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Day 11 quorum busting post: The Beto factor

Early on I mentioned how one potentially limiting factor in the Democratic exodus to Washington DC was funding, as housing and feeding 50+ people in the Capitol for up to four weeks would run into some money. Turns out, Beto O’Rourke had that covered.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke has funneled $600,000 to Texas House Democrats in Washington, D.C., to help fund their stay, which could last for up to another two weeks as the lawmakers attempt to block passage of a GOP election bill at the state Legislature.

Powered by People, the group started by the former presidential candidate and El Paso congressman, will wire the funds to the Texas House Democratic Caucus sometime this week, according to state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston.

The money will be used to help offset costs for lodging, meals and transportation as over 50 Democrats and roughly two dozen staffers stay in the nation’s capital. Members left Texas about 10 days ago and have said they plan to stay out of state until after the special session ends Aug. 6.

The funds will also help pay for costs associated with a virtual voting rights conference the caucus helped to host this week, Walle told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.

O’Rourke announced the news during that virtual conference Thursday morning, saying that his group will continue fundraising for the Democrats in Washington.

“We’re gonna make sure that we get the full amount, 100% of what’s raised, to y’all,” he told lawmakers. “It is the least that we could do for everything that you all are doing for us. We want to do more.”

Walle said that the infusion of funds will go toward Democrats’ goal of raising $1.5 million to continue to help pay for the bills while in Washington. The caucus, he said, is “on a good pace to meet that goal.”

There are a number of ways that this exodus could end badly for the Dems. Running out of money and having to visibly scramble to cover living expenses would be one of them, made worse only by having to slink back home because there were no other choices. That outcome at least should be avoided, for which we can all be grateful. (And we could chip in a few bucks, if we felt so moved.)

And Beto’s role in this is appreciated.

Whether Beto O’Rourke is ready to run for governor or not, the Texas House Democrats’ fight over voting rights has already given him a springboard if he decides to take the plunge.

Over the past several weeks, the former presidential candidate from El Paso has been their biggest promoter, holding fundraisers with celebrities, co-organizing a 1960s-style civil rights march with prominent national leaders, and writing big checks to cover expenses for the Texas House and Senate Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop an elections bill.

It has all given O’Rourke a new boost of national media interviews and political relevance at a critical time for statewide candidates in Texas to build momentum if they are going to have a shot in an election cycle that starts faster than in most states because of the early primaries in March.

“They are keeping the coals hot on issues like election reform and redistricting, which Beto would try to leverage in 2022,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.

While Democratic activists are pushing O’Rourke to get into the governor’s race, he insists he’s not thinking about that right now and is focused on fighting the elections bills Texas Republicans are trying to pass.

[…]

What O’Rourke is doing is a rarity in Texas politics, an arena where few are willing to pitch in without getting payback, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

“He’s built an authentic platform with a lot of Texans and put it to good use to help us,” he said.

State Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the donations that O’Rourke has been sharing have been a big morale boost. He said seeing so many Texans giving small donations to help the cause has lifted spirits as the Democrats in D.C. push ahead.

“It’s meant the world to us,” Walle said. “It’s been a shot in the arm.”

Yet while O’Rourke may not be looking for an immediate tradeoff, he still benefits in a big way from what the House Democrats have done.

Rottinghaus said the Democrats’ battle over voting rights has teed up the very issues that O’Rourke would want to talk about on a campaign for governor.

“Now all they need is for him to step into the tee box,” Rottinghaus said.

One can only hope that is being communicated. I feel reasonably confident that Beto will have plenty of volunteer and establishment energy if and hopefully when he announces his candidacy. In the meantime, he’s definitely helping.

Sure, let’s have a fraudit here in Texas

What could possibly go wrong?

Unfair to clowns, honestly

Republican House members are seeking a forensic audit of the November election results, but only in Texas’ largest counties that mostly went for Democrat Joe Biden.

Legislation filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, requires the state’s Republican leadership to appoint an “independent third party” to carry out the audit. Among the bill’s 15 GOP co-authors are Deer Park Rep. Briscoe Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee, and Cypress Rep. Tom Oliverson, vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

“Texans want to know more about the claims of voter fraud and deserve to have confidence in their elections,” Toth said in a statement about House Bill 241. “Voters want to know that their legal vote counts and matters.”

The legislation will likely go nowhere in the 30-day special session, since Democrats’ walkout stopped the GOP-led House from conducting any business. But the push shows how, despite no evidence of widespread fraud and in a state Donald Trump carried, some Republicans are still raising questions about the 2020 election results six months after Biden took office.

[…]

Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that the legislation sounds like “it’s all based on the lie that there’s widespread voter fraud and Donald Trump really won the election.”

“I don’t know if these folks are aware of it, Trump actually did carry Texas,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “So I’m not sure what they’re trying to find in their audit.”

The same thing they’ve been looking for from the beginning, which is strategies, methods, and justifications for delegitimizing Democratic votes and voters, especially non-white votes and voters. The tell is in the way the size of the counties that are in scope for this is defined: Counties with at least 415,000 people, which as noted are the top 13 counties by population in Texas. Why stop there, and why such a weird population cutoff number? Well, if you take the next 13 counties, 11 of them were carried by Trump. If you go down to the next 13 on the list, which gets you to all counties with at least 100,000 people (a much nicer, rounder number than 415,000), all 13 were won by Trump. It’s just that simple – maximize the scrutiny on Democratic counties and find ways to make them look suspicious, while minimizing it on Republican counties. It’s genius, in its malicious way. And by the way, this isn’t just my inference. It’s what Steve Toth has explicitly said.

Now some of these counties not-top-13 counties were close – Jefferson and Nueces were just barely won by Trump – and some others are (as we have seen) clearly trending Democratic, like Brazos and Brazoria. But still, they were won by Trump and thus are not of interest to anti-democrats like Toth and Cain. Ken Paxton, who knows a thing or two about making egregiously false claims about the 2020 election, has signed on to this farce as well. Does anyone think Greg Abbott will resist? Hope he’s distracted by some other shiny object, or that someone reminds him of how these audits have caused tons of election equipment to be decertified as a result of being mauled by the incompetent frauditors. As with everything else at this point, if they want to do it and a quorum exists, there’s precious little Dems can do to stop them.

One million reasons why Greg Abbott thinks the grid is just fine

Or 2.4 billion reasons, depending on how you want to count it.

The Texas electric grid collapse during the February winter storm killed hundreds of Texans and caused an estimated $295 billion in damages, while generating seismic gains for a small and powerful few. The natural gas industry was by far the biggest winner, collecting $11 billion in profit by selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis. No one won bigger than Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren: Energy Transfer Partners—the energy empire Warren founded and now is executive chairman of—raked in $2.4 billion during the blackouts.

That immense bounty soon trickled down to Governor Greg Abbott. On June 23, Warren cut a check to Abbott’s campaign for $1 million, according to the governor’s latest campaign finance filing, which covers January through June. That’s four times more than the $250,000 checks that the billionaire has given to Abbott in prior years—and the most he’s ever given to a state politician in Texas.

In the months after one of the worst energy disasters in U.S. history, Abbott has dutifully steered scrutiny away from his patrons in the oil and gas industry. Last month, the governor signed into law a series of bills that strengthened regulation of the state’s grid. But experts warned that lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent another grid failure and failed to crack down on natural gas companies. At a bill signing ceremony on June 8, Abbott proclaimed that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”

The unusually large contribution from the blackout’s biggest profiteer raises questions about Warren’s influence over the governor and has prompted outrage at what many see as a blatant political kickback for kowtowing to the powerful natural gas industry.

[…]

As he gears up for a reelection bid in 2022, Abbott has resisted calls to include further power grid fixes in a special session. Instead, his current special session agenda centers on sweeping “election integrity” legislation that prompted House Democrats to break quorum for the second time this year and hole up in Washington, D.C., until the session expires.

The governor has relentlessly pinned blame for the grid failure on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials (ERCOT), and even the state’s giant power generators, all while ignoring the significant failures of the natural gas industry. Lawmakers watered down proposed regulations on the gas supply system in the face of aggressive industry lobbying.

By refusing to include additional grid reforms in special sessions, Abbott has ensured that the natural gas sector will avoid any further legislative scrutiny. That, experts warn, means the state’s grid remains at risk of future collapse. Earlier this month, Abbott issued another love letter to his fossil fuel benefactors, ordering his three brand-new Public Utility Commission (PUC) appointees to create incentives for fossil fuel and nuclear power generators and impose new costs on wind and solar plants.

While gas companies made huge profits during the winter storm, the financial fallout has been passed on to Texans. In May, lawmakers passed legislation that provided several billion dollars in state bonds for power companies that were waylaid by the exponential hike in energy costs. Texans will be paying that off through higher gas bills for at least the next decade.

Not really much to add to this, is there? It’s not like this is anything new, but it sure feels more blatant than usual. If there isn’t an effective advertising message in this, I don’t know what one might be.

Some legislators want to keep UT out of the SEC

This is kind of hilarious.

As the college athletics world roils over the possibility of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 conference, a group of Texas legislators with ties to other universities in the state has mobilized.

Four prominent lawmakers — one each with ties to Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University — met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff Thursday, one day after news broke that UT and OU had reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining, according to a source briefed about the meeting and an Abbott spokesperson. Abbott is a UT alumnus and outspoken Longhorn fan.

The four lawmakers were Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee and attended Texas A&M; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech and chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and was a student body president at Baylor; and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former TCU athlete. Kolkhorst declined comment and the other three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday evening.

