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Parents sue Katy ISD over its mask mandate

Someday, these dumb stories will stop happening. Others will replace them, to be sure, but this type of dumb story will eventually fade away.

A group of parents are suing the Katy Independent School District, calling its continued requirement for masks in schools unconstitutional and a violation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order from last month that lifted the statewide mask mandate, among other COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a Houston attorney for parents Bonnie Anderson, Jenny Alexander, Doug Alexander, Heather Calhoun and Stephen Calhoun, takes issue with the district’s current safety protocols for in-person schooling, specifically its requirement that students wear masks in hallways, buses, and other common areas.

When Abbott announced his executive order, he did not address the ways rescinding the mask mandate affected public schools. In a later interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Abbott said he expected the Texas Education Agency to leave the decision to require masks up to local school boards.

The agency’s updated mask policy has allowed “local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy,” according to its website. In public planning guidance, the agency also recommends the use of masks.

Under Katy ISD’s policies, students who don’t comply with the mask policy will be moved to online school and aren’t allowed to participate in other student activities. Those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask must notify the school nurse and have documentation from their medical provider, according to the policy.

The lawsuit also argues under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Brown v. Board of Education that forcing students to switch to virtual school is a form of “separate but equal” discrimination.

The Supreme Court case’s ruling focused on segregation between Black and white students in public schools and discrimination on the basis of race.

[…]

Katy ISD responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it is complying with the agency’s public planning recommendations.

“Katy ISD continues to follow the Governor’s Executive Order GA-34 and comply with the Texas Education Agency’s Public Health Planning Guidance,” said the statement, obtained by Fox 26 Houston.

If you guessed that only Jared Woodfill would be dumb and obnoxious enough to cite Brown v Board of Education as a precedent for this silly lawsuit, congratulations. You don’t win a prize but you do get to live with the knowledge that you are familiar enough with Jared Woodfill to recognize his handiwork. It sure seems to me like this lawsuit is unlikely to win, but the part of my brain that tries to make sense of the world around me is convinced there must be some merit to this, however hard it may be to find. I don’t think my analysis can get any deeper than that, so let’s wrap this up. The Chron has more.

Sery Kim

Poor baby.

A Texas congressional candidate on Monday sued The Texas Tribune for defamation, claiming that the newspaper wrongly identified her as a “racist.”

In an article, Texas Tribune political reporter Patrick Svitek reported on comments made by Sery Kim, a Korean American who is on the ballot for Texas’s 6th Congressional District, during a GOP forum March 31. Responding to a question about U.S. immigration, Kim reportedly said, “I don’t want them here at all.” According to the Tribune, she was referring to Chinese immigrants.

“They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don’t hold themselves accountable,” she continued, according to the Tribune.

“And quite frankly, I can say that because I’m Korean,” she reportedly added.

The Tribune article in question ran with the headline, “GOP congressional candidate in Texas special election loses prominent supporters after racist comment about Chinese immigrants.”

Following these comments, two of Kim’s largest backers, California Reps. Young Kim (R) and Michelle Steel (R) — the first two Korean American Republicans to serve in Congress — pulled their endorsements for her.

In the lawsuit, Kim claimed that the Tribune “rendered judgment on what is the standard for a racist comment” by using the quote from Kim, “I don’t want them here at all,” later adding that “The Texas Tribune’s direct quote from Sery Kim does not have any words relating to China, Chinese, Chinese immigrants or any nouns or pronouns or even adjectives other than ‘them.’ ”

According to the lawsuit, the paper acted with actual malice by writing “outside of the direct quote made by Sery Kim,” the phrase Chinese immigrants “to paint Sery Kim as a racist.”

The lawsuit adds that “at no point” during the forum “did Sery Kim, in direct quotes, say she didn’t want Chinese immigrants here at all.”

I didn’t write about the original story because “Republican candidate says something stupid and offensive” is hardly noteworthy. This is next level, so I have to give her some props. My vast experience in reading and watching legal dramas makes me fully qualified to say that this will be laughed out of court, and if a bunch of Twitter commenters are correct, could subject her to court costs due to Texas’ anti-SLAPP law. I will say this much: If the goal was to stand out in an extremely crowded special election field, she has accomplished that.

Leave me out of the ballgame

What a snowflake.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday announced he would not throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Texas Rangers’ home opening game and would boycott any other Major League Baseball events, citing the league’s decision to pull its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to new voting restrictions there.

In a letter to a top Texas Rangers executive, Abbott said he had been “looking forward to” tossing out the first pitch “— until [MLB] adopted what has turned out to be a false narrative about the election law reforms in Georgia.”

“It is shameful that America’s pastime is not only being influenced by partisan political politics, but also perpetuating false political narratives,” Abbott said, adding that he “will not participate in an event held by MLB, and the state will not seek to host the All-Star Game or any other MLB special events.”

Oh, boo hoo hoo. If Greg Abbott can’t take a little political criticism then we’re all better off if he just stays home and pouts. Maybe he just doesn’t want to take a chance on getting booed, like a certain former president at the 2019 World Series. Whatever the case, there’s one clear winner here:

As the first commenter notes, this teacher gets to throw out the first pitch and avoid a photo of with Abbott. Now that’s a day at the ballpark.

Why North Texas?

The Trib reprints a WaPo story about a cluster of Capitol insurrectionists in the Dallas suburbs, and it’s something.

Hope for Trump’s return is fervent in Frisco and across the northern Dallas suburbs, an area of rapid growth and rapidly increasing diversity. Nineteen local residents have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, according to federal authorities, one of the largest numbers in any place in the country.

Many of the rioters came from the “mainstream of society,” according to the FBI’s Dallas field office, including three real estate agents, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, an oilman and an actor who once appeared on the popular television show “Friday Night Lights.” They were driven by a “salad bowl of grievances,” the FBI said, including anger over the presidential election, white-supremacist ideology and the discredited extremist ideology QAnon, which holds that Trump will save the world from a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.

Their groundless claims are being fed by conservative politicians and from the pulpits of large, powerful evangelical churches with teachings that verge on white nationalism, both motivated by fear that they are losing a largely white, conservative enclave that views these changes with suspicion.

More arrests are coming, and North Texas remains a focus for investigators who expect to charge as many as 400 people from across the country in the attack on the Capitol.

[…]

Over the past two decades, Collin County, north of Dallas, more than doubled its population to 1 million, according to census data, with newcomers drawn by the mild weather, good schools, low taxes and the arrival of several big employers and new corporate headquarters, including Toyota, Liberty Mutual and the Dallas Cowboys. The rapid expansion created an air of Disney World built on the clay soil of the Texas plains, one Frisco consultant noted, where everything is new and planned. The median household income is $97,000, well above the U.S. median of $69,000.

But this utopia on the Dallas North Tollway has its fissures, which have deepened in the last year, with debate over pandemic restrictions, the country’s racial reckoning and the divisive 2020 presidential election that pitted neighbor against neighbor and continues to divide. Unlike many other suburban counties in the country that helped sway the election for Biden, Collin County stayed red, with 51% voting for Trump and 46% for Biden.

The county’s rapid growth has increased its diversity — with the Latino and Asian American populations growing, and the white population in decline — causing tensions, some residents say. In 2017, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere was challenged by an opponent who promised to “keep Plano suburban,” which LaRosiliere, who is Black, said was a “dog whistle” for residents wanting to keep the town white and affluent. LaRosiliere won the four-way nonpartisan race with 52% of the votes, but his “keep Plano suburban” opponent won 42%. This year, Plano City Coucil member Shelby Williams came under fire when he said in a post-riot blog post that “things could be much worse . . . People in many parts of the Muslim world are still slaughtering one another today.”

Frisco Realtor Hava Johnston said some residents feel the area has become “too diverse.”

