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Greg Abbott

Austin aims for pot decriminalization

We’ll see how this goes. I suspect the measure will pass, but I’m not sure it will be allowed to take effect.

As greater numbers of Texas voters sour on harsh punishment for marijuana offenses, Austin voters will likely decide in May whether to effectively decriminalize the drug.

The ballot measure, pushed by the group Ground Game Texas, would forbid Austin police officers in most cases from ticketing or arresting people on low-level pot charges like possessing small amounts of the drug or related paraphernalia — unless the offenses are tied to more severe crimes. The city also would not pay to test substances suspected to be marijuana — a key step in substantiating drug charges.

Both practices have already been informally adopted in Austin, but advocates want to solidify them at the May ballot box.

“The primary effect is that it would make the decriminalization that exists in Austin today actually long term and would put the force of law behind it,” said Chris Harris, policy director at Austin Justice Coalition.

[…]

But the measure faces one big obstacle: Although marijuana laws in Texas have loosened somewhat in recent years, the drug remains illegal at the state level.

Public support for harsh marijuana laws and prosecutors’ willingness to bring charges for minor offenses has waned in recent years.

The number of new charges for misdemeanor marijuana possession fell by 59% from 2016 to 2020, according to figures from the Texas Office of Court Administration, as prosecutors in the state’s major urban areas have increasingly deprioritized marijuana prosecutions.

Most Texas voters support decriminalizing marijuana in some form. Three-fifths of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal, according to a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll last year.

That support cuts across partisan lines. Nearly three-fourths of Democrats and independents think marijuana should be legal. So do 43% of Republicans, a plurality of that group.

It’s against that backdrop that Ground Game Texas — a progressive group focused on issues of “workers, wages and weed” — plans to mount decriminalization campaigns in Killeen and Harker Heights.

As the story notes, there’s an effort by Ground Game Texas to put a similar measure on the ballot in San Marcos. The City Council in Denton recently voted down an ordinance to do the same there, a move that perhaps validates this approach. The Austin police union, which has been resistant to the earlier efforts to decriminalize pot, is staying out of this election, but who knows what they might do afterward.

So what happens if this passes, as I expect it will? One obvious possibility is legal action to require the enforcement of the state laws. I’m sure there’s someone who’d be willing to be the plaintiff in such a filing, and no one has to encourage Ken Paxton to swing a bat in Austin’s direction. Legislative action is also possible – again, there’s nothing a Republican likes more these days than filing a bill to stop a city from doing something that legislator doesn’t approve of. A complicating factor in all this is that Greg Abbott is mumbling a few words in favor of being less harsh about pot, likely in recognition of the polling on this issue and Beto’s stronger pro-pot stance. I don’t know how much that complicates things for the keep-pot-criminal crowd, but it’s another dimension. I don’t know which way this will go, but it all starts with the measure being passed, and I feel pretty confident about that.

The cities and the freeze

Well, at least some government entities are trying to learn from the February disaster, even if they’re having a rough go of it.

Ten months after the freeze, Texas cities have made some headway on storm preparedness, an oft-neglected area of local government. They have bolstered reserves of bottled water for residents in case of water outages, bought tire chains for city emergency vehicles, and implemented measures intended to shorten potential power outages for residents and keep electricity flowing to critical facilities.

But as winter approaches and the electrical grid remains vulnerable to blackouts, cities are still short on two key fronts: making sure their most vulnerable residents have the information they need to survive a similar calamity and that the water stays on. Many preparations cities are undertaking to protect residents against future disasters will take months, if not years, to put in place, city officials have said.

And worries abound that officials didn’t learn the lesson and will neglect to adopt new readiness measures — as they have after past disasters.

Austin officials failed to make emergency preparations before February that may have helped during the winter storm, despite past recommendations to do so, according to a recent report conducted by city auditors. Austin has adopted only a sliver of the recommendations made in the wake of other recent calamities, the report says.

“It’s extremely frustrating, and we need systems in place that don’t let that happen again,” Austin City Council member Alison Alter said during a meeting on the report’s findings last month.

Emergency officials say part of the reason those calls haven’t been entirely heeded is that large-scale disasters are becoming increasingly common as climate change worsens, making it more difficult to learn from the last one before the next one hits. On top of that, responding to the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched emergency responders thin.

“There hasn’t been enough time in between them to look at all those corrective actions,” Juan Ortiz, who heads Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, told a council committee in November. “That really has caused the congestion in work that needed to be done.”

[…]

In San Antonio, city and utility officials are scheduled to deliver a joint emergency communications plan at the end of the month. An important question they are expected to address is how to communicate ahead of and during a storm with residents who don’t have internet access to begin with — like many residents on the city’s South Side.

Those residents can’t be left out in the cold, said council member Adriana Rocha Garcia.

“A preparation checklist should be on a door hanger for every vulnerable community to be able to just literally go out and get it from their doors so that they know exactly what to do, exactly who to call in case of an emergency during a winter storm,” Rocha Garcia said.

Now do the story about what Greg Abbott has learned from the experience and what he’s doing about it. Oh, wait…

Beto for legalizing weed

I do think this is a winning campaign theme.

Beto O’Rourke

At a crowded rally in downtown Austin, Beto O’Rourke ticked off his usual laundry list of campaign promises: stabilizing the power grid, rolling back the state’s new permitless carry law and expanding health care access.

But the El Paso Democrat got some of the loudest cheers of the night when he promised to legalize marijuana in Texas, something he said “most of us, regardless of party, actually agree on.”

“I’ve been warned that this may or may not be a popular thing to say in Austin, Texas,” O’Rourke said to the crowd gathered in Republic Square Park in December. “But when I am governor, we are going to legalize marijuana.”

The support is nothing new for the gubernatorial candidate. O’Rourke has championed legalization efforts throughout his political career, ever since his time as a member of the El Paso city council. He also nodded at the policy throughout his failed campaigns for U.S. Senate and for president.

But in his early run for governor, O’Rourke, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has repeatedly mentioned legalizing marijuana on the campaign trail across Texas. Advocates hope the increased attention will give momentum to legalization efforts in a state with some of the harshest penalties and highest arrest rates for marijuana possession.

[…]

If O’Rourke becomes governor, his plans to legalize marijuana would face another set of hurdles in the form of the Texas Legislature, particularly Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the state Senate.

After the House in April 2019 gave preliminary approval to a bill that would have reduced criminal penalties for Texans possessing small amounts of marijuana, Patrick declared the measure dead in the Senate.

There’s been some momentum for more progressive marijuana policies within Patrick’s party in recent sessions. In 2019, state Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, filed bills that would relax laws restricting medical cannabis access. Both of those reforms failed to become law. But Gov. Greg Abbott in May did sign a watered-down expansion of Texas’ medical marijuana program to include people with cancer and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Patrick did not comment for this story. In a previous statement to The Texas Tribune, a Patrick spokesperson said the lieutenant governor is “strongly opposed to weakening any laws against marijuana [and] remains wary of the various medicinal use proposals that could become a vehicle for expanding access to this drug.”

Abbott didn’t answer questions on his position regarding marijuana legalization.

Legalization advocates hope O’Rourke’s candidacy can move opinions among state leaders on relaxing marijuana restrictions.

“Hopefully with Beto O’Rourke presumably being the Democratic nominee, we can push the other candidates in the race to talk about this issue more, to come to the table and have a conversation about how these policies are having negative impacts on our state,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy.

Marijuana legalization draws some broad support across the state. According to a June 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, 60% of Texas voters say at least a small amount of marijuana should be legal. That figure includes 73% of Democrats, 74% of independents and 43% of Republicans.

Mike Siegel, the co-founder of Ground Game Texas, a nonprofit focused on supporting progressive policies around “workers, wages, and weed,” said the issue is an opportunity for O’Rourke to reach independent or nonaligned voters.

“[Marijuana policy] is a major opportunity for [O’Rourke] to reach out to middle of the road, independent or nonaligned voters and even some Republican voters,” Siegel said. “A governor’s race that’s high-profile like the one that is coming up, where it could be Beto O’Rourke versus Greg Abbott, that’s the best opportunity to push these populist wedge issues.”

But Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin, said marijuana legalization isn’t a “terribly important issue” for voters on its own. Its political salience depends on the issues tied to the policy, he said, whether that is the economy, criminal justice system or health care.

As the story notes, this is a longstanding issue for Beto, going back to his days on El Paso City Council more than a decade ago as well as his time in Congress. I do think this is an issue that can move votes and motivate less reliable voters, though of course it has to be part of a bigger structure. I could see the overall message as being basically that Abbott is out of touch with what typical Texans want, with “not freezing to death because of massive power grid failures” being the first item on that list. Basically, how effective this will be as a campaign issue is largely what Beto can make of it. For now, I’m happy to see stories like this one.

We are so screwed if there’s a real cold front

[bangs head on desk].

During Texas’ first strong cold front of the winter this past weekend, natural gas production in the state’s top energy-producing region dropped by about 25%, according to a report from S&P Global. And while the lights largely stayed on across the state, the gas system’s performance during a brief cold snap raised more questions about the grid’s ability to handle extreme winter weather.

A separate Bloomberg report said gas production in the Permian Basin region of West Texas plunged to its lowest levels since last February’s deadly winter storm.

A number of natural gas companies reported to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that they had to unexpectedly flare off gas last weekend because their equipment froze.

Meanwhile, the Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, said it didn’t know anything about the sudden drop in gas production. An agency spokesperson said the commission is “currently evaluating available data on natural gas production during the weekend of Jan. 1 and 2.”

Natural gas fuels a majority of power generation in Texas, and some power generators reported disruptions to their gas supply — but they said it was not enough to impact generators’ ability to produce electricity. Gov. Greg Abbott said the state’s main power grid operator was prepared with extra power supply online.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the grid operator, said there were no significant power outages around the state.

But the disruptions to the natural gas supply during a typical Texas cold front calls into question whether the state’s gas companies are ready for extreme winter weather, a concern energy experts and power company executives have expressed in recent months after lawmakers didn’t require gas companies to immediately prepare their equipment for extreme cold.

