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Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Abbott issues disaster declaration following protests

Where we are now.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday afternoon that the entire state of Texas will be placed under a disaster declaration in response to demonstrators in several Texas cities protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed Monday in Minneapolis police custody.

The declaration allowed Abbott to designate federal law enforcement officers to perform the duties of peace officers in Texas.

Thousands of protesters marched in Texas cities on Friday and Saturday, outraged after Floyd was filmed crying out for help as a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

“Every Texan and every American has the right to protest and I encourage all Texans to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, violence against others and the destruction of property is unacceptable and counterproductive.”

His announcement comes a day after he activated the Texas National Guard “in response to protest violence” across the state. In several of the state’s large metropolitan areas — including Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — protesters clashed with police who sometimes used rubber bullets and tear gas.

Abbott also sent state resources to Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Saturday afternoon and said he’s spoken to the mayors of all four cities, as well as law enforcement officials. He said Sunday that he also increased those resources for cities throughout Texas and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deployed tactical teams to assist state and local law enforcement.

[…]

Prior to Abbott’s announcement, several Texas cities took measures into their own hands. On Saturday evening, the mayor of San Antonio imposed a curfew as a result of escalating tensions due to the protests.

In Dallas, where officials defended the use of tear gas at protests for Floyd, Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall said Sunday afternoon that a 7 p.m. curfew will go into effect Sunday and end at 6 a.m. “for the next several days,” The Dallas Morning News reported. In Austin, meanwhile, organizers canceled a protest planned for Sunday afternoon out of fear that “white agitators and other agitators of color” would co-opt the event and put black Texans in harm’s way.

The single best thing that can happen right now is for law enforcement agencies around the country to stand down and stop being violent themselves. After that we’ll see, but people have been pushing for moderate and incremental police reforms for a long time now with little success. What are people supposed to do now?

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Metro suspends fare collections

Among other things.

Transit in Houston will be free starting Monday and passengers will use the rear door to board and exit buses to limit exposure to drivers and other riders, Metropolitan Transit Authority officials announced Friday.

The changes are aimed at providing some social distance for passengers and employees while also offering some savings for Houstonians facing job and wage losses during the pandemic-induced economic downturn.

“Everyone is facing economic hardships, so we are going to adjust the system,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert said.

While necessary for many to access jobs, crowded buses and trains complicate efforts for riders to keep a distance between themselves and others as medical experts advise to reduce the spread of the coronavirus or the COVID-19 illness it causes. Though Metro has seen sharp declines in ridership, it remains fully functional, agency leaders said.

Generally, only the back doors of local buses will be used so fewer people have to walk from the front of the bus to a seat, Lambert said. Anyone who needs a ramp or lower step to enter and exit the bus still will be able to use the front door, he said.

Dropping fares is one of several changes to Metro’s operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Along many high-use routes, Metro has added buses and put placards on seats encouraging people to distance themselves from other passengers.

You can see the full press release from Metro here, and their coronavirus resource page is here. San Antonio’s VIA has taken the same step. Metro is also running more buses on certain routes to help people maintain social distancing. There’s still a lot of people that have to go to work, and they deserve all the care we can give them. Like traffic in general, Metro’s ridership is down at this time, and they will have to deal with the financial fallout from that when this is over, but in the meantime they’re still providing service. I’m glad for that.

Abbott declares a state of emergency

Seems like it’s called for.

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

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

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

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

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

The Chron adds some more details.

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

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

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

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

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

Another scooter injury study

Keep ’em coming.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Electric scooter injuries have surged along with their popularity in the United States, nearly tripling over four years, researchers said in a study published Wednesday.

Nearly 40,000 broken bones, head injuries, cuts and bruises resulting from scooter accidents were treated in U.S. emergency rooms from 2014 through 2018, the research showed. The scooter injury rate among the general U.S. population climbed from 6 per 100,000 to 19 per 100,000. Most occurred in riders aged 18 to 34, and most injured riders weren’t hospitalized.

For the study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed U.S. government data on nonfatal injuries treated in emergency rooms.

“Improved rider safety measures and regulation” are clearly needed, the researchers said.

See here, here, and here for previous studies, and here to see this one. Clearly, helmets are going to have to be mandated, and from there it’s going to be up to cities to figure out how to safely incorporate these things into their transportation infrastructure. Bikes have been around for a long time and we’ve mostly figured them out, but scooters are new and sexy and are being pushed by Silicon Valley startups, so there are a lot of bumps in the road still to come. Hopefully we can begin to bend the curve on this. And no, I have no idea what the status of scooters coming to Houston is. Maybe that will be on an upcoming Council agenda. Assuming that scooter expansion is still the plan for these companies, which may not necessarily be the case any more. Maybe that’s why we haven’t had any news lately. CNet has more.

Texas Central and Lone Star Rail

Noted for the record.

In South Central Texas, 20 state legislators have revived talk of a San Antonio to Austin passenger rail line. Area lawmakers signed a letter in August asking Transportation Committee chair and state Rep. Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) to study the possibility of rail between the two cities.

On Wednesday, rail in Texas was the topic of a panel discussion that included [Holly Reed, the managing director of external affairs of Texas Central], State Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio), and Tyson Moeller, general director of network development for Union Pacific railroad, at a San Antonio Chamber of Commerce transportation committee meeting.

The discussion, which was closed to media, touched on passenger rail between Austin and San Antonio, freight rail, and the Houston-Dallas high-speed rail project, according to Jonathan Gurwitz, vice president of communications company KGBTexas and chair of the San Antonio Mobility Coalition who attended the meeting.

He was most struck by a few numbers that Union Pacific’s Moeller cited: Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 semi-trucks worth of goods are shipped on trains every day passing through San Antonio. That means 15,000 or so fewer trucks on Interstate 35.

“If you think of it in that way, what impact rail really has on San Antonio, the amount of goods and services that move in and out of our region by rail, it has an extraordinary impact on our economy,” Gurwitz said. “I think most people in San Antonio don’t realize the significance of rail.”

Union Pacific remains focused on moving freight and not people, said Raquel Espinoza, senior director of corporate communications and media relations at Union Pacific. The railroad company effectively killed an earlier Austin-San Antonio passenger rail project when it exited the Lone Star Rail District proposal in 2016.

Union Pacific has no plans to expand passenger rail access for other entities like Amtrak on its lines, Espinoza said.

“Our role is to move freight in an efficient, environmentally friendly way,” she said.

See here for the recent news that Lone Star Rail may rise from the dead again. I’m very much at a “believe it when I see it point”, especially with Union Pacific reiterating its long-held stance that they are not going to share their existing tracks for any passenger rail. A rail line between Austin and San Antonio – really, between Georgetown and the south side of San Antonio, as the original LSR envisioned – makes all kinds of sense, but it becomes a lot more expensive and problematic from a right-of-way perspective if a whole new set of tracks have to be laid down. Not impossible, one assumes, and certainly doable if the will is there. It’s just that there’s many years of evidence to show that it does not, at least not in sufficient quantities. But hope springs eternal, and I will always hope that somehow, some way, this gets built.

Our slowing population growth

Noted for the record.

Texas remains one of the fastest growing states in the U.S., but a report published by the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank showed a significant reduction in the number of people moving to Texas since 2015. That’s left employers — who are already having a difficult time finding workers amid historically low unemployment rates — in an even tougher position.

