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Harris County

Felony judges move to dismiss bail lawsuit

Of interest.

A group of district judges in Houston on Thursday argued for dismissal of a lawsuit alleging their felony bail practices are unconstitutional because they discriminate against poor people, keeping them jailed when they can’t pay bail.

Among the defendants are the 23 criminal district judges of Harris County, who argue that the plaintiffs lack standing, and the judges have immunity to the claims. They say the plaintiffs were all released on bail and they don’t have an injury that qualifies them to sue.

[…]

“The felony bail system in Harris County raises the same legal issues as the misdemeanor system, has the same devastating consequences for impoverished arrestees, is similarly coercive of guilty pleas, and is even more costly to the system,” said the second amended complaint in Russell v. Harris County.

The lawsuit argued that Harris County for felony bail must stop using a secured bail schedule to make release decisions and better ensure that detained defendants receive constitutional protections that will protect against “erroneous deprivation of the right to bodily liberty.”

The plaintiffs are all detained in Harris County because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. Their lawsuit seeks an injunction against the county’s felony bail practices. They say the county can’t base release decisions on money alone. It must make factual findings that a person is able to afford the bail, or if they can’t pay, that pretrial detention is necessary because there’s a specific, compelling government interest and there’s no less-restrictive alternative.

The 23 judge-defendants’ motion to dismiss said the plaintiffs in the case were released on bail and they don’t have an injury that would grant them standing to sue the judges. The judges also argue they have immunity, and that an exception to immunity for constitutional violations does not apply, because the plaintiffs haven’t alleged a colorable constitutional claim.

“Plaintiffs’ claims all rest on an alleged fundamental right to pre-trial release, but the Fifth Circuit has already made clear that there is no such right. Consequently, there is no colorable constitutional claim in this suit,” the judges’ motion to dismiss said.

See here for the last update, which is when the judges were added to lawsuit. The story notes both the settlement in the misdemeanor bail lawsuit, which took a dramatic turn following the 2018 election when the Democratic slate won en masse and followed through on a promise to settle this, as well as the fact that two of the felony court judges, Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren, have filed motions in support of the plaintiffs. We’re still very much in the early stages of this litigation.

Because the felony (criminal district) courts are state offices, the felony judges are represented by the AG’s office; the misdemeanor court judges were represented by the County Attorney. It’s unclear to me how much influence Harris County government will have in this lawsuit. County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who favored the misdemeanor settlement, is a named plaintiff in both cases, so whatever influence there is will come via that. As far as I know, he has not yet spoken about this lawsuit.

I want this lawsuit to be settled as well, for the same reasons about equal justice for rich and poor, as well as serious concerns about jailing many non-violent offenders who have not been convicted of anything. It may be that the standing argument has merit – I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know – but that’s not really important to me. What I want is for the system to get a big dose of the reform it badly needs, and along the way I want these judges that I voted for to be part of the solution, not part of the problem like their now-former colleagues on the misdemeanor bench were. I’m willing to see how this plays out, but I need to see that we’re all moving towards a fairer and more equitable system. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind the next time there are primaries.

July 2020 campaign finance reports: State races, part 2

Let’s move on to finance reports from the State House, which I will break up into two parts. Today’s look is on the various races in the greater Houston area, and after that I’ll look at the other races of interest from around the state. Part One of my look at the July reports for state races is here. January reports for Harris County State House races are here, January reports for other area State House races are here.

Martin Shupp, HD03
Cecil Bell, HD03

Lorena McGill, HD15
Steve Toth, HD15

Jeff Antonelli, HD23
Mayes Middleton, HD23

Brian Rogers, HD24
Greg Bonnen, HD24

Patrick Henry, HD25
Cody Vasut, HD25

Sarah DeMerchant, HD26
Matt Morgan, HD26

Eliz Markowitz, HD28
Gary Gates, HD28

Travis Boldt, HD29
Ed Thompson, HD29

Joe Cardenas, HD85
Phil Stephenson, HD85

Natali Hurtado, HD126
Sam Harless, HD126

Kayla Alix, HD129
Dennis Paul, HD129

Gina Calanni, HD132
Mike Schofield, HD132

Sandra Moore, HD133
Jim Murphy, HD133

Ann Johnson, HD134
Sarah Davis, HD134

Jon Rosenthal, HD135
Justin Ray, HD135

Akilah Bacy, HD138
Lacey Hull, HD138


Dist   Candidate       Raised     Spent       Loan     On Hand
==============================================================
HD03   Shupp              430         0          0         430
HD03   Bell             8,750    24,449     82,140      19,327

HD15   McGill          11,010    12,791          0       3,437
HD15   Toth            32,849    22,015          0      20,413

HD23   Antonelli        2,104         0          0       2,104
HD23   Middleton        9,782   271,170    500,000      87,325

HD24   Rogers             970         0          0       1,445
HD24   Bonnen          16,120    35,375    450,000     563,721

HD25   Henry            3,660     5,113          0       3,660
HD25   Vasut           48,486    68,549        100      28,176

HD26   DeMerchant      12,998     5,138        975       6,178
HD26   Morgan          25,702    44,030     29,615       3,998

HD28   Markowitz      287,618   243,837          0      48,119
HD28   Gates          497,620   632,891  1,736,100      58,549

HD29   Boldt           16,531     7,228          0      15,682
HD29   Thompson        59,521    72,807          0     412,652

HD85   Cardenas         9,298     4,542          0       1,800
HD85   Stephenson      20,243    40,447     29,791      34,720

HD126  Hurtado        121,203    30,604          0      66,783
HD126  Harless         28,914     2,965     20,000     124,052

HD129  Alix            33,836     3,868          0         898
HD129  Paul            38,885    17,665    156,000      46,752

HD132  Calanni         92,315    33,941          0      99,500
HD132  Schofield       63,290   134,658          0      53,016

HD133  Moore            4,025     2,352          0       3,862
HD133  Murphy          60,100    27,894          0     514,779

HD134  Johnson        267,651   110,996          0     193,642
HD134  Davis          133,245    98,848          0     169,966

HD135  Rosenthal      129,685    61,548          0      87,108
HD135  Ray             64,170    53,847          0      60,774

HD138  Bacy            76,135    38,924          0      48,944
HD138  Hull            25,638    49,438          0      20,518

The first thing to keep in mind is that the time period covered by these reports varies. Candidates who did not have a primary opponent did not have to file eight-day reports for March, so those lucky folks’ reports cover the entire six months from January 1 through June 30. Those who had a March primary and emerged victorious did have to file an eight-day report for March, so their reports cover February 23 through June 30. And those who had to endure the runoff election also had to file an eight-day report for that race as well, so their reports cover February 23 through July 6. Got it? Check the individual report links themselves if you’re not sure what applied for a given candidate.

For obvious reasons, candidates who had contested primaries and/or runoffs may have raised and spent more than someone who could have cruised through that period. Looking at these numbers, it’s not actually all that obvious who was running in a real race during this period and who wasn’t, but that was a factor. Also, remember that the runoff for the special election in HD28 was in January, so much of the fundraising and spending for Eliz Markowitz and Gary Gates includes that.

So with all that, a few things to note. Ed Thompson (HD29) and Jim Murphy (HD133) have clearly followed the well-trod path of multiple-term incumbents, building up a decent campaign treasury for the year when it may be needed. Remember how I once suggested that Jim Murphy could make sense as a candidate for Houston Mayor in 2023? The strategy of building up a campaign war chest while a member of the Legislature worked pretty well for Mayor Turner. I’m just saying. First term Democratic incumbents Jon Rosenthal and Gina Calanni, neither of whom were big fundraisers in their successful 2018 campaigns, have done all right for themselves so far. They’re not going to scare anyone off with their bank accounts, but they’re not starting from scratch, either.

Nobody in the hot races in HD26 or HD138 has a lot of money right now, but I don’t expect that to last. I figure the 30-day reports will tell more of the story there, and of course there will be a ton of PAC money at play. Eliz Markowitz will have a larger network of donors from her special election to tap into, but will be operating in a much more competitive environment, and as before will be running against a guy who prints his own money. Natali Hurtado has some catching up to do in HD126, but she’s off to a roaring start. No one in the lower-profile races has done anything to raise their profiles.

By the way, when you see a puzzling disparity between raised/spent and cash on hand, the answer is almost always because the amount raised includes a significant “in kind” share. Kayla Alix in HD129, for example, raised $33K, but $26K of it was an in-kind donation for office rental. It’s a real contribution, but it doesn’t manifest as cash on hand.

The two oddest reports to me are those belonging to Sarah Davis and Mayes Middleton. What in the world was Middleton, a first-term incumbent with no primary opponent, spending $271K on? About $78K on advertising, and at least that much on six or seven paid staff, in monthly installments. Why does he have so many people on monthly retainers? You’d have to ask him. As for Davis, I have no idea how it is that she doesn’t have $500K or so in the bank. She’s been an incumbent for as long as Murphy has (they both were elected in 2010; Murphy had served a term before that and was defeated in 2008 but came back the following cycle), her last serious Democratic challenger was in 2012 (Ann Johnson again), and like Murphy she represents a wealthy district with plenty of well-heeled constituents. I recognize that this is a tough cycle for her, by most reckoning one in which she is likely to lose, so I can understand how Johnson is outperforming her now. What I don’t understand is why she didn’t have more socked away for exactly this circumstance. Not complaining, you understand, just marveling.

An analysis of that Paxton opinion about schools and county health authorities

Short version: That’s just, like, his opinion, man.

Best mugshot ever

The law should mean what it says. Rule §97.6(h) of the Texas Administrative Code says: “The health authority is empowered to close any public or private child-care facility, school or other place of public or private assembly when in his or her opinion such closing is necessary to protect the public health; and such school or other place of public or private assembly shall not reopen until permitted by the health authority who caused its closure.” This law was invoked by the Harris County Health Authority this month , directing that K-12 schools in the county start operations entirely online until at least Sept. 7.

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote an opinion that effectively invalidated Harris County’s control order and others. The Texas Education Agency accepted the opinion, and said it will defund schools that follow the orders. On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott added his backing.

While the attorney general’s opinions are non-binding, they are entitled to some respect. So too, though, is the plain language of the law. I believe Paxton has it wrong and that his opinion is likely to kill people.

[…]

The law appears to be clear. The provision of the administrative code cited above gives the power to local health authorities. Despite this, Paxton concludes the law doesn’t mean what it says. He argues if read literally, the law would undercut limitations on the power of local health authorities he believes exist elsewhere in Texas law .

I wouldn’t give that argument a high grade. The “limitations” he cites would cripple local health authority’s power to effectively manage dangerous diseases that cannot survive on surfaces. More importantly, Paxton really can’t explain why Texas couldn’t give local health authorities, who have the authority to take steps such as quarantining an entire county, the (supposedly) limited powers that exist elsewhere and, just as the law says, the explicit power to close schools.

The factual assumptions underlying Paxton’s reading of Texas law are flawed. He writes before closing schools as a form of “area quarantine” (which isn’t the part of the statute the Harris County order relied on), the local health authority must demonstrate “reasonable cause to believe the school, or persons within the school, are actually contaminated by or infected with a communicable disease.”

That condition will exist the instant schools reopen.

See here, here, and here for the background. This too is one person’s opinion, in this case a law professor named Seth Chandler. What any of it actually means is uncertain until either someone sues or the counties and school districts all concede. Given his track record and the political stakes here, it’s quite rational to believe that Paxton is not the most trustworthy authority on this, but until a court gets involved he’s what we have. I hope the various county attorneys, as well as the counsel for the affected school districts, are reviewing this carefully and considering all their options.

Enforcing the mask order

Those of you who haven’t been wearing your mask when out in public, shame on you. And also, there may now be consequences for your dumb refusal to do the right thing.

Houston law enforcement officials will begin issuing fines and citations to people who do not comply with the state’s mask order, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced Monday.

The mandate from Gov. Greg Abbott requires nearly all Texans to wear face coverings in most public settings and has been in effect since early July.

Turner’s announcement comes as Houston experiences a slight dip in its COVID-19 hospitalization levels and a decline in the rate of positive tests, despite a sustained number of daily new cases. The mayor said police would continue to issue warnings at first, as Abbott’s order requires, before fining people $250 for a second offense.

“For months, we have been focusing on education and not citations, but now I am instructing the Houston Police Department to issue the necessary warnings and citations to anyone not wearing a mask in public if they do not meet the criteria for an exemption,” Turner said.

Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is appointed by Turner, agreed with the mayor’s order, saying it would help limit the spread of the coronavirus. He said HPD’s tally of infected and quarantined officers has grown “very rapidly,” with 108 testing positive and 64 awaiting test results.

[…]

The mayor in April instructed police not to issue fines or citations for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, winning favor among some of Hidalgo’s critics. Before Monday, he had told police to largely issue warnings when enforcing the governor’s order.

On the one hand, it’s a bit puzzling that the order hadn’t had the threat of a fine behind it before now. On the other hand, given the wishy-washy nature of Abbott’s order, it’s easy to understand why the city wouldn’t be all that interested in putting police resources into “enforcement” of that order. Certainly, the police union was not interested in enforcing the mask order (and yes, that was motivated by the HPOU president’s ridiculous animosity towards Judge Hidalgo), to whatever extent you give their preference weight. I honestly don’t know what difference this is going to make, but I welcome the change. We are moving in the right direction, it would be very nice to move a little faster in that direction, and whatever reasonable step we can take to advance we should take. And boy, do I wish we didn’t have to have debates like this. How much better it would be if people just understood what they need to do and did it.

Interview with Sherrie Matula of Sisters United Alliance

Sherrie Matula is a longtime Democratic activist (she was a founder of the BAAD Women club) and two-time candidate (for HD129 in 2008, and for HCDE in Precinct 2 in 2016, which she lost by 0.2 percentage points), but that’s not the reason I’m interviewing her. I’m interviewing her because she’s the founder and President of Sisters United Alliance, a small data-driven effort to turn out Democratic-aligned women voters in Texas. Beginning in 2016 and focusing in that election on Harris County, SUA identified 89,000 low-propensity women who were already registered to vote and contacted them by mail and by phone to encourage them to vote for Democratic candidates. Forty-three percent, or 39K of those 89K women they targeted, did cast a vote. They followed that up in 2018 with a larger focus that included Fort Bend, Galveston, Brazoria, and Montgomery Counties plus four small counties between Houston and Austin, and had similar results.

Sisters United has expanded their reach again for 2020, and it’s an effort that deserves more attention. SUA is aiming at precisely the kind of voters that campaigns tend to overlook, and they have been successful at getting them to vote. You can see their numbers from 2018 here and their 2020 universe here, and you can visit their website to learn more here. We all know what’s at stake in this election. Sisters United is doing the kind of work that’s needed to make victory possible. Give a listen to hear what they’re about:

If you like what you hear and want to help, go here to donate to Sisters United Alliance.

SCOTX rejects multiple Hotze petitions

Some good news.

The Texas Supreme Court has refused to hear several challenges by a Houston conservative power broker to emergency orders on coronavirus issued by Gov. Greg Abbott and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Without comment, the nine Republican justices on Friday denied a request that they review a trial court that upheld Hidalgo’s April 22 mask order.

The order required residents to wash hands before leaving home and wear masks, stay 6 feet away from each other and avoid touching their faces in public. For a time, Abbott, a Republican, prevented Hidalgo, a Democrat elected in 2018, from enforcing it. The governor later reversed course and issued his own mask order.

Experts said Friday they weren’t surprised that in five recent lawsuits, the state’s highest civil court has declined Dr. Steve Hotze’s demands that it step in and overturn Abbott and Hidalgo’s COVID-19 orders. Each time, the court ruled on procedural grounds.

Hotze, a staunch conservative who for decades has wielded influence with his “slate cards” telling Harris County voters whom to back in Republican primaries, said his bid to protect Texans’ state and federal constitutional rights will continue.

“We fight on,” he said. “It’s obvious to me some members of the Supreme Court just don’t want this case to come up. They don’t want to go against Abbott. Six of them were appointed by Abbott.”

See here for the background, and here for the one-line denial. This follows on the heels of an earlier denial over Abbott’s statewide mask order.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday dismissed a lawsuit disputing Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders closing nonessential businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic, but one justice expressed concern he is improperly taking the role of state lawmakers.

The Republican-controlled high court dismissed without comment the lawsuit filed by lead plaintiff and Republican activist Dr. Steven Hotze for a lack of jurisdiction.

Justice John Devine agreed with the dismissal, concluding a lawsuit against the governor is the incorrect vehicle. Nonetheless, Devine said Abbott’s emergency actions are not “categorically immune” from review by the courts and he finds it “difficult to square” the governor’s orders and state law.

“I share relators’ concern in what they describe as ‘an improper delegation of legislative authority’ to the executive branch,” his five-page concurring opinion states. “During declared states of ‘disaster,’ the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 bestows upon the governor the power to issue executive orders that have ‘the force and effect of law.’ Disaster or not, the Texas Constitution doesn’t appear to contemplate any circumstances in which we may condone such consolidation of power.”

Devine, a Republican, said the constitution’s ban on a branch of government exercising another branch’s powers “is not simply a suggestion.”

“In the first article, it states: ‘No power of suspending laws in this state shall be exercised except by the Legislature,’” he wrote. “This provision means what it says. The judiciary may not suspend laws. Nor may the executive. Only the Legislature.”

The Texas Legislature is only in regular session once every two years for 140 calendar days beginning in January. Abbott has so far ignored calls by state lawmakers to call a month-long special session to replace his executive orders during the pandemic.

Devine wrote the court’s dismissal “should not be misperceived as a judicial kowtow” to Abbott, saying there is no “pause” button to the Texas Constitution. He expressed worry that more executive orders will come when a second wave of the virus hits, resulting in “short-term orders could continually escape” the court’s review.

See here for that background, and here for that denial. This recapitulates what I’ve been saying all along – there are serious questions to be asked about the Governor’s powers at this time and what the role of the Legislature should be, questions that I sincerely hope are addressed by the next Lege, but Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill and their shambling evil Lawsuits R Us clown car is absolutely the wrong way to examine those questions. I would also add that SCOTX’s loopiest Justice John Devine is exactly the wrong person to be setting the outlines of this debate, but at least he did so in a concurring opinion. I’ll take what I can get at this point.

On a side note, in that first article Rice poli sci professor Mark Jones is quoted saying that in a 2015-2017 context, Greg Abbott very likely would have given more weight to the demands of the fringiest wingnuts in the Republican Party, because there would have been no political counterweight to them. But now, at a time when Donald Trump is at best running even with Joe Biden in the polls of Texas and the Democrats have a legitimate shot at taking the State House and knocking off a bunch of GOP members of Congress, some discretion on his part is the better part of valor. In other words, elections do have consequences.

Finally, since all news of bad things happening to Steven Hotze is good news, I was recently sent some relevant court documents by a very helpful reader that I will chare with you here. First, is this by a Harris County judge, issued on his own volition (the fancy Latin legal term for this is “sua sponte”), chiding Hotze and Woodfill for not properly serving all parties of his various lawsuits the relevant pleadings he’d been filing with SCOTX in a timely manner. Even more interesting is this one, filed by the Harris County Attorney on behalf of County Judge Lina Hidalgo and County Fire Marshal Laurie Christianson, accusing Hotze of filing multiple bullshit lawsuits against the county as a harassment tactic and asking for sanctions. Here’s a taste:

Hotze filed five lawsuits and two appeals against Judge Hidalgo in the last four months. Many of these cases are based on fabricated facts, and they all make identical constitutional challenges to the Texas Disaster Act. Based on Hotze’s own statements and actions, it is clear that he brought these duplicative suits for the improper purpose of harassing Judge Hidalgo.

Not only are these duplicative suits made for an improper purpose, but Hotze litigates them in a manner orchestrated to be as harassing as possible. Hotze presents all of his cases as urgent matters requiring emergency temporary restraining orders and emergency petitions for writ of mandamus to the Supreme Court. However, these cases are never urgent, have typically been pre-filed for days or weeks, are often set for hearing long after the orders they complain about have expired, and have nothing to do with science, liberty, or the Constitution. Their “urgency” is manufactured to deny Defendants due process by preventing them time to respond.

Hotze’s five lawsuits were designed to maximize delay and cost and create a never-ending conveyor belt of litigation using a six-step formula: (1) Hold a rally and generate negative media attention toward Judge Hidalgo, (2) solicit plaintiffs for a choose-your-own-adventure style lawsuit, (3) file a lawsuit, never serve it, then email opposing counsel about a hearing on a few hours’ notice, (4) make false claims, (5) amend, dismiss, or appeal before the court considers sanctions, and (6) start over with a new lawsuit and repeat the cycle.

It goes from there. It was filed in the 189th Civil Court, the same one whose judge issued that sua sponte order, and it requests “$10,000 in attorney’s fees and a conditional $10,000 in attorney’s fees if this matter is unsuccessfully appealed” on behalf of Hidalgo and Christianson in their official capacities. I have no idea what the odds of success of this motion are, but you do love to see it.

So we really were undercounting the COVID-19 death rate

Can’t say I’m surprised.

After months of undercounting coronavirus deaths, Texas’ formal tally of COVID-19 fatalities grew by more than 600 on Monday after state health officials changed their method of reporting.

The revised count indicates that more than 12% of the state’s death tally was previously unreported by state health officials before Monday.

The Texas Department of State Health Services is now counting deaths marked on death certificates as caused by COVID-19. Previously, the state relied on local and regional public health departments to verify and report deaths.

Public health experts have said for months that the state’s official death toll is an undercount. State health officials said Monday that the policy change would improve the accuracy and timeliness of their data.

Texas law requires death certificates to be filed within 10 days.

“This method does not include deaths of people who had COVID-19 but died of an unrelated cause,” the Texas Department of State Health Services said in a news release.

[…]

After the number of infections in Texas soared to new highs in June and early July, the rate of deaths in Texas has been accelerating. It took 53 days to get from the first death to 1,000 deaths and 39 days to get from 1,000 to 2,000 deaths. On July 10, the state surpassed 3,000 deaths — 24 days after 2,000 deaths were reported. And it took only 10 more days for Texas to reach 4,000 deaths.

While Texas continues to report daily deaths in the triple digits, the number of new daily cases seem to be stabilizing. In the past week alone, state data appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs.

The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Sunday, that number was 5,810.

I’m not sure I fully understand what was changed, so I don’t have much to say about this. I think one can argue that we’re still undercounting the true number of COVID-19 deaths, because it has been known for a long time that some people who almost certainly had the virus die at home without ever having been tested. More broadly, people have died as a result of delaying or skipping medical care for other issues because they feared catching COVID from going to the doctor’s office or emergency room. Maybe those aren’t “official” deaths, but they are deaths that wouldn’t have happened in a non-pandemic situation. I suspect we won’t really understand the scope until some years from now when academics can do a deeper analysis of all the data. In the meantime, this is what we have. The Chron has more.

Abbott finally speaks about schools

Of course, he mostly says weasel words.

Gov. Greg Abbott clarified Friday that Texas schools will be required to provide in-person instruction this fall, but that some districts may be eligible for extended waivers on a “case-by-case basis.”

In a letter signed jointly with fellow Republican state leaders, the governor said local health authorities do not have the power to shut down schools solely to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The guidance, which does not appear to be legally binding, is the first detailed instruction from Abbott in the reopening plans. Earlier this week, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Education Commissioner Mike Morath said districts would not be able to close campuses for prevention purposes alone, and in fact could lose state funding should they try.

Currently, districts are allowed to delay in-person instruction for up to eight weeks.

“If any school district believes they need an extension beyond eight weeks due to COVID-19 related issues, the (Texas Education Agency) will review that request on a case-by-case basis,” the statement says.

The remarks do not give details about the requirements school districts must meet in order to suspend in-school learning. Even if districts reopen campuses, children in public schools across the state can remain at home, continue online-only classes and still receive course credit.

See here and here for the background. Basically, we don’t know anything today that we didn’t already know. Counties and school districts maybe have some flexibility to make their own decisions, but there are no objective criteria by which those decisions can be judged. Paxton’s opinion still doesn’t have the force of law, because Abbott still hasn’t updated his executive order, but it will take either a lawsuit or open defiance of the opinion to test that proposition. In the meantime, we have this deluded fantasy that in person classroom learning will be like it has been before while the pandemic is still raging. Meanwhile, other school employees fear for their health and safety, with no assurances that anyone is looking out for them. And oh yeah, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that people will die as a result of this. Good luck sorting it all out, fellow parents.