“I think it means the gas system’s not ready for another cold snap,” said Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “It wasn’t even really cold. It was cold, but nothing close to Winter Storm Uri [in February].”

Who are you gonna believe, Greg Abbott or your lying eyes? At this point, all I can say is it would be best to prepare for winter like you prepare for hurricane season. Assume a disaster is coming, and act accordingly. Abbott doesn’t care if you live or die, so it’s everyone for themselves. Godspeed and good luck.

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

Savor the win, for it’s off to SCOTx next.

A state appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court injunction that allowed Harris County to impose mask requirements despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claimed state law lets the governor overturn local health mandates imposed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous virus.

Abbott hasn’t budged:Texas parents pleaded for Gov. Abbott to allow mask mandates in schools

“The Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities or officials that contradict his executive orders,” said the opinion, written by Justice Chari Kelly.

The appeals court also said the disaster act does not allow, as Abbott and Paxton argued, the governor to suspend state public health laws that give local leaders the power to impose safety rules during declared emergencies.

“(The disaster act) does not give the governor carte blanche to issue executive orders empowering him to rule the state in any way he wishes during a disaster,” Kelly said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Darlene Byrne and Justice Gisela Triana. All three justices are Democrats.

[…]

The appeal before the 3rd Court hinged on whether language in the Texas Disaster Act empowered Abbott to ban local rules enacted to protect public health.

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

• Designates the governor as “commander in chief” when addressing statewide disasters.

• Says local officials act as the governor’s designated agents during emergencies.

• States that executive orders issued under the act have the “force and effect of law.”

The appeals court, however, said Paxton and Abbott took the act’s provisions out of context.

The disaster law designates the governor as commander in chief of “state agencies, boards and commissions having emergency responsibilities” — not counties, Kelly wrote. In addition, nothing in the law limits the authority of county and local officials to respond to local disasters or public health crises, Kelly said.

“Even a statewide disaster may have distinct and disproportionate impacts in each of the state’s 254 counties and that, as a result, some measures for addressing a disaster in some counties may not be necessary or even appropriate in other counties,” Kelly wrote.

What’s more, she wrote, the disaster act lets the governor suspend “regulatory” laws that pertain to conducting state business. But Abbott sought to suspend a state law that lets local officials set public health rules in emergencies, and that law is not regulatory, the appeals court concluded.

“The Act empowers and recognizes that the Governor may issue statewide disaster declarations and that certain local officials may also issue local disaster declarations,” Kelly wrote.

“Nothing in the Act, however, suggests that these authorities are mutually exclusive,” she added.

As noted, the Third Court upheld a ruling issued in August by a Travis County district court. Note that there’s a second case, involving HISD and some other school districts, that was not part of this appeal. In this case, the three justices made the same points in the opinion that plenty of people, myself included, have been making all along about the Governor’s powers. Those judges are Democrats, and the judges on the Supreme Court are not, so we can’t just expect them to employ such thinking. Maybe they will, you never know, but you sure can’t assume it. For now, at least, the good guys have won. And even if SCOTx reverses this opinion, it’s still the case that Abbott and Paxton, by their own admission, don’t have the power to enforce Abbott’s no-mask mandate. Let’s not forget that.

Three comments about three vaccine mandate news stories

Item one:

A U.S. district judge in North Texas has blocked a mask mandate and vaccine requirement for staff and students in the Head Start program that was issued by President Joe Biden.

Head Start is a federal school readiness program for young kids in low-income families that is administered nationally by the federal Health and Human Services department, but run locally by nonprofits or schools. Biden previously ordered that staff running Head Start programs must be vaccinated and all students over the age of 2 had to wear masks. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lubbock ISD sued the Biden administration to stop enforcement of that order.

U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix, a 2019 appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, ruled Friday that the Biden administration could not enforce its mask and vaccine mandates for the Head Start program in Texas, although the mandates would continue in other states.

Hendrix wrote that the process by which the Biden administration implemented the mask and vaccine rules was in violation of federal law because such rules could only be put in place through a detailed process or with the authorization of Congress. The order applies until the judge holds a trial and issues a final decision on the full merits of the case, or if it is lifted by a higher court.

Item two:

In the state’s latest push against federal vaccine mandates, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced plans to sue the Biden administration for requiring Texas National Guard members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The suit would be the latest in what has been a slew of litigation against federal vaccine mandates that Texas has either brought forth or taken part in during the pandemic.

In a letter issued Tuesday to Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, Abbott claimed authority to exempt Texas guard members from receiving the vaccine.

Item three:

A federal judge in Fort Worth granted an injunction Monday against the Department of Defense and the Biden Administration that temporarily halted the U.S. Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The mandate is challenged by a group of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval special warfare personnel who say the mandate violates their religious freedom and they have been denied religious exemptions from receiving the vaccine.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas signed the injunction order after hearing testimony from several Navy SEALs in December as part of the group’s lawsuit. The suit is against President Joe Biden, the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.

My comments:

1. It is impossible to overstate how much Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are on the side of the COVID virus. They themselves are vaccinated, because they are not stupid and want to stay alive, but they absolutely do not care how many people die as a result of COVID. They see only political advantage in making the pandemic worse.

2. They will always be able to find Trumpy judges to plead their cases to, and will generally get favorable rulings from them as a result.

3. The only way to stop the state of Texas from filing these lawsuits is to elect a Democrat as Attorney General. Electing Beto O’Rourke as Governor would also help, as he would be less likely to impose pro-COVID executive orders.

Any questions?

The final official death toll from the big freeze

It’s undoubtedly an underestimate.

Texas has added 36 more deaths to the official death toll from the February snow and ice storm, bringing the total to 246 in what was one of the worst natural disasters in the state’s history.

The Department of State Health Services disclosed the new total in a report on the storm that was released Friday and described as the “final report” in an analysis by the department’s Disaster Mortality Surveillance Unit. The deaths occurred between Feb. 11 and June 4. The figure includes people who were injured in the storm but did not die until later, and also people whose bodies were found after the storm, including during repairs of damaged homes.

The 246 deaths spanned 77 counties and included victims ranging from less than 1 year old to 102 years old, according to the report. Close to two-thirds of the deaths were due to hypothermia. Of the deaths, the report classified 148 as “direct,” 92 as “indirect” and six as “possible,” using criteria developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

DSHS previously pegged the death toll at 210 in July. The agency said in the report that it identifies deaths through “mortality surveillance forms, death certificates, and verification of informally reported deaths.”

[…]

In addition to hypothermia, DSHS attributed the storm-related deaths to “exacerbation of pre-existing illness” (10%), motor vehicle accidents (9%), carbon monoxide poisoning (8%), fires (4%) and falls (4%). The Texas Tribune and NBC News reported in December that portable generators, which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning, are some of the deadliest consumer products.

There are other ways to approach this question. Last spring Buzzfeed used “excess mortality” – a comparison to the actual number of deaths at that time to the historic baseline – and estimated that as many as a thousand people may have died as a result of the freeze. That comes with large error bars, but even the low end of that range is almost twice as much as the official DSHS tally. However you look at it, it was a lot, and it was totally unnecessary. And it remains a big risk going forward because Greg Abbott and the Legislature and the Railroad Commission did basically nothing to mitigate it. That’s the real headline here.

Fraudit fizzling

Who could have ever predicted this would be a big ol’ nothingburger?

The Texas secretary of state’s office has released the first batch of results from its review into the 2020 general election, finding few issues despite repeated, unsubstantiated claims by GOP leaders casting doubts on the integrity of the electoral system.

The first phase of the review, released New Year’s Eve, highlighted election data from four counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin — that showed few discrepancies between electronic and hand counts of ballots in a sample of voting precincts. Those partial manual counts made up a significant portion of the results produced by the secretary of state, which largely focused on routine voter roll maintenance and post-election processes that were already in place before the state launched what it has labeled as a “full forensic audit.”

On Friday, Samuel Taylor, a spokesperson with the secretary of state’s office, said the review was needed “to provide clarity on what issues need to be resolved for the next elections.”

But Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said there wasn’t anything in the review’s first set of results that raised any alarms for him.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything too far out of the ordinary with respect to the information that’s provided,” said Garza, who serves as the election administrator in Cameron County. “… I hope nobody draws any strong conclusions one way or the other with respect to the information that’s been provided. I think it’s just very straightforward, very factual and will ultimately play a part in the final conclusions that are drawn once the second phase is completed.”

According to the state’s review of the counties’ partial manual counts, which they are already required to conduct under state law, there were few differences between electronic and manual ballot tallies — and counties were able to justify those inconsistencies.

See here for the previous update. Boy, nothing says “we want people to see this news” like putting out a press release on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. In each case cited here, there was a literal handful of vote count differences, and the reason each of the tiny discrepancies was already known. And this is in four counties that totaled over four million ballots cast in 2020. It’s hard to imagine a cleaner or clearer result.

The state’s progress report for phase one of its audit also included data related to regular maintenance of the state’s massive list of registered voters — it surpassed 16.9 million in November 2020 — that goes beyond its four-county review. But some of the figures highlighted by the state either appear to be faulty or remain unverified.

For example, the secretary of state’s office noted it had sent counties a list of 11,737 records of registered voters it deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” But the Tribune previously reported that scores of citizens, including many who registered to vote at their naturalization ceremonies, were marked for review.

Although it has yet to finish investigating the records, the state also included an unverified figure of 509 voter records — about 0.0045% of the 11.3 million votes cast in November 2020 — in which a voter may have cast a vote in Texas and another state or jurisdiction. The state said the work of reviewing those records to eliminate those that were “erroneously matched” because of data issues wouldn’t be completed until January.

The state also highlighted the investigation of 67 votes — about 0.0006% of the votes cast in the 2020 general election — cast by “potentially deceased voters.” This review also has not been completed.

In its report, the secretary of state emphasized that the removal of ineligible or deceased voters from the voter rolls “in and of itself does not indicate that any illegal votes were cast.”

