Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Senate is right back on the anti-trans agenda

In case you were wondering.

The Texas Senate on Monday quickly revived and advanced a bill banning gender-affirming health care for children under 18, days after a similar House bill failed to advance in the lower chamber.

Under Senate Bill 1311, any physician who prescribes hormone therapy or puberty suppression treatment for the purpose of gender transitioning would have their medical license revoked and could not be covered under liability insurance. It would also apply to doctors who perform transition-related surgeries for children, which is rarely used before puberty. The Senate gave the bill initial approval in a 17-13 vote. The bill still needs a final approval in the upper chamber before it can be considered by the House.

LGBTQ advocates have decried the bill as unconstitutional and criticized its negative impact on mental health. In a Senate State Affairs committee hearing, transgender Texans and medical experts testified that access to gender confirmation care is key to reducing the elevated risks of suicide and depression among transgender Texans. Businesses leaders also singled out S.B. 1311 as a bill they say may scare workers and businesses away from Texas.

The bill’s author, Edgewood Republican Bob Hall, said its intent was to improve the mental health of Texans who may later come to regret their transition, citing statistics that many children may cease to experience gender dysphoria later in life.

However, experts have said those studies often include children who aren’t transgender, but just don’t conform to typical gender norms, such as a boy who plays with dolls.

[…]

Last week, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Texas vowed to challenge in court House Bill 1399, the House’s version of the ban, if it passed. Though the bill later failed to meet a deadline in the House last week, Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal said the bills were “nearly identical” and presented similar legal issues.

See here for the previous update. Two things you need to keep in mind. One is that Bob Hall is a hydroxychlorquine humper, which among many other things makes him completely unqualified to offer any medical opinions about anything. And two, I’ll let Ross Ramsey explain.

[L]awmakers have a sprint in front of them as they hurry to finish the work they promised voters earlier in the session. They have two weeks left on the calendar, but earlier deadlines loom on their internal calendars. It’s already too late for a House bill to be considered for the first time in the House; another deadline — for Senate bills — comes next Tuesday.

The legislation promised and proposed after February’s storm and the outages that came with it — from a warning system for the state when something like that is approaching to weatherization that would help electric plants stay in operation — still hasn’t won legislative approval.

The state budget is pending, but on track. But lawmakers haven’t explained how they’ll spend billions in federal relief money that isn’t included in that budget. That’s still on the list. So are many of the police reforms promised by Abbott and others after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd almost a year ago.

The list of things still undone is formidable — a regular feature of this stage of a legislative session.

Lawmakers haven’t finished yet, but they haven’t had to. Now they’re up against a hard deadline. That’s when we find out what they really think is necessary.

This is what the Senate has prioritized. Never forget that. This is what 2022 has to be about.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

Giving a hand to music venues

This is a good idea.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Qualifying Texas music venues could get up to $100,000 each in tax rebates on alcohol sales under legislation that has passed the House and Senate and now is on its way to Gov. Greg Abbott to be signed into law.

While paving the path for the next Selena, Roy Orbison or Bob Wills is important, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, said the program is also about the 200,000 people who make their living in Texas music and the tourists who come to explore the state’s rich music history.

“The Texas music industry is a vital portion of the state’s economy,” Alvarado said in promoting Senate Bill 609, which would create the music incubator rebate program.

The state promotes the music industry prominently in tourism guides to generate business, but there has been little government help available to keep the doors open in iconic Texas music venues, and a number of them have been bulldozed in the last few years:

Threadgill’s in Austin — the former Armadillo World Headquarters — where Beaumont’s Janis Joplin got her start.

Fitzgerald’s in Houston where ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bun B ruled the stage.

The Roxy in Laredo, where Selena would meet key members of her band and play many shows as she was starting in the 1980s.

All are gone.

[…]

These aren’t just neighborhood bars looking for a handout, said Rebecca Reynolds, president of the Music Venue Alliance. She said the venues are an important part of the state’s cultural arts and need to be recognized by government leaders as such.

“Live music is a big part of who we are in Texas,” she said.

She said there is a value to the state for keeping places like these producing the music that has become a big piece of American history.

If Abbott signs the legislation, the music incubator program would be developed by the state’s Music, Film, Television, and Multimedia Office. By September 2022, the office would begin taking applications for a portion of the funding. The program would be funded by taxes on alcohol sales at the venues.

To be eligible for funding, venues would have to have an audience capacity of 3,000 people or less. Music festivals would also be eligible if they are in a county with a population of less than 100,000. Those venues and festivals have to have been operating for at least 2 years to be eligible.

Reynolds said it was important to make sure the little venues and festivals get help, and not the big music festivals like SXSW and the ACL Festival in Austin.

Here’s SB609. I see this as one part historic preservation and one part hedging against future disruptions like the COVID pandemic. There was money in the recent American Rescue Act that will help music venues for now, and this will hopefully help for the longer term. It’s a worthwhile investment.

Here come the young people

I’m just sitting here waiting for the Census data.

Garima Vyas always wanted to live in a big city. She thought about New York, long the destination for 20-something strivers, but was wary of the cost and complicated subway lines.

So Vyas picked another metropolis that’s increasingly become young people’s next-best option — Houston.

Now 34, Vyas, a tech worker, has lived in Houston since 2013. “I knew I didn’t like New York, so this was the next best thing,” Vyas said. “There are a lot of things you want to try when you are younger — you want to try new things. Houston gives you that, whether it’s food, people or dating. And it’s cheap to live in.”

The choices by Vyas and other members of the millennial generation of where to live have reshaped the country’s political geography over the past decade. They’ve left New York and California and settled in places less likely to be settings for TV sitcoms about 20-something urbanites, including Denver, Houston and Orlando, Florida. Drawn by jobs and overlooked cultural amenities, they’ve helped add new craft breweries, condominiums and liberal voters to these once more-conservative places.

The U.S. Census Bureau this coming week is expected to formally tally this change by releasing its count of population shifts in the once-a-decade reallocation of congressional seats. It’s is expected to lead to the Sun Belt gaining seats at the expense of states in the north.

Most projections have Texas gaining three seats, Florida two and Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon one each. Expected to lose seats are Alabama, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, West Virginia — and California.

The relocations have reshuffled politics. Once solidly conservative places such as Texas have seen increasingly large islands of liberalism sprout in their cities, driven by the migration of younger adults, who lean Democratic. Since 2010, the 20-34-year-old population has increased by 24% in San Antonio, 22% in Austin and 19% in Houston, according to an Associated Press analysis of American Community Survey data. In November’s election, two states that also saw sharp growth in young people in their largest cities — Arizona and Georgia — flipped Democratic in the presidential contest.

These demographic winners are almost all in the Sun Belt, but climate is not the only thing they have in common.

“These places are growing not just because they’re warmer, it’s because that’s where the jobs are and young people are moving there,” said Ryan Wiechelt, a geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Welcome to Houston, but I have to ask – you thought the subway system was confusing? I figured it out as a high school freshman, but to each their own. It’s an interesting read, and there’s a lot to think about in terms of how voting patterns have changed and what the near-term future trends look like, but let’s keep a couple of things in mind. One is that a big part of the shift in 2018 and 2020 was higher-income college-educated white people who had been living here changing their votes. You don’t see the kind of dramatic and fast shift in CD07 and HD134 without that. Indeed, there was polling evidence following the 2018 election to suggest that native Texans voted for Beto O’Rourke at a higher rate than people who moved to Texas did. That’s just one data point, and it doesn’t negate the observation that young newcomers have greatly shifted the center of political gravity in the big urban areas like greater Houston. Two, for what it’s worth home prices in Texas in general and in the Houston area in particular have been rising sharply of late. We’re still a cheaper place to live than New York or California, but there are no inexpensive homes to be had in a lot of neighborhoods.

The story also touches on the state politics in places like Texas and Florida, which are well out of step not just with younger people in general, but on some key issues with the public as a whole. I don’t know if that might make Texas in particular less attractive to these folks, but this is one big reason why there’s been a lot of corporate pushback to voter suppression and anti-trans legislation – the companies want to make sure they can get the workers they want, and those workers don’t want to live places that they see as backwards and repressive. There’s a lot in tension, and something will have to give sooner or later. I know what outcome I’m hoping for, but it’s not going to happen by itself.

(Note: This is an older story that I had in my drafts and hadn’t gotten around to publishing just yet. We of course now have the apportionment data. Doesn’t change the thesis of this article, but since the timing was mentioned, I wanted to clarify.)

Precinct analysis: State Senate districts 2020

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

Hey, look, we now have some 2020 district data. I found it all on the new Texas Legislative Council redistricting landing page. As of last week, when I went digging, only the State Senate and State House have 2020 data, so I’m going to spend a little time with them.

The 2020 State Senate election results by district are here. The first thing you need to know is that Joe Biden carried 15 of the 31 Senate districts. Here they are, in descending order of Biden’s percentage:


Dist    Biden    Trump   Biden%   Trump%
========================================
23    237,533   52,415    80.9%    17.8%
13    208,895   46,896    80.8%    18.1%
14    347,953  132,727    70.8%    27.0%
29    180,899   87,022    66.5%    32.0%
26    191,570   92,307    66.4%    32.0%
06    123,709   61,089    66.1%    32.6%
15    208,552  110,485    64.5%    34.1%
27    125,040   90,758    57.3%    41.6%
16    210,107  159,233    56.0%    42.5%
19    176,256  149,924    53.3%    45.3%
21    155,987  132,733    53.2%    45.3%
10    199,896  170,688    53.1%    45.4%
20    143,598  128,363    52.2%    46.6%
17    212,242  193,514    51.6%    47.0%
08    231,252  211,190    51.3%    46.9%

For the record, Beto carried the same fifteen districts in 2018. I’ll do a separate post on comparisons with other years, but I figured that was a thought many of you might have, so let’s address it here.