“They created this perfect little bubble of the way they wanted things … now we’ve got true diversity, and those Christian nationalists are afraid of losing their power,” said Johnston, a Democratic activist and one of the internet sleuths who helped unmask local residents who participated in the Capitol riots. “These are the very people who would do things like have Trump parades every weekend and take a private jet to a riot.”

There’s a lot here, and I’ll get to one specific criticism in a moment, but I personally object to the “Collin County stayed red” line, not because it’s untrue but because it really misstate what has happened in Collin County this past decade. I mean:

2012 – Romney 65.0%, Obama 33.5%
2016 – Trump 55.6%, Clinton 38.9%
2020 – Trump 51.4%, Biden 47.0%

You can say “Collin County stayed red”, as if it were some act of defiance against the prevailing political winds, but come on. Collin County shifted a net 27 points in the Democrats’ direction, at least at the Presidential level, since 2012. That’s a seismic change, and very much in line with what was happening nationally. Collin County didn’t quite make it to blue county status in 2020, but boy howdy has it come a long way.

D Magazine had other complaints, starting with the charge that non-Texan authors who parachute in for this kind of analysis often fail to understand what’s actually happening and miss details that make locals scratch their heads. I have some sympathy with this, though I do think there’s some value in getting an outside perspective sometimes. Honestly, my main beef with this article was more along the lines of “oh God, are we still doing entire stories on the feelings of Trump voters? Make it stop already.” I guess the question of why there were so many insurrectionists from this part of the world is an interesting one, but please give me many more articles about the newly activated and energized Democrats of Collin County to balance it out, thanks. In the meantime, please feel free to blow a raspberry at that blonde realtor from Frisco who may well be the poster child for this whole story.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

Is Beto running for Governor or not?

Nothing has changed. Please back away from any ledges you may be approaching.

Beto O’Rourke

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has not ruled out a run for governor after all.

Earlier Friday, The Dallas Morning News published remarks O’Rourke made on an upcoming morning program that roused the Texas political class and suggested he no longer was interested in running for governor.

“I’ve got no plans to run, and I’m very focused on the things that I’m lucky enough to do right now — organizing, registering voters and teaching,” O’Rourke said on NBC DFW’s “Lone Star Politics,” which will air Sunday. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing now.”

The O’Rourke camp then quickly reached out to The Texas Tribune to clarify his sentiment.

“What I said today is what I’ve been saying for months: I’m not currently considering a run for office,” he said in a statement. “I’m focused on what I’m doing now (teaching and organizing.) Nothing’s changed and nothing I said would preclude me from considering a run in the future.”

The El Paso Democrat flirted with a run earlier this year when he said in an interview that running against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott was “something I’m going to think about.” Last month, he stoked more rumors of his interest in the seat when he reemerged as an organizing force amid the Texas winter storm.

[…]

O’Rourke suggested suggested Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins as other potential gubernatorial candidates in the television interview. Former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro is another oft-mentioned potential contender, and Austin-based actor Matthew McConaughey is also publicly mulling a run.

“My plan right now is to run for reelection,” Hidalgo told Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith on his “Point of Order” podcast last month. Asked if she would rule out running for something else in 2022, she said, “I wouldn’t say it’s something that I’m actively pursuing right now.”

I first heard about this little kerfuffle on Friday afternoon when I saw this tweet:

I admit my first thought was “ah, crap, now who do we need to pin some hopes on?” I belong to a Facebook group called “Beto O’Rourke for Governor of Texas” (*) and cruised over there to see what the freakout looked like, but didn’t see any postings related to this. Maybe the news hadn’t crossed from one social network to the other yet, I thought, or maybe everyone was just in denial. And not too long later I saw the updated Trib story, and realized that it was all a nothingburger. We are exactly where we were on Friday morning, when Beto was sort of acting like someone who might be a candidate but hadn’t said anything committal one way or the other. So for those of you who might have seen the initial news but not the later update, here you go. You may now resume your previous feelings about this subject.

(*) I remain on Team Julián, but will be perfectly happy with Beto. If there is a “Julián Castro for Governor of Texas” Facebook group, I have not been invited to join it yet.

Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

If that’s the Legislature’s goal, then this would be an effective way of accomplishing it.

A Texas Senate committee [heard] public comment Thursday on a controversial proposal to consolidate the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts into just seven, a move opponents have criticized as gerrymandering but that supporters say will make the courts more efficient and cure knotty court splits.

A committee substitute to S.B. 11 proposes dramatic changes to the organization of the state’s appellate districts: It would combine Houston’s two appellate courts, merge the Dallas and Austin districts together, lasso Waco and Eastland into a division with Texarkana and Fort Worth, and move two San Antonio justices to Midland in a district that would span roughly 500 miles — from Kendall County just southwest of Austin to the state’s western edge and include El Paso — among other changes.

The state’s current number and location of appellate courts largely reflects the state’s demographics, economy and travel conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Scott Brister wrote in a 2003 Houston Bar Association article.

Brister, who formerly served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and chief justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, told Law360 the districts need to be updated and consolidated.

“I just think 14 is too many,” he said. “They’re not located where all the people and the cases are.”

Yet opponents of the consolidation plan say it is blatant gerrymandering, and the worst instance of it they’ve seen in the Texas judiciary.

Elsa Alcala, a former justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, took to Twitter to call out the plan, writing “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with electing Republicans to the bench.”

Since the 2018 general election, a wave of Democratic justices have ousted Republican from Texas appellate benches in record numbers, largely concentrated in urban population centers.

Alcala told Law360 that in the past the Legislature has changed jurisdictions one county at a time, but lawmakers have never proposed completely eradicating certain appellate courts like the proposed committee substitute bill does.

“This is the most significant and blatant change I’ve ever seen,” she said.

S.B. 11 originally called for a realignment of five counties that are currently under the jurisdiction of two appellate courts outside of the Houston district to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction between multiple courts.

Details for the new bill were leaked and spread on social media Tuesday, but the bill’s text [hadn’t] yet been made public. Law360 has reviewed a map detailing the new appellate districts as well as a bill summary and a table explaining how the 80 Texas justices would be distributed among the new districts.

According to the bill summary, consolidating the appellate districts would balance a “highly unbalanced” workload across the courts, an issue the Texas judiciary has dealt with for years through a docket equalization program that transfers cases when needed. The summary cites workload data showing that, between 2015 and 2019, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso received an average of 79 appeals per justice compared to 158 appeals per justice in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

[…]

During her time on the First Court of Appeals, which has nine justices, Alcala said she would frequently review opinions handed down by her colleagues to make sure she didn’t have any qualms about their rulings. But on a court with 21 justices, it would be impossible to review all those decisions, she said.

Lawyers are also concerned that larger benches could cause issues at the ballot box.

Alcala said there’s already an issue with the public being able to make informed choices during elections about the various judges on the ballot. Expanding the court’s jurisdictions would mean more judges for the public to inform themselves about before voting.

Brister acknowledged that under the committee’s substitute, voting would look different. He would be concerned if he were a judge in Texarkana on the state’s eastern border with Arkansas, for example, because under the new district alignment, there’s a good chance voters from the more populous Fort Worth would control outcomes in the district and knock some small-town judges off the bench.

Christopher Kratovil, managing partner of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Dallas office, told Law360 he can see both sides of the consolidation argument but believes the committee’s substitute isn’t the proper way to redistrict the state.

“I do think there are some good-faith efficiency arguments for reducing the number of intermediate appellate courts in the state,” he said. “That said, this is not based on efficiency. If we’re being honest about this, it is a partisan gerrymandered map to return control of the majority of the state intermediate appellate courts to the Republican party.”

Other attorneys, like solo appellate practitioner Chad Ruback, are upset that information about the committee substitute bill hasn’t been released ahead of Thursday’s public hearing. The original version of S.B. 11 is currently attached to agenda materials for the meeting.