What they almost always find in the latter case is that the voter died after their vote had been cast. In a state with millions of people, that sort of thing happens. I would expect that in most of the former cases, closer inspection shows that the votes in question were actually cast by different people. Accurate name-matching is a tricky business. As for the “non-citizen voter purges” the state regularly tries and fails to do with any accuracy, well, just keep that in mind whenever the state of Texas or any of its officials make claims about voting irregularities. The motivation to find bad things blinds them to such a degree that any bad things they find are inherently tainted by the nature of their search. Only by removing that motivation, and thus enforcing a careful and deliberate process, can any claims be considered credible.

Nobody bullshits like Greg Abbott

Some stories I blog about require subtle thought and detailed analysis. Others pretty much speak for themselves.

The two most powerful people overseeing Texas’ electric grid sat next to each other in a quickly arranged Austin news conference in early December to try to assure Texans that the state’s electricity supply was prepared for winter.

“The lights are going to stay on this winter,” said Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, echoing recent public remarks by Gov. Greg Abbott.

Two weeks earlier, Abbott had told Austin’s Fox 7 News that he “can guarantee the lights will stay on.” The press conference that followed from Lake and the chief of the state’s independent grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, came at the governor’s request, according to two state officials and one other person familiar with the planning, who were not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It was 150% Abbott’s idea,” said one of the people familiar with the communication from Abbott’s team. “The governor wanted a press conference to give people confidence in the grid.”

A source close to Lake said the idea for the press conference was Lake’s, and the governor supported it when Lake brought up the idea during a meeting.

Abbott has for months been heavily involved in the public messaging surrounding the power grid’s winter readiness. In addition to the press conference, he has asked a major electric industry trade group to put out a “positive” public statement about the grid and has taken control of public messaging from ERCOT, according to interviews with current and former power grid officials, energy industry trade group representatives and energy company directors and executives.

But the messaging has projected a level of confidence about the grid that isn’t reflected in data released by ERCOT or echoed by some power company executives and energy experts who say they’re worried that another massive winter storm could trigger widespread grid failures like those that left millions of Texans without power in February, when hundreds of people died.

Abbott has also met one-on-one with energy industry CEOs to ask about their winter readiness — but those meetings happened weeks after Abbott made his public guarantee about the grid.

“You’d think he would have asked to meet with us before saying that,” one person involved in the energy company meetings, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said of Abbott’s guarantee.

Ten months after the power grid failures caused hundreds of deaths and became national news, an election year is approaching and Abbott’s two top primary challengers and his top Democratic challenger have already been harshly criticizing the governor over his handling of the power grid.

“It might be a good political move, but it’s just a political move,” Peter Cramton, an energy markets expert and former ERCOT board member who resigned after the storm, said of Abbott’s promise. “It’s not surprising. His fate is on the line. So this is a sensitive political issue now.”

The details may be news, but the basics have been known for some time. Abbott has bet the 2022 election on there not being a freeze big enough to cause another massive blackout. When we make it through the winter without anything bad happening – and let’s be honest, the odds of another freeze like this past February are pretty small, though perhaps the odds of any kind of freeze are higher – he will claim full credit for “fixing” the problem, even though he has done nothing of the sort. But who are you gonna believe, your own uninterrupted power supply or those yappy liberals?

I, being more risk averse and being the type of person who wants to actually, you know, do things, would not take this approach. But given that he was never going to advocate for something that would make a difference anyway, why not double down? The odds are in his favor, if not ever in his favor. Just remember that no matter what happens over the next three months or so, it was all bullshit. Every last bit of it.

HISD will not lift its mask mandate

Seems like an easy call at this point.

The Houston Independent School District will maintain its mask mandate and offer free COVID testing at campuses for students and staff in 2022, Superintendent Millard House II announced last week.

House previously said the district would review the mandate after the holidays. The largest public school district in the state, HISD remains one of the few school systems regionally with a mask requirement.

“In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in Houston and the surrounding areas, HISD continues to prioritize safety, including providing additional vaccination and COVID testing opportunities,” House said in an email to parents.

The ongoing spread of the omicron variant, which has proven capable of evading some immunity from vaccines, has triggered a steep surge in cases nationwide. The average number of daily cases has more than doubled since Nov. 29, from 80,680 to 201,330, according to the New York Times COVID data tracker. The numbers are also climbing in Texas, which reported 10,600 confirmed new cases last Thursday, the highest total since Oct. 6.

HISD data only shows confirmed cases up to Dec. 17. The district reported 143 positive cases on that day, up from 22 on Dec. 10.

Starting in January 2022, the district will offer free COVID-19 PCR tests on campuses to HISD students and staff. A one-time consent is required for testing and can be filled out at the following link https://bit.ly/HISDC19Test.

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of Superintendent House’s email. It was reasonable, back in November when things were looking good and Harris County was lowering its threat level to consider whether the mask mandate was still needed after the holidays. For obvious reasons, things have changed since then, and it would be more than a little unwise to take other action. If omicron burns itself out quickly, if the kid vaccination rate skyrockets, the district can consider the question again later. For now, there was no other call to make.

And by the way, isn’t it nice how HISD called Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton’s bluff on their mask mandate ban and threats to sue over HISD’s totally correct action? That has paid off in spades, and brings with it the extra zest of knowing we beat them fair and square. A whole lot more districts should have followed this path.

Simply having a COVIDful Christmastime

Sorry not sorry.

Houston has surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 cases, just days after the highly contagious omicron variant leapfrogged delta to become the dominant viral strain circulating in the region and around the United States.

The staggering milestone reached Thursday, when the Houston Health Department reported 2,397 new cases for a cumulative total of 302,460, underscores the virus’s ability to evade all attempts at containment nearly two years into a global pandemic few predicted would be this persistent or deadly.

“Twenty-one months ago I never imagined our cases would get anywhere close to this big,” Houston’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse said. “If you had told me 300,000 I would have politely told you, ‘I think you’re crazy.”

Yet the easily transmitted omicron variant, first detected last month in South Africa, appears poised to sweep the Houston area and is already fueling outbreaks and scuttling holiday plans across the region.

The milestone is almost certainly an undercount, Persse said. Prevalence studies have found between 20 and 25 percent of Houston residents carry the antibodies that indicated a previous COVID infection. Accounting for those who contracted the virus but were never tested could put the city’s true COVID case count closer to half a million people.

“It’s a lot of suffering,” Persse said.

Extrapolating out to Harris County, that’s something like 1.2 million people who have had COVID, maybe a bit more. Obviously, for a lot of those people the consequences have been fairly small so far, but who knows what the longer term effect may be. And of course, we’re in the early stages of the omicron surge. So check back again later to see where these numbers go.

This says a lot, too.

As the omicron variant of COVID-19 threatens to fuel another surge of infections this winter, the state’s vaccination data shows demand for booster shots has outpaced the demand for first doses of the vaccine in the last few months — even as millions of Texans remain unvaccinated.

The average number of people getting boosters in Texas every day has surpassed those getting their first shots since late September, according to the state’s data. As of Dec. 21, the daily average of Texans who received their booster shots over the last week was about 52,000 — compared with the approximately 20,000 who received their first doses.

So far this month, at least 1.2 million Texans have gotten booster shots — nearly triple the number of people who received their first doses of the vaccine during the same time.

Meanwhile, the number of people getting their first shot of the vaccine over the last few months has remained far below people getting boosters, though the rate of first shots slightly increased in November and December.

[…]

Booster rates have gone up as the Food and Drug Administration has gradually authorized their use among different age groups. Adults 18 and older are allowed to get booster shots, and this month, the FDA authorized emergency use for 16- and 17-year-olds who had the Pfizer vaccine as their initial two-dose treatment, making them eligible to receive the same vaccine as a booster.

Meanwhile, the amount of people getting their first vaccine doses has waned in the last few months as vaccines have become more widely available and more people take the next steps in their vaccination regime. The state’s data shows a slight bump in first doses in November as Thanksgiving approached.

Even so, 10 million Texans remain unvaccinated.

And while there isn’t one specific reason why first-dose rates lag behind booster shots, Dr. Emily Briggs, who specializes in family medicine and has seen the split in the demand for the vaccine from a private practice in New Braunfels, largely credits ideology.

“We are at that point of anybody who believes in science acknowledges that we have had benefit from this vaccine. Those who are politically motivated or have been given fear and are focused on that fear are not vaccinated,” she said.

The people who have taken this pandemic seriously and have done what they can to minimize their risk and protect their communities are continuing to do so. The people who have not done so are still not doing so. Same as it ever was.

Same as it ever was.

As other states are mobilizing to respond to the rapidly spreading omicron variant, Gov. Greg Abbott is not budging on his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic that was cemented months ago.

In March, Abbott ended the statewide mask mandate, marking the beginning of a sharp shift toward preaching “personal responsibility” and an outright rejection of any government mandate — whether state or local — to curb the pandemic. That philosophy carried the state through the delta variant this fall, even as hospitals were overrun and deaths climbed. Now as the state stares down the latest variant, Abbott remains unmoved, continuing to rule out any mask or vaccine mandates and business shutdowns.

“We’re moving forward with life as we know it,” Abbott said Tuesday in a radio interview when asked about omicron.

[…]

Asked Tuesday what the state is doing to address omicron, Abbott’s spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement that the governor recently got a briefing on the state response to the variant by John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, and Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Eze otherwise gave no indication the state was doing anything differently, saying it was continuing to respond to the pandemic by “setting up therapeutic infusion centers, ramping up COVID vaccination efforts, and providing surge staffing and medical equipment to hospitals and nursing homes.”

Eze ended by calling vaccination the “best defense” against COVID-19 and encouraging Texans to get immunized.

Even as Abbott’s office says it’s prioritizing vaccines as the best defense against COVID-19, the state’s vaccination rate lags nationally. As of Monday, 56% of Texans were fully vaccinated, placing Texas in the back half of the 50 states when ranked by vaccination rates.

Abbott got vaccinated on camera late last year and has encouraged Texans to get the shot. But he does not go out of his way to promote vaccinations and he has expended much more energy in recent months fighting vaccine requirements by local and federal officials.

Abbott has been virtually silent on the booster, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last month every qualifying adult should receive. The word “booster” has never appeared on Abbott’s personal Twitter account, and a spokesperson did not respond when asked whether the governor has received a booster.

