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The Hobby poll on ending COVID restrictions

A little while ago I blogged about the recent UH Hobby Center poll regarding the winter freeze and blackouts and responses to them. At the time I mentioned the poll had a separate section about Greg Abbott lifting the COVID restrictions on mask wearing and business capacity. I thought there might be another story that referenced those results, but if there was I never saw it. So, let’s go back and look at that part of the poll ourselves. Here’s the relevant data, and as before the landing page for the poll is here. From the poll data for the questions on the restrictions:

On March 2, 2021, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued Executive Order GA-34, which lifted statewide COVID-19 restrictions. The order rescinded, beginning on March 10, the governor’s previous mandate (GA-29) that Texans wear face coverings (masks) and allowed all businesses to operate at 100% capacity as long as the area in which the businesses are located does not surpass a high hospitalization threshold. This threshold is defined by an area where COVID-19 patients as a percentage of total hospital capacity exceeds 15% for seven consecutive days.

The survey respondents were asked five questions related to Governor Abbott’s executive order regarding the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions, and the responses were cross-tabulated with ethnicity/race, age, gender, education, and partisanship.

37% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to end the statewide mask mandate while 56% oppose the decision. The remaining 7% neither support nor oppose the decision.

42% of Texans support Governor Abbott’s decision to allow all businesses to operate at 100% capacity and 49% oppose it. The remaining 9% neither support nor oppose the decision.

When provided with the following information, “According to recent data, the daily counts of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Texas are trending downward, although the rates remain relatively high. The head of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts say that while caseloads are flattening out, variants of the coronavirus could bring another wave of the pandemic and that mask and business capacity restrictions should stay in place at this point in time,” 37% support Governor Abbott’s decision to end Texas’s statewide mask mandate and to allow businesses to operate at 100% capacity in light of the recommendations of medical experts while 51% oppose the decision. The remaining 12% neither support nor oppose the decision.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will help restore jobs and return a sense of normalcy to Texans’ lives, 44% of Texans agree with the statement and 37% disagree. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

[…]

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement that Governor Abbott’s ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses to operate at 100% capacity will result in an increase in the number of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and fatalities in Texas, a slight majority (51%) of the respondents agree with the statement compared to slightly less than a third (30%) who disagree with it. The remaining one-fifth (19%) neither agrees nor disagrees with the statement.

I’ve noted the partisan numbers in the sample before, so go review my previous post for that discussion. I’d love to see more polling on the lifting of the mask mandate, and I’d be very interested to see if it changes over time, but I’m not expecting much on that front. We know that Texas’ COVID case rate has remained fairly low despite the dropping of the mandates, a result I mostly attribute to people continuing to wear masks anyway. It may well be that people wind up disagreeing less with Abbott’s actions if this continues, or it may mostly be a proxy for partisan feelings. I’m noting it here in case we do get more data down the line.

We are still managing to avoid a new COVID surge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County drops its vaccine waitlist

Sign up and get a shot if you haven’t already.

Harris County Public Health has ended its waitlist for COVID-19 vaccinations, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday.

The new portal at ReadyHarris.org allows residents to register, after which they can pick and choose their appointment time, according to the website.

Hidalgo said there’s currently “more vaccine supply than ever” and encouraged people to sign up for vaccines, which are free and do not require insurance to receive.

She added that the county has 55,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines available for next week.

You can also call to schedule an appointment at 832-927-8787. There are equity issues to deal with, but making the vaccine more widely available, and to people who don’t have Internet access, will help.

The Texas/Georgia comparison

The main thrust of this story is that the Texas voter suppression bills are not as bad as the law Georgia passed. But as you can see, these laws are still Very Bad.

After major corporations criticized Georgia for adopting voter restrictions in the wake of Democratic wins there, the spotlight is shifting to Texas as Republican lawmakers advance similar legislation.

And just as Georgia Republicans sought to rein in Fulton County — a heavily Democratic county that includes the city of Atlanta — Texas Republicans are targeting large counties run by Democrats with measures that provide possible jail time for local officials who try to expand voting options or who promote voting by mail.

That same push is happening in Arizona and Iowa, said Lawrence Norden, director of the Election Reform Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law.

“All of these bills share a common purpose: to threaten the independence of election workers whose main job should be to ensure fair elections free from political or other interference,” Norden said.

The Senate is particularly intent on preventing a repeat of 2020, when the interim Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, promoted novel approaches such as 24-hour voting sites and drive-thru polling places as safe alternatives to indoor voting amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Democrat-leaning county saw historic turnout that helped Joe Biden come within 5.5 percentage points of the incumbent, Republican Donald Trump.

“Out of thin air they decided on drive-in voting,” charged Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a conservative Republican who runs the Senate and has been a leading voice in urging lawmakers to tighten voting laws in the name of preventing fraud.

Harris County officials, on the other hand, say drive-thru voting was preapproved by administrators at the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“In 2020 we did everything we could within the bounds of the law to ensure that we were going to have a free, a fair, a safe and an accessible election in Harris County,” Hollins said.

House Bill 6, which passed out of a committee and will next go before the full Texas House, would open up election officials to felony charges if they were to solicit a voter to fill out an application for an absentee ballot. Election officials could also face felonies for submitting false information on a provisional ballot, or if they are proven to intentionally have failed to count a valid ballot. Another provision would subject election officials to misdemeanor charges for blocking partisan poll watchers from having access to observe voting.

Legislation approved by the Texas Senate, SB 7, would also make it a crime for election workers to deny a partisan poll watcher the chance to sit or stand near enough to observe voting.

That Senate bill includes a proposal to allow poll watchers to video record voter activity at polling places. Election law expert David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research told CBS News that provision would make Texas elections less secure, not more so.

[…]

The overlapping debates in Georgia and Texas over election legislation has left some confused over what each state is doing.

During a marathon session of the Senate last week, state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, went out of his way to explain some of the distinctions. He noted that there is nothing in SB 7 that would make it a crime to give people food and water while they are standing in line to vote, as the Georgia bill does.

“Not in the bill,” Hughes said. “Never going to be in the bill.”

The “no food or water to anyone standing in line” provision in the Georgia law drew a lot of notice for its cruelty and pettiness, but the lack of such a provision in the Texas bills should not distract you from their badness. The main point is to make it harder to vote, and to prevent any future election official – with the threat of a felony, for crying out loud – from taking any action in any situation to make it easier to vote. The poll watchers provision is an open invitation for all kinds of self-appointed election vigilantes to intimidate any voter whose looks they don’t like. And this was all very much done with animus aimed at Harris County, for the sin of being a Democratic stronghold.

I have referred to Daniel Davies’ pithy comment about how “good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them to gain public support” in the past. In a post-Trump world, I’m not sure how accurate that still is, but I do note that the likes of Dan Patrick are still lying their heads off about these bills.

Before explaining how the bill would amend the state election code, Patrick said something that he would repeat during the 35-minute press conference.

“Nothing has changed in the election code (under SB7) regarding early voting. Nothing has changed,” he said.

[…]

If passed, SB 7 would codify Republicans’ objections to drive-thru voting and 24-hour voting into the state election code. To Roxanne Werner, deputy director of communications for Harris County Elections, that’s an appreciable change.

“There are definitely a number of things that would change under SB7, particularly with early voting. Some of the more obvious things are the drive-thru locations and the lack of extended early voting hours,” Werner said. “There are several things in SB 7 that relate to early voting, so I’m surprised to hear (Patrick’s) particular statement.”

For instance, the bill’s text would eliminate 24-hour voting by adding language to the election code that requires early voting to be conducted “for a period of at least nine hours, except that voting may not be conducted earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.”

And it would prohibit drive-thru voting — during the early voting period or on election day — by adding language that says “no voter may cast a vote from inside a motor vehicle.”

Robert Stein, a Rice University political scientist who has worked with and studied Harris County’s election system, said the changes proposed in SB 7 are obvious.

“What do you mean nothing changed?” Stein said, responding to Patrick’s claim. “Then why are you writing SB 7? You’re changing the law so as to prevent someone from doing something they have been doing in the past.”

David Becker, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation and Research, agrees and notes that SB 7 would make Texas one of the most restrictive voting states in the nation. Becker said that SB 7 would “concentrate more voting to a single day” by disincentivizing early voting and mail-in voting.

“I think it’s really hard to characterize SB 7 as not severely limiting early voting given that early voting was allowed to proceed under Texas law in a way that was much more expansive,” Becker said.

All of the changes packaged in SB 7 taken together, the overall effect of the bill, as in bills in other states, is the removal of authority from local election officials, Becker said.

“The fact is that the election code, as every election code does, leaves areas for local government to manage their elections, and there was nothing in the code before that said you couldn’t do drive-thru voting, that said you couldn’t do 24/7 voting, that said you couldn’t do temporary buildings for early voting,” he said. “That has absolutely changed.”

