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Two more data points about Latino voting preferences in Texas

On the one hand:

On the eve of the first presidential debate of the 2020 electoral season, Univision News publishes its latest electoral polls: the National Latino Voter Poll, a survey that interviewed a representative sample of all Latino registered voters nationwide, and the Arizona, Texas and Florida Latino Voter Polls, which interviewed a representative sample of all Latino registered voters in each state.

These new polls reveal the diversity and complexity of the Latino electorate current political preferences, voting intention, concerns, opinions on recent developments, views on President Trump, Joe Biden and much more.

Complete results of the polls are now available at UnivisionNoticias.com and via all Univision News digital and social media platforms. Additionally, highlights of the findings will be featured in Univision’s programming, from its morning show “Despierta América, to the different editions of its daily “Noticiero Univision” newscasts and its public affairs program “Al Punto”.

Overseen by Dr. Sergio García-Ríos, Director of Polling for Univision News, the surveys were conducted by the polling firms Latino Decisions and North Star Opinion Research from September 17 – 24, 2020. The Latino Texas Voter Poll was commissioned through a partnership between Univision News and the Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS) at the University of Houston.

  • 46% of Latinos oppose moving forward with appointing a replacement to the Supreme Court before the election, while 41% are in favor.
  • Biden leads Trump by 42 points among registered Hispanic voters, but in the key state of Florida that advantage has dropped to only 16 points.
  • Trump’s overall approval among Hispanics is 30%, but in Florida it’s 39%.
  • The coronavirus is the biggest concern for 40% of Hispanics, while 73% disapprove of Trump’s management of the pandemic and 61% believe that Biden would have handled it better.
  • About half of Hispanics (48%) plan to vote by mail, although in Texas, where not all voters have that option, the number is only 33%.
  • 76% of Hispanics support the protests that have occurred in recent days over the death of African Americans at the hands of the police, and 58% would welcome a reduction in funding for the police.
  • 59% of Hispanics believe that Biden would do better on the subject of law and order, which is one of Trump’s main slogans.
  • In contests for the Senate in the key state of Arizona, 55% of Latinos favor Democrat Mark Kelly over 21% for Martha McSally. In Texas MJ Hegar leads with 47% against 30% for John Cornyn.


To see full cross tabulations and methodology of the National Latino Voter Polls, click here.

To view the complete results of the polls, please go to UnivisionNoticias.com.

Here’s a more detailed writeup, and here are the questions and crosstabs. The topline numbers are 66-25 for Biden among Latinos in Texas. For MJ Hegar, it’s 47-30 against John Cornyn, but with a significant undecided contingent, which if you dig through those crosstabs is much more Democratic.

On the other hand, we have this:

President Donald Trump has an apparent lead over former Vice President Joe Biden in a close contest for Texas’ 38 electoral votes according to a new poll of likely voters in the state released today.

Trump has the support of 49 percent of Texas likely voters, Biden is at 46 percent, other candidates on the ballot are at 4 percent and 1 percent are undecided. The poll of 882 likely voters carries a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percent.

While male poll respondents are more likely to vote for Trump (52 percent Trump, 42 percent Biden), Trump is polling nearly even with Biden among women in Texas (49 percent Biden, 47 percent Trump); Biden likely needs to widen the gender gap in order to carry the state.

More on voters’ support by party, age and education is available at www.uml.edu/polls.

While Trump is slightly ahead of Biden with likely voters, 50 percent say they approve and 49 percent disapprove of the president. Among those who approve, 37 percent do so strongly and 13 percent somewhat. Among Trump disapprovers, 40 percent strongly disapprove of the way he is handling his job as president. Among Democrats, 95 percent disapprove of Trump’s job performance, including 83 percent who strongly disapprove. Among independents, 60 percent disapprove of his job performance, including 39 percent who strongly disapprove. Among the 92 percent of Republicans who approve of Trump’s job performance, 69 percent strongly approve.

“Trump is hanging onto a lead in Texas, but Republicans shouldn’t be celebrating. Once a stronghold, statewide races continue to tighten and a loss in Texas would not only guarantee a Biden presidency, it would signal a landslide. The fact that Biden is keeping it close is cold comfort,” said Joshua Dyck, director of the UMass Lowell Center for Public Opinion and associate professor of political science.

[…]

In the closely watched U.S. Senate race in Texas, Republican incumbent John Cornyn leads Democratic challenger MJ Hegar 50 percent to 40 percent with 1 percent saying they will vote for another candidate and 9 percent undecided.

While Cornyn leads by a comfortable margin, his lead also does not necessarily project strength, rather that he is running against a relatively unknown challenger. Cornyn is leading among Republicans 91 percent to Hegar’s 3 percent, while Hegar leads among Democrats 83 percent to 7 percent. However, Hegar also leads among independents by 9 points, 44 percent to 35 percent. Notably, 10 percent of Democrats and 11 percent of independents remain undecided, compared to only 6 percent of Republicans.

As a challenger, Hegar’s relative anonymity among Texas voters shows up in her favorables. She has a net favorability rating of +13 (35 percent to 22 percent), but a large number of Texas voters either have no opinion of her (26 percent) or have never heard of her (17 percent). Cornyn, by contrast, is not a particularly popular incumbent. His favorability rating is net neutral (38 percent favorable, 38 percent unfavorable), while 19 percent of likely voters have no opinion of the senator and 5 percent have never heard of him.

Links to more about the poll can be found here. Why am I grouping this with the Univision/Latino Decisions poll? Because if you look in the crosstabs, Latinos support Biden in this poll by the shockingly small amount of 49-45, with Cornyn leading Hegar among Latinos 44-41. UML also has Black voters giving Trump 16% support, so as with some other polls this may just be some small sample weirdness. But as we’ve discussed before, modeling what Latino voters will do this election, especially in Texas, has produced some wildly divergent results.

This Chron story about that first poll captures what I’m talking about:

Tuesday’s results also aligns with previous polling that has Biden up over Trump among Latinos, though by how much has varied depending on the poll.

An August poll by the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation and Rice University’s Baker Institute put Biden up by 9.5 points among Texas Latinos. A Quinnipiac University poll last Thursday had Biden up by 8 points, and a smaller survey by the New York Times and Siena College had Biden up 25.

[UH poli sci professor Jeronimo] Cortina attributed the variation in poll results to small sample sizes that don’t fully encompass the breadth of types of Latino voters.

I mentioned the Quinnipiac poll and the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation poll earlier in this post, with the latter including a roundup of other polls that had this subsample data in it at the time. My quick scan of all the results suggests that maybe three fourths of polls of Texas have Trump’s level of support among Latinos in the 20-30 range, mostly 25-30, and the rest have him around 40. Needless to say, they can’t both be right. I tend to believe the former group, and the results of a large Latinos-only poll like this one and its predecessor carry more weight since they have much larger sample sizes, but we just don’t know for sure. I’m just trying to highlight the evidence that we have.

Two more polls of Texas

Trump is up two in this one.

Florida and Texas remain tight battlegrounds in the presidential election, according to CBS News Battleground Tracker polls released Sunday.

The current margin in both states is 2 percentage points, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden up by 2 in Florida and President Donald Trump up by 2 in Texas. Trump won both states in 2016; no Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In both cases, the leads were within the margins of error for the polls (3.7 points in Florida, 3.5 points in Texas). The polls were conducted by YouGov from Sept. 15-18 of 1,220 registered voters in Florida and 1,161 in Texas.

The Texas poll showed an unexpectedly close Senate race, with Republican Sen. John Cornyn ahead of Democratic challenger Mary “MJ“ Hegar by a mere 5 points, 46 to 41. That seat has not been high on the lists of ones most likely to flip.

The CBS News story for this poll is here. It’s about 95% focused on Florida, so, you know. CBS News and YouGov had polled Texas in July, and found Trump up by one, 46-45. Full poll data for Texas is here; for what it’s worth, this poll has Biden up among Latino voters 61-30.

And then there’s this:

The press release for that is here. The poll is a month old (taken August 20-25), and it includes results from the other Gulf Coast states. The Texas summary is here, and the numbers of interest are as follows:

Presidential race: Biden 48, Trump 44
Senate race: Cornyn 44, Hegar 42
Trump approval: 45 approve, 49 disapprove
Cornyn approval: 35 approve, 33 disapprove
Ted Cruz approval: 45 approve, 43 disapprove
Greg Abbott approval: 54 approve, 38 disapprove

Not much beyond the very high-level summaries, but there you have it. There are similar summaries for other states polled (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida), but they’re all returning 404 errors now, even though they worked when I first clicked on them. The link above gives the poll results. Most of the questions involved were about people’s opinions on energy and offshore drilling, and some of the Presidential results seem a bit too good to be true (Trump up in Alabama by four? In Louisiana by six?), but that’s what they report. Take them for what they’re worth.

NBA agrees to offer its arenas as voting centers

Nice.

“What was the plan?” was always the wrong question to ask of striking NBA players; what they wanted was to not play basketball, and they got it. But they used that time not playing to talk, to think and to make their voices heard.

But the players did get a significant commitment from their bosses: turning as many NBA arenas as possible into voting sites for November.

The league and union announced Friday that the playoffs will resume Saturday. That announcement included a concrete promise from the league. Every team-owned arena will turn into a polling place for the November election in locations where that’s still legally possible in order for voters to have a large, COVID-safe place to vote in person.

Three teams had already committed to this earlier in the summer — Bucks, Pistons and Hawks — and the Rockets made the announcement on Thursday.

Chris Paul, the Thunder point guard and longtime union president, gave an emotional interview to bubble media after the announcement.

“In 15 years in the league, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Paul said. “Everyone expects us to go out and play. I get it. But we needed some time,” he said, adding that he had spoken to Jacob Blake’s father.

We knew about the Toyota Center. I had not been aware of the other three arenas, which was apparently something that happened in early July. Here’s some more details about what this announcement means:

On Friday, the NBA and NBPA announced a three-point plan to promote social justice and racial equality, which includes converting NBA arenas into voting centers for the 2020 presidential election. The NBA playoffs will resume on Saturday in Orlando.

“1. The NBA and its players have agreed to immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.

2. In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local election officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.

3. The league will work with the players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

In theory, that could mean voting centers in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona in addition the four that are already signed on. Maybe Dallas and San Antonio will join in as well. How many of these actually happen, and what kind of response the players will have if they feel the effort fell short for whatever the reason, remains to be seen. But in terms of direct action resulting from the wildcat strike the players engineered this past week, it’s pretty impressive. Well done.

(A more recent article than the NPR story I linked above suggests some other NBA teams, as well as teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB, are taking similar action to allow their stadia to be used for voting. Not clear to me what relation these two efforts have. For sure, there are plenty of stadia, including hundreds of college stadia and arenas, that could also be used in this capacity, in all 50 states. It would be nice to say we’re just limited by our imagination, but of course we are very much limited by the ferocious opposition to this idea that those who don’t want to make voting easy and convenient would bring. What the NBA players have done is a great start. There’s a lot more that could and should be done.)

How to lose a Congressional seat

As things stand right now, Texas will gain three Congressional seats in the 2021 reapportionment, as Texas continues to be the fastest-growing state in the country. There is one thing that can stop that, however: Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump opened a new front Tuesday in his effort to keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers redraw congressional districts next year, a move that could cost Texas several seats in Congress if it succeeds.