I’m sure he has been boosted. Abbott is not an idiot. He’s a coward, but he’s not going to risk his own health and well-being. Same as it ever was.

Our year in COVID

It was bad. How it is next year is at least partially up to us.

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

Texas recorded a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though vaccines have been available for all adults since March.

The climbing toll, public health experts said, is almost entirely driven by people who are unvaccinated. From mid-January through October, just 8 percent of Texas virus deaths were among inoculated residents.

Memorial Hermann Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy said it makes sense there would be more virus deaths in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, though the highly transmissible delta variant coupled with a low vaccination rate and the decline of safe practices made fatalities worse than they otherwise would have been. And as the ultra-contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly in Houston, the pattern could continue.

“The real reason it’s worse this year is we stopped all the mask-wearing protection activities we had with a large portion of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death,” McCarthy said.

Texas this year had recorded 42,100 virus deaths through Dec. 13, according to data from the state health department, compared to 31,309 in 2020. The pandemic was declared in March 2020.

The share of fully vaccinated Texans is 56 percent, the 29th-highest rate in the country. Its large population means Texas has more unvaccinated residents — 12.8 million — than any state except California.

Four of the six deadliest months of the pandemic in Texas were in 2021. The most populous cities and counties have had the most virus deaths.

[…]

At this pace, Texas would not reach 70 percent until late May of 2022, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention projects.

Harris County is outperforming the state average vaccine rate. Through Dec. 16, 59 percent of county residents were fully inoculated.

In other words, there’s still a lot of room for the next surge to rip through and infect, hospitalize, and kill unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people will also get sick, but they will be far less likely to get sick enough to be in danger.

We’re not going to get any help from the state government. The federal government is making more tests available and has ordered vaccine mandates, which really will do a lot to improve things, but of course our state leaders are fighting them as if they had stock in COVID itself. I don’t have anything original to say, but do go read the Department of State Health Services report that provided a lot of these numbers. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

Biden employer vaccine mandate back on

For now, at least.

A federal appeals court panel on Friday allowed President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision on a requirement that could affect some 84 million U.S workers.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overrules a decision by a federal judge in a separate court that had paused the mandate nationwide.

The mandate from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was to take effect Jan. 4. With Friday’s ruling, it’s not clear when the requirement might be put in place, but the White House said in a statement that it will protect workers: “Especially as the U.S. faces the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it’s critical we move forward with vaccination requirements and protections for workers with the urgency needed in this moment.”

[…]

“Given OSHA’s clear and exercised authority to regulate viruses, OSHA necessarily has the authority to regulate infectious diseases that are not unique to the workplace,” Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, who was nominated to the court by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, wrote in her majority opinion.

“Vaccination and medical examinations are both tools that OSHA historically employed to contain illness in the workplace,” she wrote.

Gibbons noted that the agency’s authority extends beyond just regulating “hard hats and safety goggles.” She said the vaccine requirement “is not a novel expansion of OSHA’s power; it is an existing application of authority to a novel and dangerous worldwide pandemic.”

She was joined in the majority decision by Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch, an appointee of former President Barrack Obama, a Democrat.

The case was consolidated in the 6th circuit, which is dominated by Republican-appointed judges. Earlier this week, the circuit’s active judges rejected a move to have the entire panel consider the case, on an 8-8 vote.

The dissent in Friday’s ruling came from Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, who said Congress did not authorize OSHA to make this sort of rule and that it did not qualify as a necessity to use the emergency procedures the agency followed to put it in place.

Larsen also argued that vaccinated workers “do not face ‘grave danger’ from working with those who are not vaccinated.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block the order. At least two conservative advocacy groups said they had already appealed to the nation’s highest court.

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is extremely disappointing for Arkansans because it will force them to get the shot or lose their jobs,” Rutledge said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Who even knew that it was possible to get a decent result from an appeals court? It appears the Sixth Circuit, or at least the two justices in the majority opinion, were perhaps not all that impressed by the ruling handed down by their Fifth Circuit colleagues.

Spicy. As noted, in the story, the death eaters among the Attorneys General, including our own, will be appealing to SCOTUS, so keep a firm grip on your expectations. For now at least, there’s a bit of sanity. Happy holidays and all that. Slate has more.

Filing update: Not that Rick Perry

I’m going to let this speak for itself.

Not that Rick Perry

Rick Perry is running for governor — but not that Rick Perry.

The Republican Party of Texas updated its list of candidate filings Monday — hours before the deadline for the March primary election — to include a Rick Perry running for governor. The party quickly confirmed that it was not Rick Perry, the former governor and U.S. energy secretary, against Gov. Greg Abbott. Instead it’s Ricky Lynn Perry, a man from Springtown, a town in Parker County northwest of Fort Worth. On the form, the man listed “Rick Perry” as the version of his name that he wants to appear on the ballot.

A LinkedIn profile for a Rick Perry from Springtown lists his current job as a senior desktop technician for Lockheed Martin. Neither Perry could be immediately reached for comment.

Abbott is running for a third term and has drawn at least three primary challengers. While Abbott may not be facing a challenge from his predecessor, having such a widely known name on the primary ballot could complicate his path to renomination.

Rick Perry was the longest-serving governor of Texas, preceding Abbott before the latter took office in 2015.

The candidate Perry’s form was notarized by Tony McDonald, an Austin lawyer who is active in anti-establishment conservative circles and has supported one of Abbott’s primary opponents, Don Huffines. McDonald told the Tribune that Perry is a “good conservative activist from Parker County” whom he knows through a “friend of a friend.” McDonald said he was supporting Perry and serving as his campaign treasurer.

Asked if one of Abbott’s existing primary challengers had convinced Perry to run, McDonald said he was “not aware of that.”

[…]

Abbott’s campaign, meanwhile, scoffed at Perry’s filing. The governor’s top political strategist, Dave Carney, said on Twitter that it was “another stupid pet trick” and that it “will backfire as these stunts always do.”

You know me, I love a good phony candidate story. Most likely this is just a dumb trick that will have no effect on the outcome. But it’s funny, and we could all use a laugh.

As yesterday was the filing deadline, there was a bit of a rush to get the job done, and the SOS Qualified Candidates page is missing a few names here and there. I’ll have another update tomorrow to fill in the remaining blanks, but in the meantime we have some coverage from the Trib.

The Democratic primary for lieutenant governor got a third candidate as Carla Brailey, vice chair of the state party, announced her campaign. Her launch came amid a lingering discussion among Democrats about whether their statewide slate is diverse enough.

Brailey said in an interview that she was running because she “really believe[s] our democracy is at stake, and I think this is gonna be one of the most important elections we have experienced in a very long time in Texas.”

“It’s very important that we have leadership that just reflects Texans — all Texans — and I think I will be able to do that,” said Brailey, who is Black.

She joined a primary field that includes Mike Collier, the last nominee for lieutenant governor who has been running since early this year, and state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, who announced last month. Matthew Dowd, the cable-news commentator who once was a strategist for former President George W. Bush, had been running in the primary until last week, when he dropped out and said he wanted to make way for a more diverse field.

Brailey is not the only Democrat who has stepped forward for the statewide ticket as the filing deadline loomed. Janet Dudding, a 2020 candidate for a battleground state House seat in Brazos County, filed to run for comptroller, joining at least two other Democrats vying to take on GOP incumbent Glenn Hegar. Susan Hays, a prominent cannabis lawyer and hemp advocate, announced she was running for agriculture commissioner, giving Democrats their first candidate to challenge Republican incumbent Sid Miller.

“Farming is hard, but ethics should be easy,” Hays said Thursday as she announced her campaign against the scandal-prone Miller.

[…]

Over in the Houston area, where one of Texas’ new congressional seats is located, the longtime Republican frontrunner, Wesley Hunt, got arguably his best-known opponent yet: Mark Ramsey, a former member of the State Republican Executive Committee. The seat was drawn to favor the GOP, so Republicans have been watching how complicated of a path Hunt will have on his quest for a general-election win.

Until Monday, no Democrat was contesting the Houston-area seat — the 38th District — but that changed when Centrell Reed, a Houston life coach, switched to the race after filing for the 7th District. Reed’s decision spares the 7th District incumbent, U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston, a primary challenge in a district that has been made much bluer by redistricting.

In state House races, there was little late drama involving incumbents. One question mark going into Monday was whether state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez would follow through on her plan to run against state Rep. Art Fierro, a fellow El Paso Democrat — and she did, filing with hours to spare. Ordaz Perez had chosen to take on Fierro after redistricting forced her into the district of a fellow El Paso Latina, Democratic state Rep. Lina Ortega.

In another late development in a state House contest, state Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, drew a primary challenger: Candis Houston, president of the Aldine chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Dutton, chair of the House Public Education Committee, was under fire from fellow Democrats earlier this year over how he handled legislation placing restrictions on transgender student athletes.

That Lite Guv primary is going to be a tough choice, those are three good candidates. Susan Hays picked up an opponent in her race, some dude named Ed Ireson. CD38 went from zero candidates to three – in addition to Centrell Reed (who the SOS still had in CD07 as of last night), Diana Martinez Alexander (candidate for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3 in 2020) and someone named Duncan Klussman filed. Other Harris County highlights:

– Three people, one of whom is the long-awaited Erica Davis, filed for Harris County Judge, making it a six person field.
– Sen. John Whitmire picked up a challenger, Molly Cook, who is one of the leading opponents to the I-45 project; see here for a story about that project that quotes her.
– Dems now have candidates for HDs 129 and 150, though I still don’t see anyone for HD133.
– Moving the lens out a bit, there are a few more primary challenges in the Lege – Erin Zwiener (HD45), Rhetta Bowers (HD113), and Ray Lopez (HD125) now have company – but if anyone was expecting a wave of such contests, you’re still waiting.
– By the way, the means I have to know that there are some filings that are not yet reflected on the SOS page is the photo album on the HCDP Facebook page, which contained most of the late arrivers. Here’s the full album with all the filers in alphabetical order. You think someone got the idea to take a picture of all the hopefuls to ensure there are no more of those mystery candidates? It’s a damn good idea, whether or not that was the motivation behind it.

Like I said, I’ll post another update tomorrow, to clean up anything we missed this time around. The Chron, which focused more on the Republican side, has more.