Leach and Burrows have already expressed their concern about a potential move on social media, with Leach saying on Twitter that he was “working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

“This is about much more than college sports,” Leach wrote. “The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

See here for the background. Nothing is happening in the Lege right now, for obvious reasons, and one wonders what motivation “outspoken Longhorns fan” Abbott would have to stop his alma mater from making this move, since he’d have to add the item to the next special session agenda. For sure, if UT and OU leave the Big XII it will consign TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech to a diminished future, but that’s a result of longtime forces in college sports. Their foundation wouldn’t be any firmer, they’d just be holding off the tide for another day. Speaking again as a fan of a team that was left behind in the 90s, I understand their fears, but by the same token since they were among the leavers, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush to sympathize. Sean Pendergast, Jerome Solomon, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: There’s now a bill to effect this end, HB298. If it gets added to the call, and if there’s a quorum when that happens, then maybe that has a chance. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: I’m dying:

Sources: Gov. Abbott not returning calls from top Republicans in the Texas Legislature about UT trying to head to the SEC

Republicans like Chairman Dustin Burrows and Chair Brian Birdwell have filed bills to block UT from changing conferences, but of course that’s not on the special session agenda. The governor’s office has gone quiet.

There’s been a real distinct lack of high comedy this legislative season. I want to thank the universities of Texas and Oklahoma for providing the opportunity to bring a little of that back.

When might SCOTX rule on the line item veto thing?

The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.

Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.

Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.

Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.

“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”

And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”

And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.

“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”

[…]

Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.

“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”

It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.

“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.

“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”

The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.

Abramson agrees.

“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”

Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.

Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.

Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.

“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.

If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.

“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”

I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

One local hospital is reinstating visitor limits and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is mulling a change to the county’s threat level amid a wave of COVID-19 variant cases that medical leaders warned Tuesday could overwhelm area hospitals and wreak further havoc as schools reopen next month.

The warning came amid massive spikes in hospitalizations across the Houston region, which Hidalgo’s office is closely monitoring to decide if the county needs to raise its emergency threat level from yellow to orange — or moderate to significant.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Hidalgo spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote in an email. “The trends are moving in the wrong direction again and we are in a high-stakes race against the delta variant of this virus. Our message to the community is simple and clear: If you haven’t been vaccinated, take action now.”

In May, Hidalgo lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide.

But this month, hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000.

Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said he fears the closing of many testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the extent of COVID’s spread in the coming weeks.

“As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

[…]

Memorial-Hermann Health System plans to readopt visitor restrictions this week, and will test all patients for COVID, regardless of their vaccination status, said Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, vice president of employee health medical operations.

The hospital system had about 100 confirmed COVID cases on July 4; by Tuesday, there were more than 250.

We’ve been discussing this, and you know how I feel. The hospitalization numbers are still relatively low, but that’s a sharp increase, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more. And I hadn’t even thought about the drastic reduction in testing facilities – I don’t know how big an effect that may have, but it’s not going to help.

I drafted this a couple of days ago, and before I knew it, Judge Hidalgo had already taken action.

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region.

“It’s not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people…. We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.”

The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population.

She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic.

Get your masks back on, and hope for the best. I trust Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to ameliorate this situation, but as we know, there’s not a lot she can do. Greg Abbott has seen to that.

One thing that could help is if more places of business begin putting in their own vaccination requirements, mostly for employees but also possibly for customers or business partners, depending on the situation. Putting some limits on what one can do as an unvaccinated person is one of the few effective ways to compel people to get their shots. That will have to come from the private sector, because it sure won’t come from the state. The FDA giving final approval to the Pfizer and Moderna shots will help, too. I just don’t know how long we can wait.

Another State Bar complaint against Paxton

He certainly deserves all the trouble this has brought him. Whether any of it leads to actual consequences, we’ll have to see.

Best mugshot ever

Four former presidents of the State Bar of Texas joined a group of high-profile lawyers on Wednesday to file an ethics complaint against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, over his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory against former President Donald Trump.

Paxton filed a widely criticized lawsuit with the Supreme Court in December, in which he sued the battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over what he claimed were “unconstitutional irregularities” in their election processes. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, which came as Trump and his allies repeatedly promoted baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” or “stolen.”

The organization Lawyers Defending American Democracy, which asserts it is not partisan, filed the lawsuit in connection with 16 prominent Texas attorneys.

“The injunction Mr. Paxton sought with the Supreme Court would have usurped the presidency for the next four years and cast doubt on whether truly democratic presidential elections would ever have been restored in America,” Jim Harrington, one of the complaints signers and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement published on LDAD’s website.

Harrington said Paxton’s actions “demonstrated his disregard for the ethical rules which govern lawyers and for our country’s democratic principles.”

As you may recall, there’s already such a complaint against Paxton. I don’t know how the State Bar works, but I would assume these two would be combined. Reading that earlier post reminded me that Paxton was supposed to have responded to that complaint within 30 days, and indeed he has responded, asking for the complaint to be dropped – he’s basically saying that the original complainant doesn’t have standing to file against him. As a non-lawyer, I shrug my shoulders as I have no way to evaluate this claim on my own. Those of you who are lawyers, feel free to enlighten us.

Above the Law adds some details.

The bar complaint alleges that Paxton violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by filing a frivolous suit, making false statements of fact and law to a tribunal, engaging in deceitful conduct, and failing to uphold the Constitution.

The complainants point to Paxton’s representation that Biden’s odds of winning the election were less than one in a quadrillion, a gross distortion of a economist Charles Cicchetti’s assertion that this was the probability of Biden winning if the votes before and after 3am were randomly drawn from the population as a whole. Cicchetti’s analysis was ridiculous on its face even before Paxton mangled it — the differential between in-person votes favoring Trump and absentee ballots favoring Biden had been widely predicted. And furthermore, smaller rural areas, which tend to lean Republican, were always going to complete their counting before cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta.

As for misstatements of law, the complainants point to Paxton’s bizarre theory of standing which “flew in the face of the Electors Clause and the bedrock constitutional principle of each State’s sovereignty within our federal system.”

“The standing to sue Mr. Paxton sought from the Supreme Court had no basis in law and would have been a prescription for an autocratic President to perpetuate his power indefinitely against the will of the voters,” said Gershon (Gary) Ratner, co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy and principal author of the complaint.

Here’s the LDAD statement on their complaint, and here’s the complaint itself for your perusal. Note that they had called for Paxton to be sanctioned within a week of his filing that ridiculous lawsuit. I don’t know if it took them this long to prepare their complaint or if there was something else going on, but here we are. I don’t know enough to add anything else at this point, so stay tuned.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.

Day 9 quorum busting post: See you in August

Here’s your endgame, more or less.

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end.

“It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.”

[…]

He said Democrats want to soften some of the “sharp edges” of the voting restrictions Republicans are proposing — specifically, how the GOP bill enables felony charges against election officials who violate its provisions, as well as for people who help voters fill out their ballots without the proper documentation, even for inadvertent offenses.

“There really has been no attempt to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We are all putting our hopes in a federal standard.”

Other Texas Democrats have said their plan right now is to keep their caucus unified and focused on spurring national action. State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said Abbott’s threats to have them arrested or to call more special sessions don’t mean much to her.

“Our presence here together ensures that those Texans who are not being heard by Gov. Greg Abbott continue to be stood up for,” Johnson said.

Democrats on Tuesday said while in Washington, they are pushing for a meeting with President Joe Biden and were continuing to meet with key leaders. That included a strategy session with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the House from South Carolina.

But if the Texans are counting on Congress acting, they don’t have much time. The U.S. House goes on its annual August recess starting July 30 and the U.S. Senate leaves a week later. Neither returns to Washington until after Labor Day.

When Texas Democrats do finally return, Abbott has made clear he’ll call them back into special session again to pass an elections bill and other key priorities of Republicans who control the agenda in state politics. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to call as many special sessions as he wants, but each cannot last for more than 30 days.

It’s the Senate that matters, and their recess (assuming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allows it in full) corresponds to the end of Special Session #1. The House is not the problem for the Dems. Same story, different day.

Timing may be a problem for Greg Abbott, as Harvey Kronberg suggests.

HK: Article X Veto may have compromised full Republican control of redistricting

In theory at least, Democrats may have leverage they should not otherwise have; Article X cannot be revived without a special and with a hard August 20 deadline looming, the Legislature is on the edge of mutually assured destruction

“The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘cancelling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto” – Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to the Democrats’ Texas Supreme Court request to overturn his Article X veto.

Let’s be clear up front.

The conventional wisdom is that although there is a threat of arrest upon arrival, the House Democrats will come back at some point and watch Republicans pass some version of their election bill. A substantive question is whether the bill becomes more punitive due to Republican anger over the quorum break.

Let’s not bury the lede here. The House is boiling and Governor Abbott’s veto of legislative funding could conceivably lead to Republican loss of control in redistricting. While there is much chest beating and both feigned and real anger over the quorum bust, it camouflages a much bigger issue.

The rest is paywalled, but I was able to get a look at it. The basic idea is that per Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the state has until August 20 to reinstate legislative funding for the software to be updated in time to write checks for the next fiscal year beginning September 1. If that hasn’t happened by then, the Texas Legislative Council, which does all of the data crunching for redistricting, goes offline. No TLC, no ability to draw new maps. Pretty simple, as far as that goes.

What happens next is unclear. If the Lege can’t draw maps, that task falls to a federal court for the Congressional map. They wouldn’t have the needed data, and they wouldn’t have a default map to use as a basis, since the existing map is two Congressional districts short. The Legislative Redistricting Board draws the House, Senate, and SBOE maps if the Lege doesn’t, but they wouldn’t have data either, and per Kronberg “the LRB cannot constitutionally convene until after the first regular session in which census numbers have been received. (Article 3, Section 28).” Which is to say, not until 2023. You begin to see the problem.