Only Biden carried the two Republican districts, SD08 and SD17. The range for other Democrats in SD08 was 46.4% (Chrysta Castaneda) to 48.1% (Elizabeth Frizell), and in SD17 from 46.5% (Gisela Triana) to 49.0% (Tina Clinton). Every Democrat got over 50% in each of the 13 Dem-held districts. This is consistent with what we’ve seen in Harris and Fort Bend Counties, where Biden outperformed the rest of the ticket by three or four points. For what it’s worth, we saw a very similar pattern in 2016, when Hillary Clinton ran ahead of other Dems, in some cases by quite a bit more. I’m thinking specifically of CDs 07 and 32, but there are other examples. My big question all throughout the 2018 cycle was whether those voters who voted for Clinton but otherwise generally voted Republican downballot would be inclined to vote for more Democrats that year, and judging by the results I’d say the answer was mostly Yes. We’ll have to see what happens this time around.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the lower-than-expected percentages in the Latino districts. SD20 is Chuy Hinojosa, and he won re-election by a 58.5% to 48.5% margin. SD21 is Judith Zaffirini, and she cruised 60.1% to 39.9%, while our old friend Eddie Lucio took SD27 64.8% to 35.2%. You may recall that in an earlier post on the Latino vote in 2020, one factor put forward for Trump’s better-than-expected performance was incumbency. As you can see, these incumbent Dems all ran comfortably ahead of Joe Biden. Now take a look at SD19, where Roland Gutierrez knocked out incumbent Pete Flores with a seemingly unimpressive 49.9% to 46.7% score. However much stock you put in the overall hypothesis, I’d say Flores’ incumbency helped him here. Not enough, thankfully. As for the two urban districts, SDs 06, 26, and 29, I’ve discussed SD06 before, so I’ll skip it. SD26 is basically on par with 2016, while SD29 slipped a bit from then but improved by a little bit over 2012. Again, I’ll get into more detail in a subsequent post.

Where Democrats really improved is in the whiter urban and suburban districts. SD14 was always a Democratic stronghold, but it really punched above its weight in 2020. No Republican district generated as many votes for Trump as SD14 did for Biden, and only one Republican district had a wider margin for Trump. We Dems maybe don’t appreciate Travis County as much as we should. I’ve discussed SD15 and how it went from a solid Dem district to a powerhouse in 2020. Look at SD16, which was a Dem takeover in 2018, and marvel at how Mitt Romney won it in 2012 with 57% of the vote. This is the kind of voting behavior shift that should have Republicans worried, and as you’ll see there’s more where that came from. Similar story at a lesser scale in SD10, which Trump carried in 2016 by a fraction of a point.

And then we have the two Republican districts that Biden carried. Both were battlegrounds in 2018, and I think the closeness of the race in SD08 was a genuine surprise to a lot of people, myself included. That’s a district that has shifted enormously, but it’s got more company than you might think. To understand that better, let’s look at the districts that Trump won, as above sorted by the percentage that Biden got.


Dist    Biden    Trump   Biden%   Trump%
========================================
09    161,000  166,632    48.3%    50.0%
25    256,178  302,919    45.1%    53.3%
07    188,150  232,201    44.1%    54.5%
05    199,253  250,002    43.4%    54.5%
12    211,292  270,287    43.2%    55.2%
11    161,818  232,156    40.4%    58.0%
02    138,917  208,774    39.4%    59.2%
18    161,933  271,898    36.8%    61.9%
22    128,415  253,102    33.2%    65.4%
04    142,522  281,331    33.2%    65.5%
24    126,340  257,861    32.3%    65.9%
30    121,646  329,601    26.5%    71.9%
01     92,593  265,715    25.5%    73.3%
28     76,925  222,872    25.3%    73.3%
03     77,364  294,559    20.6%    78.4%
31     59,684  229,768    20.3%    78.2%

Biden came within less than six thousand votes of taking a 16th Senate district, which would have been a majority. SD09 was Beto’s nearest miss for a sixteenth as well, though he came a little closer. The top five here for Biden are the same for Beto, with SDs 05 and 07 flipped; indeed, all of these districts are more or less sorted in the same way for both years.

I will have more numbers in the next post to show just how much movement there’s been, but in the meantime feel free to look at the 2012 district results and see for yourself just how uncompetitive these district used to be. The 2011 Senate map gerrymander was extremely effective, until all of a sudden it wasn’t. The Republicans will have some challenges ahead of them this fall.

There is of course some spare capacity for the Republicans to use, but it’s not as simple as it looks. Here’s the current map, to illustrate. None of SDs 01, 28, or 31 is anywhere near a Democratic stronghold. SDs 03 and 30 do border on Dem areas, and of course those other three districts can be sliced and diced to siphon off some Dem support, but it’s not quite that simple. For one thing, shifting the center of gravity in these districts from their rural centers towards the urban and suburban parts of the state means that their rural constituents – the Republican base – get less attention and power. They also increase the risk of a primary challenge from an opponent in a higher population area. I think playing defense will be a more urgent priority for the Republicans – they may try to carve out a more amenable South Texas district to capitalize on the Latino shift, but it’s not clear how persistent that will be, and there are still Voting Rights Act protections in place to guard against that, however tenuously – but maybe they could take a shot at Sen. Powell in SD10. As with the Congressional map, it’s a question of their risk tolerance as well as their appetite for gain. We’ll know in a few months.

Not sure where we are with the anti-trans bills

In limbo, to be honest.

A controversial bill that would ban gender-affirming health care for transgender children missed a key deadline Thursday for consideration in the Texas House.

But a similar Senate bill still has time to be approved by both chambers before the legislative session ends May 31. Senate Bill 1311 also bans gender-affirming treatment and mandates the revocation of a physician’s medical license if someone performs or prescribes such treatment. That bill passed out of committee nearly a month ago. Hours before the House’s deadline to pass many of its own bills, the Senate legislation appeared on a list of bills that could let the upper chamber take up the measure as soon as Friday.

House Bill 1399 targeted gender-confirmation surgery, hormone therapy and puberty suppression treatments. Bill supporters say children could later regret such medical care, which is considered best practice by several major medical associations. Under the bill, physicians who performed or prescribed those treatments could face disciplinary action or be denied a medical license.

“It’s harmful to debate anybody’s basic human and civil rights and to bring humanity into question as something that is not valid,” said Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “That has a lasting impact on people and whether or not they can conceptualize a future for themselves in the state of Texas.”

Shelly Skeen, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, called the bill “one of the most extreme anti-transgender bills in the country” in a statement. Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Texas had decried the bill as unconstitutional and vowed to challenge it in court if it had become law.

There has been a slate of anti-transgender bills in the Texas Legislature this session, many of them still active. Senate Bill 1646, which would label the treatments as child abuse, passed the Senate and is waiting to be heard by the House Public Health Committee that approved HB 1399.

This story is a bit confusing, and I haven’t found anything relevant on Twitter to clarify matters. As I understand it, the Friday deadline was for House bills that have passed out of committee to be brought to the floor. Any House-originated bills that hadn’t been approved by the House by Friday night at midnight were no longer eligible to be voted on by the Senate. That appears to be the fate of HB1399, the bill to deny medical treatment to trans kids. That’s good news, but SB1311 does more or less the same thing, but has not yet been voted on by the Senate. It would need Senate approval and to go through the full House process, which means it is short on time. There’s also SB1646, the bill that defines giving medical treatment to trans kids as child abuse, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a House hearing. The goal here is for it to never make it out of committee, and I expect that’s where advocates will spend much of their energy. Finally, there’s SB29, the anti-trans sports bill that Harold Dutton resuscitated in a fit of pique, and which is farthest along. All it needs is approval from the House, and then possibly a conference committee if the House amends it in some way.

That, as far as I can tell, is where we stand with the headline bills. There are other bills out there that didn’t get as much attention, and if they originated in the House and didn’t get passed on Friday, they’re mostly off the table. There’s always the possibility of an otherwise dead bill getting attached to some other piece of legislation, which can work but can also subject the bill to death by point of order. These last two weeks are where most of the shenanigans occur, so stay awake and be ready to respond to a sudden call to action. The Chron has more.

Former MLB pitcher re-files lawsuit against Astros

It’s the second attempt to sue them for damages over the sign stealing scheme from 2017.

Did not age well

Continuing to maintain that the Astros’ 2017 sign stealing cost him a job in the major leagues, former Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger refiled his lawsuit against the team in Harris County District Court on Thursday afternoon.

Bolsinger, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since allowing four runs and four walks in a third of an inning against the Astros on Aug. 4, 2017, contends his signs were trade secrets under Texas’ Uniform Trade Secrets Act. He is seeking more than $1 million in damages.

A judge in California dismissed Bolsinger’s lawsuit in March, citing in part an attempt by Bolsinger and his attorneys to try to extract sympathy from potential jurors who were fans of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team the Astros beat in the 2017 World Series. In March 2020, the Astros asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss the suit in a motion that called the case “utterly devoid of merit.”

[…]

Bolsinger’s new suit claims the Blue Jays’ signs are defined as “trade secrets” under section 134A.002(6) of the Texas Uniform Trade Secrets Act. Bolsinger alleges “willful and intentional misappropriation of the trade secrets.”

“The owners of these trade secrets had taken the reasonable measures customary in the baseball industry to keep the signs secret,” Bolsinger’s suit reads. “Moreover, the signs derived independent economic value, actual or potential, from not generally being known to, and not being readily ascertainable through proper means by, another person who can obtain economic value from the disclosure or use of the information.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit, which is also embedded in the story. I either missed the dismissal of the original case or I just never got around to blogging it. Regardless, and in my vast legal experience as some guy on the Internet, this sure seems like a longshot. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if the signs were a trade secret, they wouldn’t be trivially easy to crack. I have a hard time believing this will survive a motion to dismiss. You actual lawyers out there, please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong about this.

The tiger is back in custody

What a world.

After a weeklong search, Houston’s missing tiger, India, is now on his way to his new home at an animal sanctuary in Murchison, about three hours north of Houston.

Noelle Almrud, senior director for the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, and her staff arrived at BARC, a Houston animal shelter, Sunday morning to drive the tiger to the sanctuary, which is part of the Humane Society of the United States.

“We are happy to take India back home to Black Beauty, where he would be taken to a half acre naturally wooded habitat with a pool, trees, and a proper nutritious diet,” Almrud said. “Our goal is to provide the best quality of life for the rest of his life.”

The sanctuary houses over 800 animals of more than 40 different species, most of which come from cruelty and neglect situations or law enforcement seizures. It’s also home to Loki and Elsa, two Tigers that were rescued after being kept as pets in Texas.

Almrud said situations like these are why legislation like the Big Cat Safety Act, which limits private ownership and public contact with animals like tigers, is needed. It’s already illegal in Houston, to own large predators, like Tigers, but there are many parts of the state where it isn’t, Almrud said.

