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Greg Abbott

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County stay-at-home order extended

Not a surprise.

Be like Hank, except inside

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday extended her stay-at-home order through April 30, as cases of novel coronavirus infections in the Houston area continue to rise, three county officials with knowledge of the plan said.

Hidalgo could further lengthen or shorten the duration of the order, depending on the success of efforts to combat the outbreak, the sources said.

[…]

The original stay-at-home measure, which closed most businesses and prohibits public gatherings of any kind, is set to expire Friday. Health experts say extending the restrictions to daily life are necessary to prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

Hidalgo signaled at a news conference Monday that she would do so.

“It’s not a matter of if the stay-at-home order will be extended; it’s a question of for how long,” she said.

Violations of the order are punishable with fines or jail time, though Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said authorities have yet to make any arrests. She said her investigators have answered about 2,500 calls from residents with questions and focused enforcement efforts on reminding businesses of the rules.

The rules are the most restrictive in a series of steps taken by local officials this month to limit interactions between people that can spread the highly communicable virus. Turner ordered the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo closed on March 11. Hidalgo closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery on March 16.

I know it feels like forever, but the Harris County stay-at-home order was issued eight days ago. HISD was closed beginning March 13, and I’d say most people who could work from home began doing so on the 16th, so we’re a bit more than two weeks into this. And speaking of the schools:

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.

“States that have adopted stay-at-home policies or even some that use shelter in place are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential service and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

[…]

At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.

“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.

Still not a statewide shelter-in-place order, which the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association are calling for, but it is what it is. As for that exception for religious services, we’ll see what that means.

Abbott said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines. He added that “drive-up services,” where congregants would remain in their cars, which some churches plan to use this Easter, would “satisfy the criteria that we’re talking about.”

David Duncan, pastor of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, said he appreciates Abbott’s recognition of the “importance of religion.” But he added, “The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. For me, at this moment, the way I love my neighbor is by giving them physical distance.”

Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Hidalgo said Tuesday afternoon that the county was reviewing Abbott’s order.

“We will continue doing what we have been doing,” said Mike Miller, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “Gathering crowds in any way that would make 6-foot separation impossible is not acting responsibly.”

[…]

Josh Ellis, head of Houston’s association of Southern Baptist churches, declined to comment on Abbott’s order.

Ellis did, however, advise churches to continue suspending in-person services. “Ministry is essential, and continues, while continuing to keep the most people safe,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which suspended in-person services earlier this month, also said it is reviewing the governor’s order.

We’ll see if this has any effect on the Hotze death wish lawsuit. I still think the full-on ban was the correct move, mostly because assholes like Hotze have now demonstrated they don’t give a shit about anyone else, but if this avoids a nasty court ruling, I can accept it.

(By the way, has Dan Patrick been a little quieter than usual lately, or am I imagining it? Just wondering.)

The Fifth Circuit does what the Fifth Circuit always does

The fix, as ever, is in.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily reinstated Texas’s ban on abortions amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying it needs time to review arguments about its impact.

The ruling is the latest in a ricocheting legal battle that began last week after the governor postponed non-essential surgeries, and the attorney general declared abortions to be included.

The Republican-led state is one of several that have moved to block abortions, arguing that providers are draining critical medical supplies that could be used to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two of the conservative justices on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling, and gave both sides until Friday to respond, meaning the ban will remain in effect at least through this week.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge James Dennis noted that a federal judge in Austin had declared a day earlier that “irreparable harm would flow from allowing the (governor’s) order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

See here for the background. I wish these predictions weren’t so easy to make, but this is literally what the Fifth Circuit does. I’m going to go walk my dog and hurl curses in their direction. You go read Mark Joseph Stern and Mother Jones for more details about this.

Another “when might this peak” projection

From the Current:

A new study suggests San Antonio’s current shelter-in-place order, which runs through April 9, may not be long enough to ride out the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas is more than a month away from the peak of the crisis, which is likely to hit the state May 2, according to a state-by-state analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

The United States as a whole will hit its peak earlier, on April 15. But that’s still days after the Alamo City’s order expires.

May 2 will mark both the date of the virus’ peak drain on Texas’ hospital resources and the state’s highest number of COVID-19 related deaths, according to the IHME, an independent research center at the University of Washington. It made those projections by modeling statistics collected by the World Health Organization and local and national governments.

[…]

Worth noting: the IHME’s modeling assumes the public is practicing strong social distancing and other protective measures. However, it also assumes Texas Gov. Greg Abbott continues not to implement a statewide stay-at-home order and won’t mandate closure of all non-essential services.

After Texas’ potentially devastating peak, the number of deaths and hospitalizations would drop sharply by the beginning of June, according to IHME’s projections. The virus could run its course by early July.

Even so, IMHE expects 4,150 Texans to die from COVID-19 related causes by August 4. It also predicts more than 82,000 nationwide will succumb to the disease by then.

A previous projection done by UT Health scientists suggested that the Houston area could peak in mid-April, with the pandemic burning out in our area by early May. I don’t know much about epidemiology, but I do know that the assumption of when Day 0 is – that is, the day of the first infection – matters a lot, so a variance of even a couple of days could shift things quite a bit one way or the other. Beyond that, I would recommend taking these different studies and projections with the same level of skepticism and trust one would put into an individual poll result: Illuminating and useful, but still just one data point that doesn’t mean as much as it might without confirmation from other results.

With Dr. Fauci’s estimates of 100K to 200K dead nationwide in a best-case scenario, this seems optimistic to me. Maybe it’s better to think of it as a more formal (if not necessarily more precise) quantification of that best case scenario. Note that the numbers given in this projection represent the midpoint of a range of possible outcomes – those error bars are pretty damn wide. Given the uneven implementation of stay-at-home orders and the lack of a statewide order, I’d be prepared for this to end up being well on the low side. But maybe we’ll get lucky. In the meantime, stay at home. TPM has more.

(You can play with the data yourself here. That’s how I generated the embedded image in this post.)

UPDATE: This Twitter thread from Carol Bergstrom, who is an actual expert, explains the concerns with this much better than I can. His interpretation is similar to mine in that this is a “best case” model, but he posits that the “error bars” are the range of uncertainty for that best case model, not for the entire range of possible outcomes. In other words, if the underlying assumption that social distancing isn’t working as well as we hope, or that we’re not doing it well enough for it to work properly, then the range of outcomes we will get will be considerably worse.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Latest abortion ban halted for now

We follow the script.

Right there with them

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions, a prohibition state officials said was necessary to preserve medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling came less than a week after Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all procedures deemed to be not medically necessary should be interpreted to include abortions.

The court granted the abortion providers’ motion to temporarily block the state from enforcing the order, which was set to expire April 21, as it relates to abortions. The temporary restraining order will expire April 13.

“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “There can be no outright ban on such a procedure.”

Yeakel also wrote that people seeking abortions would “suffer serious and irreparable harm” if the ban were allowed and that temporarily blocking the executive order “will not disserve the public interest.”

“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable,” Yeakel wrote.

See here for the background. The next page of this script is the state appealing to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit inventing some reason to give the state what it asked for. After that it gets a little murky, but by then it almost doesn’t matter because the state gets to do what it wants in the interim. In theory, once the emergency order is lifted then the justification for this ban goes away, but if you don’t think there’s some way that Abbott and Paxton might try to work around that, you’re not thinking hard enough. The Current and Slate have more.

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

So about those runoffs

They’re still happening in July. For now.

Democrats and Republicans across Texas are settling in for the new normal that is campaigning in the time of the novel coronavirus.

Not only has the pandemic upended how candidates campaign for the foreseeable future, it has also caused the May runoff election to be pushed back seven weeks, adding more uncertainty to a high-stakes election cycle in Texas. The changes impact runoffs in a slew of especially consequential races, from the U.S. Senate contest to most of the U.S. House races that national Democrats are prioritizing.

Regardless of the runoff date change, campaigns were already making adjustments. Many have canceled in-person campaigning and moved as much of their efforts online as possible. Some have reoriented their campaigns for now to focus on community service in the face of the outbreak. And a few have even stopped actively fundraising, at least online.

“I think what my team knows is that we’re in a different time now than we were a couple weeks ago,” Pritesh Gandhi, an Austin physician running for Congress, told a Facebook audience Sunday.

To be sure, candidates are not setting politics entirely aside, especially as Democrats move to highlight what they see as an inadequate response to the pandemic by Republicans in Washington and Texas. But for now, they are stuck in a potentially monthslong limbo.

While Gov. Greg Abbott announced Friday that the runoff would be postponed to July 14, it remains to be seen whether additional adjustments will be necessary for the election. Democrats are all but unified in arguing that the runoff postponement is not enough on its own and that Texas needs to expand voting by mail as well. Abbott has not ruled that out, though other top Texas Republicans have balked at the idea so far.

