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Greg Abbott

What is the point of this Matthew McConaughey poll?

I have questions about this.

Matthew McConaughey commands more support to be Texas’ next governor than incumbent Greg Abbott, according to a poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.

However, the film actor and political newcomer could hit potholes in either major party’s primary if he enters next year’s governor’s race, the poll found.

For months, McConaughey has teased political pundits and TV talk show hosts with musings that he might enter politics in his home state.

If he were to take the plunge and run for governor, the poll found, 45% of Texas registered voters would vote for McConaughey, 33% would vote for Abbott and 22% would vote for someone else.

McConaughey’s double-digit lead over the two-term Republican incumbent is significant. The poll, conducted April 6-13, surveyed 1,126 registered voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.92 percentage points.

But 56% of Republican voters said they’d vote for Abbott, compared with only 30% for McConaughey.

While Democrats broke 66% to 8% for McConaughey, and independents 44% to 28%, more than twice as many Democratic primary voters — 51% — said they wanted a progressive candidate for governor than wanted a centrist — 25%.

That could pose a problem. McConaughey, who has criticized both major parties, has suggested he’s more of a moderate.

And in the GOP gubernatorial primary, that’s also not obviously a ticket to success. Solid majorities of poll respondents who described themselves as conservative, evangelical or retirement-age Republican primary voters said they’d vote for Abbott.

[…]

Jason Stanford, who managed the campaign of second-place finisher and Democrat Chris Bell in the 2006 gubernatorial race, said McConaughey poses no threat to Abbott.

“There doesn’t appear to be a huge groundswell of discontent for Abbott,” Stanford said. Once McConaughey declares as a Democrat or Republican, reality will set in with Texas voters, he added.

“If you ID as a Democrat or a Republican, you’re going to get different answers about him in polls,” Stanford said. “He’s fun, but once you put him in a political context, things will change.”

Poll details can be found here. There’s some issues and approval polling that I’ll get to in a separate post and which is actually kind of interesting, but as for the Abbott/McConaughey question, the only thing you need to read is what Jason Sanford said, because he’s 100% correct.

The first problem with this poll question is in the question itself, which is worded as follows: “Matthew McConaughey has been talked about as a potential candidate for Governor of Texas. If he ran, would you be likely to support him more than Governor Abbott?” Do you see what’s missing in that question? It’s any mention of what (if any) party McConaughey would be claiming. If he’s running as a Democrat against Abbott, then there’s no way in hell he gets 30% of Republicans to support him. Even getting ten percent would be seismic and likely enough to win, but we can’t tell what kind of actual crossover appeal he might have because the question is asked without that piece of information, leaving the respondent to assume that this is some theoretical, non-partisan race. You know, the kind that we don’t have for state elections.

If McConaughey were to run as an independent, then this would need to be polled as a three-way race, because the Democrats would surely have a candidate as well. One could possibly imagine a scenario in which McConaughey mounted an independent campaign and the Texas Democratic Party decided as a tactical matter to support him, the way Dems have supported independent candidates for Senate or Governor in Maine and Kansas and Alaska in recent years. The problem with that scenario is that while McConaughey could announce his independent candidacy now and start staffing up for it, he can’t begin the petition process to get on the ballot until after the primary election, or after the primary runoff if there was one for Governor, and there’s nothing to stop someone from filing to run as a Democrat in the primary in the meantime. Any Democratic nominee, whether a candidate who might be viable against Abbott on their own or a more marginal type who still has appeal to some part of the Democratic base, will draw enough support to make an independent far less competitive in the general. To put it another way, it’s extremely unlikely Matthew McConaughey gets 66% of the Democratic vote in a three-way race.

Maybe I’m wrong about these assertions. You could ask again and name McConaughey as the Democratic nominee, and see how much Republican support he gets. You could also ask about a three-way race that features Abbott and McConaughey and an actual, named Democrat. And if you’re going to do that, why not also ask the horse-race question about just Abbott and that same Dem? Why not ask the Abbott-versus-Beto and/or Abbott-versus-Julian question, which would allow a comparison to McConaughey as a Dem, then ask again with McConaughey in there as an independent? We all understand that at this point in the calendar all these questions are mostly for funsies, but with some useful information in there if you know how to look for it. At least the Abbott/Beto or Abbott/Julian questions would give a data point about whether Dems have any cause to feel optimistic or not, and the three-way race question might tell us something about how much Republican support for Abbott is softer than it looks. Any of it would tell us more than the actual question did.

And of course, if McConaughey were to run against Abbott in a Republican primary, then asking this question in a sample that includes more non-Republicans than Republicans is going to give you a nonsense answer. Point being, if I haven’t beaten it to a sufficiently bloody pulp yet, identifying McConaughey’s partisan affiliation in this question matters. Not including it makes this whole exercise useless for anything that blog fodder and Twitter posts. Which they got, so mission accomplished.

One more thing, before I end this post and write the other one about approvals and issues polling: For some reason, the sample – which as before is partly phone and partly web panel, and all made up of registered voters – voted in the 2020 Presidential election as follows:

Trump – 36%
Biden – 32%
Other – 1%
Did not vote – 30%
Refused to say – 1%

If you’re thinking that’s an awfully large “did not vote” percentage, consider how the sample from their March poll answered the same question:

Trump – 43%
Biden – 38%
Other – 4%
Did not vote – 11%
Refused to say – 4%

Why so different? I have no idea. Why do we think we can draw reasonable conclusions from a poll sample that includes such a large number of people who didn’t vote in the highest turnout election in Texas history? Again, I have no idea. To be sure, the 2022 election will have smaller turnout, and an RV sample is all that makes sense at this time. But maybe weighting the sample a bit more towards actual voters might make any projections about the next election more accurate.

We are still managing to avoid a new COVID surge

It’s good news, whatever the reason for it may be.

More than a month has passed since Gov. Greg Abbott ended virtually all statewide restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Nationwide, new coronavirus cases are on the rise as new variants of the virus spread. And about four-fifths of Texans are not yet fully vaccinated.

But at least for now, the most dire predictions of a new major wave of cases in Texas have not come true, prompting a mix of theories from public health experts.

Those experts caution that a major increase in cases could still come and it may still be too early to tell whether Abbott’s decisions to lift the statewide mask mandate and allow businesses to fully reopen could prompt a new wave of infections. Still, daily new cases and the positivity rate have leveled off over the past month, while deaths and hospitalization have gone down substantially.

Experts point out that vaccination is ramping up, many businesses are still requiring masks and there are unique factors impacting individual metrics — like a drop in demand for testing that is driving down raw case numbers.

They also emphasize that, especially at this point in the pandemic, a stabilization of such metrics, or even a modest decline, is not exactly cause for celebration.

“I think we could’ve been even lower at this point in time,” if not for Abbott’s latest decisions, said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, an infectious disease specialist at UTHealth’s McGovern Medical School in Houston. “The fact that we’re sort of stable is not necessarily good news — because we’re stable at a very high level. It’s like everybody saying you’re at a stable cruising speed — but at 100 miles per hour.”

Abbott’s decision to end most statewide restrictions went into effect 35 days ago, on March 10. The seven-day average for daily new confirmed cases was 3,020 on that day; it was 2,456 on Tuesday. The seven-day average of the state’s positivity rate — the ratio of cases to tests — was 6.24% on March 10; it was 5.89% on Monday. (The latest positivity-rate figures are considered preliminary and subject to recalculation as more test results come in from the date in question.)

Deaths and hospitalizations, which lag new cases, have seen steeper drops since March 10. The seven-day average of new daily deaths was 187 on March 10; it was 64 on Tuesday. There were 4,556 Texans hospitalized with the virus on March 10; there were 3,002 on Tuesday.

The four key metrics are way down from peaks earlier in the year, when the state was seeing daily new caseloads approaching 20,000, a positivity rate that went above 20%, hospitalizations that topped 14,000 and weeks of more than 300 deaths per day.

Like I said, it’s good news, and you should click over and look at the charts, which are a harrowing reminder of how bad it has been in past months. I continue to believe that the reason the numbers haven’t ticked back up is that enough people are staying masked up. We have some limited public opinion data to suggest that, but beyond that it’s mostly my own observations, which are not on a particularly representative sample of the population. Warmer weather, which allows for outdoor activities, may be helping, and in the end we may just be lucky. Whatever the case, let’s hope it continues.

And before you ask, no, we are nowhere near herd immunity. Given the continued resistance to getting vaccinated from large swaths of Republicans, getting there will be a challenge. Prioritizing older folks for the vaccine has no doubt helped reduce the hospitalization and death totals, and that’s no small thing, but we have to deliver a lot more shots into arms because we can begin to think about easing up on that.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

More on the corporate response to voter suppression

It’s an encouraging start, but there’s an obvious next step that has so far not been mentioned.

With Republicans in Texas and other states continuing to advance restrictive election legislation, corporate chieftains around the country have stepped up their efforts in recent days to oppose such laws and defend voting rights.

Two prominent Black executives are enlisting major corporations to sign a new statement opposing “discriminatory legislation,” and PayPal and Twilio said Monday that they had agreed to add their names. Google, Netflix, BlackRock and Ford Motor will also sign, according to people familiar with the situation. Other companies were in discussions to do so, two people familiar with the deliberations said.

A group of major law firms formed a coalition “to challenge voter suppression legislation.”

And a film starring Will Smith and financed by Apple pulled its production out of Georgia on Monday in protest of the state’s new voting law, a warning shot to other legislatures.

“Corporations are always reticent to get engaged in partisan battling,” said Richard A. Gephardt, a Democrat and former House majority leader who is in conversation with corporate leaders about their responses. “But this is about whether we’re going to protect the democracy. If you lose the democracy, you lose capitalism.”

[…]

The Texas bills were central to a discussion on Saturday afternoon when more than 100 corporate leaders met on Zoom to discuss what, if anything, they should do to shape the debate around voting rights.

Several on the call, which was organized by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale professor who regularly gathers executives to discuss politics, spoke forcefully about the need for companies to use their clout to oppose new state legislation that would make it harder to vote.

Mia Mends, the chief administrative officer at Sodexo, who is Black and based in Houston, called on the other executives to focus their energies in Texas, and said she was doing the same.