For those of you not on Twitter, this is how it all started:

That would keep me inside the house, for sure. The story got weirder from there, involving a dude out on bail for a murder charge. This Chron story from Thursday is a good overview of where everything was just before India was found. Texas Monthly goes into the history of exotic animals in our state, and one thing I learned is that there may be more tigers in Texas than in the wild. I don’t even know what to make of that. Anyway, this particular tiger is now off the streets and someplace safe, and for that we should all be happy.

Weekend link dump for May 16

“A look at how TV and film productions are faking big crowds these days”.

“The end of the emergency phase of the pandemic is in sight in the United States, at least for now. But as the weight of the crisis is lifted, experts are also anticipating a long-term impact on people’s mental health.”

“Eventually, I want to do a post quantifying all the damage to national security Billy Barr did by thwarting an influence-peddling investigation into Rudy Giuliani in 2019. But first, I want to quantify four ways that Barr is known to have obstructed the investigation into Rudy, effectively stalling the investigation for over 500 days.”

“Here’s who’s most and least enthusiastic about getting vaccinated”.

“Wyoming is faced by a transition to renewable energy that’s gathering pace across America, but it has now come up with a novel and controversial plan to protect its mining industry—sue other states that refuse to take its coal.”

“No one has a greater interest than progressives in public safety and low rates of crime. Because rising rates of crime, especially violent crime, drive rightist politics as sure as night follows day. This is a demonstrable fact.”

RIP, Pete du Pont, former Delaware governor and Republican Presidential candidate.

“Well I can see why you don’t want to talk about Dominion Voting Systems because if you do, Newsmax could get sued and lose billions of dollars because these are lies.”

“All of which is to say: Family policy is one piece of the declining birth rates story. But it’s just one piece, and I’m not sure it’s wise, long-term, to justify good family policies by saying they’ll increase births. Because even if they don’t — and the evidence suggests that even the best family policies in the world may not nudge birth rates above replacement rate — they’re still good, necessary policies that women, children, and families need.”

Just say No to reality TV.

“There are four possibilities for holding an attorney general accountable if evidence suggests he did abuse his office to protect a president.”

What if Rudy Giuliani has already been pardoned, and we just don’t know it yet?

“Five Former IRS Chiefs Say Biden’s Plan Would Make Tax System ‘Far Fairer’”.

Using image metadata to infer Q’s location.

“A Closer Look at the DarkSide Ransomware Gang”, the group responsible for the attack on the Colonial Pipeline.

“I mean, if the prevailing theory is that unemployed workers are just sitting back and collecting UI bc it pays more than any job, how about going out and finding somebody who says that that is what they are doing? People have admitted far more embarrassing things to reporters.”

“Pipeline Hackers Say They’re ‘Apolitical,’ Will Choose Targets More Carefully Next Time“. No, that is not from The Onion.

RIP, Norman Lloyd, longtime actor best known for St. Elsewhere. He got his start on Broadway in 1927 and worked with everyone from Alfred Hitchcock to Judd Apatow.

While vaccine resistant people are mostly Republican, vaccine hesitant people are mostly non-voters.

“What we know is that when Trump attempted to subvert the election, a number of Republicans in key positions refused to go along. We know that, for the most part, those individuals won’t be able to stop a similar effort in 2024, and that the party has sent clear signals that standing up for the constitution and the rule of law was unacceptable.”

My early nominee for 2021 Headline of the Year: “Carole Baskin of ‘Tiger King’ blames Ted Cruz, John Cornyn for Houston’s missing tiger on CNN”.

“Joe Manchin’s surprisingly bold proposal to fix America’s voting rights problem”.

“There is a growing public wish to put COVID-19 behind us by eliminating visible signs that it still exists (e.g., mask wearing). But guidance driven by this magical thinking will cause unnecessary harm. Public health measures should protect the larger population, including those who cannot be or have not yet been vaccinated. This CDC guidance proffers individual advice at the expense of the goals of public health.”

“A lot of people may be wondering, with 8 vaccinated breakthrough cases on the Yankees – is this evidence the vaccines aren’t as effective as we thought? The short answer is no.”

“We have a few months to go before we reach ideal vaccination levels. For the sake of at-risk community members’ peace of mind, I’m happy to wear my mask outdoors and in non-intimate indoor environments for a little while longer.”

There’s lots of room to improve sexual harassment training at the Lege

They’re starting from a really low point.

You could miss both questions about sexual harassment and still pass the preventative training required every two years for Texas House staffers.

The online training, a roughly 15-minute lecture on sexual harassment sandwiched between lessons on anti-discrimination and workplace violence, mostly dwells on definitions, with a narrator explaining different types of sexual harassment. But it offers no real-life examples or hypothetical situations — both of which are key to an effective sexual harassment training, three experts who reviewed the video said.

At the end, staffers only need a 70 percent to pass the 10-question quiz. They can take it as many times as needed to pass.

“It felt like it was the very bare minimum that they could afford, and I just kind of viewed it as a box I needed to check,” said one staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear they’d be punished for speaking out without authorization. “Did I feel that it was helpful and gave me resources and equipped me to be able to respond if I felt harassed or discriminated against? No. I did not feel that way.”

The online training is also emblematic of past efforts to address complaints of rampant sexual harassment and “predatory behavior” toward women who work at the Capitol — symptoms of what House Speaker Dade Phelan called “a culture that has been festering in this building far too long.”

Concerns were heightened by reports late last month that a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on a Capitol staffer during an off-site incident.

Phelan has said he is already working to revamp the training and make it an in-person class in the future. The first-year speaker has also established a new email for members, staffers and Capitol visitors to report misconduct anonymously: [email protected]

Late Tuesday, the House passed a bill mandating sexual harassment training for all elected officials and lobbyists; it now heads to the Senate for approval.

See here for some background on the date rape drug incident. The bill passed in the House is HB4661. A similar bill – SB2233 – was passed last week by the Senate, which also closes the lobbyist loophole. I expect at least one of these will make it to Greg Abbott’s desk.

As to how they could actually do better at the Lege, at least from a training perspective:

Three experts who reviewed the House’s online training said it only covers basic legal principles, leaving much room for improvement. Good training, they said, may prepare staffers for uncomfortable situations and give them resources to report misconduct. But the most important part of weeding out sexual harassment in the workplace is buy-in from leaders who hold bad actors accountable and treat survivors with respect and dignity.

“Training is one component, but if you don’t address the culture and all of the underlying issues, it’s almost a waste of time,” said Kelsey Medeiros, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nebraska Omaha, who has spent years researching workplace ethics and sexual harassment. “If you don’t have this environment around it that is going to support what people have just learned, it’s not going to work. It needs to be a culture change.”

Medeiros said the training is especially important in a place like the Legislature, a historically male-dominated work environment that could be conducive to harassment, especially of women.

The experts specialize in ethics and sexual harassment and reviewed the training at the request of Hearst Newspapers, which obtained the video through a public records request.

A switch to in-person training could also help with engagement, since the online format makes it easy for people to turn their attention elsewhere while a video plays, said Jessica Ramey Stender, senior counsel for workplace justice and public policy at Equal Rights Advocates, an activism group that focuses on gender-based issues in the workplace.

It also doesn’t help that some people don’t take the training at all: In some legislative offices, one employee will take the training and print out multiple certificates of completion for their colleagues, staffers said.

“One of the main reasons why sexual harassment trainings aren’t successful is that they can be pretty boring and dry and don’t hit home for people,” Stender said. “In this training, they launch right into the law, without talking about the kind of specific power dynamics that really play into and contribute to sexual harassment occurring in this context and make it more likely to occur.”

In the next iteration of the training, House leadership would do well to include more information about the ways a person experiencing harassment is affected by it, said Amy Averett, the director of the SAFE Institute program, the training and services arm of the Austin-based nonprofit SAFE that works to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct.

“It doesn’t give any context for how difficult it is and why people don’t speak up,” she said. “There wasn’t that kind of invitation or offering of support, kind of thinking about it from the survivor’s perspective.”

Best practices are pretty well known here, so there’s no excuse for getting this wrong. And again, while providing a robust education regimen and a safe way to report incidents is important, nothing will really change until the overall culture changes. It will take a lot more than better training to accomplish that.

Once again, bills to allow more gambling in Texas are dead

Same as it ever was.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

A high-profile push by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to bring casinos to Texas appears doomed at the state Capitol as this year’s legislative session begins to wind down.

Monday was the deadline for House committees to advance that chamber’s bills and joint resolutions, and the deadline passed without the State Affairs Committee voting out the Las Vegas Sands-backed House Joint Resolution 133. The legislation, which got a hearing last month, would let Texas voters decide whether to build “destination resorts” with casinos in the state’s four biggest metropolitan areas.

Identical legislation in the Senate has not even received a committee hearing, though its chances there were always slimmer given the resistance of the presiding officer, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

“We have said from the beginning that we’re committed to Texas for the long haul,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands’ senior vice president of government relations, said in a statement given to The Texas Tribune on Monday evening. “We have made great strides this session and have enjoyed meeting with lawmakers about our vision for destination resorts and answering all the questions they have.”

Abboud added that the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” promising the company “will continue to build on this progress over the final days of the legislation session, and over the coming months, we will continue to build community support across the state to ultimately turn this vision into a reality.”

See here and here for the background. Similar bills to allow betting on sports, which is now a thing that can happen, are also dead. (Yes, yes, I know, nothing is All Dead in the Legislature until sine die, but trust me – there’s no Miracle Max chocolate-coated pill for these bills.)

I’ve been following legislative sessions for almost 20 years now, and I’m pretty sure that in every one, we’ve had an organized and often highly publicized push for some form of gambling legalization. Horse racing, slot machines, poker, casinos, and now sports betting, every session without fail. Sometimes economic misfortune has been cited as a reason why This Time It’s Different, sometimes some other economic reason is given. Lamentations about people going to Louisiana or Oklahoma to get their gamble on are always a part of the ritual, as is the dredging up of a poll showing popular support for whatever form of gambling is being touted. We used to have a Republican Speaker whose family money came from horse racing. This time, we had an investment from Sheldon Adelson, gambling mogul and Republican super-duper-donor. Each was supposed to be a way to crack open the door. And without fail, every session it all ends with an unceremonious thud.