Since 2016, the share of population growth in Texas from people moving to the state is half of what it was previously. Each of Texas’ four largest metro areas — Houston, San Antonio, Austin and Dallas — has experienced a reduction in domestic migration and overall population growth.

“We’ve seen really good growth, and yet we’re seeing slowing of migration — and that’s not because we’re less attractive. It’s because outside of Texas, things are also very good,” said Keith Phillips, senior economist at the San Antonio branch of the Dallas Federal Reserve.

In other words, the so-called Texas Miracle — the state’s unrivaled ability to create jobs and economic opportunity — now has rivals. Nationwide, most workers can find jobs if they want them, making a cross-country move to Texas in search of a paycheck less appealing.

In the five years from July 1, 2010, through July 1, 2015, Texas saw more than 138,000 people on average move to the state each year from elsewhere in the country. But from July 2015 to July 2018, Texas added just under 96,000 people each year from domestic migration — a 31 percent annual drop, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

[…]

Some industries — such as information technology — have a harder time finding workers than others.

David Heard, CEO of TechBloc, the San Antonio technology industry group, said the city has had difficulty standing out to potential workers among cities across the nation with promising tech industries, such as Nashville, Tenn., or Columbus, Ohio.

With tech workers in demand in metro areas across the nation, the decision often comes down to which city offers the best quality of life, Heard said.

“These people tend to get paid well,” he said. “Wherever they go, they’re in demand, so the issue is about how being competitive on salary and having job availability often aren’t what charge their decision. It really comes down to lifestyle issues.”

Most cities looking to attract tech workers and other “creatives” have been following the same gospel — investing in public and cultural amenities such as lush parks and concert halls to lure talent — for nearly two decades. The slowdown in migration to Texas makes the challenges for tech companies even more daunting.

The Dallas Fed projects that around 90,500 Americans will migrate to Texas from elsewhere in the country in 2019. That tops the 82,500 people who migrated to Texas last year, but it’s down from the years following the Great Recession, when 123,000 people on average came to the state annually.

“Domestic migration is usually an indication of employment opportunities or a lack thereof,” Lloyd Potter, Texas’ state demographer, said. “Essentially, it’s an indicator of a slowdown of at least one sector of the economy … The confusing aspect of it is that we have very low unemployment.”

Potter said the decline in people moving to Texas is difficult to parse because of the differing regional economies across the state.

We’ve talked about some of this before, in the context of Houston’s slowing population growth and the Latino population growth engine that keeps our state moving forward. I think it’s unlikely that these trends will continue over the longer term, but it’s always worth keeping an eye on this stuff and thinking about what underlying causes there may be. And it’s another reminder that a complete and accurate Census count is vital, because otherwise we’re just guessing. Sure would be a bad idea to let the Trump administration screw that up.

The San Antonio Chick-fil-A lawsuit

Oh, good Lord.

In a lawsuit citing a controversial new state law, five area residents are suing the city of San Antonio over its decision to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The continued religious ban on Chick-fil-A by the San Antonio City Council has by left citizens with no choice but to take this case to court,” Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action, said Monday at a news conference with the plaintiffs in announcing the lawsuit. “Any other vendor that tries to replace Chick-fil-A at the airport will be doing so under a major cloud of long and costly litigation with the city.”

The lawsuit, which also seeks the city to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, calls for an injunction preventing San Antonio from taking adverse action against Chick-Fil-A or others “based wholly or partly on that person or entity’s support for religious organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”

It cites Senate Bill 1978, a law passed this year in the Texas Legislature, that outlaws government retaliation based on “membership in and support to religious organizations.”

Laura Mayes, chief communications officer for the city of San Antonio, said in an email that the lawsuit “is an attempt by the plaintiffs to improperly use the court to advance their political agenda.”

“Among the many weaknesses in their case, they are trying to rely on a law that did not exist when Council voted on the airport concessions contract,” Mayes said. “We will seek a quick resolution from the Court.”

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, chairwoman of the Legislature’s LBGTQ caucus, said in a statement that it is disappointing that SB 1978 has “created the space for discriminatory lawsuits, such as the one against San Antonio” and commended San Antonio City Council for supporting inclusion.

“LGBTQ Texans are routinely denied fair and equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and economic opportunity — that is what the government should be protecting Texans from,” González said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Current explains how silly this is.

The suit, filed in Bexar County district court, argues that a recent Texas law dubbed the “save Chick-fil-A bill” makes it illegal for the city to bar the fast-food purveyor from the airport. The problem with that, points out St. Mary’s University Law Professor Michael Ariens, is that the law passed after the city’s decision, and courts are almost never willing to retroactively apply statutes.

“I didn’t see any statement in the petition explaining why it is permissible for a court to apply retroactively the statute which serves as the basis for the plaintiffs’ claim,” Ariens said, “And I know the City of San Antonio will raise this as a defense, so I’m not sure what is going on.”

[…]

Also likely dooming the suit is the concept of standing, which requires plaintiffs to show they suffered damages, Ariens said. To that end, the petition only explains that the plaintiffs “use the San Antonio airport for travel and would patronize Chick-fil-A at the airport if it were allowed to operate there.”

Yes. Really.

It’s difficult to imagine any court considering an unmet craving for fried chicken — no matter how tasty — as a legitimate damage.

Yeah, that’s pretty weak, but Chick-fil-A is the golden calf of the zealot faction these days. If nothing else expect there to be a lot of posturing, and it’s only a matter of time before Ken Paxton invents a reason to get involved. This will go on for awhile.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Will Lone Star Rail get resurrected?

Maybe!

A coalition of San Antonio and Austin state representatives has asked the House Transportation Committee chair to study the possibility of passenger rail between the two cities ahead of the 2021 legislative session.

Congestion between the two cities will only increase, the legislators wrote, costing drivers time and money.

“Improved transportation connectivity is critical for the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” 20 legislators said in an Aug. 16 letter. “We must not only look at how to utilize our current assets most effectively, but also find new and creative solutions for this corridor. As members of this region, we believe that it is imperative for the House Transportation Committee to explore new opportunities for our constituents to have frequent, safe, and dependable transportation.”

Officials from the Austin and San Antonio areas have been trying to connect the two cities by passenger rail for years. The Lone Star Rail District proposal stalled after Union Pacific pulled out of the project in 2016 over concerns about how passenger rail using its tracks would impact its freight operations. The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) pulled its funding for the project later that year, leaving the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) few options for keeping the project alive.

The rail line proposed by the Lone Star Rail District would have had multiple stops, starting at the University of Texas A&M-San Antonio and ending in the north-of-Austin suburb Georgetown.

Rep. Ray Lopez (D-San Antonio) served on AAMPO’s board and as the city councilman for District 6 during passenger rail discussions. He said the corridor rail project took many blows but could be revived with proper action from the State.

“Texans have engaged in overviews and reviews, but what we need to do is have a strong directive from the state … and request or require or demand, indeed, that some action plan be created and presented to the Legislature for consideration and ultimately funding,” Lopez said.

[…]

San Antonians have rejected rail before, but as a local means of public transportation. Voters shot down light rail in 2000 and in 2015 approved a charter amendment requiring light rail proposals go to voters.

But if an intercity rail project starts up again, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said San Antonio would support it “if the state worked with us and we found a path forward for rail between Austin and San Antonio.”