Trump attempted last year to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, but was shot down by the courts. On Tuesday, he signed a memorandum directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants who might be included in the census count from the “apportionment base,” or the base population that’s used to divide up seats in Congress.

The order, which will surely be challenged in court, is Trump’s latest effort to differentiate between citizens and noncitizens when states redraw the boundaries of political districts each decade to account for growth. Recent estimates indicate the size of the undocumented population in Texas has reached nearly 1.8 million. Excluding those residents from population counts to draw up congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of representation and power throughout the state.

The U.S. Constitution mandates that representation in Congress be divided among states based on a count every 10 years of every person residing in the country. But the Constitution, Trump wrote, does not define “which persons must be included in the apportionment base.”

“Excluding these illegal aliens from the apportionment base is more consonant with the principles of representative democracy underpinning our system of Government,” the memo reads. “Affording congressional representation, and therefore formal political influence, to States on account of the presence within their borders of aliens who have not followed the steps to secure a lawful immigration status under our laws undermines those principles.”

[…]

“The Constitution requires that everyone in the U.S. be counted in the census,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement. “President Trump can’t pick and choose. He tried to add a citizenship question to the census and lost in the Supreme Court. His latest attempt to weaponize the census for an attack on immigrant communities will be found unconstitutional. We’ll see him in court, and win, again.”

Litigation has indeed been filed, in multiple lawsuits and venues at this point. My interest in pointing this out was the very narrow one of showing what this would mean to Texas.

If unauthorized immigrants were excluded from the apportionment count, California, Florida and Texas would each end up with one less congressional seat than they would have been awarded based on population change alone. California would lose two seats instead of one, Florida would gain one instead of two, and Texas would gain two instead of three, according to analysis based on projections of Census Bureau 2019 population estimates and the Center’s estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population.

Alabama, Minnesota and Ohio would each hold onto a seat that they would have lost if apportionment were based only on total population change. Alabama filed a lawsuit in 2018 seeking to block the Census Bureau from including unauthorized immigrants in its population count.

[…]

The Census Bureau does not regularly publish counts or estimates of unauthorized immigrants, although the Department of Homeland Security has done so. Last year, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against including a question about citizenship on the 2020 census, the president ordered the Census Bureau to assemble a separate database, using other government records, on the citizenship status of every U.S. resident. This has also been challenged in court.

The Center’s analysis relies on assumptions about populations to be counted in the 2020 census and estimates of unauthorized immigrants. The actual figures used for apportionment will be different from these, and so the actual apportionment could differ regardless of whether unauthorized immigrants are excluded from the apportionment totals.

You might think that Texas’ political leaders would be up in arms about this. That Congressional seat belongs to Texas! State’s rights! You know the drill. And sadly, you also know that our Trump-hugging Attorney General would never, ever say or do anything that would contradict his Dear Leader. What’s a Congressional seat (or two, or even three, if our dismal failure to support a complete Census effort causes the official count to be unexpectedly low) compared to a favorable tweet from Donald Trump? That’s a question we should all be asking, loudly and often, in 2022, when they are up for re-election.

One more thing:

Texas House leaders have previously indicated to The Texas Tribune they have no plans to alter the way Texas redraws political districts even if the Legislature obtained more detailed data on citizenship.

“Bottom line, the law for the Texas House and the Senate — and frankly the courts and the State Board of Education — requires it be done by total population, as does the U.S. Constitution with regard to congressional seats,” said state Rep. Phil King, a Republican from Weatherford who chairs the House Redistricting Committee.

That’s good to hear, but my understanding is that while the State House is explicitly mandated to use total population in redistricting, the State Senate is not. That’s why it was the Senate map that was targeted in the Evenwel case. So, while I hope Rep. King means what he says here, the possibility very much exists that the Lege will try a different tack. (Also, it’s usually the House that draws the House map, and the Senate that draws the Senate map. I’d like to know what the relevant Senate committee chair has to say about this.)

UPDATE: From Ross Ramsey at the Trib:

In a letter urging Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to take legal action to stop the proposal, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, framed the idea as an attack on Texas.

“Filing suit to block the Presidential Memorandum to the Secretary of Commerce dated July 21 would be wholly consistent with your official biography that explains as Attorney General, you are ‘focused on protecting Texans and upholding Texas laws and the Constitution’ and ‘fighting federal overreach.’ Indeed, if unchallenged, the President’s actions would likely hurt Texas more than any other state.”

The partisan politics here are clear enough. Turner is the chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. Paxton, a Republican, is the newly branded co-chair of the national Lawyers for Trump.

But not all that is political is partisan, even in an election year. Does anyone in elected office here think Texas should have less influence in Washington, D.C.?

Good question. Someone should ask Ken Paxton, and Greg Abbott, and Dan Patrick, and John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and all of the Republican members of Congress.

MLS agrees on its restart, WNBA still considering options

More sports coming.

The MLS Players Association voted Wednesday to approve a revised collective bargaining agreement with the league. The new deal will run through 2025 and clears the way for Major League Soccer to resume its 2020 season via a single-site format in Orlando, Fla.

“I can’t give any further specifics on that Orlando concept,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a video conference with media. “That was a very, very big part of our discussions with our players. …We were fortunate to be able to finalize an agreement, as the union announced early this morning.”

Garber said details regarding the competition in Orlando, including format and dates, will be released later, but it is expected to be a tournament lasting no longer than 35 days. It will be conducted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is where the NBA is planning to finish its season.

The commissioner also reiterated his commitment to finishing the season, even if that means pushing the MLS playoffs into 2021.

See here for the background. As noted, the NWSL is already set to return, on June 27. The NBA will be using the same ESPN facility, and I have yet to see how the logistics of that will be handled. I’m sure someone has a plan for it.

Meanwhile, the WNBA is still figuring things out.

The WNBA is considering playing its season at an MGM Resorts International property if it has a season this year, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The other location under consideration is IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The league announced the suspension of its season in April amid the coronavirus pandemic and has not decided on a start date. Operational details of a possible start are not clear, but the league would use a single site — much like the NBA.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Tuesday that the league has discussed a variety of options but did not confirm whether Las Vegas or IMG Academy were possible locations.

“We’re looking at the pros and cons of a number of different locations,” Engelbert told the AP.

The WNBA hadn’t actually started its season yet – like MLB, it was still in its preseason when it suspended activities. If the WNBA chooses to play its games in Las Vegas, they may have some company in the form of the National Hockey League, which is considering Vegas among a list of other cities to play its games; like the NBA, the NHL season was suspended just before playoffs were to begin. Again, I’m sure someone will figure out how to handle multiple leagues and all their people sharing the same facility. I’m just trying to stay on top of the news here.

NBA sets a plan, MLB still working it out

Happening today.

The NBA is finalizing details of a plan which is expected to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday, paving the way for a return from the coronavirus shutdown.

The board is poised to give the green light to commissioner Adam Silver’s return of basketball which would begin July 31 with a 22-team format, and end in mid-October with a champion being crowned, ESPN reported.

The plan requires support from three quarters of the league’s 30 teams in order to be approved.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Nets and Orlando Magic currently hold the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies occupy the postseason positions in the Western Conference.

Under the plan, each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games for seeding purposes for the postseason.

The 16 teams currently in the playoff picture will be joined by the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

In the East, the Washington Wizards are also included.

[…]

All games are expected to be within the confines of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, with all teams remaining on site to minimise risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

See here for the background. ESPN adds a bit more:

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN. ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.

Weird, but the NBA had played the bulk of its season anyway, and the playoffs are always a different thing entirely. I just hope those employees at the Disney resort had someone thinking about their welfare as this deal was being hammered out. The Chron has more.

And then there’s MLB:

Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

See here for the previous update. If this sounds dire to you, let me refer you again to Eugene Freedman, who’s been around this block a few times.

Basically, it looks like the sides have agreed to the March deal, and now need to work out the safety and testing details, plus what to do if a player wants to opt out. Maybe the NBA getting set to start at the end of July will inspire them to agree on some version of their July 4 Opening Day season. Fingers crossed. The Chron has more.

That’s not how you test

Oops.

Texas health officials made a key change Thursday to how they report data about the coronavirus, distinguishing antibody tests from standard viral tests and prompting slight increases in the state’s oft-cited daily statistic known as the positivity rate.

The positivity rate is the ratio of the confirmed cases to total tests, presented by the state as a seven-day rolling average. The Texas Department State of Health Services disclosed for the first time Thursday that as of a day earlier, it had counted 49,313 antibody tests as as part of its “total tests” tally. That represents 6.4% of the 770,241 total tests that the state had reported through Wednesday.

Health experts have warned against conflating the tests because they are distinctly different. Antibody tests detect whether someone was previously infected, while standard viral tests determine whether someone currently has the virus.

Now that DSHS is reporting the number of antibody tests, it has recalculated its daily positivity rates starting Tuesday to exclude such tests. That led to a 0.41 percentage-point increase in Tuesday’s rate and a 0.55 point increase in Wednesday’s rate, according to DSHS calculations.

DSHS acknowledged last week that it was reporting an unknown quantity of antibody tests as part of the “total tests” figure. Despite that, Gov. Greg Abbott incorrectly claimed Monday that the state was not “commingling” the numbers while promising the state would soon break out the antibody test count.

[…]

When public health agencies combine antibody testing figures with viral testing figures, “I want to scream,” said Seema Yasmin, an epidemiologist and director of the Stanford Health Communications Initiative.

Viral tests, usually taken from nasal swabs, can detect an active coronavirus infection. If a person’s biological sample is found to have traces of the virus’s genetic material, public health workers can order them to self-isolate and track down any of their contacts who may have been exposed.

Antibody tests “are like looking in the rearview mirror,” Yasmin said, because they may show if a person has recovered from a coronavirus infection. That can be useful for public health surveillance, but it does not offer much insight about where the virus is currently spreading. Another issue is that many antibody tests have been shown to have high rates of inaccuracy, she said.

“As an epidemiologist, this level of messiness in the data makes your job so much more difficult, and it misleads the public about what’s really happening,” Yasmin said. “We’ve been talking about the capacity for testing increasing over the last few weeks, but now we might have to tell the public that might not be true.”

And dumping antibody testing data into the pool of viral testing data brings the overall positivity rate down, reflecting “a deceptive misuse of the data,” analysts for the COVID Tracking Project wrote last week. That’s because the numbers may make it seem like the state has grown its testing capacity even if a state’s viral testing capacity remains flat.

“This is crucial as we need increased capacity for viral testing before reopening to identify active infections even in the pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic stages,” the analysts wrote.

To be fair, Texas is not the only state to have done this. Florida and Georgia have been accused of manipulating their data in other ways as well. The bottom line here is that we’ll never get our arms around this pandemic if we don’t have good data. The data is messy enough as it is, we surely don’t need to be making it worse.

The NBA inches closer to a return

We’ll know more soon.

NBA teams are expecting the league office will issue guidelines around June 1 that will allow franchises to start recalling players who’ve left their markets as a first step toward a formal ramp-up for the season’s resumption, sources told ESPN.

Teams expect a similar timeline from the league on when they’ll be allowed to expand individual workouts already underway with in-market players to include more team personnel, sources said.

The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The league is discussing a step-by-step plan for a resumption of the season that includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities, and a two- to three-week formal training camp, sources told ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and National Basketball Players Association elders believe commissioner Adam Silver will green-light the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July, sources said.