The claim was rated “Pants On Fire”. Even some Republicans have noted the likely effect that these bills would have on early voting and the voters who use it. It’s not that I expect Dan Patrick to be some kind of bastion of truth, but he’s usually smoother than this. Lying in such an obvious fashion like this is defensive in a way Patrick doesn’t often show.

The original story also notes that HB6 has fewer of the restrictive provisions than SB7 does. That’s true, but it’s not particularly relevant. One of these bills will end up in a conference committee, and once there anything can happen. I’d bet on the Senate version being the one that wins out in the end.

One last thing: I’ve mentioned this before as well, but remember that the two omnibus bills are not the only ones out there. There are other bills that do smaller and more targeted things that are getting hearings, like HB895, which would allow election workers to have the discretion to pull voters out of line if their ID and documentation seem questionable, take them aside and make their photo on the spot, make copies of their documentation, and turn that over to the Secretary of State. (No, really.) What could possibly go wrong with that? That hasn’t gotten a vote in committee yet, so it’s not nearly as far along as SB7 or HB6, but we all know that a bill like this could wind up as an amendment to a bill that’s on its way to passage if it doesn’t survive the committee process itself. Until the Lege is out of session, all kinds of badness remains possible.

On vaccine equity

This was predictable, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as such.

Black and Latino Harris County residents received the COVID-19 vaccine at lower rates than their white counterparts, according to a county analysis that also found a person’s likelihood of vaccination, to date, largely has depended on where they live.

The findings underscore what a Houston Chronicle analysis found last month: Even though African-American and Latino communities have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in Texas, they are being vaccinated at a much slower pace.

The gap exists despite a Harris County public health campaign crafted to convince residents of color to get the vaccine. And it is significant: In the highest-participation ZIP code, 77046 in Upper Kirby, 87 percent of residents have received at least one dose. Fourteen miles north in Greenspoint, 77060, 8 percent of residents have.

“That disparity is so disappointing, but it doesn’t surprise me,” said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho. “A large portion of the vaccines in the state went to the hospital systems, who just went through their electronic records — so if you’re insured, which means you’re more likely to be white, then it was easy for them to sign you up.”

Of the 20 Harris County ZIP codes with vaccination rates of at least 31 percent, 18 have predominantly white residents. Sixteen are in the so-called Houston Arrow, the section of Houston from Oak Forest southeast to downtown, southwest to Meyerland, north to the Galleria and west through the Energy Corridor that is significantly whiter and more affluent than other parts of the city.

Much of the data from 77030 likely is incorrect, the report notes, since the Texas Medical Center is located there and many hospitals appear to have listed that ZIP code as a way of expediting patient appointments.

Of the 20 county ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates, none of which exceed 15 percent, 18 are mostly nonwhite. None are in the Arrow.

[…]

The two commissioner precincts with the highest share of white residents, 3 and 4, had the highest vaccination rates, both above 16 percent. Precinct 1, which has the largest proportion of African Americans, was just below 16 percent. Just 13 percent of residents in [Commissioner Adrian] Garcia’s Precinct 2, which is mostly Latino, have received at least one dose.

Garcia said he asked for the study because he wanted to identify areas in Harris County that need greater vaccine outreach. He praised the county’s mass vaccination site at the NRG campus, but said many of his constituents lack access to public or private transportation to travel to the site or the Texas Medical Center, which are in Precinct 1.

“We want to make sure we’re being creative and thoughtful about where are the masses in the precinct that may be a way to help us move that needle in a better direction?

“The Medical Center, for most of the people in my precinct, doesn’t really exist because they can’t get to it,” Garcia continued. “We need to serve those tough, underserved areas of the precinct that have gone underserved for quite some time.”

Precinct 2 has partnered with unions and community groups to set up local vaccination sites. The portable SmartPod mobile medical units Garcia debuted last year to help with COVID-19 testing now are used also to assist with administering the shots.

Garcia said he also would urge the county health department to waive its requirement that residents register for appointments online. He predicted walk-in appointments would be popular among seniors who may not be technologically savvy, as well as undocumented residents wary of entering their personal information into a government database.

There are a lot of reasons for which, a primary one being that the state prioritized people over 65, who are disproportionately white, and not essential workers like grocery store employees or meatpackers or teachers or government employees. Not much we can do about that now other than try to catch up from here. Commissioner Garcia has the right idea, but it’s going to take time to make a difference.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not everyone opposes the I-45 project

Life is a rich tapestry.

Jill Rafferty proudly acknowledges she bothers a lot of people. Better to rub them the wrong way, she reasons, than let a lack of attention wash her Independence Heights neighborhood away.

Flood control efforts, mostly overseen by Harris County, have failed over the past dozen years to keep rain out of people’s homes in heavy storms. Houston workers hardly clean up nearby land the city owns, part of which is a park set on a former water treatment plant, and trash and debris clog the slim channels along 40½ Street, Rafferty said.

What worries her, she said, is the very entities she has been pleading with are holding up potential relief by challenging a $7 billion rebuild of I-45 that, at least on paper, will give the area better drainage. The Texas Department of Transportation, she said, laid out a better case to control flooding than city and county officials have.

“Number one, they listened to me,” Rafferty said of TxDOT officials. “Number two, they had a plan to do something.”

The increasing divide over the fate of the I-45 rebuild — notably the plan to add two managed lanes in the center of the freeway from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 that requires seizing properties and displacing low-income residents — also is putting the brakes on improvements in some of those same communities. For all the concerns of what is wrong about the project, supporters say, there also is a lot to like, such as better drainage, potential for parkland in key spots and more predictable travel times to downtown for commuters.

[…]

Concerns over whether TxDOT properly considered the project’s scope now are a matter for federal officials and the courts. The Federal Highway Administration, citing concerns raised about the project’s impact on minority communities, asked TxDOT on March 8 to pause activities, just days before Harris County filed a lawsuit saying transportation officials ignored the county’s comments on the project.

Supporters do not dispute the seismic changes the project will have on nearby residents, or even the historic levels of displacement caused by the project. The question, they said, is whether the improvements are worth it.

“These benefits vastly exceed the negatives,” said Oscar Slotboom, an advocate of adding managed lanes to I-45 and a northwest Houston resident.

Others bristle at the concerns voiced by critics who say they are representing minority and low-income groups, when many Black and Latino groups, businesses and residents want the project. Local NAACP officials and others cheered TxDOT for going to unprecedented lengths to include communities, who are not in total agreement with those who argue the project is racist or unfair to struggling families.

“There are people that come on the line that say they speak for the poor, but they have not spoken to them,” community activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad told the Texas Transportation Commission.

For suburban drivers, the benefits are clear, supporters said, and the months of fighting leaves them further from relief.

“If the state wants to do something to make the freeway better for the entire area, why shouldn’t the city welcome that,” said Ben Darby, 48, of Spring. “If they are going to make it so people sit in less traffic, who wouldn’t celebrate that? Everything comes with trade-offs.”

See here and here for some background. I don’t doubt that there are some potential benefits from this project – the proposed bus lanes are a key aspect to Metro’s current expansion plans, for example – though “suburban drivers can get where they’re going faster” is not on my top 1,000 reasons to favor the plan. I just think the opponents have the better case right now, and while the advocates say TxDOT has listened to them, that’s not what the opponents say is their experience. People of good faith can come to different opinions about this project. For me, the benefits don’t come close to outweighing the costs. If that changes, I’ll let you know.

Watson cases consolidated

All in one court now, for your convenience.

All 22 sexual assault and harassment lawsuits against Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson have been consolidated to one Harris County court.

Both legal parties agreed on Friday that State District Judge Rabeea Sultan Collier should handle the cases until the time of trial. Any trial would then be returned to the originally assigned courtroom.

Court documents show that the cases have been consolidated. Collier said Friday she expected a panel of judges to meet and officially OK the agreement at an unspecified date.

The decision is primarily a matter of convenience for the judges, Watson’s attorneys and the lawyers of the 22 women bringing litigation. Rusty Hardin, Watson’s attorney, and Tony Buzbee, representing the women, said that it would be easier to exchange evidence in one courtroom instead of several.

See here for the previous update. I don’t need to be a lawyer to know that this is a normal thing, consolidating lawsuits like this. As a blogger who follows various legal cases, I drive myself crazy sometimes trying to tell from a bland news story whether a particular court action has to do with this lawsuit or that one or the other one over there. I appreciate the simplification.

In semi-related Watson news, don’t do this.

Football writer Aaron Wilson is no longer with the Houston Chronicle after he went on a Boston sports radio show and compared the women suing Deshaun Watson to terrorists, multiple sources told Defector on Friday.

The radio appearance was on The Greg Hill Show on WEEI on March 19. During the appearance, Wilson called the lawsuits “a money grab” and “ambulance chasing.” At one point during the conversation, when talking about the Watson case, he said, “In his case, you know, it’s kind of you don’t negotiate with terrorists. People are demanding money, they’re asking for money. It kept escalating, it kept going up and up and up. You’re talking about more and more funds, I’m not going to say how much it got to, but my understanding is, you know, that there was an admission that, it was, you know, something, you know just that this was, you know, just a money grab.”