Runoffs are already low-turnout affairs, and campaign operatives are bracing for the numbers to drop even further for the new July date, especially if public health concerns persist. The extended runoff also means a longer head start for a slew of candidates in battleground races who already won their primaries earlier this month.

I don’t think turnout will be that greatly affected. Primary runoff voters are already the hardest of the hardcore, and there’s only so far down turnout could go anyway. I think, given the races and candidates involved, there will be enough money to remind voters that there is an election and that they should vote in it. This assumes that we are actually able to have the runoff in July a currently planned, which we obviously hope will be the case. It would be nice if the state had a plan to deal not just with what happens if coronavirus is still an ongoing concern, but also if people are just still afraid of it. That could include – as we have beaten into the ground – expanding vote by mail, and also early voting, all in the name of social distancing. Which, again, I hope isn’t a necessity at that time, but may still be a good idea.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

After initially announcing he would not issue a stay-at-home order regarding the new coronavirus, Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough is following other area counties and a stay-at-home order will go into effect at midnight Friday.

The 19-page restrictive order will be in place through April 12.

Additionally, Keough is putting all residents under a curfew beginning each night at 11:59 p.m. through 6 a.m.

“Given the most recent information concerning the virus and the potential for loss of life for our county and our region, I am amending my original order to become the Montgomery County Stay at Home, Stop the Spread order,” Keough said in a statement. “Having surrounded myself with a team of experts, in health district, homeland security and emergency management, law enforcement, our district attorney, and many others, whose council I value, I have made decisions that have been patient and measured.”

Keough said all non-essential business must close at 11:15 p.m. Friday and remain closed through April 12. The order allows for businesses to remain open if employees can work from home.

Keough called his order “crystal clear” with information on what are essential businesses and services and confirming all grocery stores will remain open.

“Read this order,” he said. “We are not urging you; we are telling you; you must comply with CDC social distancing guidelines. Stay home if you don’t need to be out. This is not a time for vacation or social gatherings. Take this virus seriously.”

Keough initially issued a disaster declaration March 12 following the first COVID-19 case in Montgomery County. In the last week, the number of cases in the county increased to 41. The coronavirus, according to the Montgomery County Public Health Department, has spread to all parts of the county.

As recently as Tuesday, the day that Harris County shut down, Montgomery County Judge Keough was holding firm against a stay-at-home order, though he had taken some steps. Keough is a former State Rep who ousted the incumbent county judge in 2018 in the Republican primary with tea party backing. I wonder if anyone has asked Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt what they think about this obvious betrayal of their bedrock principles.

I kid, only slightly, but the reality is that Keough is a latecomer on this train:


And indeed, Jefferson and Smith and several other counties have joined in. To update:

In case you’re wondering, Ector County is Odessa, Taylor is Abilene, Potter is Amarillo, Tom Green is San Angelo. Guadalupe (Seguin) and Comal (New Braunfels) are neighbors of Bexar County. We’ll see how long they hold out. This also means that Lubbock County has one of these orders as well; that wasn’t clear from the earlier story I blogged about. In some sense, it will soon be irrelevant if Greg Abbott orders a statewide shutdown or not. You still mad, Dan?

Abortion providers file suit over Abbott executive order

You can’t let crass opportunism go unchallenged.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging an executive order earlier this week that included abortion in a ban of all procedures that are deemed to not be medically necessary.

In a press conference Wednesday, national and state abortion rights groups said they are seeking a temporary restraining order, with hopes of a more permanent injunction to follow. They are representing various abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women’s Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.

The ban, which Attorney General Ken Paxton later clarified applies to abortion clinics as well, was enacted to ensure the state maintains health care capacity as it prepares for an influx of COVID-19 patients. But abortion clinics and activists in the state pushed back almost immediately, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an “exploitation” of the current crisis.

Sealy Massingill, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, took politicians to task for “playing politics” at a critical time. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas still plans to keep clinics open, though he said the organization is bracing for further developments.

“I find it extremely distressing … that we are trying to respond to a purely political fight that [Gov. Greg Abbott] started. Patients who need abortions are on a time-sensitive deadline,” Massingill said.

Providers have already had to turn away patients, Massingill added, and delays of even a few weeks could render some abortions impossible if the patients’ pregnancies extend past legal deadlines.

Here’s the Trib story about the executive order. I didn’t get around to blogging about it because there’s just too much these days. It should be obvious that a “medically necessary” procedure is one that simply cannot be put off, at least not for a significant length of time, and that by that definition, abortion clearly fits. To claim otherwise, as the state of Ohio has also done, is sophistry at best and a straight up lie otherwise. In a rational world, this would get stopped in a hot second by any court. In a world that includes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, your guess is as good as mine. Given that Abbott has declined to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring to leave that to the locals, who have not seen fit to order clinics to stop providing abortions, the case for this is even flimsier. I feel confident that a district court judge will issue a temporary restraining order, but after that who knows. The Chron has more.

Coronavirus and the state budget

Ain’t gonna be great. How bad, we don’t yet know.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar briefed Texas House members on the state’s economy and budget Sunday night, saying that while it was too soon for specific forecasts, both are expected to take potentially massive hits in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people who were on the conference call.

The members-only call, led by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was one of state lawmakers’ first glimpses of the impact the virus is expected to have on multiple industries, state finances and Texas’ largely oil-fed savings account, known as the Economic Stabilization Fund or the rainy day fund.

Hegar, who referred to the state of the economy as “the current recession,” according to multiple people on the roughly hourlong call, predicted both the general revenue for the state budget and the savings account balance will be drastically lower — possibly by billions of dollars — when he makes a revised fiscal forecast. He said that update could happen in July.

Later Sunday, the comptroller’s office said that unless the Legislature spent money out of the savings account before July, the balance for the fund would be revised down, but not by more than $1 billion.

In October 2019, Hegar estimated that the state budget would have a nearly $3 billion balance for the fiscal 2020-21 biennium. The balance of the Economic Stabilization Fund, Hegar announced at the time, would be around $9.3 billion by the end of the 2021 fiscal year in August of that year.

[…]

Abbott, for his part, noted last week that he and the Legislature can tap into the state’s disaster relief fund immediately to help respond to the virus. He also said that the Economic Stabilization Fund could be used “at the appropriate time,” which he said would happen when state leaders “know the full extent of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

Before the stabilization fund could be used, Abbott would need to summon state lawmakers back to Austin for a special session before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021. When asked at a town hall about the possibility for calling such a session, Abbott said “every option remains on the table,” while noting that there would not be any need for such an action if every Texan followed guidance to help curb the virus.

Obviously, the crash in oil prices doesn’t help the state’s financial picture, either. It’s sales tax collection that will really suffer, and that pain will be spread to the cities and counties as well. As always, the big picture here is “how long will this take” and “how many businesses and jobs will be lost in the interim”, and right now we don’t know.

I will say, situations like this are among the reasons why balanced budget requirements are such a bad idea. Let the state – and the cities – run a deficit for a year or two, rather than cut a bunch of programs and lay off a bunch of employees, both of which will exacerbate the effect of the overall downturn. I assure you, society will not crumble around us if we do that. We will see plenty of shenanigans pulled by legislators to worm their way around the balanced budget requirement, as we have always done. So why not be honest about it and just admit that the whole thing is a sham and we should just not worry about it, at least for this cycle? We can always get back to it next time. Much easier said than done of course – constitutions and charters can’t be so easily cast aside, which again goes to my point about why these things are stupid – but in a world where everything has been thrown into chaos, this just makes sense. Same for revenue caps as well – if the revenue for the state, or the city of Houston, falls ten percent this year, it will take three years under the existing 3.5% revenue cap just to get revenue back to existing levels, while forcing needless cuts in the meantime. It’s all a sham, we should seize the moment to recognize it for the sham that it is, and free ourselves once and for all from its ridiculous shackles. Won’t happen happen, but I’ll never stop pointing it out.

The Republican death wish

It would be one thing if they were just putting their own lives at risk, but that’s not how viruses work.

After Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins became the first to announce a mandatory stay-at-home rule, conservative groups including Empower Texans began ringing alarms in opposition to Jenkins and to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who they say paved the way for the move.

Abbott had said he would applaud local leaders who felt they should issue stay-at-home orders for their communities.

“I’m extremely concerned about what Dallas Co just did, and Abbott’s apparent sanctioning of it,” Empower Texans president Ross Kecseg wrote on Twitter.

So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the highest-ranking state official to echo those concerns.