I am as you know ambivalent about expanded gambling. I don’t have any philosophical opposition to it, but I also don’t believe it to be all that good for the state, as it comes with a truckload of externalities. I do think that much like expanded access to marijuana, it’s coming to Texas sooner or later, if only because enough people want them. In both cases, the simple reason why these measures (the pro-pot ones are also highly touted and written about in breathless fashion) don’t get anywhere is that Dan Patrick opposes them. For reasons unclear to me, that usually merits little more than a one-paragraph acknowledgement towards the end of the stories. Dan Patrick won’t be in charge forever – if we’re lucky, this will be his last regular session to lord over – and that’s one reason why I expect things to eventually change. Until then, the smart money will always be to completely disregard the puff pieces about the hot new gambling advocacy alliance and bet on nothing happening. If there’d been a line on that and I’d been smart enough to play it I could put both my kids through college on that by now.

Reopening schools and the COVID rate

Reopening schools led to more COVID cases. I mean, this is not a surprise, right?

When Texas schools returned to in-person education last fall, the spread of the coronavirus “gradually but substantially accelerated,” leading to at least 43,000 additional cases and 800 additional deaths statewide, according to a study released Monday.

The study was done by University of Kentucky researchers for the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and tracked weekly average COVID-19 cases in the eight weeks before and eight weeks after the state’s school districts sent students back to school in the fall.

The researchers said the additional cases they tracked after students began returning to schools represented 12% of the state’s total cases during the eight weeks after reopening and 17% of deaths.

They analyzed three things: school district reopening plans in every county, COVID-19 cases and deaths, and cellphone data that showed how adult movement changed once a community’s children went back to in-person learning.

Researchers chose Texas because, by the fall term, most schools around the country were still closed as Texas and a handful of other states were reopening in “less-than-ideal circumstances,” said Aaron Yelowitz, an economics professor at the University of Kentucky and one of the study’s researchers. The state also provided good conditions for pre-vaccine study, he added, since data was collected from May 2020 until January of this year, when vaccine rollout was still slow.

Although more adult Texans have since been vaccinated — about 30% had been fully vaccinated as of Saturday — Yelowitz said there are still communities in which the study’s findings could matter moving forward, like areas with more vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-resistant people.

My kids have been back at school since December. Their schools were limiting themselves to 25% capacity, the kid would eat lunch at their desks, I trusted they would all be wearing masks, and they wanted to go back. It was a risk, and we’ve made it through – my older daughter is now vaccinated, and daughter #2 will be getting her shot as soon as we can get them now that younger kids are eligible.

We can all debate the risk mitigation calculations people have made regarding their kids and in-person school. I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed to keep their kids home, and I don’t blame anyone who wanted or needed their kids to go back to school. I do think it was wrong to not prioritize teachers and other school staff for vaccinations – they should have been in group 1B, along with grocery story employees and other essential workers – and I definitely disagree with any school district that eased or removed mask mandates. It’s a failure of our state government that we didn’t take all reasonable steps to minimize the risk of school reopenings, and now we can put a number on that failure. I don’t expect anyone in state leadership to accept any responsibility for that. But we can do something about it.

You can lose the mask if you’re fully vaxxed

Do your part, reap the reward.

Federal health officials reversed course Thursday and advised that people who are fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks and observing social distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings.

It’s welcome news for many who have grown weary of the safety precautions more than 14 months into the global public health crisis and is a significant milestone in returning to pre-pandemic life. But the announcement will likely give new life to the debate about requiring vaccinations that has been playing out in Texas and across the nation — and it comes as less than a third of Texans are fully vaccinated.

“We have all longed for this moment,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said from the White House on Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things that you had stopped doing because of the pandemic.”

But Walensky cautioned that the CDC’s guidance comes with exceptions. Vaccinated people should continue to wear masks and distance themselves from others in medical settings and around high-risk populations, such as doctor’s offices, hospitals and long-term care facilities, and while traveling aboard airplanes, busses and trains. Incarcerated people and people in homeless shelters should also continue to observe safety precautions.

[…]

More than 11 million Texans had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Tuesday, according to state data. Nearly 31% of the state’s residents are fully vaccinated. But the rate at which Texas is vaccinating its residents has slowed despite ample supply. An April poll by the University of Texas at Austin and The Texas Tribune found that 36% of Texans said they were either reluctant to receive the vaccine or would refuse to get it, including nearly half of the state’s Republicans.

Peter Hotez, a preeminent infectious disease expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, said on Twitter that he supported the announcement, but that it carries a risk in places like Texas.

“COVID19 immunization rates in my part of the country, TX + South, are still lagging the rest of the nation, so I worry about a 5th wave this summer in the South like last summer,” he said.

As noted in the story, this comes on the heels of the approval of the vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds. I’ve already seen pictures of a bunch of my friends’ kids getting their first shot; ours will do so later today. Our vaccination numbers in Texas can certainly be better, but that’s one part helping people overcome the obstacles in their path to getting a shot, and one part giving whatever answers or reassurances the hesitant folks have. Not much you can do about the flat-out resisters, but if we can limit the damage to just them we’ll be all right. I also suspect that over time we’ll see higher vax numbers in the urban areas than elsewhere, or at least we will if we do the job of making it as accessible as possible. In the meantime, those of us who have gotten our shots can show our faces again, and just in time for summer. That’s gonna feel good.

(To be sure, some number of unmasked people are the same chuckleheads who refuse to be vaccinated, and they’ve been walking around unmasked for a long time now. There is an argument that the CDC’s new guidance isn’t a good idea. And of course, individual retailers and restaurants and what have you may continue to require masks in their establishments for the time being, since there’s no way to tell who is and isn’t vaccinated. You can take your mask off where you can if you’re vaxxed, just as always be thoughtful and considerate about it.)

Paxton sues over revocation of Medicaid 1115 waiver

Someone please explain to me if this has any merit.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration Friday to reinstate an eight-year extension to a federal health care funding agreement, worth billions of dollars annually and set to expire next year, that the state uses to help pay for health care for uninsured Texans.

Last month, federal health officials rescinded the Trump-era extension to the 1115 waiver agreement — which Texas has had with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services since 2011 and is up for review every few years — and ordered Texas to collect public input, as the agreement requires, while it renegotiates a new extension beyond its current October 2022 expiration date.

The decision did not stop the funding in the current waiver, which will continue to provide $3.87 billion in annual funding for 2021 and 2022 to partly offset free care provided by Texas hospitals to the uninsured, and to pay for innovative health care projects that serve low-income Texans, often for mental health services.

The extension, granted in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency, would have continued hospital reimbursements until September 2030 but allowed the innovation fund to expire.

In his lawsuit filed Friday, Paxton said the decision was a political move by President Joe Biden that was meant to force Texas to expand its Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act of 2010.

Forcing Texas back to the drawing board on negotiations over the extension, which Paxton said would have amounted to $30 billion in federal funding through 2030, threatens to “destabilize” the programs the state funds through the waiver, he said.

[…]

The 1115 waiver was originally granted to Texas as a temporary funding bridge while the state developed its plan to expand its Medicaid program, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the ACA could not require states to do so — and Texas has since leaned on the 1115 waiver to help pay for care for the uninsured.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion have said that the state should utilize both 1115 waiver funding and expanded Medicaid eligibility, and have expressed confidence that the state would be able to negotiate the extension — with the required public input — before it expires.

“We have an attorney general and other state leaders who have made crystal clear the last few months and last few years that they have little interest in health care for working Texans — although they do have an obsession with filing lawsuits against the White House,” said Patrick Bresette, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund-Texas. “This misguided lawsuit is the cherry on top of a legislative session in which state leaders shot down all attempts to give an affordable health insurance option to janitors, cooks, grocery store clerks, and other Texans.”

“This would be a disaster for our state, and yet President Biden seems intent on thrusting his bloated model of government on everyone — including Texas,” he said in a statement Friday.

See here and here for some background, and here for a reminder that the Republicans have once again passed on the opportunity to fully expand Medicaid and make this issue moot. Let’s put aside the irony of a guy who is the lead attorney on a still-active case that would entirely kill the Affordable Care Act if he wins suing to keep federal funds flowing into Texas and ask the key question: This is a federal program, which requires federal approval. Doesn’t that mean that the federal government has some discretion here? If one accepts the premise that this move by the feds was purely capricious and driven by partisan motives, then sure, a lawsuit would be an appropriate remedy. On the other hand, if the feds reasonably believe that the extension, granted in the waning days of a President that gave little care to details and openly favored Republican states, was done in error, well, don’t they have the authority to correct that? I’m asking because I have no idea what the fine points of the law are here, and I have no reason to believe anything Ken Paxton says. That by itself doesn’t mean that the law couldn’t be on his side, though. I welcome any informed feedback on this. The Chron has more.

How hot will summer be?

Depends on how dependable the electricity providers are.

ERCOT sought to reassure worried Texans that the state’s electricity grid will have enough power to meet record-breaking demand this summer, less than three months after a catastrophic power failure left millions in freezing darkness.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas on Thursday released its final seasonal forecast for this summer, predicting record peak power demand of 77,144 megawatts. The summer record as set on August 12, 2019, when demand hit 74,820 megawatts.

The grid manager said it expects to have enough generation to meet the record demand, forecasting generation capacity of 86,862 megawatts. ERCOT, however, didn’t rule out the possibility for “tight grid conditions” on the hottest summer days when demand for air conditioning is at its highest. Electricity supply is often stretched during Texas’ blazing summers.

“If we get into a combination of (high demand) and low wind or low solar output or a high number of generators that have been unavailable because they’ve been running so hard, then we may need to go into emergency operations,” said Woody Rickerson, ERCOT’s vice president of planning and operations.

Emergency operations allow ERCOT to tap into additional power resources, including 2,300 additional megawatts of generation, enough to power nearly half a million homes on a hot summer day.

[…]

In light of the catastrophic power failure in the winter, ERCOT on Thursday said it took into account three additional extreme weather scenarios to create its summer electricity forecast, considering scenarios of high heat and low wind or forced power plant outages that have less than a 1 percent chance of occurring. For comparison, ERCOT said the February winter storm was a 1 in 100 event.

“I think the consumers in Texas can be very confident that these are extremely unlikely scenarios,” said Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s senior director of system planning. “We recognize that we failed to appropriately communicate what the potential risks were going into the winter season. These additional extreme scenarios are our initial attempt to proactively try to not only communicate what those extreme risks are, but try to restore the trust of the consumers in Texas.”