Fraudit update

Yes, it’s still a thing.

Texas Secretary of State John Scott announced late Friday that his office has presented an “exhaustive” document request to Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Harris counties as part of an audit of 2020′s election.

Scott’s office also announced that phase one of the audit is nearing completion, with a summary of findings expected to be made public by the end of December. The document request marks the beginning of the second phase of the audit, according to a news release from the secretary of state’s office.

The request, sent to election administrators at each of the counties, asks for the counties to provide information including a full accounting of mail-in votes and provisional votes, any reported chain of custody issues as well as complaints that those offices might have received regarding the 2020 presidential election.

[…]

Following Friday’s announcement, James Slattery, a senior counsel at the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the document request from the secretary of state’s office a “fishing expedition.”

“No other words to describe these unbelievably wide ranging document requests than ‘fishing expedition,’ ” Slattery said on Twitter. “It’ll tie these offices up in knots just as the primary season begins, diverting crucial resources from helping voters navigate all of 2021′s election law changes.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. I think James Slattery pretty much nails it, so let me note instead that Collin and Tarrant counties were apparently caught off guard by the initial call for the fraudit.

Now, an investigation by the watchdog American Oversight has brought back communication records and documents that show election officials in Collin and Tarrant counties were caught on their heels when the audit was announced, and that they apparently had no idea what the process meant.

In one of the emails American Oversight obtained, Collin County Election Administrator Bruce Sherbet informed employees that the audit would kick off in November.

(Does the timing feel a bit funny to you? Well: “Governor Abbott, we need a ‘Forensic Audit of the 2020 Election,’” Trump wrote in an open letter to Abbott. “Texans know voting fraud occurred in some of their counties.” A little more than eight hours later, boom: an audit is born.)

Texas Director of Elections Keith Ingram had informed Sherbet of the upcoming probe, despite having previously told the Collin County elections administrator that the vote had been both “smooth and secure.”

On Sept. 24, Collin County Commissioner Darrell Hale wrote back to Sherbet and Collin County Administrator Bill Bilyeu. “What is the story?” he asked. “What’s going on?”

“Just heard about it last night,” Sherbet replied. “Not sure of any details.”

Later, Hale confessed to an inquisitive constituent by email, “We are curious on the details ourselves.”

[…]

After the Texas Secretary of State’s Office announced the audit, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia urged election officials not to comment publicly until they figured out what exactly was going on and knew “what they need from us,” the email communications American Oversight obtained show. Garcia urged the officials to forward any media inquiries to him.

The American Oversight story is here. They say they intend to get similar documents from Harris and Dallas counties about their initial response to the fraudit request. I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Joy Diaz joins the Governor’s race

I wish her luck, but I don’t think she’s going to get very far.

Joy Diaz

After 16 years on the airwaves in Austin as a journalist at KUT and the public affairs show, “Texas Standard,” Joy Diaz announced Wednesday that she’s running for governor.

Diaz, who left her journalism job in early November, said at the time that she was inspired to run for office after she and her elementary school-aged son both contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, an experience that she said ignited her passion for public service.

“I recently left journalism to fulfill a mission — an unshakeable dream, a fire in my soul — to serve you as the next governor of the great state of Texas,” Diaz, 45, said in a video posted online ahead of her Wednesday campaign launch at Scholz Garten in downtown Austin.

[…]

Before launching her campaign, Diaz completed a six-month course at the LBJ Women’s Campaign School at UT’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, which offers training to would-be candidates for office. Through the program, Diaz was paired with a mentor: state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, D-Austin.

Goodwin, who is not endorsing Diaz’s campaign, said she always supports more candidates entering primary contests, because it helps drive more voters to the polls.

Diaz said in her announcement video that she decided to run for governor to focus on three key issues: the border, public education and state preparedness for the pandemic.

Diaz grew up in Mexico City, the child of an American missionary. During her time as a reporter, she said she has spoken with people across the state and gained a deeper understanding of how state policies affect their lives.

“The most valuable information comes from the people who live these policies day in and day out, everyday Texans like you and me,” Diaz said in the video. “When I hear men in power describe the border as a crisis, it just reinforces one thing, that they haven’t done their jobs.”

Diaz said her perspective as a former educator, her career before she turned to journalism, would serve her well as governor and could “help improve our schools dramatically.”

She used her announcement as an opportunity to knock Abbott and other state leaders for their response to the coronavirus pandemic, highlighting her own experience after testing positive for COVID-19.

See here for some background. We first heard Diaz’s name as a potential candidate before Beto’s official announcement. Which means I have to bring this up:

In an interview with the Statesman, Diaz said that she’s not interested in challenging other Democrats like O’Rourke. Instead, she told the newspaper, she’s interested in defeating one person: Gov. Abbott.

“Our current leadership has forgotten that their mission is to serve us,” Diaz continued in her video. “And yes, conventional wisdom may say that it’s unlikely for an average person, even a qualified one, even one with expertise, even one with a huge heart. Texans don’t solely rely on conventional wisdom, we believe in miracles.”

Austonia quotes her as follows: “I am running against Greg Abbott. That is my goal. That is my focus. I am ushering Greg Abbott out of office.” Here’s the thing – that’s a lovely sentiment, and a fine mission statement. But the truth is, right now she is running against Beto O’Rourke, and any other Dems who may file for the race (more on that in a minute). That’s fine – she has as much right to be there as anyone, and may the best candidate win. The point is, the only way she gets to run against Greg Abbott is if she beats Beto first. I appreciate that she doesn’t want to go on the attack as an opening move, but there’s no avoiding that reality. Either she wins and opposes Abbott in November, or Beto does.

Anyway. I think Joy Diaz has the makings of an appealing candidate, and I’m happy for there to be a reason for everyone to campaign more actively between now and March. Let there be more attention on Democratic candidates, especially attention that is outside the usual framing of them versus Greg Abbott. Contested primaries can certainly be ugly, but better to have more interest in them than to just snooze through them.

As far as “other candidates” go, the Statesman reports that Diedre Gilbert is still in the Dem primary for Governor. However, KXAN reported that on Wednesday Gilbert announced she will drop out of the Dem primary and will run as an independent. The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet agrees with KXAN, so we’ll see. As we all know, it’s a high bar to clear to get on the ballot as an indy in Texas. We’ll know for sure about the first part of that equation on Monday.

ERCOT and PUC swear there will be no blackouts this winter

Do you believe them?

The Public Utility Commission and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Wednesday pledged that the “lights will stay on” this winter as it inspects power generators and enforces other requirements to avoid a deadly power outage that crippled Texas during a February storm.

Peter Lake, chairman of the PUC, which regulates utilities in the state, said at a press conference that his agency and ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, have moved at “lightning speed” to change the requirements for power producers and natural gas supplies to operate during winter months. The PUC oversees ERCOT.

“Our grid is safer and stronger than ever,” he said. “Because of all these efforts, the lights will stay on. No other grid has made so many changes in such a short amount of time as we have.”

The promise to keep power flowing comes about 10 months after massive outages caused by a winter storm that plunged millions of Texans into freezing darkness, leading to the deaths of hundreds. All commissioners who served the PUC resigned or were fired, as was the CEO of ERCOT. State legislators and new commissioners on the PUC have passed laws and rules requiring power generators and affiliated companies to better prepare for frigid weather.

Among the changes are new penalties and requirements, and a reduction in the maximum price for one megawatt hour of power to $5,000 from $9,000 beginning Jan. 1. Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004, said the previous pricing scheme allowed generators to make the bulk of their money during tight grid conditions.

“This is intended to redistribute revenues so instead of making all your money only during extreme scarcity events, you’re getting more money from a flatter curve,” she said. ” You’re still getting $5,000 per megawatt hour in a tight time, which is still a whole lot of cash, but more of your revenue will come from normal days.”

[…]

Silverstein said that the violation reports and other rules changes are a good start, but that more needs to be done. The PUC, she said, should commission an analysis of the current condition of the grid, determine what needs to be done to improve reliability and estimate the cost to consumers, she said. Power generators, she said, should be able to show they can restart the entire grid in the event it collapses. And, she said, the PUC should address Texas’ nation-leading energy demand instead of solely focusing on adding new generation.

“I think they are right to say they have made a meaningful dent in preventing some of the problems that Winter Storm Uri revealed,” Silverstein said. “But that doesn’t mean the job is done yet.”

It is plausible to me that some beneficial changes have been made. Whether any of that makes a material difference or not, who knows. If we do make it through the winter with no problems, the odds are it’s due to a more normal winter and a bit of luck rather than anything transformative, but in the end it is the result that matters. For sure, whether by luck or by better oversight and regulation, Greg Abbott will win his bet and claim credit for it. The Texas Signal and the Trib, which reminds us that the Railroad Commission has not yet drafted any new weatherization rules for gas producers, have more.

Quinnipiac: Abbott 52, Beto 37

Brutal, but remember what we say about every poll result, whether good, bad, or indifferent: It’s one data point.

Gov. Greg Abbott has a commanding lead over Democrat Beto O’Rourke in a new public poll released on Wednesday.

Abbott, a Republican, leads O’Rourke 52 percent to 37 percent according to the Quinnipiac University poll of 1,224 registered voters.

A big problem for O’Rourke lies in the poll findings, in which 54 percent of respondents say the former El Paso congressman is too liberal.

The poll also shows that Abbott’s approval rating has rebounded since the summer, when Quinnipiac last surveyed the state. The new poll shows 53 percent of Texas approve of the job Abbott has done as governor, up from 49 percent in June. Conducted December 2 through December 6, the survey has a margin of error of 2.8 percentage points.

The Quinnipiac release and poll data is here; most of the story is a recapitulation of what’s there, so go to the source. Of the three other polls we’ve seen so far, this one is similar for the level of support for Beto (37, 39, and 43) but much higher for Abbott (44, 45, and 46).