“What I’m living in fear of is what is happening to this country,” Patrick said in a Fox News interview. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

Patrick, who turns 70 next week, went on to say he’d be willing to risk his own life and well-being to help preserve the way of life for other Americans — a statement that drew harsh rebukes on social media and inspired hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

[…]

Critics of the stay-at-home orders are contradicting the advice of public health authorities at every level of government, from the World Health Organization to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health officials. Epidemiologists have stressed that keeping people apart is the best way to fight back against a new virus for which there is no vaccine, and that aggressive early steps are the only way to get ahead of COVID-19.

The discord in Texas mirrors what’s going on at the national level with Republican governors showing more reluctance than Democratic ones, like Cuomo, to shutting down their states, said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor of health policy and politics at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“On the one hand, they certainly want to protect the public health, but they are also afraid about hindering the freedoms of their citizens and they’re also concerned about the economic impact of having society in many ways shut down,” Callaghan said. “It’s a tricky balancing act for many politicians on the conservative side.”

Not only does that send Texans a mixed message but Callaghan said it could also reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

“If you want to see a true impact of flattening the curve throughout the state of Texas, it’s important for it to be a statewide policy,” Callaghan said. “Certainly in those areas that choose to enact some sort of shelter in place policy, you’re going to see some effect, but we don’t know if it’s going to be a smaller effect than if the entire state had chosen to do something.”

See here for the background. It’s not actually clear that they want to protect public health, since everyone who knows anything about public health and epidemiology is practically shouting from the rooftops that these shutdowns are necessary and we risk having literally millions of people die without them. Indeed, rightwing magazines are touting the virtues of deliberately spreading coronavirus, in a ridiculous and dangerous belief that it’s preferable to social distancing. I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance going on, since the one thing that can mitigate the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders is massive government action to put money in people’s pockets to replace the income they’d be losing, and that would seem to be the thing that Dan Patrick fears more than his own death. It’s clear that they’re taking their direction from Donald Trump, because that’s what they do these days and Trump is getting tired of the whole pandemic thing. It will be interesting to see if actual elected Republicans turn on Greg Abbott if he however reluctantly orders a statewide shutdown. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to say other than there’s one way to get through this without a lot of people dying, and what these Republicans are agitating about is not it.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

Here’s hoping we won’t have to do this for too much longer.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order Tuesday morning closing most businesses and directing residents to stay put except for groceries and errands in the latest measure aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order will take effect at 11:59 p.m. and expire April 3.

Workers in the energy, transportation, construction and food service industries will be among those allowed to remain on the job, she said.

The county judge said she was heeding the warnings of health experts, who for days said a mandatory order limiting public interactions was necessary to prevent Houston hospitals from being overwhelmed with cases.

“What these experts and leaders tell us is that if we keep going at the rate we are going, we will end up in the situation that New York is heading towards, that Italy is at, where we simply run out of ICU space,” Hidalgo said.

Italy has reported more than 6,000 deaths; New York is the center of the American outbreak and scrambling to find beds for coronavirus patients.

The rules are the strictest Harris County has enacted in the two whirlwind weeks since the first locally transmitted case was discovered. Thirteen days ago, local officials wondered whether shutting down the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was too drastic a step.

They since have shuttered schools and universities, canceled concerts and sporting events, closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery, all in an effort to contain the rapid spread of the disease.

The new stay-at-home restrictions, which have no precedent in modern American history, mirror those in other major cities. Mayor Sylvester Turner said the order was difficult to issue, though he said local government cannot wait.

“The goal we have in the city of Houston is that we don’t have 2,400 cases or 24,000 cases,” Turner said. “We don’t have the luxury of waiting two weeks down the road and then deciding this is the time to take these steps.”

[…]

Harris County’s new rules were not met with universal acclaim. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a frequent critic of local government, said it was unnecessary and would do lasting harm to small and medium-sized businesses. He said compliance with social distancing recommendations by the public has been “quite high.”

“Taking sweeping action against… the backbone of our local economy with a shelter in place order eliminates the chance to take a targeted, measured, data-driven approach to achieve better social separation results and far less economic disruption,” Bettencourt said in a statement.

See here for the background, and you can see a copy of the order here. As of yesterday afternoon, Fort Bend County has followed suit, though Montgomery County is not going that route at this time. As for Paul Bettencourt, I invite him to swap bodily fluids with Dan Patrick and hope it all works out for him. I’ll prefer to listen to people who know what they’re talking about and care about whether people live or die.

In the meantime:

Gov. Greg Abbott expressed some dissatisfaction Tuesday with how Texans are responding to various measures to curb the coronavirus pandemic, signaling an openness to imposing stricter statewide action soon.

“It’s clear to me that we may not be achieving the level of compliance that is needed,” Abbott said during a news conference in Austin. “That’s why I said before I remain flexible in my statewide standard.

“We will continue to evaluate, based upon all the data, whether or not there needs to be heightened standards and stricter enforcement,” Abbott added.

[…]

However, Abbott’s remarks Tuesday indicated his thinking may be evolving. He said that while he was heading to the news conference, he was “surprised at how many vehicles I saw on the road.” (Austin is home to Travis County, whose stay-at-home order goes into effect at midnight.)

Can’t wait to hear what Bettencourt and Patrick think about that. I mean look, this is already hard, and it will be harder before it begins to get easier. I really am worried about the restaurant scene, which now I can’t do anything to support. I’m hopeful that the stimulus bill will make a difference. (The stock market likes it, which is all that matters to Donald Trump.) But you know what else would be bad for the economy? Having two million people die over the next year. We can still do something about that, but not if we listen to people like Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The state of the state’s response

I mean, it’s something.

Gov. Greg Abbott took multiple measures Sunday designed to expand hospital staffing and capacity in Texas, but declined to issue a statewide shelter-in-place order — even as calls for such an action increased as the new coronavirus continued to spread across the state.

In an effort to free up hospital beds in anticipation of an influx of patients sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, Abbott ordered health care professionals to postpone “all surgeries that are not medically necessary” and suspended regulations to allow hospitals to treat more than one patient in a room.

But he did not order all Texans to shelter in place, noting that there are still many counties in the state without confirmed cases and that he wants to see the full impact of an executive order he issued Thursday. In the meantime, he welcomed local officials to take more restrictive action than he has statewide.

During an afternoon news conference at the state Capitol in Austin, Abbott also announced the formation of a “strike force” to respond to the coronavirus and that the Texas National Guard, which he activated several days ago, would be deployed this week to help hospitals deal with the outbreak.

In the lead-up to Abbott’s news conference, though, attention centered most intensely on whether he would go beyond the executive order that he issued Thursday. That order urged all Texans to limit public gatherings to 10 people, prohibited eating in at restaurants and bars and temporarily closed schools. That order went into effect midnight Friday and goes through midnight April 3.

“We need to see the level of effectiveness of the executive order,” Abbott said. “What we may be right for places like the large urban areas may not be right at this particular point of time for the more than 200 counties that have zero cases of COVID-19.”

[…]

Abbott said that his decision not to issue a statewide order should not stop local officials from issuing such orders in their jurisdictions.

“Local officials have the authority to implement more strict standards than I as governor have implemented in the state of Texas, “Abbott said. “If they choose to do so I would applaud them for doing so, but at this time it is not the appropriate approach to mandate that same strict standard across every area of the state, especially at a time when we are yet to see the results coming out of my most recent executive order.”

See here for the background. I can see the reason for Abbott’s actions, or lack thereof. It’s not clear that this is necessary for rural areas, and for the most part the localities that have needed such action have taken it themselves. (Insert reminder about Abbott’s self-serving relationship with the concept of “local control” here.) Indeed, the next story the Trib ran is about Dallas County prepping a shelter-in-place order. (Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has said she is considering such an order but has not yet announced one.) At least some hospitals have already acted to limit or suspend elective procedures as well. What all of this does is mostly make me think that Abbott is behind the curve rather than ahead of it. You know I don’t think much of our Governor, but even for him this seems kind of limp. What could he be doing that isn’t already being done? That’s what I’d like to know.

Worrying about the restaurants

Alison Cook laments the potential fate for her favorite part of Houston.

Depending on local or state strictures, to help stem the spread of Covid-19 restaurants in most major markets would be able to provide takeout, drive-thru or delivery rations only. Dine-in was done, for the present and — according to some epidemiologists and public health experts — very possibly in rolling closures for the next 18 months. That’s the time it will take for a vaccine to be tested, manufactured and made available.

If we’re lucky.

Even though I’ve suspected this was coming since the calamitous February business drop experienced by restaurants in Bellaire Boulevard’s Asiatown — a preview of what lay ahead for the whole market as Covid-19 spread, I feared — the reality of the closures has hit me hard.

I gasped when I saw an Open Table graph that showed restaurant bookings, already down 45 to 65% last week, plunging off the cliff to zero on Tuesday in Boston, L.A., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto and Washington, D.C. It looked like the highway to hell.