Wilson has since issued an apology, but yeah. You can’t, and you shouldn’t, come back from that. We all have our thoughts and often conflicting feelings about the accusations against Deshaun Watson, but outside of the accusers and Watson themselves, no one knows anything. We should take the accusers seriously, and we should give Watson the chance to defend himself, and we should not jump to dumb and ill-informed conclusions.

UPDATE: The remaining cases against Watson have been refiled to include the plaintiffs’ names, minus one who chose to drop out.

When the vaccine problem becomes more about demand than supply

Or to put it another way, what are we gonna do with the people who refuse to get vaccinated?

Low vaccination rates in counties that are whiter and more conservative could be impairing Texas’ ability to quickly reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

Texas counties that are poorer, whiter, less-educated and where former President Donald Trump won a larger than average share of the vote have vaccinated a smaller share of their population than the state average, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

In the 144 Texas counties that meet these criteria, about 28.7 percent of people aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, the average is 32.2 percent.

In Liberty County, fewer than 20 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the lowest rates in the state. What’s more, as Harris County residents have begun flocking to rural counties for easier access to vaccines, state data shows that providers in Liberty County — a rural patch between Houston and Beaumont — have put 27 percent more shots in the arms of Harris County residents than they have in residents of their own county

Meanwhile, in the 22 counties where Joe Biden won a majority of the vote — places that tend to be both more diverse and educated — an average of about 44 percent of eligible Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The vaccination gap between whiter, more conservative counties and the state average may not be cause for concern for the state’s vaccination efforts yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, but there is a potential for it to widen over the next two to three months.

“As more vaccines become available, that gap is going to widen, because there’s still excess demand for vaccines in our cities, where the majority of the population lives,” she said. “If, for instance, only 50 percent of people in these outlier counties are vaccinated, they will continually be subject to superspreader events that will overwhelm the weakest components of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.”

[…]

Across the state, health officials are searching for ways to reach and vaccinate people who are reluctant to do so.

State health officials are trying to think through the “last mile”, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated may not go to mass vaccination sites or hubs, but may go to providers they trust.

In Public Health Region 4/5 North — a group of counties in the northeastern part of the state, around Tyler — officials are working with faith-based communities and hosting vaccine fairs to vaccinate more people in the region with the state’s lowest average rate. They have also been conducting home visits as part of these efforts to bring vaccines to homebound people.

Ron Nichols, emergency coordinator for Chambers County, said having well known, local paramedics dole out doses has helped assuage some residents’ concerns. Nichols said demand for vaccines was initially high, but has begun to plateau in recent months because people are either waiting on the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or because of distrust rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand, don’t know or don’t trust the process,” he said. “The Facebook misinformation machine has been running rampant.”

I suppose there may be fewer Houstonians taking vaccination road trips now that there’s more doses available. Be that as it may, the approach being outlined here makes sense. It’s largely the same strategy that has been advocated and used for communities of color and immigrants, and for the same reason – people trust people they know. It’s more arduous, but it has to be done. It would be nice if more of the state and federal elected officials who represent these areas stepped up and took some of the responsibility for convincing their constituents to get vaxxed, but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

(I am going to attempt to exercise some grace about the hesitancy in these parts of the state, even as we know that lies and propaganda are the main reasons for the fears that many of these folks have, and the risk that their hesitancy may help give rise to a stronger and more vax-resistant strain of the virus. For now, at least. We’ll see where the numbers are in a few months.)

It was worse in Harris County during the freeze

Very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And for Harris County:

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

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

More on the poll watcher problem

It’s all right here. You just have to pay attention to what they’re saying.

As Texas Republican lawmakers seek to expand the powers of partisan poll watchers — and Democrats warn doing so will lead to intimidation of minority voters — newly uncovered video shows the Harris County GOP is recruiting thousands of the volunteers to monitor voting in Black and brown communities in Texas.

In the video, leaked by government accountability nonprofit Common Cause Texas, a county precinct chair giving a presentation describes the need for an “election integrity brigade” of 10,000 Republicans in Houston’s predominantly white suburbs to volunteer in the city’s racially diverse urban core.

“We’ve got to get folks in these suburbs out here that have, you know, a lot of Republican folks that got to have the courage” to cover the city, says the speaker, who’s not named in the video.

“If we don’t do that, this fraud down in here,” he goes on to say as he circles the city with a pointer, “this fraud down in here is really going to continue.”

It is unclear what the speaker is calling “fraud,” since there was scant evidence of wrongdoing uncovered in 2020, even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton doubled the resources for his elections integrity unit and aimed it at Harris County.

“What we see in this video is a concrete, real-world example of why it is a downright dangerous idea to expand poll watcher powers while removing the ability of election workers to kick a disruptive poll watcher out,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas. “Volunteer poll watchers who have no ill intent and who do not plan to disrupt voting would have no need to be ‘courageous’ about going into predominantly Black and brown communities.”

See here for the previous mention of that video. It’s actually quite clear what the speaker means by “fraud”, and that’s “there are too many Black and brown people voting”. There’s a reason why he’s highlighting urban neighborhoods, just as there was a reason why the Trump-fueled allegations of “fraud” mostly centered on cities like Detroit and Philadelphia and Atlanta. The reason is that this speaker and a whole lot of other people like him don’t view Black and brown voters, or the votes they cast, as “legitimate” in the way their own votes are. They think that too many voters is a problem, and we’d be better off if we had “fewer but better voters”. Of course, the criteria for deciding which voters would qualify as “better” would be up to them. That much is obvious.

A House counterpart bill, House Bill 6, would prevent election judges from removing a poll worker for any reason other than voter fraud, effectively requiring them to get law enforcement involved if other disruptions were to occur.

Democrats and voting rights groups have decried the provisions of the bill as intended to deter minorities from voting, citing past examples of poll watchers in Texas yelling at and taunting voters.

Democrats and voting rights groups have decried the provisions of the bill as intended to deter minorities from voting, citing past examples of poll watchers in Texas yelling at and taunting voters.

In 2010, the Harris County Attorney received multiple such complaints of poll watchers at early voting polling places in predominantly minority neighborhoods including Kashmere Gardens and Moody Park. The complaints included poll watchers “hovering over” voters, “getting into election workers’ faces” and blocking or disrupting lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots.

The county Democratic Party blamed volunteers with ties to True the Vote, a Houston-based voter watchdog group that started as a project of a tea party organization. The group denied the accusations.

“It seemed like Republicans were targeting Black and brown voters when they sent out poll watchers in November,” the Harris County Democratic Party said in a statement to Hearst Newspapers. The GOP plan to add thousands of poll watchers and give them more power ahead of 2022 elections “confirms exactly what we suspected.”

Here’s a question to ask yourself: How do you think the people in those “predominantly white suburbs” that this speaker is attempting to recruit from would feel about ten thousand poll watchers from the neighborhoods that they intend to do their thing in showing up at their polling places to monitor them with the same level of suspicion and contempt that they intend to bring? Do you think they would accept that with equanimity in the name of “playing by the same rules” and “turnabout is fair play”, or do you think they’d lose their minds and demand a large police presence to keep them safe from those dangerous inner city rabble-rousers? I think we all know which is the more likely outcome. And that once again shows why enabling a vast army of poll-watchers with little to no accountability on them is a bad, racist, dangerous, and anti-democratic idea. The Trib has more.

House committee passes its voter suppression bill

I remain pessimistic about this, but we have no choice but to fight.

A Texas House committee on Thursday advanced an elections bill that would make it a state jail felony for local election officials to distribute an application to vote by mail to a voter who didn’t request one.

House Bill 6 is part of a broader Republican effort this year to enact wide-ranging changes to elections in Texas that would ratchet up the state’s already restrictive election rules in the name of “election integrity” despite little to no evidence of widespread fraud. The legislation was approved by the House Elections Committee on a party line vote with only Republicans voting in favor of it.

Like other Republican proposals, the measure would target Harris County’s initiatives from the 2020 general election, including a shift to proactively send out vote-by-mail applications. Various counties sent unsolicited applications to voters who were 65 years and older, who automatically qualify to vote by mail in Texas. But Republicans’ ire fell on Harris County officials when they attempted to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

HB 6, by Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain, would also set up new rules for people assisting voters — like those with disabilities or those who speak languages other than English — in casting their ballots. Voters can select anyone to help them through the voting process as long as they’re not an employer or a union leader. But the bill would require those helping voters to disclose the reason they need help.

The bill now heads to the House Calendars Committee, which determines whether bills make it to the full Texas House for a vote.

[…]

The bill also picked up opposition from civil rights groups who raised the prospect that the legislation violates federal safeguards for voters of color who would be treated differently for being more likely to need assistance and concerns about the punitive nature of the bill against election workers. Advocates for people with disabilities worried it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and cautioned against complicating the voting process for voters with disabilities by creating new requirements for the individuals they select to help them.

“You can’t any longer help an elderly constituent by providing them with a mail in ballot application — this is truly incredible,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of Texas NAACP. “There’s only one reason to create criminal laws and that is to dissuade minority voters and [minority] voting officials.”

