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April 16th, 2021:

Senate passes anti-transgender athletics bill

It’s gross, and it unfortunately may not be the only such bill they pass this session.

Transgender students would be banned from competing on school sports teams based on their gender identity under a bill that passed the Texas Senate on Thursday.

Despite immense opposition from civil rights groups and Democrats, the upper chamber voted on an 18-12 vote to advance Senate Bill 29. The measure now heads to the Texas House.

The proposal would prohibit students from participating in a sport “that is designated for the biological sex opposite to the student’s biological sex as determined at the student’s birth.” Students would be required to prove their “biological sex” by showing their original, unamended birth certificates.

State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, argued on Wednesday that the prohibition is necessary to keep girls safe from injury and to retain fairness in interscholastic athletics. But Perry acknowledged that he doesn’t know of any transgender students currently competing in Texas school sports.

And medical professionals have largely debunked the argument that transgender athletes have an advantage, with one study showing people taking hormones did not have a significant performance edge in distance running.

Opponents said the Republican leadership-backed bill was a “fear tactic” in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.

“Trans kids, they just know they are not what their birth certificate says,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio. “And that’s where we’re creating a problem that we don’t need to.”

[…]

Wednesday afternoon, Equality Texas held a news conference outside the Capitol building in Austin to bring awareness to over 30 bills filed in the legislature that would discriminate against LGBTQ youth. Ricardo Martinez, the organization’s CEO, noted that the first of these anti-trans bills was filed 156 days ago, on the first day of bill filing for this session.

“That day kicked off the Texas portion of a nationally-coordinated attack on our community,” Martinez said. “This attack, which intentionally targets transgender and intersex youth, who are some of the most vulnerable members of our community, is especially cruel given that we’re still in a deadly pandemic.”

Landon Richie, an 18-year-old transgender Texan, skipped his classes at the University of Houston to speak outside the Capitol Wednesday.

“Trans kids belong in Texas and deserve the same rights, access to health care, access to sports, access to public facilities, as any other Texan,” Richie said.

Mack Beggs, a transgender athlete from Texas, garnered national headlines after he won back-to-back wrestling titles in 2017 and 2018. Beggs competed in the women’s division because the UIL ruled he had to compete against the gender that appeared on his birth certificate. Attorney Jim Baudhuin sued the UIL in 2017, arguing that Beggs posed an injury risk to other athletes and possessed an unfair advantage. A Travis County judge tossed out the case.

“Mentally, it took a toll on me,” Beggs told Yahoo News last month. “I think we need to have resources in place for other [trans] kids who are in those positions.”

He spoke out against proposals like SB 29, calling them “revolting and honestly appalling.”

The irony of people who have systematically chiseled away at women’s health care in Texas arguing that this ridiculous and pointless bill will somehow “protect” women is enough to break my brain. As previously noted, there are economic consequences on the line here, as the NCAA has codified its warning that “it will only hold college championships in states where transgender student-athletes can participate without discrimination”. As with voter suppression, the reason to oppose this harmful nonsense isn’t that Texas may lose out on a couple of Final Fours, but that bills like this are directly harmful to many children, and are just morally wrong on any level you want to look at them. And as noted above, it just gets worse from here.

The mother of a transgender boy testified before the Texas legislature in tears as Republicans try to pass a bill to criminalize parents who support their transgender children.

“I’m terrified to be here today,” said Amber Briggle told the Texas Senate Committee on State Affairs at a hearing earlier this week. “I’m afraid that by speaking here today that my words will be used against me should S.B. 1646 or S.B. 1311 pass, and my sweet son whom I love more than life itself will be taken from me.”

Texas’s S.B. 1646 would redefine child abuse to include “consenting to or assisting in the administering or supplying of, a puberty suppression prescription drug or cross-sex hormone to a child,” as well as other gender-affirming health care procedures, even though puberty blockers are reversible and have been found to significantly reduce suicidal thoughts for trans people.

And Briggle knows that first-hand.

“When my son was four-years-old, he asked me if scientists could turn him into a boy,” Briggle said, adding that she didn’t understand that he was trans. “I only knew that he wasn’t like most girls his age and that something inside him was hurting.”