“One of the things I’m doing this week is getting on the phone with many of our leaders to say: ‘We need you to take a stand. We need your company to take a stand,’” Ms. Mends said in a later interview. “And that means not just saying we support voting rights, but to talk concretely about what we need, what we’d like to see change in the bill.”

[…]

Like Georgia, Texas is an important state for big business, with companies and their employees drawn in part by tax incentives and the promise of affordable real estate. Several Silicon Valley companies have moved to Texas or expanded their presence there in recent years.

Apple plans to open a $1 billion campus in Austin next year, and produces some of its high-end computers at a plant in the area.

In December, Hewlett Packard Enterprise announced that it would move its headquarters from California to the Houston area, while the software company Oracle said it would take its headquarters to Austin. And last month, Elon Musk issued a plea on Twitter for engineers to move to Texas and take jobs at SpaceX, his aerospace company.

Mr. Musk’s other companies, Tesla and the Boring Company, have also expanded their presences in the state in recent months.

None of those companies have so far voiced opposition to the Texas legislation. And at least for now, there is little indication that the growing outcry from big business is changing Republicans’ priorities.

“Texas is the next one up,” said one chief executive who attended the Zoom meeting but asked to remain anonymous. “Whether the business commitments will have a meaningful impact there, we’ll see.”

Again, all of this is encouraging, and unlike Georgia this has all happened before the bad bills have been passed, which allows for the possibility (however slim) that they may not be. Before I get to what’s missing, there’s another group that has gotten engaged in the fight: big law firms.

Some 60 major law firms are uniting around an effort “to challenge voter suppression legislation and to support national legislation to protect voting rights and increase voter participation,” Brad Karp, chairman of the heavyweight law firm Paul Weiss, told The New York Times.

Though the group has not been formally announced, Karp promised it would “emphatically denounce legislative efforts to make voting harder, not easier, for all eligible voters, by imposing unnecessary obstacles and barriers on the right to vote.”

The firms are teaming up with the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit organization that has been tracking Republican legislation across the country, to strategize about which laws to file legal challenges against.

“We plan to challenge any election law that would impose unnecessary barriers on the right to vote and that would disenfranchise underrepresented groups in our country,” Karp said. As one might expect, that includes the Georgia law, which has invited a flurry of fallout already for both the state and the Republican lawmakers who passed it.

Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center, told the Times the coalition of law firms put lawmakers “on notice” that unconstitutional and legally flawed laws will almost certainly result in legal pushback.

“This is beyond the pale,” Waldman said of the GOP suppression laws. “You’re hearing that from the business community and you’re hearing it from the legal community.”

That’s from the same story. It’s great that there’s a promise of vigorous litigation as needed, but we’ll have to see how the courts respond. For obvious reasons, there’s no reason to believe that SCOTUS will take an expansive view of voting rights.

Which brings me back to the thing that’s not yet in any of these conversations, and that’s consequences. It’s great to see this resistance to what Georgia has done and what Texas is attempting to do, though there remain some holes in the fabric. (Per Daily Kos, HP has since issued a strong statement against the Texas voter suppression bills, so good for them. Apple and Elon Musk, you’re on the clock.) But what happens if and when Texas goes ahead and passes its bill? What other than some Hollywood productions not filming in Georgia happens there? If at the end, when Greg Abbott signs SB7 or HB6 into law, does everyone shrug their shoulders, say “well, we did our best, let’s hope the lawyers can do better than we did”, and go home? Because if that does happen, then frankly most of this will have been a waste of time.

I’ve said this a million times now, but the only message that these Republican lawmakers will ever respond to is losing elections. If there isn’t some level of commitment to vote Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick (and Brian Kemp) and as many of the complicit legislators as possible out of office, then the lesson they will learn is that this kind of response is basically a kabuki dance, with no real action behind it. If everyone who is enacting these anti-democratic laws is still in power in 2023 or 2025, then there’s not only no incentive for them to change their ways, there’s plenty of incentive for them to keep on keeping on.

So thank you for speaking up now. It does matter, and it is needed. But in the end, it can’t just be talk. If these bills get passed anyway, there needs to be action. I’d like to hear some talk about that now, too, so we’re all clear on that point. Axios has more.

UPDATE: Janice McNair, controlling owner of the Houston Texans and widow of GOP mega-donor Bob McNair, has signed on to the big corporate “stop voter suppression” team. Good for her.

First attempt to redefine the governor’s powers in an emergency

I’m still conflicted about this.

The Texas Senate backed a potential constitutional amendment Tuesday that would substantially rein in the power of the governor during emergencies like this past year’s coronavirus pandemic.

Texas voters would have to approve the amendment Nov. 2 for it to take effect. And before it could get on a ballot, the Senate action must still be approved by the House.

The amendment would require the governor to call a special session in order to declare a state emergency that lasts more than 30 days. The special session would give lawmakers the chance to terminate or adjust executive actions taken by the governor, or pass new laws related to the disaster or emergency.

The Legislature did not meet last year as the pandemic swept the state, so Gov. Greg Abbott addressed the largely unprecedented situation with executive orders and declarations spanning several months, citing the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

Abbott issued what essentially amounted to a statewide shutdown order last year, and he kept in place some level of capacity limitations for businesses until early March of this year. In July, he mandated that Texans wear masks in public. He also used executive authority to lift other state regulations to help businesses struggling during the pandemic, such as allowing restaurants to sell groceries and mixed drinks to go.

But many state lawmakers say the Legislature should be the government body to make decisions that affect businesses and livelihood of Texans.

“Early on, people understood [business closures] because they’re like, ‘we don’t know what this is,’” Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said on the Senate floor. But as the pandemic and business closures wore on, Birdwell said the anger grew as the mandates continued.

Birdwell said if the governor believes the situation is dire enough that businesses need to close, then he needs to get the Legislature involved.

[…]

“I don’t see this Legislature being able to convene fast enough to answer … in the kind of disasters I have seen and expect the state to see in the future,” said Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who used to serve as Travis County judge.

Meanwhile, a priority bill filed in the House would carve out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters.

That bill, HB 3, has not yet made it out of committee, but would allow the governor to suspend state laws and require local jurisdictions to get approval from the secretary of state before altering voting procedures during a pandemic.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, previously told the Texas Tribune that the proposal was meant as a starting point to map out responses in the event of another pandemic.

“HB 3 was trying to set structures, predicting the disaster or the emergency,” Birdwell said. “What I did was set a baseline…It is impossible to predict the disaster.”

As I’ve said before, I think the Legislature should have a say in these matters, and that calling a special session last year would have cleared some things up and maybe prevented a lawsuit or two. I think Sen. Birdwell’s proposed resolution is more or less okay, though I don’t trust his motives and I agree with Sen. Eckhardt about the Lege’s lack of ability to move quickly in times of crisis. Hell, unless we’re willing to allow a Zoom legislative session, having that special session I mentioned could have been a superspreader event. HB3 is completely off the rails – again with the fixation on preventing counties from making it easier to vote – so if I had to choose between the two I’d take the Senate’s version, but I’m a very qualified and uncertain supporter. The system we had now wasn’t great. My fear is that we’ll make it worse.

It was worse in Harris County during the freeze

Very interesting.

Harris County residents were far more likely to have lost electricity and water during February’s winter storm and blackout crisis than residents of other Texas counties, a survey by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs found.

The findings may help explain why Harris County residents account for a third of the almost 200 deaths so far attributed to the storm, while only accounting for 16 percent of the state’s population. Most froze to death in their homes or while exposed to the elements, succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning or died when medical devices failed without electricity.

“During the week of the winter storm, Harris County residents were significantly more likely than other Texans to lose electrical power, lose internet service, lose access to drinkable water, be without running water, lose cell phone service, have food spoil, suffer economic damages, and experience difficulty finding a plumber,” the survey authors wrote.

Ninety-one percent of Harris County survey respondents said they lost power during the blackouts, compared to 64 percent of respondents from the other 212 counties on the state’s main power grid. Asked if they had lost water, 65 percent of Harris County residents said yes, compared to 44 percent of those in other counties. Thirty-eight percent of local respondents said they suffered burst pipes.

On average, Harris County respondents were without electricity for 49 total hours and 39 consecutive hours, confirming that the outages were not rotating as the grid operator, ERCOT, had hoped. CenterPoint Energy, the Houston area’s electricity distributor, said during the crisis it could not rotate blackouts because the drop in available power to distribute was so severe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 72 percent of Harris County respondents said they somewhat or strongly disagreed that the power outages were distributed in an equitable manner.

[…]

The survey also measured how Harris County respondents rated the performance of government officials and entities during the storm. President Joe Biden and County Judge Lina Hidalgo scored the highest, with more than 45 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly approving of their handling of the crisis.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state government as a whole were rated poorly, with about 21 percent somewhat or strongly approving of their performance. ERCOT polled the worst, with 78 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disapproving of the power grid operator’s performance.

The survey found broad support among Harris County residents who identify as Republicans, Democrats and independents for a series of reforms. More than 70 percent of these respondents said they supported requiring the electric grid and natural gas pipelines to fully winterize and giving the Public Utilities Commission greater oversight over the electric grid.

Fifty-three percent of respondents, however, said they were unwilling to have higher utility bills to ensure the grid is better-prepared for severe weather.

The landing page for this poll is here. The data for Harris County is here and for the state as a whole is here. The poll was done via a webpanel, with a sample of 1500 adults in total, and an oversample of 513 adults in Harris County. Note that as before, the partisan makeup of the sample is more Democratic than it would be if we were talking about registered voters. In Harris County, it was 38% Democrats, 36% Independents, and 18% Republicans, and statewide it was 32% Dem, 30% Independent, and 25% Republican. I sent an inquiry about that, and was told that among those who reported voting in the 2020 election, Trump won by a 51-47 margin, not far off from the actual 52-46 spread. In other words, if there’s a Democratic skew it’s among the non-voters.

