Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texas

The coronavirus doesn’t care about your rugged individualism

Put a pin in this story, and let’s see how things are in a week, and in two weeks.

Reports of COVID-19 cases might not be as prevalent outside of the metropolitan areas, and official actions have been slower and less restrictive.

In Midland, many residents have continued their normal routines, shopping in grocery stores and at busy retail locations. The city hasn’t issued restrictive orders but has been talking about it. There’s a striking parallel between the places restricting social gathering and the political map, but that’s not what some politicians see.

“I don’t know if it’s a red versus blue thing; it’s a human nature thing,” said Jack Ladd Jr., a member of the Midland City Council. “A lot of people want to see something like this before they react.”

That visibility is increasing as cases pop up in Midland. And the county recorded its first death attributed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, this week, which has prompted more discussion from public leaders.

Midland had four known cases as of Wednesday, and they were up to six cases as of Thursday. They don’t know where people may have gotten the disease.

Lubbock stopped short of telling residents to stay at home, but it did put restrictions in place. Lubbock’s emergency order, Mayor Dan Pope said, “is like the stay-at-home orders elsewhere, without the panic in it.”

“You know West Texas,” he said. “We have a little more common sense … and a healthy sense of skepticism.

“I would say people are in two camps — those who have bought in and understand and are really staying home, and another group that’s harder to reach,” he said.

He said Lubbock’s two hospitals are well situated at the moment — they can open another 40 ICU beds if needed — and added that “we don’t have any stress on our health care system” at this time. As of Thursday, the city had a drive-through testing center, and he said it plans to have a total of four by Monday. Lubbock County had 19 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, he said.

You know what else the city of Lubbock has? A population density that’s close roughly the same as the city of Houston:

Lubbock, population 255,885, area 123.6 square miles = 2,070 people per square mile.

Houston, population 2,325,502, area 1,062 square miles = 2,189 people per square mile.

Now sure, Houston is an international travel and business hub, with multiple central business districts, and it is surrounded by millions of other people, in Harris and other counties, while Lubbock is mostly in the middle of empty space. But you know, those 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Lubbock County (population 307K) represents one case per 16K residents. In Harris County, with 4.7 million people and 135 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon, that ratio is one per 35K residents. I’m just saying.

Now of course the real numbers are higher, and even if I knew the exact totals right now they’d be obsolete by the time you read this. My point is, they’re going in one direction at this time, and their ultimate trajectory depends entirely on our actions, not our attitudes or innate qualities. I hope, I really hope, that the people of Lubbock and Midland and anyplace else where people are mostly moving about without much care about coronavirus don’t come to regret their actions later.

Montgomery County issues a stay-at-home order

It’s getting real, y’all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

We are doing a good job of keeping our distance

That’s what our phone say, anyway.

Harris County residents are doing a good job keeping their distance, according to location data culled from smartphones, earning an “A” on a nationwide scoreboard.

The Social Distancing Scoreboard is a creation of Unacast, a Norway-based company that provides location data for business clients. The tool tracks the decrease of movement by people in a location over time to determine whether they are staying at home and assigns a letter grade, drilling down to the county level. The grade is tracked against the number of COVID-19 cases in each location.

It does not track whether people are staying six feet apart from each other — yet.

[…]

Overall, the United States scores a “B,” with the District of Columbia doing the best job of social distancing, followed by Alaska. Texas gets an A overall, as does Harris County.

Schleicher County, south of San Angelo, gets the highest score in Texas; Oldham County, west of Amarillo, has the worst.

You can fool around with the Social Distancing Scoreboard here. It gets its data from various smartphone apps – thank you for turning on location services, by the way – though it doesn’t specify which apps, per the Washington Post. The data for Texas was last updated on March 21, prior to all of the stay-at-home directives, so one would expect the mobility levels to drop further. It’s a good start, at least.

The difference a week makes

Imposing a stay-at-home order sooner rather than later ha a profound effect on how many people come down with coronavirus.

The person-to-person spread of the coronavirus in the Houston region would peak in two weeks and burn out by mid-May if the stay-at-home order invoked Tuesday is continued until then, according to modeling by local scientists.

The modeling, which informed Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order, considered the effect on the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, if she’d taken the stringent intervention immediately or waited a week or two weeks to act. Spread would increase exponentially had she waited, it found.

“From our modeling, it was clear that waiting is not a good thing,” said Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, who conducted the study with a biostatistician at that Houston institution. “The numbers are sobering, but the message is clear: early intervention is better than late intervention and more stringent intervention is better than less stringent.”

UTHealth released the modeling data as the city of Houston began gearing up — scouting sites that easily can be converted into medical centers, looking for hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients who cannot isolate at home or in a hospital — for what’s expected to be the next, worse phase of the pandemic: the exponential increase in disease numbers.

[…]

The UTHealth modeling, shared with city and county officials Monday, provided data backing the warnings. It found that intervening immediately would limit the number of cases in the region to a peak at about 150 a day around April 7 and stop the spread around May 12. In that time, the cumulative total of cases would reach nearly 3,500, it found.

Cases would peak at more than 1,000 a day on April 15 if Hidalgo had waited a week and more than 6,600 a day on April 22 if she’d waited two weeks. Transmission would last until May 29 under the first scenario and June 16 under the second.

All three of the scenarios are based on the premise the restrictions would continue until mid-May. Hidalgo’s order is scheduled to expire April 3.

This is what “exponential growth” means. The basic idea is that if everyone is out there living their normal lives, anyone who has coronavirus – remember, it takes about a week for people to become symptomatic, so you can be walking around for quite some time not knowing you have it, infecting people wherever you go – will be spreading the disease to a larger number of people, who will then do the same thing, than if everyone were at home where they will encounter far fewer people. This is one of the reasons why South Korea was as successful as it was at stopping the spread in that country – they jumped on this kind of action right away. (They also did a crapload of testing and were able to aggressively track people’s movements, but never mind that for now.) For that matter, look at the difference between Kentucky and Tennessee. Which outcome would you prefer?

