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May, 2021:

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.

Weekend link dump for May 9

“From my vantage point Republicans are giving the left a massive opportunity to wedge them.”

After the pandemic

“Remote Places Desperately Need Vaccines. Drones Could Help.”

For a deep dive on the Josh Duggar backstory, and the “counseling” he got from another evangelical icon who was also a longtime sex creep, read this 2015 TPM story. And then take a shower, you’ll feel like you need it.

“this whole Duggar mess is leading me to think we need to discuss the ways in which purity culture hinders essential skill-building and requires teens be secretive about their sexuality in ways that lead directly to predation”.

Pacific Island nations are now dealing with COVID and trying to get vaccinations after a year of mostly being safe due to their isolation.

“We have plenty of reasons to worry about the continuing pandemic: the variants, runaway viral spread in India and Brazil, differences in vaccination rates that mirror racial and political divides. But cautionary public-health guidance risks losing its impact if it fails to acknowledge what the American public surely can see: We are winning the war against COVID-19 in the United States, and we can adapt better than the virus can.”

You want to browse some classic Far Side cartoons, don’t you? Of course you do.

RIP, Billie Hayes, Broadway and TV actor known for playing Witchiepoo on the psychedelic kids TV show HR Pufnstuf. Mark Evanier has some memories of her and her Bay City Rollers co-star Les McKeown.

RIP, Al Jamison, original member of the Houston Oilers.

RIP, Bobby Unser, three-time Indianapolis 500 winner.

Belgian farmer accidentally moves French border. Who among us has not done the same thing?

“Prince’s earth-shattering “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” solo gets a director’s cut with even more Prince”.

Relax, you’ll know who the next Jeopardy! host is soon enough.

This reasonably sums up how I feel about Rep. Liz Cheney.

“Twitter is taking its permanent ban of ex-President Donald Trump seriously, with the company on Thursday suspending an account for sharing comments Trump made on his new website.”

Don’t drive while on a Zoom call. I mean, seriously.

“Tucker Carlson May Be America’s Biggest Public Health Problem“.

“The public health challenge of the next few months can’t be disentangled from the political problem of the next few years.”

RIP, Tawny Kitaen, actor and music video star.

So we bail out the electricity providers

I guess I don’t know enough about our weird electricity market to suggest a viable alternative to this, but it sure doesn’t speak well of our system.

An approximately $2.5 billion plan to bail out Texas’ distressed electricity market from the financial crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri in February was approved by the Texas House Thursday.

The legislation would impose a fee — likely for the next decade or longer — on electricity companies, which would then get passed on to residential and business customers in their power bills. Lawmakers on Wednesday said they could not yet estimate how much it would impact Texans’ electricity bills.

House lawmakers sent House Bill 4492 to the Senate on Thursday after a 129-15 vote. A similar bill is advancing in the Senate.

Some of the state’s electricity providers and generators are financially underwater in the aftermath of the February power outages, which left millions without power and killed more than 100 people. Electricity companies had to buy whatever power was available at the maximum rate allowed by Texas regulations — $9,000 per megawatt hour — during the week of the storm (the average price for power in 2020 was $22 per megawatt hour). Natural gas fuel prices also spiked more than 700% during the storm.

Several companies are nearing default on their bills to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers most of the state and facilitates financial transactions in it.

Rural electric cooperatives were especially hard hit; Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, which supplies electricity to 1.5 million customers, filed for bankruptcy citing a $1.8 billion debt to ERCOT.

State Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, the bill’s author, said a second bailout bill will be necessary during the current legislative session for severely distressed electric cooperatives.

“This is a financial crisis, and it’s a big one,” James Schaefer, a senior managing director at Guggenheim Partners, an investment bank, told lawmakers at a House State Affairs Committee hearing in early April. He warned that more bankruptcies would cause higher costs to customers and hurt the state’s image in the eyes of investors.

“You’ve got to free the system,” Schaefer said. “It’s horrible that a bunch of folks have to pay, but it’s a system-wide failure. If you let a bunch of folks crash, it’s not a good look for your state.”

If approved by the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott, a newly-created Texas Electric Securitization Corp. would use the money raised from the fees for bonds to help pay the companies’ debts, including costs for ancillary services, a financial product that helps ensure power is continuously generated. The aid would only be allowed for the debt that would otherwise be defaulted.

Hard to say how much this will increase the average monthly electric bill, but I’m sure someone will study that. Having a bunch of bankruptcies would be bad for a variety of reasons, so this is what we’re doing, but let’s take a moment to review the bidding on our deregulated electricity market. Massive statewide blackouts (and water failures) during the freeze because there was no requirement to weatherize the systems (even though we had experienced similar, though smaller scale, blackouts before, in recent memory), which led to a huge financial crisis in the industry that is now requiring a state bailout as well as a large state investment in weatherization, because otherwise that was never going to happen. All this, and we have higher consumer prices than other states. Is this a great system or what?