I say all that up front because there were approval ratings in the polls, at least for how the freeze was handled. For the statewide sample:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 15%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 15%, somewhat disapprove 10%, strong disapprove 38%
Your County Judge: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 26%, somewhat disapprove 7%, strong disapprove 16%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 14%, somewhat approve 14%, neutral 27%, somewhat disapprove 8%, strong disapprove 17%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 21%, somewhat approve 11%, neutral 21%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 32%

And for Harris County:

Governor Greg Abbott: Strong approve 12%, somewhat approve 9%, neutral 17%, somewhat disapprove 9%, strong disapprove 47%
County Judge Lina Hidalgo: Strong approve 35%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 18%
Your Mayor: Strong approve 27%, somewhat approve 19%, neutral 19%, somewhat disapprove 6%, strong disapprove 19%
President Joe Biden: Strong approve 36%, somewhat approve 13%, neutral 20%, somewhat disapprove 5%, strong disapprove 19%

Again, bear in mind the partisan breakdown of the sample. There’s a lot more to the polls, and a separate set of questions about lifting COVID-19 restrictions that I’ll write about separately, so go check it out.

Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

For more than a year, the federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used that pot of stimulus funds as Congress intended: buying personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for kids learning from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission and covering other costs.

But in Texas, local schools have yet to see an extra dime from the more than $19 billion in federal stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus bill last year, officials used the state’s $1.3 billion education share to fill other holes in the state budget, leaving public schools with few additional resources to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Now, educators and advocacy groups worry that the state could do the same thing with the remaining $17.9 billion in funding for Texas public schools from the other two stimulus packages. Because of federal requirements, Texas has to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.

“Principals’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, with tutoring, with trying to get kids back engaged, while the Legislature is sitting on a whole bunch of money,” said Michelle Smith, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not just this school year, but for several school years to come.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.

Because of the state’s waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C., or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.

Libby Cohen, the director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the most recent stimulus package also includes guidance on how to use that money. Texas and New York are the only two states that have provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic, according to Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX.

“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”

Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now, and want the Legislature to start funneling the federal funds to school districts as soon as possible.

But state lawmakers holding the most power over budgeting and education funding want the Legislature, instead of local school districts, to decide what to do with these federal stimulus dollars.

“The federal funds will ultimately get to school districts but the overriding question is how should these funds be spent and who should make that decision?” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary obligation for educating Texas children vests in the Legislature according to the Texas Constitution.”

I can accept that the Legislature should have oversight of this process, but I don’t accept that they must play the part of approving each allocation. All that does is put a bottleneck on things, at a time when the schools need the funds now. More to the point, it’s not even clear that it will be the Lege making these decisions:

I see even less point to that. There’s a lot of money at stake, not all for the schools, and it makes sense to want to ensure it’s being spent for its intended purposes. But it doesn’t make sense to sit on it and take a lot of time figuring that out, because that money is needed now, especially the money for schools and students.

One more thing to consider: Rising property values, which have fueled an increase in local property tax revenues, have already been used by the Legislature to pay for other things.

Because of the way public schools are funded, a rise in local property tax revenue means the state doesn’t have to send as much money to local school districts. The schools would get the same amount as before — it’s not a budget cut — but the money that might have come from the state comes instead from local school property taxes.

This year, that amounts to $5.5 billion — most of it from property value increases. About 21% of that amount — $1.2 billion — comes from what the Legislative Budget Board called “lower-than-anticipated Average Daily Attendance rates, increased non-General Revenue Funds revenues, and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.”

In plain language, that’s a drop in the average number of students that school funding is based on, money that comes from sources other than state taxes and money from the first round of federal COVID-19 relief.

That last one is a sore spot for local officials, who see the state skimming from a pot of money that was supposed to go to public education. Here’s how that scam works: The money is still going to public education, but the amount the state would have sent is being reduced by the same amount, freeing the state to use money it would have used on schools on some other part of government.

The budgeteers’ word for that is “supplanting” — instead of getting the state money that was coming to them, with the federal money on top, the schools get the same amount of money they’d have received without any federal aid.

Give the schools their money already. There’s no more time to waste. The Chron has more.

Show me your vaccine papers!

Wiat, wrong papers. Forget I just said that.

Gov. Greg Abbot issued an executive order early Tuesday banning state agencies from requiring “vaccine passports” to enter public spaces or receive public services.

The passports, either digital or printed, would verify that a person has been fully immunized against COVID-19 and allow people to more freely travel and shop.

So far, they only exist in a limited capacity in New York. Still, the passports have emerged as the latest subject of political clashes over the virus, with GOP politicians decrying the passes as an infringement on individual rights.

“Government should not require any Texan to show proof of vaccination and reveal private health information just to go about their daily lives,” Abbott said in a news release. “We will continue to vaccinate more Texans and protect public health — and we will do so without treading on Texans’ personal freedoms.”

“Unless you want to get an abortion or cast a vote, in which case we’ll be all up in your grill,” he did not say. I’m not going to waste your time on this silliness, but I will leave you these two items to ponder:

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Parents sue Katy ISD over its mask mandate

Someday, these dumb stories will stop happening. Others will replace them, to be sure, but this type of dumb story will eventually fade away.

A group of parents are suing the Katy Independent School District, calling its continued requirement for masks in schools unconstitutional and a violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order from last month that lifted the statewide mask mandate, among other COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a Houston attorney for parents Bonnie Anderson, Jenny Alexander, Doug Alexander, Heather Calhoun and Stephen Calhoun, takes issue with the district’s current safety protocols for in-person schooling, specifically its requirement that students wear masks in hallways, buses, and other common areas.

When Abbott announced his executive order, he did not address the ways rescinding the mask mandate affected public schools. In a later interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Abbott said he expected the Texas Education Agency to leave the decision to require masks up to local school boards.

The agency’s updated mask policy has allowed “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy,” according to its website. In public planning guidance, the agency also recommends the use of masks.

Under Katy ISD’s policies, students who don’t comply with the mask policy will be moved to online school and aren’t allowed to participate in other student activities. Those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask must notify the school nurse and have documentation from their medical provider, according to the policy.

The lawsuit also argues under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education that forcing students to switch to virtual school is a form of “separate but equal” discrimination.

The Supreme Court case’s ruling focused on segregation between Black and white students in public schools and discrimination on the basis of race.

[…]

Katy ISD responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it is complying with the agency’s public planning recommendations.

“Katy ISD continues to follow the Governor’s Executive Order GA-34 and comply with the Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Planning Guidance,” said the statement, obtained by Fox 26 Houston.

If you guessed that only Jared Woodfill would be dumb and obnoxious enough to cite Brown v Board of Education as a precedent for this silly lawsuit, congratulations. You don’t win a prize but you do get to live with the knowledge that you are familiar enough with Jared Woodfill to recognize his handiwork. It sure seems to me like this lawsuit is unlikely to win, but the part of my brain that tries to make sense of the world around me is convinced there must be some merit to this, however hard it may be to find. I don’t think my analysis can get any deeper than that, so let’s wrap this up. The Chron has more.

Leave me out of the ballgame

What a snowflake.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced he would not throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events, citing the league’s decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

In a letter to a top Texas Rangers executive, Abbott said he had been “looking forward to” tossing out the first pitch “— until [MLB] adopted what has turned out to be a false narrative about the election law reforms in Georgia.”

“It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” Abbott said, adding that he “will not participate in an event held by MLB, and the state will not seek to host the All-Star Game or any other MLB special events.”

Oh, boo hoo hoo. If Greg Abbott can’t take a little political criticism then we’re all better off if he just stays home and pouts. Maybe he just doesn’t want to take a chance on getting booed, like a certain former president at the 2019 World Series. Whatever the case, there’s one clear winner here:

As the first commenter notes, this teacher gets to throw out the first pitch and avoid a photo of with Abbott. Now that’s a day at the ballpark.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

Is Beto running for Governor or not?

Nothing has changed. Please back away from any ledges you may be approaching.

Beto O’Rourke

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has not ruled out a run for governor after all.

Earlier Friday, The Dallas Morning News published remarks O’Rourke made on an upcoming morning program that roused the Texas political class and suggested he no longer was interested in running for governor.

“I’ve got no plans to run, and I’m very focused on the things that I’m lucky enough to do right now — organizing, registering voters and teaching,” O’Rourke said on NBC DFW’s “Lone Star Politics,” which will air Sunday. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing now.”

The O’Rourke camp then quickly reached out to The Texas Tribune to clarify his sentiment.

“What I said today is what I’ve been saying for months: I’m not currently considering a run for office,” he said in a statement. “I’m focused on what I’m doing now (teaching and organizing.) Nothing’s changed and nothing I said would preclude me from considering a run in the future.”

The El Paso Democrat flirted with a run earlier this year when he said in an interview that running against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was “something I’m going to think about.” Last month, he stoked more rumors of his interest in the seat when he reemerged as an organizing force amid the Texas winter storm.

[…]

O’Rourke suggested suggested Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins as other potential gubernatorial candidates in the television interview. Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro is another oft-mentioned potential contender, and Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey is also publicly mulling a run.

“My plan right now is to run for reelection,” Hidalgo told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith on his “Point of Order” podcast last month. Asked if she would rule out running for something else in 2022, she said, “I wouldn’t say it’s something that I’m actively pursuing right now.”

I first heard about this little kerfuffle on Friday afternoon when I saw this tweet:

I admit my first thought was “ah, crap, now who do we need to pin some hopes on?” I belong to a Facebook group called “Beto O’Rourke for Governor of Texas” (*) and cruised over there to see what the freakout looked like, but didn’t see any postings related to this. Maybe the news hadn’t crossed from one social network to the other yet, I thought, or maybe everyone was just in denial. And not too long later I saw the updated Trib story, and realized that it was all a nothingburger. We are exactly where we were on Friday morning, when Beto was sort of acting like someone who might be a candidate but hadn’t said anything committal one way or the other. So for those of you who might have seen the initial news but not the later update, here you go. You may now resume your previous feelings about this subject.

(*) I remain on Team Julián, but will be perfectly happy with Beto. If there is a “Julián Castro for Governor of Texas” Facebook group, I have not been invited to join it yet.

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

Assault on abortion advances in Senate

I have four things to say about this.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Monday to a half-dozen bills that would restrict access to abortion, including a priority measure that could ban abortions before many women know they are pregnant.

The measures are among the earliest bills to be debated by the full Senate — whose presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has given two abortion proposals top billing this session. Each piece of legislation must be voted on again in the upper chamber and then go through a similar process in the House before becoming law.

Senate Bill 8 would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which can be as early as six weeks, according to a legislative analysis. The bill has an exception for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.

The bill would also let anyone in Texas sue an abortion provider if they believe they violated state laws, regardless of whether they had a connection to someone who had an abortion or to the provider. A person who knowingly “aids or abets” others getting abortions prohibited under state law could also be hit with lawsuits, according to a bill draft.