She said that she learned about trans youth and found that surgery is not performed on minors, despite how much Republican lawmakers talk about surgery in the context of bills to ban gender-affirming care for minors.

“Today, my son is 13-years-old, the most popular boy in seventh grade, and loved by our friends, family, our church, and our community,” Briggle said. “This is possible because he has parents who affirm him and provide him with the support he needs.”

“Taking that support away from him, or worse, taking him away from his family because we broke the law to provide that support – will have devastating and heartbreaking consequences,” she said, fighting through tears.

“If this bill becomes law, that, senators, is child abuse,” she concluded. “And I promise I will call every single one of you every time a transgender child dies from suicide to remind you that their lives could have been saved, but you chose not to.”

Neither SB1646 nor SB1311 have had committee votes yet, so maybe they’ll die a quiet death and we can exhale and say we dodged a particularly nasty bullet. The fact that Amber Briggle and Kai Shappley and countless others were forced to testify on behalf of their own humanity or the humanity of their children is beyond disgusting. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: And then this happened:

It is hard not to despair. Rep. Erin Zwiener has more.

Should Harris County lower its threat level?

Maybe?

According to Harris County’s COVID-19 guidance, residents should avoid all unnecessary contact with others. They should not go to bars or barbecues or ballgames. They should work from home if possible and leave only for errands, such as groceries or medicine.

Hardly any of the county’s 4.8 million residents appear to be following this advice now. Gov. Greg Abbott fully reopened Texas last month and nixed the mask mandate. Youth sports have resumed, houses of worship again welcome in-person parishioners and 21,765 fans attended the Astros home opener at Minute Maid Park.

Yet, for 42 consecutive weeks, Harris County has been at its highest COVID-19 threat level, red, even though the virus metrics here have improved significantly since January and other counties have relaxed their guidance for residents. Though local officials have no authority to issue COVID-19 restrictions, Harris appears to be the only of Texas’s 254 counties to still urge residents to remain at home.

The county’s two Republican commissioners, Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, this week urged Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo to reconsider the threat-level criteria. The pair also have resumed attending court meetings in person, which they say can be done safely, while the three Democrats join virtually and require members of the public to do so, as well.

[…]

Since moving to level red last June, Harris County never has met all the criteria to move to the second-highest level, orange, including 14-day averages of: A positivity rate below 5 percent, daily new cases below 400 and COVID-19 patients occupying less than 15 percent of hospital ICU capacity. As of Wednesday, those metrics stood at 8.7 percent, 434 and 15.1 percent.

The glass-half-full view of these numbers is that each has declined significantly from January’s post-holiday spike. Both the number of COVID-19 patients occupying ICU beds and positivity rate have dropped by more than half, and the daily new case average is down 83 percent.

The more cautious approach, which Hidalgo favors, considers that the governor fully reopened the state over the objection of one of his medical advisers, herd immunity that is still months away and the presence of several virus variants in Houston that are a wild card.

Commissioner Ramsey points out that multiple school districts in his precinct are back to mostly in-person classes, which Commissioner Cagle notes that if you’re at the highest threat level all the time, it’s hard to turn the volume up when things do get worse. (I like to think of it as the “These go to eleven” justification.) Judge Hidalgo points to the fact that less than twenty percent of the county is fully vaccinated (this is counting all residents, not just those sixteen and older who are able to get the vaccine) and there are major outbreaks in places like Michigan that stand as cautionary tales for easing up too quickly. I’ll get to all this in a minute, but first we should note the irony of this story appearing on the same day as this story.

The Astros will be without four key players — Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez and Martin Maldonado – indefinitely because of MLB’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

The loss of those four, plus infielder Robel Garcia, is a brutal blow for a team already in a mid-April funk and a reminder that baseball is still operating in a pandemic.

The fivesome went on the COVID-19 related injured list prior to Wednesday’s game against the Detroit Tigers. Astros general manager James Click could not confirm whether the team has had a positive test. Players or staff who test positive for the virus must give their team permission to disclose a diagnosis.

“It’s just a challenge for the rest of our guys to pick us up and get us back on the right track,” Click said before Wednesday’s game at Minute Maid Park. “We’ve obviously scuffled a little bit the past four games. When it rains it pours. It’s a difficult situation.”