The NBA is still considering a two-site format for the return of the season, including Orlando’s Walt Disney World and Las Vegas, sources said.

See here for some background. That story was from Thursday. As of Saturday, things had progressed a bit further.

The NBA is going to Disneyworld. Or at least, it hopes to save its season and declare a champion in a single-site scenario outside of Orlando.

In the most public sign yet that the NBA is hopeful that it can resume its 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league has begun exploratory talks with the Walt Disney Company about using its venue in central Florida to hold practices and games without fans present.

“The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing,” Bass said in a statement.

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place.”

The MLS is also looking at Orlando, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility. I don’t know how much that might complicate the logistics, but one presumes they will figure it out. The Chron had reported earlier in the week that the Toyota Center in Houston had been in the discussion as a potential venue, but that is apparently no longer in play. It’s possible the NBA will go straight into a playoff system, or it may play some more regular season games but eliminate the teams with the worst records to limit the number of people required to be there. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

As you know, Major League Baseball has also been working on a season-starting proposal, though in typical fashion the owners are making up claims about financial losses in an attempt to back out of the previous agreement with the players and squeeze them on salaries. I suspect this will get resolved at some point, in which case we may suddenly have a lot of sports coming back to us. Assuming, of course, that there isn’t a big post-reopening spike in infections or other insurmountable obstacle. But if things go as the optimists hope, we could go from no sports to a fairly full slate in a hurry. We’ll see.

Are we headed towards a coronavirus spike?

One set of researchers thinks we may be.

Houston is one of several cities in the South that could see spikes in COVID-19 cases over the next four weeks as restrictions are eased, according to new research that uses cellphone data to track how well people are social distancing.

The updated projection, from PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that traffic to non-essential businesses has jumped especially in Texas and Florida, which have moved aggressively to reopen.

In Harris County, the model predicts the outbreak will grow from about 200 new cases per day to more than 2,000 over the next month.

“Some areas—particularly in the south—that have moved more quickly to reopen are showing a higher risk for resurgence,” the researchers wrote in a blog post. “If people in Houston and Palm Beach, Fla., for example, aren’t being cautious with masking in indoor crowded locations and with hygiene and disinfection, local governments may need to intervene again should they lose control of the epidemic.”

[…]

The PolicyLab research is tracking 389 large counties across the country with active outbreaks. It found that projections are best in places that are relaxing restrictions selectively in areas with fewer cases and less transmission.

“Given these cautious actions by our governments, we have already seen that the predicted resurgence has not occurred in most places that are beginning to reopen—rather, daily cases are either plateauing or falling,” the researchers wrote. “But the picture our models are painting for Texas and Florida provide ample evidence to others who would choose to move too quickly. We see these concerns even as we adjust for additional testing capacity that might have inflated our forecasts.”

See here and here for more on the predictions, and here for an earlier press release about their model. As far as I can tell, their model depends on “social distancing measures, defined by travel to non-essential businesses”. They say their data comes from a variety of publicly-available sources, but that’s about as much detail as I can find. I’m not an expert in any way, so I’m in no position to critique this. Fortunately, Dr. Peter Hotez is an expert, and he shared some thoughts about this in Friday’s Chron.

I understand the importance of opening up the economy. The worry that I have is that we haven’t put in place a public health system — the testing, the contact tracing — that’s commensurate to sustain the economy.

Some models show fairly dire predictions for Houston. I’m referring to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia model that shows that by the summer, if we’re only at about 50% of the social distancing, we’re doing now, Harris County could see a steep surge in the number of patients coming into the hospitals and intensive care units.

It’s a model. It’s only as good as the assumptions that it’s based on, and we know the assumptions are not robust. But it gives me pause for concern that unless we have that health system in place, we could be looking at an epidemic that’s far greater than the one we’ve gone through.

Let’s say we’re opening up as as we are now. The way a surge works is, it’s not as if we’re going to see a gradual increase in cases. The models say things will look good for weeks. At first, it’s a flat curve, then it’s flat, it’s flat, and only after all that do you start seeing a steep, steep increase.

That’s what worries me. In those flat weeks we’ll get this sense of complacency, and then people are going to start going into the bars. Forget about one quarter occupancy in the bars. Poison Girl, on Westheimer, is going to be full. And so are all the other places all across Houston.

So: How do we fix that? I think it’s having a health system that’s larger and more extensive than what’s being proposed. We’re going to have to do extensive testing in the workplace so that you’d know if your colleagues have COVID-19 — especially asymptomatic COVID-19.

The number of contact tracers has to be far greater than the numbers that I’m seeing. Gov. Abbott says that Texas has around 2,000 and plans to hire 2,000 more. But consider that Gov. Cuomo in New York State is hiring 17,000 contact tracers. A state that’s quite a bit smaller is hiring a much larger number.

We also still don’t have that syndromic-monitoring system in place that you and I have talked about — an app that would allow Houstonians to report how they’re feeling, or that would track temperatures, like the Kinsa electronic thermometer app.

We should be bringing in our best engineering minds out of the oil and gas industry, out of NASA, out of the Texas Medical Center to put in place an app-based system — maybe make a hybrid between the kinds of things being put out there by Apple or Google or Kinsa, or the kinds of things they’re doing in Australia. We can design one that works for our culture, works for our system. But we’re not assembling the engineers to put that in place.

We don’t even have an epidemiological model for the city of Houston. There’s one for Dallas, put out by UT Southwestern and the University of Texas. Austin’s put out one. But I haven’t seen one for Houston.

So I’m worried that if people are going to start piling into bars and restaurants, and we don’t see the numbers going up, within a couple of weeks from now, it’ll be business as usual. Everybody will feel good, will be saying, “Hey, I’m not seeing the cases go up.”

And it’s going to really accelerate starting in the fall. This is not only true of Houston; it’s true of cities across the U.S. It would happen right before the 2020 election, so I worry about a lot of instability and how we mitigate that.

So there you have it. Keep it up with the social distancing and staying at home, avoid crowds, and wear a mask. We all have a role to play.

MLS has a plan to start its season

That’s Major League Soccer, and their plan may sound a bit familiar.

With no indications of when it could resume the season in home markets, MLS has proposed placing all 26 teams in the Orlando area this summer and playing competitive matches without spectators at the Disney sports complex and possibly other locations, multiple people familiar with the plan said.

The players, coaches and support staff, numbering more than 1,000, would live under quarantine at one of the large resorts near Disney World for an undetermined length of time, said those people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

Teams would practice and play primarily at ESPN Wide World of Sports, which sits on 220 acres as part of Disney’s massive footprint in central Florida. Disney-owned ESPN is one of MLS’s broadcast partners.

[…]

The league is expected to accelerate plans over the next two weeks and set the framework for resuming a season that, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was shuttered after two weekends.

In jurisdictions where such activities are permitted, several teams have begun voluntary individual workouts, including the Dynamo in Houston. The league has postponed all matches until at least June 8, though the realistic timetable stretches deeper into the summer.

MLS hopes to soon allow players to begin training as part of small groups in local markets, a step the Bundesliga took last month before ramping up operations. The elite German circuit, along with the country’s second division, will resume this weekend with matches played without spectators.

Other European soccer leagues have also made plans to restart their seasons in the coming weeks.

Under its Orlando plan, MLS would welcome teams for workouts and multiple matches per day, which ESPN platforms would carry. It’s unclear whether the league’s other TV partners, Fox Sports and Univision, would show games.

This story came from the Washington Post. This plan is kinda sorta like the original Major League Baseball plan, which would have had all the games played in Arizona; that plan has now morphed into something that would have games played in most league cities. As with MLB, this plan would include games in an empty facility, isolating all the players and other personnel needed for the games – which means they would be away from their families for several months – and regular testing, with some contingency in reserve for if/when there’s a positive test. Money will be an issue, and while the state of Florida is “reopening”, sports facilities like ESPN Wide World of Sports are not yet included in that. So, fair to say, there are still details to iron out. But if you’ve been waiting for news about a sport other than baseball, there you go.

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.

The Arizona/Florida Plan

Let’s call this the MLB Plan 2.0 for playing a season.

Major League Baseball, assessing myriad proposals, has discussed a radical plan that would eliminate the traditional American and National Leagues for 2020, a high-ranking official told USA TODAY Sports, and realign all six divisions for an abbreviated season.

The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the proposal is one of several being discussed.

The plan would have all 30 teams returning to their spring training sites in Florida and Arizona, playing regular-season games only in those two states and without fans in an effort to reduce travel and minimize risks in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The divisions would be realigned based on the geography of their spring training homes.

The plan would allow teams to return to the comforts of their spring training sites for three weeks of training, which would also include exhibition games, before opening the regular season and playing a schedule with wholly different divisional opponents.

[…]

The Arizona-Florida plan has several advantages, including allowing teams to establish home bases with facilities they are familiar with. There would be 26 ballparks available to be used, including three major league domed stadiums – Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, Marlins Park in Miami and Chase Field in Phoenix.

Financially, it could be a huge boon for the TV rights holders. You could have a captive TV audience the entire day. Games in Florida could begin at 11 a.m. ET and still have games in prime-time for East Coast teams and their fans. The time slots still would permit West Coast teams to play prime-time games in Arizona.

Baseball, even with the realignment, could still play 12 games apiece against their new divisional opponents and six games apiece against the other teams in the state. There would be at least one doubleheader a night when all teams are scheduled to play because of the odd number of teams in each state.

The DH would likely be universally implemented as well.

There could still be division winners and wild-card winners, perhaps adding two more wild-card teams to each league, or a postseason tournament with all 30 teams.

The winner of the Cactus League in Arizona would play the winner of the Grapefruit League in Florida for the World Series championship, utilizing the domed stadiums in late November.

See here for the previous, Arizona-only idea.Plan 2.0 followed pretty quickly, which suggests MLB heard the criticisms of that scheme and either had this in its back pocket or came up with it quickly. One potential problem with this idea is that each of the two “leagues” has 15 teams in it, and since there won’t be any travel between Florida and Arizona, that would lead to scheduling challenges. Those challenges can be overcome in a variety of ways, some more conventional than others. Again, we don’t know what’s truly realistic right now, and we don’t know what will actually work in the real world, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to try and figure out something that could work. It costs nothing to brainstorm, and who knows, we might be in a better position than we think. May as well be ready for it if that happens.

Coronavirus and crime

It’s down around the country. Turns out having everyone stay inside has a salutary effect, for the most part.

Crime rates plunged in cities and counties across the U.S. over the second half of March as the coronavirus pandemic drove millions of residents to stay inside their homes.

Police logged dramatically fewer calls for service, crime incidents and arrests in the last two weeks of March than each of the previous six weeks, a USA TODAY analysis of crime data published by 53 law enforcement agencies in two dozen states found. The analysis is among the largest studies measuring the impact of the coronavirus on crime and policing.

Massive drops in traffic and person stops – as much as 92% in some jurisdictions – helped drive sharp declines in drug offenses and DUIs. Thefts and residential burglaries decreased with fewer stores open and homes unoccupied, and some agencies logged fewer assaults and robberies. Bookings into each of nearly two dozen county jails monitored by the news organization fell by at least a quarter since February.

At the same time, calls for domestic disturbances and violence surged by 10% to 30% among many police agencies that contributed data. Several also saw increases in public nuisance complaints such as loud noise from parties. The Baltimore Police Department, for example, received 362 loud-music complaints in the last two weeks of March, nearly matching its total for all of February.