One more thing:

An Abbott spokesman did not respond to questions about whether the governor plans to follow-up with an executive order.

That should be carved into his goddam tombstone some day. What a feckless coward. The Trib has more.

The school situation remains a big ol’ mess

You can blame Greg Abbott for all this confusion.

After weeks of confusion and conflicting signals, Texas has settled into policies that effectively compel schools to reopen their classrooms this fall no later than eight weeks after the academic year begins, whether they want to or not.

Teachers, parents, school administrators and public health officials have been seeking clarity for weeks on how the state will approach reopening schools safely as coronavirus infections and deaths rise across Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott has not responded directly to questions from reporters about who has the authority to order schools closed in areas hard-hit by the virus, and the Texas Education Agency has sent mixed messages on reopening guidelines.

But despite the lack of any formal announcement from the governor, the die was cast in in a rapid two-step process Tuesday. First, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton released nonbinding legal guidance saying local public health officials do not have the power to preemptively require all schools in their jurisdictions to remain closed, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in many Texas hotspots.

Then, state education officials reversed an earlier decision by announcing they will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed for longer than the state allows even if ordered to do so by a local health mandate. Taken together, the actions put school districts in the position of reopening classrooms on the state’s timetable or losing funds and risking potential litigation.

Educators and families must now once again rethink their back-to-school plans this fall. The education agency has given school districts up to eight weeks to limit the number of students permitted on their campuses, after which they must open classrooms to all students who want to attend.

That ninth week is looming large for superintendents who are not sure what the public health landscape will look like at that point. Now, they can’t depend on their local health officials to give them more time, without losing money.

“Starting in the ninth week of our respective school years, regardless of the status of the virus in our communities, as the guidance is written today, we would be faced with two options,” said Northside Superintendent Brian Woods in an interview with the San Antonio Express News editorial board Wednesday. “One would be to ignore a local health order, and in doing so likely put our students and staff and families at risk, or lose funding, which is essential to teaching and serving our families.”

At a school board meeting Tuesday night, Woods indicated he and other superintendents would consider filing a lawsuit seeking to keep their classrooms closed longer if necessary. Paxton’s decision to step into the fray weeks before the school year begins has prompted more questions than answers, including whether a deluge of lawsuits is expected to hit Texas courts demanding health mandates be revoked or enforced.

Emphasis mine, and see here for the background. The Chron’s Jacob Carpenter tries to make sense of this hash.

What is the impact of Paxton’s letter?

Paxton’s letter is not legally binding. The only way the local health authority orders can be negated is through an executive order issued by the governor or a judge’s ruling in a lawsuit.

As of now, Abbott has not issued an executive order declaring that local health authorities cannot mandate school closures, and nobody has filed a lawsuit challenging the local closure orders.

As a result, at this time the school closure mandates issued by local health authorities are legally valid and enforceable.

What did Morath do Tuesday?

Hours after Paxton published his letter, Morath issued new guidance saying public school districts risk losing state funding if they keep campuses shuttered solely as a result of a local health authority closure order.

Districts still can require students with at-home technology access to remain in online-only classes for up to the first eight weeks of the school year. School boards also can push back their school start dates.

If local school closure orders are legally valid, why did Morath say districts risk losing state funding if they follow closure orders?

Morath cited Paxton’s letter in issuing the new guidance on school funding.

“As a state agency, we will follow the Attorney General’s guidance,” Morath said in a statement. “Consequently, a blanket order closing schools does not constitute a legally issued closure order for purposes of funding solely remote instruction for an indefinite period of time.

However, another section of TEA guidance says the agency will continue to provide funding to districts that are forced to close campuses by an entity “authorized to issue such an order under state law” — and as of now, local health authorities have issued legal orders.

Essentially, the TEA has provided two potentially conflicting pieces of guidance.

Who can clear up this conflict?

The simplest answer: Abbott.

At any time, Abbott could issue an executive order that negates all local health orders, or he could announce he will allow the orders to stand.

Abbott has made no move in either direction.

Asked multiple times by the Houston Chronicle earlier this month whether he planned to allow local health officials to order school closures, the governor’s office never directly answered the question. Abbott’s staff also did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday following the release of Paxton’s letter.

Yes, our Governor continues to be basically useless. At this point, the best advice seems to be just wait and see what happens. Maybe Abbott revises his executive order. Maybe all the school districts and county health authorities cave. Maybe someone (or multiple someones) files a lawsuit – unfortunately, one of those someones is gonna be Jared Woodfill, so prepare yourself for the stupid – and a judge makes a ruling that forces the issue one way or another. It’s still the case that schools don’t have to open till September 8, which is what HISD is doing, and the first six weeks after that can be online-only. It’s after that it gets dicey. So sit tight and wait to see how it gets sorted out.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

Paxton overrides county health orders on schools

So much concern for the children here.

Best mugshot ever

Local health officials do not have the authority to shut down all schools in their vicinity while COVID-19 cases rise, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in nonbinding guidance Tuesday that contradicts what the Texas Education Agency has told school officials.

Shortly after Paxton’s announcement, the Texas Education Agency updated its guidance to say it will not fund school districts that keep classrooms closed because of a local health mandate, citing the attorney general’s letter. Districts can receive state funding if they obtain TEA’s permission to stay closed, as allowed for up to eight weeks with some restrictions.

The change represents an about-face for the agency, which previously said it would fund districts that remained closed under a mandate. It will impact schools in at least 16 local authorities, many in the most populous counties, that have issued school closure mandates in the past month.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, whose county is among those with a mandate to close schools, said local officials will continue to make decisions to keep students safe “regardless of what opinion General Paxton comes up with.”

“The only way that it would really screw things up is if Abbott tried to take away the control from the local groups,” Jenkins said.

The guidance is non-binding, but local health authorities could face lawsuits especially now that Paxton has weighed in. Paxton’s office declined to comment on whether it would sue local health officials that don’t retract mandates, saying it could not comment on hypothetical or potential litigation.

[…]

The governor’s executive order allowing all school districts to operate overrules local mandates to close, Paxton said. Local health officials have some authority to order schools closed if people in it are infected by COVID-19, but not as a preventive measure.

See here and here for the background. I don’t know what happens next – maybe the counties fold and rescind their orders, maybe someone files a lawsuit to force the issue, maybe we wait and see what happens when schools are supposed to start in a non-pandemic world – but it is clear that one person could end the confusion. The head of the TEA is hand-picked by Greg Abbott, after all, and one presumes Mike Morath would not have let the TEA issue that directive if Abbott was not aware of it. Plus, as noted in the story, Abbott’s own executive order is part of the reason the counties don’t have this authority, at least according to Ken Paxton. So we just need Greg Abbott to come forward and clarify things and

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to a request to clarify this earlier this month.

Yeah. You know, whoever runs against Abbott in 2022, they need to make a video montage of all of the “Abbott did not respond to a request for comment” lines in every damn story about coronavirus. If there’s a single defining trait of his reign of error, that’s it. Reform Austin has more.

UPDATE: This says a lot:

Truly, we have a weak and feckless Governor.

Abbott officially extends early voting for November

It’s just by a week, but at least the announcement has been made early.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday extended the early voting period for the November election by six days, citing continued challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Early voting for the Nov. 3 election will now begin Oct. 13 instead of Oct. 19. The end date remains Oct. 30.

The extension of the early voting period is not a surprise. During a TV interview in late May, Abbott said he would add more time to the early voting period for the November election — as he did for the primary runoff election earlier this month — but did not elaborate.

Last week, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins asked Abbott to provide more details so that election officials could have enough time to prepare. In a letter to the governor, Hollins requested that Abbott move the start date to Oct. 13 at the latest.

[…]

But the Monday announcement from the governor gave eligible mail-in voters more time to turn in their completed ballots in person if they would like to do so. Current law allows those voters to submit their ballots to the early voting clerk’s office in person instead of mailing them in — but only while polls are open on Election Day. Abbott’s latest move expands that option to the entire early voting period.

Democrats said Abbott’s latest moves were still not enough to create a safer environment for voting in November.

“Abbott’s decision to extend early voting by six days is exactly like his COVID-19 response: the bare minimum and not fully thought through,” state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement.

See here and here for the background. I certainly would have preferred a second extra week of early voting, but this is what we’re gonna get. Note that the extra week actually starts on Tuesday, because Monday the 12th is a holiday (Columbus Day), and early voting doesn’t happen on national holidays because some buildings that are used for early voting are closed.

The extra days for early voting will help, not as much as it could have, but it will help. And god knows, we really better be in an improved position with the virus by October, or we’ll have a whole lot of other big problems to be concerned with. I would expect that election administrators will try to extend voting hours where possible, and hopefully will work to have as many locations open as possible. The restriction on mobile voting sites still sucks and was an otherwise pointless attack on voting access, but there remains unresolved litigation about that, so who knows. The ability to drop off mail ballots in person any time during early voting (confession: I hadn’t known about the prior restriction on that) is good, and I’ll bet Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sets up numerous dropoff locations.

This is the situation we have, and we have to make the best of it. Apply for a mail ballot if you’re 65 or older or if you believe you meet the disability requirement. Plan when and where you will vote, to try to avoid using the busier sites. Volunteer now to work the election if you can. Don’t be the jerk who refuses to wear a mask when voting. And keep raising hell about the overall response to the pandemic, because getting the infection rate down is by far our best friend. You can read Chris Hollins’ press release in response to this announcement here.

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

Interview with Teneshia Hudspeth

Teneshia Hudspeth

As you know, HCDP precinct chairs will be picking a nominee for Harris County Clerk, to run for Diane Trautman’s unexpired term. The leading candidate for this is Teneshia Hudspeth, who has worked in the Clerk’s office for fifteen years and has been a top lieutenant in the elections division. I’ve interacted with Teneshia multiple times over the years, and I plan to vote for her in my role as precinct chair. With the selection process coming up on August 15, I wanted to take the opportunity to interview her, so my fellow precinct chairs and everyone who’ll get to vote for her in November can get to know her a little better. The job of County Clerk will be different when she takes office thanks to the adoption of an elections administrator by Commissioners Court, and that made this interview a little weird for both of us, since my questions to Clerk candidates have usually been about election matters, and right now we don’t know exactly what that will mean going forward. But we persevered, and you can hear the result here:

You can review the Q&As I did with the HCDE candidates as well:

Jose Rivera
David Brown
Obes Nwabara

July 2020 campaign finance reports: Harris County

You can always count on January and July for campaign finance reports. This roundup is going to be a little funky, because all of the candidates filed eight-day reports for the March primary, and a few also filed 30-day and eight-day reports for the July runoff. I’ll note those folks, because it means that some of the comparisons are not really apples-to-apples. But this is what we have. The July 2019 reports are here, and the January 2020 reports are here.

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Mary Nan Huffman, District Attorney

Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Joe Danna, Sheriff

Christian Menefee, Harris County Attorney
John Nation, Harris County Attorney

Ann Harris Bennett, Tax Assessor
Chris Daniel (SPAC), Tax Assessor

Rodney Ellis, County Commissioner, Precinct 1

Michael Moore, County Commissioner, Precinct 3
Tom Ramsey, County Commissioner, Precinct 3


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Ogg           64,109   223,775   68,489      29,698
Huffman       30,455    58,215        0      11,385

Gonzalez      37,352    28,320        0      73,959
Danna         56,446    26,240        0       8,490

Menefee       24,236    32,768        0      11,680
Nation             0         0        0           0

Bennett       
Daniel         1,302        51   25,000       1,705

Ellis         53,835   575,804        0   3,029,506

Moore        156,790   245,110        0      96,832
Ramsey       346,150    49,829        0     308,942

Both Ogg ($385K) and Gonzales ($317K) had plenty of cash on hand as of January, but they both spent a bunch of money in their contested primaries; Ogg needed to do so more than Gonzalez took the wise approach of not taking his little-known opponents lightly. I expect they’ll raise enough to run their campaigns, but as they’ll benefit from the Democratic nature of the county, I wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be big moneybags. I haven’t seen much of a campaign from Huffman as yet, and Joe Danna is a perennial candidate who gets most of his contributions as in-kind. What I’m saying is, don’t expect a whole lot from these races.

The same is largely true for the County Attorney and Tax Assessor races. Christian Menefeee had a decent amount raised for his January report, so he’ll probably take in a few bucks. I know absolutely nothing about his opponent, who doesn’t appear to be doing much. I don’t know why Ann Harris Bennett hasn’t filed a report yet, but he’s never been a big fundraiser. Chris Daniel has always used that PAC for his campaigns, and he had a few bucks in it as District Clerk but not that much.