Now maybe funding could be restored quickly, if Abbott were to call everyone back on August 8 or so. But maybe some TLC staffers decide they don’t need this kind of uncertainty and they move on to other gigs. Maybe Abbott declares another emergency and funds the TLC himself, though that may open several cans of worms when the litigation begins. Maybe the Supreme Court gets off its ass and rules on the line item veto mandamus, which could settle this now. Indeed, as Kronberg points out, the amicus brief filed by the League of Women Voters is expressly about the failure of the Lege to do its constitutional duty in the absence of funding for the TLC.

There are a lot of things that could happen here, and Kronberg is just positing one scenario. His topline point is that any outcome that includes a court drawing maps is a big loss for Republicans, for obvious reasons. Does that provide some incentive for “good faith negotiation”, if only as a risk mitigation for the Republicans? I have no idea.

One more thing:

When Texas Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the regular legislative session in late May, they successfully killed Republicans’ prized bill: a slew of restrictions on voting statewide. Or that’s how it seemed at the time, at least.

Less than three weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing an equivalent version of the so-called election integrity bill alongside other conservative legislative priorities.

The same day Abbott announced his plan for the special session, AT&T, whose CEO has said the company supports expanding voting rights nationwide, gave Abbott $100,000 to fund his reelection campaign.

[…]

In April, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said, “Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue. It is likely our employee PACs have contributed to policymakers in support of and opposed to any given issue.”

How could the left hand possibly know what the right hand is doing? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

Abbott affirms he will take no action to mitigate future COVID waves

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” Abbott said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

[…]

Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Well, he answered my question, and that answer is “You’re on your own, it’s not my problem if you get sick”. What happens when and if hospitals begin to get overrun remains a mystery. The most charitable explanation of this stance is “Look, we all know that the idiots who haven’t gotten vaccinated are the same idiots who refuse to wear masks, so what’s even the point?” If only he as Governor had some power to enforce compliance, or to be a voice of persuasion to those who have refused to bear any responsibility. But at least he cleared that up for us, so thanks for that. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Federal judge halts Arkansas law against gender affirming care for trans kids

Of interest.

In an in-person hearing in Little Rock on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to block an Arkansas law that criminalizes gender-affirming care for transgender kids.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.’s bench ruling was made in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, which argues that Arkansas’ law violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment right to free speech. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four trans kids and their families in Arkansas, plus two physicians working in the state.

Still, legal advocates warn that a rare amicus brief signals that the battles over legislation targeting trans youth are not over.

[…]

The legal battle over Arkansas’ ban — the only one of its kind to be passed in the United States — also attracted the interest of 17 state attorneys general, who filed an amicus brief last week to bolster support for Arkansas’ law. Nearly all of the states that backed the brief have introduced their own bills to ban gender-affirming care, bar trans kids from playing sports that match their gender identity, or prevent them from discussing their identities in school, according to a bill tracker by Freedom For All Americans.

Four of the states that signed the brief through their attorney general — Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee — enacted legislation this year to ban trans youth from sports that match their gender identity. Idaho, which also counseled on the brief, signed its ban on trans kids’ sports participation in March 2020.

Two attorneys told The 19th that such a brief is largely unprecedented, although any weight it carried in Moody’s decision on Wednesday was unclear. It is not guaranteed that a federal judge would take a brief like this into account.

Ezra Ishmael Young, a civil rights attorney and founding board member of the National Trans Bar Association, did not recall a similar brief ever being filed about trans kids’ health care at the trial level.

“It’s very rare for an amicus brief to be filed by a bunch of states that have no stake in the actual issue at all,” Young said, adding that it takes time to coordinate a response from so many attorneys general.

“It’s not totally unusual for AGs to team up and push their state’s policy preferences in courts outside their jurisdiction,” he said. “What makes this tack odd here is that the AGs are pushing for policy preferences that have been soundly rejected by their legislature, sometimes repeatedly.”

Carl Charles, a Lambda Legal staff attorney, told the 19th that the brief — which also he sees as unprecedented, based on research undertaken by him and his paralegal — is concerning on another level.

“To write affirmatively in support of an outlier law in one state, where there are no related laws on the books in their respective states … they have nothing really to stand on in terms of, ‘We’ve passed these similar laws and we’re in support,’” he said.

“They’re essentially taking an inherently political position and one that’s outside the scope of their office, which is to say, ‘We have an interest in seeing this law stand because we too want to pass a law like this.’ Well, that’s not the AG’s job. The AG’s job is not to pass laws. The AG’s job is to enforce the laws on the books,” he said.

As we know, Greg Abbott is plotting some executive action to block this health care for trans kids, so this ruling is quite timely. Arkansas is not in the Fifth Circuit, so the ruling would not apply here, but it’s significant nonetheless. Also significant is that the state of Texas and its felonious AG Ken Paxton were on that amicus list, as I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear. None of this is going to stop Abbott from doing whatever he plans to do, but there will very likely be a legal roadblock in his way once he does do it.

Texas blog roundup for the week of July 19

The Texas Progressive Alliance is cheering on the quorum-breaking legislators as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

The ultimate inducement to getting vaccinated

Winning college football games. I mean seriously, if that doesn’t do it then literally nothing will.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey calls it the “vaccination motivation” — in urging the league’s programs to receive the COVID-19 vaccination before the season kicks off in a little more than a month.

“Let me be clear to our fans, to our coaches, to our staff members and to our student-athletes: COVID-19 vaccines are widely available,” Sankey said to crank up SEC Media Days on Monday. “They’ve proven to be highly effective. And when people are fully vaccinated, we all have the ability to avoid serious health risks, reduce the virus’s spread and maximize our chances of returning to a normal college football experience, and to a normal life.

“With six weeks to go before kickoff, now is the time to seek that full vaccination.”

Sankey, speaking on the first day of the four-day event and the first SEC Media Days in two years because of the pandemic, said six out of the SEC’s 14 football teams “have reached the 80 percent threshold in roster vaccination.”

“That number needs to grow, and grow rapidly,” Sankey said. “We have learned how to manage through a COVID environment, but we do not yet have control of a COVID environment, and that finds us preparing to return toward normal this fall, but we see realities around us.”

[…]

Sankey added, “The ‘forfeit’ word comes up at this point,” after the league last season left a cushion in December to allow for makeup games. That likely will not be the case this year. A&M is scheduled to kick off its season Sept. 4 against Kent State at Kyle Field, and Sankey said all early signs are the SEC’s season will not be pushed back a few weeks (and shortened to league-only contests) like it was in 2020.

“You hope not to have disruption, but hope is not a plan, goes the cliché,” Sankey said. “We (for now) still have roster minimums that exist, just like last year. What I’ve identified for consideration among our membership is we remove those roster minimums, and you’re expected to play as scheduled. That means your team needs to be healthy to compete, and if not, that game won’t be rescheduled.

“ … We’ve not built in the kind of time we did last year, particularly at the end of the season, to accommodate disruption. Unless we’re going to do that, our teams are going to have to be full prepared to play their season as scheduled.”

I’ll get back to the SEC in a minute, but at least one conference is using the word “forfeit”.

The American Athletic Conference has had conversations in the past week that would require teams without enough healthy players due to COVID-19 to forfeit games this season.

“It’s not decided yet, but it’s likely,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said recently during an appearance on SportsTalk 790 AM.

Few FBS teams dealt with COVID-19 disruptions as much last season as Houston, which had eight games either canceled or postponed. UH officials were particularly upset with the short notice given by Baylor, which called off a game less than 24 hours before kickoff and the Cougars’ equipment truck already in Waco.

The eventual season opener against Tulane was delayed until Oct. 8, a delay of more than a month.

A similar measure to force teams unable to field enough healthy players to forfeit has also been discussed with the Big 12.

“The COVIDing out and the gamesmanship that went into that, make no mistake that occurred this last year,” Pezman said. “You’re going to end up forfeiting.”

Lots of teams played incomplete schedules last year, with many games being delayed or canceled because one team or the other didn’t have enough healthy players. If the idea this year is for things to go back to “normal”, then teams need to ensure they can meet minimum roster requirements. The best way they can do that is to make sure that they don’t have COVID outbreaks, and we all know what they best way to do that is. Stuff can still happen – the recent outbreak with the Yankees, where over 85% of their team and staff are vaxxed, is an example – but the odds are much better in your favor this way.

Obviously, the number of people in scope for this is small, but it just might spread outward a bit. Imagine if coaches forbade the fat cat donors from hobnobbing with the teams if they’re not vaxxed, for example. Whatever the case, every little bit helps. And hey, if the ol’ ball coach says get your shots, who’s gonna say no?

UPDATE: Not just college football.

The NFL has added an additional COVID-19 vaccination incentive for players, threatening forfeits and the loss of game checks if an outbreak among unvaccinated players causes an unresolvable disruption in the regular-season schedule.

Commissioner Roger Goodell informed clubs of the new policy Thursday in a memo. The league has encouraged vaccination for players but has not required it, per an agreement with the NFL Players Association.

Instead, the league has set up a series of incentives. As of Thursday, Goodell wrote, more than 75% of NFL players were at least partially vaccinated and more than half of the league’s teams have player vaccination rates above 80%.

Unvaccinated players will be subject to severe protocols during training camp and the regular season, including daily testing, mask-wearing and travel restrictions. Thursday’s memo made it clear that unvaccinated players could, in theory, be responsible for the losses of games and paychecks as well.

You can be free to make your own choices about the vaccine if you really insist, but that doesn’t mean you’re free from the consequences.

Are any state leaders going to talk about the rising COVID rate?