Placement on the COVID-19 injured list does not automatically indicate a positive test. There is no minimum or maximum length of stay. The list is also reserved for players or staffers exposed to someone who has had a positive test, those experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or those experiencing adverse effects of the COVID-19 vaccine. Manager Dusty Baker revealed that all five players “had at least their first shots.”

The Rice women’s volleyball team had to drop out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID protocols as well. Just a reminder, you’re not fully vaxxed until two weeks after the second shot. If it can happen to them, well…

Anyway. I don’t think Commissioners Ramsey and Cagle are making faulty or bad faith arguments. Their points are reasonable, and I’m sure a lot of people see it their way. Judge Hidalgo is also right, and the fact that Harris County hasn’t actually met any of the metrics to put it below the “red alert” threshold should mean something. To some extent this is a matter of risk tolerance, but I do find myself on the side of not redefining one’s own longstanding metrics for the sake of convenience. It seems likely to me that if everything continues along the same trends in the county, we should meet the standard for lowering the threat level soon. And if we don’t – if our caseloads continue to stay at the same level or tick back up, even if hospitalizations are down and even as we vaccinate more and more people – I think that should tell us something. Campos has more.

Senate approves pointless appeals court

There’s more than one way to attack Democratic appellate court justices.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new statewide court of appeals that would hear cases that have statewide significance — including ones that challenge state laws, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.

Currently, when such cases go to the intermediate appellate level, they are mostly heard by the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin. That court’s judges are elected by voters in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Senate Bill 1529, though, would send the cases to the new appellate court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide — an electorate that skews Republican.

Some of the state’s highest profile cases could be affected by this proposed court. Bill author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that recent lawsuits surrounding Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic emergency orders are examples of types of litigation the proposed court would have jurisdiction over.

Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to yank jurisdiction of these cases from Democrats.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and only one Republican. Currently, all statewide elected judges are Republican, including on the Texas Supreme Court — and it’s likely the proposed court would also be all Republican.

“Since the [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with issues facing state government, it’s a thorn in the Republican Party side,” Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, said in an interview. “And so by transitioning that by moving that to a statewide election where Republicans have the advantage, they would be able to, most likely, flip from being a Democratic majority… to a [5-0] Republican advantage.”

Huffman maintains that she wrote the bill to promote consistency — not for partisan reasons.

“The new court has five justices elected statewide so that all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide cases of statewide significance,” she said from the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s important for judges deciding cases of statewide importance to be familiar with specialized jurisprudence to provide consistent rulings for state litigants.”

[…]

Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns related to this bill, asking if the Legislature has the authority to create an appellate court with statewide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it does.

“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said.

Darlene Byrne, chief justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals and a Democrat, said in an interview she thinks the bill is “bad policy and bad for statewide jurisprudence.”

Byrne also said the new structure would promote large campaigns.

“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide court is going to be mega-big donors infusing big money to influence the judiciary. And I thought we were trying to get away from that — but apparently not.”

Linda Thomas, a former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.

“As a retired judge, I think it’s a little disingenuous, and in some ways, insulting to the sitting justices of this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling complex business cases,” Thomas said.

I noted this in passing in my initial post about appellate court redistricting, the bill for which has since been withdrawn for the time being. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas, and I also think that insult was a feature and not a bug. Sen. Huffman’s justification for this new court is ridiculous on its face, because all of the lawsuits in question start out in a district court, with a judge that was elected by local voters in far lesser numbers than for appellate court justices. That’s not exactly conducive to “consistent rulings for state litigants”. Why not go whole hog and create an entirely separate court system for “cases of statewide importance” (whatever that means, and I’ll bet that very topic becomes a contentious point of appeals in itself) so as to avoid local yokel judges making insufficiently erudite rulings? One could argue that Sen. Huffman is actually making a back-handed case for ending the election of judges in the first place. At least that would be a more honest approach to this.

I have no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, but I do feel confident that there will be litigation if and when this does pass. That lawsuit would eventually come before a district court of appeals, as one presumes it would be halted from taking effect pending the litigation, before ultimately being decided by the Supreme Court. I’ll leave it to you to sort out where that all lands on the Irony-o-Meter.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.