Point is, putting the stay-at-home restrictions in place now, or even later, after the disease has had time to spread even if the known number of infections is still low, would mean we’ve given it an unfettered head start. That’s the scenario we need to avoid, and it’s the reason why the death wish cultists aren’t just wrong, they’re deeply dangerous. Listen to the experts. The fondest hope we have right now is that in a few weeks, when we can think about beginning to go back to normal, we can say it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. We have a chance for that now.

UPDATE: Read this. Look at the chart. Consider this excerpt: “It means that on average, every infected person infects three other people, not 2.5 other people—which makes the spread of the virus much wider and faster. Without any control measures, for example, it means that after ten generations a single person will be responsible for 80,000 infections instead of 10,000 infections.” That’s what we’re talking about here.

Abortion providers file suit over Abbott executive order

You can’t let crass opportunism go unchallenged.

Right there with them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and the state budget

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The Republican death wish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former Bloomberg staffers sue him

Okay.

Four former workers for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in Texas are suing him for fraud, alleging that he went back on a promise to pay them through the November election.

In lawsuits filed Monday in Tarrant County, the former workers say the Democratic candidate promised that even if he dropped out — as he did earlier this month — he would continue to employ them through November “no matter what.” Each is seeking $42,000 in wages in addition to lost health insurance benefits, for a total capped at $75,000.

The lawsuits are apparently the first of their type in Texas against Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, who faces a growing uproar nationwide from former staffers. They also come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in Texas and across the country, an especially harrowing situation for the unemployed and for those without health insurance.

The former workers in Texas, who were all organizers, are Abdoulaye Gueye, Argunda Jefferson, Gregory Snow and Melinda Hamilton. All are from Tarrant County except for Snow, who resides in neighboring Parker County.

Each plaintiff says he or she agreed not to disparage Bloomberg while working for him or afterward. “If plaintiff knew that Mike Bloomberg would go back on his word much in the style of Donald Trump, he never would have agreed to not bad mouth Bloomberg,” the lawsuits say.

I think a lot of people would have made different decisions if they had known what Bloomberg was going to end up doing. I have a lot of sympathy for these folks, and I’d love to see the NDAs they all had to sign get thrown out, but I don’t expect this to go anywhere.

Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

The Houston/Harris County stay-at-home order

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

In the meantime:

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Coronavirus and voter registration

Time for Plan B.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas was making record gains getting voters on the rolls. Now the coronavirus threatens to grind that progress to a halt, throwing up major hurdles to Democratic efforts to make the state’s November elections competitive for a change.

Texas’ emergence as a battleground in 2020 depends largely on new voters, and both Democrats and Republicans have poured millions into efforts to register them — massive campaigns that have already added two million voters since the 2016 election.

But the coronavirus countermeasures — particularly limits on public gatherings — threaten to seriously hamper those efforts.

Because Texas is one of 11 states that do not allow voters to register online, much of the work depends on face-to-face interaction — going door to door and setting up booths on college campuses, at concerts, naturalization ceremonies, graduations and other big events that are prohibited in the time of COVID-19.

“Crises like this really expose the failures in our system — the fact that we don’t have online voter registration, the fact that we are a state currently that doesn’t allow vote by mail,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former Democratic U.S. senate candidate who launched Jolt, a group focused on mobilizing Texas voters, where she is now a consultant.

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, says it is reworking everything, launching a fully digital organizing project that will include a new Nextdoor.com-style website where people can post about everything from politics to what’s happening in their communities during the pandemic. They say they’re doing aggressive outreach to get people on it. And the party says it is starting weekly calls with groups in all 254 Texas counties.

“Obviously the challenges are not insignificant,” said Cliff Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. “But it helped us reorient and take our organization program that was going to be focused on voter registration at the doors — and we had great plans to ramp up a lot of that type of face-to-face interaction — and to do something that’s different and could be a silver lining on a really big dark gray cloud.”

The party says its most effective registration efforts in 2018 were reaching out to people who were new to Texas — and that effort won’t change now.

But the virus makes other outreach efforts impossible.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a democratic tragedy,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of Mobilize Organize Vote Empower, a group that registered 7,500 voters on college campuses in three weeks in before the pre-primary deadline in February.

See here and here for some context. The story notes that Republicans are trying to register voters now too, and once again I muse about how they probably wish there was an online option available to them. Not gonna happen as long as they’re in charge, that much is for sure. As with everything else, how much of an effect this has is directly proportional to how long we’re all under some form of restricted movement. If things have more or less returned to normal by, say, the end of April, then this will be a blip in the trend. The longer it takes, the bigger the blip. If nothing else, it’s a extra point of emphasis for why we need to revamp our crappy existing system.

Go ahead and die, Dan

Just do it on your own time, and try not to take anyone with you.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, chiming in to support President Donald Trump’s new focus on the economy over fierce warnings from public health officials, suggested on Fox News on Monday night that he would rather die from the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus than see instability in the American economic system.

“No one reached out to me and said, ‘As a senior citizen, are you willing to take a chance on your survival in exchange for keeping the America that all America loves for your children and grandchildren?’ And if that’s the exchange, I’m all in,” he said. “And that doesn’t make me noble or brave or anything like that.

“I just think there are lots of grandparents out there in this country like me … that what we all care about and what we all love more than anything are those children,” he added. “And I want to, you know, live smart and see through this, but I don’t want to see the whole country to be sacrificed, and that’s what I see.”

[…]

At the end of the Fox interview, host Tucker Carlson repeated his interpretation of Patrick’s argument: “You’re basically saying that this disease could take your life, but that’s not the scariest thing to you, there’s something worse than dying?”

To which Patrick answered in the affirmative: “Yeah.”