Just curious.

With less than half of Texans vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the state has climbed to a rate unseen since winter.

As of this weekend, Texas’ positivity rate is over 10% — a level that Gov. Greg Abbott and the Trump administration had identified as a red flag earlier in the pandemic. Meanwhile, daily confirmed new case totals and hospitalizations are climbing fast, but are far below their winter peaks.

On Saturday, the seven-day average for new confirmed cases in the state was 2,119. That’s nearly triple the average on the first day of the month, when it was 757. Meanwhile, the number of people hospitalized for the coronavirus in the state climbed from 1,591 on July 1 to 2,834 on Friday.

More than 14,200 people with COVID-19 were hospitalized on Jan. 11 — the highest number of pandemic hospitalizations in Texas so far.

But the positivity rate stands out among the rising numbers because experts view it as a leading indicator.

“The early signs are similar. They are all right there,” said Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University. “Epidemiologists read test positivity stats like the low tide, and it looks as though we are in for a big wave.”

In the last seven days, about 144,000 molecular tests, such as nasal or throat swab tests, were administered in Texas, and 10.2% of those came back positive, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The last time the state’s positivity rate was above 10% was in February, and the rate hit an all-time low of 2.8% in mid-June.

The positivity rate does not clearly measure how prevalent the virus is spreading across the state since it depends on the number of administered tests, Neuman said, but “what it indicates is that we are missing a lot of cases.”

“Ten percent of the state is not infected right now,” he continued. “But 10% of the people with the sniffles have COVID, which means we are at the start of something like another wave. We have seen the numbers in the rest of the U.S. go up and Texas has been a little bit behind, but it looks as though we may be catching up fast.”

[…]

Public health experts have been raising alarm about the delta variant in recent weeks, especially in places like Texas where the vaccination rate is low. Around 43% of Texans are currently fully vaccinated.

The vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing new coronavirus cases, though there have been some rare occurrences of breakthrough infections — which Dr. John Carlo, the CEO of Prism Health North Texas and president of AIDS Arms Physicians, explained is when someone who is completely vaccinated contracts the virus anyways.

“The reason that is happening more and more is because if we still have people that are unvaccinated circulating with those who are vaccinated, it still presents a risk for breakthrough infections, even though the risk is minimized,” Carlo said.

Evidence also suggests that the small numbers of people who are vaccinated but do get infected tend to face less severe versions of the illness.

“The good news is that though we are seeing breakthrough infections, these are only mild cases,” Carlo said. “The vaccines show great protections but we knew it was never going to be perfect, it’s not 100%. And the big thing to know is that the vaccine removes the high chance of severe symptoms if you do get the virus.”

In a statement, DSHS said the delta variant is “having a significant effect on unvaccinated people leading to increases in new cases and hospitalizations.” Texas officials have not said how many of the new cases are among vaccinated and unvaccinated people, but national and local health leaders say the most severe impacts appear to be happening overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

I mean, I know there are walls to be built, and voters to suppress, and trans kids to kick around. Greg Abbott has a busy schedule, you know? I’m sure he’ll get around to talking about the rising COVID rate and the need to get vaccinated and maybe the return to mask wearing any day now.

Michelle Beckley announces for Congress

Interesting.

Rep. Michelle Beckley

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, one of the House Democrats who is camped out in Washington, D.C., announced Tuesday that she is challenging U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, a national Democratic target.

Beckley unveiled her plans in a video filmed inside a hotel room in the nation’s capital, where House Democrats fled earlier this month to break quorum in protest of Republicans’ priority elections bill. In the video, Beckley contrasted her commitment to the voting rights battle with Van Duyne’s vote earlier this year to object to the 2020 election results in Pennsylvania.

“Beth Van Duyne can walk away from her duty to defend democracy, but not me,” Beckley says.

Beckley launched her campaign with endorsements from 30 fellow House Democrats, including caucus Chair Chris Turner and Joe Moody, whom House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, removed as speaker pro tem in retaliation for the quorum break.

Beckley is the second serious Democratic opponent that Van Duyne has attracted. Earlier this month, she drew a challenge from Derrik Gay, a Carrollton tax lawyer and former intelligence officer in the Marine Corps.

You can find Beckley’s announcement video here. The quorum break is sure to come up in any campaign, so she’s correct to address it head on. Derrik Gay made his announcement on July 6. We don’t know what CD24 will look like, but it’s already a DCCC target, and it seems reasonable to think it will be competitive in 2022.

We also don’t know what Beckley’s HD65 will look like. She won 51.2 to 48.8 in 2018, and 51.5 to 48.5 in 2020, and as we have discussed, it’s the biggest mover in a Dem direction in Denton County. But not the only big mover, and that means the Republicans’ choices in map-drawing are not obvious. As Scott Braddock notes, until we have a clear idea of what all the districts will be, someone who holds one office and announces for another has room to change their mind if the numbers say they should. So we’ll see. Either way, there should be plenty of interest in CD24.

County Court judge Barnstone resigns

Ugh.

George Barnstone

A Harris County civil court judge has resigned amid several allegations of judicial misconduct, including showing bias or prejudice toward litigants and attorneys on the basis of race, sex or socioeconomic status, according to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

George Barnstone, of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1, was the subject of six complaints encompassing at least seven allegations of misconduct. Those also included claims he used his judicial office to advance his private interests and made appointments violating the Texas Government Code, which bars conflicts of interest, the resignation agreement states.

He signed the agreement on July 12, records show, and state commission Chair David Hall approved the decision Monday.

[…]

Other complaints — all listed in the agreement — alleged the judge didn’t comply with the law related to awarding attorneys fees or statutory interest post-judgment; failed to give a defendant their right to be heard; failed to treat attorneys with patience, dignity and courtesy; and failed to require and maintain order and decorum in court proceedings.

The state commission had not made any findings related to the complaints, and Barnstone’s resignation will take place instead of disciplinary action, the document reads. The resignation, however, is not an admission of guilt.

Barnstone won’t be able to run for judicial office or sit in a judicial capacity again, the agreement stipulates.

We won’t get a lot of details because the Commission will not make any findings due to the resignation, but all of this sounds bad. I found this story from 2019 while image searching, and that isn’t a good look, either. I’ve known George Barnstone for a few years – he’s a genuinely affable guy – and he made at least one other run for judge before winning in 2016, but it clearly wasn’t a good fit. I’m sorry it came to this, but it’s the right call.

Because this is a County court and not a District court, County Commissioners will get to name a replacement, as they have done before in recent years. Between this and the forthcoming replacement of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, they’ll have some big decisions to make. I would assume they’ll have a new judge on the bench in a couple of weeks. Get your name in the hat quickly if you think it should be you.

Your thermostat may be plotting against you

Welcome to 2021.

Amid [recent] sweltering temperatures in Houston, the agency that operates the state’s power grid asked residents to cut back on how much electricity they used to help it meet demand. That’s how some people apparently learned the hard way that their “smart thermostats” were programmed to rise in their homes when grid conditions got tight.

A user posting on the Reddit page for discussions about Houston wrote of knowing eight people with thermostats that bumped up automatically and made their homes less cool — sparking a conversation about how and why this happens. The concerns were first reported by KHOU.

Turns out, utility customers can opt in to programs that automatically adjust their thermostats when demand is high and grid capacity is strained. Those people can also opt out. Some, it seemed, were caught unawares.

One user wrote of being automatically enrolled in a program and then waiting months while trying to get out of it. Another reported sending an email to get removed from the service.

A third chastised them all: “This is what happens when you don’t read the contract.”

A software provider called EnergyHub works with thermostat manufacturers to run such programs. No one is enrolled without their consent, said Erika Diamond, the company’s vice president for customer solutions.

The idea is to reduce energy load when the grid is stressed, such as during an extreme weather event, Diamond said. Temperatures at George Bush Intercontinental Airport hit at least 95 degrees every day from June 11 through June 16.

I’m sure this was somewhere in your user agreement, which I know we all read thoroughly. One could easily argue that this is a net benefit for all, as the modest reduction in A/C that everyone affected by this would experience would save energy and maybe avoid some blackouts. It’s almost certainly more effective than asking people to voluntarily dial it back, as some won’t do it and others won’t be aware you’re asking. But it would be better if people were generally aware of this, even if it meant more of them opted out or manually overrode the auto-adjustment as they can do, if only to prevent the inevitable conspiracy theories and overall mistrust that a lack of awareness will spawn. At least it’s mostly been not-so-hot since then, so this has been less of an issue, but obviously we can’t just count on that. Reform Austin and Mother Jones have more.

Day 7 quorum busting post: Don’t mess with Rep. Garnet Coleman

Respect, always.

Rep. Garnet Coleman

For a week now, state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been hiding out in Texas, wondering if police are going to track him down.

While dozens of other Texas House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C. to block a Republican voting bill, the longtime Houston legislator stayed behind, unable to travel while recovering from severe illness that led to the amputation of his lower right leg in May. His continued presence in the state makes him more vulnerable to arrest, as Republicans have voted to force back to the Texas Capitol any absent House Democrat within state police jurisdiction.

That prospect doesn’t trouble the 59-year-old lawmaker, who questions both the constitutionality and optics of such a move.

“Let them come,” Coleman said in an interview Friday in an airy, art-filled house. “They’re going to have to carry me in this wheelchair, and they’re going to have to carry me into the chamber and lock me in there.”

What does weigh on him is having no choice but to watch the historic moment from the sidelines. The last time House Democrats skipped town in 2003, to delay political map drawing, Coleman led the way.

“I want to be there,” he sighed. “All the people that are in Washington D.C. that are Democrats, this is their Martin Luther King moment, because it’s about the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.”