“That doesn’t give the appellate judiciary — or appellate lawyers who regularly practice in front of them — much time to analyze the potential ramifications of the proposed changes in advance of the hearing,” he said. “That looks awfully suspicious.”

See here for the background. Not being transparent about the process or giving anyone the time to review the bill in question is on brand for the Republicans. To give you a sense of what this looks like, here’s a picture from the story:

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

Maybe the new Fifth Circuit, with Dallas and Travis Counties, or the Third, with Bexar County and South Texas, would lean Democratic. I’d have to do a more in depth analysis. Katie Buehler, the reporter of the story linked above, attended the hearing and reported that Sen. Nathan Johnson said it would be a 5-2 split. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that someone with strong Republican credentials has already done such an analysis, and these districts are drawn in a maximally beneficial way for Republicans. What would even be the point from their perspective if that wasn’t the case?

You’ve read many bloviations from me over the years about why calls to change the way we select judges from the current system of partisan elections to something else were mostly a smokescreen to disguise complaints about the fact that Democrats were now winning many of those elections. It has never escaped my notice that we only began seeing those calls for change after the 2008 election, when Dems broke through in Harris County, and it moved to DefCon 1 following the 2018 election. If nothing else, I thank Sen. Joan Huffman for putting the lie to the idea that the motivating factor behind those calls for change was a fairer or more equitable or more merit-based system for picking judges, or that “taking politics out of the system” had anything to do with it. No, it is exactly what I thought it was from the beginning, a means to ensure that as many judges are Republican as possible. There may well be legitimate merits to rethinking the appellate court system in Texas – I’m not an appellate lawyer, I have no idea – but it’s crystal clear that this ain’t it. This is a full employment program for Republicans who want to be judges. That’s what we’ll get if this bill passes.

Which it has now done from the Senate committee, on a partisan 3-2 vote. For a report from the committee hearing, where multiple appellate court justices from both parties testified against SB11, see Law360 and The Texas Lawbook. This is easily the biggest redistricting matter going on right now it’s getting very little attention so far. (The DMN has a story, but it’s subscriber-only, which limits the impact.) Let’s not let this slip through without being noticed.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story as well, and it contains this knee-slapper:

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also an attorney, asked Huffman if she took partisanship into consideration when making the maps.

“Some people think this is going to result in five Republican courts and two Democratic courts,” Johnson said. “Do you think that would accurately represent the partisan breakdown of this state?”

Huffman said she did not consider political makeup in drawing the maps and didn’t know how her plan might alter that.

Yeah, that’s obvious bullshit. Anyone with a list of counties per appellate district and access to recent state election results could tell you in five minutes what the likely orientation of each district would look like. Joan Huffman isn’t stupid, but if that’s what she claims then she thinks the rest of us are.

One more thing:

Another bill introduced by Huffman would create a statewide Court of Appeals that would have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases of statewide significance filed by or against state agencies or officials. The justices on the court, seated in Austin, would be elected on a statewide ballot. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

That bill was met with similar opposition and accusations of partisan motivation. It, too, was referred to the full Senate on a 3-2 party line vote.

This appears to be SB1529, and I heard about it yesterday for the first time. I have no idea what problem (real, imagined, or political) this is intended to solve. Any thoughts from the lawyers out there?

MLB pulls 2021 All Star Game out of Georgia

Well, well, well.

Major League Baseball on Friday pulled this year’s All-Star Game out of Atlanta in protest of Georgia’s new restrictive voting law.

The “Midsummer Classic” was set for July 13 at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, in addition to other activities connected to the game, such as the annual MLB Draft.

“I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB Draft,” Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. said in a statement. “Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box.”

[…]

While Truist Park is in Cobb County, just outside of Atlanta, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms warned her constituents that MLB’s move will likely be the first “of many dominoes to fall, until the unnecessary barriers put in place to restrict access to the ballot box are removed.”

“Just as elections have consequences, so do the actions of those who are elected,” she said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from neighboring Florida, blasted MLB for caving to public pressure.

“Why are we still listening to these woke corporate hypocrites on taxes regulations & anti-trust?” Rubio tweeted.

This week, President Joe Biden said he would strongly support moving the All-Star Game out of Georgia to protest the new law.

MLB’s action follows strong statements from the Georgia-based companies Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines blasting the state’s law.

Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House of Representatives minority leader, said in a statement Friday that she’s “disappointed” that MLB officials took the All-Star Game from Atlanta but is “proud of their stance on voting rights.”

Georgia Republicans “traded economic opportunity for suppression,” said Abrams, who is credited with voter-drive efforts that delivered the Peach State to Biden and two Democrats to the U.S. Senate.

MLB has not determined a new All Star Game location yet, but as the story notes the 2020 game was supposed to be in LA but was canceled due to COVID-19. That’s an obvious solution if they want it. You can see a copy of the full MLB statement here. They’re basically following in the footsteps of the NBA, which you may recall pulled their 2017 All Star Game out of Charlotte following the passage of the extremely anti-trans HB2 in North Carolina; that law was later amended, though not repealed. Stacey Abrams has said elsewhere that she does not advocate for boycotts of Georgia in response to their voter suppression bill because the effects of such boycotts tend to hit lower income folks and people of color harder, but it’s still meaningful to see a response.

Meanwhile, in Texas.

Some of the state’s most influential companies are criticizing a package of proposed changes to Texas elections that civil rights groups liken to Jim Crow laws and that will suppress voting.

The bill approved by the Texas Senate on Thursday would limit early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and ban local election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications to voters unless specifically requested. A bill that combines the Senate and House versions is expected to reach Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk within weeks.

Among the Texas-based companies decrying the bill are American Airlines, computer-maker Dell and Waste Management.

The Houston-based waste disposal company said in a statement that it supports elections that are open to all voters.

“Integrity and equal access for all are critical to a healthy voting system and our democracy,” spokeswoman Janette Micelli said.

The Greater Houston Partnership, the Houston region’s chamber of commerce, said in an email that it believes that the state’s voting process should instill confidence in the process and be “open and readily accessible by all.”

“We encourage our elected leaders, on both sides of the political aisle, to balance these two ideals, strengthening all Texans’ right to vote in free and fair elections,” the GHP said.

AA and Dell we knew about, while Waste Management is new to the party – welcome, y’all. As for the GHP, that statement is pretty damn limp, and SB7 author Bryan Hughes is quoted in the story claiming this is exactly what his trash bill is meant to do. Don’t be mealy-mouthed, GHP. Take an actual stand or sit down and be quiet. Daily Kos, which notes that Southwest Airlines and AT&T have “offered vaguer statements in support of voting rights” without mentioning SB7, has more.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

Space City Safe

I wholeheartedly endorse this.

A new crowdsourced website that allows Houstonians to vet a business or restaurant to see if they are following COVID-19 guidelines has exploded with responses.

The website, Space City Safe, is the brainchild of 25-year-old Heights resident Chris Haseler. Haseler, who works as an engineer, created the website the weekend after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and opened Texas back up 100%.

“I think a lot of Houston was caught off guard by the governor’s announcement,” Haseler said. “A lot of people don’t feel safe quite yet.”

Haseler’s website allows users to input information about a Houston business or restaurant, including if they are requiring masks, social distancing and their capacity level. It also lets users leave comments about their experiences, link to where they got their information (such as a restaurant’s Instagram page), and make corrections.

“One of the integral parts of the website is being able to specify the information source, it sort of adds a level of accuracy,” Haseler said. “So you’ll notice for a lot of the website, it’s the business owner themselves who have put up their COVID restrictions.”

The site has grown to house just over 600 businesses. The boom in responses is not something Haseler expected – he created the website as a challenge for himself, “just for fun to learn about something new.”

“I certainly was not expecting this to take off at all,” Haseler said. “The fact that it has garnered so much attention and so many users has been a surprise and a lot of fun to deal with.”