I just can’t right now, so I’m going to outsource this. Here’s Kevin Drum, with some data:

President Trump would like us to “open the economy,” which for all practical purposes means doing nearly nothing. The [Imperial College] study suggests that in this scenario around 2 million people will die.

If we get as serious as Italy—shut down everything, close every school, get everyone off the streets, and aggressively trace every known case—and if we do it for the next three months or so—we could get the number of deaths down to 200,000 or so. That’s about 0.06 percent of the population, similar to what Italy is likely to suffer.

This is the difference we’re looking at: 200,000 vs. 2 million. The first case is bad but manageable, and the Senate rescue bill would keep most people whole and ensure that the economy can pop back to life quickly when the control measures are over. The second is a catastrophe, and even with the rescue bill in place it would most likely produce a deep recession that would last through the end of the year at least.

The control measures are no fun. No president wants to be the guy who has to enforce them. But without them 2 million people will die and we’ll probably suffer a deep recession. Why would anyone in their right mind choose that option?

And here’s Nonsequiteuse with a more direct response:

Viruses aren’t good ol’ boys swaddled in camo with Yeti coffee mugs and Ducks Unlimited decals on their rear windows, out to bag the daily limit.

Viruses are motherfucking spree killers pumped up on angel dust and Four Loko.

We can’t ask TxDOT to use those nifty signs to direct viruses which exit to take and which parking lot to use to go get the olds.

The more people exposed, the more who fall ill. That’s it. That’s the way this works. There’s no vaccine, and the treatment doesn’t always work even if you can access it. The outbreak will only run its course if we limit the number of people the virus can reach, which we can do by staying at home and avoiding other people who might be infected.

Now, let’s look at the second issue, Dan Patrick’s stunning lack of confidence in each and every one of us in this country, which is what leads me to say that

Dan Patrick is anti-American.

Dan Patrick and Donald Trump are making the same argument—equally ineloquently—letting the economy tank is worse than letting the virus kill a bunch of people, so we should go back to work and pretend it’s all good.

Why does Dan Patrick think a month or two of large numbers of people working from home and some people needing increased government assistance over the short-term will completely and totally wreck us?

Does he not believe in American ingenuity? In bootstraps? In our cultural obsession with reinvention? Doesn’t he know we’re the Timex Nation?

There are only two options here, and honestly, hard to say which paints Danny boy in the worse light.

What they both said. Political Animal, TPM, Daily Kos, Texas Monthly, Dahlia Lithwick, the Observer, and Paradise in Hell have more.

UPDATE: I’m just going to leave this here.

While Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick became the public face of the “let’s get back to work” contingent during the coronavirus pandemic, his son Ryan K. Patrick, U.S. Attorney in the Houston region, has asked his staff handling one of the busiest criminal dockets in the country to work from home and prioritize safety.

The younger Patrick declined to comment on his 69-year-old father’s statement to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. The lieutenant governor spoke about sacrificing himself to salvage the economy and letting his grandchildren have “a shot at the American dream” after a short hiatus. The 41-year-old chief federal prosecutor asked workers and staff nearly two weeks ago to take computers home and come in only as needed. He has a skeleton crew operating at the courthouse each day, taking turns handling hearings for their colleagues.

“Our office is as fully teleworked as possible,” said the chief prosecutor in southeast Texas. “We learned a lot of good lessons after Hurricane Harvey,” he said. He noted that his office is still open and courts are still open.

Ted Imperato, deputy chief of the national security and public corruption unit at the Houston headquarters, said his boss has been on top of it, following public health directives for social distancing and flattening the curve from the beginning.

“The safety of the people that work for him has been his primary focus,” Imperato said. “Every conference call and every email I’ve gotten has been to check on your people, make sure they’re OK and to provide us necessary updates on conducting our business during this period of crisis.”

We feel your pain, Ryan.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The state of the state’s response

I mean, it’s something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Worrying about the restaurants

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

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

If we’re lucky.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Abbott delays primary runoffs

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

(more…)

Coronavirus and local control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statewide restrictions on public gatherings

This was expected.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Bloomberg brings some of his money back

Good.

Former Democratic Presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg failed in his bid for the White House, but he is still looking to make an impact on Texas politics.

Bloomberg announced Tuesday he is sending $2 million to a Democratic-leaning group called Swing Left, which has targeted Texas as one of 12 states where it will focus its energy in 2020.

In the case of Texas, the group is trying to help flip the Texas House from Republican control to Democratic control. Republicans have watched their majority in the Texas House shrink to just 9 seats and Democrats are convinced they have a shot of winning enough seats in 2020. In 2018, Democrats flipped 12 seats held by Republicans.

“I centered my campaign for president around the battleground states our party needs to win in November, and I’m glad to help Swing Left continue the work of organizing voters in those states,” Bloomberg said.

Good to see, and Swing Left (I’m linking to our local group) is terrific. They did a tremendous amount getting the vote out in 2018, though right now who knows what that will mean this year. Bloomberg still has to atone for all the staffers he hung out to dry, but this is at least a step in the right direction.

Preserving Texas’ film history

Cool story.

Click play on the grainy, black-and-white image titled simply “Houston Time Service” on the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and you’re treated to a 110-second Houston love story.

The film, from the 1940s, is about a phone number Houstonians could call to get the correct time. Ruth McClain Graham owned the service, according to an Oct. 24, 1947, Houston Chronicle story. Two years earlier she had married Shadrack E. “Shad” Graham, an itinerant filmmaker, who, apparently taken with the proprietor, produced the film promoting the business.

But film, like love, can be short-lived, and that’s what has driven Caroline Frick’s race against time. The role of film preservationists like Frick, an associate professor of film at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication in Austin, becomes ever more crucial as moving images depicting life and history become unplayable.