Rodney Ellis brought a lot of money with him from his time as State Senator when he moved to the County Commissioner spot, and he will continue to raise and spend a significant amount. If previous patterns hold, he’ll put some money towards a coordinated campaign, and support some other Dems running for office directly. The race that will see the most money is the Commissioner race in Precinct 3. Michael Moore was in the Dem primary runoff, and the report you see is from July 6, which is to say it’s his eight-day report. That means the money raised and spent is from a 22-day period, which should give a bit of perspective. Both he and Tom Ramsey will have all the resources they need.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

A very early glimmer of some possibly good news

We may be finally bending the curve, thanks to people finally taking seriously the need to wear face masks in public.

Three weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott required Texans to wear masks, epidemiologists and disease modelers say they are cautiously optimistic that the mandate is helping the state turn a corner in its efforts to contain an outbreak that has killed more than 4,500 Texans.

Throughout the summer, Texas’ coronavirus outbreak became grimmer by the day and by almost every metric: case counts, hospitalizations, deaths. But in the past week or so, Abbott and some of the state’s public health officials began to see hope in the daily case counts as they appeared to stabilize.

A growing body of evidence points to widespread mask-wearing as an effective strategy for containing the virus, and one North Texas researcher’s statistical analysis published this week argued that local mask orders in the region reduced viral transmission enough to avoid a lockdown. The governor, who has faced blistering criticism for his handling of the pandemic from members of his own political party, immediately seized upon those findings in defense of his statewide order.

“A community lock down is not needed as long as masks & other distancing strategies are used,” Abbott wrote Monday on Twitter, citing the analysis by Rajesh Nandy, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

But public health experts warn that more restrictive lockdowns may still be appropriate in the state’s hardest-hit regions, as the disease continues to infect about 10 times as many people each day compared with two months ago, ravaging some parts of the state more severely than others.

State data now appears to show new daily infections leveling off, albeit at nearly record highs. There were around 9,100 daily new cases of the virus on average over the past week. The state recorded its largest number of daily new cases July 15, at 10,791. On Thursday, that number was 9,507.

“The downside is even though we are approaching another plateau, we are at a much higher level than in May,” Nandy said.

Yes, it would be good news if the case rate stops going up. But it won’t truly be good news until the number of infections starts to go down, and then continues to go down. You know, like it has in New York and Europe and Asia and other places with generally functional governments. It’s when we get the virus down to levels at or below where we were when we first shut down back in March that we can truly contemplate things like safely sending kids back to school and reopening the economy. You’d think this would be something that would be better understood by the elected officials who have been so resistant to taking basic measures to fight COVID-19 – poll data consistently shows that the public understands this, even if they’re not always great about doing it in the absence of leadership – but clearly for some people, these things have to be learned the hard way. And as they are learning this, the hospitals are still at capacity, and could get overwhelmed at any time.

The irony there is that it may take another broad, mostly national shutdown to get to the point we want to get to. That won’t happen under this President, and if it’s still a necessary thing under the next one, then my god have we effed this up beyond all comprehension. In the meantime:

Now Starr County is at a dangerous “tipping point,” reporting an alarming number of new cases each day, data show. Starr County Memorial Hospital — the county’s only hospital — is overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

The county has been forced to form what is being compared to a so-called “death panel.” A county health board – which governs Starr Memorial – is set to authorize critical care guidelines Thursday that will help medical workers determine ways to allocate scarce medical resources on patients with the best chance to survive.

A committee will deem which COVID-19 patients are likely to die and send them home with family, Jose Vasquez, the county health authority, said during a news conference Tuesday.

“The situation is desperate,” Vasquez said. “We cannot continue functioning in the Starr County Memorial Hospital nor in our county in the way that things are going. The numbers are staggering.”

That’s the same Starr County that was once lauded for its low infection rate and ability to keep the virus under control. That was back when local officials had the authority to make and enforce shelter-in-place orders, before Greg Abbott took that authority away. Starr County now plans to issue a new shelter in place order, though of course they won’t be able to enforce it. Greg Abbott could let them enforce it, and he could let other local governments that want to take a step back in an effort to get their numbers down do so, but that’s not something he has any interest in doing. And so here we are.

There’s a lot of COVID litigation out there

Texas Lawyer surveys the landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a growing subset of new business litigation in Texas: companies suing the government over shutdown orders or definitions of essential versus nonessential businesses.

One of the latest examples to make headlines was a large group of bar owners who sued Texas Gov. Greg Abbott over his order that closed bars again because of the rising infection rate in the Lone Star State.

But Texas Lawyer’s research revealed that the bar litigation was at least the 15th similar lawsuit filed in the state since the onset of the pandemic in early March. It’s likely that there are even more cases filed in small or mid-sized cities in Texas.

One of the most interesting legal claims raised by this type of litigation is whether the governor has exceeded his authority under the Texas Disaster Act to suspend laws in the state, said Brad Nitschke, partner in Jackson Walker in Dallas, who has been tracking COVID-19 litigation.

“The executive is given a large toolbox to respond to emergency situations. To some extent, at least, it sort of has to be that way,” Nitschke said. “I think we are more accustomed in Texas to what that looks like for a hurricane or tornado, or a catastrophic drought.”

Using the same statute to respond to a pandemic is sort of like trying to put a square peg into a round hole, he added.

“It’s clear the governor has significant authority to act in the case of a disaster,” Nitschke said. “I think the unique circumstance of a pandemic like this one is going to give courts a chance to figure out what the outer limits of that authority may be.”

[…]

It will be tough for plaintiffs to win these sorts of cases, said Christy Drake-Adams, assistant general counsel of the Texas City Attorneys Association and the Texas Municipal League.

Drake-Adams noted that the league’s insurance risk pool has seen eight similar lawsuits against small and mid-sized Texas cities, which generally argue about the definition of essential versus nonessential businesses.

“They think they should have been allowed to continue operating, because they were an essential business,” explained Drake-Adams.

She said that government defendants who are fighting these types of lawsuits have a strong defense: That governmental immunity protects them from the claims.

“To the extent that plaintiffs are throwing in constitutional claims, I would say it’s pretty clear that the government has broad authority to act to protect the public health and to regulate in times of emergency, and that authority is expressly provided in law. It’s not clear that anyone’s constitutional rights have been violated as a result of those regulations,” Drake-Adams said.

There was a quote in there from Jared Woodfill about why the plaintiffs are right, but 1) screw that guy, and 2) we’ve heard from him plenty in the stories about each individual lawsuit he’s filed. This was the first time I’d seen an analysis from someone not connected to any of the lawsuits, though since cities or counties are the defendants in some of them, the perspective given here isn’t fully objective, either. Texas Lawyer reviewed the Hunton Andrews Kurth COVID-19 Complaint Tracker for the basis of this story; you can see media coverage of that tracker here. About half of the lawsuits involve the state (two), a state agency (one), or local governments (five), the rest are between private entities. I feel like it will be multiple years before there’s little to no litigation of interest of this nature to continue tracking.

County Clerk touts curbside voting, asks for more early voting

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Friday, July 10, the last day of Early Voting during the July Primary Runoff Elections, the Harris County Clerk’s Office piloted Drive-Thru Voting as an additional option for voters to cast their ballot safely in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This was the first time in Texas history that an elections office held Drive-Thru Voting, where many voters at a time could cast their ballot without leaving the comfort and safety of their car.

“My number one priority is to keep voters and poll workers safe,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “The feedback we received from the Drive-Thru Voting pilot proves that voters felt safe exercising their right to vote and that it was an easy and efficient alternative to going inside a voting center. We are exploring options to expand this program for the November General Election at select locations as another method of voting during COVID-19.”

Voters raved about the experience. Of the 200 voters who voted at the Drive-Thru Voting site, 141 completed an optional survey reviewing the new service. Some wrote that Drive-Thru Voting was “easy to use” and others cited how the service “made voters feel safe.” One respondent even wrote that it was their “best voting experience EVER!”

Voters would overwhelmingly use the service again and recommend it to others. When asked on a scale of 0 through 10, with 10 being extremely likely, whether they would consider using the same service if it is provided again in the future, voters on average gave a score of 9.70. On the same scale, when asked whether they would recommend Drive-Thru Voting to another voter, voters on average gave a score of 9.66.

Fear of exposure to COVID-19 was the top reason for using Drive-Thru Voting. When asked why voters chose to vote using the Drive-Thru Voting service as opposed to the traditional walk-in voting method, 82 (58%) cited worries about health and safety in the midst of the pandemic. Other frequently mentioned reasons included the convenience of the service and pure curiosity about the experience of Drive-Thru Voting.

Drive-Thru Voting was piloted from 7:00 AM to 10:00 PM on Friday, July 10th, 2020, at Houston Community College – West Loop.

There’s a video at the link if you want to see it for yourself. Curbside has been done in some other locations, and it was specifically discussed as an option, in a much larger and more ambitious context, in this Chron story from April, by poli sci professor Bob Stein. There are limiting factors to doing this – the equipment is difficult to move, it’s labor intensive, and those combine to make the process slow things down for other voters, at least when this is done on an ad hoc basis. Done like this, where there’s a set number of designated locations for curbside might be more feasible, depending on how many people want to use it. I don’t want to come off like Debbie Downer here, this is a great example of outside-the-box thinking, it’s just that there are challenges that would need to be addressed to do this at anything approaching scale.

One thing that everyone would agree worked well for the July runoffs was expanded early voting. Hollins also sent a letter to Greg Abbott to remind him that he promised us more early voting in November as well.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to extend the early voting period for the November general election to ensure residents can cast ballots safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the governor Wednesday, Hollins asked for at least one additional week of balloting, and urged Abbott to set a schedule by the end of July. Early voting is scheduled to begin Oct. 19; Election Day is Nov. 3.

“It is crucial that elections officials and voters know the amount of time early voting will take place so that the many required complicated elections plans may be undertaken,” Hollins wrote. “Without that information, full planning and preparation for this important election cannot be undertaken.”

A spokesman for Abbott did not respond to a request for comment. Hollins noted that Abbott added extra days of early voting during the July primary runoffs, which were rescheduled from May because of the pandemic.

See here for your reminder about Abbott’s promise, and here for a copy of Hollins’ letter, which footnotes the Texas Tribune story that reported on Abbott’s extended early voting promise. I’d like to see early voting extended by two weeks, starting on October 5, but I’ll settle for one is that’s all Abbott is willing to give. It’s the best way – well, the second best way, after expanded voting by mail, which we’re not going to get – to keep the voters safe. Hollins is right, the sooner Abbott makes good on his promise, the better.

HCDE Q&A: Jose Rivera

As noted before, I am doing written Q&As with candidates for HCDE Trustee Position 7, At Large, whose nominee will be selected by Democratic precinct chairs in August. This is the third and (barring any unexpected late entrants) final entry in this series.

1. Who are you and why are you running for this office?

Jose Rivera

My name is Jose Rivera and I am a candidate for the Harris County Department of Education, Place 7, At-Large. My roots are from Puerto Rico. My family moved to the continental mainland when my father joined the Navy which would lead to a 20 year career in the military in North Florida. My mother would anchor our family throughout my father’s multiple deployments while building her professional career. I moved to Texas in 2003 to attend the University of Houston and to be with my then girlfriend and now wife, Tanya Makany-Rivera. Houston is our home and the city where we are raising our two sons.

When we relocated to Florida, it was a challenge for me; I only spoke Spanish and at the time ESL programming and resources were not the norm. The reality of being labeled by the educational system as a lot of people of color have been and being given low expectations was something that I focused on overcoming. If it wasn’t for the music program in my middle school which provided a creative outlet for me, I may not have graduated high school.

Working part-time jobs and making slightly above minimum wage, I was fortunate to receive the support of a small scholarship from a new employer that allowed me the time and resources to attend a community college and complete my Associates’ Degree. I was able to transfer hours to the University of Houston where I received my Bachelor’s in Sociology. I was determined to further my education and completed the Executive Masters in Public Administration program from Texas Southern University.

I decided to run because I want to be a voice for kids, who like me, have been labeled and may not be aware of the resources that are available to them. With over 15 years of work experience in both the non-profit and public sector, I’ve had the opportunity to work in our communities and have a true pulse on the challenges we face. Educational equality is a major underlying factor that needs to be addressed for the children and adults in our community. I hope to be the bridge to provide educational opportunities for all children of Harris County.