Hey, if it’s up to businesses to decide how they want to handle it, then it’s up to the rest of us to decide what kind of response from businesses we want to support. I’d much rather know this ahead of time. The one piece of data on the site that I’d have included is whether there’s an outdoor option, but this is fine. I applaud the effort. If you don’t see your favorite place there, you can send its info to Space City Safe yourself. At some point we’ll need websites like this less, but we’re not at that point just yet. In the meantime, keep yourself informed so you can keep yourself safe.

First major vote suppression bill passes

Nothing’s going to stop them.

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans’ crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year’s election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state’s urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state’s strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation “standardizes and clarifies” voting rules so that “every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state.”

“Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open,” Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of “election integrity” has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

[…]

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County’s election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

“Knowing that, who are you really targeting?” Alvarado asked.

“There’s nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board,” Hughes replied.

See here for the previous update. Note the very careful language Hughes used in his response to Sen. Alvarado. The Republican defense to the eventual lawsuits is that these laws aren’t targeting voters of color in any way. They’re just plain old value-neutral applies-to-everyone restrictions, the kind that (Republican) Supreme Court Justices approve of, and if they happen to have a disparate impact on some voters of color, well, that’s just the price you have to pay to make Republicans feel more secure about their future electoral prospects ensure the integrity of the vote.

It’s the poll watchers provision that is easily the worst of this bill.

Although videotaping in polling locations in Texas is prohibited, under a bill that passed the Texas Senate just after 2 a.m. on Thursday, partisan poll watchers would be allowed to videotape any person voting that they suspect may be doing something unlawful. But poll workers and voters would be barred from recording the poll watchers.

History has shown this is likely going to lead to more Black and Hispanic people being recorded by white poll watchers who believe they are witnessing something suspicious, advocates warn.

“It’s designed to go after minority voters,” said Gary Bledsoe, the president of the Texas NAACP.

Not so, says State Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Republican from Mineola. He said the recordings by poll watchers will give officials a way to resolve disputes at polling locations especially related to potential voter fraud.

“They are the eyes and ears of the public, and if a dispute does arise about what happened, what was said, what was done, the more evidence we can have the better,” Hughes said of the provision within his Senate Bill 7, which includes a number of measures to restrict voting access in the name of preventing fraud.

But to Black and Hispanic leaders, the legislation is a replay of the voter intimidation from the 1960s and 1970s. After the voting rights acts of the 1960s were passed, Domingo Garcia, the national president of LULAC, said law enforcement in some counties in Texas would take pictures of Hispanics and Black voters at polling places and then try to deliver those pictures to their white employers or others in the community to get them in trouble.

“It was a form of voter intimidation then, and that’s what this would be now,” Garcia said.

What makes SB 7 even more dangerous is who it is empowers to make recordings, Bledsoe said.

Poll watchers are volunteers chosen by candidates and parties to observe the election process. They do not undergo background checks and are not subject to any training requirements.

As such, they could quickly become a sort of vigilante force, Bledsoe said. He said many times Republican poll watchers are sent from other parts of the community into Black and Hispanic precincts and may not even be familiar with the neighborhoods where they would be allowed to record people trying to vote.

“This is intimidating as all get out,” he said.

Shortly after midnight Thursday in a marathon hearing, Hughes amended the bill to bar poll watchers from posting the videos on social media or sharing them with others except for the Texas Secretary of State.

If you can’t see the potential for abuse here, I don’t know what to tell you. Others have pointed out that voters who have been the victim of domestic violence would certainly feel intimidated by having a stranger video them. This is giving unvetted people with a motive to cause trouble a lot of power and no accountability. That’s a recipe for disaster.

There’s not a lot more to say about this that I haven’t already said, so let me reiterate a few things while I can. There’s been more corporate pushback on the Georgia law, but we’re still very short on attention for what’s happening in Texas, not to mention the rest of the country. At this point, merely condemning the suppressionist bills is insufficient. If you actually believe in the importance of voting, then put your money where your mouth is and take action to vote out the officials who are trying to take it away from so many Americans. Senator Hughes is right about one thing – this anti-voting push from him and his fellow Republicans did in fact begin before the 2020 election. All the more reason why the elected officials doing the pushing do not deserve to have the power and responsibility they have been given.

Sen. Borris Miles gave a speech on the floor thanking Sen. Hughes for “waking the beast”, and I do think bills like this will have a galvanizing effect for Democrats and Democratic leaners. As I’ve said before, I think the practical effect of this law will be more negative to the Republican rank and file than perhaps they expect. Democrats took advantage of voting by mail in 2020, but that’s not their usual way of voting, and the restrictions that SB7 imposes, as Campos notes, is going to hurt those who are most used to voting by mail, who are generally Republicans. I believe as much as ever that Democrats should campaign in 2022 on a promise to make it easier and more convenient to vote. This law, to whatever extent it is allowed to be enacted, will hurt, but how much and in what ways remains to be seen. That’s the risk of reacting so forcefully to an anomalous event – it’s easy to go overboard and do things you didn’t really intend to do. We’ll see how it plays out. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: This is a good start.

American Airlines Statement on Texas Voting Legislation

Earlier this morning, the Texas State Senate passed legislation with provisions that limit voting access. To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it. As a Texas-based business, we must stand up for the rights of our team members and customers who call Texas home, and honor the sacrifices made by generations of Americans to protect and expand the right to vote.

Voting is the hallmark of our democracy, and is the foundation of our great country. We value the democratic process and believe every eligible American should be allowed to exercise their right to vote, no matter which political party or candidate they support.

We acknowledge how difficult this is for many who have fought to secure and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Any legislation dealing with how elections are conducted must ensure ballot integrity and security while making it easier to vote, not harder. At American, we believe we should break down barriers to diversity, equity and inclusion in our society – not create them.

Via Patrick Svitek, who also posted the super pissy response it drew from one of Abbott’s mouthpieces and from Dan Patrick. More action is needed, but we have to start somewhere.

UPDATE: Also good:

Via the Trib. Keep ’em coming, but don’t forget the need for action.

The federal hurdle to the I-45 project

I mostly missed this when it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

There are still a lot of students doing remote school

I’m actually a little surprised it’s this much.

Nathan is among 35,127 students in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD and hundreds of thousands of students across Greater Houston whose parents opted to keep at home for the fourth and final grading period of the 2020-21 school year. Many of those students have not been inside a classroom since schools closed last March to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Nearly 250,000 students in 18 districts are learning from home in the final grading period, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of school district attendance data. Twenty-one districts responded to a Chronicle request for data, but only 18 were able to provide specific numbers for each grading period.

About 475,000 students in the 18 districts are back in schools. Among the 21 districts that responded to the Chronicle’s request, an average of about 75 percent of students were learning in person on campuses.

Those numbers vary widely from district to district. Only about 42 percent of Houston ISD students were back on campus by the fourth grading period, for example, while nearly 97 percent of students in Deer Park ISD have returned.

Statewide data from the TEA shows that districts that serve larger shares of Black and Hispanic students had fewer coming back for in-person classes. In districts where 10 percent or less of students were Black or Hispanic, about 80 percent of students returned, but in districts where 90 to 100 percent of students were black, less than half came back for face-to-face instruction.

David DeMatthews, an associate professor of education leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, said multiple studies have shown that Black and Hispanic communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, which often makes families of color more fearful of sending their students back to campuses.

“They’re more likely to know someone who’s gotten the virus, gotten seriously ill from the virus or died from the virus,” he said. “A lot of parents are just concerned that if kids go back to school in those communities, the impact could be very real and immediate for those families.”

Despite the varying attendance rates, one trend was clear among the 21 districts: More parents opted to send their children back for in-person instruction every time they were given the chance. The Texas Education Agency requires districts to give parents that opportunity each grading period.