As the years play on, the decay of aging motion picture film accelerates, as does the quality of magnetic tape on which video is recorded. Video projectors and old-format tape machines break, are not repaired and discarded. The race to get these recordings into a digital format – also unlikely to survive forever – becomes more crucial with each passing year.

“This is what we are trying to prevent,” says Frick, who founded and is executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, or TAMI, in 2003, opening a plastic bag filled with what looks at first glance to be beef jerky. It’s actually decomposing celluloid, curled and blackened. The smell from the bag is a pungent, vinegary rot, and in TAMI’s crowded offices near downtown Austin, you can catch a whiff if you stand next to stacks of boxes filled with 8-, 16- and 35-millimeter film.

Another threat is in the shrinking universe of ways to watch these historic movies, a dwindling number of obsolete devices available for playback. Frick points to a Sony reel-to-reel videotape machine on the floor that once was the pride of a television station editing room. It was designed to work with a now-abandoned, 1-inch tape format.

“We were able to play something once on that after we got it, and then it broke,” she says, sighing. “We’re still looking for parts.”

A staff of five — all part-timers — are in the office on this chilly January day. Some work on physical restoration of film, others scan it into computers for digitization. Another crew catalogs and curates, putting context to the images that, ultimately, stream across the internet to computers, phones and tablets.

It is a daunting task, hampered by a lack of funding — TAMI’s annual budget is in the $300,000 range — and made overwhelming by the sheer amount of content that flows in. So far, TAMI has digitized about 58 terabytes of film and video, but only 10 percent of that is available for viewing at its website, texasarchive.org.

“The number one reason for the disconnect between what we have digitized vs. what is streaming is budget – the human labor of researching and contextualizing the content,” Frick says. “Everyone is excited about what AI will be able to do some day (for automated curation) but, as of yet, nothing is as reliable or useful as the human eye and brain.”

I’m old enough to remember calling a phone number to get the correct time. Crazy to think about now, but here we are. In any event, preserving old film is a much more challenging task than preserving old books because of the technological barriers. Look at it this way: Most of us have obsolete technology from recent years that has information on it that is now unreadable to us, like various forms of portable storage from computers. The TAMI folks have to deal with machines from decades ago, where there may literally be nothing else like them in existence. Once these old films are gone, that’s it, they’re completely lost to history. Whatever the value of any individual piece of celluloid may be, it sure is a shame to lose something like that. Read the rest of the story and check out the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Maybe you have something that would interest them.

Primary precinct analysis: Who did what in the RRC race

The Railroad Commissioner primary was a bit like the Senate primary – multiple candidates (though not nearly as many), not a whole lot of money, but the candidate who did best in fundraising was also the leading votegetter. Here’s a look at the top 25 counties in terms of votes cast for the Railroad Commissioner’s race:


County    ALONZO   CASTAÑEDA    STONE   WATSON      Total
=========================================================
All        503,666   592,770  380,236  277,578  1,754,250
HARRIS      77,618    85,166   59,552   40,428    262,764
DALLAS      56,824    57,822   48,718   36,255    199,619
TRAVIS      30,199    97,284   37,641   20,290    185,414
BEXAR       50,228    62,708   22,880   16,583    152,399
TARRANT     35,318    36,767   28,238   25,021    125,344
COLLIN      15,227    22,793   18,487    9,250     65,757
EL PASO     25,353    21,426    6,750    7,065     60,594
FORT BEND   12,550    14,895   16,826   12,685     56,956
DENTON      10,804    21,541   14,966    6,851     54,162
WILLIAMSON  11,031    19,375   10,852    9,924     51,182
HIDALGO     24,057    15,382    6,617    3,699     49,755
CAMERON     11,849     9,267    3,691    3,558     28,365
WEBB        13,080     7,841    2,455    1,850     25,226
HAYS         5,161     6,451    6,152    4,059     21,823
MONTGOMERY   4,820     5,963    5,248    3,898     19,929
NUECES       7,364     5,914    3,146    2,424     18,848
BRAZORIA     4,643     4,659    4,961    4,502     18,765
GALVESTON    4,020     5,225    4,914    3,127     17,286
BELL         4,818     4,619    4,056    3,577     17,070
JEFFERSON    4,640     3,132    3,704    4,813     16,289
LUBBOCK      3,462     3,858    2,741    2,081     12,142
MCLENNAN     2,308     3,078    3,623    2,290     11,299
SMITH        2,536     2,512    2,466    2,985     10,499
BRAZOS       3,000     3,429    2,571    1,488     10,488
ELLIS        2,524     2,266    2,410    1,737      8,937

Chrysta Castañeda

Chrysta Castaneda, who led the pack with nearly 34% of the total vote, also led the way in 13 of these 25 counties, including the top six and eight of the top ten. That’s a pretty good recipe for success in the runoff as well. She led in Dallas County, which is the home of runnerup Roberto Alonzo, who represented a State House district in Dallas County for 26 years. Alonzo led in the five big predominantly Latino counties – El Paso, Hidalgo, Cameron, Webb, and Nueces – plus Bell and Ellis Counties. Castaneda leads Alonzo by five points going into the runoff, which is hardly insurmountable, and other than Travis County her lead over him in the biggest counties was small. I feel like Castaneda’s big lead in Travis County is a significant advantage for her for the runoff. It’s hard to project anything based on past primary runoffs because the data set is so small, but given that there will be a Senate runoff as well, and given that Travis County was also a strong performer for MJ Hegar, it could deliver a decent margin for Castaneda in May. If that happens, it may be hard for Alonzo to make up the ground elsewhere.

Of the other candidates, Kelly Stone led in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and McLennan Counties, while Mark Watson topped the field in Smith and Jefferson. There’s another similarity to the Senate race – everyone got to be a leader of the pack. I have no idea how their voters might go in the runoff – neither has made any endorsement, as far as I can tell, and in all honesty that likely would be just a marginal factor. Turnout always drops quite a bit in primary runoffs, and with the coronavirus situation happening now, who knows what effect that may have. I see Castaneda as the solid favorite in this race, but Alonzo can pull it off if he can get his own message out.