The trends reflect both a purposeful reduction in police activity and officer-initiated stops and the effect of stay-at-home orders that have closed huge swaths of Main Street and pushed people into their homes and out of traditional crime hot spots, such as bars, clubs and social events.

The Marshall Project did a similar look at a smaller number of cities in late March, and this AP report is fresh off the presses, and both saw the same basic thing. DUI arrests are down for the obvious reason that fewer people are driving, but that same decline in driving means a decline in traffic stops, which in turn means a big drop in drug possession busts. Some cities have stopped arresting people for low-level offenses anyway, as a coronavirus risk mitigation. Burglaries are a more interesting case – home burglaries are on the decline since most people are now mostly at home, but more businesses are closed, which does increase the target surface. HPD Chief Art Acevedo claims burglaries of businesses in Houston are up 18.9% – this KTRK story, which is based on the tweet in which Acevedo made that claim, just says “burglaries” are up, which is a misrepresentation of the Chief’s words – but he didn’t provide numbers or a time frame for that. And as the Marshall Project story says, crime can fluctuate quite a bit over a short time span for any number of reasons, so all this should be seen as very preliminary and not necessarily predictive. Let’s see what we’re seeing after another month of staying at home.

One crime that is definitely on the rise, in Houston and around the country, is domestic abuse, including child abuse. A spike in gun sales is unlikely to help with that. Being at home is safe for most of us, but not all of us. For people trapped at home with an abuser, there is no safety and now no escape. I don’t know what to do about that now, but as with so many other things, we need to give it a lot of thought, and more resources, so we are better prepared for the next time.

One more thing:

Many police departments say they are intentionally arresting fewer people to avoid the potential spread of the coronavirus in jails. Police in Delray Beach, Florida, are reducing proactive policing, such as drug busts. In nearby Gainesville, Florida, officers are increasingly issuing summons instead of making arrests for minor offenses, Police chief inspector Jorge Campos said.

“It’s not that we’re not enforcing (the law),” Campos said. “It’s that we’re finding alternative ways of dealing with the issue rather than make physical arrests.”

Huh. What if – stay with me here – we kept on doing that even after the coronavirus pandemic is over? It’s so crazy it just might work.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

Texas is on track to pick up three more Congressional districts

Put an asterisk next to this, as the actual Census will need to bear that out.

The U.S. population continues to shift south and west, according to new Census Bureau data that offers the clearest picture yet of how the 435 congressional seats will be distributed among the 50 states.

The latest numbers, released Monday, represent the final estimates from the government before next year’s decennial Census, which will determine how many House seats and Electoral College votes each state will have for the next decade. That reapportionment, expected in December 2020, will kick off the year-and-a-half-long process of redrawing congressional-district maps — still in many states a brazen partisan battle that makes strange bedfellows, unplanned retirements and intense member-versus-member races, especially in states poised to lose seats.

“The first two years of any decade when districts are drawn produce the whitest knuckles in Congress,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who led House Democrats’ campaign arm in the 2012 cycle. “People are trying to hold onto their seats at all costs.”

According to projections from Election Data Services, a political consulting firm that specializes in redistricting, 17 states are slated to see changes to the sizes of their delegations, including 10 that are forecast to lose a seat beginning in 2022.

The biggest winners appear to be Texas and Florida, which are on track to gain three seats and two seats, respectively, according to the projections. Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and North Carolina are estimated to add one seat, as is Montana, which currently has just one at-large seat.

Meanwhile, 10 states are on track to lose one seat: Rhode Island, West Virginia, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Alabama, Illinois and California, which would drop a House seat for the first time in its 169-year history.

[…]

The looming reapportionment brings into sharper focus the high stakes surrounding the partisan battle for control of state legislatures and the fight to ensure an accurate Census count.

Some states, such as Rhode Island and California, are actively working to avoid an undercount. Other state governments, such as Texas, have not made similar investments.

In his projections, Brace is using the estimates released Monday by the Census Bureau to predict what the states’ populations will be next year, when the Census is taken. Other estimates, which simply apportion House seats according to the 2019 estimates, show smaller gains for Texas and Florida, where the population has been booming year-over-year this decade.

Brace also noted he’s unable to take into account the accuracy of the Census, which will be a major factor in determining the final reapportionment. “We’ve seen it over the decades: Less and less people are likely to participate in the Census,” he said. “That participation rate has gone down each 10 years.”

Moreover, unsuccessful attempts by President Donald Trump and his administration to include a citizenship question on next year’s Census have advocates worried that millions of residents, especially nonwhites, won’t fill out the Census. That could negatively impact the count in heavily Latino states like Texas, where Democrats are plotting a political comeback — if they can get a seat at the table in redistricting.

How we are handling the Census has always seemed like a key aspect of this, but I admit I may be overestimating its impact. The rubber will be meeting the road soon enough, and we’ll have the official verdict in a year’s time. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be tumultuous no matter what happens. Daily Kos has more.

How other states are handling the Census

Better than we’re handling it.

So cities and states with big immigrant populations — like California and New York City — are supplementing the Census Bureau’s efforts like never before, allocating money to outreach groups that can go to communities spooked by the Trump administration’s efforts to identify non-citizens.

  • It’s an effort to coax everyone to fill out a census form, whether they’re in the country legally or not. (And, for the first time, people will be able to do this online.)
  • State, local and neighborhood groups “have the best chance of convincing people who are wary about participating in the census that it is safe,” Terri Ann Lowenthal, who has advised organizations and government associations on Census-related matters, tells Axios.

By the numbers: California is allocating $187 million — nearly 95 times what it did a decade ago, according to The Mercury News — far outspending every other state.

  • New York City has budgeted $40 million to Census outreach — the most ever — and plans to parcel it out to agencies and community-based organizations that will raise awareness about the Census.
  • New York state, meantime, will dedicate $20 million to Census efforts.
  • Utah is setting aside funds for the first time ever — with a big portion of the $1 million being spent to count “a relatively large population of children under 5,” PBS NewsHour reports.
  • Chicago plans to spend $2.3 million — the largest amount of funding the city has ever committed to the census, per the AP.

[…]

States have typically created advisory councils in preparation for the Census, called “Complete Count Commissions.” Those groups are busier and getting more attention now than in previous years.

  • “We’ve never had a context like this,” Beveridge says. “That means the efforts of the Complete Count Commissions are very important this year in areas like Florida, Texas, California and New York which have high number of immigrant households.”
  • Yes, but: Some of those states, including Florida and Texas, have taken no action at all yet. Efforts to bulk up Census outreach have failed to pass in those state’s legislatures.

We are well familiar with Texas’ utter indifference to the 2020 Census. It’s political malpractice, and also sadly par for the course from the state and legislative Republicans. Cities and counties are doing their part, but they deserved help from the state. To me, the best outcome of all this will be for accurate counts in the big urban and suburban areas, and undercounts in the rural areas. If that leads to Texas missing out on a Congressional seat it could and would have had, so much the better. Let there be some consequences for this, which can then be more effectively enforced in 2022. The only way to end bad behavior is for there to be a cost for engaging in it.

Buc-ee’s is going national

The WaPo has a look at our famous highway rest stop’s growing ambitions.

Its fans say few things are more Texas than the chain of massive convenience stores with the disposition of an amusement park. Among its 38 stores, customers can find a whole wall dedicated to Icees. Seasoned nuts are roasted on site, and there’s a homemade fudge bar and a massive beef jerky display. The travel centers can have as many as 120 fueling stations but don’t allow 18-wheelers. And the bathrooms are high-tech and famously pristine.

Its legions of die-hard fans include Cody Esser, who visited 33 Texas stores in three days for his Impulsive Traveler Guy blog. “I’ve traveled all throughout the United States and into Canada, and I’ve never seen anything as big as Buc-ee’s,” he said.

Now hoping to capitalize on the cultlike devotion it has inspired at home, Buc-ee’s is in the midst of a multistate expansion. It recently broke ground in Alabama and soon will have stops in Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and the Carolinas.

“Texans held on for so long until they realized there’s a market elsewhere,” said travel blogger Brandi Perry of Columbia, Miss. “We’re begging for one in Mississippi.”

It’s the reliability that keeps people coming back, said Buc-ee’s general counsel, Jeff Nadalo. They come knowing that each store is “clean, friendly and in stock,” 24/7, no matter what.

Other than a few regional differences — such as a wider selection of fishing gear at Gulf Coast stores — Buc-ee’s is “insanely brand consistent,” Esser said.

“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”

[…]

Buc-ee’s has a strict employee dress code: no visible body piercings or tattoos, “unnatural” dyed hair, open-toed shoes or torn or faded clothing. Employees say they’re expected to arrive not even a minute late (with three strikes, you’re fired); to keep their phones in lockers and only take one break during their shift for a “moment,” which is less than 10 minutes to eat lunch and use the restroom. There isn’t any seating inside Buc-ee’s, which may keep customers cycling through quickly but can be difficult for employees who stand for as many as 10 hours straight.

Full-time employees qualify for health and dental insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and three weeks of vacation. At the Loxley location, Buc-ee’s advertised the starting entry-level salary at $14 an hour — almost twice the state’s minimum wage.

“We want people who are clearly happy to be working there so that comes across to the customer when the customer walks in,” Nadalo said.

A current cashier, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for job security, has worked at a Buc-ee’s store in northeast Texas for a few months but is already looking for a different job. She works full time and says the $13-an-hour pay is higher than most jobs where she lives.

She understood the expectations when she sat for the job interview, she said, but she didn’t realize how strenuous the job would be without being allowed to take a break.

“Until you get in there and experience [it], it just blows your brain,” she said. “You just don’t expect it to be quite so hard-line. You expect some kind of human compassion, I guess.”

She said in-store cameras are used to monitor employees. Signs that read, “Don’t forget who pays you,” are posted behind the register. Managers encourage employees to report one another for infractions. It feels as though they are constantly being watched, she said.

“Going to the bathroom is a hassle,” she said. “I’ve asked sometime to go to the bathroom, and it’s been a couple hours before I’m allowed to go.”

Nadalo disputed the employee’s claim regarding workplace conditions.

“We comply with all state and federal laws regarding breaks,” he said.

See here for more on the opening of the first non-Texas Buc-ee’s, in Alabama. More construction in Alabama, and in Florida, is ongoing. I skipped some bits about the campaign contribution controversy from 2014, and the chain’s remarkable non-presence on social media, which was news to me, to focus on its treatment of employees. Buc-ee’s is justly lauded for its pay, and its benefits package is good, too. For that kind of work, they’re much better than, say, WalMart or an Amazon fulfillment center. Doesn’t mean they couldn’t do better, though, and the reporting above clearly shows that. I hope as they continue to expand, and draw some stronger competition – I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed several other longstanding rest stops on the highways around here upping their game – they continue to improve as a place to work.

2020 DNC update

Houston remains in the running, but who knows how this will go.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is choosing among Houston, Miami and Milwaukee. In recent weeks, some Democrats have privately suggested Milwaukee would get the nod, and a sense of finality set in once the DNC in December paid what were billed as the last visits to each city before a decision was made.

[…]

Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city, has few logistical concerns given its big-event capability put on display as recently as the Super Bowl in 2017.