Maybe if we were three months ago where we are now with vaccinations it would be different. Maybe if Texas had prioritized vaccinating teachers and school staff as part of the first wave it would be different. Who knows? The fact that the in-person attendance has ticked up every grading period suggests a correlation with the vaccine rate, but we can’t say for sure. For what it’s worth, our kids have been back in school since January – in HISD, you have to make a selection every six weeks – and it’s been fine for them. The eighth grader informed us the other day that they can eat in the cafeteria now instead of having to have lunch at their desks – they’re limited to three at a table made for eight, but it’s still an improvement as far as she’s concerned.

I expect that the large majority of kids will be back in the classroom in the fall, but online learning will still be available to those who still want it. Most likely, anyway.

Houston ISD leaders plan to offer online-only classes to families that want them to start the 2021-22 school year — as long as state officials continue to provide funding for children enrolled in virtual instruction.

HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, speaking Wednesday after her annual State of the Schools speech, said district leaders hope to bring as many students as possible back to classrooms by August while also remaining committed to an online-only option.

About 56 percent of HISD’s 197,000 students attended virtual classes as of February, largely due to health and safety concerns amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

While Lathan pushed for choice Wednesday, she also warned that HISD families should expect one big change in 2021-22: educators no longer will be required to teach students in face-to-face and virtual classes at the same time. As a result, families should not expect to retain the same teacher if they switch between formats during the school year.

“Our teachers teaching simultaneously has been extremely difficult this year, and we cannot continue to go on in that manner for the next school year,” Lathan said. “That’s what will look different. The option will be there, but we need to have teachers teaching in one mode.”

As the story notes, this is dependent on the next Superintendent not deciding to change direction, and on the TEA being willing to continue funding schools for online learning at the same rate. I think this may be a mostly moot point if we’re at 70%+ vaccination rate by August, and even more so if kids start getting vaccinated, but we’ll see. I think basically everyone will benefit from getting back to the classroom, but people still have to feel safe about it. Things really would be different if we had prioritized safety from the beginning.

Expanding telemedicine

Seems like a good idea.

Last year, rules temporarily changed in Texas allowing for additional types of doctor appointments to happen virtually.

As the state returns to more normalcy, there are questions about whether that broader use of telemedicine will continue.

Patterson said he hopes so but was recently surprised to find out he couldn’t schedule a virtual appointment with Advanced Pain Care.

“When Gov. Greg Abbott lifted his emergency order in early March, it was widely thought that the Medical Board also rescinded their rule on telemedicine, but it turns out there was a separate rule allowing us to continue with telemedicine,” said Dr. Mark Malone, president of Advanced Pain Care.

Malone explained they stopped telemedicine for about two weeks, because there was some confusion but offered curbside appointments as another option to patients concerned about COVID-19.

[…]

According to a spokesperson with the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the board’s emergency rule expanding the use of telemedicine is still in effect.

The board’s emergency rule regarding prescriptions was renewed earlier this month and will continue until May 1.

“The emergency rule continues to allow for telephone refill of certain prescriptions to established chronic pain patients as long as the patient has been seen by the prescribing physician, or health professional… in the last 90 days either in-person or via telemedicine using audio and video two-way communication,” said the rule on TMB’s website.

Abbott said during his State of the State address last month that he wants to permanently expand access to telemedicine services.

A number of bills have been introduced this legislative session regarding telemedicine. Several have already been heard in committee hearings.

Those bills would include a pilot project to provide emergency telemedicine medical services in rural areas and reimbursement and payment of claims for telemedicine medical services and telehealth services under certain health benefit plans.

A recent study showed that as many physician offices closed last February to April, the use of telehealth quickly escalated.

This makes sense, in the same way that lifting the rules about drinks to go made sense. And as is often the case, Texas had been a laggard compared to other states. Telemedicine was only legalized by the Legislature in 2017, following a federal anti-trust lawsuit that forced the issue. I wouldn’t want telemedicine to become the default, but that’s not what’s on the table here. Having it be part of the mix is valuable, and allowing it to grow and change as the needs of the patients demand it is what should happen. If one of those bills can be passed it would be a good thing.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

A bit of business pushback against voter suppression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Assault on abortion advances in Senate

I have four things to say about this.

The Texas Senate gave initial approval Monday to a half-dozen bills that would restrict access to abortion, including a priority measure that could ban abortions before many women know they are pregnant.

The measures are among the earliest bills to be debated by the full Senate — whose presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has given two abortion proposals top billing this session. Each piece of legislation must be voted on again in the upper chamber and then go through a similar process in the House before becoming law.

Senate Bill 8 would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which can be as early as six weeks, according to a legislative analysis. The bill has an exception for medical emergencies but not for rape or incest.

The bill would also let anyone in Texas sue an abortion provider if they believe they violated state laws, regardless of whether they had a connection to someone who had an abortion or to the provider. A person who knowingly “aids or abets” others getting abortions prohibited under state law could also be hit with lawsuits, according to a bill draft.

“We’re setting loose an army of people to go sue somebody under a bill that will likely be held unconstitutional,” state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said. “They could be sued over and over and over again having to pay $10,000” which is the minimum proposed damages in the bill.

Similar “heartbeat bills” have been passed in other states but have been blocked by the courts.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the lead author of SB 8, said unique legal language in the bill makes him believe it will be upheld. It’s intended to “protect our most vulnerable Texans when the heartbeat is present,” he said.

Senate Bill 9, another Patrick priority, would bar nearly all abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision or otherwise altered abortion laws. It would create a possible fine of $100,000 for doctors who perform abortions after the law goes into effect. Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said the fine for sexual assault in Texas has a $10,000 maximum.

Other legislation given initial approval Monday would bar later-term abortions in the case of severe fetal abnormalities — closing what the bill’s authors have likened to a “loophole” and forcing people to carry ill-fated or unviable pregnancies to term, according to experts and advocates. Women in that situation would be provided with information about perinatal palliative care, or support services, which they may not have been aware of, the bill’s author said.

Another bill, Senate Bill 394, would bar pill-induced abortions after seven weeks. Guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of abortion pills up to 10 weeks. Nearly 40% of abortions performed on Texas residents in 2019 were medication-induced, according to state statistics.

1. I’m sure the anti-choice wingnuts are delighted by all this, but I wonder if any of them have ever said to themselves “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve had total control over the state government in Texas for 20 year. Why are we just getting all of this now, after all this time?” I doubt they have that level of self-awareness, however.

2. Most if not all of this would have been clearly illegal following the Whole Women’s Health ruling, but thanks to Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and John Roberts’ controlling opinion in the Louisiana case where a nearly identical law that had been struck down was tried again, most of the teeth from Whole Women’s Health were blunted, if not extracted. I have no idea what the courts will do under the newer ruling, but let’s just say I’m not optimistic.

3. The law that would allow basically anyone to sue any abortion provider for any reason is going to be a real rainmaker for a certain type of lawyer in this state. The odds that at least one such lawyer will end up running an elaborate grift based on this and eventually get busted for it are basically 100%.

4. In theory, federal legislation could overrule much of this, but there’s basically zero chance of that happening in the current Congress. As is so often the case, the real long-term remedy is Democratic control of Texas’s government. Needless to say, that ain’t gonna be easy. The starter agenda for when we finally get that is getting longer and longer.

The Chron and the Signal have more.

Freeze-related lawsuit filed against CenterPoint

Of interest.

Several more Houston families of victims of the February freeze are among the latest to sue CenterPoint Energy for allowing vulnerable people to languish without power during what were supposed to be brief blackouts.

Travis Flowers, 66, and Qazi Momin, 83, relied on oxygen tanks to survive, according to separate lawsuits — both of which were filed Friday by lawyer Tony Buzbee.

In the case of Flowers, the power at the Army veteran’s Houston home went out Feb. 15 and his wife, Brenda Flowers, swapped out his powerless tank for a portable device. By then, the home was too cold for the backup tank to work, according to the lawsuit. Flowers’ oxygen levels dropped dangerously low and he died at a hospital.