For the first time, ERCOT said, it will visit a select group of power plants to evaluate their summer weatherization plans, reviewing plans for cooling critical equipment and stocking fuel supplies. The grid manager also said it will coordinate with power utilities, such as CenterPoint Energy, to limit planned outages to maintain transmission and power lines during the summer months and request power plants to contact natural gas suppliers to ensure availability of the fuel through pipelines.

If power demand exceeds supply, ERCOT said it is prepared to call for emergency operations, including ordering power utilities to turn off power to customers to preserve the integrity of the grid.

I think I speak for all of us when I say “Do better than you did in February”. No one has any faith in the concept of “rolling blackouts” at this point.

House rejects Senate changes to permitless carry bill

Off to conference committee they go.

The Texas House on Wednesday rejected changes the Senate made to a Republican-backed proposal to allow Texans to carry handguns without a license, sending the bill behind closed doors for further negotiations.

Before the permitless carry bill can head to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has said he would sign it into law, a conference committee made up of representatives and senators will have to reach a compromise that must get approval from both chambers.

House Bill 1927 would nix the requirement for Texas residents to obtain a license to carry handguns if they’re not prohibited by state or federal law from possessing a gun.

Among other changes, state senators last week approved an amendment barring permitless carry from people convicted in the past five years of making a terroristic threat, deadly conduct, assault that causes bodily injury or disorderly conduct with a firearm. The chamber also approved an amendment that enhances criminal penalties for illegal weapons carried by felons and those convicted of family violence offenses.

See here for the previous update. Those changes, which were enough to make the bill palatable to the Sheriff’s Association of Texas – most of law enforcement, as well as popular opinion, remains opposed – were a bridge too far for the House. Best case scenario, there is no acceptable compromise for the two chambers. I wouldn’t bet my own money on that outcome, but you can certainly root for it to happen. You can also root for Allen West and Dan Patrick to continue saying mean things to each other, because that gives us all life. The Chron has more.

Massive anti-abortion bill heads to Abbott

And from there to the courts, in one form or another.

Legislation that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks — before many women know they are pregnant — and let virtually any private citizen sue abortion providers and others was given final approval by lawmakers Thursday and is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has signaled he will sign it into law.

Senate Bill 8, a Republican priority measure, is similar to “heartbeat bills” passed in other states that have been mostly stopped by the courts. But proponents of the Texas legislation believe it’s structured in a way that makes it tougher to block.

The bill was denounced by hundreds of lawmakers and doctors — in letters circulated by opponents of the measure — who said its broad legal language could open the door to harassing or frivolous lawsuits that could have a “chilling effect” on abortion providers and leave rape crisis counselors, nurses and clinic staff “subject to tens of thousands of dollars in liability to total strangers.” Abortion rights advocates say it is among the most extreme restrictions nationwide.

The bill, which would take effect later this year, bans abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a timeframe. A legislative analysis and the bill’s proponents have said that can be as early as six weeks, though state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, in a floor debate cited medical experts who say there is no fully developed heart at that gestational age and that the sound referred to as a heartbeat is actually “electrically induced flickering” of fetal tissue.

The bill makes an exception allowing for abortions in the case of a medical emergency but not for rape or incest.

It would be enforced by private citizens empowered to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks, for example, by driving them to an abortion clinic.

Those private citizens would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion, and would not need to reside in Texas.

See here for the previous update. The bright idea behind this is that the state won’t be enforcing the ban, private citizens who file a gazillion lawsuits against clinics and doctors will be the enforcers. As such, the state can’t be sued to overturn the law, since they’re not enforcing it. It’s clever, and it’s never been tried before, so who knows how that will play out. (You know what they say about “clever”.) Six week abortion bans have been universally blocked by federal courts so far, for what it’s worth. I’m not dumb enough to predict what might happen here. We’ll have to wait and see, and hope for the best.

Dragging Dutton

Richly deserved.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Houston area political action groups, activists, and unions gathered outside the office of Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton Jr. on Tuesday to call for his resignation.

“It’s better if he goes now than in the next election,” said Alexis Melvin, president of the Houston-based nonprofit Transgender Foundation of America.

“We the Houston community are here to call for the resignation of Harold Dutton for his attacks on education but more specifically his attacks on transgender kids,” said Brandon Mack, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston.

The fury stems from a bill Dutton revived and voted in favor of last week, Senate Bill 29. The legislation would prohibit trans youth from playing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

[…]

The Tuesday press conference and protest was organized and attended by major political groups in the Houston area, including the Houston GLBT Political Caucus, Houston Federation of Teachers, Black Lives Matter Houston, Indivisible Houston, Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, and others.

“In the labor movement, we say an injury to one is an injury to all,” said Ashira Adwoa an organizer with the Houston Federation of Teachers. “When your civil rights are under attack, we will speak out with you.”

Adwoa said Dutton should instead focus on making housing more affordable in his district, and pull funding from charter schools to finance smaller class sizes and more wraparound services in public schools.

“This school year has been traumatizing to students, and we need to help them recover from this pandemic,” Adwoa said.

Hany Khalil, executive director of Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, described Dutton’s behavior as shameful.

“Dutton didn’t vote for SB 29 when it first came up in committee because he knew it was a terrible, hateful bill,” Khalil said. “He knew it would hurt vulnerable kids. And so he used it as a cudgel to go after legislators who stood up to him and his attempt to strip democratic power from our schools.”

“Trans kids deserve to be safe and loved, just like all of our kids,” Khalil continued. “And they’re not pawns — they’re not pawns to be sacrificed in a disgusting game of legislative chess.”

See here for the background. Rep. Dutton has served for a long time, and while we have seen our share of Houston-area Democratic State Reps get bounced in primaries, mostly during the Speaker Craddick era, it’s not an easy thing to do. None of the groups present were Dutton supporters before – certainly not in 2020, when Dutton had to win in a runoff against Jerry Davis – so the work of building a sufficiently large coalition to oust him still needs to be done. The starting energy is good, and the cause is just. There remains a long way to go.

One more thing:

“I am hopeful that he doesn’t just get one primary challenger but a whole team of them,” [Houston GLBT Political Caucus President Jovon Alfon B.] Tyler said.

With all due respect, I don’t think that’s the best path to beating Dutton. Find one strong candidate that everyone at that demonstration can line up behind, and go from there. The problem with a stampede is that you’ll have too many people expending effort and resources in competing directions. There’s a real risk the same energy wouldn’t carry over into a runoff, as one would likely be needed in such a scenario. Join forces and unite behind one champion, that’s my advice.

Twitter lawsuit against Paxton dismissed

That’s not quite the end of it, though.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in California on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Twitter against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose legal efforts to investigate the social media platform after it suspended President Donald Trump’s account led the company to sue.

Twitter’s lawsuit included a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep Paxton and his office from enforcing a demand that seeks documents revealing the company’s internal decision making processes for banning users. Judge Maxine M. Chesney said the company’s legal action was “premature.”

Paxton, a passionate supporter of Trump, sent Twitter a civil investigative demand after it banned Trump from its platform following January’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol. Twitter wrote in its suit responding to Paxton that it sought to stop him “from unlawfully abusing his authority as the highest law-enforcement officer of the State of Texas to intimidate, harass, and target Twitter in retaliation for Twitter’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.”

The company claimed Paxton’s “retaliatory” investigation violated the First Amendment as an inappropriate use of government authority.

“Twitter’s lawsuit was little more than an attempt to avoid answering my questions about their large-scale censorship and content-moderation policies,” Paxton said in a statement Tuesday.

See here and here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but when I see that the suit was dismissed because it was “premature”, that says to me this didn’t have to do with the merits or legality of the suit, just the timing. The Trib story doesn’t give any explanation of that, so I looked around and eventually found this AP story, which answered my question.

In her Tuesday ruling, Senior U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney of San Francisco ruled that Paxton’s administrative summonses were not “self-executing,” meaning that Twitter was not bound to comply with them absent a court order.

In her seven-page opinion, Chesney noted that Paxton had taken no court action to enforce his summonses and that Twitter was not bound to comply with them without court action. So, she dismissed Twitter’s suit, noting that its request for an injunction or court declaration against Paxton was premature.

Law and Crime explains further.

Paxton’s office issued civil investigative demands (CID)—subpoena-like requests for information— to Twitter, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, seeking the companies’ content moderation policies and practices. The Texas attorney general, who has been under the legal microscope himself due to securities fraud charges and allegations of briberysaid that for years the tech companies “have silenced voices in the social media sphere and shut down competing companies and platforms,” couching his concern as a First Amendment issue that “chills free speech.”

Twitter responded by suing Paxton in the U.S. District Court for Northern California, seeking an injunction barring the AG from “initiating any action” to enforce the investigatory demands and a declaration that the probe is barred by the First Amendment as “unlawful retaliation against Twitter for its moderation of its platform, including its decision to permanently suspend President Trump’s account.”

In a seven-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Maxine M. Chesney, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, found that Paxton opening a probe and issuing CIDs to Twitter did not amount to a “cognizable adverse action” against the company as required for a First Amendment retaliation claim.

Chesney reasoned that, unlike subpoenas, CIDs like the one issued by the attorney general’s office, are not “self-executing” discovery instruments, meaning that they can be ignored, without penalty, unless an additional court order is sought.

“[T]he Office of the Attorney General has no authority to impose any sanction for a failure to comply with its investigation. Rather, the Office of the Attorney General would be required to go to court, where the only possible consequence adverse to Twitter would be a judicial finding that the CID, contrary to Twitter’s assertion, is enforceable,” Chesney wrote. “Accordingly, as, to date, no action has been taken to enforce the CID, the Court finds Twitter’s lawsuit is premature, and, as such, is subject to dismissal.”

In other words, because Twitter is not currently obligated to comply with Paxton’s demand for access to its communications and moderation policies, it’s too early in the legal process for a federal court to decide the controversy on the merits.

Should Paxton pursue a court order, Twitter would likely make the same arguments regarding the investigation being barred as unlawful retaliation under the First Amendment, resulting in a merit-based ruling.

I think that’s pretty clear. I hadn’t realized that Paxton had taken the same action with those other companies, who I guess either decided to ignore them or wait and see what happened with the Twitter case. In any event, now they all know – this is just sound and fury, at least for now. We’ll see if Paxton raises the ante, or if making the news was all he was interested in.

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

The Texas cannabis industry sure is optimistic

I remain more skeptical, at least of their short-term capacity.

“I suspect if you grabbed a random person on the street and asked them if cannabis was legal in Texas, they would probably look at you like you’re crazy and say ‘no,’” said Marcus Ruark, president of goodblend Texas, which is preparing [a site in San Marcos] for its 63,000-square-foot marijuana growing facility.