But Houston must prove it can collect the private financing to put on the convention, according to multiple Democrats with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks candidly. The primary reason for the potential shortfall: Democratic officials asked the bid committee to come up with the money without tapping the oil and gas industry, which has long fueled the city’s economy but has become anathema to the Democratic base as climate change becomes a high-profile issue.

That’s a source of frustration for some Texans.

“Milwaukee’s being funded by Wall Street,” said an exasperated Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, a reference to the corporate money that is always a part of both major parties’ conventions.

Houston also has a lingering labor and wage dispute between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the city’s firefighters. A top Democratic official said the party is loath to risk negative media coverage that could harm a presidential nominee who will be heavily dependent on public- and private-sector organized labor — particularly in key Midwest battleground states that delivered President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

See here for the most recent update. Obviously, I think Houston is the best choice, but the article makes it sound like Milwaukee is the frontrunner. I’ll grant that people from cooler climes will be less likely to melt on the sidewalk there than here, but come on. Just stay inside and use the tunnels, it’ll be fine. Anyway, I’m sure we’ll know soon enough.

Buc-ee’s comes to Alabama

Tomorrow, the world.

Texas road stop institution Buc-ee’s has opened a store in Alabama, its first location outside the Lone Star State.

Despite chilly weather, more than 100 people were lined up outside the Baldwin County store when it opened at 6 a.m. Monday. They were eager to experience a Buc-ee’s supersized gas station and convenience store, renowned for its cartoon beaver logo, clean bathrooms and clever billboards. Some die-hard Buc-ee’s fans drove hours to get to the store opening, said Jeff Nadalo, Buc-ee’s general counsel.

“It was packed and very busy all day,” Nadalo said. “I think a lot of people had heard what Buc-ee’s was about from friends and family who had been and were familiar with the experience.”

The 52,000-square-foot store, in Robertsdale, features 124 fueling stations and the “biggest, most pristine bathrooms the state of Alabama has ever seen,” a Buc-ee’s press release crowed. The store, has a similar layout to the new Buc-ee’s in Katy, except the Alabama location doesn’t have a car wash, Nadalo said.

[…]

Since it was founded in 1982, Buc-ee’s has mostly stuck to its Texas roots, operating 34 stores across the Lone Star State. A couple of years ago, the Lake Jackson company began looking to expand across the southeastern U.S., which shares a similar customer profile to Texas, Nadalo said.

“We’re taking the great experience that is Buc-ee’s to other states,” Nadalo said. “We felt it was something that would work well, certainly in Alabama, and we think it’ll be well-received in Florida.”

We first heard about this almost three years ago, though at the time they were aiming for Louisiana. It’s on I-10, so if you’re driving to Florida (where Buc-ee’s plans future expansions), you’ll see the familiar signs. Less familiar was this:

A lawsuit claims that Buc-ee’s illegally priced gasoline when it opened its first Alabama travel center last month along Interstate 10 in Baldwin County.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Oasis Travel Center LLC, alleges that the Lake Jackson, Texas-based company violated the 35-year-old Alabama Motor Fuel Marketing Act, and demands that the company halt its pricing strategies while the case is pending.

The law, passed in 1984, prohibits big oil companies from selling gasoline to the public for less than it costs to buy and transport it to a retail outlet.

Similar lawsuits, over the years, have been filed in Alabama against big-box retailers like Costco and Murphy Oil Corp., which operates Walmart gas stations.

“We contend Buc-ee’s, when it opened up two weeks ago, it opened at prices for regular unleaded and other grades at below costs as defined under the Alabama law,” said H. Dean Mooty, a Montgomery-based attorney who has represented smaller-sized convenience stores in similar cases.

The lawsuit specifically cites several dates when Buc-ee’s posted a price of regular gasoline under what state law allows. Among the dates cited is Buc-ee’s Jan. 21 opener, when regular gasoline was sold at a rounded price of $1.80 per gallon.

Oops. You really are not in Texas any more, y’all. As for the rest of us, enjoy the beaver nuggets and the clean bathrooms while you can.

SOS walks its advisory back even more

Just rescind the whole damn list and let’s pretend this never happened.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A week after it flagged tens of thousands of voters for citizenship checks, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now advising counties on how to check their lists for naturalized citizens — an indirect acknowledgment that legitimate voters could have been on the list from the beginning.

Those voters are in addition to the more than 20,000 others who should have been removed from the list earlier this week after state officials found they had been mistakenly included.

In a mass email sent to local election officials on Friday, the secretary of state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, offered up additional guidance to counties looking to clear voters from their lists without sending notices demanding proof of citizenship. Among the advice he offered to those election officials “after speaking to a number of counties” was to review registration application files collected at ceremonies in which immigrants become citizens.

“Some county voter registrars or [volunteer deputy registrars] participate in naturalization ceremonies and maintain lists of naturalized citizens or can identify which applications were completed at a naturalization ceremony,” Ingram wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“Like many other election and voter registration activities, we are working together on this,” Ingram wrote in the email. “We thank you for your feedback and continue to welcome any further feedback so that we can work together to ensure an effective and efficient process of maintaining an accurate list of registered voters going forward.”

The additional guidance to counties comes as civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers continue to call on the state to rescind its original advisory to local election officials regarding the voters flagged for citizenship checks, pointing to the errors that have already been discovered in the state’s data.

“We told the SOS what was going to happen, and this week we all saw that what we cautioned against has become true,” Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said on a press call on Friday. “The list is entirely flawed.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Seems like the SOS is doing everything it can to disavow its original advisory without publicly admitting their initial advisory was trash. They also haven’t said whether they’ve given a less-bogus list of names to the AG’s office. They couldn’t have been more incompetent and buffoonish if they’d tried.

And it’s quite clear, they tried.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia had been alarmed by the actions of the Texas secretary of state’s office for days by the time the agency’s chief, David Whitley, walked into the Dallas Democrat’s Capitol office on Monday.

The Friday before, Whitley’s staff had issued a press release calling into question the citizenship of 95,000 registered voters in Texas. In the days since, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers were raising serious questions about whether the majority of people on that list would soon be proven to be eligible voters.

But before those doubts emerged, Whitley, the top election officer in the state, had handed over information about those registered voters to the Texas attorney general, which has the jurisdiction to prosecute them for felony crimes.

So as he sat at the end of his green, glass-topped conference table, Anchia — the chair of the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus — wanted to know: Did Whitley know for sure that any of the names on his list had committed crimes by voting as noncitizens?

“No,” Whitley answered, according to Anchia.

“And I said, ‘Well, isn’t it the protocol that you investigate and, if you find facts, you turn it over to the AG?”

“I do not have an answer for that,” Whitley responded, according to Anchia’s recollection of the Monday meeting.

[…]

The citizenship check effort went public this week, but the seeds for it were planted in 2013. That year, Texas lawmakers quietly passed a law granting the secretary of state’s office access to personal information maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

During legislative hearings at the time, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office, told lawmakers that the information would help his office verify the voter rolls. The state had had a recent misstep when it tried remove dead people from the rolls and ended up sending “potential deceased” notices to Texans who were still alive.

One of the DPS records that the 2013 law granted the secretary of state’s office access to was a list of people who had turned in documentation indicating they weren’t citizens — such as a green card or a work visa — when they obtained a driver’s license or an ID in Texas.

But it appears that the secretary of state’s office held off for years before comparing that list with its list of registered voters. Former Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Republican claims of rampant voter fraud, said he had no memory of even considering using the DPS data when he served from 2015 to 2017.

“I don’t recall it ever coming to my desk,” Cascos said. “I don’t even recall having any informal discussions of that.”

And there was reason to be careful with the “lawful presence list.” Driver’s licenses don’t have to be renewed for several years. In between renewals, Texans aren’t required to notify DPS about a change in citizenship status. That means many of the people on the list could have become citizens and registered to vote without DPS knowing.

Other states learned the hard way that basing similar checks on driver’s license data was risky.

In Florida, officials in 2012 first drew up a list of about 180,000 possible noncitizens. It was later culled to about 2,600 names, but even then that data was found to include errors. Ultimately, only about 85 voters were nixed from the rolls.

Around the same time, officials in Colorado started with a list of 11,805 individuals on the voter rolls who they said were noncitizens when they got their driver’s licenses. In the end, state officials said they had found about 141 noncitizens on the rolls — 35 of whom had a voting history — but those still needed to be verified by local election officials.

But it was under the helm of former Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who took over in 2017, that the state began processing the DPS list. That happened even though at least some people in the office knew the risk. Officials in the secretary of state’s office early last year acknowledged to reporters for The Texas Tribune that similar checks in other states using driver’s license data had run into issues with naturalized citizens. Pablos didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Still, on Dec. 5, Betsy Schonhoff, voter registration manager for the secretary of state’s office, told local officials that her office had been working with DPS “this past year” to “evaluate information regarding individuals identified by DPS to not be citizens.” In a mass email sent to Texas counties — and obtained by the Tribune — Schonhoff informed them that the secretary of state’s office would be obtaining additional information from DPS in monthly files and sending out lists of matches starting in mid-January.

The next day, Pablos announced he would resign after two years in office. In his place, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide who at the time served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Makes you wonder if he saw this coming and hopped off the train while he still could. Texas is in the process of learning the same lesson that Florida and Colorado did. I just have no faith that it will stick, at least as long as the current crew is in charge.

Look out for lionfish

Hey, it’s another destructive invasive species, aided and abetted by climate change.

Scientists battling coral reef deaths caused by warming ocean waters 100 miles off the coast of Galveston might now have another climate change problem to fight in coming decades: a proliferation of zebra-striped lionfish.

Lionfish — brought to the U.S. from their Indo-Pacific home to stock aquariums and later dumped by owners unable to care for the constantly hungry vertebrate — have no known North American predators to stop their spread. As a result, they’ve been decimating reef populations from New York to Florida since the 1980s, arriving at the Gulf of Mexico’s Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 2011.

And a recent study published in the Wilderness & Environmental Medicine journal suggests that venomous creatures like lionfish will become more prevalent as the oceans warm.

”They are the cockroaches of the sea,” said Michelle Johnston, a sanctuary research biologist. “They reproduce every four days and every four days they can release up to 50,000 eggs. Plus, nothing really eats them, they have venomous spines and the native fish are terrified of them.”

[…]

Between 2011 and 2017, researchers have recorded nearly 3,500 lionfish in the [federal Stetson Bank] sanctuary, NOAA stated, though experts believe that number is low.

And just as the lionfish did in household aquariums, they started eating everything in sight. A single lionfish can eat up to 5,000 fish per year, Johnston said.

In the Indo-Pacific, lionfish predators include sharks, grouper, frogfish, large eels and scorpionfish, according to Lionfish Hunters, a group that promotes the removal of lionfish from the Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea and Gulf.

But fish native to the Flower Garden Banks don’t know lionfish are predators, Johnston said, which makes the venomous fish’s food gathering that much easier.

“The lionfish are virtually unchecked” in Flower Gardens, Johnston said. “The ones we’ve collected are extremely large, they’re obese, and some of them have fatty liver disease. They’re eating themselves into oblivion.”

Here’s the NOAA page on lionfish. The Chron article is long and detailed, and one we’ve heard before for other species. Scientists are looking for solutions to control the population so as to minimize the damage these invaders cause. (Turning them into human food is another idea.) In the meantime, if you or someone you know owns an aquarium, don’t add a lionfish to your collection, and if you do then for crying out loud don’t just dump it somewhere if you decide you’re done with it. Let’s at least not add to the problem.