“It has been a priority for this community for almost three decades,” he said. “And I’ve always said it will happen once the governor’s office makes it a priority.”

The last we heard about this was in 2016 when the previous plan died, in part because of a failure to come to an agreement with Union Pacific to share its tracks. On the one hand, a passenger rail line between San Antonio and Austin makes all kinds of sense and would be a fantastic alternative to the money and traffic pit that is I-35. On the other hand, well, the past couple of decades trying to get this line even to a preliminary approval stage with no success doesn’t bode well. But maybe this time it’s different. I’m rooting for it, but my expectations are firmly under control. The Current has more.

Add HEB to the autonomous grocery delivery trend

In San Antonio, at least. Maybe in Houston later if it goes well for them.

Customers near an H-E-B in suburban San Antoni0 can soon get their eggs, fruit and tortillas dropped off by a vehicle with no one at the wheel.

The San Antonio-based company is working with Udelv, an autonomous delivery startup in California, to test self-driving vans on streets around the store starting this fall.

“The world is changing fast and our customers’ expectations are changing,” said Paul Tepfenhart, senior vice president of omnichannel and emerging technologies at Central Market and H-E-B. “We have a growing, thriving online business, and we’re trying to figure out how in the world we’re going to keep up with this emerging demand.”

During the first phase of the pilot, a Udelv employee will drive a van developed by the startup with a H-E-B employee along for the ride to help with deliveries.

As the technology collects and analyzes data and learns the optimal routes, it will eventually take over the maneuvering. However, H-E-B will still have the ability to control the van remotely, Tepfenhart said.

[…]

Kroger, Amazon and other retailers have experimented with autonomous vehicles, and Udelv is also working with Walmart to test its vans at Arizona stores and with XL Parts to try out the technology in Houston.

We know about Kroger. I see that bit at the end about Udelv and Walmart in Houston, but a little googling around did not find anything more on that. As for HEB, much like the Kroger pilot in Houston this is being limited to one store at first, in HEB’s case in Olmos Park, with the program set to begin later in the summer. This is clearly the next frontier for grocery stores, so get ready for a more widespread deployment soon. I still think there will be demand for some old fashioned non-autonomous grocery deliveries, for folks who can’t or don’t want to haul the groceries into their residences themselves. But if there’s enough demand to support this option, I’d guess it will be the bulk of the delivery market in short order. The Current and the Rivard Report have more.

Scooters and the negative effect on disabled folks

A deep dive on the San Antonio experience.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

From the moment they appeared in cities across the country, the business model for electric scooters has depended on riders’ abandoning the machines wherever the ride ends. Users unlock scooters with a cell phone app, put $1 on their credit card plus 15 to 30 cents per minute to ride, and routinely ignore city rules against dumping the vehicles in the curb cuts that make sidewalk wheelchair use possible.

San Antonio’s new ban on riding scooters on sidewalks — if it’s enforced — will only partially restore a path to a freer life for disabled people. Scooters are still legal to park on the sidewalk itself, and the city’s “light touch” preference for warnings and education over police ticketing and confiscation leave the disabled skeptical that much will change.

Urban commentators might curse scooters as a metaphor for a hurried, narcissistic age, but disabled people generally see the glut of abandoned vehicles as a physical affront.

“We’ve spent 30 years making sidewalks accessible,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the Washington-based National Disability Rights Network, referring to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. “And then overnight we’re forced into asking cities, ‘Why have you allowed this to happen without thinking of their impact?’”

The problem is especially acute and visible in San Antonio, which U.S. Census figures show has the nation’s second highest rate of residents with “ambulatory difficulty” — 9.5 percent of San Antonians ages 35 to 64, or about 100,000 people. Among the 10 largest U.S. cities, only Philadelphia had a higher rate.

Blind people feel especially harassed by the two-wheeled whippets, said Sandy Merrill, CEO of San Antonio-based Guide Dogs of Texas, which trains service dogs for the vision-impaired.

“It’s difficult enough dealing with what’s in front of you,” Merrill said. “But now our dogs and people have to deal with something almost silent zipping behind them at 15 miles an hour. I wish young people would think about how they’re using them.”

[…]

John Jacks, director of San Antonio’s Center City Development and Operations Department and the city’s de facto scooter czar, sounds sympathetic to the complaints of disabled citizens, but is loath to criticize the scooter companies or call for aggressive policing of a breezy business culture more determined to ask for forgiveness than for permission.

The city won’t create the rules designed to change that culture. It has asked the companies to do it themselves, by submitting detailed proposals for bringing order to the scooter scrum. By October, the city will cut the number of permitted scooter firms from six to three and reduce their fleets of dockless vehicles from a total of 16,000 to 5,000. Jacks said the city’s request-for-proposals process offers the reward of a city contract to the three companies with the best ideas for reducing clutter and rider misbehavior.

“Our number one concern is the ability of all people to navigate the sidewalks safely,” Jacks said. Correcting the problem, he added, will be done mostly by creating incentives “for good behavior versus bad. It’s putting the burden on the companies for addressing the problem.”

Jacks said he had consulted the disabled community about the scooter roll-out and its concerns will be “embedded” in the process by having Malone, a former president of the National Federation for the Blind, on the selection committee.

The city’s scooter ordinance, thrown together last year to govern a six-month tryout of the new technology, contains rules against parking within a certain distance of curb ramps and other structures, but Jacks conceded that few, if any, riders actually know that.

“This is all still evolving,” Jacks said. “If the Council still doesn’t think it’s working, we may have to have more restrictive regulations.”

San Antonio Police confirm that they haven’t impounded any scooters in 2019, choosing instead to alert the scooter companies, call 311 or tidy up the sidewalks themselves.

“Sometimes I’ll just move them off to the side on the curb,” said SAPD Capt. Chris Benavides, the department’s head of traffic and special events.

Officers have given out 438 warnings since August, he said, but have written only 80 citations for scooter riders since last August, a period in which renters took nearly two million rides, according to city records. This month, SAPD deployed three overtime officers per day, seven days a week, to focus on downtown scooter enforcement.

“I like the ‘soft touch’ to scooter enforcement, if that’s what you want to call it,” Benavides said. “Our biggest problem is just educating people, especially the tourists.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. As noted, San Antonio has now banned scooters from sidewalks, which I think will help keep riders from menacing pedestrians, but those scooters are still going to be left on the sidewalk after being used, and that’s still going to be a problem for people with mobility issues. There’s clearly value in these “micro-mobility” options, which should reduce the number of short-hop car trips people take and may help encourage transit use, but their business models leave these problems to the cities to solve. I sure hope Houston’s plan for scooters will address this. In the meantime, there are federal lawsuits filed by people with disabilities in other states like California that allege that Lime and Bird and other scooter companies are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting their ability to navigate their cities. That’s going to take a few years to work its way through the courts, and who knows what SCOTUS will do with it. In the meantime, cities and states need to figure it out.

San Antonio bans scooters from sidewalks

Speaking of where scooters do and do not belong:

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Dockless electric scooters can’t be ridden on San Antonio sidewalks, per a new City ordinance that went into effect Monday, but many say they’re concerned about how well it will be enforced.

The new prohibition on sidewalk use comes a full year after rented e-scooters first arrived in San Antonio. It took months to arrive at the point where the City Council deemed riding on the sidewalk enough of a nuisance to move them off pedestrian rights-of-way and onto the street. But even though violating that law is a Class C misdemeanor that can carry as much as a $500 fine, some in the city are not sure that will be enough to deter violators.