Meanwhile, in other ERCOT news:

During February’s deadly winter storm, Gov. Greg Abbott and many state lawmakers quickly criticized the Electric Reliability Council of Texas because several members of its large governing board reside outside Texas.

Many of the out-of-state board members are experts in the electricity field, but resigned following criticism of the agency’s oversight of the state’s main power grid during the storm that left millions of Texans without electricity for days in freezing temperatures.

State lawmakers are now trying to change the way ERCOT is governed by requiring members to live in Texas and giving more board seats to political appointees — changes that experts say may do little to improve the power grid.

One former board member who resigned after the storm, Peter Cramton, criticized legislation for politicizing the grid operator’s board.

“These people would be political types without electricity expertise,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Texas House has already approved House Bill 10, which would remove independent outside voices on the ERCOT board and replace them with five political appointees. The governor would appoint three of those people, while the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House would each appoint one. None of the appointees would be required to be electricity experts. The only requirement is that appointees live in Texas.

Senate Bill 2, which has cleared the upper chamber, would give the governor five ERCOT board member appointments.

[…]

The political appointees replace what are now called “unaffiliated members,” who mostly served as outside expert voices. The other board members currently represent regions across the state that make up the ERCOT grid, as well as non-voting members such as the chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Some power grid experts have said in legislative testimony, at industry events and in interviews that they don’t see how giving more power to the political class — and making minor tweaks like requiring all board members reside in Texas — could improve the grid operator.

“From the consumer standpoint, we really depend on those unaffiliated directors to make decisions that are in customers’ interest and in the interest of the overall health of the ERCOT market,” Katie Coleman, who represents Texas Industrial Energy Consumers, said at a recent industry conference.

Seriously, WTF are we even doing here?

GHP finally says something about voter suppression

Weak.

After days of external pressure from Harris County politicians and internal calls from board members to speak out against voting bills in the Texas Legislature, the Greater Houston Partnership on Thursday evening issued a broad condemnation of efforts to restrict ballot access.

It made no mention of the legislation.

Bob Harvey, the partnership’s president, said the statement came out of a listening session Thursday morning with more than 80 board members to discuss the bills. The two main proposals, Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, would limit early voting hours, ban drive-thru voting, lessen restrictions on poll watchers and streamline the process to purge voters from rolls.

[…]

Harvey said 15 members spoke during the one-hour discussion, and “it remains clear there is no consensus on our board to take a formal position on the legislation itself.”

He said a clear consensus did support the new statement, which acknowledges that Texas and the United States have historically suppressed the vote of certain groups, including women, the poor, residents of color and those with disabilities. The partnership, the statement reads in part:

“Believes voter suppression is wrong and stands firmly against it in any form.

“Believes impediments to voting should be reduced to the greatest extent possible.

“Believes the right to vote is fundamental to our democracy and that all citizens should have ready and easy access to vote.”

[…]

[Mayor Sylvester] Turner and [County Judge Lina] Hidalgo said Friday the partnership’s new statement would not change their decision. The mayor said he was disappointed the House had advanced its version of SB 7 overnight.

“More than 350 of these voter restriction, suppression bills have been filed across the country, trying to fix a problem that doesn’t exist,” Turner said. “These bills were filed because a lot of people voted in the last presidential election, and specifically more people of color.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the full statement. I’m trying to understand what it is that allows the GHP to (finally, at long last) make these very basic statements about the core tenets of democracy, but forbids them from connecting them in any way to the legislation that is on a glide path to Greg Abbott’s desk. What, other than a critical mass of Republican members who accept at face value the ludicrous and widely disputed claims by Republican legislators that SB7 and HB6 and the various other smaller bills won’t contradict these things they say they believe, is stopping them? Does Bob Harvey not understand why so many people are mad at the GHP for not taking a stand, or is he gritting his teeth and picturing himself in one of those “wanna get away?” Southwest Airlines ads? I have no idea. All I know is that this is the equivalent of turning in a term paper that’s two days late and that you wrote in an hour having done no research before handing it to the professor and hoping it’s enough to keep you from flunking the class.

Firefighters score a win in court

I confess, I had forgotten about this.

A panel of appellate court judges on Thursday rejected the city’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law that governs how police and firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits, dealing a blow to Mayor Sylvester Turner in his long-running dispute with the Houston fire union.

Barring a city appeal, the ruling clears the way for a judge to set Houston firefighters’ pay for up to a year and compensate them for “past losses.”

Firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent since 2011, after rejecting offers they say included too many concessions. Voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure granting firefighters pay “parity” to police of similar rank and seniority, but a district judge ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Thursday’s ruling came in a case that arose in June 2017 after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association failed to agree on a new contract through collective bargaining.

The union sued the city, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith. As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers.

Justices Ken Wise, Charles A. Spain and Meagan Hassan of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals sided against the city, ruling the provision does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution separation of powers clause that prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

The justices also rejected the city’s argument that state lawmakers did not set specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighters’ compensation. Texas law requires public employers to give firefighters pay that is “substantially equal” to “comparable employment in the private sector.”

“The Legislature chose sufficiently detailed but not too confining language to account for the many different circumstances affecting compensation and other conditions of employment,” the justices wrote in their opinion, in which they also ordered the city to cover the fire union’s legal fees.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. In the story, the city said it hadn’t decided whether or not to appeal this ruling. It would be fine by me if the next step were for the city and the firefighters to try the bargaining table again. Or I guess they could roll the dice and let a judge decide the firefighters’ salaries, as they had tried to make happen. Who knows how that might turn out?

House passes its omnibus voter suppression bill

But don’t bother asking what’s in the bill, because it’s going to change and we won’t know what’s in the real bill until it’s time for a final vote in both chambers.

As opposition to Texas Republicans’ proposed voting restrictions continues to intensify, state lawmakers’ deliberations over the GOP priority legislation could soon go behind closed doors.

The House early Friday voted 81-64 to advance a pared down version of Senate Bill 7, leaving out various far-reaching voting restrictions that have prompted widespread outcry from voting rights advocates, advocates for people with disabilities, and local officials in the state’s biggest counties. The legislation still contains some provisions opposed by those groups — including a prohibition on counties sending unsolicited applications to vote by mail.

Facing more than 130 proposed amendments from Democrats late Thursday — and a procedural challenge that could have delayed the entire bill’s consideration — lawmakers huddled off the chamber’s floor throughout the night to cut a deal and rework SB 7 through a flurry of amendments passed without objection from either party.

But the final contours of the bill remain uncertain.

The bill will need a second House vote, expected later Friday, before it can head back to the Senate. It will then likely go to a conference committee made up of members of both chambers who will be able to pull from both iterations of the legislation in crafting the final version largely outside public view.

SB 7 has emerged as the main legislative vehicle for changing the state’s voting rules, though the versions passed in each chamber differ significantly.

As passed in the Senate, the legislation restricted early voting rules and schedules to do away with extended hours and ban drive-thru voting. It also required large counties to redistribute polling places under a formula that could move sites away from areas with more Hispanic and Black residents.

Those and other provisions fell off when it was reconstituted in the House Elections Committee, with little notice and without a public hearing, to match the House’s priorities contained in House Bill 6.

Republicans amended the bill in the early hours of Friday to nix a provision that would’ve required people assisting voters to disclose the reason a voter might need help — even if for medical reasons. That measure raised concerns among advocates for people with disabilities that it could violate the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Lawmakers also amended the bill to slim down provisions that broadly enhanced protections for partisan poll watchers and provisions that boosted penalties for voting related offenses.

In keeping the ban on distributing applications for mail-in ballots, the House upheld its response to Harris County’s attempt to proactively send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. Other Texas counties sent unsolicited applications to voters 65 and older without much scrutiny. Those voters automatically qualify to vote by mail, but sending them unsolicited applications would also be blocked under the bill.

Under the deal House members cut to keep the bill on the floor, Democrats were able to tack on several amendments to the legislation. Most notably, they added language to the legislation in response to the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election. Mason was on supervised release for a federal conviction at the time and said she didn’t know that made her ineligible to vote. SB 7 was amended early Friday to require judges to inform someone if a conviction will prohibit them from voting and require that people know why they are ineligible for an attempt to vote to count as a crime.

See here for the most recent update. The Chron had a story over the weekend that went into detail about the two bills (before HB6 was rewritten in committee) and how much of them was an effort to punish Harris County for its “sins” in 2020. That’s mostly useful now as a reminder for when the conference committee version emerges. I have little hope that the Democratic amendments will make it into that version, but at least they tried. The one thing we can be sure about is that much like with Florida, there will be lawsuits over this. And we damn well better make it an issue in the 2022 election. Reform Austin has more.

Anti-transgender sports bill revived

Screw you, Harold Dutton.

Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton on Friday revived and helped advance a bill that would restrict transgender students from participating in school sports, in what appears to be a retaliatory effort directed at members of his own party for sinking one of his bills.

Senate Bill 29, abhorred by fellow Democrats, would require the University Interscholastic League to force students to play on the sports teams based on their biological sex instead of their gender identity.