CBS/YouGov: Cruz 44, O’Rourke 36 (RVs)

Time for another poll.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

In Texas’ Senate race, incumbent Republican Ted Cruz has a 10-point lead over Democrat Beto O’Rourke among likely voters. Cruz benefits from strong support from his own party and has an advantage among independents as well. O’Rourke is supported by Democrats, leads with Hispanics and has an edge with women. Cruz performs well with whites and men.

Cruz also has an overall job approval rating of 54 percent in Texas among registered voters, a bit higher than President Trump’s (50 percent) in the state.

On the matter of separating families specifically, both Cruz and O’Rourke get net positive ratings (largely driven by support from their own parties), although three in 10 voters do not have an opinion about O’Rourke on this, as he may be less known to voters than Cruz.

Poll data is here. They also did Arizona and Florida’s Senate races, if those interest you. For the Texas Senate race (question 6), the result from the full 1,025-person sample of registered voters was 44-36 as indicated in the headline. It was in the smaller (821 respondents) “likely voter” group that Cruz was up 50-40. I’m skeptical of likely voter screens at this early point in time, and all of the other poll results I have on the sidebar are for RVs, so for comparison purposes that’s the one I’m going with. The average of the six polls I’m using (all but the WPA one from January 5) now has Cruz at 47.2, with 40.2 for O’Rourke.

Improving how animals are rescued

One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina was the need to rescue pets along with their owners, and to do everything possible to keep them together afterwards. This Texas Monthly story describes how that went with Harvey.

There are a few best practices that became understood in the wake of Katrina: holding animals in the local area for much longer than in the past, ensuring that evacuees had opportunities to find their animals quickly, and sending animals that the organizations were confident were unowned to facilities where they could be adopted effectively. All of that came to bear in the wake of Harvey. “At the Montgomery County Animal Shelter, the warehouse set up as a staging area for bringing in these animals is right next to a Red Cross shelter,” explains Barbara Williamson of Best Friends Animal Society. “There are animals there that are somebody’s pets, and they can come and visit their pets. Post-Hurricane Katrina, if you were to talk to anybody in state disaster response in any state, that’s a priority. The recognition that pets are members of the family, and sometimes they’re the only thing people have left. They got out with their kids and their pets, and the last thing you want is for them to lose that four-footed family member.”

Also crucial is ensuring that families and their pets don’t get separated in the first place. Not all shelters for human evacuees are equipped to take care of pets, which is something that Austin Pets Alive—which found itself spearheading many of the animal-based relief operations around Harvey—stepped in to help with.

Mary Heerwald of Austin Pets Alive said that her organization didn’t know exactly what to expect when they got to Houston a few days after Harvey hit. They had expectations of how they’d be useful, but they quickly learned that the city’s needs were different from what they had imagined. “When we made it down to Houston, we didn’t know what we were walking into. We came with motorized canoes and boats and thought that we’d need to literally rescue animals from the water,” she says. “What we quickly found out was that no one has stepped up yet to figure out what to do with the pets who were being rescued. Once you remove a cat from the top of a car or a dog from a flooding backyard, then what do you do? They still need a chance to live and either find their family, or a safe and happy adoptive home. So we became the accidental spearheads of the pet lifesaving initiative in relation to Hurricane Harvey.”

Here’s the Austin Pets Alive! page for Harvey evacuations. The immediate need has passed, but foster homes for animals whom they hope to adopt out are always in demand. Reach out to them or to Houston Pets Alive! if you want to help.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

[…]

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”

[…]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

Charity Navigator on your best bets for Harvey relief

In case you’re still making up your mind about how to donate to Harvey relief.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday evening, August 25th, as the first Category 4 hurricane to hit the United States since Hurricane Charley in 2004. Ahead of its landfall, many communities were ordered to evacuate, as fears arose that the hurricane could leave some coastal areas uninhabitable. The storm, which intensified over the Gulf of Mexico before hitting Texas and its surrounding states, brought with it heavy rainfall, damaging winds, and a powerful storm surge. It has significantly impacted communities along the Texas coastline, including Houston, as well as other areas along the Gulf with wind and flood damage. Charity Navigator has compiled a list of highly-rated organizations responding in the aftermath of this storm and providing assistance to the people and communities affected by it. Donors can designate their donations to the cause on the organization’s website. However, at this point in time it is not certain that all these organizations will spend 100% of donations received on Hurricane Harvey relief.

If you’re looking for a local charity to support in the wake of Hurricane Harvey please consider Houston SPCAHouston Humane SocietyHouston Food BankFood Bank of Corpus Christi, or San Antonio Humane Society. These highly-rated organizations are located in the most-affected areas and are providing support to individuals and animals.

If you represent a charity interested in being considered for inclusion, please email [email protected] to request a disaster response survey.

Designated donations made from this page will be applied to charity programs per each charity’s designation policies.

This Chron story pointed to the Charity Navigator resource. There are a number of good options on that page, so go check it out. While you’re there, you might as well go ahead and check out the similar page for Hurricane Irma relief, because we’re unfortunately going to need it. For more local charity choices, this story has a photo essay of possibilities. And finally, there’s this:

All the living former U.S. presidents are joining together in an online campaign to raise money for those affected by Hurricane Harvey and the floods it caused along the Texas coast.

Called the OneAmericaAppeal, the campaign follows in the footsteps of a series of successful disaster relief efforts undertaken on behalf of the victims of the tsunami in southeast Asia, the earthquake in Haiti, and hurricanes Katrina and Ike.

Those efforts involved Bill Clinton and both George W. and George H.W. Bush. The new campaign, which is solely an online appeal, also includes Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

[…]

The idea for the joint appeal arose from discussions between George H.W. Bush and his son, both of whom live in Texas, but was immediately embraced by Clinton, Carter and Obama, said Jim McGrath, spokesman for the elder Bush.

“All five living presidents have come together, and they have done so because of what was taking place during and after Harvey,” McGrath said. “With the unprecedented intensity of the storm, the heroic response of the first responders and volunteers, and all the people from all over rallying to help them, it was not a hard sell.”

Go to www.oneamericaappeal.org to donate. All funds are earmarked for Texas, so you can reach beyond Houston if you wish. They will also consider expanding to Florida if needed, as we likely will.

CBS/YouGov: Trump 46, Clinton 43

Texas is being tracked as a battleground state. I can’t even believe I just typed that.

Hillary Clinton holds a three-point lead over Donald Trump in Florida, while in Texas – a state that has voted Republican by wide margins in recent years – Trump leads by a mere three points.

[…]

In 2012 Republicans won a double-digit victory in Texas, as they often do; it’s one of the most reliably Republican states in the nation. Today Texas is close, and is more a story of Trump underperforming rather than Clinton over-performing typical Democrats, and why despite the tightness it may still be difficult for the Democrats to actually get those last points and win the state outright. Clinton is doing about as well with key groups as President Obama did in 2008, but Trump is under-performing the Republican benchmarks by roughly ten points among white men, white women, and college whites in particular. Many of those not with Trump are unsure or voting third-party rather than Clinton.

In 2008 then-candidate Obama lost white men in Texas by more than fifty points and Clinton is down 35 points today. That’s still a big gap but the sheer number of voters that represents is part of the reason for the difference in the race. Meanwhile, Hispanics in Texas, who are supporting Clinton, say they feel very motivated to vote this year.

Scroll down for the polling data. Much of what is there is stuff we have talked about before. Clinton has consolidated Democratic voters better than Trump has done with Republicans. 93% of Dems are with Clinton, with four percent for Trump, one percent for Gary Johnson, and one percent for “someone else”, while only 84% of Rs are voting Trump, with 7% for Clinton, 5% for Johnson, and 2% for “someone else”. Clinton leads among all voters under 45, with a 21-point lead with the under-30 crowd. Trump as noted isn’t doing as well among white voters as Republicans have done in the past, but he is once again weirdly above 30% with Latino voters. I continue to believe those results are off, and that we’ll see numbers more in line with national Latino preferences once we have actual data. But look, the big deal here is that Texas is being tracked as a Florida-like battleground state. Who would have thunk it?

On a side note, Real Clear Politics has Trump leading Clinton 44.2 to 39.6 in the two-way race and 43.6 to 38.8 in the four-way race, while FiveThirtyEight has it at Trump 49.1, Clinton 43.9. That would be the highest total for a Democrat in a Presidential race in Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976.

Still asking for Zika help

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Following reports of the first local mosquito-borne Zika infections in the U.S., Mayor Sylvester Turner is once again calling on the state of Texas and federal government to provide financial assistance to help fight it.

“There are already 14 confirmed cases of Zika virus being transmitted locally in Florida,” said Mayor Turner. “I believe it is just a matter of time before Texas is in a similar situation. Cities are the front line of defense in this battle, and we could use some financial assistance from the state and federal governments. It makes no sense to wait until there is an outbreak here.”

Since February, the City of Houston Solid Waste Department has been conducting weekend sweeps of illegal dump sites that can serve as mosquito breeding grounds. To date, 3,433 tons of debris and 29,130 tires have been hauled away at an annual cost of $3.6 million. With some additional state or federal funding, the City could purchase new equipment to increase collection frequency beyond the weekends, develop and distribute educational materials informing residents of proper and free disposal options and establish three additional heavy trash drop-off locations.

Last week, the Houston Health Department was awarded $1.5 million by the Centers for Disease Control to use for surveillance, testing and prevention. The City is already in discussion with Harris County on the best way to maximize the use of these dollars.

Houston has documented 12 travel-associated cases of Zika virus infection since the start of the outbreak in Latin America earlier this year. Harris County has confirmed another 12 cases – 11 are travel related and one is an infant with microcephaly born to a mother who contracted the virus while traveling outside the United State. There are a total of 80 confirmed Zika cases in Texas. At this time, there is no evidence the virus has infected mosquito populations in the state.

In addition to the neighborhood trash sweeps, the City has public service announcements at the airports, on public transit, in city water bills and on local TV. The health department is going door-to-door to distribute insect repellent in underserved neighborhoods, and the City’s regional public health laboratory is supporting local hospitals and clinics with Zika infection testing.

Residents are encouraged to follow the three Ds of mosquito defense: drain, dress, DEET! Drain standing water on your property and keep hedges trimmed. Wear long pants and long sleeves, keep windows and screens repaired and use air conditioning. When outside, spray exposed skin with mosquito repellant containing DEET, reapply as necessary and use netting to protect babies in strollers or car seats.

This is not the first time Mayor Turner has asked for this help. I doubt the Republican-controlled Congress is any more interested in taking action now than it was then, but it can’t hurt to ask. Better to keep expectations low, though.

The Florida-Trump U plot thickens

Oops.

Florida’s attorney general personally solicited a political contribution from Donald Trump around the same time her office deliberated joining an investigation of alleged fraud at Trump University and its affiliates

The new disclosure from Attorney General Pam Bondi’s spokesman to The Associated Press on Monday provides additional details around the unusual circumstances of Trump’s $25,000 donation to Bondi. After the money came in, Bondi’s office nixed suing Trump.

The money came from a Trump family foundation in apparent violation of rules surrounding political activities by charities. A political group backing Bondi’s re-election, called And Justice for All, reported receiving the check Sept. 17, 2013 — four days after Bondi publicly announced she was considering joining a New York state probe of Trump University’s activities.