Moving the May elections

Another possible method for coping with coronavirus.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Abbott addresses vote by mail possibilities

He’s thinking about it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also of interest:

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

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

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

We already have the power to do more voting by mail

KUT points to a path forward that could get a lot more people voting by mail in Texas.

Texas has one of the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws in the country, but it is open to some of the state’s most vulnerable populations.

Grace Chimene, the president of the League of Women Voters of Texas, says she hopes the state and counties encourage eligible voters to mail in their ballots.

In Texas, people over 65 can apply for mail-in ballots, so the state’s older population can obtain a ballot ahead of elections.

People with underlying health issues can also apply. Whether those people qualify, however, largely depends on the county election officials who administer elections in the state.

Chimene said it’s possible many people with some health issues could qualify as disabled, which is one of the categories of people allowed to vote by mail here, but those qualifications could be clearer.

“I would like the secretary of state’s office to really explain who qualifies, who can vote absentee,” Chimene said. “I think it’s not super clear.”

Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir said that a disability can be a “fungible” thing that changes often throughout a person’s life. She says this could be a category that would allow people who should stay away from large groups because of COVID-19 concerns to vote at home.

“Here at the elections office we are not doctors,” Debouvoir said. “So if you say on one of those forms that you have a disability, we are going to believe you. I am not going to reject an application for ballot by mail on the basis that I think or don’t think someone has a disability. That’s not going to work right now.”

Chimene said she thinks state officials should make it clear if “sick” or disabled could apply to many of these voters who have underlying health issues, like a chronic disease or immunodeficiency.

“What qualifies as sick should be something that we are encouraging the secretary of state to expand on,” Chimene said.

As the story notes, not a lot of people 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail no questions asked, take advantage of it now. Travis County Clerk Dana Debouvoir puts the figure at 10-15% there, and I’d bet it’s similar in Harris County. We could already have a lot more people voting by mail right now if they wanted to. The HCDP has a program where it sends a vote by mail application to all of its known-to-be-Democratic voters and then calls them to remind them to send it in (I’ve participated in that), and you can see the effect it has had in recent elections. Thanks to the high level of turnout in this year’s primary we have a lot more Dems identified, and we could get a lot more mail ballot applications sent out. It’s up to the voters themselves to take it from there.

I should note, since I pointed this out before, that having more people vote by mail will also mitigate the effect of not having a straight ticket voting option, in that it will not add to the lines at voting locations. That’s another pretty big consideration after this year’s primary, too. What I’m saying here is: If you’re a Dem and you’re 65 or will be by this November, please consider getting a mail ballot. Pester your eligible friends about it, too. Yes, I know, I love going to the polling places, and I’d greatly miss it if I didn’t do that. And Lord knows, we should very much be on the other end of the coronavirus curve by then – if not, we’re in much deeper trouble than we’re in now – but still. This is a thing you can do that would help on more than one level. Give it some thought.

Even more so, if you’re a person with health issues, especially if you’re in any way immuno-compromised, you can request a mail ballot as well. Your County Clerk ought to oblige. Again, we’ll very likely be mostly out of the pandemic woods by November, but again, why not take advantage anyway? It’ll be good for you, and good for the wait times at polling places. What’s not to like?

Now having said all that, there are potential drawbacks to expanding vote by mail, and we need to take them seriously. One, as Josh Levin, the election protection fellow at the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, vote by mail applications can be rejected due to signature mismatches, and elections officials aren’t good at notifying applicants when this happens. That was noted in the earlier story about the possibility of an all-mail primary runoff election. You’ll need to be persistent and pester your county clerk if you don’t get your mail ballot in a timely fashion. Two, if you do go this route, please don’t then show up at a polling place and vote again in person. Every cycle some people get confused about this, and it is a thing you can be prosecuted for. Three, if the GOP suspects that Democratic voters are trying to game the system somehow by getting mail ballots to people who are not 65 but are claiming a health exception, they will surely take some kind of legal action to stop it. It’s hard to say how big a deal that could be, but we really don’t need further attacks on the legitimacy of our elections.

Finally, Campos raises a good point:

On the mail ballots for everyone thing, we need to be careful on this. I am all for going to a vote by mail system in the future. Last week, I watched a CNN piece on how the state of Washington handles their vote by mail system. It is pretty elaborate with a lot of special equipment and a physical layout to handle the volume. I don’t think the folks who conduct our elections in Texas have the infrastructure in place to handle 16 million mail ballots. I just don’t think we jump into this system under emergency circumstances. Convince me otherwise. We saw what happened a couple of weeks ago today.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think we can encourage people who are already eligible to vote by mail to consider doing so if they haven’t already – there’s a clear benefit to that and the system should have no trouble handling it. Anything bigger than that will require planning and coordination, and we’re not there yet. We don’t want to risk having a worse outcome because we weren’t able to deliver on our promises.

On balance, there’s no reason why folks who are clearly eligible to get a mail ballot not to do so, and many reasons why they should. The first order of business is to make sure they know that they can, and then follow up from there. We can do that this year. It’s already in our power. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emergency orders extended

In Houston.

City council on Tuesday extended Houston’s emergency health declaration, reflecting a warning by Mayor Sylvester Turner that the public health crisis fueled by the spread of COVID-19 will not go away anytime soon.

“This is a crisis. I hope there’s no one around this table that’s questioning that,” Turner told his colleagues during a spirited special meeting Tuesday. “And it’s a crisis that’s going to be with us for several weeks if not several months. And I hope no one is questioning that.”

The measure gives the mayor power to suspend rules and regulations and to “undergo additional health measures that prevent or control the spread of disease,” such as quarantine or setting up emergency shelters. Similar orders have been issued after hurricanes.