The Harris County Department of Education is a part of that solution as a support system for the 25 surrounding school districts. I support HCDE’s goals to provide Head Start programming, therapy services, CASE after school programming, and alternative school programs which include the only substance rehabilitation high school in the region. HCDE is a vital resource for our youth and it is important that we support and raise awareness about the existing available resources.

HCDE is also the largest provider of Adult Education in the region with 9,500 participants through ESL, GED, and Workforce support programs. The majority of these participants are from our Latinx and Black communities. I strongly believe inclusive programming for our youth is a vital and important investment. It will also create opportunities for their parents and adults within our community.

2. What background or experience do you have with public education?

I have two sons, Anthony who is 11 yrs old, and Dominic who is 7. Both have attended public schools and are currently students in the Houston Independent School District.

My professional experience has afforded me the opportunity to work with local school districts, from the start of my career in public service at the Mayor’s Anti-Gang Office, to the juvenile court counseling program. I have had both the privilege and challenge of working with 9th-graders who had excessive absences at Northside High School in the Near Northside. I’ve worked on establishing collaborative partnerships with local school districts that included HISD, Aldine ISD and Lone Star College. I’ve worked on creating programming and job training opportunities and resources to support our area students and families with BakerRipley and in my current role at the YMCA.

3. What experience have you had with the HCDE?

My experience with HCDE started through my work at Congressman Gene Green's office. We routinely would send support letters and help raise awareness of programming initiatives offered by the HCDE to government entities and the community. In my non-profit work, we have collaborated in the past in promoting programs for the families we serve primarily for Head Start and Adult Education initiatives.

4. What would your top three priorities be as HCDE Trustee?

● Ensure we are providing equitable funding resources and programs to our communities.
● Make sure decisions are made in an open and transparent manner.
● Create a community advisory board with the representation of our diverse community to "listen", and identify community challenges and opportunities to bring to the board.

5. What did you do to help Democrats win in 2018, and what are you doing to help Democrats win in 2020?

● Volunteered on the Adrian Garcia, County Commissioner Pct. 2 race
● Tejano Democrats
● Deputy Voter Registrar- have helped register voters over the years in multiple election cycles in Harris County.
● Became a sustaining member of the Harris County Democratic Party.
● Have worked with and currently work with non-partisan organizations on voter engagement awareness and registration to help increase voter turnout.

6. Why should precinct chairs pick you to be the nominee and not one of your opponents?

It is critical that the board of the HCDE have someone who is ready to hit the ground running on day one and understands the programs and services that the organization provides. I have established relationships with area nonprofits, school districts and elected officials at the city, county and federal level which will help to market the existing programs and expand based on the needs of our community. I believe that my unique life experiences, education and professional experience make me the best candidate for this seat.

For more information about my candidacy you can visit my page at: www.facebook.com/joseforhcde7.

HCDE Q&A: David Brown

As noted before, I am doing written Q&As with candidates for HCDE Trustee Position 7, At Large, whose nominee will be selected by Democratic precinct chairs in August.

1. Who are you and why are you running for this office?

David Brown

My name is David Wayne Brown. I’m a first-generation high school and college graduate born and raised in Houston. I’m a proud husband and father of three. After graduating from college I became a full-time entrepreneur and community activist, to help bring change to the communities that gave me so much as a child. As a first-generation high school and college graduate, I understand whole-heartedly what our students need to become well educated productive citizens in society. As an HCDE Trustee, I will always put our children and families first and not outside interests.

The thing that differentiates me from the other candidates in my race is my community activism. My opponents are great hard-working people, but I feel like my community service sets me apart because I have first-hand experience assisting those who I seek to represent. I am also a health educator with Change Happens, a nonprofit organization located in 3rd Ward and more importantly, I am a father of three school-aged children. As a parent, it is my goal to ensure my children have the greatest chance to succeed. I want to take that drive to HCDE to ensure that all of our students across the county have someone to advocate for them the way I advocate for my children.

2. What background or experience do you have with public education?

I’m currently employed as a Health Educator with a nonprofit organization in 3rd Ward. I’m in schools daily fostering meaningful relationships with our youth that will last for generations to come. Educating them on the importance of healthy relationship building, managing their anger, the importance of mental health and avoiding risky behaviors.

3. What experience have you had with the HCDE?

Prior to the pandemic of COVID-19. I’ve been attending HCDE board meetings that are held on the 3rd Wednesday of the month at 1 p.m. I’ve been attending these meetings for about a year now. Taking things in and appreciating the platform of HCDE and how it serves our youth and also those responsible as well for making it possible.

4. What would your top three priorities be as HCDE Trustee?

Public Safety in Schools:

  • Increasing the number of mental health counselors on each HCDE campus.
  • Creating a coalition of parents, educators, and law enforcement to meet quarterly to identify ways to help better assist in the social development and safety of our children.
  • Introducing protective technology into all HCDE classrooms.

Educational Equity:

  • Expanding ethnic studies across all HCDE campuses.
  • Ensuring that all school-aged children in Harris County have access to a quality head start and after school program.
  • Providing 21st-century diversity training for all HCDE staff and educators.

Improving Child Literacy Across the country:

  • Working with third-party partners to embed literacy into other programs currently active across the county.
  • Establishing a school/city/HCDE collaborative to improve communication amongst the three entities to share ideas, insights, and innovations that will help us better educate our children.

5. What did you do to help Democrats win in 2018, and what are you doing to help Democrats win in 2020?

In 2018 I became a VDVR and volunteered at local events to help register people to vote. I blocked walked for Democratic candidates, phone banked and joined several Democratic organizations that requires a paid membership. I understand the importance of grassroots campaigning and how it is great to volunteer but also vital to donate.

6. Why should precinct chairs pick you to be the nominee and not one of your opponents?

The precinct chairs should most definitely pick me to be the nominee and not one of my opponents because of my passion, dedication, experience, values, heart and willingness to fight for our youth and our community. I’ve given so much even when I’ve had so little. I come to my people as a vessel, ready to build, learn and create! I also received the most votes than any other candidate aside from Andrea Duhon who was already appointed to the board and cannot hold two positions. I’m the only candidate that actually works with youth and supporting staff in schools. This has granted me an opportunity to truly learn the needs of our students. They are all unique and brilliant in their own way. It’s only right we deliver an educational system that provides quality and equity for all across the board!

HCDE Q&A: Obes Nwabara

Obes Nwabara

As you know, there are two races on the November ballot for which Democratic precinct chairs will be selecting the nominee in August. One is for County Clerk, and the other is for HCDE Trustee Position 7, At Large. As a precinct chair and as a Democratic voter, I wanted to get to know the candidates running for the HCDE spot a little better, so I sent them a written Q&A, similar to the ones I send to judicial candidates. Under other circumstances I might try to do a regular interview, but given time and other constraints, I thought this was the best option. There are three candidates running that I know about (a fourth, Sonja Marrett, informed me that she had withdrawn from the race), and I have received responses from each to these questions. I’m printing their answers in the order I received them. Hope you find this useful.

1. Who are you and why are you running for this office?

My name is Obes Nwabara, and I’m running for HCDE Trustee because education is deeply personal for me. The reason for that actually starts long before I was born and far from here.

In late 60’s Nigeria, the Biafran War was ravaging the nation. My paternal grandfather, with a wife and five children, needed to get his family out of the country.

He was in luck, though, because of his position as a college professor at the University of Nigeria. The school — which had been started in conjunction with Michigan State University — made it possible for him to save his family from the war by sending them to the United States.

His youngest son went on to get his own education, get married, have three sons, and eventually move to Texas. The eldest of those three is me.

So, as you can see, without education I would not be here. While most of the personal stories of our students don’t include escaping a civil war, getting a quality education can mean the difference between life and death, between hope and despair, and that’s a lesson that has been passed down through the generations in my family.

2. What background or experience do you have with public education?

I’ve volunteered at schools to read to young students, and I’ve worked with organizations like LVEC (the Latino Voter Empowerment Coalition) to get public school students registered to vote.

And in my own life, I’ve been a public school student, including getting my bachelor’s degree at the University of Houston.

3. What experience have you had with the HCDE?

Since I’ve been running for this seat I’ve attended meetings and spoken with several sitting board trustees.

4. What would your top three priorities be as HCDE Trustee?

My top 3 priorities would be to:
1. Expand Head Start (HCDE’s pre-K program) throughout the county so more families can participate,
2. Increase the number of programs organized through CASE (the Center for Afterschool, Summer, and Enrichment) to ensure kids aren’t slipping through the cracks outside of the school day, and
3. Increase access to student therapy services so that more students have a safe place to express their feelings and learn how to deal with life’s challenges

5. What did you do to help Democrats win in 2018, and what are you doing to help Democrats win in 2020?

In 2018 I was a block walk captain for the Beto O’Rourke campaign in Dallas and I block walked for the Dallas County Democratic Party. What I remember most from that was the sense at each door that this might be the year, and one in particular stands out in my mind. I remember ringing a doorbell in an apartment complex and a woman answered the door. She was already supporting Beto but there was a feeling of hope in her eyes to vote for him that I’d never seen in Texas Democrats before. It was a feeling that said “we can do this!”

I’ve never forgotten that feeling and it continues to drive me to do whatever I can, wherever I can, to elect Democrats and turn this state blue. We can do this.

During the Beto campaign I was also a phone bank captain. Thus far this cycle, outside of running for office myself, I’ve written campaign letters and postcards for several campaigns, I’ve shared voting information on my social media, and I’ve advocated for Democratic candidates to win over their Republican opponents by joining and participating in several Harris County Democratic clubs.

6. Why should precinct chairs pick you to be the nominee and not one of your opponents?

Precinct chairs should pick me because I have the best platform for students in Harris County, I’m a committed Democrat, and in the last year since I started pursuing this nomination I’ve shown that I’m willing to put the time in anywhere I can to make sure that there’s someone advocating for the children of Harris County and the educational opportunities they ALL deserve.

TEA updates its school-opening guidance

They heard the outcry.

Facing growing backlash from teachers, parents and health officials, Texas education officials Friday relaxed a previous order that would have given public schools just three weeks from the start of the fall semester to reopen their classrooms for in-person instruction.

School districts will be allowed to delay on-campus instruction for at least four weeks, and ask for waivers to continue remote instruction for up to four additional weeks in areas hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. During those second four weeks, districts must educate at least a small number of students on campus, and tell the state what public health conditions would allow them to bring more students into classrooms.

Local school boards in areas with a lot of community spread can also delay the start of the school year.

“Our objective is to get as many kids as possible on campus as long as it is safe,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on a call with school superintendents Friday afternoon.”But we know on-campus instruction is really the best instructional setting for the vast majority of our students in Texas. Please don’t feel compelled to use this transition period unless your local conditions deem it necessary.”

The revised guidance offers school districts more options on reopening their schools. Last week, the Texas Education Agency had released more stringent guidelines requiring all school districts to offer on-campus instruction daily for all students who want it, except for a transition period of three weeks at the start of the school year.

Educator associations still say Texas isn’t going far enough to protect educators and parents. The Association of Texas Professional Educators released a statement calling the revision “insufficient” and lacking in “science-based metrics,” since it still requires schools to offer in-person instruction to students who need and want it daily.

Specifically, the guidance says districts that limit in-person instruction must provide devices and WiFi hotspots to students who need them. Students who do not have reliable access to technology must be allowed to learn in school every day. And during the second four weeks of state-allowed remote learning, districts must educate at least some students on campus, though they can restrict that number as they see fit.

“We demand that Gov. Abbott issue a statewide order that all school buildings remain closed and all instruction be provided remotely until the pandemic has clearly begun to subside and it is safe to reopen school buildings under strict safety standards,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said in a statement Friday.

[…]

School districts may also, with permission from the state, choose high schools where students will receive part of their instruction on campus and part remotely at home for the entire school year. Students must learn on-campus for at least 40% of the days in each grading period, usually six or nine weeks long.

That option would be best for districts “if your health conditions are such where you really need to reduce the number of people on campus at any one time,” Morath said Friday. Some districts have already proposed bringing different groups of students into classrooms on alternating days or even weeks, and otherwise educating them remotely.