That Abbott’s approval ratings may have bounced back somewhat isn’t terribly surprising, as the Lege is no longer in session (Rick Perry always polled worse during sessions), but whether he’s back to being ten points in the black is something I’ll want to see in other polls before I buy it. He was at 49-41 approval in the DMN/UT-Tyler poll, 43-48 in UT/Trib, and 49-47 in the Hispanic Policy Forum poll – again, better than he had been in August and September, but not this good. Similarly, the approval for President Biden was easily the worst in this poll – 32-64 for Biden, versus 42-53 in DMN/UT-Tyler and 35-55 in UT/Trib (no data from the other poll).

Basically, this is about as good a result as Abbott could reasonably expect. Is it an outlier or in line with the next batch of polls to come? That remains to be seen. There’s no good spin for this poll, but there’s also no reason to panic.

How’s that city push to get its employees vaccinated going?

Not bad, actually.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston’s 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

[…]

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner’s executive order doesn’t require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don’t comply could be subject to “corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination,” the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor’s office didn’t specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren’t complying with the order, but said the city’s Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

“By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone,” the mayor’s office wrote. “The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance.”

See here for the background. There’s a table in the story showing compliance rates for each department, though it should be noted that the actual numbers may be higher for at least some of them. The president of the Houston Police Officers Union was quoted saying their numbers are better than what was represented, for one. Even without that, the city’s efforts have nudged the vax numbers upward, which is exactly what you want. I thought at the time that Abbott and Paxton would not stand for this workaround on the city’s part, and I’m delighted to be proven wrong. Now let’s see what enforcement there is for the holdouts. No excuses at this point, get on board or say goodbye.

It’s the power grid, stupid

It’s also a campaign theme.

Texas Democrats want to talk about the power grid.

Specifically, they want to talk about how it failed in February, how they don’t think enough has been done to fix it and why they believe Republicans in statewide leadership positions are the ones to blame.

Democratic candidates and strategists see the power grid as the Republican party’s biggest vulnerability — and they see highlighting it as their best shot at winning crossover voters in the state’s 2022 election cycle, which is expected to be an uphill battle for the minority party.

In stump speeches and messages to supporters, Democrats say that GOP leaders failed at fixing the shortcomings of the state’s energy infrastructure that led to millions of Texans losing power for multiple days during a winter storm in February, which resulted in a death toll that has been calculated as ranging from 210 to more than 700 people.

Beto O’Rourke, the frontrunner to challenge Republican Greg Abbott for governor, has said the two-term incumbent did “absolutely nothing” to heed warnings despite a previous electricity blackout in 2011. Mike Collier, who is running for lieutenant governor, coined the slogan “fix the damn grid” as one of his campaign’s top priorities. And Luke Warford, who is running for a seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and natural gas industry, has made “Let’s keep the lights on!” his campaign slogan.

“It makes sense for Democrats to want to channel those doubts and put them front and center,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “About the only good thing for Democrats about the extended Republican monopoly [in state politics] and their demonstrated inability to break that monopoly is that there’s only one political party that can be blamed.”

Republicans, not surprisingly, disagree. It’s not much of a campaign slogan if there’s no conflict. The story notes that 1) the public largely agrees with the position that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough, according to the polling data we have; 2) the state’s own studies say we’re still vulnerable to blackouts under the right (or wrong, depending on how you want to look at it) set of circumstances; and 3) numerous Republicans, from Dan Patrick to the pack of jackals running against Abbott in the Republican primary, think that Abbott and the Lege didn’t do enough to fix the problem. As I said, this is Greg Abbott’s bet, that things will be sufficiently OK through the next winter and summer, and if so he’ll claim the credit for it. Only time will tell.

HISD will keep its mask mandate

This is in response to that recent Fifth Circuit ruling about mask mandates in schools and whether Greg Abbott’s ban on them violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Houston Independent School District will keep its mask mandate in place, district officials said Thursday, despite a federal appeals court ruling halting an injunction on Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting such requirements.

“The ruling does not impact the requirement that students, staff, and visitors must wear masks while on HISD property. This mandate remains in place for HISD schools,” the district said in a statement. “While we are heartened that we have maintained the lowest rate of active COVID-19 cases in the state and vaccinations are now available for our youngest students, HISD’s mask mandate will remain in place for students, staff, and visitors in all HISD schools, buildings, and buses regardless of vaccination status.”

HISD plans to review the mandate at the end of its semester after the holidays, Superintendent Millard House II said last month.

House implemented HISD’s mandate shortly before the start of the school year and the board of trustees voted to express support for it.

The district, by and large, has avoided significant backlash from individuals opposing the mandate, outside of a handful of parents who have addressed House and trustees at board meetings and during a recent series of community forums.

The district’s statement noted that HISD and other districts sued over the governor’s order in state district court. The lawsuit, it said, is based on state law regarding the authority of Texas school districts to make health and safety decisions for their students. It remains in litigation.

See here for more on the Fifth Circuit ruling. As noted, Superintendent House did say that HISD would consider lifting its mask mandate after the holidays if conditions continue to improve; who knows what will happen now that the omicron variant is out there. The federal lawsuit really didn’t have much bearing on HISD anyway, since they were among the plaintiffs that had sued Abbott in state court over his mandate ban, and won an injunction that as far as I know is still in place; besides, Abbott and Paxton don’t have any authority to enforce it anyway. The district and the Superintendent are doing the right thing. Keep on keeping on. The Press has more.

Beto and South Texas

Brace yourself for a lot of stories like this in the coming months.

Beto O’Rourke

In the first days of his campaign for governor, Beto O’Rourke made a beeline to this southernmost corner of the state, saying it was no mistake he was choosing to start his run in a part of Texas where Democrats have their work cut out for them after the 2020 election.

His supporters know it, too.

“We are being attacked at all ends,” Amanda Elise Salas said as she introduced him here Wednesday night. “This is a Democratic area, and there is no way we are gonna let Republicans come in here and take over.”

“They’re knocking at our door,” Mario Saenz, a Democratic precinct chair from Brownsville, said afterward. “We cannot let them in.”

A lot of Democratic hopes are riding on O’Rourke this election cycle, but few may be more consequential to the party’s future in Texas than his ability to stave off a strong GOP offensive in South Texas. Emboldened by President Joe Biden’s underwhelming performance throughout the predominantly Hispanic region last year, Republicans have been pushing hard to make new inroads there, and O’Rourke faces an incumbent in Gov. Greg Abbott who has been working for years to win Hispanic voters.

But it is not just about halting the GOP’s post-2020 march in South Texas. O’Rourke, who is facing an uphill battle in the governor’s race, has ground to make up after his own less-than-stellar performance with voters there in 2018 when he ran for U.S. Senate — and turning out more Latino voters has long been key to Democratic hopes statewide.

O’Rourke has been candid about the problem. Days after the 2020 election, which cemented Republican dominance across Texas, he told supporters that the fact that the border region “has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly.” Last week, he began his campaign for governor with a swing through the region, calling the early itinerary “very intentional” and vowing to return frequently.

“If the great sin committed by Republicans historically has been to disenfranchise voters, including those in the Rio Grande Valley, then that committed by Democrats has been to take those same voters for granted in the past,” O’Rourke told reporters in San Antonio, before heading south to Laredo and the Valley.

O’Rourke got a wake-up call in South Texas during the 2018 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, losing many counties in the region to a little-known and little-funded opponent, Sema Hernandez. While it was not the first time a candidate with a Hispanic surname beat expectations in a statewide Democratic primary, O’Rourke acknowledged afterward that he needed to do more outreach.

Months later, in the general election, O’Rourke failed to make significant gains in South Texas compared to his party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, which would have been key to defeating U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. In the largest South Texas county outside San Antonio — Hidalgo — O’Rourke barely improved on Clinton’s vote share there, getting 68.8% after she got 68.5%.

Then came 2020, when Biden carried South Texas — and the Rio Grande Valley in particular — by a much narrower margin than Clinton did. He outright lost Zapata County, a longtime Democratic stronghold just north of the Valley.

[…]

Beyond any issue, though, South Texas Democrats say O’Rourke needs to show up, especially after a presidential election that left them wanting. Biden never visited Texas, let alone anywhere in South Texas, during the general election, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, visited McAllen only in the final days of the race.

To that end, South Texas Democrats are not particularly concerned about O’Rourke, who is known for his relentless campaigning. He toured all 254 counties during his 2018 race, which included a bus tour specifically focused on the border.

“We’re the poorest region of Texas, maybe one of the poorest regions in the nation, and you know, it was a huge letdown that Kamala and Biden didn’t make a prolonged appearance here in the Valley, but Beto, you know, he’s been recurringly focusing his presence here, especially in his past campaigns,” said Sebastian Bonilla, a 25-year-old from the Valley who came to see O’Rourke speak in McAllen.

Abbott has put an emphasis on South Texas since his first gubernatorial campaign in 2014, and he has been increasingly traveling there in recent months, both in his official capacity and for political appearances.

You get the idea. This kind of story is going to be the “Trump voters in diners” lodestar of 2022.

Because I tend to zero in on any actual numbers that show up in this kind of “collect a bunch of quotes and anecdotes” piece, I wondered about that Hidalgo County comparison. Just for grins, I went back and checked to see what was the best Democratic performance in Hidalgo in recent years:

2004 – JR Molina, 64.08%. For comparison, John Kerry got 54.86% against George W. Bush.

2006 – Bill Moody, 62.54%.

2008 – Linda Yanez, 73.63%.

2010 – Hector Uribe, 67.14%. That sure correlated with good Democratic performance elsewhere, eh?

2012 – Michelle Petty, 70.69%. Barack Obama got 70.40%, an improvement over the 69.02% he got in 2008.

2014 – Leticia van de Putte, 67.57%.

2016 – Dori Garza, 70.98%. Hillary Clinton got 68.50%, as noted in the story.

2018 – Steve Kirkland, 69.34%, with Beto’s 68.81% right behind. Kirkland was in a two-candidate race, while Beto and Ted Cruz also had a Libertarian in their race. Cruz’s 30.64% was actually a tiny bit behind Jimmy Blacklock’s 30.66%, though several other Republicans failed to get to 30% in their three-way races.