Turner declared the emergency last week, after the region’s first confirmed COVID-19 case of community spread, in which the virus was contracted locally rather than travel. The order was used to cancel the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which notes that among other things, all city-produced, sponsored and permitted events are canceled through the end of April, and the city expects to begin COVID-19 testing this week, with an announcement to come.

Harris County took similar action.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday extended Harris County’s public health disaster declaration in response to the coronavirus, but only for eight days.

The agenda for Tuesday’s emergency session called for a 30-day extension. However, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked for a shorter extension so other elected officials and the public can give input.

The other four members agreed and unanimously extended the declaration, which allows the county to more quickly purchase necessary supplies and services, though March 25. County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she hoped Cagle was acting in good faith and not trying to build discord around the declaration.

“There is lives on the line in this thing,” Hidalgo said. “We’ve got to stick together, and this is not the time to be whipping up political opposition.”

[…]

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked Hidalgo to do all her office can to halt evictions. Garcia said many residents are losing income because schools and businesses have closed, and should be given a break.

Cagle said Commissioners Court should not take any action seen as swaying eviction proceedings in favor of defendants or ordering judges how to perform their duties. Garcia said he simply is seeking a delay in evictions so vulnerable residents have a chance to catch up on rent.

“I’m not asking for judges for any ruling,” Garcia said. “I’m just asking for the judge to halt the process until we can see some light at the end of this tunnel.”

The county judge does not oversee independently elected constables and justices of the peace who administer evictions. Assistant County Attorney Barbara Armstrong said emergency powers allow the county judge to close public buildings and allocate resources, which Hidalgo could exercise to prevent hearings from taking place. Armstrong said cases would resume when the crisis subsides.

Hidalgo said she has spoken with several of the county’s 16 justices of the peace, who have indicated they intend to temporarily stay eviction proceedings.

Other counties are taking similar action on halting evictions, and also making fewer arrests for low-level crimes, as is Harris. These are among the things that maybe we ought to continue after the crisis subsides. Just a thought.

All mail ballots for the primary runoffs are being discussed

This is a pleasant surprise.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

One other issue to contend with:

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

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

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

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

STAAR testing waived

This had to happen, given everything else.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools could be closed for the rest of the academic year

Lots of school-related news on Monday.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school superintendents and lawmakers Sunday to be prepared for long-term school district closures, potentially through the end of the school year, especially in areas where the new coronavirus has spread.

According to individuals who participated in two separate conference calls with the commissioner, Morath said he would still leave the decision up to local superintendents. This comes as hundreds of school districts announced they would suspend classes for at least a week, with concerns about COVID-19 spreading through their communities.

Morath suggested superintendents consider telling parents sooner rather than later that closures would stretch beyond a few weeks. The extended school closures would be a burden for low-income and working parents, who would more likely struggle to keep their children home for long periods of time.

The state has already said school districts with prolonged school closures due to coronavirus concerns may avoid financial penalties, as long as they can prove they are teaching students remotely. But not all school districts have the experience or resources needed to offer remote instruction, and many students lack access to consistent internet at home.

This is not unexpected. At this point, I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t happen, though obviously if that’s the case then there will be wildly disparate effects on the students, between those who will have access to online instruction, and those who will not. Maybe – stay with me here – that should be something the Legislature addresses going forward. You may now be thinking “How can they possibly do the STAAR test if no one is at school?” I say to you, keep reading.

Primary precinct analysis: Everyone did something in the Senate primary

MJ Hegar

So while we wait for actual precinct data from the primary, I thought I’d take a look at some county-level data from the non-Presidential races, as they have the county-by-county breakdown on the SOS election night pages. The US Senate primary, with its twelve candidates overall and five topping ten percent seemed like a good spot to do a deeper dive. The main problem is just presenting that much data, as my usual style of doing a table of numbers isn’t going to work well – it’ll be much too crowded and will be hard to spot the interesting bits. So what I thought I’d try was to focus on the counties with the most voters, and to see who did the best in them. I put everything in a spreadsheet, and sorted by total number of voters for each county. I settled on the top thirty to report on, which gave me a good geographic spread and included some big counties that don’t have many Democrats and some smaller counties where nearly everyone voted Democratic. From there, I pulled out the five top performers in each county, to see what story that could tell me.

Rather than try to present that in some form of table here, which would have taken a lot of tedious text formatting on my part, I just put the result into its own spreadsheet, which you can see here. For each of these counties, I reported the top five candidates and gave their vote totals and vote percentage. The top five performers change from one county to the next, so the five selected are listed above each county’s numbers. I think it makes sense, but have a look and let me know if it’s confusing. I’m now going to summarize what I found from this exercise.

MJ Hegar finished first 15 times and second seven times. Only in Webb and Maverick counties did she not finish in the top five. She was especially strong in the Central Texas area as expected, but also finished first in places like Harris, Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. To me, her performance versus everyone else’s is the difference between having a campaign that has sufficient funding to actually do advertising and other voter outreach, and not having it.

Sen. Royce West

Royce West finished first five times and second four times. He finished outside the top five ten times, including in such large counties as Bexar and El Paso. He won big in Dallas and won Tarrant, but he trailed Hegar in Collin and Denton and finished fifth in Travis. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure what his path to winning the runoff is.

Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez had five firsts (Bexar, El Paso, Cameron, Nueces, Brazos) and five seconds (Travis, Webb, Guadalupe, Maverick, Bastrop), but finished outside the top five ten times, including in places like Harris and Hidalgo where you’d think she’d have done better. She finished behind Sema Hernandez at least nine times, and behind Annie Garcia at least ten times. (I say “at least” because there were a few instances in which neither was in the top five, and I didn’t go back to see where they fell.) I thought Tzintzún Ramirez had the potential to be a force, and I still hope she runs for something in the future, but someone who can’t consistently top no-money, no-organization candidates like those two is not exactly encouraging. Tzintzún Ramirez was the Bernie candidate, and you have to ask what good that did her. Actually, if you’re a Bernie person, you really should ask why it is that the larger Bernie movement didn’t provide any noticeable fundraising support for her, and clearly didn’t give her much of a boost in the polls. If you want to see candidates like that actually win races, you really ought to think about those questions. She has endorsed Royce West in the runoff, but I’m not sure how much that will matter.