Two days later, when the power went out at another residence, Momin’s caretaker found him breathing rapidly. His oxygen tank was without power, the suit states. She “tried to make him comfortable using pillows to support him” but hours later, he stopped breathing.

Her phone was dead “so she went to her car to charge it so that she could call for help.”

Details surrounding Flowers’ and Momin’s deaths could not be found in medical examiner records.

The wrongful death litigation, among several filed after the winter storm that knocked out power for millions of Texans, both accuse CenterPoint — a private utilities company — of negligence for cutting power to Flowers’ and Momin’s homes as the temperature lingered below freezing.

[…]

Although CenterPoint was acting on instructions from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas to lighten the power load, the regional energy company, Buzbee contends, was able to choose which circuits to sever power to and for how long. ERCOT, who is named in this case but not a defendant, manages most of Texas’ electrical grid through a deregulated market.

The lawsuit claims the energy company failed to disclose the possibility of a failing power grid or prepare Houstonians to keep warm or leave the area. The nine-page document points to a tweet that CenterPoint officials wrote the morning of Flowers’ death that states “controlled, rotating electric outages” would begin but that they would be temporary.

“At (the) same time that CenterPoint and others were telling the public that the blackouts were temporary and rolling, public officials were urging people to stay home and off the roads,” the suit reads.

Transparency and “balanced rotations of power” in Houston neighborhoods, Buzbee argues, could have saved their lives.

There have been other freeze-related lawsuits filed, against the now-bankrupt Griddy and against Entergy, with the latter also from the busy office of Tony Buzbee. There’s also litigation against ERCOT, though it remains an open question as to whether or not ERCOT can be sued in this fashion. I don’t have any particular insight about this action other than to say that however much you might think CenterPoint is at fault, the greater responsibility in my opinion lies with the Legislature and the state’s regulatory structure. None of that can really be sued (except maybe ERCOT), so here we are.

On a related note:

Last month’s disastrous and deadly winter storm impacted most Texans served by the state’s main power grid, with almost 70% of those people losing power in subfreezing temperatures and almost half experiencing a water outage, according to a new report from the University of Houston.

And although Texans were told to prepare for short-term, rolling power outages ahead of the storm, those who lost electricity ended up going an average of 42 hours without it, the survey found.

As the updated death toll from the storm reached 111 deaths last week, the severity of its full force has continued to come into focus. The damage the storm wrecked could make it the costliest disaster in Texas history.

That report is here. I figure we were without power for about 50 hours at our house – about half of Monday, all of Tuesday, and about half of Wednesday. Doesn’t have any direct bearing on the litigation around this, but it’s another reminder of just how bad this was, if for some reason we needed one.

Another report on the South Texas vote in 2020

Some interesting stuff in here.

Cambio Texas, a progressive organization whose mission is to increase voter turnout and elect leaders that reflect the community, has released a post-election report that relies on extensive interviews with elected officials, campaign workers, consultants, and most importantly, voters in the Rio Grande Valley.

In an interview with Texas Signal, the Executive Director of Cambio Texas, Abel Prado, walked us through some of the big takeaways from their post-election report. One of his first points from the report was that many of the voters who came out in the Rio Grande Valley were specifically Donald Trump voters, and not necessarily Republican voters.

Many of Trump’s traits, including his brashness, a self-styled Hollywood pedigree, his experience as a businessman, and his billionaire status, resonated with many voters in the Rio Grande Valley. “The increase in Republican vote share were Donald Trump votes, not conservative votes, and there’s a difference,” said Prado. With the caveat that Trump is a unique figure, there are still plenty of lessons the Democratic party should take from 2020.

The first is that Republicans up and down the ballot were highly effective in using local vendors. “Every single Republican candidate that was on the ballot purchased locally,” said Prado. Many Democratic campaigns abide by a well-intentioned edict to use union printers. The closest union printer to the Rio Grande Valley is in San Antonio.

Local printers worked with many Republican campaigns, including Monica de la Cruz, who came within three points of defeating incumbent Rep. Gonzalez. The report from Cambio Texas highlights the goodwill that the Republican Party of Hidalgo County fostered with several local vendors, which had no Democratic counterpart.

Prado even recounted a story from an interview with a vendor in the Rio Grande Valley, a proud Democrat and a Biden voter, who nevertheless reveled in the “Trump trains” that county Republican parties put on during the weekends. The liberal vendor was able to set up shop next to the vocal Trump supporters and sold merchandise like Trump flags..

The report also pinpoints where “investment in the Valley” went awry. According to Prado, that “investment” included parachuting national campaign operatives into the Rio Grande Valley, where they had no attachment to the local community. When there was high spending in the Rio Grande Valley, it often went towards outside groups or PACs. For Prado, that investment “depriv[ed] a lot of local vendors to earn a slice of that through their services and local input.”

Though many post-election autopsies around Texas have focused on the lack of in-person campaigning from Democratic candidates due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambio Texas conducted a survey of Trump voters to distill where they received the bulk of their messaging. A majority of those Trump voters were actually reached by television and radio. Less than 14 percent of the Trump voters received a home visit from a canvasser from the campaign.

The report also notes that Republicans in the Rio Grande Valley invested heavily in texting. About 38 percent of Trump voters surveyed received a text message from the Trump campaign or an organization supporting the Trump campaign.

The whole report is here and it’s not very long, so give it a read. The bit about “investment” and purchasing locally resonated with me, and I hope will spark some discussion within the party. It’s not a consideration I had seen before, but it makes a lot of sense. The main takeaway for me is that there are a lot of dimensions to this issue, and anyone who says they have the one sure trick to solve the problem is almost certainly overstating things.

The Trb also had a long piece on the same question, spurred in part by the Filemon Vela retirement, and its broader and contains a lot of quotes from various political types, but didn’t make me feel like I learned anything. Still a good perspective, and a clear indicator that the 2022 and likely 2024 campaigns in South Texas and the Valley will be very different from the ones we have been used to seeing, so go read it as well.

At this point we’ve seen numerous analyses of the 2020 election, from the TDP to David Beard to Evan Scrimshaw (more here) and now these two. The big challenge is trying to extrapolate from limited data – in some sense, just from the 2020 election – and in the (so far) absence of the main factor that caused all of the disruption in 2020. Which is all a fancy way of saying what are things going to be like without Donald Trump on the scene, if indeed he remains mostly off camera like he is now? I’ll tell you: Nobody knows, and we’re all guessing. We’ll know a little bit more in a year, and more than that in a year and a half, but until then – and remember, we don’t know what our districts or our candidates will look like next year yet – it’s all up in the air. Look at the data, keep an open mind, and pay attention to what’s happening now.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Precinct analysis: State Senate comparisons

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The lack of regional consensus on I-45

This is really frustrating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

The Briscoe Cain follies

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans will never hold Ken Paxton accountable for anything

Don’t be a chump and expect them to.

Best mugshot ever

Texas lawmakers are preparing to arm Attorney General Ken Paxton with $43 million to fight Google in court.

A key committee in the State Senate on Wednesday amended its proposed budget for Paxton, restoring most of the cuts members had threatened and giving the Republican extra money to hire outside attorneys to pursue an antitrust case against Google Inc.

“This case has the potential to bring down significant dollars to the state,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Wednesday in advocating for the revised budget plan.

The move came as Paxton increased the political pressure on the Legislature to restore funding for his office. On Twitter, on Wednesday as the committee was meeting, he called on the public to push lawmakers to restore his office’s budget after lawmakers originally had proposed slashing nearly $90 million and cutting 154 positions from his 4,000-person workforce.

“Fellow Texans: Ensure your legislator is FULLY RESOURCING my Office. Any cuts are a loss for TX and in turn a loss for USA,” Paxton wrote to his 128,000 Twitter followers and on Facebook to more than 286,000 followers.

Paxton is also getting help from outside of Texas on that push. Yesterday, a group called Conservative Action Project sent a letter to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan pushing for restoration of the money and helping fund the Google lawsuit.