[…]

Capt. Chris Benavides, with the San Antonio Police Department, said the sidewalk riding ban will begin with a 30-day grace period in which violators will be issued warnings about the new rule rather than citations. On Aug. 1, Benavides said, police officers will begin issuing citations in situations that call for them.

“The entire month of July will be used as an educational piece where we will issue written or verbal warnings for riding on the sidewalk,” he said.

“What we hope for is that the riders are mindful … that we’re able to work together to share that road and they’re aware of their surroundings.”

Gotta say, I appreciate San Antonio acting as beta testers for Houston’s eventual scooter experience. For sure, scooters – like bicycles – don’t belong on sidewalks, where they can endanger pedestrians. The enforcement issue can sort itself out; it’s my belief that plenty of scooter riders will now stay off the sidewalk just because it’s the law. As the story notes, there was a bill filed that would have banned scooters on sidewalks statewide, as well as capping their speed at 15 MPH (same as what the Houston commission recommended), and other things. This made it through the Senate but never got a hearing in the House. I feel like this should be a local issue, but at least this bill doesn’t appear to have done anything egregious. As with ridesharing, don’t be surprised to see this come up again in two years.

The real goal of SB2

Let’s take a look at the quotes from the supporters of SB2, the new law that will impose revenue caps on all Texas cities, to see what they say about it.

“They’re going to have to start looking at spending this money like it was their own and not somebody else’s money,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. “And they’re going to have to look at priorities.”

[…]

But Ellen Troxclair, senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former Austin City Council Member, said those dire warnings imply a city has no control over its spending.

The reason this bill was one of legislators’ top priorities this year, Troxclair said, is because Texans are frustrated by rising taxes, and if it forces cities to rethink their spending, that’s a positive.

“The bottom line of SB 2 is it brings the rate at which cities are spending money more in line with the people’s ability to pay,” Troxclair said. “I hope that what the cities do is hear the pleas from citizens who elected them to make more responsible decisions when it comes to spending.”

Troxclair added that the bill doesn’t stop cities from going to taxpayers and asking to raise their taxes above 3.5 percent if officials deem it necessary.

[…]

Austin and San Antonio, which both have the highest credit rating of AAA, are also concerned that the caps will have an effect on their ability to borrow. The nation’s three major credit rating agencies have warned that the caps could have a negative impact.

Bettencourt and Troxclair, however, dismissed those concerns, saying that as long as cities are being fiscally responsible, credit rating agencies will have no reason to dock their scores. Bettencourt added that SB 2 doesn’t affect the debt portion of the tax rate, which are set by bond elections.

SB2 was sold as a way of reining in property taxes, to provide savings to homeowners. (Renters are on their own, the Republicans don’t care about them.) But no honest broker actually believes there will be any real savings. Literally no one is going to review their household expenses at the end of a year and say “thank goodness for that revenue cap, it saved us so much money”. Just look at the Houston experience, in which the typical reduction in taxes is less than $100 per year, while the city has been starved of revenue. The whole point of this exercise to to constrain cities’ ability to prioritize its spending needs, because with a revenue cap property tax reduction, no matter how trivial, always comes first. Paul Bettencourt and his cronies want cities to spend less. If that means laying off employees, if it means deferring maintenance and repairs, if it means not offering new services to meet the needs of a changing and growing population, that’s too bad. Or not bad at all, from his perspective, because what does he care about any of that? He wants government at all levels to spend less – more specifically, to spend less on things he doesn’t like – and SB2 will help accomplish that goal. Mission accomplished.

Whata lot of angst

I’ve lived in Texas a long time, but I wasn’t born here. As such, news like this doesn’t hit me the way it hits some other folks.

Chicago-based BDT Capital Partners said Friday it’s agreed to acquire a majority stake in Whataburger.

The burger chain will remain headquartered in San Antonio, and the groups will “begin exploring expansion plans,” they said in a statement.

Whataburger’s founders, the Dobson family, will keep a minority position in the company. President and CEO Preston Atkinson and Chairman Tom Dobson will retain their seats on the board but retire from daily operations.

Both will turn to running Las Aguilas, an investment company launched by the Dobson family in 2011 that focuses on real estate and philanthropy.

The decision “is both exciting and bittersweet” for the family, Tom Dobson said.

“Whataburger has been the heart and soul of our family legacy for nearly 70 years, but we feel really good about the partnership with BDT,” he said.

The news that Whatburger had been “exploring options” came out about a month ago, and it’s fair to say that it caused some anxiety among the faithful. None of what did happen sounds apocalyptic to me, but then I just never fully acculturated the way some other prominent immigrants have.

My wife and kids are coping as best they can, thanks for asking. We will get through this, y’all. I promise. Texas Monthly, the Rivard Report, and the Current have more.

May runoff results

With 303 of 474 precincts reporting, State Rep. Eric Johnson was leading in the runoff for Dallas Mayor over Scott Griggs, 57% to 43%. At the time I started writing this I didn’t see any news coverage declaring the race to be over, but it sure looks to me like Johnson is going to win. So congratulations to (I presume) Mayor-elect Eric Johnson. You know what this means: There will be another special legislative election, which I would bet will be in November. Johnson’s HD100 is solid Dem so a flip is not in play, but expect there to be a big field.

On a side note here, Johnson knocked off longtime Rep. Terri Hodge (who would soon after be convicted of federal tax fraud charges) in 2010. He’s always struck me as someone who had his sights on bigger things. Having just achieved one of those bigger things, look for him to start getting mentioned in future conversations about statewide candidacy. I could definitely see him taking aim at Dan Patrick in 2022, or Ted Cruz in 2024. Just something to keep in mind.

In San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg held on.

Incumbent Ron Nirenberg retained his position as San Antonio’s Mayor after defeating Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6) in the runoff election on Saturday.

Brockhouse officially conceded at 9:12 p.m.

With 96.98 percent of precincts counted, Nirenberg held 51.07 percent of the vote to Brockhouse’s 48.93 percent.

Nirenberg opened the night with a slight lead in early voting, which tightened as more precincts were counted. The margin was just 1.44 points with 78 percent of the precincts voting before a late surge gave Nirenberg the victory.

“I’ve never worked harder in my life to make sure that this city was well represented than over the last two years, but certainly over the last month where we had to remind folks that we can be a city for everyone,” Nirenberg said.

Unofficial results are here. Brockhouse, who among other things was a shill for Chick-fil-A, went on to whine about how The Media Was Out To Get Him. I’m sure you can hear my eyes roll at this, but it did lead to my favorite tweet of the evening:

Every once in awhile, Twitter proves itself worthy of existence.

Finally, I’m sad to say that Nabila Mansoor failed to win her runoff in Sugar Land. She trailed by almost 600 votes early and closed the gap a bit on Election Day, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story on the two Mayoral runoffs.

Paxton sues San Antonio over Chick-fil-A records

We really do live in strange times.

Best mugshot ever

It’s a red-meat issue, but it feeds on chicken.

San Antonio’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A from its airport continues to resound in political circles. Legislators passed a religious freedom bill that gained steam after it was rebranded as the ‘Save Chick-fil-A bill.’ Gov. Greg Abbott beamed over its success on Twitter.