Marc Reichelderfer, a political consultant who worked for Bondi’s re-election effort and fielded questions on the donation at her request, told AP that Bondi spoke with Trump “several weeks” before her office publicly announced it was deliberating whether to join a multi-state lawsuit proposed by New York’s Democratic attorney general. Reichelfelder said Bondi was unaware of dozens of consumer complaints received by her office about Trump University filed before she requested the donation.

“The process took at least several weeks, from the time they spoke to the time they received the contribution,” Reichelderfer told AP.

The timing of the donation by Trump is notable because the now presumptive Republican presidential nominee has said he expected and received favors from politicians to whom he gave money.

“When I want something I get it,” the presumptive Republican nominee said at an Iowa rally in January. “When I call, they kiss my ass. It’s true.”

Now, nowhere in this story is there a mention of Texas. As we have learned, the Texas AG investigation into Trump University was finished in 2010, and Trump wrote a check to Greg Abbott for his gubernatorial campaign in 2013. As far as we know, Texas was not considering joining the lawsuit mentioned in this story – it rather boggles the mind to imagine Greg Abbott signing off on joining a lawsuit led by the Attorney General of New York, on any matter – so the fact of Trump’s contribution is not terribly interesting on its own. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything left to learn about the Trump U story in Texas, and the fact that the AG’s office now seems intent on shutting down any questions about the 2010 investigation leads one to wonder what else there could be lurking out there. The answer may well be that there is nothing – the decision to end the 2010 probe was surely political, but it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. All I’m saying is there’s no reason to take Greg Abbott or Ken Paxton’s word for it. So keep digging. And ask Abbott about Trump and all the horrible things he’s been saying, too. There’s a story for you. Slate and Daily Kos have more.

The Donald is spurring people to register to vote

Just another data point for your consideration.

Registration among Hispanic voters is skyrocketing in a presidential election cycle dominated by Donald Trump and loud GOP cries to close the border.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials, projects 13.1 million Hispanics will vote nationwide in 2016, compared to 11.2 million in 2012 and 9.7 million in 2008.

Many of those new Hispanic voters are also expected to vote against Trump if he is the Republican nominee, something that appears much more likely after the front-runner’s sweeping primary victories Tuesday in five East Coast states.

[…]

Many of the newly registered Hispanic voters are in California and Texas, relatively safe states for Democrats and Republicans, respectively.

In fact, because so many Hispanic voters live in those states, the effect of the rising registration numbers will be somewhat undercut, according to Vargas.

Still, rising registration rates among Hispanics in Colorado, Florida and Nevada could make it easier for the Democratic candidate to retain those swing states. Even Arizona could be in play, say some poll watchers.

Registration is a game-changer with Hispanic voters.

Only about 48 percent of eligible Hispanics vote, but nearly 80 percent of registered Hispanics go to the ballot box.

Emphasis mine. The story is primarily about swing states, because this sort of story always is, but as you know it’s the effect on Texas that interests me. Here’s a subsequent Chron story that adds a local angle.

Across the nation, non-profits say they are registering Hispanics and helping residents become citizens at faster rates than ever before, many of them mobilized by a desire to vote against the billionaire developer.

“That’s the No. 1 name that comes up all the time,” said Claudia Ortega-Hogue, vice president of the Houston-area League of Women Voters. “There is fear, and there is anger.”

Since last summer, when Trump first referred to Mexicans as criminals, Ortega-Hogue said her organization began registering more than 80 percent of new citizens at naturalization ceremonies compared to the 60 percent that is average. Many have long held green cards but told volunteers they naturalized now to vote against Trump. The process, from turning in an application to the final swearing-in ceremony, takes about six months, making May crunch time for those seeking to participate in November.

“The comments that Trump has made has really increased the numbers of people wanting to be involved,” Ortega-Hogue said.

Average monthly citizenship applications across the country spiked nearly 15 percent to about 64,800 between August and January, the most recent government data available, compared to the same period the year before. In Texas, some 66,000 immigrants became citizens in 2015, about a quarter more than in the previous year.

[…]

In the past, volunteers had to approach people and “almost twist their arms” for them to sign up to vote, said Carlos Duarte, who oversees Texas for Mi Familia Vota, a national group focused on boosting Latino voter registration.

“What is different now is that people approach us,” Duarte said. “They would always make these comments, and it was very heavily a reaction against Donald Trump.”

[…]

A sizeable Hispanic push could impact down-ballot elections, particularly in Harris County, which has the country’s largest Latino population after Los Angeles, more than 1.9 million.

The county went to President Barack Obama in 2012 by only some 970 votes, and for the first time in over three decades now leans majority-Democratic, according to a survey last month by Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.

Tellingly, most of that pickup for Democrats is among Latino respondents who are eligible but not registered to vote, said the report’s author, Stephen Klineberg.

Mobilizing these and other Hispanics could imperil two dozen Republican judges in the county and more than 50 around the state, as well as the Harris County District Attorney and sheriff, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

“With Trump’s track record thus far of making statements portraying immigrants as racists and murderers and building a wall, it’s a ready-made campaign commercial against him for Univision,” Jones said. “Trump on the ballot could really be serious trouble for Harris County Republicans.”

It could also hurt a few Republican legislators in strong Hispanic districts in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, including Gilbert Peña in Pasadena. And it might add a Democratic congressional seat in the 23rd district, which is currently represented by Republican Will Hurd and stretches from San Antonio to the Mexican border.

See here for more on the Houston Area Survey. I’ve written about this before, so add this to the collection. I will be very interested to see what voter registration numbers look like when they come out. Anything that Democrats can do to abet those efforts will be well worth it.

“Prison gerrymandering” tossed by federal court

Noted for the record.

go_to_jail

The Federal District Court for Florida’s Northern District ruled Monday that the prison gerrymandering in Florida’s Jefferson County unconstitutionally dilutes the voting power of its residents. By packing inmates who can’t vote into a district, but counting them when drawing electoral maps, District Judge Mark Walker said the county had violated the “one person, one vote” principle in the Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s attorney, Nancy Abudu, argued the case on behalf of Jefferson County residents who felt the prison gerrymandering watered down the strength of their political power by unfairly stacking the deck for residents who live in the same district as the non-voting prisoners.

“If I want to get a road fixed, if I want a law changed, if I want more impact on a school board member or county commissioner, I have more power because my representative has to deal with fewer people,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s about access and the ability to influence, and making sure officials are responsive to their electorate.”

Abudu emphasized that not only do the inmates in Jefferson County lack the right to vote, the vast majority are not residents of the county, but were arrested in other parts of the state and shipped hundreds of miles away to serve their sentence.

According to the ACLU, of the nearly 1,200 inmates in the correctional center, only nine were convicted in Jefferson County. Yet the inmates make up a whopping 43 percent of the voting age population in District 3. “It skews the numbers so dramatically in this instance,” Abudu told ThinkProgress.

This may or may not have an effect in Texas at some point, but it is an issue that has come up in the Legislature before. Most Texas prisons are in lightly-populated rural areas, and an awful lot of prisoners come from big urban counties like Harris and Dallas, but as in Florida they count towards the population of those rural counties, where they neither reside or can vote. That does skew how districts are drawn, mostly at the State Rep level since those are the smallest ones. Harold Dutton has championed this issue in the Lege in past years, and I’m sure he’ll be back at it again. I don’t think the effect is that much, and unless SCOTUS eventually upholds this ruling (or a lawsuit is filed and successfully litigated here) it won’t affect Texas, but this is out there and it may mean something to us one of these days. Daily Kos has more.

Donald Trump is making more citizens

He’s good for something.

Over all, naturalization applications increased by 11 percent in the 2015 fiscal year over the year before, and jumped 14 percent during the six months ending in January, according to federal figures. The pace is picking up by the week, advocates say, and they estimate applications could approach one million in 2016, about 200,000 more than the average in recent years.

While naturalizations generally rise during presidential election years, Mr. Trump provided an extra boost this year. He began his campaign in June describing Mexicans as drug-traffickers and rapists. His pledge to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it has been a regular applause line. He has vowed to create a deportation force to expel the estimated 11 million immigrants here illegally, evoking mass roundups of the 1950s.

Among 8.8 million legal residents eligible to naturalize, about 2.7 million are Mexicans, the largest national group, federal figures show. But after decades of low naturalization rates, only 36 percent of eligible Mexicans have become citizens, while 68 percent of all other immigrants have done so, according to the Pew Research Center.

[…]

This year immigrants seeking to become citizens can find extra help from nonprofit groups and even from the White House. Last September, President Obama opened a national campaign to galvanize legal residents to take the step. They can now pay the fee, $680, with a credit card, and practice the civics test online. They can get applications at “citizenship corners” in public libraries in many states.

The White House recruited Fernando Valenzuela, the legendary Mexican-born pitcher who naturalized only last year, and José Andrés, the Spanish-American chef, to make encouraging advertisements and to turn up at swearing-in ceremonies. On Presidents’ Day, administration officials swore in more than 20,000 new citizens. On Wednesday the administration announced $10 million in grants to groups guiding immigrants through the process.

A majority of Latinos are Democrats, and some Republicans accuse the White House of leading a thinly veiled effort to expand the ranks of the president’s party. But administration officials argue the campaign is nonpartisan, noting that immigrants who become citizens improve their incomes and chances for homeownership.

“I certainly don’t care what party they register with; I just want them to become citizens,” said Leon Rodriguez, director of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency in charge of naturalizations.

Aside from Colorado, naturalization drives are taking place in Nevada and Florida, states likely to be fiercely contested in November where Latino voters could provide a crucial margin. One nonprofit group, the New Americans Campaign, plans to complete 1,500 applications at a session in the Marlins Park baseball stadium in Miami on March 19.

Great idea. In general, encouraging green card holders to go through the naturalization process is a good thing. I just hope we’re doing some of this here in Texas.

Texas plans to sue over EPA’s latest clean air plan

So what else is new?

ERCOT

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Tuesday that he plans to sue the Obama administration over the proposed “Clean Power Plan,” its plan to combat climate change by slashing carbon emissions from power plants.

“Texas has proven we can improve air quality without damaging our economy or Texans’ pocketbooks,” the Republican said in a statement, claiming the rules would threaten the power grid and increase electric prices. “I will fight this ill-conceived effort that threatens the livelihood and quality of life of all Texans.”

Using those arguments over the past year, the state’s Republican leadership has loudly panned the proposal, which would require the state to cut close to 200 billion pounds of carbon dioxide in the next two decades however it sees fit.

Environmental and health advocates say limiting the greenhouse gas would help fight climate change, bolster public health and conserve water in parched Texas, and they suggest that opponents are exaggerating the economic burdens.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency suggests that Texas could meet its goal through a combination of actions: making coal plants more efficient, switching to cleaner-burning natural gas, adding more renewable resources and bolstering energy efficiency. Under the proposal, Texas could also adopt a “cap and trade” program – a scheme in which companies bid on the right to pollute.

The federal proposal is scheduled to become final in June, and Texas would have one year to submit its plan. But some watching the debate expect the EPA to push back the deadline amid pressure from states and other critics.

If Texas ignores the rules, the EPA will construct its own plan for Texas, though the agency has not said what that might look like. Democrats and others call that approach risky and suggest it would beckon more stringent requirements.

Bills that would direct Texas regulators to adopt a plan are nearing their death in the Legislature.