Latino Dems, and candidates for statewide judicial positions, were generally the high scorers. Looking at the numbers, I agree with the basic premise that Beto could have done better in South Texas than he did in 2018, and he will need to do better than Joe Biden did in 2020. The new SOS elections result website is trash and doesn’t give you a county-by-county view like it did before, so I went and found the Hidalgo County Elections page, which informed me that Biden got 58.04% in 2020, with Elizabeth Frizell being the high scorer at 61.51%; yes, another judicial candidate.

One could also point out, of course, that Biden came closer to winning Texas than Clinton did, despite doing worse in South Texas. Beto himself came as close as he did mostly by making huge gains in urban and suburban counties – to pick one example, he got 46.53% in Collin County, losing it by 22K votes, after Clinton got 38.91% and lost if by 61K votes. Beto did net 12K fewer votes in Hidalgo than Clinton did (Biden netted 32K fewer than Clinton), and he lost another 10K in Cameron County – that does add up in such a close race, though it wouldn’t have been enough to fully close the gap he still had. Ideally, he’d do better in South Texas and in the big urban and suburban counties. At least we all feel confident he’ll do the work.

Greg Abbott’s bet

What, me worry about blackouts?

Gov. Greg Abbott promised that the state’s electric grid would be able to withstand pressures caused by any potential winter storm that occurs this year in a television interview Friday.

“Listen, very confident about the grid. And I can tell you why, for one: I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective,” Abbott said. “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.”

After the winter storm in February that left millions across the state without power, the Legislature passed a number of bills requiring additional “weatherization” measures for companies that maintain the state’s electric grid.

But experts have expressed concerns that loopholes have allowed some natural gas providers to exempt themselves from the weatherization requirements, potentially leaving the system still vulnerable.

“Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June when he signed two of the bills.

[…]

“You’re going to have another winter and another summer that’s going to strain the electric grid,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor at the University of Houston. “If there’s any kind of problem for people, there’s a direct connection to how Democrats can use that to their political advantage against Republicans.”

Well, “guarantee” is a strong word.

After last winter’s freeze hamstrung power giant Vistra Corp.’s ability to keep electricity flowing for its millions of customers, CEO Curt Morgan said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry.

During the peak days of the storm, Vistra, Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told lawmakers shortly after the storm.

But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died.

Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.”

But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.

No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said.

That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said.

Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm.

“Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.”

If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview.

[…]

Texas has done “next to nothing” to weatherize its natural gas supply, said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant.

“We don’t have a regulatory system in place that holds the industry accountable. That is the problem,” Lewin said. “It’s not a technology or engineering problem. It’s a regulatory problem.”

And maybe that doesn’t matter, at least for this year. I’m sure Greg Abbott can afford to have a meteorologist on his political staff, and I’m sure that person will have advised him that another freeze like the one we saw this year is unlikely. Even a freeze that isn’t quite as bad probably won’t happen. Given that Abbott isn’t going to lift a finger to improve the grid’s reliability, why not bet big on the more probable outcome, even if the downside is so massive. At this point he’s made his bed anyway, and if we make it through next summer without anything bad happening he gets to claim the credit for it. I’m too risk averse to want to make that bet, but here we are. As they say, it’s a bold move and we’ll see if it pays off for him.

Social media censorship law blocked

For now. As long as the outlaw Fifth Circuit exists, we can’t say more than that.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.

[…]

Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”

By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

See here and here for the background. You can see the court order here, some commentary on it here, and NetChoice’s press release here. As with all things, Texas is sure to go running to the Fifth Circuit to get them to ratify their lawlessness, and the usual bet is that the Fifth Circuit will provide room service for them. Maybe this time it will be different since the law attacks businesses instead of just people, but conservatives have decided those particular businesses are Bad for them, so the usual bet is still probably the correct one. But for now, at least this is one terrible new law that won’t get a chance to be enforced. For now.

Social media censorship lawsuit has its day in court

It’s a very dumb law that will hopefully be stopped before it takes effect tomorrow.

Lawyers for two large tech industry groups appeared Monday in federal court in Austin to argue that Texas’ new social media law — inspired by Republican complaints that conservatives are ill-treated on Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms — should be blocked as unconstitutional.

Known as House Bill 20, the law lets social media users sue if they are blocked or their posts are removed based on the user’s viewpoint. It also gives companies two days to respond to user complaints about content removal and two weeks to handle appeals if users disagree with the action.

But lawyer Scott Keller argued that the law should be blocked from taking effect Thursday because it violates the First Amendment free speech right of social media companies to monitor, screen and delete content published on their platforms.

Instead, Keller said, the law requires platforms to continue publishing posts that violate their terms of service, including those that glorify Nazis or spread medical misinformation.

“This is a striking assertion of government power,” he told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman during a two-hour in-person hearing Monday in downtown Austin. “The First Amendment protects editorial discretion.”

HB 20 also creates an onerous set of regulations on complaints and appeals that would be impossible to meet, Keller argued, noting that in a three-month period earlier this year, YouTube removed 9.5 million videos and 1.16 billion comments for violating decency and other standards.

But Assistant Attorney General Courtney Corbello argued that the law does not stop social media companies from prohibiting certain types of content.

“HB 20 says continue to have your policies, continue to prohibit the content the way you want to, just don’t discriminate against people,” she said. “HB 20 prohibits viewpoint discrimination. It does not prohibit content moderation.”

Corbello also disputed claims that the law is onerous, noting that Facebook and YouTube already inform users when content is removed and have an appeals process in place to resolve disagreements.

See here for the background. I may have been wrong about the timing of the slapdown on this dumb law, but I don’t think I’m wrong about the outcome. This time I can point to someone with fancy law credentials who also thinks this law is trash and the lawsuit will succeed – see here for the analysis of HB20, and here for his thoughts on the filings. There are other analyses of the law and similar ones in equally ridiculous states like Florida, which you should read, and there’s this resource page from NetChoice, one of the plaintiffs, if you really want to go deep. As I said, this and other laws from the special session go into effect tomorrow, so expect there to be something in short order.

McConaughey not running for Governor

Thank God that’s over.

Actor Matthew McConaughey on Sunday removed himself from consideration as a potential candidate for governor after months of toying with a campaign.

In a video posted to his Twitter account, McConaughey, who lives in Austin, said he was honored to be considered for “political leadership.”

“It’s a humbling and inspiring path to ponder,” McConaughey said. “It is also a path that I’m choosing not to take at this moment.”

McConaughey’s video came just over two weeks before the candidate filing deadline for the Texas primary.

Since earlier this year, McConaughey said he was mulling a run for governor, though he did not specify whether he would run in the Democratic primary, in the Republican primary or as an independent. He has previously described himself as “aggressively centrist.”

Look, there’s a world in which I’d have taken McConaughey seriously as a candidate. We took Kinky Friedman seriously as a gubernatorial candidate way back in 2006, even as he invited us to not take him seriously, because he regularly spoke about his intent to run for over two years before he actually ran. (Seriously, the first “Kinky for Governor” story I saw was in September of 2003.) Like Kinky, McConaughey never developed anything like a coherent policy position, but unlike Kinky he also never seemed to have any motivation to run.

Normally when a famous person or brand-name politician is asked seemingly out of the blue if they might consider running for a particular office, I assume it was a setup, designed to call attention to the prospect as part of an overall marketing strategy. In this case, I’m not actually sure. I mean, I think the subject came up for publicity reasons, just not “run up a flag to see if this candidacy could be viable” reasons. We can (and I do!) blame all of the ridiculous polling on the subject, which allowed McConaughey as a partyless entity that somehow ended up on a ballot against Greg Abbott, for extending this drama way past its expiration date.

But now we can cut all this nonsense out and get on with the real race. Again, it’s not that McConaughey couldn’t have been a serious candidate, but to be taken seriously he needed to address the question of how he was going to run – was he going to file for a party primary, or go the much more challenging independent route – and not just whether. He never did, so this was always annoying background noise to me. And now it’s over and we can get back to whatever we’d been doing before. The Current and the Chron have more.

Appeals court upholds Dallas mask mandate

There’s still mask mandate litigation going on, and Greg Abbott keeps getting his ass handed to him.

Clay Jenkins

Mask mandates will be allowed in the State of Texas. The Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas issued the ruling during the late night on November 22.

The decision is the latest chapter in the fight between Governor Greg Abbott and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins over how to handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jenkins had argued he had the right to issue a local mask mandate if it means protecting public health and that he had the power to do so under the Texas Disaster Act.

Abbott had asserted that he had the authority to issue a statewide order banning the mandates. His attorneys argued it was a matter of law and that the governor was given the power under the Texas Disaster Act.

On Monday, an appeals judge issued a temporary injunction against the governor’s ban saying, “…Abbott lacks legal authority to act as he attempted. Instead, by endeavoring to exercise power beyond that given to him in the Disaster Act, he attempted to infringe on Jenkins’s powers.”

[…]

After a district judge issued a temporary injunction supporting Jenkins in August, the governor’s office sought a higher ruling from the district court of appeals.

Neither the governor’s office nor the Texas Attorney General’s office have commented on the ruling, but they could choose to appeal it to the Supreme Court of Texas.

“We’ll have to see what the attorney general and the governor want to do, but I’m not tired and I will continue to stand for your public health against any other elected official,” said Jenkins.

In the meantime, Jenkins says, don’t let all the legal back and forth confuse you.

“Don’t listen to what people tell you is legal. Listen to what doctors tell you is safe,” he said.

See here for the previous entry, and here for the opinion. Note that this is a state lawsuit about what cities and counties can do, and has nothing to do with the federal lawsuit that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was meddling in. Different Fifth Courts – believe me, I know, it’s confusing.

Beyond that, not a whole lot of coverage when I went looking for stories, which I knew to do because I saw this tweet from Judge Jenkins. Maybe that’s a holiday week problem, I don’t know. As I said, there’s a ton of lawsuits out there over the Abbott executive order that banned mask mandates by cities and counties and school districts, and so far the plaintiffs have mostly won. That may all come crashing to a halt at the Supreme Court, but until then the leaders who have been bold and exercised actual leadership have been rewarded for it. Gotta enjoy those victories while you can.

Fifth Circuit puts school mask order on hold

This effing court.