Did I mention that Annie Garcia, a candidate who had raised less than $22K as of February 12, finished fourth in this race, ahead of people who had run and won elections before like Chris Bell and Amanda Edwards? I have to think that being called “Annie ‘Mama’ Garcia” on the ballot probably helped her in places where people didn’t know that much about the slate. It also makes me wonder why she got to be “Mama” but Carole Keeton Strayhorn didn’t get to be “Grandma”. What exactly are the rules for that, anyway? Be that as it may, Garcia won Webb, Lubbock, and Maverick counties, while finishing second in El Paso, Williamson, Cameron, Hays, and Nueces. She finished in the money in 22 of the 30 counties, more than either West or Tzintzún Ramirez. If you had bet me that a month ago, you would have won my money.

Sema Hernandez won Hidalgo County and Chris Bell won Brazoria, so there are all your first place winners. Hernandez, for those few people who insisted her showing in 2018 made her a legitimate candidate this time around despite raising even less money than Garcia and failing to file any finance reports until Q3 this year, shows up in 18 of these 30 counties, but was mostly shut out of the top ten, finishing fifth in Harris, fifth in Bexar, and fourth in El Paso, failing to break ten percent in any of them. She did finish second in Brazoria County, while Bell was runnerup in Harris, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Lubbock. Amanda Edwards (Montgomery, Bell, Comal) and Michael Cooper (Jefferson) also had second place finishes. Edwards had ten third-place finishes, three fourths, and four fifths, while Cooper also finished fourth in Webb and Maverick, and fifth in Smith.

So that’s six candidates with at least one first place finish, and eight with at least one first or second place finish. Believe it or not, the other four candidates – go ahead, name them right now, I double dog dare you – also had at least one top five finish:

Victor Harris – Hidalgo County, third
Adrian Ocegueda – Cameron County, fifth
D.R. Hunter – Nueces County, fifth
Jack Daniel Foster – Maverick County, fifth

Let’s just say we’ll probably never have an election quite like this one again. I’ll have more of this analysis/trivia for you in the coming days. I’m still waiting for a canvass from Harris County.

Shepherd ISD update

They’re the other district being taken over by the TEA due to failing performance.

Four days after a court order temporarily stopped Texas from taking over Shepherd Independent School District, elected school board members voted to effectively cede their control over the four-school East Texas district. They also fired the lawyers who got the takeover halted without a directive from the full school board.

With Friday’s school board vote, Texas education officials are poised to appoint their own board of managers to oversee hiring, budgeting and operations in Shepherd ISD, a result of the long-standing academic failure at two of its schools. It would be Texas’ first state takeover as a result of a 2015 law requiring harsh penalties for districts that fail to improve long-struggling schools.

“I’m opposed in principle to this,” said Mike Courvelle, the loudest school board voice in disagreement with the decision. “Once the state comes in…we’re granting them total control.”

The Third Court of Appeals in Austin, which issued an order Monday that temporarily blocked the takeover, must still give the state permission before it can appoint a new board. Almost all the discussion Friday on the school board’s votes happened behind closed doors in executive session.

Courvelle did get one win Friday: He and his colleagues unanimously tapped internal candidate Dianne Holbrook to serve as the district’s new superintendent, refusing the option chosen by the state. They did so knowing the state would likely overturn that decision.

“We know her. She’s here. We trust her,” Courvelle said. “We expect it to be a short-lived decision anyway.”

Jeff Cottrill, the Texas Education Agency’s representative in Shepherd, agreed with the latter part of Courvelle’s statement. “We look forward to the Third Court of Appeals bringing resolution to this litigation so the state-appointed superintendent Dr. Jason Hewitt as well as the board of managers can begin serving and uniting this community around improving student outcomes,” he told The Texas Tribune after the vote.

See here for the background. The stopped-and-to-be-restarted takeover situation is somewhat of a comedy of errors, stemming from miscommunication between the Shepherd board and the attorneys representing them. That’s not very interesting to me, and I expect that by mid-week or so the initial court order will be lifted. Of greater interest to me is this:

Shepherd’s takeover is due to a 2015 state law intended to hold school districts more accountable for improving their schools, instead of allowing them to languish in a state of low academic performance for years. If one school fails for five or more years, Texas is required to either shut down the school or take over the entire school district.

The same year the law was passed, Shepherd ISD’s primary and intermediate schools, which serve about half the district’s students, received their first failing grades.

Those schools would fail for four more consecutive years: a cohort of students attending elementary schools where less than a quarter of them can read on grade level.

When Ronnie Seagroves took over as principal of Shepherd Intermediate School last year, it had already been considered a failing school for years, not just for its poor academics but also lack of student discipline. Principals came and went, without providing vision or direction for the school and its students, he said.

Seagroves is working hard to turn that around by encouraging collaboration among teachers, providing more individualized instruction for students, and greeting students each day at the school’s entrance. But that same cohort of students who spent each year in a low-performing elementary school is now attending the middle school, which has received failing grades for the last two years.

So how likely do you think the TEA will be to reverse this trend? I suppose the preliminary question to that is, what caused this problem in the first place? Was Shepherd a more-or-less OK school system that suddenly took a nosedive? Was it that when a different (maybe more precise, maybe more random) measuring system was put into place, problems that had been there all along were suddenly exposed? Is there some other potential cause that may not be so readily identifiable? I’m skeptical that the TEA can and will do any better, but if they can at least identify the problem here, then maybe that can help other districts in the future. Whatever happens, I hope it’s done in a transparent manner, so we can learn from it one way or the other.