During a two-hour interview, Coleman alternated between sharp political insight and raw emotion, his hands occasionally trembling against the tires of his new wheelchair.

You should read the whole thing, because Rep. Coleman is one of the best and he deserves your attention. He’s with his colleagues in spirit, and he’ll be back come what may to fight for fair legislative and Congressional maps in the fall.

Not a whole lot of news to note, other than some positive COVID tests that we likely know about only because they’re testing, since the (vaccinated) members who tested positive are all basically asymptomatic. That lack of news is a challenge for the Dems.

The spotlight won’t shine for long on the story of Texas’ flyaway Democrats. The novelty will wear off. The cable TV networks will have other top stories before you know it, and this will become another of those insider fights of only passing interest to Texans who don’t have regular business in the state Capitol.

Voting rights are important to voters, but most people only pay attention to the particulars at election time. Where do I go? What do I have to do? Who and what is on the ballot? Who are all of these people, and which ones are in my way and which ones can I ignore?

[…]

The reason most of the decamped Democrats are in Washington is to try to get a voting bill they like — one that would preempt state law — from Congress. That requires some public attention, too, to get enough voters interested to draw members of Congress away from what they were doing to what the Texans hope they’ll do.

But the Texas Democrats aren’t the only politicians looking for public attention and support. Texas Republicans are promoting other legislation on the special session agenda that might get more public interest.

Not sure if those other bills are likely to get that much interest either, or if the interest they do get goes beyond the faithful, but the point still stands. We collectively have the attention span of a fruit fly. There’s only so much our folks can do.

Abbott preps another shot at trans kids

What an asshole.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday he was preparing to take action to restrict transition-related medical care for transgender minors in Texas after legislation to do so failed during the regular session.

“I have another way of achieving the exact same thing, and it’s about a finished product as we speak right now and may be announced as soon as this week,” Abbott said during a radio interview. He did not provide further details.

Abbott’s comments came as the interviewer, Mark Davis, asked Abbott why he did not add the issue to his agenda for the special session that began earlier this month. Abbott blamed the lower chamber, saying the “chances of that passing during the session in the House of Representatives was nil.”

During the regular session, the Senate passed a bill to outlaw transgender youth health care treatments, but a similar proposal in the House fell victim to a bill-killing deadline late in the session. The bill would have banned hormone therapy, puberty suppressant treatments and transition-related surgeries for children, which are rarely used before puberty.

Abbott faced pressure from some on his right to include the proposal in his special session agenda, and when he did not, the scrutiny only mounted.

Abbott primary challenger Don Huffines said at the time that the issue was among the “glaring omissions” from the special session agenda “that show how far out of touch [Abbott] is with everyday Texans.”

See here, here, and here for some background. He is indeed out of touch, Don, but not in the way you think. I don’t know what he has in mind here – typical Abbott – and I don’t know why he didn’t do whatever it is he’s thinking of before now. I’m certain there will be a legal challenge, and after that who knows. What I do know is that the trans kids and their families who have been living through these hell sessions deserve so much better. The Chron has more.

The Virus And The Vote

As you may recall, there were a lot of concerns going into the 2020 election about the potential for things to go horribly wrong. Books were written about the weak points in our bizarre and super-distributed system for running and certifying elections. The pandemic, and the chaos that resulted from how it was bungled by the Trump administration, jacked those worries up even higher.

And yet, with all that ambient anxiety, thousands of brand-new poll workers, ramped up absentee voting, and so many more alterations to old processes, everything went quite smoothly. Results were timely, no “Iowa Democratic caucus”-style screwups, and as we well know, vanishingly few instances of chicanery and lawbreaking. How did we pull it off? This report, from the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, provides some answers. It’s long, so let me just quote from the Introduction:

The 2020 U.S. election was both a miracle and a tragedy. It was a miracle in that election administrators, facing unprecedented challenges from a pandemic, were able to pull off a safe, secure, and professional election in which a record number of Americans turned out to vote. It was also a tragedy, though, because, despite these heroic efforts, lies about vote fraud and the performance of the system have cemented a perception among tens of millions of Americans that the election was “rigged.” This manufactured distrust has deeply damaged our democracy; the path to repairing it is not at all clear.

The Capitol Insurrection of 6 January 2021 will forever constitute the image of the 2020 election and the distrust that accompanied it. Despite the heroism and success we detail below, more than a hundred members of Congress voted to question and overturn the results in one or more states.

The enduring images of the 2020 election should have been very different. During the primary elections early in the year, the picture looked bleak, as poll-worker and polling-place shortages caused long lines of frustrated voters to risk their lives, while thousands of absentee ballots were rejected in places that had little experience with large-scale voting by mail. In the general election, however, an army of new poll workers, wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) and often administering the voting behind Lucite barriers, staffed polling places. Absentee voting also set records, as rates of canceled mail ballots were dramatically lower than before the pandemic.

How did the country pull off a successful election under pandemic circumstances? What changes to the election infrastructure were necessary to accomplish this task? How can we reconcile this measurable success with convictions, strongly held by a sizeable share of the electorate, that the election was rigged? These are the questions this article seeks to answer. Given the unfounded, partisan criticism that the election was “rigged” and “disastrous,” it is difficult in hindsight to reimagine what a true electoral disaster would have looked like and how close the United States came to experiencing one. The primary-season meltdowns in several states painted an ominous picture of institutional collapse threatening the general election. In several respects, the election system benefited from the timing of the pandemic, coming as it did in the middle of the presidential-primary season but hitting hardest just as Joseph Biden wrapped up the Democratic Party’s nomination. The baptism by fire in the primaries provided necessary lessons in how to solve pandemic-related problems so that both mail and polling-place voting could work properly come November.

A little light reading for you as we wait for our Democratic legislators to try to persuade a couple of recalcitrant Senators in Washington to get off their asses and take action to protect future elections and democracy in general. Found on Twitter.

P Bush slightly outraises Paxton

Meh.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush kicked off his attorney general campaign by outraising the incumbent, fellow Republican Ken Paxton, and another primary challenger, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. But Paxton has more money saved up for the battle than both of his opponents.

According to campaign finance reports released Friday, Bush raised $2.3 million over the last 10 days of June, while Paxton took in $1.8 million and Guzman collected $1.1 million. The campaigns had announced those figures earlier in the week, making clear Bush would be the fundraising leader for the period.

The filings that came out Friday, though, showed Paxton with a clear cash-on-hand advantage — $6.8 million in reserves. Bush reported $2.7 million in cash on hand, while Guzman disclosed $611,000.

[…]

In the GOP primary for attorney general, Paxton’s top donors included the Republican Attorneys General Association and Midland oilman Douglas Scharbauer. Each donated $250,000.

Bush got some of his biggest contributions in installments of $100,000 each from Dallas oil mogul Trevor Rees-Jones, Woodlands lawyer Arnulfo Eduardo Treviño Garza and H.H. ‘Tripp’ Wommack Ill, the CEO of a Midland oilfield services company.

Guzman’s donor list was led by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the tort reform group that backed her quickly after she launched her bid. She got $200,000 from TLR, as well as $100,000 from its founder, Dick Weekley.

On the Democratic side of the race, the candidates include Joe Jaworski, a Galveston lawyer and former mayor of the city, and Lee Merritt, the well-known civil rights attorney from North Texas.

Jaworski raised $452,000 during the first half of the year, according to his latest TEC filing, and ended the period with a balance of $525,000. Merritt did not officially announce his campaign until Tuesday — after the period covered by the latest reports — though he has had a TEC account open since early June and reported $100,000 in donations from Real Justice PAC, a national group that mainly works to elect progressive prosecutors at the local level.

See here for some background. It’s better to outraise than to be outraised, but 1) the difference isn’t that much, 2) as noted, Paxton still has a lot more cash, and 3) nobody has nearly enough to make a big splash in our super expensive state. Bush and Paxton each held their own, no one landed a heavy blow, and Guzman still has to prove she can bring it. As for the Dems, as long as Paxton is in the race they get the benefit of being Not Ken Paxton. It will be nice for them to bring in more, but as with Presidential years it’s the top of the ticket that drives most of the action.

Council will decide when charter amendment votes will be

Fine, but they should be this year.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday promised to bring a charter amendment petition to City Council before a key August deadline to order an election for this year.

A diverse coalition of groups, including the Houston Professional Firefighters Association Local 341 and the Harris County Republican Party, delivered the petition in April, and the city secretary confirmed the signatures earlier this month. The measure would allow any three council members to place an item on the council agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under the city’s strong-mayor format.

The council can put the charter amendment on the ballot this November or during the next city elections, which are in November 2023. Turner said he was not sure the city would order an election this year, prompting concern among petition organizers and supporters, who have sought an election in November. The last day to order an election for this year is Aug. 16.

“It will come before you, and this council will decide whether it goes on this year’s ballot or on the next city ballot,” Turner told his colleagues at the City Council meeting Wednesday. “I won’t be making that decision, we will be making that decision.”

The fire union is pushing a separate charter petition, which it delivered to City Hall last week, that would make binding arbitration the automatic resolution to contract impasses. The city and union have been in a deadlock since 2017, and have contested the contract talks in court battles.

[…]

The mayor said the city has to decide if it is going to take each charter petition individually, or if it would be smarter to lump them together in a single election, “which, from a cost perspective, would be quite wise,” he said.

“What we will have to decide is whether or not you do these one at a time, and every time you put it out there it’s a cost to the city (to run the election),” Turner said. “Now, there’s another one that was just delivered to the city secretary (last) week… Let’s say that gets the requisite signatures, do we do another election on that one?”