See here and here. The state is going to allocate more money for school districts to buy equipment for remote learning, which is a huge barrier for a lot of kids. Some counties like Dallas have issued local health advisories that would require schools to remain closed, which the TEA guidance is allowing for at this time. The AG’s office has released an opinion saying that local governments can’t force private religious schools to close. So there’s still a lot of moving parts.

The Chron covers the local angle.

In anticipation of a change in guidance, Houston ISD announced Wednesday that it plans to remain online-only for its first grading period, which lasts six weeks. District officials also said they plan to delay the start of school by two weeks, moving the first day of classes to Sept. 8.

HISD officials hope to reopen campuses Oct. 19, but Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said public health circumstances will dictate whether that happens.

Officials in Aldine and Alief ISDs said they would start in all-virtual classes for the first three weeks, while Fort Bend ISD leaders said they will stay online-only indefinitely, with exceptions for a small percentage of students.

Several other school districts have released plans for reopening campuses that, for now, do not include online-only plans in August. However, superintendents in Conroe, Humble and Spring Branch ISDs, among others, said they are monitoring public health conditions and could decide in the coming days to keep campuses closed.

Spring Branch Superintendent Jennifer Blaine, whose district released a reopening plan Wednesday, said she plans to make a closure decision no later than the end of the month. Blaine said she first wants to see results of a survey sent to parents this week asking whether they want in-person classes or online-only instruction for their children.

“We don’t want to string this out,” Blaine said. “People are anxious and nervous. People want to know what the plans are going to be for August.”

The about-face on hybrid models in high schools, however, likely will cause some districts to re-evaluate their plans.

We’ll see what happens with HISD. One criticism that has been levied by teachers’ organizations about the TEA plan at this time – and to be fair, I think the TEA plan is still a work in progress, they have already changed it in response to public feedback – is that there isn’t yet a set of objective, scientific metrics that will govern how and when schools will reopen. I agree that this is a major oversight, but I will also point out that having metrics isn’t enough. We had a set of objective, scientific metrics that most people thought were pretty decent that were supposed to guide how and when the state reopened, and look what happened there. It’s necessary to have these metrics, but it is very much not sufficient. You have to actually follow them, and to be willing to slow down, stop, or even reverse course if the metrics aren’t being met. And given the nature of this pandemic, and the by now completely well-known lag between the case rate, the hospitalization rate, and the death rate, you have to be willing to do those things before we get into a crisis situation. You have to be willing to do them at the first sign of trouble, not at the point where things have already gotten bad ans now you need to try to catch up. If we haven’t learned that lesson by now, then we really are a bunch of idiots who will let many people suffer and die for no good reason.

Anyway. If you want a broader perspective from teachers about the upcoming school year and what we can and should be doing, give a listen to this week’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast, which is usually about parenting but this week talked to four teachers from different parts of the country. As one of them puts it, if we move ahead with opening schools before we have this virus under control, some number of kids, and some number of teachers – and I would add, some number of parents – are going to die as a result. Do we really want to do that?

Here, have a COVID update

Things are going great.

Texas set yet another record for coronavirus deaths Thursday with 154 — the third day in a row above 100.

The previous record was July 8 when 112 deaths were logged, according to a data analysis by Hearst Newspapers that shows the state reported 105 deaths on Wednesday and 104 on Tuesday.

The streak in deaths comes two weeks after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott ordered most of the state’s 30 million residents to wear masks. Despite pressure from local authorities that he give back their ability to mandate stay-at-home orders, Abbott has insisted increased mask-wearing is the key.

Abbott told Houston’s Fox 26 on Thursday that “the last step that would ever be taken is to lock Texans back down” and said other measures would be taken before resorting to that.

“It seems like I get this question a thousand times a day, and there seem to be rumors out there about a looming shutdown,” Abbott said in the interview. “Let me tell you: There is no shutdown coming.”

It will take about three weeks, Abbott said, to see the effects of his mask mandate and his closure of bars in late June. Abbott claimed cases were flattening out in Harris County, though Hearst Newspapers’ analysis shows the county’s rolling average for new cases is more than three times higher than a month ago.

[…]

A new report from Kinsa, a company that uses internet-connected thermometers to predict the spread of diseases, showed that Texas’ rate of illness is spreading faster than those of other states. The company in the past few years has successfully anticipated outbreaks of the flu weeks ahead of the federal government.

The Kinsa data, which tracks whether an uncontrolled outbreak is likely using fever trends and other information, showed that the state is hitting above the threshold for the entirety of the past 30 days.

“This level of sustained, rampant disease transmission suggests that there is likely a lot more illness in the community than what has been reflected in the case numbers to date,” the company said in a press release Thursday. “In other words, there is no relief in store for Texas over the next few weeks, and we fear that the situation there may get much worse in the near-term.”

No, seriously, it’s just terrific.

A coronavirus patient in Anahuac was flown by helicopter to a hospital in El Campo — 120 miles away — because closer facilities could not take him.

Ambulances are waiting up to 10 hours to deliver patients to packed Hidalgo County emergency rooms.

And short-staffed hospitals in Midland and Odessa have had to turn away ailing COVID-19 patients from rural West Texas facilities that can’t offer the care they need.

As the tally of coronavirus infections climbs higher each day, Texas hospitals are taking extraordinary steps to make space for a surge of patients. Some facilities in South Texas say they are dangerously close to filling up, while hospitals elsewhere are taking precautionary measures to keep their numbers manageable.

Doctors warn of shortages of an antiviral drug that shows promise for treating COVID-19 patients. And epidemiologists say the state’s hospitals may be in for a longer, harder ride than places like New York, where hospitals were stretched to capacity in the spring and some parked refrigerated trailers outside to store bodies of people who died from COVID-19.

“It used to [be that] if one hospital got kind of overwhelmed … you would start transferring out ICU patients to other facilities that had ICU beds available,” said Dr. Robert Hancock, president of the Texas College of Emergency Physicians. “And there really is none of that now, because everybody’s in the same boat and they’re struggling to get their own patients admitted.”

You might say we’re red hot.

A document prepared for the White House Coronavirus Task Force but not publicized suggests more than a dozen states should revert to more stringent protective measures, limiting social gatherings to 10 people or fewer, closing bars and gyms and asking residents to wear masks at all times.

The document, dated July 14 and obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, says 18 states are in the “red zone” for COVID-19 cases, meaning they had more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population last week. Eleven states are in the “red zone” for test positivity, meaning more than 10 percent of diagnostic test results came back positive.

It includes county-level data and reflects the insistence of the Trump administration that states and counties should take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. The document has been shared within the federal government but does not appear to be posted publicly.

Dr. Ashish Jha, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, said he thought the information and recommendations were mostly good.

“The fact that it’s not public makes no sense to me,” Jha said Thursday. “Why are we hiding this information from the American people? This should be published and updated every day.”

[…]

The 18 states that are included in the red zone for cases in the document are: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

The 11 states that are in the red zone for test positivity are Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

In May, the World Health Organization recommended that governments make sure test positivity rates were at 5 percent or lower for 14 days before reopening. A COVID-19 tracker from Johns Hopkins University shows that 33 states were above that recommended positivity as of July 16.

“If the test positivity rate is above 10 percent, that means we’re not doing a good job mitigating the outbreak,” said Jessica Malaty Rivera, science communication lead at the COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer organization launched by journalists from The Atlantic. “Ideally we want the test positivity rate to be below 3 percent, because that shows that we’re suppressing COVID-19.”

But don’t worry, Greg Abbott is on it.

As the number of new coronavirus cases in Texas continues to rise and hospitals grow more crowded, Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday there is no statewide shutdown looming.

Abbott said last week that if the spread of the virus didn’t slow, “the next step would have to be a lockdown.” But in a television interview Thursday, he said that there have been rumors of such a move and stressed that they were not true.

“Let me tell you, there is no shutdown coming,” he told KRIV-TV in Houston.

Abbott pointed to measures he’s taken in recent weeks, including a statewide mask mandate and an order shutting down bars, to slow the spread of the virus. It will take a few weeks to see a reversal in coronavirus case surges, he said.

He has repeatedly stressed this week that, if people wear masks, he’ll be able to avoid shutting down the state. On Wednesday, he told KPRC-TV in Houston that it seems like people ask him about a shutdown “like a thousand times a day.”

“People are panicking, thinking I’m about to shut down Texas again,” he said. “The answer is no. That is not the goal. I’ve been abundantly clear.”

To also be abundantly clear, Abbott is correct that it will take a bit of time for the mask order and other interventions to work, just as there was a lag between the increasing case rate and subsequent increases in hospitalizations and deaths (not that we responded in time for them, but never mind that right now). He is also correct that universal face mask wearing would be a big help, though it may not be enough at this point, and he’s fighting headwinds from Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans on that score. And if we really want to be clear, we need to remember that Abbott mostly speaks in riddles these days, so we turn to an expert in the field for true clarity:

Yes, that’s the kind of straight talk you get from Greg Abbott.

Lawmakers quickly discovered something remarkable. It was possible to stare the man in the eyes, to speak with him for a half-hour or more, and walk away with no better idea of where he stood on important legislative matters. He seemed unwilling to speak forthrightly about nearly anything, drawing a veil around his positions, lest he alienate some key legislator or interest group.

When Abbott did make himself clear, it was to issue marching orders to those who had no reason to follow them, or to punish those who had defied him. “There was no comparison to Perry. [Abbott’s] concept of governing is ordering people around,” Republican state representative Sarah Davis told me in 2018. “He came into the regular session and kind of chided us, and then was absent for the rest of the session.”

And his public statements often contradicted his private ones. Publicly, Abbott endorsed the infamous anti-transgender “bathroom bill” in the 2017 session and pretended to advocate for its passage. But in private he reassured business groups—who worried the state would be boycotted by lucrative conventions and sports tournaments—that the bill would never pass. He was publicly accused of that duplicity by Republican state representative Byron Cook in 2018. The governor’s office has never addressed it.

[…]

Fast forward a few years, through 130,000 American deaths from the coronavirus, at least 3,500 of them from Texas so far, and the onset of the worst economic circumstances since the Great Depression. Now Abbott’s governing style is under strain. Arguably, the root cause of the current crisis is his tendency to talk a lot without saying much and his propensity to take the path of least resistance regardless of the circumstances, especially when confronted by the inchoate demands of the Republican party’s right wing. This modus operandi is on display every time Abbott gets in front of a television camera. But as we see more and more of it, the artifice is becoming more clear. Abbott’s disapproval numbers have been rising just a bit, even as other governors have seen a surge of popularity during the crisis.

Here, we could talk about Abbott’s quadruple-backflip on mask mandates; the time he issued a statewide lockdown disguised under a bureaucratic name while insisting it wasn’t one, before clarifying that it was the next day; the Shelley Luther saga, which saw him ordain that violators of his shutdown order should be punished with fines and jail time only to blame local officials for enforcing it, before retroactively nullifying what he had expressly commanded; or the way he opened the state for business before fixing the problems the lockdown was designed to address.

But instead, let’s consider a small but important test Abbott recently faced, one that seems instructive. Abbott’s party had long been planning to hold its state convention in Houston, one of the nation’s biggest coronavirus hot spots, which would have brought some six thousand attendees, many of them older and especially vulnerable to the virus, from all around the state for a crowded three-day fete. An in-person convention was a virtual guarantee that some delegates and service workers would get infected and possibly die, and that Houston’s seemingly potent strain of the virus would be spread around the state.

It was an incredibly bad idea that Abbott’s party nonetheless seemed hell-bent on pursuing. What did the governor have to say about it? Would he speak up, in an attempt to save the lives of his own party’s activists? “You’re the top Republican in the state, governor,” said an anchor for KDFW in Dallas on July 6, after Houston mayor Sylvester Turner begged the party to call off the gathering, then canceled it two days later. “What do you think should happen?”

The governor’s answer: “I know that the executive committee for the Republican Party of Texas have been talking about this. I think they continue to talk about it, and they weigh all of the consequences and the public health and measures … They’ll make a decision.”

The anchor persisted: “You don’t want to weigh in on what you think should happen?”

The governor paused and then gave his answer: “Obviously I think whatever happens—whether it be, listen, this convention or any action that anybody takes—we’re at a time with the outbreak of the coronavirus where public safety needs to be a paramount concern, and make sure that whoever does anything and whatever they do, they need to do to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”

Huh?