The Houston healthcare community is preparing for COVID-19

I sure hope it’s enough.

With last week’s new certainty that the novel coronavirus is loose and being transmitted in Houston, the region’s medical providers are bracing for the current handful of known cases to blaze into an outbreak like nothing in modern memory.

“We had been saying, ‘It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,’” said Umair Shah, executive director of Harris County Public Health. “That’s not the case anymore. It’s now.”

By shutting down events and closing schools, officials aim to “flatten the curve” — to stop too many people from getting sick at the same time and overwhelming the region’s hospitals and medical providers.

Much about the highly contagious new virus remains unknown, and projections of its future behavior vary wildly.

Based on scenarios from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the New York Times estimated that anywhere from 2.4 million to 21 million people in the United States could require hospitalization, “potentially crushing the nation’s medical system, which has only about 925,000 staffed hospital beds.”

For most people, the virus is expected to be mild. But up to 20 percent of cases — mostly people over 60 or with underlying medical conditions — may require hospitalization.

If everyone gets sick more or less at once, area hospitals almost certainly would not have enough rooms, critical care or ventilators. In Italy, where officials waited to control the outbreak, an extraordinary surge of cases has left the medical system on the verge of collapse.

Based on Harris County estimates, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said recently that if 30 percent of Harris County residents were to become sick at the same time and 20 percent of those people needed hospital care, medical infrastructure would be overloaded.

“We simply do not have enough hospital capacity to assume all of those people,” Hidalgo said. “We can’t afford to have a sudden spike in cases.”

Even the best case — a slowed outbreak that continues for months — is almost certain to pose significant challenges to the area’s hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices.

[…]

The virus poses particular threats to hospital personnel, who will be working long hours under stressful conditions — and facing coronavirus-related personal problems such as a lack of child care due to school closures. In the worst scenario, seen in China, medical personnel become ill themselves, and their colleagues have to take care of them.

Testifying before Congress earlier this month, Dr. Peter Hotez, a Baylor College of Medicine vaccine researcher and infectious disease specialist, urged that special attention be paid to hospital workers.

“If health care professionals are out of work because they’re sick, or if they’re being taken care of by other health care professionals in ICUs, that’s a disaster,” he said.

And just this weekend, two ER doctors, one in New Jersey and one in Kirkland, Washington, have tested positive for coronavirus. Even with the best preventative measures, this thing is going to spread. All we can do – all that we must do – is take every action we can to try to limit how quickly it spreads. That’s our best hope.

Does getting to 40% make you likely to win the runoff?

Anna Eastman

I was talking with some fellow political nerds last week, and one of the topics was the forthcoming runoffs. As is usually the case, this year we have some runoffs between candidates who finished fairly close together in round one, and some in which one candidate has a clear lead based on the initial election. The consensus we had was that candidates in the latter category, especially those who topped 40% on Super Tuesday, are basically locks to win in May. The only counter-example we could think of off the tops of our heads was Borris Miles beating Al Edwards, who had been at 48%, in the 2006 runoff for HD146.

So, later on I spent a few minutes on the Secretary of State election archive pages, looking through past Democratic primary results and tracking those where the leader had more than forty percent to see who went on to win in the runoff. Here’s what I found:

2018

Winners – CD03, CD10, CD23, CD31, Governor, SD17,
Losers – CD27, HD37, HD45, HD64, HD109*, HD133*

2016

Winners – CD15, HD27
Losers – SBOE6

2014

Winners – Senate, SBOE13
Losers – HD105

2012
Winners – CD34, HD95, HD137
Losers – CD23*, SBOE2

2010
Winners – CD10, HD76*

2008
Winners – CD32, RRC

2006
Winners – Senate, Lt Gov, HD42, HD47*
Losers – HD146

In each of the cited races, the leading candidate had at least 40% of the primary vote. Races that have asterisks indicate that the runnerup also had at least 40%. As you can see, up until 2018, having forty percent or more in the primary was indeed a pretty good indicator of success in overtime. The last cycle provided quite a few counterexamples, however, including one incumbent (Rene Oliveira, who had been busted for a DWI earlier) who went down. So maybe 40% isn’t such a magical number, or maybe it’s harder now than it was before 2012. Or maybe this is just a really small sample and we should be careful about drawing broad conclusions from it.

Fortunately, we have quite a few races this year to add to this sample:

CD03 – Lulu Seikaly 44.5%, Sean McCaffity 43.8%
CD10 – Mike Siegel 44.0%, Pritesh Gandhi 33.1%
CD13 – Gus Trujillo 42.2%, Greg Sagan 34.7%
CD17 – Rick Kennedy 47.9%, David Jaramillo 35.0%
CD24 – Kim Olson 40.9%, Candace Valenzuela 30.4%
SBOE6 – Michelle Palmer 46.8%, Kimberly McLeod 34.6%
SD19 – Xochil Pena Rodriguez 43.7%, Roland Gutierrez 37.3%
SD27 – Eddie Lucio 49.8%, Sara Stapleton-Barrera 35.6%
HD119 – Liz Campos 46.1%, Jennifer Ramos 43.7%
HD138 – Akilah Bacy 46.7, Jenifer Pool 29.3%
HD142 – Harold Dutton 45.2%, Jerry Davis 25.3%
HD148 – Anna Eastman 41.6%, Penny Shaw 22.1%
138th District Court – Gabby Garcia 48.0%, Helen Delgadillo 31.0%
164th District Court – Cheryl Elliott Thornton 41.3%, Alexandra Smoots-Thomas 33.1%

I’ll be sure to do an update in May, when we can see if the leading candidates mostly held serve or not. Place your bets.