And Attorney General Ken Paxton, declining to wait for his own department to rule on a public records request, on Monday filed suit against the city to force it to hand over records he wants for his office’s investigation.

[…]

According to the suit filed in Travis County district court on Monday, Paxton’s office requested records on April 11 — including calendars, communications and records of meetings among City Council members, city employees and third parties — related to the city’s decision to remove the restaurant from its airport concessions contract. Paxton’s suit seeks to compel the city to release the records.

“The City of San Antonio claims that it can hide documents because it anticipates being sued,” Paxton said in a statement. “But we’ve simply opened an investigation using the Public Information Act. If a mere investigation is enough to excuse the City of San Antonio from its obligation to be transparent with the people of Texas, then the Public Information Act is a dead letter.”

Nirenberg said in a statement Monday that the city had asked Paxton for clarification on the request but never received a response.

“The fact that he went straight to filing a lawsuit instead of simply answering our questions proves this is all staged political theater,” Nirenberg said.

The deputy city attorney, Edward Guzman, responded to Paxton’s request April 24 saying the city was seeking to withhold some records based on 63 exceptions to the state’s public information act, according to the suit. In a May 2 letter, the city also argued the information is exempt because of litigation that was likely to come from Paxton.

State law exempts the release of information related to “pending or reasonably anticipated” litigation.

San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement Monday that the city provided nearly 250 pages of documents for review by the Attorney General’s Open Records Division and is still waiting for a decision.

Segovia said the city will comply with any Open Records Division ruling. He also shed doubt on the motivation behind Paxton’s investigation.

“The State Attorney General’s office has not specified the legislative authority they are relying on to investigate the airport contract,” Segovia said. “Furthermore, it is clear from the strident comments in his press release that any ‘investigation’ would be a pretense to justify his own conclusions.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Any resemblance of the arguments in this case to those in the dispute between Paxton’s office and the House Oversight Committee are, I’m sure, totally coincidental. Whatever else happens in this ridiculous case, the Chick-fil-A follies have provided the wingnuts with the grievance they needed to get their “religious liberties” bill through the Lege, so in that sense Paxton et al have already won. The Rivard Report has more.

Houston’s up-and-down population growth

It was up and now it’s down.

San Antonio gained 24,208 residents between July 1, 2016, and July 1, 2017, annual population estimates just released by the federal agency show. That amounts to an average of 66 people per day, the Census Bureau said.

The surge pushed the city’s population above 1.5 million for the first time. That marks an increase of almost 185,000 people in the city limits since the 2010 census.

San Antonio remains the seventh-largest city in the country. Its latest population estimate is 1,511,946.

[…]

By contrast, growth in Houston, which just a few years ago seemed poised to take over Chicago’s position as the third-largest city in the U.S., has hit a snag with fewer and fewer people moving there.

Houston added just over 8,000 residents, placing it seventh in growth among other Texas cities like Austin, Fort Worth, Dallas and San Antonio.

For five consecutive years from 2011 to 2015, Houston remained in the top three cities that had added the most people. But now the Bayou City — known for its sprawl and elastic economy — has fallen behind a trend that began in 2016 when Houston first showed signs of slowing down. The city recorded four consecutive years of averaging more than 30,000 new residents between 2011 and 2015.

[Texas State Demographer Lloyd] Potter says the substantial change in Houston growth is perplexing.

No demographic breakdown is available for the city population data just released, so there’s no way to know the ages, races, ethnicities or genders of San Antonio’s or Houston’s newest residents.

Couple things here. These are estimates based on available data, not on a count. They’re usually pretty good, but they’re not the official Census totals like what we will get next year, and they can be off by some amount. This is one reason why getting the most thorough and accurate count we can is so important, because every resident we overlook results in lost resources for the city. There’s no obvious reason for the deceleration – it could be just a blip – and it’s too soon to call it a trend, but it definitely bears watching.

Because, of course, Houston’s population growth affects its finances in more ways than just Census apportionments. The dumb and arbitrary formula used in the revenue cap combines population growth and inflation rate to set a limit on how much of a revenue increase the city is allowed to have. It doesn’t matter if new things are being built and old things are being renovated and upgraded, either we fall below the limit set by this number cooked up by the likes of Paul Bettencourt and Bruce Hotze or we are forced to throw away a few million dollars via a property tax rate cut that no one will notice. The whole point of the revenue cap is to constrain the city’s ability to provide services. It’s stupid policy pushed by people who did not and do not have Houston’s best interests at heart. And it has us stuck hoping this slowdown in population growth is just an aberration, because it will increase the pressure on our city finances if it is not.

Sometimes, bad bills do die

The calendar giveth, and the calendar taketh away.

One of the the biggest priorities for Texas Republicans this session appears to be on the verge of legislative death. A series of bills that would broadly prohibit local governments from regulating employee benefits in the private sector died quietly in the House this week.

The business lobby has long been used to getting what it wants from the Republican-controlled Legislature, but now it’s waving the white flag. “It is dead. … The discussion got completely derailed,” lamented Annie Spilman, lobbyist for the Texas chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, in an interview with the Observer. The group is one of the lead advocates for the preemption bills. “They really haven’t left us with any hope at all.”

Senate Bill 15 started as a straightforward measure to stomp out a broad swath of emerging local labor policies, like mandatory paid sick leave, in cities including Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. But it ended in the political gutter after Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick insisted on removing language that explicitly protected local nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) for LGBTQ Texans in several cities. Patrick’s move was reportedly made at the behest of Texas Values, the state’s leading social conservative pressure group.

With the high-profile failure of Patrick’s 2017 bathroom bill and now the fight over NDOs, Texas businesses are growing increasingly furious that the lieutenant governor appears unable to stop poisoning their political agenda with right-wing social warfare.

Spilman said she sees it as another example of Patrick putting the priorities of the religious right before businesses. “I don’t think the lieutenant governor has listened to the business community in quite a while,” she said. “Our No. 1 priority was this preemption legislation to stop cities from overreaching, and despite our efforts to compromise with everyone involved, at the end of the day we were ignored and set aside.”

[…]

The House calendars committee finalized the House’s remaining floor agenda Sunday evening, meaning anything that wasn’t placed on the calendar is all but certain to be dead. The preemption bills were not on the list.

It’s suspected that part of the reason the bills died is that Patrick refused to consider any sort of NDO protection language in a compromise bill, according to conversations with multiple sources. Patrick’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

“I think the lieutenant governor was holding a firm line against that,” state Representative Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, told the Observer. But Rodriguez also attributes the preemption bills’ procedural defeat to Democrats’ willingness to hold together. “One of the calculations was about is the juice worth the squeeze. What would happen on the floor? We Democrats were holding a firm line of opposition … and [willing to] do whatever to kill them.”

See here, here, and here for some background. The NFIB can go pound sand as far as I’m concerned; they’re a bunch of ideologues who deserve to taste some bitter defeat. The best thing they can do for the state of Texas is get into a fanatical pissing contest with Dan Patrick. They’re now lobbying Greg Abbott for a special session, which is something I’m a little worried about anyway, if some other Republican priorities like the vote suppression bill don’t get passes. I can’t control that, so I’m just going to enjoy this moment, and you should too.

May 4 election results

The hottest race was in San Antonio.

With more than 81 percent of the precincts counted, Mayor Ron Nirenberg took a nearly 3-point lead against Councilman Greg Brockhouse, but it likely won’t be enough to avoid a runoff to determine San Antonio’s next mayor.