The notion that it’s “crazy” is because cannabis is still illegal in Texas, which is home to some of the strictest anti-marijuana laws in the nation. But a gradual expansion of the state’s limited medical marijuana program in recent years could soon give way to an industry that’s accessible to a broader swath of Texans.

While still relatively low, the number of Texans utilizing the state’s medicinal marijuana Compassionate Use Program has grown by 180 percent over the past year. Some estimate there are about 2 million Texas patients eligible to use cannabis, but many just don’t know about the program.

“So we’ve started making an investment in that and getting the word out and increasing awareness, and I think that’s definitely helping,” Ruark said.

For now, goodblend Texas is one of only three companies licensed to cultivate and sell marijuana in the state. The others are Texas Original Compassionate Cultivation and Fluent, which is a subsidiary of Cansortium, a publicly traded marijuana holdings company.

Statewide, just over 300 physicians are licensed to prescribe medical marijuana. And as of March, there were only 4,919 patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program, according to the Department of Public Safety. A year earlier, just 1,757 people were registered to use medical marijuana in Texas.

The number of medical marijuana patients in the state is “growing about 10 percent month over month every month, so it’s actually pretty robust growth for the patients who are accessing the program,” Ruark said.

While steadily increasing, the number of Texas patients pales in comparison to what’s seen in nearby states such as Oklahoma, where roughly 8 percent of the state’s population — over 300,000 people — are medical marijuana patients, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Marijuana Policy Project. In Louisiana, which has a population less than one-fifth of that of Texas, there were 4,350 medical marijuana users at the end of 2019.

Still, the growth in numbers of Texas patients utilizing medical marijuana is prompting the $25 million investment by Parallel, the parent company of goodblend Texas, to build in San Marcos.

That’s a good growth rate, but one of the reasons why the growth rate is so high is because it’s starting from such a small base. If the number of patients registered with the Compassionate Use Program were to grow at an annual rate of 200% from the point given above, it would take almost three years to get to 100,000 patients. It will take more than that $25 million invested in a pot farm in San Marcos to make that happen, and they’re going to need bigger numbers than that to really make some money.

Even with the medical marijuana patient count already growing, a bill passed last month by the Texas House would massively expand the pool of patients eligible to use cannabis.

House Bill 1535 would allow patients suffering from chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer or other conditions approved by the state health department to be treated with medical cannabis. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth.

To become law, it still must clear the Senate and be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

It would be a small step toward changing Texas’ status as one of the most restrictive among the 47 states that allow medical marijuana programs. When the Compassionate Use Program was created by the Legislature in 2015, it initially allowed only patients with intractable epilepsy to be treated with marijuana.

In 2019, another bill allowed those with particular diseases, such as autism and incurable neurodegenerative disorders, or people with terminal cancer, to be eligible.

HB1535 was passed out of the House on April 29, and received by the Senate on May 3. I have no idea what fate awaits it in the Senate, but as we have discussed before, the Senate in general is more hostile to any loosening of existing marijuana laws, including medical marijuana, and Dan Patrick has given no signal that he intends to allow a bill like HB1535 to come to the floor, let alone pass. Yet every cycle we get this kind of blue-sky, if-only reporting, in the same way we get breathless stories about casino interests spending money to pursue the same doomed expansion they’ve been seeking for at least the last 20 years, and I just don’t get it. I say this as someone who would like to see full-on decriminalization – indeed, I want to make that a campaign issue – but also as someone who needs evidence to buy into the idea that Things Really Are Different This Time. Wishing and hoping and a pot farm in San Marcos will only get you so far.

Pfizer shot approved for younger kids

Yes!

The Food and Drug Administration cleared the first coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in children as young as 12 on Monday, expanding access to the Pfizer-BioNTech shot to adolescents ahead of the next school year and marking another milestone in the nation’s battle with the virus.

The decision that the two-shot regimen is safe and effective for younger adolescents had been highly anticipated by many parents and pediatricians, particularly with the growing gap between what vaccinated and unvaccinated people may do safely. Evidence suggests that schools can function at low risk with prevention measures, such as masks and social distancing. But vaccines are poised to increase confidence in resuming in-person activities and are regarded as pivotal to returning to normalcy.

“Adolescents, especially, have suffered tremendously from the covid pandemic. Even though they’re less likely than adults to be hospitalized or have severe illness, their lives really have been curtailed in many parts of the country,” said Kawsar R. Talaat, an assistant professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “A vaccine gives them an extra layer of protection and allows them to go back to being kids.”

Expert advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are scheduled to meet Wednesday to recommend how the vaccine should be used in that age group, and the vaccine can be administered as soon as the CDC director signs off on the recommendation.

In a news briefing Monday evening after the announcement, FDA officials said the Pfizer authorization for 12- to 15-year-olds was a straightforward decision because the data showed that the vaccine was safe and that the response to the vaccine was even better than among the 18- to 25-year-olds who got the shots.

Our almost-17-year-old has had her shots. We’ll be getting the 14-year-old signed up as soon as we can. “Herd immunity” may never be a thing we achieve with COVID, but having a greater share of the population vaxed is a good thing, and adding this group to the eligible list moves towards that goal. I’m ready for this.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 10

Unlike certain wayward satellites, the Texas Progressive Alliance weekly roundup is built to last.

(more…)

House passes its bill to limit Governor’s emergency powers

Not sure if this is going to make it through the Senate.

The Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to a sweeping bill that would reform the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and involve the Legislature during such instances.

House members voted 92-45 for House Bill 3, which will need another vote in the lower chamber before it heads over to the Senate for consideration.

“We must now take what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic and set a different framework for future pandemics,” state Rep. Dustin Burrows, a Lubbock Republican and author of the proposal, told House members as he laid out the legislation. “As a baseline, you will not government your way out of it.”

HB 3 as advanced Monday would give lawmakers more oversight of the governor’s emergency powers during a pandemic and specifically carves out future pandemics from how the state responds to other disasters, such as hurricanes. One amendment added Monday, for example, would require the Legislature to convene for a special session if a disaster declaration lasts longer than 120 days.

The wide-ranging legislation would affirm the governor’s ability to suspend state laws during a pandemic and allow for overriding local orders issued by county judges or mayors if they’re inconsistent with state orders.

Members drastically changed the legislation Monday with a number of amendments during the floor debate, including one that would create the Texas Epidemic Public Health Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. That entity would make recommendations to a 12-member legislative oversight committee that also would be created if HB 3 became law. The committee, which would consist of the lieutenant governor and speaker — who would serve as joint chairs — and a number of committee chairs from both chambers, could in certain cases terminate pandemic disaster declarations, orders or other rules issued by the governor or local governments. It would only be able to act though when the Legislature is not convened for a regular or special session.

Ahead of Monday’s debate, the legislation was tweaked by Burrows to allow the Legislature to intervene on certain executive orders or proclamations issued by the governor. The governor would need permission from the Legislature to extend beyond 30 days an order or proclamation related to requiring face masks, limiting certain medical procedures or closing or capping business operating capacity. If the Legislature wasn’t already in session, the governor would be required to convene a special legislative session for lawmakers to consider modifying or terminating that order. If the Legislature was already in session, the governor would still need to ask state lawmakers for input to modify or terminate an order.

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about this – I generally agree with giving the Legislature a broader say in these matters, but I recognize that there can be logistical challenges with that, not to mention concern about speed of response. I also have serious concerns with the philosophy embedded in this bill – to say “you’re not going to government your way out” of a pandemic is, to put it mildly, wildly misinformed. I also have great concerns about the neutering of local officials, which the Chron story goes into.

The bill prohibits local governments from closing businesses or limiting their maximum occupancy, plus any local government deemed by the governor to have required a business to close would be prohibited from levying certain tax increases.

The bill also includes protections for most businesses from civil suits related to the pandemic.

Some of the more recent additions to the bill have helped it win the favor of conservative legislators who were skeptical, such as Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington, who commended the bill’s author, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, for addressing his concerns.

Texas House Democratic Party Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the deal breaker for many members of his party came down to limits on local control.

“There were some positive things in the bill, but a lot of us were not comfortable with restrictions on local officials,” Turner said. “Local officials led our state through the pandemic and the Legislature should not limit their ability to do so in the future.”

I will admit to mixed feelings on this as well. We saw last year that the response to the pandemic varied greatly between urban counties and their neighbors. Harris County was serious about masking and social distancing and limiting gatherings, which meant putting more restrictions on businesses, while Montgomery County was the exact opposite. Which is all well and good until you remember that viruses don’t respect borders, and Montgomery’s laxness had a negative effect on Harris. That’s the argument for limiting what local officials can do, which sounds great until those limits are on actions you approve of. This bill ratchets that debate in the Republican direction, which at least clarifies the ambivalence I feel. The Senate bill is more limited in its approach. I have no idea which bill will win out. There’s only so much time left for a compromise. Reform Austin has more.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

The Big Freeze didn’t just screw Texas

I had no idea.

Texas’ deep freeze didn’t just disrupt natural gas supplies throughout Lone Star country—its effects rippled across the country, extending as far north as Minnesota. There, gas utilities had to pay $800 million more than they anticipated during the event, and Minnesota regulators are furious.

“The ineptness and disregard for common-sense utility regulation in Texas makes my blood boil and keeps me up at night,” Katie Sieben, chairwoman of the Minnesota Public Utility Commission, told The Washington Post. “It is maddening and outrageous and completely inexcusable that Texas’s lack of sound utility regulation is having this impact on the rest of the country.”

The gas and electric markets in Texas are lightly regulated and highly competitive, which has pushed companies to deliver energy at the lowest possible cost. But it also means that many companies were ill-prepared when the mercury dropped. To save money, they had skimped on winterizing their equipment. As a result, gas lines across the state—which has about 23 percent of the country’s reserves—quite literally froze. The spot price of natural gas soared to 70-times what it would normally be in Minnesota, and gas utilities paid a hefty premium when they used the daily market to match demand.

In a twist, the biggest gas utility in Minnesota is CenterPoint Energy, a Houston-based company that also supplies a large swath of Southeastern Texas. The company said it spent an additional $500 million on gas that week in February, and it has asked Minnesota’s utility commission for permission to add a surcharge to customers’ bills. The surcharge not only seeks to recoup the additional money CenterPoint spent on natural gas, it also includes 8.75 percent interest. The company expects that each customer would shoulder a burden of $300 to $400.