See here for the previous update. I’m going to spare myself a little work by pointing you to some other people who have done the work of highlighting how and why HB6 is just as dangerous as SB7. For example, the latest defensive maneuver by Dan Patrick and now Speaker Dade Phelan is to claim that the critics of these bills just haven’t read them, and to double-dog-dare them to point out any restictionist provisions they allegedly contain. Well, challenge accepted:

I presume she’ll follow with a thread for HB6, but give her a little time. Also, as a historical note, Jamelle Bouie reminds us that the Jim Crow laws of the old South never actually said they were intended to keep Black Americans from voting. They were just restrictions on voting that technically affected everyone but which the lawmakers knew and intended would have a much greater effect on Black voters (and which they could ensure via enforcement). Ignorance of history (real or feigned) is no excuse for trying to repeat it.

The real danger in these bills has to do with their elevating poll watchers into some kind of protected group. Why is that a problem? Because poll watchers are unvetted partisans, and in Texas their main role is making voters of color feel harassed:

What could possibly go wrong? This video has already generated some national coverage. One hopes that’s just the beginning.

Finally, while HB6 and SB7 are the big headliner voter-suppression bills, there are a lot of smaller, more targeted voter-suppression bills to watch out for as well:

So now you know. The Texas Signal and Popular Information, which goes deep on Dan Patrick, have more.

Harris County Attorney sues Juul

From the inbox:

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee filed a lawsuit Thursday in California state court against e-cigarette company JUUL and several of its executives. Harris County is the first governmental entity in Texas to join the nationwide fight to hold JUUL accountable for the deliberate and deceptive marketing of its highly addictive and destructive products to young people.

“JUUL took its marketing plan from the tobacco industry’s template by creating an image that would lure teenagers. JUUL’s vaping devices are designed to appear like a slick, high-tech gadget that’s attractive to young people. The brand even offers kid-friendly flavors like mango and cool mint,” said Harris County Attorney Menefee. “Cigarette companies were long ago barred from engaging in this type of marketing. Our youth do not deserve to be exploited by a company looking for a lifetime of profits. My office will hold JUUL accountable for its exploitative and negligent practices designed to create the next generation of nicotine users. Lawsuits were a major reason that federal regulators finally reined in cigarette industry, which has caused so much death in this country. I will continue that tradition by making sure JUUL doesn’t get away with the same behavior.”

The lawsuit contends JUUL targeted young people by using social media to showcase the product as a lifestyle brand. The company also adopted a “Make the Switch” campaign to mislead the public that e-cigarettes were benign smoking cessation devices, even though JUUL was never designed to break addictions.

In fact, JUUL’s e-cigarettes were designed to maximize addiction through its patented nicotine delivery mechanism. The CDC’s website warns of nicotine’s harmful effects on the developing brains of adolescents, and how JUUL’s products have also caused lung and cardiovascular injuries. JUUL also took advantage of the loose regulations for e-cigarettes, and made sure its products and advertising do not contain any health risk warnings.

As part of this lawsuit, the Harris County Attorney’s Office is also suing cigarette giant Altria, which owns 35% of JUUL and other companies like Philip Morris. Altria was instrumental in helping JUUL develop its marketing tactics, using its well-developed playbook.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here – it’s quite long. This was filed in California because that’s where Juul is based, but there’s more to it than that. There’s already a bunch of lawsuits against Juul over its marketing practices in California, and they are basically combined in what is known as a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding, their term for when there are multiple similar lawsuits across different judicial districts. This Law.com article, which is mostly paywalled, gives a bit of an outline of what that means. If you look at the Harris County filing, you’ll see that it’s also in this JCCP, in the same court that the Law.com story references.

As I understand it, these cases all have similar claims, some filed by government entities and some by private plaintiffs, and a subset of lawyers from them will lead the litigation. The idea is for Harris County to be among them. Harris is the first county in Texas to file this kind of lawsuit against Juul. The county needed to get permission from the Attorney General’s office to hire outside counsel for the suit, on a contingency basis, which it has received. Other state AGs have taken action themselves, including California and New York. It’s certainly possible that Texas will follow along that path – I’m old enough to remember the massive tobacco lawsuit settlement that Texas and then-AG Dan Morales got in the 90s – but that remains to be seen. If that does happen, the state can file its lawsuit here.

The only news story I found relating to this when I looked was from Click2Houston, which mostly recaps the press release. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

The Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas’ transportation department to halt construction on an Interstate 45 expansion project, citing civil rights concerns.

The news comes the same day Harris County announced it was suing the Texas Department of Transportation over the North Houston Highway Improvement Project.

In its letter to TxDOT, the FHWA said it was acting in response to public input on the state’s project — which would widen I-45 in three segments from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 — raising concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as well as environmental justice concerns.

The federal agency said it alone was responsible for such civil rights complaints, and asked for time to review them.

“To allow FHWA to evaluate the serious Title VI concerns raised…we request that TxDot pause before initiating further contract solicitation efforts for the project, including issuance of any Requests for Proposals, until FHWA has completed its review and determined whether any further actions may be necessary to address those concerns,” the March 8 letter reads.

The agency added that it would “expedite its efforts to resolve any issues as quickly as possible.”

As noted, that happened the same day that Harris County filed a lawsuit to force a redo of the existing environmental review of the project. I mentioned it in an update but hadn’t seen any stories about the FHWA action, so didn’t give it much thought. More recently, I read this Observer story, which goes into more detail about the federal intervention.

FHWA’s intervention in Houston is perhaps the first sign of a significant sea change in the U.S. Department of Transportation under Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Shortly after the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor was nominated to the cabinet position, he told CNN, “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist. We have a chance to get that right.”

Houston is a test case for that commitment. Over the coming months, FHWA investigators plan to talk to community members, local officials, and advocates to determine, among other things, whether the highway expansion project “creates potential disparate, adverse impacts to the predominantly African American and Hispanic communities within the project area.” If the agency finds that discrimination occurred, it can refer the project to the U.S. Department of Justice to litigate or withhold some categories of funding allocated to Texas. More likely, the FHWA will try to mediate some kind of voluntary resolution with TxDOT.

“I think the really important thing is that it’s about whether there’s a disparate impact,” says Erin Gaines, an attorney at Earthjustice who has worked on Title VI complaints. “They may also be talking about intentional discrimination, but you don’t need intentional discrimination to violate Title VI in an administrative complaint. You need a disparate impact.” In other words, it doesn’t matter if TxDOT intentionally chose to expand a highway that runs through a predominately Black and Hispanic neighborhood; it only matters if Black and Hispanic people are unequally impacted by the highway being expanded.

“Many of these neighborhoods literally had no voice in the construction of this highway,” says Christof Spieler, the director of planning at the design firm Huitt-Zollars. When I-45 was completed in 1958, many “residents were not even able to vote for the government that was putting these projects in place.”

By the time the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, most urban highways across the United States had already been planned and built.

[…]

The FHWA is beginning the process of interviewing impacted residents and may conduct site visits this summer, but it’s still unclear what residents will be able to demand and what outcomes TxDOT will entertain.

The investigation could prompt TxDOT to reconsider how it approaches highway projects in cities across the state—the agency has just begun the NEPA process for a $7.5 billion expansion of I-35 through Austin. But ultimately, change will have to come from the state legislature, which has required that 97 percent of TxDOT’s funding be spent on roads.

It always comes down to winning more elections, doesn’t it? I have no idea what to expect from the FHWA here. Could be a game-changer (and if it is, I 100% expect a lawsuit from the state over it), could be mostly cosmetic. At least it’s something. For more, give a listen to Tuesday’s What Next podcast, in which Houston activists Tomaro Bell and Oni Blair are interviewed; a transcript of the latter is here. The Chron editorial board has more.

Is it time to pay jurors more?

Not yet, but maybe soon.

Marilyn Burgess

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and her colleagues on Commissioners Court declined to support a proposal to increase pay for jurors and instead referred the idea for more study.

District Clerk Marilyn Burgess, a Democrat, pitched the idea of hiking juror pay from $6 to $50 for the first day of service and from $40 to $80 for any subsequent days. The hike would make Harris County jurors the highest-paid in Texas.

Burgess’s office had commissioned a study that found residents, especially people of color, said they would be more likely to show up for jury duty when summoned if the pay was higher. He proposal also included free parking for jurors.

The liberal majority that controls Commissioners Court was unconvinced. Hidalgo said she supported paying jurors more, but said Burgess had not produced any evidence showing that her proposal would help make Harris County juries more diverse. She questioned the accuracy of the district clerk’s study, which was performed by a third party.

“That’s one survey of Harris County, which is not clear to what extent the results are statistically significant, or to the extent the sample is representative,” Hidalgo said.

Budget Officer David Berry, who reports to Commissioners Court, said his office had reviewed Burgess’s proposal but did not endorse it.