I’m in mourning daily as I read the anguished tweets from Houston chefs and restaurant owners I admire. I’m sick with worry for the servers and bartenders and bussers and line cooks whose livelihoods are in peril.

[…]

My greatest sorrow is that I see a great winnowing ahead. On the other side of this public health crisis, it seems likely that Houston’s dining landscape will be substantially altered. Restaurant profit margins are slim in the best of times, and without serious public investment at the state or federal level, we are likely to see many bankruptcies.

It’s not the big chain restaurants I’m worried about — it’s the mom-and-pops and the small independent operators who help to define the city. Those are a cultural legacy well worth saving.

Ian Froeb, the restaurant critic at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, told a radio interviewer the following: “I have a top 100 restaurant list and somebody that’s in the industry said, ‘You could be looking at 80 of the 100 might not come back.’ I didn’t push back. That seems like a real possibility.”

I’m not quite that pessimistic, yet, but the fallout is going to be bad.

Obviously, we can all do more ordering takeout in the interim, in the hope that these places we love can weather the storm, which we also hope will be measured in weeks and not months. But let’s be clear, the state of Texas could also help.

Up against a Friday deadline, the broad base of workers in the Texas restaurant industry have asked Gov. Greg Abbott and other officials to waive monthly sales taxes due by the end of the day.

Bobby Heugel, owner of several popular bars and restaurants in Houston, said many businesses could ride out the new coronavirus’ social slowdown for months if the state waived, delayed or deferred the monthly taxes.

“We have been crushing the governor’s office for requests of deferrals,” Heugel said Thursday. “Their voicemail actually stopped working late last night.”

Comptroller Glenn Hegar said the state won’t push back Friday’s deadline, though it has done so after hurricanes and other disasters. Hegar and aides cited a couple of reasons: Hurricanes and similar disasters, unlike pandemics, can knock out the infrastructure used to calculate and pay taxes. More importantly, the state and local governments that depend on those taxes to keep hospitals and emergency services going need the money as they prepare for the number of Texans testing positive for the new coronavirus to skyrocket within weeks.

“It would be irresponsible, but more popular, to delay collections,” said Karey Barton, associate deputy comptroller for tax. “The people who paid those taxes need that money to be available to keep operating hospitals and other services.”

I understand the concern, but the state has a rainy day fund it can tap into to bridge the gap in the interim. Maybe Greg Abbott needs to use his emergency powers to make that happen, maybe he needs to call a special session to enable it, or maybe he just needs to order it and let someone file a lawsuit to stop him, I don’t know. But the effect of losing a significant portion of the hospitality industry will last a lot longer than this crisis. We need to think outside the box here, and take action as needed before it’s too late.

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

Following fruitless negotiations over how to proceed with the upcoming primary runoff elections, Texas Democrats are looking to the courts to push for an expansion of voting by mail in the state.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court late Friday, the Democrats are asking a judge to declare that a portion of the Texas election code allowing voters to cast a mail-in ballot if they suffer from a disability applies to any voter in Texas “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder” the spread of the new coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters who would seek to vote by mail given the state of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward with respect to the pandemic, numerous voters, including the two individual Plaintiffs herein, seek to avail themselves of the option of mail-in ballots,” the lawsuit reads. “Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party needs to know how state law permits local election officials to handle such ballots cast in the Texas Democratic Party Runoff Primary Election so the [party] can determine how it desires to proceed in selecting nominees who were facing a runoff.”

[…]

Election officials in Texas generally agreed that a traditional election for the runoffs is implausible if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May.

But in conversations with the Texas Democratic Party this week, some local election officials said they opposed moving to universal voting by mail, under which all registered voters or all voters who participated in the March primaries would be automatically sent ballots, without a postponement to build up their capacity to take on that expansion.

The expansion Democrats are seeking would not result in all mail-in ballot election, and voters would still have to formally request mail ballots from their counties.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. It’s basically the argument that we’ve discussed before about the law as written being sufficiently broad – or vague, if you prefer – as to allow anyone who believes they qualify for the disability provision due to health issues, especially in this time of coronavirus, to be able to vote by mail. Obviously, I believe this argument has merit, though I thought it would be more of a stealth application rather than formally litigating the question. There will need to be a quick ruling for this to be relevant to the runoff, so I expect we’ll have an idea of what the courts think shortly. We’ll see.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

Coronavirus and local control

From Politico, evidence that there are no small-government “conservatives” in pandemic self-isolation foxholes:

Texas is a big state with a proud small-government philosophy. And that’s being tested by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Strict bans on public gatherings to curtail the virus’ reach and widespread testing and treatment run counter to the politics of top Texas officials. Instead they’re calling on local officials to lead the response.

As governors in states including New York and California have imposed statewide measures such as closing schools and limiting commerce, Texas leaders have been reluctant to set restrictions conservative voters might consider draconian and business leaders oppose. They’ve also opposed steps to expand health insurance coverage.

Texas’ Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster declaration Friday — after dozens of states already had done so — and activated the National Guard on Tuesday, after more than a dozen states already had. State officials have yet to impose statewide limits on public gatherings, close schools or beaches or issue a special open enrollment period for health insurance, as California, New York and other big states have. And some health providers say Texas has been slow to boost coronavirus testing capacity and help them meet equipment needs.

“In this instance, President Trump is right: Governors need to step up,” Clay Jenkins, a Democrat and Dallas County’s top elected official, said in an interview. “When it comes to stemming the tide of the loss of life that we’re staring at, the governor is in a unique position to act.”

Abbott is fully in charge of the state’s response, because as part of the small-government philosophy, the state’s Legislature meets only in odd years for 140 days. So far, more than 60 coronavirus cases and one death have been confirmed in the state. Abbott said he expects the number of cases to explode next week as more testing capacity comes online and more diagnoses are counted.

Abbott, who has been governor for five years, tends to shine in moments of crisis. He’s been relatively hands-off during legislative sessions, but has played an active role in managing during disaster. Abbott earned praise for providing a steady hand during Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017.

But the swift-spreading coronavirus public health crisis is catching Texas unprepared. The state, which didn’t expand Medicaid, has the highest uninsured rate in the country meaning millions of people don’t have doctors to call if they show symptoms. And Abbott has opposed local paid sick leave ordinances, which could encourage sick people to stay home and keep from spreading the virus, saying they hamper business growth.

[…]

Abbott’s office says the governor believes in taking a decentralized approach letting local officials take the lead in imposing restrictions and relying on private companies to help boost testing capacity.

Several Texas cities and counties have already closed schools and limited public gatherings. That includes Austin, which issued an order Tuesday banning gatherings of more than 10 people and shutting down restaurants and bars through early May.

“County judges and mayors have done a very good job in listening to local health officials,” Abbott’s spokesman John Wittman said in an interview. “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.”

Those of you who are old enough to remember the last couple of legislative sessions have likely done a spit-take to the sound of a record scratch upon hearing those words. But they’re not the first time they have been uttered. From the Trib, plowing a similar furrow three days earlier:

Abbott’s office, asked about the local protocols, said Monday that cities and counties “have done a very good job of doing what is right for their municipalities” and nodded to how helpful local decision-making can be in a state as large as Texas. That approach is in stark contrast to Abbott’s recent attitude toward local control. In the past few years, he has routinely sparred with mayors and backed several laws that chipped away at the power of cities and counties.

“Texas is so diverse that what is right in Houston and Harris County and Dallas and San Antonio may not be the best approach in Amarillo,” Abbott spokesman John Wittman said. “These cities and counties are following the proper protocol and guidance that they are receiving from their local health departments.”

Abbott’s push for local decision-making comes as the nation’s top infectious disease expert said the most effective way to stop spread of COVID-19 may be a 14-day nationwide shutdown.

So, local control is best when tough decisions that Greg Abbott doesn’t want to have to make need to be made. Otherwise, cities and counties need to stop thinking and acting in their own best interests and let Greg Abbott and the Republican Party do all of that for them. Could someone please make sure to have multiple large multi-colored printouts of those John Wittman quotes plastered all around the Capitol next year? Thanks. The Observer, which goes into a lot more detail, has more.

Statewide restrictions on public gatherings

This was expected.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday took sweeping action to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus across Texas, issuing an executive order that will close restaurants and schools, among other things.

During a news conference at the state Capitol, Abbott announced an executive order that will limit social gatherings to 10 people, prohibit eating and drinking at restaurants and bars while still allowing takeout, close gyms, ban people from visiting nursing homes except for critical care and temporarily close schools. The executive order is effective midnight Friday through midnight April 3, Abbott said.

The executive order reflects federal guidance that came out earlier this week.