“We’re setting loose an army of people to go sue somebody under a bill that will likely be held unconstitutional,” state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said. “They could be sued over and over and over again having to pay $10,000” which is the minimum proposed damages in the bill.

Similar “heartbeat bills” have been passed in other states but have been blocked by the courts.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the lead author of SB 8, said unique legal language in the bill makes him believe it will be upheld. It’s intended to “protect our most vulnerable Texans when the heartbeat is present,” he said.

Senate Bill 9, another Patrick priority, would bar nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision or otherwise altered abortion laws. It would create a possible fine of $100,000 for doctors who perform abortions after the law goes into effect. Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said the fine for sexual assault in Texas has a $10,000 maximum.

Other legislation given initial approval Monday would bar later-term abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities — closing what the bill’s authors have likened to a “loophole” and forcing people to carry ill-fated or unviable pregnancies to term, according to experts and advocates. Women in that situation would be provided with information about perinatal palliative care, or support services, which they may not have been aware of, the bill’s author said.

Another bill, Senate Bill 394, would bar pill-induced abortions after seven weeks. Guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of abortion pills up to 10 weeks. Nearly 40% of abortions performed on Texas residents in 2019 were medication-induced, according to state statistics.

1. I’m sure the anti-choice wingnuts are delighted by all this, but I wonder if any of them have ever said to themselves “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve had total control over the state government in Texas for 20 year. Why are we just getting all of this now, after all this time?” I doubt they have that level of self-awareness, however.

2. Most if not all of this would have been clearly illegal following the Whole Women’s Health ruling, but thanks to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and John Roberts’ controlling opinion in the Louisiana case where a nearly identical law that had been struck down was tried again, most of the teeth from Whole Women’s Health were blunted, if not extracted. I have no idea what the courts will do under the newer ruling, but let’s just say I’m not optimistic.

3. The law that would allow basically anyone to sue any abortion provider for any reason is going to be a real rainmaker for a certain type of lawyer in this state. The odds that at least one such lawyer will end up running an elaborate grift based on this and eventually get busted for it are basically 100%.

4. In theory, federal legislation could overrule much of this, but there’s basically zero chance of that happening in the current Congress. As is so often the case, the real long-term remedy is Democratic control of Texas’s government. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna be easy. The starter agenda for when we finally get that is getting longer and longer.

The Chron and the Signal have more.

Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Astros aim for half-full

To start out with.

The Astros are expanding their previously planned attendance numbers at Minute Maid Park to start the regular season but will not exceed 50 percent capacity during April, senior vice president for communication and marketing Anita Sehgal said on Monday.

Single-game tickets are scheduled to go on sale Wednesday for 14 home games in April, including the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s and the return of former manager A.J. Hinch with the Detroit Tigers from April 12-14.

Season-ticket holders had until March 18 to choose one of four options the ballclub presented them earlier this month in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to reopen the state. On the day Abbott’s executive order took effect, the Texas Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open at 100 percent capacity for opening day on April 1.

Before Abbott allowed all businesses to perform at 100 percent capacity, the Astros were preparing to start the regular season at around 25 percent capacity — 10 to 12,000 people — at the 41,168-seat stadium. Earlier this month, Sehgal said the Astros “were not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park to 100 percent capacity in April.

On Monday, Sehgal said “generally, about half” of the season-ticket holders opted to remain in their seats, where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. For April games, season-ticket holders had the option of remaining in their seats, relocating to a socially-distanced section in the ballpark, pausing their accounts or donating their tickets to front-line workers.

“It didn’t have a significant impact, it just validated our plan,” Sehgal said of the season-ticket holder response. “Our plan has always been to ensure we were responsible and to ensure we had an enjoyable and safe experience. Their response sort of helped validate that we didn’t want to exceed 50 percent capacity (in April).”

[…]

Even if April weather is ideal enough for the Astros to open Minute Maid Park’s retractable roof, the team is comfortable closing it despite the ongoing pandemic. Outdoor air is pumped into the ballpark even when the roof is closed, allaying any concern about a large gathering in an indoor facility.

See here for the background. It doesn’t matter to me because I have no plans at this time to attend large gatherings, but I would have counseled the Astros to keep the roof open as much as possible if the weather permitted. Maybe that’s a false sense of security, since the real risk is in the concourses, especially during entry and exit, but I’d still want to minimize where I could. I’ll be waiting till most of the people in attendance will have been vaxxed. We’ll see if there are enough people to make this higher attendance limit a relevant concern.

It’s Voter Suppression Week in the Senate

Delayed by a day, but that won’t stop anything.

Republican lawmakers in Texas are attempting to cement more bricks into the wall they hope will shield their hold on power from the state’s changing electorate.

After more than 20 years in firm control, the GOP is seeing its dominance of Texas politics slowly slip away, with some once reliable suburbs following big cities into the Democratic party’s fold.

This legislative session, Republicans are staging a sweeping legislative campaign to further tighten the state’s already restrictive voting rules and raise new barriers for some voters, clamping down in particular on local efforts to make voting easier.

If legislation they have introduced passes, future elections in Texas will look something like this: Voters with disabilities will be required to prove they can’t make it to the polls before they can get mail-in ballots. County election officials won’t be able to keep polling places open late to give voters like shift workers more time to cast their ballots. Partisan poll watchers will be allowed to record voters who receive help filling out their ballots at a polling place. Drive-thru voting would be outlawed. And local election officials may be forbidden from encouraging Texans to fill out applications to vote by mail, even if they meet the state’s strict eligibility rules.

Those provisions are in a Senate priority bill that was set to receive its first committee airing Monday, but Democrats delayed its consideration by invoking a rule that requires more public notice before the legislation is heard. Senate Bill 7 is part of a broader package of proposals to constrain local initiatives widening voter access in urban areas, made up largely by people of color, that favor Democrats.

The wave of new restrictions would crash up against an emerging Texas electorate that every election cycle includes more and more younger voters and voters of color. They risk compounding the hurdles marginalized people already face making themselves heard at the ballot box.

“I think Texans should be really frustrated with their politicians, because it is so obvious that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to put itself in a place where its people are safe with all the challenges we could be expecting to be facing in the modern era, and instead they’re figuring out how to stay in power,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which is analyzing and tracking proposed voting restrictions across the country.

“Their manipulation has got a shelf life, and I think that’s part of the reason why they’re so desperate to do it right now because they see the end. They see what’s coming down the road for them.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have a whole lot to add to what I’ve already said, but it occurs to me that the Republicans may be underestimating how much of a negative effect this will have on their own voters, at least their own voters in high-population areas. Plenty of Republicans vote by mail, and the boost that Republicans got in Latino areas last year came primarily from low-propensity voters, who are exactly the kind of people that will be affected by further restrictions on when and where to vote. They obviously think they will profit from all this, and I certainly may just be whistling past the graveyard, but Democratic voters have shown a lot of resilience in recent years, and these bills are based on lies and the hurt feelings of one particular person. Maybe they’re shooting themselves in the foot here. It sure would be nice to think so, anyway.

We have a poll that says people oppose more voting restrictions

A good sign, just remember our mantra about polls.

As state Republicans push to restrict voting, a new poll shows a majority of Texans want more time to vote early and do not approve of threatening voters or those who assist them with felony charges for violations.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have highlighted combating voter fraud as a top priority this session, but the poll found 66 percent said they don’t believe significant fraud occurred in the 2020 presidential election. Republican officeholders largely held their own in Texas last year even as Joe Biden fared better than any Democratic presidential candidate in decades.

“Overwhelmingly, 97 percent of Texans said they had a good experience with the election, so it’s really a little confusing about why we’re looking at restricting ballot access … and moreover in a time when Republicans overperformed what many people thought they would in Texas,” said Sarah Walker, executive director of Secure Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit that solicited the Ragnar Research poll.

Walker’s organization found that fewer than 1 in 5 Texas Republicans voted on Election Day, and 64 percent of all Republican votes were cast early and nearly one-quarter by mail.

[…]

The Ragnar poll found 73 percent of respondents approved of an extra week of early voting, including 58 percent of Republicans, 91 percent of Democrats and 75 percent of independents.

Early voting on weekends was even more popular, with 89 percent in support.

Eighty-four percent also said they supported increasing the number of polling locations, but SB 7 would require all countywide polling places to have the same number of voting machines, which could make it difficult for election officials to open new sites.

Some Republican-crafted legislation this session also seeks to increase the criminal penalty for voting mistakes, including by those assisting disabled voters who fail to fill out and mail ballots correctly.

SB 7 would change the standard for prosecuting voter fraud from clear and certain to a preponderance of evidence, a lower standard of proof.

[…]

Eighty-one percent of respondents said they supported voters having the necessary assistance to submit their ballots, and 62 percent said assistants should not be threatened with the possibility of a felony.

House Bill 330, which was introduced by Elections Committee Chair and Republican Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, would make it a state jail felony to list the wrong address on a voter registration application; to provide assistance to a voter who has not requested help; and for a voter to receive assistance if he or she does not have a disability that renders them unable to see or write.

Some measures contained in SB 7 and other bills received bipartisan support in the Ragnar poll. The requirement for an electronic mail ballot tracking system was favored by 83 percent of respondents, and the requirement that electronic voting machines provide an auditable paper trail was favored by 88 percent.

The Secure Democracy webpage is here and their Twitter feed is here. They have a tweet announcing the poll, which was conducted by Republican pollster Chris Perkins and which was of 1,002 “likely” voters, but so far I am unable to find the poll data itself. This matters because we don’t have a whole lot of polling data on these questions, and the wording is sure to matter to some extent. That’s always a factor in issue polling versus candidate polling, so it’s important to be aware of that.

The polling data we do have is as follows:

The UT/Trib poll from February had one question of interest:

Do you think that the rules for voting in Texas should be made more strict, less strict, or left as they are now?

More strict – 27%
Less strict – 25%
Left as they are – 40%

(Source – Question 34)

The DMN/UT-Tyler poll also had one question:

Do you agree or disagree that requirements beyond signature verification of absentee ballots are necessary to increase election integrity?