A day later, an anchor for KENS in San Antonio tried a different tack: “Will you be attending in person?” Abbott dissembled, so the anchor tried again. “Yeah, listen, as for myself, as well as for everybody else,” Abbott said, “we will continue to see what the standards are that will be issued by the State Republican Executive Committee, by the state Republican Party to determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.” To determine what the possibility will be for being able to attend.

Not only could Abbott not say whether he thought the convention was a good idea, he couldn’t even say whether he would be there. The interview went out during the KENS five o’clock broadcast. Not half an hour later, during a meeting of the SREC, the party’s executive director announced that elected officials would be pre-recording messages instead of giving in-person speeches. Abbott surely knew this important fact when he was on the air.

I hope this clears everything up.

We’re still not doing great with the Census

There’s still time, but we have a lot of work to do.

Despite an extended deadline, local government cash infusions and grassroots campaigns to improve Houston’s 2020 census response rate, almost half of Houston households are still missing from the official count.

As of July 5, 52.5% of Houston’s estimated 2.32 million residents have completed the decennial survey, according to the most recent census data. In Harris County, the response has been about 56 percent.

But Houston is not alone. Across the country, many other large metropolitan areas are also struggling to get their populations counted, reporting similar self-response rates to Houston’s. In Los Angeles, the household response rate is 51.6%, while Chicago polls higher at 54.5%, and 53.1% in New York City.

Other cities in Texas have slightly greater household response rates so far, with Austin hovering around 60.4%, Fort Worth at 58.9%, and Dallas at 53.4%.

Texas ranks 40th in state census response, according to recent census findings. The state’s response rate of 56.7% lags behind the national rate of 61.9%. In 2010, the response rate was slightly higher at both the state and national levels, according to a recent report from Understanding Houston, which analyzed census data. The state had a 64.4% self-response rate compared with a national self-response rate of 66.5%.

With the deadline extended to Oct. 31, the hope is that more Texans will complete the survey, pulling the response rate up.

[…]

A 2019 study by Lopez Negrete Communications found that one helpful tool for ensuring people participate was through community action— which has become increasingly difficult with stay-at-home orders in place. Traditional forms of influence noted in the report include churches, schools, public events and community health clinics, yet many of these cultural and community centers remain closed.

It’s not hard to see why it’s been a challenge to get people to do the Census. If we can’t go door to door and can’t engage with the community, there’s only so much that can be done. It’s bad enough that the Lege didn’t appropriate any money for Census outreach, now we have Greg Abbott’s lousy handling of the pandemic acting as headwinds. Maybe we’ll be lucky and things will improve enough by October to make some more progress. I sure hope so.

Interview with Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Normally, I do candidate interviews for elections, though I do branch out sometimes when there’s an issue or some election-adjacent matter I want to explore. It’s in that spirit that I bring you this conversation I had with Commissioner Rodney Ellis about Commissioners Court’s decision to hire an elections administrator, which was a move that caught some people by surprise and generated a fair amount of opposition, both from Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. The job of elections administrator would replace some current functions handled by those offices, which likely explains some of the dissent. It’s a big change for Harris County, but it’s a change to something that nearly every other big county in Texas already does, as do many large counties around the country. I had the chance to ask Commissioner Ellis a few questions about what this means, why we’re doing it, and what we should expect. Hopefully, this will help answer some of the questions you may have had as well. As Commissioner Ellis notes, this will be on the agenda for the next Court meeting on Tuesday, and you can make your voice heard to them by all the traditional means as well. Here’s what we talked about:

What do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Is it time to step back?

It’s not a question of whether we want to do this, it’s whether we need to.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston leaders are calling for another two-week shutdown as dozens of Army personnel are set to arrive Monday to help fight a virus that continues to set record hospitalizations and deaths in the Texas Medical Center.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said it’s time for the city of Houston to “step back,” as regional cases rose to 63,864 on Sunday — up 1,596 from the day before. There have been 646 deaths in the Houston area. Positive results are coming back for about 16 percent of Texas test-takers.

“Let’s look at the numbers, look at the data, see where things are,” Turner said over the weekend. “And then gradually, move forward again.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo advocated an immediate stay-home order.

“We need to stick with it this time until the hospitalization curve comes down, not just flattens,” she tweeted Sunday. “Many communities that persevered in that way are reopening for the long haul. Let’s learn from that & not make the same mistake twice.”

[…]

While Hidalgo issued a stay-at-home order in March, Abbott has since taken over decisions on whether to open or close businesses and has refused to allow local officials to make decisions on the matter. Hidalgo’s office has unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for power to issue more restrictions as COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked.

But on Friday afternoon, Abbott, too, said that he could consider expanding which nonessential businesses would shut down should the pandemic continue to worsen.

“If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown,” the governor told KLBK-TV in Lubbock.

Let’s be clear, nobody wants to do this. It will be devastating to the businesses that have been able to reopen (whether they should have been allowed to or not), and people will lose jobs as a result at a time when extended unemployment benefits and other fiscal stimulus to help people tide themselves over are being held hostage by the Republicans. The problem is that we are at the point that we thought we’d been able to avoid when we shut down the first time, with the death rate spiking and the hospitals overloaded. There may be no other way to try to slow this thing down, short of building a time machine and going two months in the past to force Greg Abbott to allow local face mask orders and a more deliberate reopening strategy. But here we are, and unless there’s a sudden flattening or downward trend in the numbers real soon, I don’t know what other choice there is. Say it with me now: This didn’t have to happen. It’s Greg Abbott’s fault that it did happen.

Harris County will hire an elections administrator

Just like that.

Harris County became the latest in Texas to adopt an independent administrator model to run elections when the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to create the new department.

Court members voted 3-2 along party lines to create an election administrator’s office, which will assume the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector and the election management role of the county clerk.

Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett and former Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman, who are both Democrats, opposed the move. Bennett in a letter to court members said her office successfully was registering voters, and she expressed doubt an independent administrator would be an improvement.

“Checks and balances will be lost with elections and voter registration managed by one office only,” Bennett wrote. “In counties with election administrators, the lack of accountability between voter registrars and election clerks has caused the type of problem that erodes public trust.”

Trautman, who was elected in 2018 but resigned in May because of health issues, said such a move should come only after a robust community engagement process next year.

The court plans to hire an elections administrator as soon as next month, though the office would not begin official operations until Nov. 18. County Clerk Chris Hollins, who supports the adoption of the elections administrator model, will remain in charge of the Nov. 3 general election.

[…]

In its vote Tuesday, the court ordered a study of the budget, facilities, equipment, and personnel needed for the elections administrator office, and to seek input from the public. The court will need to vote to approve that final report, which is due within 30 days, before hiring an administrator.

This had been discussed before by Commissioners Court, in May shortly after Trautman’s resignation. I went through the previous history of this idea – it came up in 2010 and 2012 as well, with then-Judge Ed Emmett being its proponent. Commissioner Ellis was the driving force this time, and I’ll quote from the email he sent out Tuesday night that explains his reasoning:

Preserving our democratic process must be a priority for Harris County. I’m proud that Harris County Commissioners Court has approved moving our electoral process away from a system that is based on the racist disenfranchisement of communities of color and embraced a contemporary system that reflects our county’s values and diversity.

By creating the Harris County Elections Administrator office, the county is appropriately elevating the importance of elections and demonstrating the vital need to have those elections expertly overseen. Splitting our county’s election duties between two offices – the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor-Collector – as we have previously done, eliminates the ability to streamline the electoral process and does not allow for our elections to be a year-round priority.

“Given how critical voter registration and the administrations of our elections are to our democracy, we need an independent, non-partisan office that can focus entirely on these duties and guarantee our residents equal access to the ballot box,” said Commissioner Ellis.

“Generations of people have fought for the right to vote and our community entrusts us to carry out elections that uphold these values. In the midst of this national reckoning on the legacy of racist systems, we have to examine them all.”

Assigning the tax assessor’s office to also serve as the voter registrar began in 1902 when the Texas Legislature amended the constitution to require anyone who wanted to vote to pay a poll tax. After Texas’ poll tax ended in 1966, the tax assessor remained in charge of voter rolls.

“Today there are Harris County voters who must submit their registration to the same office they previously had to pay a poll tax. The current system we have is a relic of Jim Crow and is as much of an insult to voters as having to walk into a polling center named for Robert E Lee,” Ellis said.

Although Commissioners Court approves the creation of the position, the elections administrator is appointed by the county’s bi-partisan Election Commission, which is comprised of the county judge as chair; the county clerk as vice-chair; the county tax assessor-collector as secretary; and the county chair of each political party.

The Elections Administrator office is strongly supported by national voting rights experts, community-based organizations, and has been successfully adopted by local governments throughout the nation. With today’s vote, Harris County is joining Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant Counties in establishing county elections administrator positions.

As noted in the Chron story, not everyone liked this – here the post Ann Harris Bennett made on Facebook asking fellow Democrats to oppose this. I’d say I’m ambivalent about it. I definitely see the perspective of other Dems who argue that we worked hard to elect people like Bennett and Trautman in part on their promises to do elections better, and it feels wrong to take that away from them. On the other hand, most other big counties in Texas, like Bexar and Dallas, have elections administrators, and they’re doing fine. I can’t say I’m excited about this, but I understand Commissioner Ellis’ reasons, I trust what he and Commissioner Garcia and Judge Hidalgo are doing, and I see no reason to be up in arms about this. I’m willing to give this a try, especially since it won’t happen until after this year’s election.

I’m working to set up an interview with Commissioner Ellis about this, so if there’s a question you’d like to ask him about this, let me know. The Texas Signal has more.

2020 primary runoff results: Judicial and county races

Winding things up…

The big, albeit not unexpected, news is that Cheryl Elliott Thornton defeated incumbent Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, with over 70% of the vote. That honestly comes as a relief. I sincerely hope Judge Smoots-Thomas gets her stuff straightened out.

Tamika Craft led early and by a significant amount in the 14th Court of Appeals Place 7 race, while Te’iva Bell took the prize in the 339th Criminal Court.

Michael Moore was the winner in Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, winning with about 57% of the vote against Diana Martinez Alexander. These are both fine, decent, hardworking people, who ran strong campaigns and displayed a ton of knowledge about the issues and solutions for them. Diana would have been a terrific Commissioner, and I hope she runs for something again. Michael will be a terrific Commissioner, and you should be delighted to vote for him in November.

Good news in the Constable Precinct 2 race, as the good Jerry Garcia has defeated the problematic incumbent Chris Diaz. Sherman Eagleton won in Precinct 3, and Mark Alan Harrison will carry the banner in Precinct 4.

Finally, in Fort Bend County, your winners are Bridgette Smith-Lawson (County Attorney), Jennifer Cantu (Commissioners Court, Precinct 1), and Kali Morgan (505th Civil Court). In the Sheriff’s race, Eric Fagan had a 26 vote lead (out of over 38K votes cast) over Geneane Hughes. That one’s almost surely headed for a runoff.

Today is Primary Runoff Day

Last chance to vote for your party’s nominees. From the inbox:

Today, Tuesday, July 14th, is Election Day for the July 2020 Primary Runoff Elections.Voters can cast their ballots anytime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at any of the 109 voting centers throughout Harris County. For the nearest voting location and estimated wait times go to HarrisVotes.com/WaitTimes. A total of 154,313 voters cast their ballots during the ten-day Early Voting period that concluded on Friday, July 10th.

“These are challenging times for all of us, but I want to encourage everyone to exercise their right to vote,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “This runoff is a critical part of the election process, because it will determine which candidates go on to represent their parties in the General Election in November.”

To protect voters and election workers from COVID-19, all voting centers have been set up to allow for social distancing.  Poll workers have been provided with personal protective equipment including gloves, face masks, and shields. Sanitizing stations are set up at all polling sites, and voters are being provided with finger covers to use while voting. Additional face masks are available for voters who do not have one. Voters exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 can vote curbside to avoid entering the polling center.

To cast a ballot, you must be registered to vote and have one of the following forms of ID:

  • Texas Driver License issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS);
  • Texas Election Identification Certificate (EIC) issued by DPS;
  • Texas Personal Identification Card issued by DPS;
  • Texas License to Carry a Handgun (LTC) issued by DPS;
  • U.S. Military ID Card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. Citizenship Certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. Passport.