[…]

Abbott also announced that state health commissioner John Hellerstedt declared a public health disaster earlier Thursday. Abbott said it is his understanding that the last time such a declaration was made in Texas was 1901.

Not much to add here. Cities and counties have been taking action along these lines, though there have been holdouts. (Harris County is considering further action as well.) That makes state action the appropriate solution, so good for Abbott though we can certainly debate what took so long. Be that as it may, here we are. The Chron has more.

Moving the May elections

Another possible method for coping with coronavirus.

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to grow in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued a proclamation that will allow municipalities to postpone their upcoming May 2 elections until November.

The move comes after Abbott issued a disaster declaration over the pandemic that paved the way for him to suspend parts of the state’s election code to allow for postponements. Notably, individual municipalities will still have to act to postpone their elections, but Abbott urged them to move them to November.

“I strongly encourage local election officials to take advantage of these waivers and postpone their elections until November,” Abbott said in a statement. “Right now, the state’s focus is responding to COVID-19 — including social distancing and avoiding large gatherings. By delaying this election, our local election officials can assist in that effort.”

[…]

The May 2 municipal elections are set to feature a litany of local political races from across the state.

Abbott had previously indicated his team was deciphering whether he had the authority to order changes for municipal elections. Unlike state contests, like the upcoming primary runoffs, municipal elections are ordered — and often run — by cities, school districts and other political subdivisions. The proclamation suggests he ultimately concluded he did not have that power to order the postponements himself.

The Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees election in the state, sent local election officials an advisory shortly after the proclamation was announced offering guidance for entities choosing to postpone. The advisory indicates the elected officials holding offices that were on the ballot for May will continue to hold their positions until November if an election is postponed.

See here, here, and here for the background. The issue of the regular May elections versus the primary runoffs was discussed in that last post. Abbott has apparently concluded that he can’t order the localities that have elections on May 2 to move them or otherwise change how they conduct them, but he can do this. We’ll see what happens. As I’ve said in previous posts, these are small elections that don’t have their results reported to the Harris County Clerk (for those in Harris County), so I at least have no idea how many of them there are and how many voters may be affected. I do know that moving them to November, no matter what else is going on, will mean that the universe of potential voters for those races will be orders of magnitude larger than if they were to be held in May. It also may mean having these races conducted by the county elections administrators, so that affected voters don’t have to vote twice, potentially at two different locations, which would be a huge mess. Again, without knowing the specifics of the races involved, I can’t offer any speculation on what that might do to their results. There will need to be a lot of thought and work put into this, that’s for sure. Abbott’s proclamation is here, and Patrick Svitek has more.

Abbott addresses vote by mail possibilities

He’s thinking about it.

Gov. Greg Abbott acknowledged on Tuesday that he has the authority to postpone May 26 runoff elections or conduct them exclusively via mail-in ballots in response to the coronavirus.

“Everything’s on the table,” Abbott told reporters when asked about expanding vote-by-mail.

On Monday, Hearst Newspapers reported that state officials have been kicking around the idea. Currently, Texas allows limited use of vote-by-mail.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said because of how low the turnout is, he thinks Texas could easily do an all-mail election to keep people from having to stand in line to vote.

Abbott, however, is not certain he can order the May 2 municipal elections around the state to make similar changes because those are local elections.

“It may only be the municipalities have the power to make that decision, and so there’s that legal issue that we are making a determination on,” Abbott said. “That said, if I don’t have the legal authority, we may provide suggested guidelines.”

See here and here for the background. The local elections on May 2 are a different breed, and Abbott may be right that it’s not in his authority to order a change in their procedures. Seems like a good question to ask the Attorney General, and hopefully get a quick answer out of him, since time is of the essence. Giving them some guidance on how to proceed would also be a good answer.

Also of interest:

The Texas Civil Rights Project has sent a letter to the Texas Secretary of State arguing that everyone in Texas already qualifies to vote by mail because they have the risk of being sick.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote,” said Beth Stevens, legal director of the nonprofit group’s Voting Rights Program. “The Secretary of State should act quickly within her authority to issue guidance to counties, so they can prepare for the logistics of more mail-in-ballot applications. There’s a lot of uncertainty, but luckily, the Texas Legislature gave us this process in the election code and we can rely on it now.”

We talked about how more people could be voting by mail now if they asked for it. There are concerns, but they can be addressed, especially for a low-turnout May election like the primary runoffs. But again, if we’re going to do this we need to get a concrete proposal on the table as soon as possible so any objections or concerns can be aired and dealt with. There’s definitely some momentum here and that’s good to see, but we need to get this going.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

Texas is not making any moves to delay the May 26 primary runoff as of now, even as other states have opted to postpone elections.
But election officials have had preliminary conversations about the potential of doing vote-by-mail ballots only for the runoffs, which would be a first in Texas history.
“It’s a possible solution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said Monday.

He said the idea has been kicked around and could work because of how low the turnout typically is for runoffs in Texas. As a former elections official, he said he has no doubt Texas counties could get ballots to voters who wanted to vote by mail rather than risk going to large polling sites.

The Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, would not confirm that it is exploring that possibility, only saying a lot of options are on the table.

[…]

Other states have postponed primaries entirely. In Louisiana, election day has been moved from April 4 to June 20. In Georgia, the March 24 primary is now on May 19.

Absentee voting by mail is allowed in Texas for some people but isn’t very popular. In the March 4 primary, just 52,000 of 516,000 voters in Harris County cast ballots by mail.

In order to vote by mail in the May 26 runoff, voters must submit an application by May 15 to their county elections office.

See here for the background. It’s not clear to me how this could be accomplished without a special session of the Legislature, but perhaps Greg Abbott has the authority to order the SOS to come up with a plan for this based on the declared state of emergency. I’ll want to see an explanation of that, but even if it is a special session that is needed, that should be doable. The bigger question, as I discussed in my post, is whether everyone would have to apply for a mail ballot, or whether one would just be mailed to everyone who cast a primary vote. One can reasonably argue for either – I prefer the latter approach, as noted – and one can also point out that either approach has its share of logistical challenges. Which means that if we’re serious about this and not just dicking around, we need to get a proposal on the table and have at it.

One other issue to contend with:

Voting rights advocacy groups have been leery of Texas pushing vote-by-mail too far because its system makes it too easy for voters’ ballots to be thrown out if elections officials decide a signature on a returned ballot doesn’t look right.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has warned that the ballots are not reviewed by experts but instead by everyday eligible voters who just eyeball signatures for irregularities. Those decisions are final and give voters no chance to prove a ballot was properly signed. The group has pushed for Texas to allow voters a chance to contest ballots rejected for a signature match issue.

That’s a very legitimate concern, and one that needs to be addressed if this moves forward. Plenty of other states do a lot more voting by mail than Texas does, so I’m sure there are ways to handle this, it just needs to be an actual priority and not something left up to individual elections administrators. Again, if we are serious about this, we need to be talking details as soon as possible. We’ll see about that.

The Texas Democratic Party has called for all mail ballots for both the May primary runoffs and the regular May 2 election. I have no idea what is on the ballot on May 2 – as I said in the comments on my earlier post, there are no elections handled by the Harris County Clerk in May of even-numbered years. I’m fine with the concept, but it’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. The possibility of doing more vote by mail in November is also an entirely separate issue, one for which I’ve got a post in the works. For now, I think the primary runoffs are the main concern.

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

In an unprecedented move, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday he would waive testing requirements for this year’s STAAR exam, as many schools expect to be closed at least through the April testing window, due to the new coronavirus.

He also said he would ask the federal government to waive this year’s federal standardized testing requirements, which apply to all states. According to the state, as of Sunday afternoon, 569 school districts had announced closures due to coronavirus concerns. Texas is not alone, since more than 30 states have closed schools due to coronavirus, affecting at least 30 million public school students nationwide.

The federal government has previously said it might give out targeted waivers from testing for areas where the COVID-19 disease has had significant impact.

The state will not mandate that districts offer the exam, but some superintendents may want the test data to see how their students are doing, according to the TEA. Agency officials are working to support those school districts, if necessary.

[…]

State leaders are giving schools more leeway than they have in the past, showing the increasing seriousness surrounding the COVID-19 disease.

When Hurricane Harvey decimated Houston-area and Coastal Bend communities in 2017, [TEA Commissioner Mike] Morath hesitated to give them a break on testing or accountability requirements, arguing that doing so would harm student learning. He argued that getting rid of state testing requirements would violate federal requirements and put federal funding at risk.

Eventually he agreed not to hold poor STAAR results against schools and districts, though he did not waive the requirement that they test students.