The fate of the most recent petition from the fire union is less clear. Turner said it takes the city secretary an average of three months to count the signatures, even with added personnel the mayor says he has approved for their office. That would mean workers likely will not finish verifying them before the Aug. 16 deadline to order an election.

The union has alleged the city is slow-walking the count for the second petition. The Texas Election Code allows the city to use statistical sampling to verify the signatures, instead of vetting them individually, as the city is doing now.

See here and here for the background. Sampling has been used before, in 2003 for a different firefighter initiative, but I don’t think it is commonly used. Not sure what the objections are to that. I say do them both in the same election, and it should be this election. I’d rather just get them done, if only from a cost perspective.

How HISD intends to spend its COVID relief money

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD expects to spend $1.2 billion of federal relief shoring up academic losses from the pandemic under a wide-ranging plan that would target accelerated instruction to kids that have fallen behind, bolster tutoring and after-school services, seek to retain and recruit teachers with $2,500 stipends, provide laptops to more middle school students and boost technology in the classroom.

Superintendent Millard House II sent an email addressed to “Team HISD” Thursday evening with a 54-slide presentation attached about how the district would use the money, according to a copy obtained by The Chronicle on Friday.

The money comes from $122 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds included in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act, passed by Congress in March.

HISD has been awarded $804 million from that. It is the second round of education relief funding. The district was allocated $358 million from that earlier round this month.

According to the plan distributed by House, about a quarter of the overall funding will go toward reversing learning losses in reading, math, science and social studies. About $76 million would be spent on before- and after-school programs, $50 million would go to special education, $53 million for college and military readiness, and $60 million would be directed at social and emotional learning, including the hiring of up to 150 additional counselors and social workers.

It is not clear if the plan is final. A timeline included in the presentation lists two dates to submit applications to TEA and July 28 as the date to share the plan with “community.”

These priorities seem right to me. The first order of business is to get students back to previous levels, and that’s going to take a lot of resources. You can see an embed of the plan in the story, and there will be at least one virtual meeting to discuss it. This is a big challenge for the new Superintendent right off the bat, and I wish him and the Board and everyone else all the best with it. We need them to use this funding to its best advantage.

Weekend link dump for July 18

“Lower vaccination rates among young adults in the United States are resulting in anxiety and painful decision-making for those who are vaccinated but have friends, family, loved ones and colleagues who aren’t.”

Don’t be like Missouri. Parts of Texas are already starting to look like Missouri. That’s bad.

“In May, I broke the story that the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees would not grant acclaimed journalist and New York Times Magazine staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. They didn’t vote it down. They just refused to consider it. Killed it in committee. If that sounds more like politics than academia to you, well …”

“But with that increased attention has come increased scrutiny. Some critics dismiss the paint-by-numbers aspect of some of the genre’s biggest hits, while others worry that the truth often takes a back seat to dramatic flair. Perhaps most worrying is the fact that true crime often exploits or diminishes victims, survivors, and their family members—the people most affected by these horrendous events—while lionizing the perpetrators (and sometimes turning them into sex symbols). As the genre continues to explode in quantity, there’ll be an even greater chance of such mistakes.”

“Archaeologists may finally know the age and true identity of the “Rude Man,” also known as the Cerne Abbas Giant, one of dozens of geoglyphs etched into the British countryside.”

“Business leaders frequently proclaim that “people are our most important resource.” Yet those who are resistant to permitting telework are not living by that principle. Instead, they’re doing what they feel comfortable with, even if it devastates employee morale, engagement and productivity, and seriously undercuts retention and recruitment, as well as harming diversity and inclusion. In the end, their behavior is a major threat to the bottom line.”

“When we think about the normal discrimination statutes…we have protected classes based on something that is sort of inherent to you, with religion maybe being the one that is a choice. But vaccination status you certainly can control.”

“Whereas many people’s fundamental heuristic for health-related decisions is to trust medical and scientific experts, vaccine hesitancy reminds us of the many competing forces informing people’s intuitions about health, be they religious, political, historical, or identity-based.”

RIP, Edwin Edwards, four-term Governor of Louisiana, who defeated David Duke in 1991.

“What we’re seeing right now with these efforts to short-circuit the legislative process is what the legislative filibuster in the Senate should be like.”

“What you do is you take the horse, and you put two horses in a box, and you put the box on the plane.”

“A federal judge has temporarily blocked Tennessee’s transgender restroom law, which requires businesses to post a specific sign if they allow transgender people to use bathrooms that match their gender identity.”

RIP, Charlie Robinson, actor best known for his role on Night Court.

“Days After Threat From Biden, Major Ransomware Group Goes Dark”.

“If you’re a big fan of Coca-Cola Zero Sugar, you may want to brace yourself: The recipe for your beloved drink is changing. Coca-Cola said Tuesday that it is tweaking the beverage in an effort to make the drink taste more like regular Coke.”

RIP, Fred Allred, longtime owner of Houston record store Allrecords.

“My point is that the great voice actors are great at voice acting. Some who are not primarily voice actors can be fine in certain roles in certain situations as Mr. Jones was…but when I see a list of nominees like the one for this year’s Emmy Awards, I think someone is disrespecting professional, full-or-most-time voice actors. They’re voting for celebrity, not talent.”

“Ironically, it was Trump’s own Supreme Court nominees who empowered Biden to purge so many Republican holdovers.”

Of course there’s a Ken Starr connection to Jeffrey Epstein.

“One thinks of 911 as a major advance in American law enforcement, but it had several less than beneficial consequences. In our haste to get to every call and handle them quickly, cops began to lose the intimacy of their relationship with the neighborhood they were policing.”

“For now it is more evidence of what we still – six months on – seem mostly in denial about: a defeated President plotted to overthrow the government to remain in power. The nation’s top general and his colleagues had to come up with contingency plans to thwart the coup they believed the commander-in-chief of the military was plotting.

“Norwegian Cruise Lines, through its counsel Quinn Emanuel, sued Florida for actively jacking its whole business model in the name of trolling.”

“How Lola Bunny Broke the Internet”.

“Republicans were happy to support vaccine when they could credit Trump, then went on the attack”.

“Most of us know generally what “stab in the back” mythology refers to but it is worth understanding in the particulars where the idea comes from and how it relates to today.”

If only these people could have had some way to know that getting vaccinated was a great way to protect themselves from serious COVID risk.

The world is a slightly better place now.

RIP, Biz Markie, hip hop musician, DJ, and actor.

The DACA ruling

Ugh.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas ruled Friday that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows certain immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation and receive renewable work permits, is illegal and ordered the Biden administration to stop granting new applications.

Judge Andrew Hanen’s order won’t affect current DACA recipients who have the two-year renewable work permits.

“[T]hese rulings do not resolve the issue of the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and others who have relied upon this program for almost a decade,” Hanen’s order says. “That reliance has not diminished and may, in fact, have increased over time.”

The ruling stems from a 2018 lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and eight other states against the federal argument. The complaint argues that Texas and the other states face irreparable harm because they bear extra costs from providing health care, education and law enforcement protection to DACA recipients.

Across the country there are more than 600,000 DACA recipients, including 101,970 in Texas, which has the second most DACA recipients in the country after California, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In 2012, the Obama administration created the program to allow immigrants who were brought to the country illegally to be able to temporarily avoid deportation, work legally and pay taxes.

Hanen said the Obama administration did not use the right legal procedure to create the program, making it illegal.

The program has survived previous court rulings. But the Trump administration had put an end to the program before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a year ago allowed the federal government to continue it.

The latest ruling will prevent the approval of at least 50,000 new DACA applicants nationwide who applied earlier this year but were not approved before Friday’s ruling, based on USCIS statistics.

There’s a lot of backstory to this, as the original threat of litigation came in 2017. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous blogging.

What we know at this point: The ruling will be appealed, and I think there’s a decent chance that it is put on hold pending appeals. It will still have a negative effect on a lot of people, many of whom have been in a state of limbo already for a decade or more. There’s a good argument that Judge Hanen’s ruling is erroneous, and thus could be overturned. But really, this is now a super duper way-past-due emergency for the Democrats to fix legislatively while they can. The filibuster is the reason the DREAM Act of 2010 (which had I believe 55 votes in favor) didn’t pass – it’s a bit misleading even to say it had “55 votes in favor”, because that was 55 votes to suspend debate and allow for a vote; it never actually got an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor – and we cannot let it be the reason it fails again. There’s talk of including a new DREAM Act in the infrastructure bill that will be passed by reconciliation. It’s ludicrous that we have to resort to such legerdemain to pass a bill that has majority support, but ultimately I don’t care as long as the damn thing passes.

And finally, another thing we have known for a long time is that Ken Paxton has gotta go. Electing Justin Nelson in 2018 would not have stopped this lawsuit – it had already been heard by Election Day that year, and as noted there were eight other states as plaintiffs – but that’s beside the point. Dumping Ken Paxton’s felonious ass will go a long way towards preventing other bad things from happening. In the short term, though: The DREAM Act has got to pass. No excuses, no other way out. Stace has more.

GLO defends P Bush in Congressional hearing

Dude couldn’t be bothered to show up himself, so he had someone else there to defend him.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush did not play a role in the process that left Houston and Harris County without any federal aid for flood mitigation projects, according to a top disaster official with the General Land Office who defended the agency’s scoring criteria during testimony to a congressional committee Thursday.

Bush, who is challenging incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton in the upcoming Republican Party primary, has received bipartisan backlash over the GLO’s allocation of $1 billion in flood project funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, none of which went to the 14 projects sought by the city or county. Bush since has announced that he will ask the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to direct $750 million to the county.