Except for the U.S. citizenship certificate, the form of identification you use must be current or have expired no more than four years before being presented at the polls. If you don’t have any of these to use for identification, you can (1) sign a sworn statement explaining why you don’t have those IDs and (2) bring one of the following:

  • Valid voter registration certificate;
  • Certified birth certificate;
  • Current utility bill;
  • Government check;
  • Pay stub or bank statement that includes your name and address; or
  • Copy of or original government document with your name and an address (original required if it contains a photograph).

To expedite your time at the polls, go to HarrisVotes.com to print your personal sample ballot, make your selections, and take it with you when you go vote. If you start the voting process and think you have received the wrong ballot, make sure you let an election official know immediately—before casting your vote.

For more election information, visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Also from the inbox, a list of places you can drop off your mail ballot if you didn’t receive it in time to put it in the mail. This is the first time in recent history that there has been more than a single drop-off location in Harris County, as the release says, which is cool. The 11 locations listed there are open 7 to 7, same as the period for voting.

Polling locations can be found here. As a reminder, you can vote at any of these locations. My guess is that the large majority of votes have already been cast for this runoff, so the lines should not be too bad. Do check the wait times at whatever location you’re looking at before heading out, though. And for crying out loud, bring a mask to wear. It’s precisely that mask wearing was not mandated for polling places that has caused some problems in other counties.

A lack of workers willing to run polling sites as Texas continues to report record coronavirus infections is forcing election officials in two major counties to scale back plans for the July 14 primary runoff elections.

Citing a drop-off spurred by fear of the virus, Bexar County, the state’s fourth largest, is expected to close at least eight of its planned 226 voting locations for next Tuesday, according to County Judge Nelson Wolff.

In Tarrant County, the third largest, election officials learned Thursday that the local Republican and Democratic parties had agreed to shutter two of 173 sites planned for election day voting after the parties were unable to find election judges to run the polling places.

Although poll workers are generally being provided with protective gear, Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks when they show up at polling locations is driving some poll workers away, Wolff said.

“There is protection for them in terms of what they try to do, but anybody can walk in without a mask,” Wolff said Wednesday evening during his daily coronavirus-related briefing. “The governor did not cover elections, and so they don’t want to work. Quite frankly, I don’t blame them.”

For this election, this shouldn’t be such a big deal. There should be plenty of other locations, most people have probably already voted, and turnout is fairly minimal, though it’s been higher than usual for a primary runoff. The fear, and the bigger picture, is what might happen in November. All signs point to record-breaking turnout this fall, and the last thing we’ll need for that is a scramble for poll workers. I appreciate that Greg Abbott extended early voting for this runoff – I think it made a positive difference – and I believe that will be in play for November. But I refuse to accept that anyone who doesn’t have a valid health reason to not wear a mask should have their personal preferences prioritized over the health and safety of poll workers. The mask mandate needs to extend to the polling places. We’re not taking this seriously enough otherwise.

I’ll have results for you tomorrow, and whatever thoughts I can muster afterward. I’ll look at the data when it’s available. Now go vote if you haven’t already.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

The hidden toll

Another reason why the reported death count from COVID-19 is too low: People who didn’t know they were infected and die at home may never be tested or counted.

As coronavirus cases surge, inundating hospitals and leading to testing shortages, a rapidly growing number of Houston area residents are dying at home, according to an NBC News and ProPublica review of Houston Fire Department data. An increasing number of these at-home deaths have been confirmed to be the result of COVID-19, Harris County medical examiner data shows.

The previously unreported jump in people dying at home is the latest indicator of a mounting crisis in a region beset by one of the nation’s worst and fastest-growing coronavirus outbreaks. On Tuesday, a record 3,851 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus in the Houston region, exceeding normal intensive care capacity and sending some hospitals scrambling to find additional staff and space.

The uptick in the number of people dying before they can even reach a hospital in Houston draws parallels to what happened in New York City in March and April, when there was a spike in the number of times firefighters responded to medical calls, only to discover that the person in need of help had already died. These increases also echo those reported during outbreaks in Detroit and Boston, when the number of people dying at home jumped as coronavirus cases surged.

While far more people died of COVID-19 in those cities than have died so far in Houston, researchers and paramedics say that the trend of sudden at-home deaths in Texas’ largest city is concerning because it shows that the virus’s toll may be deeper than what appears in official death tallies and daily hospitalization reports.

Many people who die at home are not tested for COVID-19, said Dr. Jeremy Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In New York City, for example, only 16 percent of the 11,475 at-home deaths between February and June have been attributed to COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s no reflexive testing,” Faust said, noting that medical examiners are selective about the cases they take. “There’s no pressure to call it a COVID death.”

The rise in at-home deaths may also reflect people who are afraid to go to the hospital because of COVID-19, and who die of heart attacks, strokes, diabetes and other conditions not tied to the coronavirus, Faust said.

Ultimately, Faust said, public health experts trying to assess the toll from COVID will need to study how many excess deaths there are in a particular region and whether the demographics of those who died are different from what one might expect. “If there’s a huge spike in at-home deaths but no real spike in overall deaths, it’s just sort of rearranging deck chairs.”

There’s more, so go read the rest. I don’t have anything to add other than the usual disclaimer that none of this had to happen. We could have had a federal government that actually prepared for COVID-19. We could have had a state government that cared about reopening in a safe and scientifically-driven manner. We have neither of those things – yet – and so here we are. Keep that in mind, today and every day, not just through this November, but through November of 2022.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Final Totals: Democrats carry the day

Today’s going to be a numbers-heavy post. Let’s start with Texas Elects, giving us a penultimate day summary:

Early voting in person ended today (Friday) for the July 14 primary runoff and special elections.

Through yesterday (Thursday), 532K people have voted in the Democratic runoff statewide – 193K by mail and 339K in person – which is already the fourth highest total since 1990. The number of voters will almost certainly eclipse the 2014 total today (Friday) and should easily pass the 2002 total on Election Day. The highest number of Democratic runoff voters since 1990 was in 1994, when 747K people voted in the runoff statewide.

Nearly 349K people have voted in the Republican runoff in those counties and portions of counties with runoff races – 97K by mail and 251K in person. Despite the lack of a statewide race, the number of Republican runoff votes cast is already the fifth highest in state history, trailing only the past four election cycles. Turnout is on pace to eclipse all but the 2014 (1.36M) and 2012 (1.11M) totals.

Statewide Democratic turnout through yesterday was 3.25% of all registered voters, and Republican turnout was 2.13% of all registered voters, not just those in areas with runoff races. Combined turnout for all of 2018 was 5.7%, and it was 4.0% in 2016.

The reference to 2014 is surely a mistake, as there were only 201K votes cast in the Senate runoff between David Alameel and Keisha Rogers that year. There were 434K votes in the 2018 gubernatorial runoff between Andrew White and Lupe Valdez, but 2020 was already past that total as of Thursday. I’ve looked at some other years but am just not sure what that third “highest since 1990” total may be.

I can tell you where we are as of Friday statewide:


Election     Mail      Early      Total   Mail %
================================================
D primary 114,886    886,336  1,001,222    11.5%
R primary  91,415    987,744  1,079,159     8.5%

D runoff  199,657    447,470    647,127    30.9%
R runoff   99,939    311,222    411,161    24.3%

We have now topped the 2002 Senate runoff between Ron Kirk and Victor Morales (620K), and I have no doubt we will blow past the 1994 level on Tuesday. That’s not too shabby. Data on the Secretary of State website only goes back to 1992, so I don’t know what the 1990 primary runoffs looked like, but 1990 was the last year of Democratic statewide dominance in Texas. That’s not a bad harbinger to echo.

How much does any of this mean, though? Erica Greider thinks Republicans should be worried.

“I think we’re seeing the ramifications of having failed Republican leadership, and no one is seeing it more than those of us here in Texas,” said Billy Begala, a spokesman for the Texas Democratic Party.

Begala made his remarks Friday morning, the last day of early voting in advance of Tuesday’s primary runoff elections.

“It didn’t have to be this bad,” he said of the resurgence of COVID-19 in Texas. “It really didn’t.”

[…]

The coronavirus has complicated elections administration. Democratic officials have been urging Texans to vote by mail, if they’re eligible. And Texans who’ve gone to the polls in person have noticed unusual precautions, in most of the state’s major counties. In Harris County, for example, voters have been provided with rubber finger cots and disinfectant wipes as well as the traditional “I voted” stickers.

Still, turnout — which is typically abysmal for runoff elections in Texas — has been higher than expected through the early voting period. As of Thursday, some 900,000 voters had cast ballots across the state, a majority of them in the Democratic primary runoff.

“The key takeaway is that if we’re able to make voters feel safe, and of course be safe, then it’s a very positive experience for them,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Friday.

The turnout through the early-voting period, he continued, raises the prospect that Harris County will see higher turnout in November than the 60 to 62 percent that’s typical in presidential election years.

“If I were a betting man I’d put money on 65 for sure, and I might take some odds on 70,” Hollins said.

Voter registration, similarly, has continued apace, despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. Since March, nearly 149,000 voters have been added to the rolls in Texas, bringing the statewide electorate to a record 16.4 million people.

I haven’t seen an official number for Harris County voter registration yet – we’ll know it for sure when we get election night returns – but I’ve heard 2.4 million at this time. At 62% turnout, about what we usually get in Presidential years, that’s a bit short of 1.5 million votes in Harris County. 65% is 1.56 million, 70% is approaching 1.7 million. That’s going to be more Democratic votes than it is Republican votes. It’s just a matter of how many.

Still, Republicans should be nervous about surging July turnout given that Democrats don’t have a marquee name on the ballot like former congressman Beto O’Rourke, who excited Democrats nationwide in his near-miss U.S. Senate bid in 2018.

“I don’t know that here in Texas we have one specific candidate or officeholder who is the standard-bearer for the party,” Begala acknowledged.

Perhaps voters are simply fed up with the incumbents, who happen to be Republicans, for the most part.

“I think it’s that when voters look around right now, when Texans look around right now, they see a pandemic, they see horrific racial injustice, they see record unemployment,” said Amanda Sherman, the communications director for Hegar. “Voting is a way for them to do something about it.”

I’m not sure that the high runoff turnout matters that much for November, but it does show that even in the pandemic Dems are turning out. There’s evidence from around the country that relentless Republican efforts to make voting harder have resulted in hardier and more persistent voters, especially Black voters. Maybe we’re seeing some of that here.

What you’re really here for is the final EV report from Harris County. Here it is:


Election     Mail    Early    Total   Mail %
============================================
D primary  22,785  116,748  139,533    16.3%
R primary  22,801   82,108  104,909    21.7%

D runoff   45,176   65,979  111,105    40.7%
R runoff   25,425   17,783   43,208    58.8%

The Friday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. 18,526 Democrats showed up to vote in person on Friday. That’s more than the entire early voting in person population for the Republicans, who didn’t have a statewide race but did have a couple of countywide races. And as noted, Republicans were far more reliant on a rate basis on mail ballots than Dems were, though Dems returned far more mail ballots. You can draw your own conclusions.

I promised you more data about the early voting population, at least through Wednesday. I’m a man of my word, so here’s what I found when I examined age and gender data for the primary runoff.

Among the mail voters, there were 16 people born prior to 1920, with the oldest being born in 1915. Another 10 were born in 1920. In other words, 26 people who are at least 100 years old had voted as of Wednesday.

The daily voter rosters do not include year of birth or gender, only the full March roster does. As such, I only have that data for the people who had also voted in March. Of 41,739 total mail voters who had voted in March, 40,195 are 65 or older. The remaining 1,544 are under 65.

23,373 of the 65 or older mail voters are female, including 15 of the 16 pre-1920-birth voters and eight of the ten born in 1920. 58.1% of mail voters are listed as female. 16,230 are listed as male, for 40.4% of over-65 mail voters.

868 of the 1,544 under-65 mail voters are female (56.2%), 641 are male (41.5%).

(For some voters, the value in the Gender field is null, which may be a data glitch, or may be a stated preference of the voter. Because the number is so small, and because as far as I know there is no other option for this field that is allowed by state law, I suspect this is just a data error.)

I did not extend this to the in person early voters – I promise, I’ll circle back when I get the full voter roster for the runoff. But Keir Murray posted some facts about the voting data through Thursday:

Click over to see the rest of the thread. Keir also notes that the statewide mix of Dem primary runoff voters is more Black than Latino, which is the reverse of what it was in March. Maybe that will boost Royce West in the Senate race, we’ll see. I will have election night returns for you on Wednesday. If you haven’t voted yet, Tuesday is your last chance.