“Accountability results have been waived for Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ike, Hurricane Harvey. But never has testing itself been waived,” said Dee Carney, a longtime school accountability consultant in Texas. “It’s absolutely an unprecedented event requiring extraordinary measures of our schools and our teachers and our communities.”

It is not clear exactly what the implications are for students who need to take certain state tests in order to graduate from high school or move on to the next grade. Morath said he would send more specific guidance on student testing and school accountability this week, likely before Thursday.

So three things here. One, given the likely closure of schools through the rest of the academic year, this was basically inevitable. There’s too much disruption, and the test results would be essentially meaningless. Which was the same argument lots of people made following Harvey in 2017, but this time the message was received. Two, this is going to be a months-long, if not years-long, experiment in unprecedented actions and figuring things out as we go, because what else can we do? And three, we just may find out that some of the things we’d been doing all along we can do without, or do differently, and some things we’d never done before become new habits. That’s what happens with big disruptions. Maybe one result of all this is we’ll completely re-evaluate the need for high-stakes testing like we have now. Or maybe we’ll decide we need even more of it. I don’t know what will happen, but I’ll bet that five years from now when we look back on all this, we’ll be amazed at how different things became.

Abbott declares a state of emergency

Seems like it’s called for.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday declared that the new coronavirus is a statewide public health disaster and said that Texas is on the verge of being able to significantly ramp up its testing capacity.

At the same time he announced that he was directing day cares, nursing homes and prisons to limit visitations.

He said San Antonio is opening on Friday the first state drive-through with testing capabilities that will initially prioritize health care workers and high-risk patients.

Abbott also finally clarified the state’s testing history so far and current capabilities. In total, he said there have been 220 Texans tested by either a state public lab or by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There are another 75 Texans being tested currently.

On Friday, the state’s testing capacity was roughly 270 people per day, but he said next week that capacity will expand into the thousands as private labs come online.

The Chron adds some more details.

The governor didn’t provide details on where and when the lab would open. But he credited Mayor Ron Nirenberg and his team for leading the way on the issue.

The facility will initially be only for first responders, health care workers, operators of critical infrastructure and key resources and certain high-risk patients, Abbott said.

He said the state has tested 220 Texans so far for the virus and he expects public and private labs to exponentially increase the capacity next week. The labs will be able to test several thousand people a week.

It’s a good and necessary start, but there’s a lot more that can be said and done. What about paid sick leave, which the state is fighting tooth and nail in court, for one? What about the millions of people with no health insurance, including all those who would have benefited from an expansion of Medicaid? It may seem crass and opportunistic to bring up heated political points like these right now, but we’d be in a much stronger position now if Abbott and his fellow Republicans hadn’t so fiercely opposed these things. Policy and politics matter. We shouldn’t let Abbott off the hook for these things just because he did his job today. WFAA and the DMN have more.

What should we do about the runoffs?

With coronavirus concerns now shutting down all kinds of public events and other large gatherings, it’s more than fair to wonder what the risks are of conducting the primary runoffs in the usual fashion. This post on Indivisible Houston suggests a path forward.

Runoff elections are coming soon, and while I understand commercial events being cancelled, I am absolutely opposed to the cancellation of democracy. Unfortunately, if people are stuck inside for the next month or two, we may have either public health issues or fear weighing down voter turnout by keeping people from going to the polls unless they are eligible to vote by mail.

One approach we may be able to take as a state to ensure people can vote is to demand access to vote by mail for all residents. The Governor of Texas can likely make that happen by a state of emergency or special session. Harris County and other counties can also advocate for such a solution or similar solutions; our county clerk, county attorney, and commissioners court are capable of coming up with a game plan, too.

I understand this is not the foremost concern for everyone in the county because we’re all trying to make sure our county is healthy and that people have their basic needs met. But I also think it’s important to protect democracy. The ballot is too important to be denied, even amidst chaos.

If you agree with me, please call the Governor’s office, your state rep, and your county level officials to demand a solution to the issue.
Below is a script and some of their information. You can call, email, tweet, or preferably do two or all three.

“Hello, my name is ________. I am a constituent and I want to encourage you to find solutions for our May runoff election that would allow all voters to vote by mail and otherwise ensure access to the polls in a way that accounts for the public health crisis.

Please tally my opinion.

Thank you.”

-Governor Greg Abbott – (512) 463-2000
https://gov.texas.gov/apps/contact/opinion.aspx
@gregabbott_tx

-Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo
713-274-7000
Twitter: @Lina4HC

-Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis
713-274-1000
@RodneyEllis

-Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia
713-755-6220
@adriangarciahtx

-Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack
713-755-6306

-Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
713-755-6444

-Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman
713-274-8600
@dtrautman

Find your state rep and senator here and call them.

I should note up front that primary runoffs have much, much lower turnout (see item 4) than regular primaries. There won’t be any lines to vote in the runoffs. You’ll breeze in and out and may not see anyone but the election workers. That said, those election workers will see and interact with plenty of people over the course of the day, and of course we’ll all be using the same voting machines. Neither of those is a great idea in the time of pandemic, and it’s not at all hard to imagine that turnout could be suppressed even more than usual just from people’s natural fear of going to the polling places.

So given all that, switching to an all vote-by-mail primary runoff seems like an excellent way to mitigate the risk. Greg Abbott would have to call a special session to amend the existing law to allow for this, and I would hope that would be a notion that anyone could get behind. I mean, these are primary runoffs, so there’s no question of partisan advantage, just of public health. As a practical matter, this would have to be done by April 11, as that day is the deadline for sending out mail ballots to overseas voters. There’s time, but let’s not dilly-dally.

(And yes, there would be legit health concerns about getting all 181 legislators plus their staff and journalists and whoever else into the Capitol at this time. I don’t know what they can do to mitigate that. At least they can minimize the amount of time they’d have to all be in one room.)

Assuming that could be done, the next question would be how to get the mail ballots out. Normally, people have to request a mail ballot, if they are eligible. Both parties have programs to help people with that, but this is a much bigger scope, and also a more complex one since anyone who voted in March can only vote in the same party’s runoff. I would advocate that this law mandate that anyone who voted in Round One automatically be sent a mail ballot for the runoff, with anyone who didn’t vote in Round One being eligible to request whichever ballot they might want (as they are allowed to do). That would likely serve as an experiment in how much an all-vote-by-mail election would affect turnout, because I’d expect a lot of people who otherwise might have ignored the runoff would fill in their ballot and send it back. That might cause some heartburn in the Lege, especially (but maybe not exclusively) on the Republican side, and would likely be the biggest point of contention other than whether or not to do this at all. Also, counties might reasonably ask for some funding to cover all those mail ballots, as they would be expected to send out far more than they normally would, and someone has to pay for the postage and handling. I would argue the state should at least kick something in for that – there’s plenty of money available – but again, this would surely be a sore point for some.

(It may not be entirely up to us. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced a bill that would require all states to offer voters a vote-by-mail option, or to allow for the drop-off of hand-marked paper ballots, once 25 percent of states and/or territories declare a state of emergency related to the coronavirus. The bill would kick in $500 million in federal funding to help states make this happen. It likely has no chance of passing, though, and even if it did it’s hard to imagine it happening in time for our May 26 runoff. But at least someone else is thinking about it.)

Anyway. I’m convinced this is a good option – you should feel free to tell me in the comments why I’m wrong about that – and should at least be up for discussion, if not action. And I agree, if you think this is a good idea, now would be the time to make some calls and express that opinion to Abbott and your legislators. Time is short, so get to it now or forever lose the chance.

Chron overview of HD134

Is this the year Sarah Davis loses? That’s the question.

Rep. Sarah Davis

The March primaries are weeks away, but the first question at a recent forum for the three Democrats running to unseat state Rep. Sarah Davis centered on November: “How do you plan to win this race if you are the nominee?”

The answer has evaded Democrats since the 2010 tea party wave, when Davis flipped the highly affluent and educated House District 134. Widely viewed as the most moderate Republican in the Texas House, she comfortably has retained the seat in four subsequent elections, despite strong headwinds atop the ballot the last two cycles.

Those electoral results are on the minds of voters, and the candidates themselves, in the sleepy Democratic primary between educator Lanny Bose and attorneys Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers. With little evidence of public rancor between them, they instead are directing their attacks toward Davis’ record, each trying to convince voters of their ability to beat her in November.

“My attitude is, we’ve got three folks who are applying to be team captain. I’m going to be a part of this race in the general whether or not my name is on the ballot,” Bose said. “This primary is about talking about our shared vision for what this seat and what Houston should look like.”

[…]

Republicans are skeptical Democrats will be able to wield the Abbott endorsement against Davis, or that she will lose under even the most unfavorable conditions.

“I don’t think the voters really — other than the inside baseball participants — care about political endorsements,” said Chris Beavers, a Republican strategist who is not involved in the race. “They care about service, and there is nobody who serves their district more passionately and fully than Sarah Davis does.”