Crazy, huh? I heard about this from friends on a recent Zoom call. CenterPoint is not only pushing to bill their Minnesota customers more to make up for the price differential, they’re asking to begin doing that in May instead of in September when price adjustments are normally made. They’re doing this because they say they’re in a cash bind, while at the same time their CEO is assuring investors that their cash position is just fine. They sure know how to make friends, don’t they?

The WaPo story has more details. This bit at the end caught my interest:

The state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, a former Democratic member of Congress, has filed a strongly critical response to CenterPoint’s plan.

It notes that over the two-year payout schedule, the interest charged to customers would amount to $60 million, “at a time when many of them are already behind on their bills.”

CenterPoint argues that the interest charge reflects its own capital borrowing costs and that it is an appropriate item to add to its bills.

“The company has already had to pay most of the natural gas costs from February, but these costs will only be recovered over an extended period of time,” [CenterPoint spokesperson Ross] Corson wrote. “Until recovered, CenterPoint Energy must finance these costs through a combination of debt and equity. Given the unprecedented magnitude of this financial commitment, it is appropriate to include finance charges.”

Annie Levenson-Falk, executive director of a nonprofit called the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota, asked in an interview why CenterPoint didn’t appeal for voluntary reductions in gas use when it saw prices spike.

She said the utilities should demonstrate why they had to rely so heavily on the spot market. But, she added, “there’s no getting around it — these are big costs that someone is going to have to incur.”

Natural gas, though, is an “essential good,” she said, adding that ordinary Minnesotans, collateral damage in the Texas disaster, are blameless.

“You know, somebody made a lot of money off people needing to heat their homes,” she said. “And that’s not right.”

There’s talk that Minnesota AG Ellison may file a lawsuit against CenterPoint over this. I can already hear the caterwauling from certain local politicians if that happens.

On a side note:

An updated analysis of February’s Texas power crisis by experts at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas shows that lost wind power generation was a small component of the huge losses in electric generation that plunged much of the state into darkness during the severe cold weather.

While Texas Republicans were quick to blame renewable energy during the storm — and have continued to target renewable energy for reform during this year’s legislative session — a recently updated report on the causes of generator outages during the week of Feb. 14 show that the most significant cause of the low power supply to the grid came from natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather, equipment failures and natural gas shortages.

In ERCOT’s first preliminary report on the causes of the power crisis, released in early April, the grid operator included a chart that appeared to show power generation losses from wind as just slightly smaller than natural gas generation losses that week. But that analysis used the capacity of the state’s wind turbines to generate electricity, not what wind turbines would have actually generated if not for the outages.

Wind power feeds into the grid depending on weather conditions, and renewable energy sources typically have much higher potential to generate electricity than what is actually produced on a day-to-day basis; sometimes renewable power generates a lot and at other times none or very little. ERCOT uses detailed weather forecasts to estimate how much wind and solar power will be available to the grid.

In the updated analysis included in a Wednesday ERCOT meeting, the grid operator calculated that for the week of Feb. 14, natural gas power losses were several times that of wind generation.

[…]

The analysis also provided a more detailed picture of the reasons for natural gas outages, showing that disruptions in natural gas supply to the plants were a bigger share of the outages than initially estimated. Still, weather-related problems and equipment problems remained the biggest reasons for natural gas plant outages.

Here’s a pretty picture for you:

Sure would be nice if the Legislature spent less time attacking transgender kids and renewable energy, and more time working to make the grid more reliable and less likely to produce another big freeze, wouldn’t it?

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

Here comes Huffines

The political comeback nobody asked for is officially on.

Former state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, announced Monday that he is challenging Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 primary.

“Texas deserves actual Republican leadership that will act urgently and decisively—no more excuses or lies,” Huffines said in a statement.

Huffines is a wealthy businessman who served in the Senate from 2015-2019. Democrat Nathan Johnson defeated Huffines in 2018.

Abbott is up for a third term in 2022 and has drawn some heat from within his party for his response to the coronavirus pandemic. Huffines has criticized Abbott as being too slow to fully reopen the state and he spoke at a protest outside the Governor’s Mansion last fall.

Huffines’ announcement did not mention Abbott but took aim at “politicians who offer nothing but excuses and lies” and promised to take on the “entrenched elites of the Austin swamp.”

You can see Huffines’ statement here. It’s a lot. His name has come up before as a potential primary challenger to Abbott, and hey, he’s rich, he’s bored, and he’s got nothing better to do, so why not. As we have discussed before, Greg Abbott’s approval ratings have gotten soft, but he’s still strong with Republicans. I don’t see him as a credible threat and I doubt Team Abbott does as well, though I’m sure they’ll use a couple of their mega-millions to remind everyone what a non-entity Huffines is.

The story notes that Allen West (state GOP Chair and certified wackadoodle) and Sid Miller (Ag Commissioner) are also in the conversation as possible primary challengers to Abbott. Miller is the only one of the three that I think would present any real competition to Abbott, as he has at least won statewide, but my sense is that they’d still be fishing from the same pond of anti-Abbott Republicans. I don’t see them as likely to peel away existing support for Abbott. But I’m not a Republican, so take that with an appropriate amount of salt. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Magnet school change proposals put off again

Not a surprise.

Houston ISD’s administration has dropped plans to revamp the district’s prized magnet program before the next school year, a response to multiple concerns raised in recent weeks by school board members, district leaders confirmed [last] week.

The announcement means that several magnet recommendations issued by a district-led committee in early 2019 will remain unaddressed for another year. The suggested changes included adding magnet programs at all neighborhood middle and high schools currently lacking one, installing the same type of program at all schools in a given feeder pattern and eliminating magnet funding for elementary schools.

The recommendations resurfaced earlier this month, when district administrators proposed to make those changes by August. However, several trustees expressed skepticism about the timing of the overhaul, particularly given Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan’s imminent departure and the relatively short time window for building out new programs.

“Based on input from principals, the Board of Education, and various stakeholders, HISD has decided to change our timeline on implementing the magnet program proposal,” the administration said in a statement. “The 2021-2022 school year will be utilized as a planning year in preparation for phased changes that would take place during the 2022-2023 school year, if approved.”

[…]

A committee of roughly 30 HISD employees, parents and community leaders gathered in 2018 and early 2019 to consider tweaks to the magnet program, aiming to create a more equitable system. HISD administrators implemented several of the committee’s smaller proposals, such as eliminating entrance requirements at many middle schools and tweaking the entrance scoring matrix to widen magnet access.

The larger and more politically charged recommendations went unaddressed for two years, with administrators and board members showing little interest in taking them up. Lathan and HISD Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Rick Cruz reintroduced the proposals two weeks ago as part of the district’s budget planning for the 2021-22 school year — but trustees recoiled at the move.

HISD Trustee Elizabeth Santos said administrators were moving too hastily to add magnets, failing to gather input from the students and families that would see new programs. The administration’s proposal called for installing magnets at two campuses in Santos’ board district, Fonville Middle School and Sam Houston Math, Science and Technology Center.

“If you don’t survey, get to know the community and engage the community, then the community doesn’t have a product they can buy into,” Santos said.

HISD Trustee Judith Cruz similarly questioned the speed of the proposal, saying she worried the district lacked enough time to install strong new programs that would drive student academic success.

HISD Trustee Sue Deigaard also argued that the district should not undertake major overhauls ahead of a change in leadership. Lathan is expected to leave in June after accepting the superintendent position at Springfield Public Schools in Missouri. HISD trustees are conducting a nationwide superintendent search, with a lone finalist set to be named in late May.

See here for some background. The reasons for waiting given by the Trustees are sensible. The bigger question is why the 2019 recommendations had been shelved for as long as they had been. Maybe when we hire the next Superintendent we’ll see some movement on this. Don’t hold your breath.

Please get your second shot

I hope this is mostly a function of incomplete data.

Millions of Americans — including tens of thousands of Houstonians — either have delayed or are forgoing their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination.

As of late last month, roughly 51,000 people who received their first inoculation through the Houston Health Department were “overdue” for their second dose. The department’s number is preliminary but includes any person who has gone at least 42 days since their first round without returning for a second shot.

Statewide, more than 630,000 of the roughly 11 million people who’ve received one dose are more than six weeks overdue, the Texas Department of State Health Services told the Houston Chronicle.

“We need a lot of those folks from February to come back in and get their second dose now,” Dr. David Lakey, a DSHS commissioner who sits on Texas’ COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, said last week.

Part of the gap, however, is likely due to people who opted to receive their second dose through other health care providers as vaccine availability expanded.

It’s not cause for alarm just yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, though she said the trend does not bode well for the overall goal of herd immunity.

[…]

Ho said people shouldn’t be dissuaded from rescheduling appointments that they missed, as they’ve been shown to give additional antibodies even if they come late.

“The first dose really does boost your antibodies, but it’s the second that really gives you the second umph,” she said.

Houston Methodist radiologist Dirk Stotsman worried that some people are forgoing their second round of inoculations because the first doses of Moderna and Pfizer have been proven highly efficacious against the virus.

While the first dose offers a good level of protection, he said, the extra antibodies provided by the second dose will be integral to prevent the spread of more infectious and dangerous strains of the virus.

Getting just the one Pfizer or Moderna shot is better than nothing, but it’s not as good as it should be. If you’ve gotten one shot and for whatever the reason not gotten the second one, it’s not too late. Go ahead and make an appointment or do a walk-in where available.

In related news:

With the rescission of the mask mandate and full reopening of businesses, medical experts worried spring would bring a debilitating fourth wave of COVID-19 infections to Texas.

But as vaccination rates slowly leveled off in recent weeks, the rate of infections and hospitalizations did as well. More than a year after businesses closed, offices sent workers home and traffic vanished from Houston’s concrete jungle of freeways, public health officials are cautiously optimistic efforts to quell the spread of the virus and vaccinate as many people as possible are working.

Yet despite claims from officials like Gov. Greg Abbott that this downturn is linked to “herd immunity” — the mysterious target ranging between 60 and 80 percent fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — experts say Texas cannot rely on vaccinations alone to achieve what some think may mean the end of the pandemic.

“Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “But my educated guess would be as more of the population becomes either vaccinated or immune through natural infection, we won’t see as many cases.”

Fewer than 3,000 patients have been hospitalized across the state for the past five weeks, according to a Chronicle data analysis. It’s the longest streak with that few patients since June 2020.