“Any reduction to the Office of the Attorney General’s budget will result in tremendous harm to the state and nation,” the letter signed by 15 prominent Republican lawyers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese III. “The cause of liberty and justice cannot afford that.”

Though the Legislature is dominated by Republicans like Paxton, key players in the Senate were upset with Paxton for violating his budget authority by moving $40 million in his budget to cover pay raises that were not authorized by lawmakers.

See here and here for the background. They obviously didn’t stay upset for very long. Hey, having to hire a fancy expensive law firm to do the work of the top lieutenants you had to fire because they accused you of being filthy and corrupt, it could happen to anybody. The House may still make changes, but come on. Don’t fall for that old bit again. We know how this is going to go.

What is Ken Paxton hiding?

I was almost tempted to start this post with the rhetorical “Just when you think Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower” gambit, but then I realized I have never thought Ken Paxton couldn’t sink any lower. Even with that, this is amazing.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas attorney general’s office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general’s work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public’s right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton’s office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton’s open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton’s office, which is supposed to enforce the state’s open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton’s personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton’s email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

[…]

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor’s office, must seek the agency’s approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton’s messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn’t need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency’s open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general’s executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general’s office regarding “legal services to the state.”

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it’s odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

“It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege,” Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn’t seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general’s office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton’s personal devices or accounts.

It’s a long story involving multiple news outlets, as well as Paxton’s Utah trip during the freeze, which he appears to have been lying about. Part of the problem here is Ken Paxton’s utter contempt for the rule of law, and part of it is that there’s no obvious mechanism for holding him accountable. Filing a lawsuit may eventually result in some of this information turning up – assuming Paxton doesn’t just delete it all, while citing a data retention policy to back his actions up – but who knows how long that could take. For sure, the Republican legislature isn’t going to do anything. The voters get the ultimate say, but that’s a long way off as well, and as long as this communication is being withheld, they don’t have the full story. I know that you already know this, but Ken Paxton is the worst. See Lauren McGaughy’s Twitter thread for more.

Booze to go set to go

Good.

The Texas House has passed legislation that would allow restaurants to sell alcohol to go beyond the coronavirus pandemic.

The chamber signed off on House Bill 1024 to permanently allow beer, wine and mixed drinks to be included in pickup and delivery food orders and secure a revenue stream made available to restaurants in the last year in an effort to help those businesses when they closed their dining areas.

Initial approval of the bill came Wednesday, and a formal approval came a day later by a 144-1 vote. The legislation will now head to the Senate, where a version of the measure must still be approved by a committee before it can be considered by the full chamber.

Gov. Greg Abbott originally signed a waiver last March to allow to-go alcohol sales. The waiver was originally to last until last May, but it was extended indefinitely. As lawmakers began their work during the current legislative session, expanding Texans’ access to booze picked up rare bipartisan support.

[…]

The new, permanent alcohol-to-go option could benefit the restaurant industry after it has faced an excruciating year during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Texas Restaurant Association, 700,000 restaurant employees in Texas lost their jobs in the early days of the pandemic, and thousands of Texas restaurants have closed.

“The TRA is thrilled that restaurants are one step closer to offering alcoholic drinks to-go on a permanent basis,” the association said in a statement following the House vote. “Texans overwhelmingly support alcohol to-go, and the entire industry has rallied around the practice to ensure it is implemented safely.”

See here for the previous update. While nothing is ever certain, I expect this to breeze through the Senate, and we already know Greg Abbott supports it. I saw someone say on Twitter that we may not be able to get other things done but at least we’ll have drinks to go. I’m more upbeat about that – I think this will be a needed boon for the restaurants, and anything that brings us a step closer to dismantling the ridiculous tangle of alcohol laws we have in this state is a positive – but I do recognize that this is likely one of the few laws we’re going to get this session that’s actually worth celebrating. May as well enjoy the wins where you can, there ain’t gonna be many of them.

Astros aim for half-full

To start out with.

The Astros are expanding their previously planned attendance numbers at Minute Maid Park to start the regular season but will not exceed 50 percent capacity during April, senior vice president for communication and marketing Anita Sehgal said on Monday.

Single-game tickets are scheduled to go on sale Wednesday for 14 home games in April, including the April 8 home opener against the Oakland A’s and the return of former manager A.J. Hinch with the Detroit Tigers from April 12-14.

Season-ticket holders had until March 18 to choose one of four options the ballclub presented them earlier this month in the wake of Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders to reopen the state. On the day Abbott’s executive order took effect, the Texas Rangers announced Globe Life Field would open at 100 percent capacity for opening day on April 1.

Before Abbott allowed all businesses to perform at 100 percent capacity, the Astros were preparing to start the regular season at around 25 percent capacity — 10 to 12,000 people — at the 41,168-seat stadium. Earlier this month, Sehgal said the Astros “were not planning” to fill Minute Maid Park to 100 percent capacity in April.

On Monday, Sehgal said “generally, about half” of the season-ticket holders opted to remain in their seats, where social distancing cannot be guaranteed. For April games, season-ticket holders had the option of remaining in their seats, relocating to a socially-distanced section in the ballpark, pausing their accounts or donating their tickets to front-line workers.

“It didn’t have a significant impact, it just validated our plan,” Sehgal said of the season-ticket holder response. “Our plan has always been to ensure we were responsible and to ensure we had an enjoyable and safe experience. Their response sort of helped validate that we didn’t want to exceed 50 percent capacity (in April).”

[…]

Even if April weather is ideal enough for the Astros to open Minute Maid Park’s retractable roof, the team is comfortable closing it despite the ongoing pandemic. Outdoor air is pumped into the ballpark even when the roof is closed, allaying any concern about a large gathering in an indoor facility.

See here for the background. It doesn’t matter to me because I have no plans at this time to attend large gatherings, but I would have counseled the Astros to keep the roof open as much as possible if the weather permitted. Maybe that’s a false sense of security, since the real risk is in the concourses, especially during entry and exit, but I’d still want to minimize where I could. I’ll be waiting till most of the people in attendance will have been vaxxed. We’ll see if there are enough people to make this higher attendance limit a relevant concern.

How much should Dems try to compete in the CD06 special election?

Let’s make sure someone gets to the runoff, then we can worry about that.

Rep. Ron Wright

Democrats running to replace the late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, believe they can flip the seat in an unpredictable off-year special election. But Democrats at large are not as sure — or willing to say it out loud.

That is becoming clear as campaigning ramps up for the May 1 contest, when 23 candidates — including 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats — will be on the ballot in Texas’ 6th Congressional District. With so many contenders, the race is likely to go to a mid-summer runoff, and Democrats involved hope they can secure a second-round spot on their way to turning the district blue.

While Democrats have cause for optimism — the district has rapidly trended blue in recent presidential election results — some are urging caution. They are mindful of a few factors, not the least of which is a 2020 election cycle in which high Democratic expectations culminated in deep disappointment throughout the ballot.

“We’re not counting our chickens before they hatch and we’re gonna work to earn every vote,” said Abhi Rahman, a Texas Democratic strategist who previously worked for the state party. “This is not a bellwether. This is the first of many battles that will eventually lead to Texas turning blue.”

With just under a month until early voting begins, national Democrats are showing few outward signs that they are ready to engage in the race, even as candidates and their supporters press the case that the district is flippable. They point out that Trump carried the district by only 3 percentage points in November after winning it by 12 points in 2016. Mitt Romney carried the district by 17 points in 2012.

“It absolutely is a competitive race,” said Stephen Daniel, the 2020 Democratic nominee for the seat, who opted against running in the special election. He added he thinks that national Democrats need “to get involved because I think the more resources you have to get out there and help you reach these voters can only help.”