Fossil fuel interests and 15 U.S. states – not including Texas – have sued the EPA over the proposed rules in a case heard last week in federal court. Judges appeared skeptical of a challenge to rules that haven’t been finalized.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have to say, if Paxton managed to deliver that line about Texas improving its air quality on its own with a straight face, it will be the most impressive thing he ever does in office. Texas has fought the EPA multiple times in recent years with little to show for it, with another fight currently before the Supreme Court. Doesn’t mean they’ll lose this time, but it does give one some hope. It would of course be cheaper and easier and better for everyone if they would give up this fight and adopt rules that the state is already most of the way towards meeting anyway, but like most things in life that comes down to winning elections, and we know how that has gone around here.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the idea of the EPA wielding power over Texas, you won’t like this, either.

Texas appears poised to enact environmental legislation that could trigger an unintended consequence: more federal oversight.

Fast-moving bills that would curb opportunities for public protest so state environmental permits can be issued more quickly have drawn the attention of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, long the state’s political punching bag.

The agency says it has concerns about the legislation, and may need to review whether it jeopardizes permitting authority the EPA has granted Texas.

Senate Bill 709 would scale back contested case hearings, a process that allows the public to challenge industrial applications for permits at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) — such as those allowing wastewater discharges or air pollution.

Similar versions of the bill pushed by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, have sailed through the House and Senate, rankling consumer and environmental groups.

[…]

The EPA says it shares concerns about the bill, which would overhaul the hearings process in a variety of ways. It would give the agency sole discretion to determine who is an “affected person” who could ask for a hearing; set an 180-day time limit for the proceedings (with potential exceptions); narrow the issues the public could argue; and arguably shift the burden of proof from the company to the public.

“EPA is concerned that as currently drafted, [the legislation] could be read to impact the applicability of federal requirements to federal permitting programs being implemented by the TCEQ,” David Gray, director of external affairs for the EPA’s Dallas-based regional office, recently wrote to Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, who had asked for input.

Gray called the shift in the “burden of proof” as particularly problematic, adding that the EPA should review the legislation to ensure that it doesn’t “interfere with federal requirements or alter the basis for one or more program requirements.”

See here for the background. It’s like we can’t help ourselves sometimes, isn’t it?

And finally, on a related note:

Kansas and Texas will file amicus briefs supporting Florida in its lawsuit against the federal government over Medicaid expansion, Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday.

Scott filed suit last week, alleging that the federal government is “coercing” the state into accepting Medicaid expansion by witholding the extension of a different Medicaid program. The Low Income Pool brings $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state to pay hospitals for care for the poor and uninsured and is set to expire June 30.

“I am glad Kansas and Texas are joining our fight against the Obama Administration for attempting to coerce Florida into Obamacare expansion by ending an existing federal healthcare program and telling us to expand Medicaid instead. The US Supreme Court has already called this sort of coercion tactic illegal,” Scott said in a released statement.

In granting a one-year extension last year, federal officials stated they would not extend it again without significant changes. A recent letter from federal officials to the state clearly suggested the fate of LIP was tied to Medicaid expansion but officials with the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services have also said Florida is free to expand Medicaid or not as it wishes.

See here for the background. Daily Kos has characterized the Florida lawsuit as being about refusing federal Obamacare dollars while demanding federal non-Obamacare dollars, which strikes me as apt. Easy to see why it was irresistible to Texas to join in. Ed Kilgore has more.

No, seriously, expand Medicaid or else

Bring. It. On.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The federal government is officially holding state leaders’ feet to the fire, hoping to get Texas to expand its Medicaid program to provide health insurance to more low-income Texans.

Federal officials called the state’s health agency this week to say that Texas’ reluctance to expand Medicaid — a key tenet of President Obama’s signature health law — will play into whether his administration extends a waiver that helps the state’s hospitals cover uninsured patients.

The development follows news from Florida, where a similar tug-of-war is playing out between the federal government and a Republican-controlled statehouse that opposes Obamacare but hopes to renew billions of dollars in hospital funding. This week, federal officials sent a letter to Florida lawmakers that said Medicaid expansion “would reduce uncompensated care in the state,” making it “an important consideration in our approach regarding extending” the state’s hospital waiver.

Linda Edwards Gockel, a spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, confirmed Friday that federal health officials called the Texas agency Thursday afternoon to relay a similar message.

Officials from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “said they recognize each state is different, but they intend to use the same three principles outlined in their letter to Florida as they evaluate uncompensated care funding pools in all states,” Edwards Gockel said in an email. “We don’t have more details than that at this point.”

Tom Banning, chief executive of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and an advocate for Medicaid expansion, said in an email that the call “should be a wake up.” Annually, Texas hospitals receive billions of dollars combined by way of the federal “transformation waiver.” Losing that money “will have a crippling effect throughout Texas,” Banning added.

The Texas hospitals waiver runs through September 2016, but the 2015 legislative session is the last chance for state lawmakers to negotiate a renewal before then. The current session is slated to wrap up on June 1, barring a governor-called special session.

Estimates for the value of that waiver vary. The Texas Hospital Association, which supports some form of Medicaid coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act, estimates the waiver’s five-year value at $29 billion.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, the feds are similarly putting the screws to Florida. There’s basically zero chance that anything will get passed this session – Sen. Rodney Ellis tried to get a Medicaid expansion amendment through during the budget debate and failed, while Greg Abbott is holding firm and whining about how mean the feds are being to him – so it’s just a matter of whether the feds follow through in 2016 and if enough pressure can be brought to change things in 2017. Anyone want to place a bet on that? The only semi-retired Burka has more.

Financing the high speed rail line

A long story in the Trib about Texas Central High-Speed Railway and its ambitious Dallas to Houston rail line. It’s a good primer if you haven’t been paying close attention to the story and want to cover all the basics. A couple of points:

Central Japan Railway Co., also known as J.R. Central, sees a huge opportunity for exporting its technology to America, where the busiest passenger rail line takes about seven hours to slog the 400 miles between Washington and Boston.

Today, there are only three significant high-speed rail projects in advanced development in the U.S. — in Texas, Florida and California. At some point during the early planning of all three ventures, J.R. Central offered to sell its trains to those states but only found sure footing in Texas. The Texas project, led by a private local company working with J.R. Central, is by far the most ambitious.

Texas Central High-Speed Railway is promising to connect Houston and Dallas with the fastest trains at 205 mph, developed on a relatively snappy timeline with little support from taxpayers. By contrast, the California train will be heavily subsidized and take years longer to develop. Texas Central Railway has set a 2021 target date for beginning operations while the California line isn’t expected to connect Los Angeles to San Francisco until 2029. In Florida, a privately funded project could begin service between Miami and West Palm Beach as early as 2016 but is projected to be the slowest of the three, traveling at less than 100 mph through some areas, and run on a congested century-old right-of-way, including a portion that will run on a converted freight line.

Texas Central officials have said the project will be privately funded and not require any public funding to subsidize its operational costs. If the private financing can be secured, the Houston-Dallas connection would be the fastest high-speed rail line in the nation and among the first successful private passenger rail projects in recent American history. It would essentially be the modern Sun Belt’s first new intercity passenger rail line of any sort in over a decade. If successful, it could mark a turning point in the urbanization of the U.S., and a high-profile rebuff to more progressive coastal cities that have struggled to modernize transit systems with the high-speed technology that has already reshaped Asia and Europe.

The Texas project would also be a huge feather in J.R. Central’s conductor’s cap. The company is about to start construction in Japan on a nearly unsubsidized cutting-edge maglev — short for magnetic levitation — train line, connecting three major metropolitan areas and powered by electromagnetic propulsion rather than a fossil-fuel-powered engine. Yet much more expansion is unlikely in Japan, where low population growth means less demand for new infrastructure. To keep growing, the company must look abroad.

As the Texas proposal has drawn more attention, supporters are framing it as a key opportunity for the state to burnish a reputation as a trendsetter on the national stage.

“As Texans, we take great pride in blazing a path for the rest of the country to follow,” the mayors of Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth wrote in a letter endorsing the project in April. “This project will do just that.”

Over the last year, officials with Texas Central have traveled around the state, touting their plan to profitably ferry passengers from Houston to Dallas in 90 minutes or less, with as many as 34 trips a day in each direction. In explaining their confidence that the plan will become reality, Texas Central officials have pointed to the state’s regulatory framework, which Gov. Rick Perry often proclaims as more predictable and less burdensome than those in other states. Texas also has a history of embracing the private sector for infrastructure projects, particularly toll roads.

The best-known of those projects, a privately financed, 41-mile stretch of State Highway 130 in Austin that sports an 85 mph speed limit, the fastest in the country, technically defaulted on its debt in July, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Yeah, maybe not the ideal association for this project.

While Texas Central knows where it won’t get the money for its train lines, it’s less clear where it will get the needed backing. Texas Central Railway says it intends to raise most of the money in the U.S., but so far, its ability to draw the billions of dollars in investment is merely speculative.

The experience of All Aboard Florida could be instructive. The company is in the process of cutting a number of land deals with various levels of government for stations and transit-oriented developments around them, and has won a commitment from the state to build its terminal at Orlando International Airport. The Texas project is expected to follow a similar approach to development, though company officials have already nixed the idea of developing stations at airports.

Just recently, All Aboard Florida took its biggest step yet to realizing its passenger project, one that Texas Central will eventually have to emulate: It sold $405 million in debt to private investors to finance the initial South Florida leg, from Miami to Fort Lauderdale.

All Aboard Florida offered investors a 12 percent annual return on the five-year bonds. The high-yield offering sold quickly, surprising observers who predicted investors would be scared off by the fact that All Aboard will have no cash flow until the railway is operating, which won’t be for at least another two years. But while the success of the sale could bode well for Texas Central, the projects could also be received very differently. In its coverage of the All Aboard bond sale, Reuters reported that private investors were attracted to the project in part because it involves repurposing and expanding an existing freight railway and doesn’t require as much higher-risk, ground-up construction as the Texas project. Another draw for investors, Reuters reported, was the possibility of government financing down the line, again something that the Texas project doesn’t offer.

This is not the first time a private firm has attempted to build a high-speed rail line in Texas. Back in the late 1980s, two European-backed firms were competing to win a state franchise to connect the so-called Texas triangle of Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines waged an aggressive campaign against the awarding of the franchise, arguing that it would force the carrier to severely scale back its operations in Texas. State officials ultimately granted French-backed Texas TGV a franchise, only to see the company give up on the project after failing to come up with enough capital.

This time around, Southwest Airlines has said it is neutral on the Texas Central Railway project. Eckels and airline industry experts have predicted that the airline will maintain its neutrality, as Southwest has diversified its business enough that it would not likely view a high-speed rail project as a threat to its business.

Hard to know what to make of the past history here. This project is different in many ways, and there really isn’t a good analogy for it. I’m a fan of this project and I’m rooting for them to succeed, but I find myself a little queasy at the animosity that exists, mostly on the Republican side, for public financing of rail projects, and increasingly of any non-road-oriented transit project at all. That’s not TCR’s responsibility, it’s just another unfortunate sign of the debasement of Republican politics. Other than a change in attitude from that side, I suppose the best thing that could happen would be for TCR to be a big success and be the starting point for additions, extensions, and connections that will be part of the public investment in infrastructure. We’re going to solve our problems by doing things that work, not by doing what we insist is the only thing that can work.