Strongly support – 41%
Support – 22%
Neutral – 20%
Oppose – 9%
Strongly oppose – 8%

(Source – page 6)

The UH/Hobby School poll had multiple questions and was generally favorable towards voting rights, though as noted in that post they surveyed adults, not registered voters. I’ll leave it to you to go back and re-read that post.

So, without seeing the actual data, this is the best poll so far for keeping things as they are or making it easier to vote. It supports my opinions, which I always like but have learned to be hesitant about for obvious reasons. I don’t believe it will cause zealots like Paul Bettencourt or Briscoe Cain think twice, but maybe some of the reps in closer districts will feel some heat. If you’re in one of those districts, you should definitely be calling your rep and letting them know they should not be pushing to make our elections harder and less accessible. I’m not ready to express hope about this, but at least we have some opinion on our side. It’s a start.

The state of the Public Utility Commission

News item #1:

While many Texans last week were worried about sky-high electric bills from February’s winter storms, the state’s sole utility commissioner was privately reassuring out-of-state investors who profited from the crisis that he was working to keep their windfall safe.

Texas Monthly has obtained a recording of a 48-minute call on March 9 in which Texas Public Utility Commission chairman Arthur D’Andrea discussed the fallout from the February power crisis with investors. During that call, which was hosted by Bank of America Securities and closed to the public and news media, D’Andrea took pains to ease investors’ concerns that electricity trades, transacted at the highest prices the market allows, might be reversed, potentially costing trading firms and publicly traded generating companies millions of dollars.

“I apologize for the uncertainty,” D’Andrea said, promising to put “the weight of the commission” behind efforts to keep billions of dollars from being returned to utilities that were forced—thanks to decisions by the PUC—to buy power at sky-high prices, even after the worst of the blackout had passed.

Billed as “Learning the Texas Two Step: A Chat with the PUCT,” the call originally was scheduled for early February but was postponed until after the winter storm. The conversation shows a coziness between a top Texas regulator and some of the biggest players in the electricity market at a time when the PUC’s oversight is under fire from lawmakers. At one point, during a discussion about whether natural gas, which also saw huge price spikes during the crisis, would be “repriced,” D’Andrea said no, adding that most legislators understand that gas is priced by global markets and is out of their purview. “But I’ll let you know if I hear anything crazy on it,” D’Andrea said.

You can click over and listen to the audio and read the explanations for the words that D’Andrea used if you want. In the meantime, here’s news item #2, from later that same day.

Public Utility Commission Chair Arthur D’Andrea, the only remaining member of the three-seat board that regulates Texas utilities, is resigning from his post, Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday night.

Abbott said in a statement that he asked for and accepted D’Andrea’s resignation and plans to name “a replacement in the coming days who will have the responsibility of charting a new and fresh course for the agency.” D’Andrea’s resignation will be effective immediately upon the appointment of a successor, according to a copy of D’Andrea’s resignation letter that was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

He is the latest in a long line of officials who have left the PUC or the Electric Reliability Council of Texas since last month’s deadly winter storm plunged large swaths of Texas into subfreezing temperatures and overwhelmed the state’s electricity infrastructure, causing massive power outages. At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of the storm — most of them from hypothermia — according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The reason for D’Andrea’s resignation was not immediately clear late Tuesday.

I think we have a reasonable hypothesis about it – this article goes on to mention that Texas Monthly story about D’Andrea’s phone call. None of the members of the PUC – all of whom were appointed by Greg Abbott – remain. Heck of a job, there. Be more mad at the PUC. Kimberley Reeves has more.

Winter storm death count at 57

This is likely to rise as we get better data.

At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The largest number of deaths — at least 25 — occured in Harris County, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported.

The deaths occurred in at least 25 counties between Feb. 11 and March 5, the state agency said. The majority of verified deaths were associated with hypothermia, but health officials said some were also caused by motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls, and fire.”

The preliminary data is “subject to change” as state disaster epidemiologists gather additional information and additional deaths are verified, the agency said. The information will be updated weekly, it said.

For purposes of comparison, there were 103 deaths in Texas attributed to Hurricane Harvey, 68 to direct effects of the storm and 35 more in the aftereffects. The financial costs of the freeze were higher. Just keep all that in mind when you see Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and others play the blame game.

Republicans roll out their big voter suppression bill

They can’t do anything about blackouts or floods or COVID vaccinations, but they sure can do this.

Joining a nationwide movement by Republicans to enact new restrictions on voting, Gov. Greg Abbott indicated Monday he will back legislation to outlaw election measures like those used in Harris County during the 2020 election aimed at expanding safe access to the ballot box during the coronavirus pandemic.

At a press conference in Houston, Abbott served up the opening salvo in the Texas GOP’s legislative response to the 2020 election and its push to further restrict voting by taking aim at local election officials in the state’s most populous and Democratically controlled county. The governor specifically criticized officials in Harris County for attempting to send applications to vote by mail to every registered voter and their bid to set up widespread drive-thru voting, teeing up his support for legislation that would prohibit both initiatives in future elections.

“Whether it’s the unauthorized expansion of mail-in ballots or the unauthorized expansion of drive-thru voting, we must pass laws to prevent election officials from jeopardizing the election process,” Abbott said on Monday. Harris County planned to send out applications to request a mail-in ballot, not the actual ballots.

Harris County officials quickly fired back at Republicans’ proposals in their own press conference.

“These kinds of attempts to confuse, to intimidate, to suppress are a continuation of policies we’ve seen in this state since Reconstruction,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “It is a continuation as well of the big lie that’s being peddled by some far-right elements that the election in 2020 was somehow not true and should be overturned.”

Texas already has some of the strictest voting rules in the country. Some restrictions being proposed in other states are aimed at voting rules that aren’t allowed in Texas, including no excuse voting by mail and automatic voter registration.

But Texas lawmakers are looking to further tighten the state’s rules with a particular focus on measures put in place by local officials to widen access for voters. Restrictions proposed by Texas Republicans this year include prohibiting counties from sending out mail-in applications unless they’re requested by a voter, barring drive-thru voting that allows more voters to cast ballots from their cars and halting extended early voting hours.

See here and here for the background. This is all pure unadulterated bullshit and they know it, but before we delve into that there’s one other aspect to this that should not be overlooked.

Texas’ Republican leaders are preparing for another purge of suspected non-citizen voters, vowing to be more careful and avoid the mistakes from two years ago when the state threatened to knock nearly 60,000 legal voters off of election rolls.

“It must be done with extreme attention to detail,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, of the proposal he filed to launch a new round of voter purges using state driver’s license information to flag potential illegal voting.

In 2019, the Texas secretary of state sent a list based on state driver’s license data to county election officials showing the names of drivers whom state officials believed might be non-citizens who were voting in Texas. But a further review revealed that tens of thousands of legal citizens were incorrectly included on that list. Then-Secretary of State David Whitley eventually apologized to state lawmakers, saying the lists should have been reviewed more carefully. The Texas Senate ultimately forced Whitley out of office.

Officials in Harris and several other counties refused to send notices that could have knocked voters off the rolls ahead of the 2020 election, and voter rights advocacy groups decried the state’s efforts, which they said unfairly targeted people who may have been non-citizens when they got a driver’s license but had since been naturalized.

[…]

Bettencourt said the Legislature is going to set up a better process for the Texas Department of Public Safety and the secretary of state to follow in comparing databases and developing lists of possible non-citizen voters.

“They didn’t understand the data,” Bettencourt said of officials who oversaw the first mass purge attempt.

We are familiar with that debacle. Voter rolls do need to be cleaned up periodically, but there’s no reason to trust any directive from the state on this. They have not shown any evidence to indicate that they take this with the care and seriousness it requires and deserves.

On the broader matter of new voting restrictions, let’s be clear about a few things:

1. I’ve made this observation many times, but literally no one in the state has been more fanatical about looking for cases of voter fraud than Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, and they have bupkus to show for it. Either these guys are really bad at finding what they swear is all over the place, or they’re big fat liars.

2. As with every other Republican-led effort around the country to restrict voting, this is all the fruit of the poisoned tree that is Donald Trump and his never-ending lies about the 2020 election (and the 2016 election, if you were paying attention). Texas Republicans are in a somewhat awkward position in that they can’t actually admit that the election here was somehow tainted, especially since they were just told by the Secretary of State that everything ran smoothly in 2020, so they resort to making the same false and malicious claims about Pennsylvania and Michigan and Georgia and Arizona. “States rights” ain’t what they used to be.

3. It doesn’t matter to them that everything they propose here will also hurt their own voters. It doesn’t matter than the national boost in voting by mail did not favor either party in 2020. It doesn’t matter that their efforts to suppress Democratic votes, most notably voter ID laws, have acted as catalysts for Democrats to vote. Facts and logic are of no interest to them.

4. What does matter is that they have the votes to pass this. Congress can do largely negate their efforts via the two big voting rights bills that have passed the House and need to get through the Senate, but in the end the only way for Democrats in Texas to really stop this is to win more elections. Until there’s a price to be paid for passing bills like SB7, they’re going to keep doing in.

5. Actually, there may be one other thing that could be done. As before, we turn to Georgia, where even more nasty voter suppression bills are being put forth, for some inspiration:

We’re not going to change any Republican legislator’s mind on this. But we might get some Texas-based companies on our side, and that would at least up the pressure on them. I don’t know who’s taking the organizational lead here, but this is a path to consider. CNN, NBC News, and the Texas Signal have more.

Abbott vs Patrick on power outage blame game

This ought to be interesting.

The blame game over the state’s faulty electrical grid is creating a rare public rift between the two top Republicans in state government that could have a major financial impact on some utility companies and their customers.

First Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Friday blasted Gov. Greg Abbott’s newest appointee to oversee the state’s utility system for a lack of “competence and questionable integrity.” Hours later, Abbott released a late-night letter to the public, addressed to Patrick. In it, Abbott defended his appointee and pushed back against Patrick’s solution for inflated power bills due to the winter storms.

The divide comes as Abbott is scheduled to be in Houston on Monday for a press conference to talk about election integrity legislation he is supporting in the Texas Legislature.

For most of the last two years, Abbott and Patrick avoided such confrontations, instead trying to project unity on most issues such as the pandemic and legislative priorities like property tax reforms and changes in public school funding.

But that unity has eroded since the deadly winter storms that blasted Texas last month, leaving millions without power and broken water pipes despite a decade of warnings that the state’s power grid was vulnerable increasingly common winter storms.