[…]

Several community leaders, including from the Super Neighborhood Alliance and Mi Familia Vota, spoke in support of the pay increase. Burgess said if court members were skeptical, they could simply revert to the old system at the end of the fiscal year if it did not produce results.

She said the cost of the increases, estimated at $1.8 million in the current fiscal year, would be cheaper now because courts are holding fewer trials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The judges have signed on in support of it. The community civic leaders say it’s the only way you’re going to get the lower socioeconomic people to appear for jury duty,” Burgess said. “We have discussed this for two years and now is the time to implement it.”

Here’s the Monday story, which previewed the item before Commissioners Court. I haven’t seen the study Burgess presented, so I can’t comment on its data. Burgess’ proposal would make the Harris County courts pay a bit more than the federal courts do for jury duty. I think this is the right direction and it doesn’t cost that much, but if Commissioners Court wants to take 30 days and review it before deciding what to do, fine. I hope that they do choose to take this up afterwards. The Press has more.

A bit of business pushback against voter suppression

It’s a start, but much more is needed.

A group of 72 Black business leaders are calling on companies to publicly oppose a series of bills being advanced by Republicans in at least 43 states that could dramatically curb access to the ballot box.

The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Black corporate executives are rallying around a letter that pushes back on a Georgia law that voting rights advocates have said will make it harder for Black people to vote.

“There is no middle ground here,” Kenneth Chenault, a former chief executive of American Express and one of the letter’s organizers told the Times. “You either are for more people voting, or you want to suppress the vote.”

The letter — which urges corporate America to publicly oppose new laws that would restrict the rights of voters — comes after major Atlanta-based corporations, including Coca-Cola and Home Depot, failed to formally condemn the bills restricting voting rights.

The letter’s powerhouse group of signers include Roger Ferguson Jr., CEO of TIAA; Mellody Hobson and John Rogers Jr., the co-chief executives of Ariel Investments; Robert Smith, CEO of Vista Equity Partners; and Raymond McGuire, a former Citigroup executive who is running for New York City Mayor.

Also among the letter’s long list of supporters were Richard Parsons, a former chairman of Citigroup and chief executive of Time Warner, and Tony West, the chief legal officer at Uber.

[…]

While voting rights and advocacy groups, including the ACLU and NAACP, have filed a series of lawsuits against the bill in the wake of its passage, a majority of corporations have remained largely mum on the legislation.

Delta Air Lines CEO came forward and issued a memo on Wednesday calling the final bill “unacceptable,” suggesting that it hinged on the premise of former President Donald Trump’s false claims about a stolen election.

The group of executives stopped short of calling out specific companies for their inaction, but are asking big corporations to dedicate resources to  fighting voting rights restrictions.

The executives are hoping that big companies will help short circuit dozens of similar bills in other states from being signed into law.

Like Texas, for example. Former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has sounded the alarm and called for the business community to get involved as well. I unfortunately think it’s already too late – remember, when there was a lot of business resistance to the bathroom bill in 2017 (which the likes of Dan Patrick viewed with contempt), it was underway well before the session began. We’re already pretty far into the process, and there hasn’t been a peep in Texas as yet, other than some progressive groups taking out ads urging businesses to get involved, which is still a couple of steps away from meaningful action. Things are starting to move in Georgia, but of course that’s after their heinous bill has been signed into law. Sometimes it just takes that much longer for the forces that oppose evil to get its act together. It’s still worth the effort, but time is fast running out.

AC repairman sues Hotze

Hell yeah.

An air conditioning repairman who was held at gunpoint last October as part of a right-wing group’s voter fraud investigation has sued the group and its CEO, Houston conservative activist Steven Hotze.

David Lopez, the repairman, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Hotze and his organization, Liberty Center for God and Country, for civil conspiracy, civil theft, and aiding and abetting Mark Aguirre, the former Houston police captain who faces a felony charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon stemming from an Oct. 19 confrontation with Lopez.

Aguirre told police he was investigating a massive “ballot harvesting” operation on behalf of Hotze’s group. He previously alleged that Lopez had about 750,000 fraudulent mail ballots in his truck and had been “using Hispanic children to sign” the ballots because the youths’ fingerprints would not appear in databases. Lopez’s truck contained only air conditioning parts and tools, authorities said.

Hotze paid Aguirre $266,400 to investigate voter fraud allegations through his group, including more than $211,000 the day after the incident in which the former cop rammed Lopez’s truck and then held him at gunpoint until a Houston police officer happened by. In December, shortly after Aguirre was arrested, Hotze called the assault charge “bogus.”

At the time, Hotze said he would not condone Aguirre’s actions if they were proven true, but he was not worried about being legally implicated as the one funding Aguirre’s investigative work.

Jared Woodfill, Hotze’s attorney, said Tuesday that Hotze had not instructed Aguirre to take any of the actions mentioned in the lawsuit, and contended that Hotze could not be found culpable of any legal wrongdoing.

[…]

Lopez is seeking more than $1 million for “bodily injury, physical pain, past and future mental anguish, exemplary damages and attorney fees,” according to the suit.

Woodfill said Aguirre’s attorney has given a different version of events, alleging Lopez and Aguirre got into a “fender bender” and Lopez prompted the confrontation when he rushed at Aguirre. In any case, Woodfill said Hotze should not be held responsible for Aguirre’s actions.

“When an allegation of voter fraud would come in, he would turn it over to investigators and they would do their work in the way they thought best,” Woodfill said. “So, using the plaintiff’s logic, if one were to go out and hire a contractor to do whatever the project may be, and they did something that you didn’t agree with, then according to the plaintiff, you’re responsible for it. I don’t believe that’s consistent with the law.”

Woodfill also said he believes the lawsuit is “politically motivated,” pointing to Lopez’s decision to sue Hotze but not Aguirre, and to hire attorneys K. Scott Brazil and Dicky Grigg, both of whom have represented the Texas Democratic Party in voting lawsuits. Woodfill noted Lopez’s lawsuit references Hotze’s numerous legal challenges against Harris County’s efforts to expand voting during the 2020 election, which it is part of Hotze’s “long history of pursuing and alleging bizarre unfounded voter fraud allegations.”

Grigg said Lopez is not suing Aguirre because he already has been indicted in the separate criminal case, and because Hotze — not Aguirre — is the one funding the operation.

“He’s just a puppet, and instead of going against the puppet, we’re going against the puppetmaster, the one pulling the strings,” Grigg said.

He added that the lawsuit was not motivated by Hotze’s political claims or the legal actions he took against Democrats and voter expansion measures.

“This lawsuit is not about any of the claims that Dr. Hotze’s making, no matter how ridiculous or unfounded they are,” Grigg said. “This is against actions that people he paid $300,000 to, the actions that these people took. And the whole purpose of the lawsuit is, fine, you can say what you want, you can hold the opinions you want. But you’re responsible for your actions and your conduct.”

See here, here, and here for the background – that last link has a lot of information. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the Chron story. I have never wanted a lawsuit to succeed more than I want this one to succeed. No one deserves this more than Steven Hotze. Attorney Grigg has this exactly right. Let’s hope that a jury, and eventually the Supreme Court, see it that way.

Precinct analysis: State Senate comparisons

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
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Brazoria County

No, I had not planned to do any more of these, at least not until we got the statewide numbers. But then I got an email from Marc Campos on behalf of Sen. Carol Alvarado, who had seen the earlier comparison posts and wanted to know if I had those numbers for SD06. I didn’t at the time, but I do now thanks to getting the full jurisdiction data, so I went back and filled in the blanks. And so here we are.


Dist   Romney    Obama Johnson  Stein
=====================================
SD04   44,973   12,531     502    165
SD06   43,852   89,584   1,004    537
SD07  196,017   93,774   2,844    816
SD11   67,586   29,561   1,106    366
SD13   26,894  144,882   1,041    524
SD15   88,851  131,838   2,198    933
SD17  109,529   79,412   2,265    737
SD18    7,161    3,804      97     25

Dist    Trump  Clinton Johnson  Stein
=====================================
SD04   45,530   17,091   2,123    376
SD06   39,310  109,820   3,666  1,770
SD07  189,451  127,414  10,887  2,632
SD11   63,827   37,409   3,537    918
SD13   24,061  143,864   3,046  1,787
SD15   82,163  159,360   8,511  2,389
SD17   91,838  105,496   7,455  1,764
SD18    8,780    6,017     476    119

Dist    Trump    Biden     Lib    Grn
=====================================
SD04   55,426   25,561     936    145
SD06   61,089  123,708   1,577    770
SD07  232,201  188,150   4,746  1,216
SD11   77,325   51,561   1,605    389
SD13   38,198  166,939   1,474    753
SD15  110,485  208,552   3,444  1,045
SD17  110,788  140,986   2,706    720
SD18   15,118   12,735     331     91

