderson, an eminent domain attorney working for Texas Central. “The underlying purpose of those bills is to stop the high-speed rail.”

Texas Central is used to such legislative opposition. For the past two sessions, opponents have filed bills aimed at crippling or killing the high-speed rail project, but it’s remained relatively unscathed. This year, there are more bills than ever before, according to grassroots group Texans Against High-Speed Rail president and chairman Kyle Workman.

[…]

“The majority of all rail bills, if not all, are anti-rail,” said state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, who chairs the House Transportation Committee and created the new high-speed rail subcommittee.

Many of the bills follow a similar pattern: they would require a high-speed rail developer to raise money needed for construction, acquire federal permits, or secure necessary land before surveying or building any part of the line. And in some cases, lawmakers don’t want developers to be able to collaborate with the state on how to access rights-of-way around highways.

At a hearing last week, Texas Central representatives said the bills so far unfairly target the project and impose unfair requirements that other similar projects, like natural gas pipelines, don’t have.

But Kyle Workman said in an interview with The Tribune that the package of bills doesn’t target Texas Central. Rather, he says regulations are necessary for the new high-speed rail industry so private property rights and government resources are protected if a company can’t follow through on a project due to, for example, lack of funding or inability to get permits.

“If I was a power line company and I was going to run a brand spankin’ new power line system that had never been done before….We’d have to get that approved first,” he said.

[…]

Dallas and Houston city representatives criticized the flurry of legislative moves as potentially significant obstacles to their cities’ growth.

Molly Carroll, executive project manager for the high-speed rail project with the City of Dallas, said the bullet train could revitalize an “underserved” area of the city just south of downtown — fostering an estimated 500 jobs and 20 million square feet of new development valued at $8 billion.

“The high-speed rail project is a catalyst project the city has needed to kickstart the rebuilding in this part of our city,” she said. “This is a once-in-a-generation project and opportunity that the city of Dallas and the great state of Texas cannot afford to miss.”

Advocates and legislators on both sides say it’s too soon to know the future of high-speed rail reforms this session – but Workman said, even without a legislative victory, the session would still be a success.

“Are we going to get all these bills passed? No…We might not get any passed, but we’re raising awareness on the issue,” he said. “Texas Central has a lot of muscle, but we’re staying after them.”

See here for the previous update. I mean, maybe I’m reading too much into what Kyle Workman is saying, but that sure sounds like lowering expectations to me. The basic equation here is that there are more urban and urban-area legislators than there are rural legislators. The rurals need to get a lot of support from their colleagues in other parts of the state, including urban areas, in order to have sufficient numbers to pass a bill. For the most part, they have not been able to do that. I’m hoping that continues.

Early voting for the May elections has begun

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the May 4, 2019 Joint Election starts Monday, April 22 and ends on Tuesday, April 30. During that period, Harris County voters may vote at any of the 25 Early Voting locations designated throughout the county. Polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, except for Sunday, April 28, when polls are open from 1 pm to 6 pm. Ballot by mail applicants must submit their applications by April 23.

Launching this election, voters will be able to see the approximate wait time at each polling location. This new Wait Time feature will be available on our website alongside a map of all the Early Voting locations.

“In an effort to make voting easier and more convenient, Early Voting hours have been extended and a Wait Time feature have been added to the website to help voters avoid lines” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. “I encourage all of the nearly 785,000 registered voters that are eligible to cast a ballot in this election to exercise their right to vote.”

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 political subdivisions across the county. Voters residing in these political entities can find their individual sample ballots, the Early Voting schedule, and the Election Day polling locations at www.HarrisVotes.com.

An approximate additional 30 political entities in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day. Voters should communicate directly with political entities conducting their own elections to obtain more information.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

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Entities Conducting Elections with Harris County

City of Humble, City of Pasadena, City of South Houston, City of West University Place, Channelview ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Goose Creek Consolidated ISD, Humble ISD, Pasadena ISD, Cypress Klein Utility District, Encanto Real Utility District, Greenwood Utility District, Bridgestone MUD, Crosby MUD, Faulkey Gully MUD, Trail of the Lake MUD, Harris County MUD No. 5, Harris County MUD No. 44, Harris County MUD No. 55, Harris County ESD No. 60, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1A, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 58, Harris County Water Control and Improvement District No. 109.

You can see what the Wait Time feature looks like here. It’s pretty cool, and something we’ll surely need going forward, though for this election I doubt you’ll see anything but green lights. The City of Pasadena elections are the biggest ones of most interest within Harris County, with the balance of power on Pasadena City Council being up for grabs. See my interview with Steve Halvorson for more on that.

Early voting information for Fort Bend County is here. Fort Bend ISD and the City of Sugar Land, where Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council District 2, are races to watch.

Early voting information for Brazoria County is here. There’s a lot of energy right now for three candidates for Pearland ISD Board of Trustees: Al Lloyd, Dona Murphey, and Joseph Say. If all three win, they’d join Trustee Mike Floyd, elected in 2017, to form a majority on that Board.

Elsewhere, there are Mayor’s races in San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, none of which I have followed closely. There’s a longer story to write about why we still hold these municipal elections in May of odd-numbered years, but that will wait till another day. For more about the Harris County races, see this Chron story. Is there an election for you to vote in? Leave a comment and let us know.