A federal appeals court has reinstated Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates as it weighs a federal judge’s ruling that the ban violates the rights of disabled students.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel previously ruled that the order violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the American Rescue Plan, which gives discretion to school districts to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on the virus. Yeakel, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, had banned state Attorney General Ken Paxton from enforcing the order, including suing school districts that required masks.

Texas appealed the judge’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New Orleans, a court composed mostly of judges appointed by Republican presidents that has historically trended conservative in its legal decisions. Wednesday’s decision was made by a three-judge panel, two of whom were appointed by former President Donald Trump.

The lawsuit was brought by Disabled Rights Texas on behalf of a number of children with disabilities in Texas. Lawyers for those children argued the law banning mask mandates goes against CDC advice and that it doesn’t allow schools to consider mask mandates as an accommodation for kids with disabilities who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. They argued that it violates the ADA, which requires equal access to public goods for people with and without disabilities.

See here for the background. Other than the Bloomberg News story linked in the Chron piece, which says that the order was made by the court without any explanation, I can’t find any coverage of this, so this is what we know. But honestly, how much more do we need to know? As with the SB8 case and the detailed ruling given by the district court judge, the Fifth Circuit exists to enforce a partisan orthodoxy on whatever comes before it. When was the last time the state of Texas went running to them to ask for a stay on a ruling they didn’t like and got a No answer? All of the things that reformers want to do to the Supreme Court need to be done with even more urgency to this abomination.

DMN/UT-Tyler: Abbott 45, Beto 39

The state’s weirdest pollster does it again.

Freshly announced gubernatorial hopeful Beto O’Rourke is running six percentage points behind Gov. Greg Abbott in a direct matchup, and Abbott leads both the Democrat O’Rourke and Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey in a three-way race for Texas governor, according to a Dallas Morning News-University of Texas at Tyler poll released Sunday.

In a race between Abbott and O’Rourke, the two-term GOP incumbent leads among all registered voters, 45%-39%. A substantial 22% want someone else to be governor, the poll found.

By nearly 2-to-1, all voters would be more likely to support McConaughey than O’Rourke. Pluralities of Democrats and independents want the Oscar-winning movie star and products endorser to run.

Still, McConaughey continues to lack a clear lane into next November’s general election. By 65%-11%, Democratic voters believe O’Rourke is the best opportunity for Democrats to break a statewide losing streak that dates to 1998.

In the hypothetical three-way general election contest, Abbott is the choice of 37%; McConaughey 27%; and O’Rourke 26%. 10% of voters want someone else. The poll, conducted Nov. 9-16, surveyed 1,106 adults who are registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

With the race taking shape, McConaughey has just more than three weeks left in the candidate-filing period to jump in, noted UT-Tyler political scientist Mark Owens, the poll’s director.

“It appears that if Matthew McConaughey chooses to enter the race before Dec. 13, he will be more on par with Beto O’Rourke than Governor Abbott,” Owens said.

“Even if McConaughey delays a start in public service, both Abbott and O’Rourke have become the face of the two political parties in Texas.”

You can see the poll results here. I’m not going to spend too much time on it. We have the Hispanic Policy Foundation poll, which had a completely different result for the three-way race, and the UT/Trib poll, which didn’t ask a three-way question but which found less enthusiasm overall for McConaughey. That “22% want someone else” number from this poll, by the way, actually comes from the Abbott-McConaughey question, which as we have discussed ad nauseum is meaningless since there’s no way that can happen.

Anyway. This result is in between the two previous ones, which suggests that the spread is a reasonable one. We’ll see what we get with future polls, of which I think we’ll have plenty. Guess I need to add a widget to the sidebar to track them.

Biden tries again on the employer vaccine mandate

Different appeals court this time.

The Biden administration is asking the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals to wipe away an order from another appeals court blocking its Occupational Safety and Health Administration vaccine mandate.

Several lawsuits were brought challenging the OSHA mandate, and last week the cases were consolidated in the 6th Circuit, an appeals court that leans right, as 10 of its 16 active judges are Republican appointees.

But, before the cases were consolidated, the 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals — perhaps the most conservative appeals court in the country — issued its order blocking the mandate.

In its filing overnight Tuesday, the Biden administration said the 5th Circuit erred in how its interpretation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act limited the law’s reach, while also arguing that the 5th Circuit had not taken into proper account the public health interest in letting the mandate go into effect.

“Simply put, delaying the Standard would likely cost many lives per day, in addition to large numbers of hospitalizations, other serious health effects, and tremendous expenses,” the administration said in the new filing. “That is a confluence of harms of the highest order.”

[…]

The administration told the 6th Circuit that if it does not lift the order blocking the mandate, it should at least modify the 5th Circuit order “so that the masking-and-testing requirement can remain in effect during the pendency of this litigation.”

See here for the previous update. The 6th Circuit is also pretty damn “conservative”, but it’s at least another shot. I have no idea what to expect, though I figure it’s best to not get one’s hopes up. I do hope they don’t take too long. Bloomberg Law has more.

What if it wasn’t Beto?

Beto O’Rourke

Here are the crosstabs to the recent UT/Trib poll of Texas that gave Greg Abbott a 46-37 lead over Beto O’Rourke. If you scroll down to page 66, you will find question 21B: “If the 2022 election for Governor were held today, and the candidates were [RANDOMIZE ORDER “Greg Abbott”, “a Democrat other than Beto O’Rourke”] Greg Abbott and a Democrat other than Beto O’Rourke, who would you vote for, or haven’t you thought enough about it to have an opinion?” Which followed Question 21A, in which the choices were explicitly Abbott versus Beto. How did not-Beto do versus Abbott?

Q21A – Abbott 46, Beto 37, Someone Else 7, “Haven’t thought about it enough” 10
Q21B – Abbott 42, NotBeto 37, Someone Else 7, “Haven’t thought about it enough” 13

So Beto and NotBeto both get 37%, while Abbott gets a few points less against NotBeto than he did against Beto.

What makes that interesting is the way in which the Abbott numbers change depending on whether his opponent was Beto or NotBeto:


Subgroup   Abbott    Beto   Else  Unsure
========================================
Dems            4      83      3      10
GOP            84       3      9       5
Indies         38      23     16      24

Subgroup   Abbott NotBeto   Else  Unsure
========================================
Dems            2       85     2      11
GOP            80        3     8       9
Indies         28       19    19      34

Overall, Ds and Rs have the same level of support for their guy in Abbott-v-Beto, and Dems are pretty close to the same for Abbott-v-NotBeto. Republicans are a little softer on Abbott when matched with NotBeto, though all of the support lost goes to the “Haven’t thought about it enough” group, not to NotBeto.

Most of the Dems who don’t pick one of the headliners say they haven’t thought about it enough to decide. I’d bet that most of these people would vote for the Dem (which now will be Beto; remember that this poll was done before his formal announcement), at least if they do vote, which to be sure is a big question to settle. It’s the significant Republican choice of “Someone else” that intrigues me, as those people may very well not vote for Abbott next November if they vote. Perhaps this is just a reflection of the fact that Abbott is in a contested primary, and there’s always a sore-loser factor in these polls when that is the case. But maybe this suggests the possibility that just as there were anti-Trump Republicans last fall, there may be some anti-Abbott Rs next year, as there were anti-Ted Cruz and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and Sid Miller Republicans in 2018.

All of that is an optimistic reading, I freely admit. But in this interpretation, Beto clearly has room to grow, while Abbott may be closer to his ceiling. Obviously, all this can change – we are a long way out from next November, and the national environment, currently Not Good for Democrats, can change in either direction – and it is always a fool’s errand to extrapolate from a single poll. But the one thing you can do is look for changes over time, and we know there will be more UT-Trib polls as we go. So here’s my marker on this little nugget, which we will check in on as we get more polls. It may well be nothing, but if it’s not we should be able to see some evidence for it.

Fraudit funding

It’s bullshit all the way down.

GOP leaders on Friday approved shifting $4 million in emergency funds for the Texas secretary of state’s office to create an “Election Audit Division” at the agency, which will spearhead county election audits as required by the state’s new election law set to take effect next month.

The additional funding, first reported by The Dallas Morning News, was requested by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week and approved by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan and the Republican budget-writers of the two chambers, state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood.

In a Nov. 18 letter to Patrick and Phelan, Abbott said the emergency shift in money — which is coming from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice — was necessary because the secretary of state’s office “does not currently have the budget authority to adequately accomplish the goals sought by the Legislature.”

Friday’s news comes as the secretary of state’s office has a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election underway in four of Texas’ largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin.

It also comes after the GOP-controlled Legislature passed a new election law this summer that further tightens the state’s election rules with a host of changes, such as a ban on drive-thru voting and new rules for voting by mail.

The new law, which is facing legal challenges, also requires the secretary of state’s office to select four counties at random after each November election and to audit all elections that happened in those counties in the prior two years. Two of the counties that undergo the audit must have a population of more than 300,000, while the other two must have a population lower than that.

In a statement later Friday, the secretary of state’s office referenced both its 2020 audit and future audits required under the new state law, saying that the latest funds would be used for “additional staff to oversee audit activities,” such as “verifying counties’ removal of ineligible voters from the rolls … and ensuring compliance with state and federal election laws.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Just a reminder, most of the counties with 300K or more people were carried by Joe Biden, while the large majority of counties with less than 300K were won by Trump. This particular division is less egregious than what Republicans originally wanted, but it’s still designed to put more scrutiny on Democratic counties. Who wants to bet that most of the “problems” they find are in exactly those counties? The Chron has more.

In the meantime, our new not-to-be-trusted Secretary of State is out there promoting the fraudit with the idea that it’s the only way to “restore voters’ confidence in the strength and resilience of our election systems”. Let me stop you right there, pal: The reason some people have lost faith in the election system is because the guy who lost the last election has been vocally and repeatedly lying about it being “stolen” from him, and demanding that his minions conduct these fraudits for the express purpose of sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt. He continues to tell the same lies, which are eagerly believed by his rabid followers, despite losing every lawsuit filed and the Arizona fraudit finding exactly nothing and all of his lies being repeatedly debunked. Why should the rest of us have any faith in an audit being done by people who fraudulently claim there is fraud?