Dist   Romney    Obama Johnson  Stein
=====================================
SD04   77.31%   21.54%   0.86%  0.28%
SD06   32.49%   66.37%   0.74%  0.40%
SD07   66.80%   31.96%   0.97%  0.28%
SD11   68.53%   29.97%   1.12%  0.37%
SD13   15.52%   83.58%   0.60%  0.30%
SD15   39.70%   58.90%   0.98%  0.42%
SD17   57.06%   41.37%   1.18%  0.38%
SD18   64.59%   34.31%   0.87%  0.23%

Dist    Trump  Clinton Johnson  Stein
=====================================
SD04   69.92%   26.25%   3.26%  0.58%
SD06   25.43%   71.05%   2.37%  1.15%
SD07   57.34%   38.57%   3.30%  0.80%
SD11   60.39%   35.39%   3.35%  0.87%
SD13   13.93%   83.27%   1.76%  1.03%
SD15   32.55%   63.13%   3.37%  0.95%
SD17   44.46%   51.07%   3.61%  0.85%
SD18   57.04%   39.09%   3.09%  0.77%

Dist    Trump    Biden     Lib    Grn
=====================================
SD04   67.54%   31.15%   1.14%  0.18%
SD06   32.64%   66.10%   0.84%  0.41%
SD07   54.47%   44.13%   1.11%  0.29%
SD11   59.08%   39.40%   1.23%  0.30%
SD13   18.42%   80.51%   0.71%  0.36%
SD15   34.15%   64.46%   1.06%  0.32%
SD17   43.41%   55.25%   1.06%  0.28%
SD18   53.47%   45.04%   1.17%  0.32%

I’ve limited the comparisons to the Presidential numbers from 2012 through 2020, which you see above, and the Senate numbers for 2012 and 2020, which I’ll present next. There wasn’t much difference between the Senate numbers and the RRC numbers, so I made this a little easier on myself. There’s nothing in this data that we haven’t seen and talked about before, but it’s worth taking a minute and reviewing it all again.

If we look at SD06, which is a heavily Latino district, you can see the increase in support for Trump from 2016 to 2020, which has been the story everyone has been talking about. I think it’s instructive to include the 2012 numbers, because the net change over the eight year period is basically zero from a percentage perspective – Obama carried SD06 by a 66-32 margin, while Biden carried it 66-33 – the vote gap increased by over 16K in the Dems’ favor. It’s true that Biden won SD06 by fewer votes than Hillary Clinton did, and that Trump closed the gap from 2016 by eight thousand votes, but the overall trend for this period is one that I find as a Democrat to be satisfactory. The overall direction is what I want, even if it’s not as fast as I’d like it to be. What happens next is the argument we’re all having, and there’s data to support either position. We’ll just have to see how it goes.

The flip side of that is what happened in SD07, Dan Patrick’s former district and one of the redder places in the state in 2012. Here, the trend is unmistakably in one direction. Mitt Romney’s SD07 was as Republican as SD06 was Democratic. Hillary Clinton shaved 41K off of the Dem deficit in 2016, and Joe Biden shrunk it by another 18K. In 2020, SD07 was only a ten-point GOP district. It would not be crazy to view it as a swing district, at least at the Presidential level, in 2024. I don’t know what the Republican redistricting plan is, but they’re not going to have a lot of spare capacity to borrow from in SD07. Just take a look at SD17 – which includes a lot of turf outside Harris County – to see why this make them a little nervous.

Finally, a few words about a couple of districts I don’t usually think about in these analyses, SD13 and SD15. The total number of votes in SD13 didn’t increase very much from 2012 to 2020 – indeed, it’s the one place I see where both Trump and Clinton got fewer votes than their counterparts in 2012 – and that is something I’d like to understand better. (For what it’s worth, Borris Miles got about 40K votes in Fort Bend in 2020, while Rodney Ellis got 32K in 2012. That’s a slightly higher growth rate than in Harris, but still kind of slow compared to other districts.) Trump 2020 snipped a couple of percentage points off Romney’s deficit, from down 68 to down 62, but that’s still a net 10K votes for Dems. As for SD15, it’s an example of a strong Democratic district that really stepped it up over the past eight years, performing in that way much like a lot of formerly dark red areas. Biden gained 55K net votes over Obama, as SD15 went from a 19 point Dem district to a 30 point Dem district. We’re going to need more like this around the state as we go forward.


Dist     Cruz   Sadler   MyersCollins
=====================================
SD04   44,387   12,129     849    408
SD06   45,066   84,671   1,701  1,364
SD07  194,269   90,258   4,579  2,116
SD11   66,327   28,875   1,736    779
SD13   27,839  139,516   1,866  1,357
SD15   88,594  127,006   3,709  2,178
SD17  107,576   76,803   3,396  1,801
SD18    7,135    3,637     175     78

Dist   Cornyn    Hegar     Lib    Grn
=====================================
SD04   56,085   23,380   1,405    393
SD06   59,310  115,620   3,609  2,257
SD07  237,216  173,948   7,682  2,796
SD11   77,887   47,787   2,508    854
SD13   39,386  157,671   3,502  2,149
SD15  114,616  195,264   6,065  2,657
SD17  118,460  128,628   3,892  1,603
SD18   15,268   11,859     554    180

Dist     Cruz   Sadler   MyersCollins
=====================================
SD04   76.30%   20.85%   1.46%  0.70%
SD06   33.39%   62.73%   1.26%  1.01%
SD07   66.20%   30.76%   1.56%  0.72%
SD11   67.26%   29.28%   1.76%  0.79%
SD13   16.06%   80.49%   1.08%  0.78%
SD15   39.58%   56.74%   1.66%  0.97%
SD17   56.05%   40.01%   1.77%  0.94%
SD18   64.35%   32.80%   1.58%  0.70%

Dist	Cornyn   Hegar     Lib    Grn
=====================================
SD04   69.02%   28.77%   1.73%  0.48%
SD06   32.80%   63.95%   2.00%  1.25%
SD07   55.64%   40.80%   1.80%  0.66%
SD11   60.36%   37.03%   1.94%  0.66%
SD13   19.43%   77.78%   1.73%  1.06%
SD15   35.43%   60.35%   1.87%  0.82%
SD17   46.42%   50.40%   1.53%  0.63%
SD18   54.80%   42.56%   1.99%  0.65%

The Senate numbers don’t tell us a whole lot that we didn’t already know, but do note that MJ Hegar slightly increased the percentage point gap in SD06, where it had shrunk by a point for Biden. That may be more a reflection of Paul Sadler’s candidacy than anything else, but I wanted to point it out. Hegar’s overall numbers are lesser than Biden’s, as we knew, but the same trends exist in the districts. If you never had the 2016 data for the Presidential race and only knew how things changed from 2012 to 2020 as you do with the Senate races, I wonder how people’s perceptions would differ.

This time I really mean it when I say that’s all she wrote. When we have the full numbers from the Texas Legislative Council I’ll have more to say, and then the real fun will begin when redistricting gets underway. (And by “fun” I mean “existential horror”, but you get the idea.) Let me know what you think.

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

Regional transportation officials on Friday reaffirmed their support for a planned $7 billion widening of Interstate 45 in Houston, over strong objections from city and Harris County officials that the resolution passed was a toothless enabling of design plans that continue to divide neighbors, elected officials and various interest groups.

“I think we can do better than this and we ought to try,” said Carrin Patman, a member of the Transportation Policy Council and chairwoman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

By the narrowest possible margin, the policy council — which doles out federal transportation money as a part of the Houston-Galveston Area Council — approved a resolution stating that the plan to rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8 remains a priority for the region and has local support.

The approval came over objections from all members of the council appointed by Houston and Harris County officials, including those at Metro and Port Houston. It passed solely with support from members representing suburban counties, leading to a 14-11 vote with three absences. Fourteen is the minimum needed for approval.

In addition to voicing support, the resolution calls for parties to continue working to refine the project to address the concerns of critics, but has no binding impact on the Texas Department of Transportation that would keep it from proceeding as planned to add two managed lanes from downtown northward to the freeway as part of a total rebuild of the highway.

All work on the project, the most expensive highway project in the region’s history, however, remains in limbo, following a lawsuit filed March 11 by Harris County and a March 8 order by the Federal Highway Administration to pause the awarding of contracts. Washington, D.C. officials, citing concerns raised about the project’s impacts on minority groups, are examining whether TxDOT adequately complied with federal policy.

Suburban officials, chiding the decision by Harris County to sue, said it was vital the region keep working with TxDOT or risk the project losing state funding, a position supported by some advocates.

“With no project and no money, our region is left to suffer with no solutions,” Andrea French, executive director of Transportation Advocacy Group – Houston Region, told transportation council members. The group is a coalition of engineering firms and business officials who support both transit and highway investment.

Groups critical of the project plans called it a setback, but not unexpected given the sway TxDOT has with suburban officials who favor freeway expansion to travel into the city.

[…]

State highway officials have said they continue to refine plans, and want to address the concerns, but must do so within the confines of their environmental process, said Eliza Paul, head of TxDOT’s Houston office. She said prior to the issuance of a record of decision TxDOT could not make agreements to solve some of the issues without delaying that approval — which TxDOT grants itself under an agreement with federal officials. Since its issuance last month, Paul said discussions have been constricted by the county lawsuit.