“For the record, the Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was by design recused from the scoring committee and the scoring process,” Heather Lagrone, the GLO’s deputy director of community development and revitalization, told members of a House Financial Services subcommittee. “The commissioner was informed of the competition result only after the projects had been through eligibility review and scored in accordance with the federally approved action plan.”

U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, accused the GLO of using a “rigged formula” to distribute the relief money, defining the process as “the hijacking of a federal mitigation appropriations process.”

“I think that the time has come for a course correction,” Green said.

See here for the background. Didn’t you hear the lady, Rep. Green? LEAVE GEORGE P. BUSH ALOOOOOOOOONE!

It was a chicken move for P Bush to not show up and explain himself, but that’s hardly surprising. And let’s face it, had he been there himself, we’d have gotten the same lies about the ridiculous GLO formula and the “red tape” that was actually in place under Trump, and we never would have gotten a rational explanation for why their formula made any sense.

While coastal communities bore the brunt of Harvey, the GLO disproportionately sent the $1 billion in aid to inland counties that suffered less damage and, by the state’s own measure, are at a lower risk of natural disasters, a Houston Chronicle investigation found last month.

Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock noted during the committee hearing that the GLO declined to award a penny in mitigation funds to Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, nor to Jefferson County, which saw the heaviest rainfall during the storm, nor to Houston and Harris County, which saw the most damage from the storm.

“The Texas General Land Office’s process for allocating granted zero dollars to all of these localities, and it was only after bipartisan political pressure that the GLO retroactively requested $750 million for Harris County,” Haddock said.

The GLO process got the result it intended. Everything else is details, and a reminder of why you cannot put bad faith actors in positions of power.

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July.

Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses.

Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said.

COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives.

Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated.

“If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said.

Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

According to KHOU, “Almost every county in the area is seeing an increase in new cases”, and “Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area have jumped about 65% in the last two weeks”. (Cases and hospitalizations are rising nationally, too.) They show data from Harris and its surrounding counties except for Liberty and Waller. Harris has the lowest percentage increase, but it’s the biggest county so its sheer numbers are the highest.

We know how Travis County is responding to its increase in cases. Harris County had dropped its threat level to Yellow in May. Are we looking at a step up again?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has yet to announce any rollbacks for the region.

“There is no conceivable reason why a single additional hospital bed in our healthcare system should be filled with someone who is sick from COVID-19 when vaccines are readily available and free,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office.

Vaccination rates plateaued in late April amid high hesitancy rates and difficulty accessing immunization sites. In recent months, health officials piloted financial incentives such as scholarships to encourage younger people to sign up for an appointment.

Stay tuned on that. Maybe there’s some headway to be made with younger people, whose vax rates are the lowest among age groups. Better happen quickly, that’s all I can say.

A portrait of David Adickes

Nice feature story on my favorite sculptor, who is 94 years old and still making art. Not the giant Presidential head kind of art, sadly, but art nonetheless.

At 94, [David] Adickes takes measured, shuffling steps. But his output remains astonishing as he continues to add to an enormous — both in scope and volume — amount of work.

“I still do something every day,” he says, with a little shrug. “I don’t know what else I’d do.”

Adickes may be the most visible artist in this region. His supersized Sam Houston looms off Interstate 45 in his hometown of Huntsville; his “Virtuoso” cellist remains an eye-catching piece in the downtown Theater District; and then there are those heads that resemble a cross between American history class and Easter Island. His bright and surreal “Three Colorful Friendly Trees” is part of the True North 2021 installation along the Heights Esplanade. And more recently he contributed works ranging from 1965 to 2021 as part of “Rooted Renewal,” a new dual exhibit with Marthann Masterson at the Bisong Art Gallery.

Among the pieces in “Rooted Renewal” — its title, in part, a reference to a resetting post-pandemic — is a painting Adickes sold ages ago to Elvis Presley. The exhibition also includes the last unsold work from his mid-1970s Spring Trees series. And a new work, “Put a Bird On It,” finds Adickes experimenting with a technique he’s temporarily calling “3D acrylic,” which involves acrylic paint over cast stone on canvas.

“I studied in Paris, and I traveled around the world,” Adickes says of the path that led him to the works in the show. “But I was born in Huntsville, which is where my mother was at the time. I suppose I wanted to be near her as a baby; otherwise, it would’ve been New York. But it was her call.”

Adickes’ jokes are much drier than Houston.

I don’t have a point to make, I just love a story about the guy whose work has brought me so much joy. Go read it for yourself.

P Bush files a Paxton-style lawsuit

What a wannabe.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, claiming the president is illegally preventing the construction of a wall on the Texas-Mexico border.

Bush announced the lawsuit Wednesday, saying his office is suing Biden and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “on grounds that (the Biden administration) is illegally preventing the border wall from being constructed.”

“The issue here is simple — no man is above the law. And that includes President Biden,” Bush said.

[…]

The complaint by Bush, filed in U.S. District Court in McAllen on Tuesday, argues that between 2018 and 2021, Congress approved $5 billion for the construction of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and Biden had no legal right to halt construction on the project.

On Inauguration Day, Biden issued an executive order calling the border wall a “waste of money” and saying that it was “not a serious policy solution.”

The complaint asks federal judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa to rule Biden’s order illegal and to stop Mayorkas from diverting the funds earmarked for the wall to other uses.

“This lawsuit is not about whether border walls are effective. It is about whether a President may unilaterally override these duly enacted appropriations bills to fulfill a campaign promise,” the lawsuit says.

It’s about more than that, I think we can all agree. I have no idea what if any merits there are to this suit – I couldn’t find any legal analysis in the stories I found while googling around. I suspect that the political mission has been accomplished, and that’s what really matters. We’ll see about the rest.

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Can you tell me how to get (safely) to Memorial Park?

Safety is nice.

A $200 million-plus plan to improve [Memorial Park] is aimed at making it a signature destination for all Houstonians. With that success, though, will come the same challenges anything popular in Houston faces: How will people get there, where will they park and what can be done to give them an option other than driving?

A variety of projects are planned or proposed to offer safer or additional options, including new bike paths, wider sidewalks, even a possible Metropolitan Transit Authority hub to rapid buses. All of the ideas, however, are years away and still face some public scrutiny that could alter the plans.

Efforts to create or expand trails follow what has been the largest park investment in a generation — a $70 million land bridge that creates a hillside through which Memorial Drive passes, connecting the park’s north and south sides.

[…]

One of the biggest challenges to improving access to Memorial is the big roads that border it: Loop 610 and Interstate 10. Running along the west and north edges of the park, the freeways are a barrier where the freeway intersections with Washington Avenue to the northeast and Memorial and Woodway to the west can be chaotic for cyclists and pedestrians.

“What we want is a safe, easy, biking solution,” said Bob Ethington, director of research and economic development for the Uptown Houston District.

Ethington said along Loop 610, officials are considering how best to get runners and cyclists as far away from cars as practical. Those plans include a connection from the south, parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as far south as San Felipe.

The trail skirts a rail line south of the park, in the River Oaks area dotted with some of the most expensive homes within Loop 610. Other projects could follow, taking the trail as far as Brays Bayou and creating what could become a freeway of sorts for bicyclists between two popular bayou routes.

The key connection to the heart of Uptown, on the other side of Loop 610, is a planned trail running near the top of Uptown Park Boulevard, where it curves into the southbound frontage road, that will follow Buffalo Bayou beneath the clatter of 16 lanes of traffic above.

That connection, which could include a new bridge strictly for the trail across the bayou, would eliminate a stress-inducing street crossing for cyclists and runners at Woodway.

“The corner is terrible and the (Loop 610) underpass is not great,” said Randy Odinet, vice president of capital projects and facilities for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The Uptown work, which follows Briar Hollow in the neighborhood south of Buffalo Bayou, recently received a boost, when $4 million of the $5.3 million price tag was included in the House version of a federal infrastructure bill at the request of Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, who represents the area.

For travelers headed to the park from the east, two planned projects could help. Construction is set to start in about 20 months on a new bike lane spliced through a narrow piece of public land on the south side of Interstate 10. The Texas Department of Transportation project would eliminate a broken link between the Heights and Shepherd corridors and Memorial Park, caused by I-10.

Now, cyclists can use the Heights Hike and Bike Trail and White Oak Trail to access the Cottage Grove neighborhood north of I-10, then a pedestrian bridge atop I-10 at Cohn. About a half-mile from the park at the end of the Cohn crossing, however, is where the easy access stops. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks and nearby streets force runners back to TC Jester, which many avoid because of the heavy traffic and truck volumes and high speeds.

Design of the TxDOT project is not finalized, but the work likely will include a trail along the south side of I-10 from Cohn to Washington, through a slice of state-owned right of way and beneath the UP tracks. At Washington, it is expected to cross at the intersection and into the park.

The project also will replace the Cohn bridge with a wider span and assorted street-level improvements north of I-10 along the frontage road.

Most Houston residents and travelers, however, cannot simply hop on a bike and get to the park. Current transit offerings are limited to three bus routes, two of which come every 30 minutes. The third, the Route 85 Antoine/Washington that skirts the eastern edge of the park, is the only frequent route, coming every 15 minutes. More than a dozen bus routes pull into the Northwest Transit Center less than 2,500 feet away from the park, but those 2,500 feet are impassable because of the I-10 interchange with Loop 610.

A planned bus rapid transit route along I-10, however, could radically improve access if Metro were to include a stop at the park. Metro officials, while not committing, said they are considering a possible stop at Washington on the park’s boundary.

The idea of a Memorial Park station has drawn interest from transit riders and officials. Often, transit is built and discussed in terms of moving people solely to jobs and schools, Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

“It is also about getting us to recreation facilities, parks,” Ramabhadran said.