Dr. Carl Vartian, chief medical officer at HCA Houston Healthcare’s Clear Lake and Mainland hospitals, worries the public conflates “herd immunity” with “ending COVID-19.” But COVID-19 may not truly end. Rather, experts suspect it will become “endemic,” never fully leaving the population — like influenza, which still infects hundreds of thousands of people a year in the U.S.

Again, what we have now is better than what we had before, but not as good as it could be. Even at “herd immunity levels”, there’s still a lot of unvaxxed people. The difference is that it becomes harder for the virus to really take off as it has done before. But people can and will still get sick and die if they’re not vaccinated. It’s up to us what the level of those illnesses and deaths are.

Tesla crash update

Interesting.

Federal investigators on Monday released their preliminary assessment of a deadly crash in Spring involving a Tesla, though many details of the incident remain under scrutiny, including whether anyone was in the driver’s seat at the time of the wreck.

In the two-page update, the National Transportation Safety Board said the crash occurred less than 600 feet from where Dr. William Varner, 59, and Everette Talbot, 69, began their trip in Varner’s driveway. NTSB officials said security camera footage shows Varner getting into the driver’s seat and Talbot getting in the front passenger seat.

Both were killed in the fiery crash, which took firefighters hours to extinguish because the car’s battery reignited several times.

Where Varner was when the crash happened is a point of contention between local crash investigators and Tesla officials. In the days after the crash, Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said investigators are confident no one was in the driver’s seat.

Tesla founder Elon Musk and other company officials have disputed that, saying evidence points to someone being in the seat, based on the damage to the steering column.

NTSB investigators in the report do not make a final determination.

“The car’s restraint control module, which can record data associated with vehicle speed, belt status, acceleration, and airbag deployment, was recovered but sustained fire damage,” investigators said in the report. “The restraint control module was taken to the National Transportation Safety Board recorder laboratory for evaluation.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the NTSB report. The key bit is this:

The vehicle was equipped with Autopilot, Tesla’s advanced driver assistance system. Using Autopilot requires both the Traffic Aware Cruise Control and the Autosteer systems to be engaged.[2] NTSB tests of an exemplar car at the crash location showed that Traffic Aware Cruise Control could be engaged but that Autosteer was not available on that part of the road.

As the footnote indicates, Traffic Aware Cruise Control handles acceleration and deceleration, while Autosteer keeps you in your lane. Autosteer requires lane markers to be utilized, which that stretch of road did not have. My takeaway from this is that the guys in the car would not have been able to engage the Autopilot, as Tesla has claimed. The investigation is ongoing, and as noted the NTSB has not yet determined a cause, so we still don’t really know what happened. I remain curious about this and look forward to the final report.

UPDATE: Here’s a longer version of the story.

Beto and Julian rally against voter suppression

Good to see after a couple of brutal weeks.

Beto O’Rourke

Democrats Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro joined forces at the Texas Capitol on Saturday to rally against election reform bills that they called blatant attempts to suppress voters in Black and Hispanic communities.

As statewide elections near, Castro said Republicans in the Texas Legislature are responding with numerous bills aimed at suppressing minority voters.

“We are here today to say ‘No, we will not stand for that,’” the former San Antonio mayor told hundreds of activists who gathered on the south steps of the Capitol less than 24 hours after the Texas House approved an election reform that Democrats have vocally opposed.

O’Rourke, the former El Paso Congressman who is weighing a potential run for governor, said Republicans are focusing on restricting voting when there are much bigger issues facing the state.

“These jokers can’t even keep the lights on, or the heat on, or the water running when the temperature drops in Texas, now they want to take over our elections,” O’Rourke said in reference to the deadly February storms that left millions without electricity.

First of all, that’s a good line. Could use a little tightening up, but it can be applied to a lot of things as we go forward. Maybe if we all make a commitment to starting sentences with “They couldn’t keep the heat/lights on, but they still [did whatever]”, we might get some rhetorical advantage. You have to start somewhere.

Second, I note that the article that is linked to in that penultimate paragraph is one of the stories that ran where the initial headlines were that Beto was not going to run for Governor. Usually since then, the accepted journalistic usage has been something like “has not announced any plans”, or some other variation that suggests Beto is just living his life. This formulation is different, and it leans more in the direction that Beto is actively thinking about maybe running for Governor. Is that based on anything – background chatter, idle speculation from other pundits/reporters, the need for Something To Happen – or is it just a random variation that means nothing? I have no idea. It was just a think I noticed, and it made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

For what it’s worth, and I realize this may become a Freezing Cold Take down the line, I’m inclined to think Beto will in fact run for Governor. I think the fact that he has been extremely tight-lipped about it to this point is a strategic choice meant to keep the focus on what the Legislature has been doing on them and on the Republican leadership. In a world where he was already an announced, or even seriously rumored candidate, he’d be a foil for Abbott and the rest to play off of. Is this a sure thing? No, it’s second-rate tea leaf reading by someone who can easily shrug his shoulders if this turns out to be incorrect. Does this mean Julian Castro is a no go for Governor? No, it just means that I think the (subtle and possibly ephemeral) signs point more towards Beto. They’re not both running for Governor, I’m confident of that. I’ve been Team Julian all along, and if it turns out that he’s taking the plunge this time while Beto warms up for a Ted Cruz rematch (or open seat) in 2024, I’ll happily admit my error.

That’s what I think. Any wagers you place based on this are entirely your responsibility.

Better cut your police budget now while you still can

That’s one possible takeaway from this.

The Texas House on Friday passed a bill to financially penalize the state’s largest cities if they cut their police budgets. The measure was sent to the Senate after two days of heated debate and emotional speeches, with the bill authors calling to “back the blue” and the opposition decrying the bill as political propaganda.

House Bill 1900 comes after a year of civil rights advocates calling on cities to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior. Those calls were spurred by high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos’ in Austin.

Among Texas’ largest cities, only Austin cut its law enforcement funding last year, though almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. Still, the city’s response to some activists’ calls to “defund the police” prompted harsh and immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have pointed to fast-rising homicide rates throughout the state and country as a reason to maintain police funding levels.

Gov. Greg Abbott became laser-focused on Austin’s budget and “backing the blue,” making legislation to punish cities that decrease police funding one of his emergency items this year.

After initial passage Thursday, HB 1900 was finally approved on a 90-49 vote Friday and sent to the upper chamber. The Senate’s related bill, which would require an election before cities could decrease police funding, passed out of the upper chamber last month. It’s unclear how either chamber will react to their counterpart’s proposal.

HB 1900 was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen and Angie Chen Button and Democrat Richard Peña Raymond. If a city with more than 250,000 residents was determined by the governor’s office to have cut police funding, the bill would allow the state to appropriate part of a city’s sales taxes and use that money to pay expenses for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Such cities would also be banned from increasing property taxes or utility rates, which could have been used to compensate for the reapportioned sales taxes.

The bill does allow cities to cut police department budgets if such a decrease is proportionally equal to an overall city budget decrease. Cities can also get approval to cut police budgets if expenses for one year were higher because of capital expenditures or disaster response. The bill would also let neighborhoods annexed in the last 30 years to vote to deannex themselves from a city that has decreased funding to its police department.

[…]

Several other Democrats offered amendments Thursday to add exceptions for when a city could cut police department funding. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio offered leniency so city council members wouldn’t opt against a necessary increase in police funding for fear they could not turn it back the next year. And state Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston filed multiple amendments, including one to not punish cities for cutting civilian positions within law enforcement agencies. He said the Houston Police Department has more than 1,200 civilian jobs, including janitors and other positions he listed off.

“At any given time that Houston Police Department decides we no longer need a car attendant, we no longer need a car attendant supervisor, we no longer need a truck driver, we no longer need a typist, that does not mean that the city of Houston has decided to defund the police,” he said.

The amendments failed, as the Democrats denounced what they called partisan rhetoric and a move for state control over large cities.

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, offered up amendments to first eliminate the 250,000 population cap which Democrats argued only punished larger, more liberal cities. When that failed, he attempted to set the population cap at 50,000, then 200,000. Both amendments failed. His argument that the 250,000 limit was an arbitrary number and goes against the legislative intent of public safety for all Texans could buttress potential legal challenges if the bill is signed into law.

“If we’re true to our word to say why we are doing this … then we should accept this amendment to apply to all 30 million Texans,” he said.

Well, the real reason they’re doing this is because Greg Abbott was mad at Austin, but it’s not polite to bring that up. And not having a significant minimum population requirement means the law might have to apply to places that Republicans represent (*), and we can’t have that. So here we are. By the way, law enforcement agencies from the cities that this bill targets opposed it, and got the same result they got in opposing permitless carry. We have a strange definition of “backing the blue”, it seems.

Anyway. My suggestion in the title is not original to me, I got it from Grits for Breakfast post.

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I don’t think legislators have considered the incentives they’re putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that “defund” police department (by which in Austin’s case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won’t be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events – like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston – would be counted against them the following year. If I’m right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police!

Note that this is the same logic that led to Harris County Commissioner’s Court proposing a property tax rate increase in 2019 as a way to hedge against the revenue cap law that the Lege passed that year, which would essentially prevent them from ever raising rates in the future regardless of situation or need. (This was only defeated because of an anti-majoritarian quirk in the law that allowed a minority of Commissioners to prevent the vote by breaking quorum.) I don’t actually think any city will take this action for the simple reason that it turns the heat on them in an uncomfortable way, but the incentive is there. I do think Grits is correct that the future effect will be to introduce extreme reluctance to approve any increase in police budgets, because it’s a one-way ratchet that can only have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed, it’s likely just a matter of time before city controllers and city managers start releasing five-year budget projections that warn of various consequences from this bill. Among other things – and I expect this is why the big city police departments opposed this – this will put downward pressure on wages and benefits for police officers, as well as a strong disincentive to approve overtime. Cities are going to do what they need to do. If you don’t like it, go yell at Greg Abbott.

(*) – Technically not true, though the large majority of State Reps from the cities this will apply to are Democrats. That may change in the near future, as places outside the big urban counties like Frisco, Grand Prairie, and McKinney become covered by HB1900. Maybe that will make their Republican representatives more receptive to the idea of modifying or repealing that law in the future, or maybe these cities will follow in the footsteps of places like Garland and Irving and just become Democratic cities themselves. The list on unintended consequences here could wind up being very long indeed.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.