At the core of their public dispute is how to deal with outrageous wholesale electricity bills that some utilities are facing. Patrick says sky-high emergency prices left in place too long by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas resulted in $4 billion to $5 billion in overcharges for utility companies. He says the error can be reversed retroactively by Abbott’s appointed members of the Public Utility Commission, which has authority over ERCOT.

But ERCOT leaders and Abbott say there is a difference of opinion of whether there was an error at all. ERCOT’s leader Bill Magness said the prices were kept intentionally high, to assure public safety by drawing more power to the grid to help Texans weather the freeze.

Abbott says the utilities commission cannot legally reverse the past charges anyhow, and if that is going to be done, it would have to be done by the Legislature.

[…]

Patrick did not like answers from Abbott or the governor’s new Public Utility Commission chair, Arthur D’Andrea, who has testified that he cannot reverse the wholesale energy prices retroactively.

During a Senate committee hearing on Thursday, Patrick did something he’s only done one other time during his two terms as the lieutenant governor: He personally attended the committee hearing and grilled D’Andrea directly himself.

“In light of the PUC chair’s refusal to take any corrective action, despite the fact that he has the authority and the evidence is clear, I am asking Gov. Abbott to intercede on this issue,” Patrick said in a press statement he sent out late Friday. “I am also asking Gov. Abbott to replace Mr. D’Andrea on the PUC when he fills the other two vacancies there. Mr. D’Andrea’s position requires both professional competence and honesty and he demonstrated little of either in the hearings yesterday.”

Patrick said D’Andrea does have the authority to fix pricing during “unusual circumstances.”

Less than two hours later on Friday night, Abbott shared with the media a letter to Patrick in which he points to his long legal history as a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and the Texas Attorney General before he became governor in 2014 to make the case that D’Andrea was correct.

“As a former Texas Supreme Court Justice and former Attorney General, I agree with the position of the PUC Chair about his inability to take the action you requested,” Abbott wrote in his letter. “You asked that I ‘intervene to ensure the right thing is done.’ The governor does not have independent authority to accomplish the goals you seek. The only entity that can authorize the solution you want is the Legislature itself. That is why I made this issue an emergency item for the Legislature to consider this session.”

See here for some background, and here for more detailed coverage of Dan Patrick versus the PUC dude. The tea leaf reading is rampant, with the spectacle of Patrick challenging Abbott in the primary for Governor as the uber-story. I think this is more an illustration of what kind of politician each of them is than anything else. Abbott is at heart a lawyer, the kind of lawyer who will comb the fine print looking for a justification for the thing he already wants to do, which in this case is make the blame for the freeze as well as the responsibility for fixing the underlying issues fall on someone else. Patrick, on the other hand, is a showman and self-promoter who has enough self-awareness to know that he came pretty close to losing in 2018 and it might be good for him to claim an accomplishment on something broadly popular while also beating up on someone more villainous than he is. (I refer to the PUC Chair here and not to Abbott, but if you took it the other way Patrick would not complain.) You have to admire his creativity on this.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick hastily convened a session of the Texas Senate on Monday as members suspended their own rules and took highly unusual steps to push through a bill that would force the state’s utility regulator to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during last month’s winter storm.

Senate Bill 2142, sponsored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, had not even been filed when the day started Monday — and the full Senate hadn’t been scheduled to convene. But by 2 p.m., it had been read on the Senate floor, approved in a hastily convened committee meeting that featured no public comment and then approved by the full Senate on a 27-3 vote.

Thanks to that extraordinary pace, it became the first bill that either chamber of the Legislature had passed since convening Jan. 12. It will head now head to the House, where its fate is currently uncertain.

“The Senate has acted,” Patrick said after Monday’s vote. “We are asking the governor to join us. And I think if he will say he’ll sign this bill, it may help us get this bill through the House.”

[…]

The filing of SB 2142 came after Friday’s deadline for filing legislation during the 2021 legislative session. But the Senate found a way around that rule in one of its bolder procedural moves Monday. The chamber brought back up its motion to adjourn Thursday and withdrew it, essentially going back in time on the legislative calendar and allowing Hughes to file his legislation before the Friday deadline.

Dan Patrick: He literally traveled through time to lower your electric bills. The ads, they write themselves. Look, I don’t think this makes Patrick any less likely to run for re-election as he has said he will, but a little speculation – and a little marketing – never hurt anyone. In the end, this will probably be more heat that light. If only we could get our power generation plants to store it all up for the next winter freeze.

Matthew McConaughey redux

Again? sigh All right…

Two weeks ago, in these very same digital pages, I claimed that Matthew McConaughey had shown more leadership during Texas’s devastating winter storms than Senator Ted Cruz, simply by clearing the low bar of not scuttling off to Mexico. Now, I don’t know for a fact that Matthew McConaughey reads this column, or that he’s even aware of its disturbingly obsessive chronicling of weekly McCona-nutiae. However, it now seems like he may have caught wind of the sentiments expressed, and—rather than sending me hate mail, like a normal person—he may be taking it to heart. McConaughey now says that running for Texas governor is a “true consideration,” and no longer just an idle fantasy to fill magazine interviews.

The Austin actor took his latest tentative step into genuine statesmanship during an appearance on Crime Stoppers of Houston’s The Balanced Voice podcast, where host Rania Mankarious brought up the political aspirations he’s been casually floating since last fall. “I’m looking into now again, what is my leadership role?” McConaughey replied. “Because I do think I have some things to teach and share, and what is my role? What’s my category in my next chapter of life that I’m going into?”

See here for the background. Look, there are three options here, if McConaughey is actually thinking about this and not just letting his mind wander a bit on a podcast: File as a Republican, file as a Democrat, and file as an independent. I think we can all agree that I have as good a chance of beating Greg Abbott in a Republican primary as McConaughey does. As for filing as an independent, I have two words for that: Kinky Friedman. Here are two more, as a bonus: Grandma Strayhorn. The one thing that such a move would do is split the anti-Abbott vote, for which the only possible outcome is an Abbott re-election. Abbott would surely do better than Rick Perry’s 39% in 2006, making any plausible pathway to beating him that much less likely. Maybe if literally nobody filed as a Democrat there might be a chance, but that’s not going to happen – even if no remotely credible candidate chooses to take on Abbott, some Gene Kelly type will, and that will be that.

Which leaves filing as a Democrat as the only viable option. I grant that the odds of winning against Abbott as a Democrat aren’t that much greater than either of the other two scenarios, but they are greater than zero. That means doing the work to win over a Democratic primary electorate, which I assure you wants very much to beat Greg Abbott and which right now is hoping that Beto O’Rourke or Julian Castro files to run against him. McConaughey could win a Dem primary, especially if he announced first and started raising money and actively campaigning and, you know, stated some policy opinions and action items for his hoped-for term as Governor. If he did the work, in other words. No guarantees, of course – if Beto or Julian or some other Democrat of reasonable stature and accomplishment threw a hat into the ring, I’d make that person the favorite just for their having been committed to the party and its ideals and membership for more than five minutes. But at least he’d have a chance. If he did the work. No sign of that yet, so my position remains the same: Until I see some evidence of actual candidate-like behavior, this is not a thing. Nothing to see here, move along.

Austin mask mandate enforcement still in place for now

No ruling, just a delay for a fuller hearing.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

See here for the background. I certainly agree with Andy Brown about the ramifications for local governments, but it’s not like this is a surprise. Our Republican-dominated state government has been very clear about its priorities with respect to cities and (Democratic) counties. This is and will be just another example of that.

In the comments to the earlier post I was asked what would I have Austin and Travis County do about this. My deeply unsatisfying answer is that there isn’t anything they could do right now. The law and the courts are against them, and there isn’t even a symbolic win available. Paxton will prevail in court, very likely in swift fashion, and he’ll gloat about it. The only thing that can be done is to work extra hard to elect a better state government in 2022. Nothing will change until that happens. Believe me, I wish there were a better answer.

Take me out to the ballgame?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready for this.

The Texas Rangers plan to open Globe Life Field to a full-capacity crowd of 40,518 for their final two exhibition games and their regular-season home opener on April 5.

Masks will be required for all fans when not eating or drinking, the team said. Distancing will be enforced at concession lines and retail locations.

Certain locations of Globe Life Field will be designated “distanced seating” sections for other home games to allow for more space between seats, the team said.

Rangers president of business operations and chief operating officer Neil Liebman repeatedly referenced Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s decision last month to open the state to full capacity. Executive vice president of ballpark operations Rob Matwick pointed to the fact that Globe Life Field has been hosting events since last May, including the NLCS, World Series, National Finals Rodeo and multiple local graduations.

As to the scalability from those limited-attendance events to full capacity, Matwick said the team will rely on “voluntary compliance” from fans to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing requirements, and that the roof would be open, barring rain.

Yeah, that would be a No from me. Having the roof open makes it a little better, but “capacity crowd” and “social distancing” do not go together, and that’s even without considering how many folks will be maskless. The college football experience has not taught some people anything, it would seem. Look, I understand why MLB teams want to have fans in the stands, and when your governor says that anything goes, it’s hard to resist. I’ll wait till the national vaccination rate is above fifty percent, maybe higher.

Our hometown nine is being slightly more cautious, at least for now.

Although Texas’ relaxed coronavirus regulations now allow it and the Rangers are planning for a full stadium on opening day, the Astros are currently “not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park at 100 percent capacity in April, senior vice president of marketing and communications Anita Sehgal said Wednesday.

In an email sent to their season ticket holders Wednesday, the Astros introduced a phased approach that, depending on demand, could increase their originally planned 25 percent capacity for the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s. Phase 1, the only phase described in the email, covers Houston’s 14 home games in April.

At almost the same time the Astros sent their email to season ticket holders, the Rangers stunned many people inside and outside baseball by announcing Globe Life Field will operate at 100 percent capacity for their two March exhibition games and April 1 season opener.

“Our focus was never to operate the building at 100 percent in April,” Sehgal said. “At this point in time, we are not planning for 100 percent in April.”

[…]

For their 14 home games in April, the Astros presented season ticket holders four options: keeping their existing seats, relocating elsewhere in the ballpark to ensure social distancing, pausing their accounts for April or donating their April tickets to health care workers or first responders.

If season ticket holders keep their existing seats, the Astros cannot ensure social distancing around them. Socially distant seating locations will be placed around the ballpark, but demand will dictate how many seats are available.