Nirenberg, who led by two points following early voting pushed his lead to 48.42 percent with Brockhouse garnering 45.82 percent. However, a winning candidate would need to cross the 50 percent threshold to secure victory.

If neither candidate secures more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held next month.

“Did any of you think it was going to be easy?” Nirenberg said Saturday night to a group of supporters, volunteers and staff assembled at Augie’s. “We’re in for a long night. But guess what, this long night’s because this city deserves it. We will wait here and we will grind away at the progress earning every single vote and rechecked in the politics of division until we walk away winners. Because that’s what this city deserves. This is a city for all.

“This is about the future of San Antonio, it’s not just about one election. And we’re going to win, because this city needs to sustain progress.”

Here are the results. Nirenberg increased his lead over the course of Election Day and was up by a bit more than 3,000 votes. The runoff between the progressive Nirenberg and the not-progressive Brockhouse will be contentious, and important.

In Dallas, State Rep. Eric Johnson led the big field for Mayor.

With 149 of 529 precincts reporting, State Rep. Eric Johnson has 21 percent of the vote, Dallas City Councilman Scott Griggs has 17 percent, Lynn McBee has 15 percent, Mike Ablon has 13 percent and Regina Montoya and Miguel Solis have 10 percent.

Nine candidates ran for the open seat.

Mayor Mike Rawlings could not run again due to term limits.

Since no candidate got more than 50 percent of the votes, there will be a runoff between the top two candidates.

That runoff will happen on Saturday, June 8.

Those results are here, and they are more or less the same with 317 of 528 precincts reporting. Johnson is in his fifth term in the Lege and if he wins the runoff he’d vacate his seat, thus causing the fourth legislative special election of the cycle. In this case, it would be after the legislative session, so unless the Lege goes into overtime there would be no absence in Austin.

Elsewhere, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price won again, holding off former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chair Deborah Peoples; those results are here. In races I was following, Nabila Mansoor was headed for a runoff in Sugar Land, collecting 34.22% of the vote to Naushad Kermally’s 39.16%. Steve Halvorson fell short again in Pasadena. The three Pearland ISD candidates also lost.

Congratulations to all the winners, and we’ll look to the runoffs in June.

Early voting for the May elections has begun

From the inbox:

Early Voting for the May 4, 2019 Joint Election starts Monday, April 22 and ends on Tuesday, April 30. During that period, Harris County voters may vote at any of the 25 Early Voting locations designated throughout the county. Polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, except for Sunday, April 28, when polls are open from 1 pm to 6 pm. Ballot by mail applicants must submit their applications by April 23.

Launching this election, voters will be able to see the approximate wait time at each polling location. This new Wait Time feature will be available on our website alongside a map of all the Early Voting locations.

“In an effort to make voting easier and more convenient, Early Voting hours have been extended and a Wait Time feature have been added to the website to help voters avoid lines” said Harris County Clerk Diane Trautman. “I encourage all of the nearly 785,000 registered voters that are eligible to cast a ballot in this election to exercise their right to vote.”

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 political subdivisions across the county. Voters residing in these political entities can find their individual sample ballots, the Early Voting schedule, and the Election Day polling locations at www.HarrisVotes.com.

An approximate additional 30 political entities in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day. Voters should communicate directly with political entities conducting their own elections to obtain more information.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

###

Entities Conducting Elections with Harris County

City of Humble, City of Pasadena, City of South Houston, City of West University Place, Channelview ISD, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, Goose Creek Consolidated ISD, Humble ISD, Pasadena ISD, Cypress Klein Utility District, Encanto Real Utility District, Greenwood Utility District, Bridgestone MUD, Crosby MUD, Faulkey Gully MUD, Trail of the Lake MUD, Harris County MUD No. 5, Harris County MUD No. 44, Harris County MUD No. 55, Harris County ESD No. 60, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1A, Harris County Fresh Water Supply District No. 58, Harris County Water Control and Improvement District No. 109.

You can see what the Wait Time feature looks like here. It’s pretty cool, and something we’ll surely need going forward, though for this election I doubt you’ll see anything but green lights. The City of Pasadena elections are the biggest ones of most interest within Harris County, with the balance of power on Pasadena City Council being up for grabs. See my interview with Steve Halvorson for more on that.

Early voting information for Fort Bend County is here. Fort Bend ISD and the City of Sugar Land, where Nabila Mansoor is running for City Council District 2, are races to watch.

Early voting information for Brazoria County is here. There’s a lot of energy right now for three candidates for Pearland ISD Board of Trustees: Al Lloyd, Dona Murphey, and Joseph Say. If all three win, they’d join Trustee Mike Floyd, elected in 2017, to form a majority on that Board.

Elsewhere, there are Mayor’s races in San Antonio, Dallas, and Fort Worth, none of which I have followed closely. There’s a longer story to write about why we still hold these municipal elections in May of odd-numbered years, but that will wait till another day. For more about the Harris County races, see this Chron story. Is there an election for you to vote in? Leave a comment and let us know.

No backsies for Chick-fil-A in San Antonio

Since I mentioned there would be a re-vote, I figured you’d want to know how it went.

By a 6-5 margin, San Antonio’s City Council on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposal from mayoral contender Greg Brockhouse to revisit a controversial decision last month to remove Chick-fil-A from an airport contract because of its “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Brockhouse forced the issue by using a procedural move under Robert’s Rules of Order to revive the Chick-fil-A debate. With dozens of supporters standing in the council chambers, Brockhouse proposed revisiting the Chick-fil-A decision at the next meeting.

“I consider this opportunity today to be a defining moment for this council,” Brockhouse said in introducing the proposal, which he first broached last week.

All the members who voted against the contract last month voted in favor of Brockhouse’s effort, save one: Councilman Art Hall. He said once the council makes a decision, it should stick to it, swinging the vote.

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who abstained from the first vote, approved Brockhouse’s effort, as did Councilman Manny Pelaez, who said he regretted his original comments about Chick-fil-A’s record.

Nirenberg, who has framed the issue in business terms, said before the vote that no business operating within the law is barred from operating in San Antonio. He proposed having a discussion about the city’s contracting process to ensure it operates under the full compliance of local, state and federal laws.

See here and here for the background. And now you have something else to think about this weekend, since I’m sure we could all use a change of topic by now. The Rivard Report has more.

Chick-fil-A follies, part 2

Noted for the record.

Best mugshot ever

The city of San Antonio voted 6-4 in late March to exclude Chick-fil-A from its renovation of the airport food court offerings due to the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Shortly after the city’s decision, public outcry in Buffalo, N.Y., led to a concessions company nixing the brand from its plans for the nearby Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Chick-fil-A told Buffalo news station KBKW recent coverage of the company drives an inaccurate narrative about their brand. “More than 145,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs represent the Chick-fil-A brand. We embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the city of San Jose, Calif., voted unanimously to settle the debate in an entirely different way — by flying rainbow and pride flags in front of Chick-fil-A locations both inside and outside of the airport.

On Thursday, the San Antonio city council will reconsider its previous vote. Councilman Greg Brockhouse said the city’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A “embarrassed” the city, KTSA reported.