Plans for the BRT line include an elevated busway along I-10 so large buses can move in their own lanes from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston. Transit officials plan various public meetings before any station decision is made.

“You cannot order a BRT corridor on Amazon and have it delivered next week,” Ramabhadran said.

It all sounds good to me, and you can see each of the planned items in the embedded image. Years ago, when it was still possible to dream about more light rail lines being built in Houston, I proposed a rail line that was a combination of Inner Katy/Washington Avenue and the current Uptown BRT line, which would have included a Memorial Drive segment. That was included for the purpose of making it easier for more people to get to one of Houston’s biggest parks and premier destinations. That idea will never happen, but seeing a proposal for a Memorial Park-accessible stop on the now-proposed Inner Katy BRT line makes me smile. It really is kind of crazy that the only way to get to Memorial Park for nearly everyone is to drive there, especially considering how impossible it used to be to park. There’s more parking now, but we could get a lot more people into Memorial Park if they didn’t have to drive to get there. I very much look forward to seeing these projects take shape.

Is it a car that flies or a plane that drives?

It’s a little of both.

Photo from Klein Vision

A prototype flying car has completed a 35-minute flight between international airports in Nitra and Bratislava, Slovakia.

The hybrid car-aircraft, AirCar, is equipped with a BMW engine and runs on regular petrol-pump fuel.

Its creator, Prof Stefan Klein, said it could fly about 1,000km (600 miles), at a height of 8,200ft (2,500m), and had clocked up 40 hours in the air so far.

It takes two minutes and 15 seconds to transform from car into aircraft.

The narrow wings fold down along the sides of the car.

Prof Klein drove it straight off the runway and into town upon arrival, watched by invited reporters.

He described the experience, early on Monday morning, as “normal” and “very pleasant”.

In the air, the vehicle reached a cruising speed of 170km/h.

It can carry two people, with a combined weight limit of 200kg (31 stone).

But unlike drone-taxi prototypes, it cannot take off and land vertically and requires a runway.

I’ve blogged about flying cars a few times before – what can I say, the subject is fascinating, and also somewhat terrifying – with the first entry in 2017, when Uber was talking about having an “intra-urban flying vehicle network” available in 2020, with Dallas and Fort Worth being its target. Didn’t quite work out the way they envisioned – they’re now talking 2023 as a more realistic date – but that’s the way it goes. This particular model is basically a car with retractable wings; other models we have heard about include flying motorcycles and something that looks like a drone capable of carrying multiple humans. That latter model is likely a few more years off, but who knows with any of this.

There are a lot of concerns about these things, including noise, safety, and of course the climate effect, but so far that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying. As with driverless cars, which are still in their infancy and still have some major engineering challenges to solve, I think it’s a matter of when and not if for these things. We ought to at least think about how we want to integrate them into society, rather than react when they do show up. You can see more pictures and videos for this particular flying car at the Klein Vision website. CNet and Yahoo have more.

Day 4 quorum busting post: You may have won a free trip home!

I don’t think the Dems are going to claim this prize.

The push to bring fugitive Texas Democrats back to Austin could be reaching new heights.

House Speaker Dade Phelan on Thursday said he will charter a plane Saturday from Washington D.C. to Austin to retrieve the Democrats who fled to the nation’s capital to avoid voting on an elections bill that they say would restrict voting rights.

“I am demanding all of our colleagues in D.C. to contact my staff immediately in order to secure their seat on the plane and return to Austin in order to do the state’s business,” Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, said in a statement. “The State of Texas is waiting.”

The decamped Democrats, however, said they won’t be riding.

“The Speaker should save his money. We won’t be needing a plane anytime soon as our work to save democracy from Trump Republicans is just getting started,” they said in a shared statement. “We’re not going anywhere and suggest instead the speaker end this charade of a session, which is nothing more than a monthlong campaign for Gov. Abbott’s re-election. The speaker should adjourn the House Sine Die.”

May need to work on the marketing pitch. I don’t know that there’s anything Speaker Phelan would be empowered to offer the Dems as an incentive to return, given the shit sandwich that is the special session agenda, but that’s about the only approach I can think of that might have a chance, at least at this time. Just waiting it out and hoping/expecting that circumstances will eventually compel enough of them to return is the most likely play.

Of course, Speaker Phelan can continue applying the stick and hope for the best.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody was stripped of his position as speaker pro tem of the Texas House on Thursday in the first major backlash for a Democrat who left the chamber to prevent a vote on a GOP priority elections bill.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, announced the removal of Moody as speaker pro tem in a memo Thursday morning before the House was set to return Thursday. He gave no statement but said the removal was effective immediately.

“The most important titles in my life will never change: Dad, Husband, El Pasoan,” Moody said in a statement. “Nothing political has ever even cracked the top three, so nothing has changed about who I am or what my values are.”

Moody has served as speaker pro tem for two sessions under two speakers. He is one Phelan’s top allies in the Democratic party, and the two have worked together to push bills aimed at making fixes to the state’s criminal justice system.

The speaker pro tem performs the duties of the speaker in their absence. Moody’s appointment to the position was seen as an olive branch by Republicans and raised the El Paso Democrat’s profile and stature in the chamber.

Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, blasted Phelan’s decision in a statement on social media.

“The smartest decision Dade Phelan has made as speaker was to appoint Joe Moody Speaker Pro Tem,” he said. “Joe works tirelessly to help lead the House and is respected by [Democrat] & [Republican] members. That’s why the Speaker’s decision to remove Joe is so short-sighted and so dumb.”

Turner also issued another joint statement with Democratic caucus leaders Rafael Anchía of Dallas, Garnet Coleman of Houston and Nicole Collier of Fort Worth.

“We know first hand that Speaker Pro Tem Joe Moody has done more than any other member on the House Floor to protect our Chamber and the institution of the Texas House. It’s unfortunate that Speaker Phelan has been unable to do the same,” the statement read.

It also issued a warning shot to Phelan about his next speaker race.

““We are a coequal branch of government. When Governor Abbott decided to defund the whole legislature, Speaker Phelan was silent. There needs to be 76 members who decide who our next Speaker is, and more than 60 are not there.”

I get it. Phelan is undoubtedly under a lot of pressure from Republicans to Do Something about the Dems in his chamber. This is an obvious move, but it’s unlikely to have any effect. It may also have its own cost to Phelan, as noted. We’ll see if it works out for him.

I don’t have anything else today, but in case you missed it yesterday, there was good ol’ Ted Cruz flapping his gums about people leaving the state at inappropriate times. I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

More briefs in the lawsuit over the line item veto

I sure hope this means a ruling is on the horizon.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss a lawsuit brought by House Democrats over Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to veto funding for the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers improperly blocked the issue from being resolved when they fled the state.

After Abbott vetoed the portion of the coming two-year state budget that funds the Legislature and its staff, known as Article X, more than 50 Democratic state House members filed a lawsuit accusing the Republican governor of violating a constitutional provision that provides for three separate and independent branches of government. In calling lawmakers back to Austin for a 30-day special session, Abbott gave them the option to restore the funding.

In a filing Tuesday evening, Solicitor General Judd Stone wrote that the special session is the “forum for addressing the very issue in dispute, yet it is (the Democrats) who are preventing that outcome by purposefully stopping the Legislature from being able to exercise its constitutionally granted powers.”

[…]

Stone went on to argue that the matter “is a political question unsuited for adjudication” that should instead be resolved by the legislature.

“By staging another walkout, …House Democrats are forcing the Legislature into the result they say would injure them—the lack of Article X funding,” Stone wrote. “Proceeding with this case would improperly reward (Democrats) for their misguided attempt to manufacture jurisdiction and would waste this Court’s resources.”

Democrats responded to the filing Wednesday, arguing there is no link between the lawsuit and Democrats’ quorum break. Chad Dunn, the Democrats’ attorney in the case, framed the court filing by Paxton’s office as an “attempt to blame the victim by putting the onus on the Legislature to rectify Governor Abbott’s unconstitutional conduct.”

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” Dunn wrote. “Rather, they confirm the need for this Court to decide whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sorry, I Am Not A Lawyer and I clearly have a rooting interest in the outcome, but the state’s argument is transparently self-serving. Abbott is entirely the reason we’re in this situation. He vetoed the funding. Only he had the power to call a special session, and to set the agenda, to give the Lege a chance to respond. He could have only put Article X funding on the agenda, at least until that was resolved. The only way out of this conundrum that doesn’t give all the power to Abbott is to declare that he cannot veto the funding for the legislative branch. (And again, if he can do that, he can also veto the Supreme Court’s funding.) The state constitution makes no sense otherwise.

The Statesman gives more of the Democrats’ response.

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” their lawyers told the court in a response filed Wednesday.

If anything, the quorum break that has hamstrung the special session demands the court’s answer to the central question: “Whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives,” the Democrats argued.

What’s more, they said, Abbott has not said he will sign into law a bill restoring the money.

“There is good reason to think he will not unless and until the Legislature has first fulfilled his other agenda items,” said the letter signed by lawyers Jim Dunnam and Chad Dunn.

Instead of accepting the argument that Abbott’s veto is an improper intrusion on another branch of government, Republicans are working to “blame the victim” by putting the onus on lawmakers to correct Abbott’s unconstitutional action, they argued.

“It is the Governor’s unconstitutional veto that is harming (House Democrats) by defunding the Legislature — not the subsequent decision by some Members to push back on this unprecedented break in the constitutional structure by breaking quorum,” Dunnam and Dunn wrote.

I do sympathize with the Supreme Court not wanting to rule on this hot potato, but if they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t have run for the Court in the first place. Put on your grownup pants and do what needs to be done.