“It will be somewhat dependent on what our season ticket holders decide to do,” Sehgal said. “We got input from our season ticket holders in order to come up with this plan, and as they choose whether to move to a socially distanced area or stay in their seat, if we have a high demand for the socially distanced area, we will adjust accordingly.”

The team surveyed its season ticket holders about their attendance preferences earlier this month and received one of the largest responses in recent franchise history. Before Abbott reopened the state, the Astros were prepared to have “around 25 percent” capacity inside the 44,000-seat stadium for their home opener April 8.

“We really do not know what our capacity will be for April,” Sehgal said. “We know that our No. 1 priority is to make sure people come to Minute Maid Park and have an enjoyable, safe experience.”

Campos is a season ticket holder, and he chose the “Pause” option, which is what I’d do in that situation. It’s fine for them to gradually increase capacity over time, as more people get vaccinated, and the Astros are still requiring masks (again, at least for now; the Rangers are also requiring masks), which helps. As with the maskless mandate, all that was needed here was to wait a little longer. I don’t get what the Rangers are doing. I just hope they don’t cause another spike in the COVID rate up there. Texas Monthly, which notes that the Rangers are an outlier among pro teams in Texas (and in MLB), has more.

Is there really a primary threat to Abbott?

Maybe, but it’s not a serious one.

As Gov. Greg Abbott races to reopen all businesses and end mask mandates this week, it hasn’t been fast enough to defuse escalating political pressure from fellow Republicans who see Texas lagging behind other states in dropping COVID-19 restrictions.

For months, Abbott has taken barbs from conservatives who have held up Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as a measuring stick to show Texas is reopening too slowly, fueling talk that Abbott will face something he’s never seen: a real primary battle.

“We are glad Governor Abbott is following the example of Governor Ron DeSantis of FL & Governor Kristi Noem of South Dakota & opening up Texas,” Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West said last week on his social media accounts after Abbott announced that all businesses would be allowed to reopen to 100 percent this week.

That came days after DeSantis blew Abbott away in an early 2024 presidential primary test ballot at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla. Asked who their top choice would be if Donald Trump doesn’t run, 43 percent in the straw poll picked DeSantis. Noem finished second with 11 percent. Abbott was the choice of less than 1 percent, finishing 21st among 22 potential candidates.

And then there was January when DeSantis himself was in Austin, less than a mile from the governor’s mansion, touting how he kept his state open despite criticism from the media.

“Florida is open,” said DeSantis, a guest at the Texas Public Policy Foundation at a time businesses in the region were barred from operating at more than 50 percent. “No restriction and mandates from the state of Florida whatsoever. We trust individuals.”

DeSantis lifted Florida’s restrictions in September — a full six months before Abbott made his move in Lubbock last week.

“Greg Abbott certainly is no Ron DeSantis,” former state Sen. Don Huffines, a Republican, said Saturday while standing in front of the Alamo to mark the 185th anniversary of that battle.

Huffines said between Abbott’s handling of the mass statewide power outages and his pandemic response, it is long past time for someone to challenge Abbott in a GOP primary.

“There’s a lot of issues that are going to be discussed in a primary, and those are just two of them,” Huffines said just before delivering a speech before almost 300 people in which he decried governments taking away people’s liberties.

Huffines isn’t ready to declare for the race but said he’s keeping his options open.

Just for clarity, Don Huffines is a one-term State Senator who lost his first re-election bid in 2018 by double digits. Others mentioned in the story include hair salon owner Shelley Luther, who lost her one election in the special for SD30, one of the reddest districts in the state; Jonathan Stickland, widely loathed State Rep who did not run for re-election in 2020; and Florida Man Allen West, a former one-term Congressman who is now somehow the state GOP Chair. If these are the potential opponents, then as someone once said, they’re not sending their best. I seriously doubt Greg Abbott is living in fear of any of these folks.

This story mentions three other potential candidates: Dan Patrick, George P. Bush, and Sid Miller. Patrick, who would be a legitimate threat to Abbott, has said he’s running for re-election. Bush, who would be a lesser threat, has been encouraged by some to run for AG instead. Miller is hard to take seriously in any context, but he’d be a greater threat than the first three. I’d be surprised at this point if any of them ran against Abbott, but I can’t rule it out completely.

I’ll say what I always say in these situations: No one is running until they actually say they’re running. I’m not a Republican and I claim no insight into what their base wants, but there’s no polling evidence at this time to suggest that Abbott is in any trouble with his base. As we have discussed, he is annoyingly popular. Dan Patrick could beat him – it would be a hell of a fight – but I doubt anyone else has a chance. I just don’t think anyone who could make a fight out of it will try. We’ll see.

Paxton sues Austin and Travis County over its mask mandate

Completely expected.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Travis County and Austin officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

Texas on Wednesday lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain number hospitalizations for the coronavirus. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce the safety protocols, setting the stage for yet another fight over pandemic response between state and local officials.

“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

[…]

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who presides over the county government, said the authority to impose the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not from Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that means the order should hold up in court.

“I listen to doctors, not to politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.

As noted, Travis County and Austin extended their mandates on Wednesday, then Paxton sent them a letter saying basically “take that back or I’ll sue”. When they didn’t, he did. And look, no one holds Ken Paxton in greater contempt than I do, but he’s going to win this case. He may have to appeal it up a level or two to get there, but there’s just no way this story ends with the locals winning. I get the urge to defy the dumb order from Greg Abbott and to take a stand, but you gotta have a strategy and some reasonable expectation of achieving the outcome you want. This is not going to help.

Vaccine progress

Good news.

Texas will surpass more than 7 million COVID-19 vaccination doses administered today, top public health officials told the Texas Senate as Gov. Greg Abbott lifted all capacity limits for businesses and ended government-imposed mask mandates in the state.

At the same time, the health officials also offered a strong defense of the previous mask mandates, saying they reduced the chance of asymptomatic people spreading the virus and resulted in a record low year for influenza in Texas.

The speed with which vaccinations are being distributed is one of the keys to Abbott’s new order removing all mask mandates and allowing all businesses to re-open to 100 percent of their occupancy. Still, Texas has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, with 15.8 percent of residents having received at least one shot.

“We have come a long way in a very short period of time,” said Imelda Garcia, a top official with the Department of State Health Services, as she testified before a committee in the Texas Senate on Wednesday morning.

Garcia reminded lawmakers that Texas didn’t get its first vaccine shipments until Dec. 14. She lauded vaccine providers around the state for stepping up to administer so many shots in such a small window.

“They have been busting their butts in order to get shots in arms as fast as they physically and possibly can,” Garcia said.

Harris County alone topped 1 million doses on Tuesday.

Because the majority of vaccines in Texas require two doses, the number of people fully vaccinated is just over 2 million statewide.

Yes, there has been a lot of great work done, and everyone involved should be praised and thanked for it. There have been plenty of obstacles to overcome, that’s for sure. Because I’m a numbers nerd, I feel like I have to say something about the totals and percentages cited in this story, because as is they’re making me twitch. Seven million people would represent about 23% of the total state population. Given that the vaccines are only being given to those 16 and up, that makes the denominator in that fraction smaller, and thus would make the percentage higher. The only way this works if that total of “seven million doses administered” counts all shots given, both first and second. That would put the number of people that have had at least one shot at almost five million, which is closer to that 15.8% (it’s now higher on that NYT page, as it updates in real time). I’m just a little annoyed that I had to think it through like this to make sense of it all.

Not so good news.

The Texas Medical Center, in partnership with the city, is now administering 232,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, and experts expect that number to ramp up as more vaccines are shipped to the state.

While vaccination rates are increasing and COVID-19 cases are trending downward again, medical officials said the public shouldn’t get too comfortable. Texas Medical Center leaders said there is currently no strong correlation between vaccination and hospitalization rates.

Experts are anxious that there could be another surge as students go on spring break this month. There’s more virus in Houston, and it’s spreading faster as more infectious variants circulate in the area.

“We’re not seeing the rapid decline we want to see,” Bill McKeon, president of the Texas Medical Center, said at a Wednesday webinar on the state of COVID-19 in Houston.

Part of the reason for this is that it takes time for the vaccine to take full effect – this is true of both the one-shot J&J vaccine and the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines – and it is eminently possible to continue to carry the disease after getting your shots. You will be much less likely to get sick, but you can pass it on to others, who may not be so lucky. This is why everyone who cares about keeping people alive and healthy are continuing to urge everyone to wear masks and maintain social distancing. We are approaching a point where those things will not be vital, but we are not there yet.

Good news for some, just news for others.

Texans ages 50 and older will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine starting March 15, state health officials announced Wednesday.

“We’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January,” said Imelda Garcia, the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. “Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state’s priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state’s health care system.”

Currently, the state is vaccinating members of priority groups 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, Texans 65 and older, and anyone over age 15 who has a pre-existing condition. Last week, state officials also made educators and child care employees eligible for a dose.

Those 50 and older will be included in priority group 1C. More than 93 percent of Texans who have died from the virus have been at least 50 years old, health officials said in a press release.

One can certainly argue that some other folks should have been next in line, but this is where we are. On the plus side, thanks to President Biden, everyone will be eligible for the shot in a few weeks. Until then, get yourself signed up at your first opportunity. And keep that mask on until someone other than Greg Abbott tells you to take it off. The Trib has more.

Bills to allow casinos filed

Don’t bet on them, that’s my advice.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Two Texas lawmakers on Tuesday filed legislation backed by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands that would legalize casino gambling in Texas.

The legislation was filed by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, in the House and Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, in the Senate. The proposals would create special casino licenses for four “destination resorts” in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. At the same time, it would establish a Texas Gaming Commission to regulate the casinos, and it would separately legalize sports betting.

The legislation would require amending the Texas Constitution, which currently bans most gaming in Texas. That is only possible with a two-thirds vote of lawmakers in both chambers, and then voter approval in the November election.

Kuempel is the vice chair of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees industries regulated by the state, including current gaming options. Alvarado, meanwhile, chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Las Vegas Sands, founded by the late GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, has spent the past few months building a massive push at the Capitol, spending millions of dollars to hire nearly six dozen lobbyists. The bill-filing deadline for the biennial legislative session, which got underway in January, is Friday.