Last cycle, Davis accurately predicted that some statewide Republicans could lose her district — which encompasses the Texas Medical Center, Southside Place, Bellaire, Rice University and West University Place, where she lives — amid a “blue wave” of Democratic voters. The results varied wildly: Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke won 60 percent of the House District 134 vote, while Republican Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick narrowly beat her Democratic opponent there.

Davis captured 53 percent, winning by about 5,600 votes out of nearly 89,000.

That, Davis said, shows the district’s voters “cross the ballot to vote for people, not for parties.”

“My opponents who refer to the district as ‘flippable’ just don’t get it,” Davis said. “It isn’t about the party label, it’s about representing the priorities of this unique district regardless of party.”

Here’s the sum total of Republicans who carried HD134 in 2018:
Ed Emmett (56.31%) beat Lina Hidalgo (41.46%).
Glenn Hegar (48.60%) beat Joi Chavalier (48.52%).
Christi Craddick (49.00%) beat Roman McAllen (48.60%).
Seven Republican judicial candidates out of 74 total judicial races.

That’s it. Every other Republican, running for every other office, lost in HD134. Some by a hair, others by a landslide, they all lost. You can hang your hat on Christi Craddick and Glenn Hegar if you want, those are some strong headwinds.

It’s also the key reason why HD134 looks so much more winnable than in the past. Far fewer Democrats won HD134 in 2016, including judicial candidates. The district wasn’t just blue at the tippy top in 2018, it was blue pretty much all the way through.

There are plenty of antecedents for this race. Former Congressman Chet Edwards won three races in a very Republican, DeLay-redrawn district, until 2010 when a bunch of people who used to vote for him decided they were better represented by a Republican. Former State Rep. Ellen Cohen won two terms in this same HD134, which was about as Republican downballot then as it is Democratic now, until 2010 when a bunch of voters who had once supported her decided they were better represented by someone like Sarah Davis. I’m not saying that’s how this election, under very similar circumstances, will go. I’m just saying we’ve seen elections like it before. The voters there may still decide that she represents them well, regardless of her party. Or they may decide that even if she is the best that the Republican Party has to offer these days, the fact that it’s the Republican Party that’s making the offering is enough for them to change their minds.

That’s the point that the three Dems running for the nomination, all of whom are running actual, active, engaged campaigns unlike Davis’ opponent in 2018, would like to make with the voters. You may say that boiling this down to red versus blue is a disservice to the voters, and that making up their own independent non-partisan minds is more valuable. I say the difference between re-electing Sarah Davis and ousting her in favor of one of those three fine Dems is at least possibly the difference between a State House that spends 2021 passing a bunch of anti-trans bills and anti-abortion bills and anti-immigrant bills (Sarah Davis co-sponsored SB4, the “show me your papers” bill, and voted for the sonogram bill in 2011, in case you’ve forgotten) and new maps that heavily favor Republicans, and a State House that doesn’t do those things. The voters can decide for themselves which of those outcomes they prefer.

In case you need a reminder, my interviews with the HD134 candidates are here:

Ann Johnson
Ruby Powers
Lanny Bose

More heat on Abbott over his anti-refugee action

Good. Keep it up.

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s not an immigrant versus native-born issue … it is not a religious versus secular issue,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a press conference with elected officials and leaders of refugee resettlement organizations. “We cannot turn our backs to the most vulnerable facing the most difficult conditions imaginable.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Abbott was wrongly conflating refugee resettlement, which involves an extensive State Department vetting process that can last three years, and migrants coming across the southern border to ask for asylum.

Both numbers have dropped dramatically and this year only about 2,000 refugees were expected in Texas, compared to 7,800 admitted during the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016.

Garcia noted that the federal government fully funds the initial resettlement of refugees and that the state pays no direct costs.

“This is a reprehensible decision,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat who represents southwest Houston where many refugees are initially housed, said the governor’s choice went against his Catholic faith.

“Gov. Abbott had the choice to live as a Christian and follow what Christ said and commanded and he chose the opposite,” he said.

Opting out of the federal program means funding won’t be given to local organizations to resettle refugees in Texas, said Kimberly Haynes, a regional refugee coordinator with the South Texas Office of Refugees.

She said Abbott’s decision does not prevent refugees from moving here later, but meant the state would no longer receiving funding to help them integrate, including to find jobs and learn English. Most refugees coming to Houston are joining relatives likely will continue to come here no matter where they are settled, Haynes said.

“If someone is resettled here and the next day they want to come to this great state, they can take the bus and come to Texas,” said Ali Al Sudani, who came here as a refugee from Iraq a decade ago and is now senior vice president for programs at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t believe for a minute any of this will affect Abbott – he doesn’t talk to the public, so why would he ever listen to the public? – but it’s still the right thing to do, and maybe there is some level of heat that Abbott might feel. In the meantime, this whole fight may be moot.

A federal judge temporarily blocked a Trump administration policy that would have allowed governors, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other local leaders to prevent refugees from resettling in those areas.

The Wednesday decision from Maryland-based Judge Peter J. Messitte comes just days after Abbott became the first and only state leader to opt out of the program. Officials had until Jan. 21 to inform the State Department whether they would participate in the program after the Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order. At least 42 governors, including Republicans, have said they would accept refugees.

“By giving States and Local governments the power to veto where refugees maybe settled – in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings, and Constitutional doctrine to the contrary – [the order] does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” Messitte said in his ruling.

You can see a copy of the ruling here. I assume this will be appealed by the Trump administration, and as the original lawsuit was not filed in the Fifth Circuit there’s a chance this ruling could be upheld. For now at least, the madness has been stopped. NPR, Daily Kos, and the Texas Signal have more.

Bishops condemn Abbott’s refugee refusal

Good.

Texas’ Catholic bishops issued a sharp rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott, a fellow Catholic, following his decision Friday to ban refugees from initially settling in Texas.

In a joint statement by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, which includes leaders from Texas’ 15 dioceses, the group called the decision “discouraging and disheartening.”

“While the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops respects the governor, this decision is simply misguided,” the group wrote. “It denies people who are fleeing persecution, including religious persecution, from being able to bring their gifts and talents to our state and contribute to the general common good of all Texans.”

“As Catholics, an essential aspect of our faith is to welcome the stranger and care for the alien,” the statement said.

In response to the bishops’ statement, Abbott spokesperson John Wittman said the governor’s decision won’t deny anyone access to this country.

“No one seeking refugee status in the United States will be denied that status because of the Texas decision,” he stated in an email. “Importantly, the decision by Texas will not prevent any refugee from coming to America. Equally important, the Texas decision doesn’t stop refugees from moving to Texas after initially settling in another state.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the full statement, which isn’t much longer than what was quote above. Abbott’s spokesbot’s assertion is both misleading and wrong, as Chris Hooks explains:

People accepted as refugees by the United States are by definition legal immigrants. They’ve already gone through an extensive vetting process by federal and international agencies, proving that they face great risk if they were forced to return to their home countries. They’ve waited years and years to find a new home, sometimes in dire overseas camps. Border security and federal refugee resettlement are wholly distinct issues, and it would be a lie to pretend otherwise.

The Omaha World-Herald hosts a database where you can find information about refugees officially resettled in the United States since 2002. According to the database, Texas has helped shelter about 86,000 refugees through the program, as the state added a total of 7 million new residents. Those 86,000 people account for about 0.3% of the total population of Texas. They’re spread all over the state, from Abilene to Woodville, but concentrated in big cities with preexisting immigrant populations.

These are not the people trying to get over the Texas-Mexico border right now. Indeed, very few of them come from Central America at all. Since 2002, no refugees settled in Texas came from Mexico. Two came from Guatemala, 47 from Honduras, and 267 from El Salvador. In fact, the most popular Spanish-speaking origin country is Cuba. Some 2,800 people fleeing the communist dictatorship found shelter here, just like Ted Cruz’s dad once did, through the federal program. Helping Cubans, of course, is a project with longstanding conservative support. By and large, the refugees America accepts are people who are exiled from countries most Americans couldn’t place on a map—like Myanmar, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

They have stories like Gilbert Tuhabonye, who spent nine hours buried under a pile of his dead and dying classmates at a schoolhouse in Burundi, waiting for death in a pool of fire and blood and caustic chemicals as genocidaires, his former neighbors, waited outside with machetes, before he broke a window with someone’s charred femur and ran all the way to a hospital, a track scholarship at Abilene Christian University, American citizenship, and a home in Austin. They’re fleeing vicious governments, ethnic cleansing, wars, climate-change-fueled disaster, and genocides. They’re artists, pro-democracy activists, faith leaders, muckraking journalists, and everything else you can imagine.