Additionally, some of the suggestions focused on not adding any lanes to the freeway are counter to the objectives state officials set for the project a decade ago, Paul said.

See here for the background. I’d argue that the “suburban” adjective here is inaccurate. The H-GAC Board of Directors includes members from rural counties like Waller and Austin and Colorado and Matagorda and Wharton, none of which have any direct stake in I-45. Walker County is on I-45, but it’s more than fifty miles north of the construction zone; the number of people commuting into downtown Houston from Huntsville has to be in the single digits.

I get the need for regional cooperation in transportation planning and in general I approve of it, but it just seems inappropriate to me that these decisions are being made by people who don’t have anywhere near the stake in the outcome. It just doesn’t feel like a good balance of interests. I don’t know what to do about that, and again I don’t advocate for taking a less regional approach since we do all have related issues and concerns, but this is frustrating.

As much as anything, the problem here is that the residents of Houston feel that their concerns have been ignored or minimized by TxDOT, and now they are being ignored or minimized by H-GAC. This is exactly why Harris County filed that lawsuit, because it had no other way to get its point across. The fact that these plans have been in place for literally decades is part of the problem. Public opinion has changed, but TxDOT and the other interests supporting this project have not kept up. And once we start construction there’s no turning back. It’s now or never

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

The Briscoe Cain follies

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

The Texas House Elections Committee abruptly ended its meeting [Thursday] before about 200 people who traveled to the Capitol could testify on a controversial anti-voter fraud bill.

Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, who chairs the committee and authored House Bill 6, had recessed briefly as he argued with the committee’s vice chair, Democrat Jessica González.

González wanted to hear from Rep. Nicole Collier, a fellow Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus.

“Vice Chair González, at this moment, you are not chairing this committee,” Cain said as he overrode González’s attempts to allow Collier to speak. “I’m not recognizing anyone but a member of this committee at this time.”

The meeting’s undoing came to pass for a procedural reason: Cain had not specified when the committee would reconvene, meaning the meeting would have to be rescheduled for a later date. He apologized to the hundreds who had made the trip to Austin to share their feedback on the bill.

“Even though I wish very much to continue today’s hearing, the rules prevent me from doing so,” he said. “Please forgive me for my error.”

This is the third-term GOP member’s first time chairing a committee during a legislative session.

[…]

Civil rights and voting advocacy groups slammed Cain, who had said it was committee practice not to allow non-members to ask questions, for blocking Collier’s testimony. There are no Black members of the elections committee.

“Today was further evidence of the GOP efforts to silence our voices. We can no longer stand by and allow them to shut us down,” Collier said at an informal, livestreamed “citizen’s hearing” in the Capitol rotunda. “We must speak up. Today shows why it’s important we have a seat at the table.”

Common Cause Texas executive director Anthony Gutierrez said non-members participate in committee hearings “all the time.”

“This deviation from standard practice to prevent a Black woman from engaging in debate on a bill that would impact Black communities disproportionately is appalling,” Gutierrez said. “There is truly nothing more absurd than Briscoe Cain having to adjourn his committee hearing on his bill that would criminalize procedural mistakes people might make while voting because he made a procedural mistake.”

Those who had planned to speak Thursday immediately expressed their deep frustration.

“(Cain) has promised a future hearing on the bill, date yet to be determined,” Texas Civil Rights Project, a voting-focused advocacy group, said in a tweet. “But this is still deeply unfair to all the Texans who took time off of work and school to be there today. And it’s troubling that no effort was made to accommodate and listen to these Texans.”

Or to put it another way, give power and responsibility to malevolent incompetents, get malevolent incompetent results. Imagine being someone who took time off from work, drove however many hours to be in Austin to wait even more hours to be given three minutes to testify against this travesty, only to be told that because the committee chair screwed up you have to come back again at some then-unknown date. (Per the Trib, it’s been rescheduled for April 1, which seems a little on the nose.) You’d have Briscoe Cain to thank for that.

R.G. Ratcliffe thinks Cain (who calls himself a “parliamentary guru”, by the way) may have inadvertently done the opponents of his malicious legislation a favor. I say that remains to be seen, because if there are two things we know about the Republicans’ push to change the rules in their favor, it’s that they can always extend the clock and that they don’t much care about the niceties along the way. What do they care if a few rabblerousers didn’t get a chance to vent at them? They will not be deterred.

Also not to be deterred is the Senate, which had its own voter suppression bill hearings.

The 31-page Senate Bill 7 includes provisions that would limit early voting opportunities, such as drive-thru and overnight polls, and stop counties from mass-mailing unsolicited ballot-by-mail applications — all methods that Harris County officials debuted in 2020.

It would also require Texas counties to have ballots with paper trails and maintain online systems tracking the status of voters’ mail ballot applications and ballots.

The bill was scheduled to be heard on Monday, but Senate Democrats delayed the hearing with a procedural move. It contains many similarities to a bill that passed the Senate but died in the House when the paper-trail system requirement, which had bipartisan support, was removed at the last minute.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, raised several potential legal issues with the bill as she questioned Keith Ingram, director of elections with the secretary of state’s office.

Texas is one of 16 states that does not have universal, no-excuse-needed voting by mail. Mail voting is only allowed for people who are 65 years or older; traveling out of the county during the election period; in jail; or have a disability or illness.

SB 7 would require voters to show proof of a purported disability, such as a doctor’s note. Zaffirini asked and Ingram confirmed that no other group allowed to vote by mail would be required to provide backup documentation.

Making a visit to see a doctor costs money, Zaffirini pointed out. Unless the state would provide voters with financial help, she asked, “could that constitute a poll tax?”

“I don’t know,” Ingram said. “That’s a question for a court.”

Seems to me that’s a pretty big can of worms, and could run into issues with privacy laws relating to medical information. Anyone out there want to comment on the possibility that this could run afoul of HIPAA in some way? The lawyers will be busy, that much is for sure. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention, Chris Hollins wrote an op-ed calling on the business community (especially Texas businesses and those that relocated here) to get involved in this fight as they recently have for other social justice issues. He specifically singled out HEB, AT&T, CenterPoint, and Pizza Hut.

Meet your new voting machines

Long time coming.

Harris County’s new voting machine, which county leaders showed off on Wednesday, incorporates old and new technology the county election administrator says will make voting easier and boost public confidence in elections.

The Hart InterCivic Verity Duo, the county’s new model, has a touch screen interface that allows users to quickly make selections. It also produces a paper ballot which voters can ensure accurately marked their choices before submitting it into a scanner.

“I am ecstatic about the new machines,” Harris County Election Administrator Isabel Longoria said. “The touch screen process, the accessibility features, the paper ballot so that people can make sure the selections they made are the ones that are counted — this is all phenomenal for Houston.”

[…]

The Verity Duo stores a voter’s ballot in three separate locations, Longoria said: on two separate hard drives inside the machines and also on the paper ballot that is scanned. The hard copy ballots are kept for 22 months, in case a manual election audit is needed. The paper ballots are printed in English rather than a bar code, which allows humans and computers to read the same document, Hart Senior Vice President Peter Litchenheld said.

The machines are enabled to perform in the county’s four ballot languages — English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Mandarin — and also offer large text sizes for visually impaired voters.

The Harris County Election Administration Office is debuting the new machines in the May joint election. November will be the first countywide election in which they will be used.

See here for the previous update. There’s a video in the story showing how the new machine is used. I think people in general will find the touchscreen interface to be easier and more intuitive to use, but I agree with Campos that the Elections office should do as much public outreach about these new machines as they can. We all know that if it’s this year or 2024, some number of people are going to show up and have no idea that there are new machines and won’t know what to do with them. The best we can do is try to minimize that number. Houston Public Media has more.

The vaccination eligibility list is about to be wide open

Go ahead and get on it, though be prepared to wait as the supply issues work themselves out.

Everyone age 16 and older, regardless of occupation or health status, will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas starting March 29, state health officials said Tuesday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is still asking providers to prioritize appointments for people who are 80 and older, and to prioritize walk-ins from anyone in that age group who shows up without an appointment. The vaccines are not limited to Texas residents, and citizenship is not a requirement for the vaccine.

“We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

Until now, eligibility for the vaccine was mainly restricted to a few groups: health care workers, people ages 50 and older, those with certain underlying health conditions who are 16 or older, and employees of schools and day care centers. Texas began receiving vaccines in mid-December.

The vaccine is still in short supply as the announcement makes about 22 million people eligible on Monday. The state has been allocated more than 14 million doses since distribution began in December — far short of the supply needed to fully vaccinate everyone right away.

[…]

The state is also launching a website next week for people to sign up for vaccines at public health centers and state-run clinics. The Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler will alert participants to upcoming events and available appointments. For those who do not have access to the internet, the state will also be creating a hotline for appointments by phone, officials said.

The DSHS has more on Twitter. Great news for those who have not yet been eligible, though as we have previously discussed it’s not necessarily great for the distribution effort or for vaccine equity. All states were mandated by President Biden to make the vaccine generally available by May 1, so this is just getting a one-month head start on that.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls this a milestone moment.