“We appreciate the work of the bill’s sponsors and we are excited to engage in further discussion with elected leaders and community stakeholders on the possibilities for expanding Texas’ tourism offerings through destination resorts,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands senior vice president, said in a statement.

The legislation is consistent with the vision that Las Vegas Sands has laid out for casinos in Texas: a limited number of licenses for mixed-use “destination resorts” in the state’s biggest population centers, with a high minimum investment intended to attract only the best operators. To that end, the legislation calls for a land and development investment of at least $2 billion in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, as well as $1 billion for San Antonio and Austin.

The “destination resort” licenses would be considered “Class I” licenses. The legislation would then create three “Class II” licenses for “limited casino gaming” at horse-race tracks in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. After that, two “Class III” licenses would be made available for similarly limited casino gambling at greyhound tracks in Corpus Christi and Harlingen.

The full casino legalization would also extend to the state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes at their reservations in El Paso, Eagle Pass and Livingston. They are currently able to offer limited gaming.

See herer and here for more on the casinos’ latest push to legalize more forms of gambling in Texas. As the story notes, that recent DMN/UT Tyler poll included questions about casinos and sports betting, and found them both to have popular support; not a surprise, as gambling has always polled well in Texas. (They also have Mattress Mack in their corner.) The obstacles remain the same: Neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick support this, and a two-thirds majority, which is needed to put the propositions to a vote, is a high bar to clear. Maybe this is the year it happens, but you could have said that about many previous legislative sessions. The smart money remains on the bills not passing.

More storm polling

Not sure things are as negative as this story makes it sound.

Two out of three Texans lost electricity, water or both in last month’s devastating winter storm, though it’s unclear their harrowing experiences will have lasting political consequences, according to a poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler.

By a 2-1 margin, Texas registered voters say state and local leaders failed to adequately alert the public about the deadly punch the storm could deliver to power and water services so residents could prepare. Leaders underestimated the threat, a majority of Republicans and more than 70% of independents and Democrats believe.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to the arctic blast and prolonged blackouts and water outages divides Texans. The poll found 53% say the Republican governor did well or very well, while 46% say he performed either not well or not well at all.

“Memories of what leaders could have done may fade, because it is not clear that one entity is to blame,” said UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, who directed the survey.

The poll, taken Feb. 22 to March 2, was conducted after the ice melted, power was restored and most residents regained water service, though some boil-water notices remained in effect. The poll surveyed 1,210 registered voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.84 percentage points.

Interviews ended the same day Abbott lifted his July requirement of face coverings in public spaces and rolled back COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and public venues, so the poll was unable to gauge Texans’ reactions.

Before Abbott’s surprise announcement, though, the poll found 92% of registered voters wore a mask in the previous week.

Of those, 34% reported masking up because of the governor’s order — and half said they donned face coverings because local businesses posted signs requiring them.

“Mask-wearing increased after the statewide mandate, compared with 68% in April 2020, so I expect many will continue with the habit,” Owens said. He noted that 83% of respondents say their choice to wear a mask is personal and not affected by the state’s or local businesses’ requirements.

[…]

By a 3-1 margin, registered voters say they already have received one dose or are definitely or probably going to get vaccinated when more shots become available. Though 16% say they have decided they will not take the vaccine and 10% are unlikely to do so, the results should hearten those hoping for the state to achieve herd immunity.

The poll results are here, and the UT-Tyler polling homepage is here. They had some goofy numbers for the Presidential race in 2020, so I’m not going to take this as anything but another data point. The vaccination-willingness numbers are better than the ones in the UT/Trib poll, for what it’s worth. I think we’ll have a much clearer picture of that in a month or two.

They did give us some approval numbers as well:

The poll also was taken shortly after U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz said he regretted and had changed his mind about slipping off with his family to Cancún, Mexico, amid the power outages that affected more than 4 million Texans and inflicted widespread damage and hardship.

While in October, 44% of Texas’ registered voters had a favorable impression of Cruz and 37% did not, his numbers dipped last month to 42% favorable, 45% unfavorable.

[…]

Despite COVID-19, a recession and the double whammy of blackouts and water outages, Abbott’s job approval has dipped only slightly and remains the most favorable among top state Republicans. By 53%-42%, voters say they trust Abbott to keep their communities safe and healthy during the virus outbreak.

The poll found 52% approve or strongly approve of the way Abbott is handling his job, while 31% disapprove or strongly disapprove. In October, his job rating was 54%-34% — just slightly more robust.

Though former President Donald Trump carried Texas in November by 6 percentage points, new President Joe Biden is more trusted by Texans to keep their communities safe from COVID-19. By a narrow margin of 51%-46%, state voters express confidence in Biden’s handling of the pandemic. In October, just 44% trusted Trump to handle it, while 54% did not.

By a plurality, state voters approve of Biden’s performance as president, 47%-40%. Owens, the pollster, noted that before Biden’s Feb. 26 visit to Houston to witness post-storm relief efforts and COVID-19 vaccinations, his job rating was almost even — 43%-42% in this poll.

As the poll by The News and UT-Tyler went into the field, Attorney General Ken Paxton was dogged by negative publicity, such as accusations by former employees that he swapped political favors for a donor’s help with a home remodel and job for his alleged “mistress.”

Though he flew to the snowy intermountain West and not a tropical beach as Cruz did, and had some official business, Paxton’s trip to Utah during the recent storm, first disclosed by The News, raised questions about why he, too, chose to leave the state as many constituents shivered amid outages and frontier-style living conditions.

When poll respondents were asked if Paxton has the integrity to be the state’s top lawyer, 32% agreed he does, 29% disagreed and 39% were unsure.

As before, ignore the Cruz numbers, at least until we have a more consistent trail. Again, Abbott just seems to defy gravity. It’s going to take a lot of work to knock him down, and as we see later in the story, the various items on the Republican legislative to do list poll pretty well, too. This is also a reminder that many people have not paid all that much attention to the Paxton saga, so don’t take anything for granted there. I’d say it’s highly likely that Paxton would run well behind Abbott, as he did in 2018, but that may not be enough. The good news is the good approval numbers for President Biden, which are better than those in the UT/Trib poll, and also the Data for Progress poll. As noted, if Biden can stay up there, it can only help the Dems’ efforts next year. Not mentioned in the poll were the numbers for Beto (37 favorable, 42 unfavorable) or Donald Trump (43 favorable, 47 unfavorable). That’s a lot better for Beto than in that DfP poll, and about the same for Trump. He won’t be on the ballot, but we know he’ll be a presence, one way or another.

Twitter sues Paxton

How the tables have turned.

Best mugshot ever

Twitter filed a lawsuit against Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a California federal court Monday and asked a judge to halt the state’s top lawyer from investigating the company.

The social media giant’s court filings include a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep Paxton and his office from enforcing a demand that seeks documents revealing the company’s internal decision making processes for banning users, among other things.

Paxton, a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump, sent the company a civil investigative demand after it banned Trump from its platform following January’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol.

Twitter wrote that it seeks to stop Paxton from “from unlawfully abusing his authority as the highest law-enforcement officer of the State of Texas to intimidate, harass, and target Twitter in retaliation for Twitter’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.” The company claimed Paxton’s “retaliatory” investigation violated the First Amendment as an inappropriate use of government authority.

[…]

The attorney general is among Texas Republican leaders who have launched a campaign against technology and social media companies after officials and followers faced repercussions for sowing the election doubts that fueled the Capitol insurrection.

Twitter is one of five tech and social media firms to which Paxton issued civil investigative demands to learn about the procedures such companies use to regulate postings or user accounts.

Paxton, who attended the rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, criticized companies’ moves after the siege, which included Twitter banning Trump from its platform.

“The seemingly coordinated de-platforming of the President of the United States and several leading voices not only chills free speech, it wholly silences those whose speech and political beliefs do not align with leaders of Big Tech companies,” Paxton said in a Jan. 13 news release.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott touted Texas legislation that seeks to crack down on social media companies’ perceived censorship of conservative voices. Senate Bill 12 would prohibit social media companies — including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — from blocking, banning, demonetizing, or otherwise discriminating against a user based on their viewpoint or their location within Texas.

I’ve looked around but have not seen any legal analysis of this lawsuit, but Texas Lawyer adds some useful details.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Monday, asserts that Paxton issued a civil investigative demand just five days after the company announced its ban of Trump. The Attorney General’s Office demanded “volumes of highly confidential documents concerning Twitter’s internal content moderation processes—the public disclosure of which would undermine their effectiveness, and compromise Twitter’s ability to effectively and efficiently moderate content on its platform,” according to the complaint, which was surfaced by Law.com Radar.

Twitter alleges that Paxton violated the First Amendment by issuing the investigation targeting its editorial practices. The company says in the lawsuit that it attempted to work with Paxton to tailor the document requests but did not reach an agreement.

“Instead, AG Paxton made clear that he will use the full weight of his office, including his expansive investigatory powers, to retaliate against Twitter for having made editorial decisions with which he disagrees,” wrote Wilmer attorneys Patrick Carome, Ari Holtzblatt, Peter Neiman and Mark Flanagan. “Now Twitter, already targeted because of its protected activity, is left with the untenable choice to turn over highly sensitive documents or else face legal sanctions.”

Twitter is seeking an order declaring that Paxton violated the tech firm’s free speech rights and a temporary restraining order enjoining the office from continuing the investigation.

A Twitter representative said Paxton is misusing the powers of his office in an attempt to silence free speech. “As we’ve repeatedly stated, and recent research underscores, we enforce the Twitter Rules judiciously and impartially across our service,” the representative said in an email statement. “In the words of AG Paxton: ‘…[i]t is one thing to use the legal system to pursue public policy outcomes; but it is quite another to use prosecutorial weapons to intimidate critics, silence free speech, or chill the robust exchange of ideas.’”

You can see a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. Still no analysis, so I have no idea if it’s mostly noise that won’t survive a motion to dismiss or if it’s likely to succeed, but that helped. We do know that Paxton is a complete bootlicking toady for Donald Trump, and we do know that his lawsuit to try to overturn the election was trash, so it’s hardly a stretch to think that his “investigation” is something less than top-notch lawyering. I think we can also agree that SB12, if it manages to pass, will draw a multitude of lawsuits within days of it becoming law. I say pop the corn and enjoy the spectacle. Reform Austin and the Current have more.