There is, of course, a hypothetical point at which a society begins to bend under the stress of refugees. The countries that host the most refugees are middle-income countries near war zones, like Turkey, Jordan, and Pakistan, and the accumulation of desperate people causes those nations a lot of problems. But we are far, far from that point. And it’s a truism that helping a single refugee is meaningful. The country, and Texas, doesn’t have to take everyone who needs help to do good. Imagine that there’s a civil war in Canada, and a million people flee from death camps. It seems clear that it would be better to give 100,000 Canadian refugees shelter instead of just 1,000. Just the same, it’s a better deed to give a home to ten rather than zero. Zero is clearly the least acceptable option.

The U.S. helps a very modest number of people every year, arguably many less than it should or could. The Trump administration has already gutted the refugee program—in the 2018 fiscal year, America accepted just 22,491 refugees, a number that could be entirely settled in Texas without anyone realizing they had arrived. Texas took in just 1,697 of that number—a rounding error, a smaller population than that of a large apartment complex in Dallas or Houston. It’s said that the population of Austin grows by 152 people a day, which means Austin has added more people since the new year than the whole state took in refugees in 2018.

This, Abbott says in his letter, represents a disproportionate burden, the state having already “carried more than its share in assisting of the refugee resettlement process.” He notes that Texas has taken 10 percent of refugees resettled through the program, perhaps because Texas has just under 10 percent of the nation’s population. There’s clearly no flood of refugees here, but you might ask, do these people themselves represent a disproportionate burden? Is this small number of people a huge drain on state resources? No. It’s certainly true that when they first arrive, many refugees need public help in the form of food stamps and access to health care, in the same way that you would need help if you were, say, a war orphan who had lost everything you ever owned and had to reestablish yourself in Belarus.

But the performance of refugees in America is closely tracked and quantified, and even the Trump administration’s own numbers show that most refugees work very hard to establish themselves, to integrate into our (extremely complicated and not-always-very-welcoming) society. Soon, they’re paying taxes. They learn English, their kids become doctors, their grandkids get liberal arts degrees and join sketch comedy groups—you know, the American dream. And they find ways to give back—just like Gilbert Tuhabonye did.

Perhaps one of the most head-scratching parts of Abbott’s rejection of refugees is that faith-based groups do most of the hard work. Helping refugees is not entirely, or even largely, the province of bleeding-heart libs. Much of the groundwork is done by evangelical Christians, people who might well have voted for Abbott, along with Catholic and Jewish organizations. “It’s gut-wrenching,” Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, told the Houston Chronicle. “It’s an abdication of everything Texans claim to stand for: freedom of opportunity, freedom of religion, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

If you still find yourself feeling uneasy about the prospect of refugees coming to Texas, then, finally, know this. Abbott’s letter doesn’t mean that refugees won’t come to Texas. It means that they won’t get federal help if they do. It means that, say, a female political dissident from Myanmar who was subjected to punitive gang rape and smuggled herself out in the lower reaches of a container ship may not be placed in an apartment in Houston near her cousin’s family, but instead in Fargo, North Dakota. If she then decides to move to Houston, she could forfeit federal assistance and be worse off, less able to integrate successfully. And the charities that could help her will be stretched thinner on the ground.

I’m old enough to remember when various Catholic clergymen made a high-profile vow to deny Communion to Catholic politicians – all Democrats, of course – who supported abortion rights. Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, was a favorite target. I thought that was a crappy thing to do then and it would be an equally crappy thing to do now, I’m just pointing it out to note that all things considered, Abbott got off easy. The Chron has more.

Abbott opts out of accepting refugees

Sadly, not a surprise.

Gov. Greg Abbott informed the U.S. State Department that Texas will not participate in the refugee resettlement program this fiscal year.

The decision comes after more than 40 other governors, including several Republicans, said they would opt in to the federal refugee resettlement program. Resettlement agencies need written consent from states and local governments by Jan. 21. The Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order that requires written consent from states and local entities before they resettle refugees within their boundaries.

The news was first reported by The Daily Wire and later confirmed by the governor’s office. The AP reported that Texas is the first state to opt out of the program.

Abbott said the state and nonprofit organizations should concentrate resources on those already here, according to a letter the governor sent to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“At this time, the state and nonprofit organizations have a responsibility to dedicate available resources to those who are already here, including refugees, migrants, and the homeless—indeed, all Texans,” he wrote.

Refugee advocacy groups condemned the move.

“This is a deeply disappointing decision — although not surprising given Texas’ previous but unsuccessful opposition to refugee resettlement a few years ago,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. “This is precisely why we filed a lawsuit against President Trump’s unlawful executive order, and we are confident that justice will be served.”

See here for the background. Abbott’s actions not only set him apart from multiple other Republican governors, but also contradicts what many cities and counties in Texas asked for. There are two things I want out of life right now. One is for these terrible, amoral cowards who now hold office to be voted out at the next opportunity. The other is for them all to never be described in terms that attribute positive values to the religious faith they claim to practice. You want to be known as a moral, upright person? Act like one, or get the hell out. The Chron has more.

Abbott and refugees

The moral choice is clear. It’s also clear for a variety of other reasons. I don’t expect Greg Abbott to make it, because he’s Greg Abbott.

For years, more refugees have resettled in Houston and Texas than any other city or state in the country.

Now that may end.

Under a new requirement imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration, state and local governments must consent in writing before refugees can arrive next year. At least 34 governors, including 13 Republicans, and 86 county and city executives have given their approval.

Mayors and county leaders of all Texas’ biggest cities —including Houston, San Antonio, Dallas and Austin — sent letters opting in.

But Gov. Greg Abbott, who has lead efforts to block Syrian refugees and withdrew from the federal resettlement program in a largely symbolic move in 2016, has not.

If he does not agree, no refugees could be placed in the state, despite what local authorities may want.

John Wittman, Abbott’s spokesman, did not return multiple calls, texts, and emails seeking comment.

“Our understanding is that he’s still weighing his options,” said Jen Smyers, director of policy for Church World Service, one of nine national resettlement agencies in the country. “Given its size and the welcome that refugees receive in Texas, and the faith community’s support, and businesses who rely on refugees for workers in agriculture, manufacturing, and meatpacking, it certainly would have a sizable impact if Texas were not to continue to resettle refugees.”

The Catholic Church, of which Greg Abbott claims to be a devout member, is strongly pro-refugee. The Bible, which people who claim to be Christian claim to believe in, is strongly pro-refugee. Greg Abbott is a Republican, and a Donald Trump minion. You do the math. I’ve said many times in this space that nothing will change until the government changes. Well, in this case this was a change brought about by a change in government, the election of Donald Trump. What has been done can still be undone. The rest is up to us.

Maybe try updating your pop culture references?

Allow me to say something very obvious but often overlooked about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott revived a debate Saturday about a controversial line from a decades-old Pace Picante ad: “Get a rope.”

Abbott tweeted the reference after a follower jokingly asked him what he was going to do about a Whataburger that had run out of Dr Pepper.

One minute later, another Twitter user accused the governor of making an insensitive joke about lynching.

“Lynching jokes? Still? It’s 2019, Greg,” Gary M. Sarli tweeted. The governor responded by telling him to “lighten up, dude.”

“It’s a line ripped off of the Pace Picante Get A Rope Commercial,” Abbott wrote with a link to the old advertisement. “Put a smile on your face. Go to Whataburger & order a double with cheese & jalapeños. Tell them Dr. Pepper sent you.”

Sarli said he remembered the ad too, but it doesn’t justify using the remark.

“It’s not OK,” he replied. “Lynching jokes are making light of the mass murder of Black folks by lynch mobs. It’s not OK to joke about this.”

Let me state for the record that Gary Sarli is correct, lynching jokes were never appropriate, and they are very much still being made far too often and in far too much comfort by prominent people now. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there were many jokes made in the culture from decades past that were wrong then and really, really have no place in the discourse now. You’d think that a guy who was lightning-fast to defenestrate Rick Miller for his racist statements about Asian-Americans might have just a tad bit more self-awareness about lynching-related jokes.

But look, maybe someone should gently inform Greg Abbott that the commercial in question was made in 1992. There are many, many people alive and living in Texas right now that have never seen that ad, or that have no memory of it. People react to “Pace Picante Sauce commercial” references in part because of the horrible legacy that underlies the joke in question, but also because they have no idea what the reference is about. It comes completely out of the blue to them, in the way that a joke based on Evening Shade or Blossom or Wings might land. Tell Abbott to have his staffers quiz their children and grandchildren about what’s funny today, and go from there. I mean, Abbott making a joke about the Peloton wife may be painful, but it’s less likely to result in this kind of controversy. I’m just saying.