“Every day the Chick-fil-A removal decision is allowed to stand hurts our reputation nationwide as a welcoming and inclusive city. It sends a message we are anti-faith and we cannot stand by without speaking the truth and standing up for our principles,” he said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what the city of San Antonio is going to do at this point. There’s certainly a practical argument to be made that they have more to lose than to gain by picking this fight. But like Pete Buttigieg, I think there’s a lot of value in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of anti-gay animus, especially from Christian conservatives. Let the Chick-fil-As and their enablers explain why they choose to discriminate. Also, Greg Brockhouse can go jump into a vat of dipping sauce. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

RIP, AAF

Maybe it’s only mostly dead, but it looks pretty dead.

After eight weeks of games and less than one season into Alliance of American Football’s existence, league owner Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all operations, league co-founder Bill Polian confirmed to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Tuesday.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian said in a statement Tuesday. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.

“The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

[…]

Players are being forced to pay for their own travel back home, a source told ESPN, confirming an SI.com report.

Despite a litany of issues, ratings had remained fairly consistent for the league, with between 400,000 and 500,000 viewers often tuning in for games, according to ratings reports. And the league got a bump in attention after Johnny Manziel signed last month and was allocated to Memphis.

Manziel offered some advice to AAF players on Twitter with Tuesday’s news.

The league signed all players to three-year, non-guaranteed contracts worth $70,000 in the first year, $80,000 in the second year and $100,000 in the third year. The hope, Polian said, was that the league would send players to the NFL.

In his statement Tuesday, Polian said he’ll do “all I can” to help the league’s players achieve that.

“My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional,” Polian said. “I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest.”

Ebersol told ESPN in January that they had structured the league around a “sober business plan” because he believed he had learned lessons from his father, Dick Ebersol, who helped run the first version of the XFL.

Problems, however, popped up surrounding the nascent league that was trying to be a complement to the NFL.

See here for the background. The AAF had its challenges, but I thought they’d at least finish the season. Who knows, maybe they could have gotten an infusion of cash afterwards, and been able to keep going. I feel bad for the players, who of course will get screwed out of their last paychecks and stuck with hotel, travel, and healthcare expenses, and at a much lower level for the fans in San Antonio, the eternal bridesmaids of pro football fandom. Anyone wanna lay odds on how long the rebooted XFL will last?

Chick-fil-A follies

I have three things to say about this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is investigating the city of San Antonio for potential First Amendment violations after the City Council voted to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken,” Paxton, a Republican, wrote in a Thursday letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the rest of the council. “Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”

In a 6-4 vote, the council voted last week to keep the franchise from opening at the San Antonio International Airport. The decision quickly drew national headlines and condemnations from conservatives across the country.

Chick-Fil-A, a national franchise with locations throughout Texas, is known for its leaders’ staunch Christian views and close ties to groups that worked to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. Its corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” It is, famously, “closed on Sundays.”

Paxton, a Christian conservative who has long billed himself as a crusader for religious liberty, has also asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to open an investigation into the city’s actions. Paxton said in a news release Thursday that federal regulations governing grant money that flows to the San Antonio airport prohibit discrimination.

1. If we must accept that corporations can have “religious beliefs” – I don’t, but SCOTUS has imposed it on us, so here we are – then we ought to be able to criticize those beliefs. Governments make policy decisions all the time based on who they do and don’t want to do business with (see, for example, the state of Texas picking a side in the Israel/West Bank conflict), for reasons one may or may not approve of. Often, these decisions are made in response to feedback from constituents. It’s a tool that activists have in their toolbox for holding corporations accountable for their actions. It’s messy and often contradictory, but it’s long been a part of the democratic process. I don’t think letting corporate “religious beliefs” serve as a get-out-of-consequences-free card is a good idea.

2. All that aside, isn’t the fact that Chick-fil-A closes on Sunday a factor here? Surely the city of San Antonio would like to have a full range of dining options for those who pass through its airport, as they can’t just go somewhere else if their needs aren’t being met. If the choice is between a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, and a restaurant that’s open six days a week, you’d think the former would be preferred.

3. San Antonio isn’t the only city cordially dis-inviting Chick-fil-A from its airport. However you feel about this issue, it’s not going away.

The down side of scooters

Watch out for that tree. And that pedestrian, and that street light, and that strange bump in the sidewalk, and that abandoned scooter someone just left lying there…

Photo: Richard A. Marini, San Antonio Express-News

In September 2017, Tarak Trivedi, an emergency room doctor, and Catherine Lerer, a personal injury attorney, started seeing electric scooters everywhere. Santa Monica, California, where they live, was the first city where the scooter company Bird rolled out its rechargeable two-wheelers, which could be rented with a smartphone app and dropped off anywhere. Lime and other scooter companies soon followed. As riders zipped down the street, reaching speeds of 15 miles per hour without helmets, both Trivedi and Lerer thought of the inevitable injuries.

Soon enough, victims of e-scooter accidents, both riders and pedestrians, began to show up in the ER. “I started seeing patients who had significant injuries,” Trivedi recalls. Calls about scooter-related injures poured into Lerer’s office. She says she now gets at least one new call a day. “We recognized that this is a very important technological innovation that has a significant public health impact,” Trivedi says.

More than a year after the Birds landed, Trivedi and researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles have authored the first study to quantify the public health impact of e-scooters. Their peer-reviewed study, published in JAMA Network Open, details 365 days of scooter crashes, collisions, and wipeouts. Digging through records from two Los Angeles-area emergency rooms, the researchers found 249 patients with injuries serious enough to warrant a trip to the ER. In comparison, they found 195 bicyclists with injuries and 181 pedestrians with similar injuries during the same period.

The goal of the study was to characterize how people were getting hurt, as well as who was getting hurt. Of the 249 cases the study looked at, 228 were riders, most of whom were brought to the ER after falling, colliding with an object, or being hit by a moving vehicle. The other patients were injured after being hit by a rider, tripping over a scooter in the street, or getting hurt while attempting to move a parked scooter. About 31 percent of patients had fractures, and around 40 percent suffered from head injuries. Most were between the ages of 18 and 40; the youngest was eight and the oldest was 89. While many of the injuries were minor, severe and costly injuries like bleeding in the skull and spinal fractures were also documented. Fifteen people were admitted to the hospital.

Trivedi thinks that the actual number of scooter injuries was likely higher, since the study took a conservative approach to tallying up patients, focusing only on standing electric scooters and dropping many ambiguous cases. (It also eliminated instances where riding a scooter was not the cause of a scooter-related injury—such as assaults where a scooter was used as a weapon, or injuries during attempts to steal a scooter.)

That’s from California, and it’s a partial picture of what has been observed in Los Angeles, based on two emergency rooms. The authors didn’t extrapolate from there, but it’s clear there would be a lot more than just what they focused on. That’s the first study of its kind of scooter injuries, but we do have some anecdotal evidence from Texas cities where the scooters have invaded, including San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas, where there has also been one reported fatality, though it is not clear if that person (the victim of a hit-and-run) had been using the scooter at the time of his death.

Let’s be clear, cars cause vastly more havoc every day than scooters do. The magnitude of injury and death resulting from our automobile-centric culture just dwarfs anything even an onslaught of electric scooters can do. In the long run, more scooters may lead to less vehicular damage, if it means more people rely on them in conjunction with transit to take fewer trips by car. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or minimize the potential for injury that scooters represent. It’s up to cities and states to figure out how to regulate these things in a way that maximizes their benefit and minimizes their risk. That means we need good data about the real-world effect of scooter usage, and we need to avoid being unduly influenced by the scooter companies and the venture capital behind them. Let’s pay attention to this stuff and be responsible about what we learn.