On the flip side, Wright, who died in February weeks after testing positive for the coronavirus, won the seat when it was open in 2018 by 8 points and by 9 points in 2020. Both times the seat was a target of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, though the designation came late in the cycle and the group did not spend significant money in either election.

And while Trump carried the district by only 3 points in November, every other statewide Republican candidate, including U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, won it by more comfortable margins ranging from 6 to 8 points.

Yes, it’s a big field, and Democratic-aligned groups like Emily’s List are currently staying neutral since there are multiple female candidates and they don’t usually take sides in that kind of situation. (The AFL-CIO endorsed Lydia Bean, so not everyone is biding their time.) For what it’s worth, there have been a couple of polls released so far, the first on behalf of Jana Sanchez showing her comfortably in second place (and thus in the runoff) and the second on behalf of Lydia Bean that also showed Sanchez in second place but with about half the support and much closer to both Bean and to GOPer Jake Ellzey. Both have Susan Wright, the widow of Rep. Ron Wright, in first place. While I agree that Susan Wright is the likely frontrunner, I would caution you to not take any CD06 poll too seriously.

The Dem candidates so far are being cordial to one another, which is the right strategic move at this time. The best outcome from a strictly utilitarian perspective is for one of them to separate from the pack and be in good position to make it to overtime. After that, I do think there should be an investment by the national players in this race, if only to keep pace with the GOP entrant. Special elections in reasonably mixed districts are all about turnout, and it wouldn’t take that much to sneak past the finish line. By any reasonable objective, this is a Lean R district, but it’s far from hopeless. Step one is having someone to be there for the runoff. Everything else is just details.

The vaccination eligibility list is about to be wide open

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

County Judge Lina Hidalgo calls this a milestone moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lee Merritt

We have a new contender for Attorney General.

Lee Merritt

Civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt has announced he’s running for Texas Attorney General in 2022 via his social media pages Saturday.

“Texas deserves an attorney general that will fight for the constitutional rights of all citizens,” tweeted Merritt.

In a video posted Saturday evening, Merritt said he didn’t plan to announce his run for the position this soon.

He expressed how his concerns for a lack of inaction and the lack of resources available for people in mental health crisis in Texas led to his decision on the heels of the death of Marvin Scott III.

Scott died at the Collin County jail after seven guards tried to restrain him in a cell on Sunday, March 14. Those employees have been placed on leave while the Texas Rangers conduct an investigation into the circumstances of his death.

Merritt is the attorney for the Scott family. He told WFAA that Scott’s mental health crisis was not appropriately addressed by police and detention officers.

You can see Merritt’s announcement here. He joins Joe Jaworski, and maybe George P Bush on the Republican side in challenging our official state felon, Ken Paxton, for the AG’s job. I don’t know much about Lee Merritt, but he sounds like he’s perfectly well qualified and won’t be afraid to mix it up. If he can raise some money, so much the better. Welcome to the race, Lee Merritt.

Have you been pining for another Hotze/Woodfill lawsuit?

Well, then today is your lucky day.

Not that kind of face mask

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, a prolific litigant, are suing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for requiring COVID-19 tests for entry into the Texas Senate gallery and committee hearings.

In the 18-page suit filed in Travis County court, Miller and Hotze argue the Senate rule violates the Texas Constitution and Open Meetings Act and ask the court to block the rule. Patrick’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Gov. Abbott is opening up businesses while Patrick is shutting down the people’s access to their government,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Jared Woodfill said in a statement.

Members of the public wishing to view proceedings must receive a wristband that indicates a negative COVID-19 test. The rule was established to prevent the spread of the virus at the statehouse, which proved to be hotspots in other states.

[…]

The lawsuit says the Senate rule “unreasonably restricts speech” by mandating a “medical procedure as a prerequisite” and violates the right to free speech guaranteed by the Texas Constitution.

“The constitutional mandate that the legislative session be ‘open’ supersedes any statutory emergency authority that may otherwise apply to the Senate,” the suit reads, noting Hotze had tried to enter on March 2 but was denied entry when he refused a COVID-19 test.

See here for some background. I couldn’t find a copy of the lawsuit online, but Jasper Scherer has an image of the first four pages. In the name of preserving my sanity, I did not read them. One does not have to be a lawyer to think that the “free speech” argument here is a stretch, though maybe there’s something to the open meetings claim. I’ve got better things to worry about, so we’ll see what the courts make of it. We know what their recent track record is, I’ll just leave it at that.

How fast was too fast?

When it came to COVID vaccine eligibility, states that took their time expanding the pool of people who could get the shots have done a better job actually getting shots into arms than the states who rushed to broaden their list.

Despite the clamor to speed up the U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 and get the country back to normal, the first three months of the rollout suggest faster is not necessarily better.

A surprising new analysis found that states such as South Carolina, Florida and Missouri that raced ahead of others to offer the vaccine to ever-larger groups of people have vaccinated smaller shares of their population than those that moved more slowly and methodically, such as Hawaii and Connecticut.

The explanation, as experts see it, is that the rapid expansion of eligibility caused a surge in demand too big for some states to handle and led to serious disarray. Vaccine supplies proved insufficient or unpredictable, websites crashed and phone lines became jammed, spreading confusion, frustration and resignation among many people.

“The infrastructure just wasn’t ready. It kind of backfired,” said Dr. Rebecca Wurtz, an infectious disease physician and health data specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. She added: “In the rush to satisfy everyone, governors satisfied few and frustrated many.”

The findings could contain an important go-slow lesson for the nation’s governors, many of whom have announced dramatic expansions in their rollouts over the past few days after being challenged by President Joe Biden to make all adults eligible for vaccination by May 1.

[…]

In retrospect, health workers and nursing home residents were the easy groups to vaccinate. Doses could be delivered to them where they lived and worked.

“We knew where they were and we knew who they were,” Wurtz said. As soon as states went beyond those populations, it got harder to find the right people. Nursing home residents live in nursing homes. People 65 and older live everywhere.

West Virginia bucked the trend with both high numbers of eligible residents and high vaccination rates in early March, but the state started slow and built its capacity before expanding eligibility.

Similarly, Alaska maintained a high vaccination rate with a smaller eligible population, then threw shots open to everyone 16 and older March 9. This big increase in eligible adults near the end of the period studied led the AP and Surgo Ventures to omit Alaska from the analysis.

The analysis found that as of March 10, Hawaii had the lowest percentage of its adult population eligible for vaccination, at about 26%. Yet Hawaii had administered 42,614 doses per 100,000 adults, the eighth-highest rate in the country.

Thirty percent of Connecticut’s adult population was eligible as of the same date, and it had administered doses at the fourth-highest rate in the country.

In contrast, Missouri had the largest percentage of its adult population eligible at about 92%. Yet Missouri had dispensed 35,341 doses per 100,000 adults, ranking 41st among the states.

Seven states in the bottom 10 for overall vaccination performance — Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina and Missouri — had larger-than-average shares of their residents eligible for shots.

Among high-performing states, five in the top 10 for high vaccination rates — New Mexico, North Dakota, Connecticut, Wyoming and Hawaii — stuck with more restrictive eligibility. Another two high-performing states from the top 10 — South Dakota and Massachusetts — were about average in how many residents were eligible for vaccine.

I’m sure we’re all shocked to see Texas at the wrong end of the list. Focusing on older people made sense in that they are at a higher risk of death, but a lot of them also had issues with the online tools they had to use to get an appointment. I still think that an approach of putting grocery workers and restaurant employees and school staff in Group 1B would not only have been a better prioritization of the risks, but also would have resulted in a higher percentage of people getting vaccinated, for the same reason as with the health care workers and nursing home patients: We know where they are, and we can deliver it to them via their workplace. That’s not the approach that Texas and many other states took, and the end result was that people with better Internet skills and/or more robust health care providers wound up getting ahead of everyone else. Not much we can do about what has already happened, but we really should keep it in mind as we move forward. Otherwise, we’ll just get more of the same.