“Opening vaccine eligibility vaccines to every adult is a key milestone in our fight against COVID-19,” Hidalgo said. “The onus is now on each adult to do their part. This vaccine is safe and effective, and the faster we all get a vaccine the sooner we’ll be able to pull through this crisis, get our economy running at full speed, and get life back to normal.”

Many experts have continued to raise concerns about unequal access to vaccines, particularly among low-income communities.

Rice University health economist Vivian Ho said the opened eligibility could help on that front because public health agencies will be able to, for example, vaccinate all workers at a grocery store.

“Now you can say we are going to go to workplaces, because there’s no age limit,” she said.

Conversely, Ho said, the announcement will do little to convince people who have already decided not to get vaccines, namely in communities outside of major cities.

Opening eligibility criteria will clear confusion for many communities who have hesitated to get a COVID-19 vaccine because of constantly changing age and medical condition restrictions, said Luis Torres-Hostos, dean of the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley School of Social Work.

Torres-Hostos, who has worked with his university to get the message out to Latino communities, is hopeful public health officials will have more luck with immunization with these changes.

“Where are the vaccine deserts? Where are the places where it’s really hard for members of the community to get their vaccine?” he said. “We’ve got to do something to make sure that the vaccine is being given there.”

However, even his optimism comes with a caveat. Expanded criteria will only fix inequities if it comes with increased vaccine supply.

Communities of color and low-income communities are not hesitant to get the vaccine; a recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds 7 in 10 Hispanic people surveyed have received or want to book an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“If we build it, they will come,” Torres-Hostos said.

I sure hope this will help with the inequity issue, and I agree it will clear up any lingering confusion. We’ll look for that DSHS website when it’s up (and hopefully doesn’t crash). Y’all get yourself – and anyone you know who might need some assistance – in line for the vaccine.

It’s Voter Suppression Week in the Senate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

The vaccination rate keeps inching up

Making progress.

A quarter of Texas residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday afternoon, state data shows.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines, or a Johnson & Johnson vaccine, has been administered to more than 5.6 million people, accounting for 25.4 percent of adults over 16.

About 2.9 million Texans have been fully immunized against COVID-19, according to the data. More than 8.4 million doses have been administered.

Harris County is at 23.98 percent as of Wednesday afternoon, which means the area is poised to hit the 1-in-4 milestone this week as well.

As the story notes, greater supply of the vaccine (thanks to the authorization of the Johnson & Johnson one-shot vax) and more vaccination centers being opened have contributed to the steady rise in people getting the shot. More people will be officially eligible for it on Monday, so hopefully that trend will accelerate even more. Get your appointment and your shot at your first opportunity to do so.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

The Republican attack on Harris County voting

It’s straight up retaliation for Harris County getting positive national attention for going out of its way to make it easier to vote in 2020.

Harris County made a big push to expand mail-in and early voting during the 2020 election, offering options never before seen in Texas such as 24-hour polling places and drive-thru voting.

Republicans in the Legislature are now moving to make sure it never happens again, targeting the county with sweeping voting restrictions they hope to enact ahead of the 2022 midterm elections that they say are necessary to prevent voter fraud.

A priority Senate bill filed this week would prohibit local election officials from sending out mail ballot applications to voters who have not requested them, another step Harris County pioneered during the 2020 election. The bill would also ban certain early voting opportunities, including drive-thru voting and early voting before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m.

The goal of Senate Bill 7 is “to make sure that the election process is fair and, equally important, to make sure that Texans know it’s fair,” said bill author Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. “As people lose faith in the process, as people don’t think their vote is going to be counted accurately or doubt whether the process is secure, they’re going to be discouraged, they’re going to be less likely to vote.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the voting methods targeted by Senate Republicans in the bill resulted in higher turnout among voters of both parties in the county, adding that it saddens her to see any proposals to limit voting and make access to the ballot box a partisan issue.

“The proposed voting restrictions in SB7 are political theater that sadly harms voters of both parties,” Hidalgo said. “Policies grounded in the Big Lie — the falsehood that mass voter fraud exists — are wrong and only harm our democracy.”

Former County Clerk Chris Hollins, who enacted all the get-out-the-vote measures in 2020, said the bill was “certainly targeted at Harris County in particular.” He noted that over 100,000 voters used drive-thru voting last year and 10,000 took advantage of extended polling hours, and not all were Democrats.

Republicans are “trying to make sure that those people do not cast votes in the future,” Hollins said. While election administrators “come up with innovative ways to better serve voters … Republicans are doing everything that they can to disenfranchise voters.”

See here for the previous post on this topic. Look, we all know the arguments for these new restrictions are bullshit. Republicans scream about “voter fraud” and “election integrity” because it’s what they do. It doesn’t matter that people who voted Republican also took advantage of these opportunities, the point is that they originated in a Democratic county by Democratic officials and on balance they benefited Democratic voters more because there were more Democratic voters to begin with.

You can sign up to testify against these bills, and if you are someone who used drive through voting or overnight voting or know someone who did I’d encourage you or them to testify. It won’t change anything, but you can at least make the Republicans who want to make it harder for you to hear your story. The one thing we can do is win enough elections in 2022 and beyond to begin to remove these needless burdens on voting. (Remember, “Making It Easier To Vote” is one of my 2022 campaign planks.) The federal legislation that has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate if enough Democratic Senators decide that keeping the filibuster as is does not and should not give Republicans a total veto over their agenda would help, as it would require laws like these to go through preclearance, where they would surely fail. Republicans are making it harder for you to vote because they can. Until they lose that power, they will continue to exercise it.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Court is now in session

Another aspect of the maskless mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday lifted most restrictions on in-person state court proceedings after Gov. Greg Abbott this week reopened Texas.

Almost all in-person court proceedings had been banned since the local onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving courts no choice but to embrace remote hearings and appearances. With that requirement now ended, the Supreme Court is still encouraging judges to hold online trials and hearings, but will allow in-person proceedings if minimum health standard protocols and scheduling protocols are in place, according to the latest emergency order.

Local presiding judges also have the authority to require masks and impose social distancing requirements.

Harris County judges aim to solidify any changes to court operations by the end of next week, Administrative District Judge Robert Schaffer said.

“We have safety protocols in place that we’re going to continue with,” he said. “I think we’re going to take a breath, a deep breath, and read it (the order), and take another deep breath and read it again and try not to do a knee jerk response to it.”

[…]

Misdemeanor Judge Sedrick Walker, adminsitrative judge over the Harris County Criminal Courts at Law, said that based on his reading of the order, courts must take action to avoid spreading COVID-19. Masks are a way of doing that, he said.

“I can’t speak directly to the opinion of each individual misdemeanor judge at this time, however, I am confident that our judges would continue to require face coverings/masks in the courtroom,” he said. “In accordance with the guidance from the CDC and Harris County Public Health, the use of face coverings will continue to be required in my courtroom.”

The courts have been pretty backed up since the beginning of the pandemic – that has been a key factor in the high jail population in Harris County, among other things. I don’t know how much this helps, but maybe it moves things along a little. I hope there’s some effort to track COVID cases that may be related to in-person court hearings, just so that we can stop and make changes as needed.

Memorial Hermann CEO begs for Abbott to reconsider maskless mandate

He won’t listen, but maybe some of the people who would have stopped wearing their masks will.

On March 2, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the issuance of a new executive order, which “re-opens” Texas. The new order, which takes effect Wednesday, March 10, also terminates the statewide mask mandate.

As a health system, we respect the governor and recognize that he has an incredibly difficult job right now; however, we disagree with the terms and the timing of this new order, and strongly encourage him to reconsider this decision.

[…]

Additionally, we are deeply concerned about the timing of this decision, especially as we have just learned that all of the major new COVID-19 variants, which seem to be more dangerous and more transmissible, have now been identified in Houston; in fact, we are the first major U.S. city to confirm that all of these new variants are active in our community. Even more, for the first time in many weeks, the number of new cases reported around the world is higher than it was a week ago. Finally, we are gravely concerned that upcoming Spring Break gatherings will result in surges similar to those caused by holiday get-togethers, or worse.

The pandemic is not over, and our safety measures should not be, either. We hope that by continuing to practice the proven safety measures and encouraging others to do so as well — and as more and more people in the greater Houston area become vaccinated — we can happily support lifting masking restrictions in the future, maybe even as soon as several months from now. But we feel that issuing this order at this time, considering the current environment, is premature. In the greater Houston area, it is clear that COVID-19 is not yet under community control.

You may think this is not particularly remarkable, but hospital bigwigs have tried very hard to stay out of political fights surrounding COVID:

And as for that mention about COVID variants in Houston, consider this:

Read that whole thread and maybe be a little scared. Definitely keep your mask on, and stay away from any business or other indoor location that doesn’t require masks. If we truly are on our own, we’ve got to take this a lot more seriously than Greg Abbott does.