MLS comes to Austin

Welcome to the big leagues.

After a long and often rocky courtship, Austin and Major League Soccer became a match.

The league formally welcomed Austin as its 27th franchise with a raucous downtown party Tuesday full of chanting and flag-waving, and Commissioner Don Garber calling the Texas capital a “perfect fit.” MLS said Austin will begin play in the 2021 season.

“We think of us being a league for a new America,” Garber said. “Austin is diverse. It has enormous energy. It has people who really believe in the city. … We need to be here.”

The move has been long expected as Austin became the target destination for efforts last year to move the Columbus Crew. The Crew instead will stay in Ohio under a new ownership group.

Austin recently signed a lease with Austin majority owner Anthony Precourt, a California-based investor, to provide land for a privately-funded $225 million stadium. The Austin venue will be an open-air facility with a grass playing field on land that has been vacant for 25 years.

“We’re going to unite this city. We’re going to fight for this city. We’re going to make you proud,” Precourt said.

Precourt’s attempts to move the Crew, a bedrock MLS franchise, drew fierce resistance in Columbus as fans rallied to save their team and state and local officials filed lawsuits attempting to block the move.

In Austin, a divided city council argued for months over the stadium deal before it was approved on a narrow vote. Instead of moving the Crew, MLS and Precourt agreed that team would be placed under a new ownership group that includes Cleveland Browns Dee and Jimmy Haslem.

MLS has long eyed Austin — although quietly until 2018 — as an expansion opportunity. Precourt’s initial purchase deal for the Crew included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years, but it also had a clause that would let him move to Austin. And before Precourt announced his desire to move, MLS had trademarked Austin FC and Austin Athletic as possible names for a franchise even though the city had not applied for expansion.

Here’s the official MLS story. I’m happy for Austin, but it turns out that not everyone else is.

Austin FC won’t join MLS until 2021, but it is already the league’s most-hated team.

[…]

So, why does everyone hate Austin FC? The answer is simple: Anthony Precourt.

Precourt owned the Columbus Crew, and announced in 2017 that he planned to relocate the club to Austin because Columbus would not provide a publicly funded stadium. By threatening the move to Austin, Precourt essentially held the club hostage until Jimmy and Dee Haslam partnered with Pete Edwards to save the Crew.

MLS saw the massive public outcry against Precourt’s ownership tactics and still rewarded him with a shiny, new franchise in the city of his choice — all while deserving cities like Sacramento, St. Louis and Phoenix are still vying for the last remaining spot.

Austin has a $225 million, 20,000-seat stadium slated for completion by 2021. Precourt Sports Ventures is funding that project after an agreement with the city.

We already know that Columbus will root viciously against Austin FC. It’s personal for Crew fans. But if MLS decides to stay firm on that 28-team figure, soccer fans from the left-out cities will be rooting against Austin as well.

Click over to see a sample of Twitter reactions. You can add soccer fans in San Antonio to that list, too. Well, it never hurts to have a rivalry in sports. I can’t wait to see how that plays out.

A first look at contenders in HD125

Gilbert Garcia of the SA Express News points to a potential frontrunner for the HD125 special election.

Justin Rodriguez

Ray Lopez never appears to be in a hurry.

During his eight years on the City Council, the gray-haired, mustachioed former AT&T marketing director was legendary for his calm assurance and willingness to speak at length — often at great length — on any subject. He came to be seen by his colleagues as the council’s easygoing, consensus-building uncle.

But Lopez finds himself in a hurry now, thanks to Gov. Greg Abbott. The governor announced Monday that the special election to fill the Texas House District 125 seat, vacated last week by new Bexar County Commissioner Justin Rodriguez, will be held on Feb. 12, with early voting starting on Jan. 28.

After getting the green light last Friday from Evelyn, his wife of 48 years, Lopez has decided to run for the seat. That means a sprint for a man who likes to live his life at the pace of a casual stroll (or boating excursion on Medina Lake).

The race likely will get crowded between now and next Monday’s filing deadline. Former District 125 Rep. Art Reyna and policy advocate Coda Rayo-Garza already have declared their interest and others will follow. Like Lopez, they will run as Democrats.

[…]

One of the most timeworn clichés in politics involves the reluctant politician — the elected official who frequently runs for office yet claims to hate the political game.

Nonetheless, when Lopez says he loves governance but doesn’t get much enjoyment from campaigning, it’s easy to believe him. After all, there’s evidence to back him up.

Most observers of his first City Council campaign, a 2005 runoff with Delicia Herrera, concluded that Herrera won primarily because she knocked on more doors and outworked Lopez. He had to wait until 2009 for his opportunity to join the council.

In 2013, Lopez sought a third term on the council and faced hard-charging challenger Greg Brockhouse. Lopez survived the challenge, but there were moments when it looked like his nonchalant approach might cost him his seat.

That’s why the abbreviated nature of this special election only works to Lopez’s benefit. His name recognition and long history of service provide him a built-in advantage over any other candidate in this race.

See here and here for the background. Garcia doesn’t identify any Republicans running for HD125, but the Rivard Report fills in some other names:

Former District 125 Rep. Arthur “Art” Reyna filed as a Democratic candidate Wednesday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. Policy advocate and Democrat Coda Rayo-Garza and Republican Fred Rangel, who ran for HD 125 last year, both filed Thursday. Steve Huerta, who currently serves as the Bexar County Democratic Party rules committee co-chair and was formerly incarcerated, told the Rivard Report he will be filing on Monday. And former District 6 City Councilman Ray Lopez filed as a Democratic candidate on Friday.

Another multiple-Dem-and-one-Republican race, at least potentially. Lopez’s name recognition is surely an advantage, but he first has to make sure people know there’s an election so that they can show up to vote for him. The filing deadline is Monday the 14th, so we’ll know soon enough how big this field is.

Santa’s employment agency

Good work if you can get it.

If you have had a picture taken with Santa Claus in San Antonio this holiday season, there’s a good chance he was booked through a local business run by a head elf.

That head elf is Renee Davis, CEO of San Antonio-based Santa Express Central, who manages more than 50 professional Santa Clauses across the state, a business Davis said keeps her busy year-round.

“In order to get a really professional Santa, retailers get on it a good 18 months to a year in advance, because it’s that competitive to get a good Santa,” she said.

All of the Santas with Santa Express Central have real beards, Davis said. She puts them through a background check, insures them, outfits them with Santa uniforms, and enrolls them into her own Santa school. There they practice their ho-ho-ho’s and learn how to style themselves properly, speak around children, preserve the magic of Santa Claus, and strike the best poses for the camera. Her training prepares them to be the best Santas they can be, she said.

“My Santas book out very fast, and it’s because of the difference we make,” she said. “They’re taking that extra moment and time, letting the child know, ‘I care, I see you, and I hear you.'”

Between November and December, Davis estimates she books more than 600 events with her Santa Clauses. She has 57 Santas across Texas, though the majority live in the San Antonio and Hill Country area.

Hey, Santa has better things to do than figure out where his next gig is. It’s good that he has someone to do this sort of thing for him. Visit the charmingly retro Santa Express Central webpage to learn more.