The bill, which already passed in the Senate, is a priority of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Dutton, who chairs the House Public Education committee, brought the legislation up for a committee vote on Tuesday, where it failed to advance, in large part, because Republican state Rep. Dan Huberty was absent that day and because Dutton himself abstained from voting for or against the bill.

On Thursday night, Dutton, who is from Houston, presented his own bill to the House floor that would give Texas Education Commissioner Michael Morath the ability to take over a district that fails to meet various academic standards and remove school board members. The bill is largely in response to a current legal battle between the Texas Education Agency and Houston ISD after the agency attempted to take over the district in 2019, but was blocked from moving forward by a temporary injunction that’s been upheld by the state’s Third Court of Appeals. Dutton’s alma mater in Houston ISD, Wheatley High School, has received an F rating for multiple years.

That bill, which is largely unpopular among Democrats, was blocked from being voted on after a fellow Houston Democrat Rep. Alma Allen sank it on a procedural technicality. Dutton and Allen sparred over the bill’s intent on the House floor with Allen arguing the bill would provide the TEA with too much latitude to take over an independent school district without providing any recourse for a district.

“When the school goes down, the community goes down and the developers move in,” she said as Dutton repeatedly rejected her assessment. “That’s the long effect of this bill passing.”

Dutton made several references to his bill’s failure on Friday morning in the House Public Education committee as he brought the transgender student athlete bill up for another vote.

“The bill that was killed last night affected far more children than this bill ever will. So as a consequence, the chair moves that Senate Bill 29 as substituted be reported favorably to the full House with the recommendation that it do pass,” he said.

He and Huberty, who is vice chair of the committee, then joined with the previous yes votes, giving SB 29 an 8-5 majority and advancing it out of committee. The bill must still be approved by the House before it can be sent to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature.

See here for the previous update about HB29, and here for Dutton’s TEA takeover bill. “Petty” and “vindictive” are the words that come to my mind about this; I’m sure others can think of more. I hadn’t even considered this scenario as a possible route to this bill getting revived, but here we are. That doesn’t mean it will pass – it still has to come to the House floor, and if Speaker Dade Phelan is true to his earlier words about not wanting to bash LGBTQ+ people anymore, then it can get lost on its way to the Calendars committee. We’ll see about that. In the meantime, let’s start gathering support for the next primary challenge to Dutton, hopefully without any ghost candidates this time. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Paxton unblocks Twitter users who sued him

Blink.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unblocked on Twitter the nine Texans who sued him after they say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the social media platform.

In a lawsuit filed in April, a group of Texans said being blocked from viewing Paxton’s tweets from his @KenPaxtonTX account was a violation of the First Amendment because it limited the rights of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by the public official.

The ACLU of Texas and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University represented the Texans in their lawsuit. According to their statements from a Thursday press release, Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans in the “ongoing lawsuit challenging Paxton’s practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account.”

Paxton has also “blocked many other individuals from the @KenPaxtonTX account based on their viewpoints,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs had asked Paxton to unblock them and everyone else who was blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account “based on their viewpoints,” but it’s unclear if people not named in the lawsuit have been unblocked.

Lyndsey Wajert, a legal fellow with the Knight First Amendment Institute, said while Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans, the case has not been dismissed.

See here for the background. It’s a strange lawsuit to be involved in when the prize for winning is to be able to see Ken Paxton’s tweets, but it’s the principle that matters, and on those grounds Paxton was clearly in the wrong. I’m not sure if there are just some technical aspects to clear up before this is dropped, or if there are still substantive matters to be decided, but we were going to get to this point sooner or later. Kudos to the plaintiffs and their lawyers.

UPDATE:

Clearly, not all issues are resolved.

Fort Bend says No to GHP

Good.

Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Thursday the county will not consider becoming a member of the Greater Houston Partnership following the group’s silence on bills in the state Legislature that he called “suppressive pieces of legislation reminiscent of Jim Crow era tactics prior to the Civil Rights era.”

George’s statement came a day after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced they no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership due to the group’s silence. George said he supported the pair’s rebuke; all three are Democrats.

“The implications of silence on this issue are too consequential and that Hidalgo and Turner have decided to make that clear is admirable,” George said. “Our County had been considering joining the Greater Houston Partnership for some time now, but following their silence on this, we will no longer consider becoming a member organization. Now is the time to take a stand, the eyes of history are indeed upon us now.”

In his statement, George noted the changes that the county made to make voting more accessible ahead of the 2020 election, including the extension of voting hours, making the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land a mega-voting site and creating drive-thru voting for individuals unable to walk into a center.

See here, here, and here for some background. The GHP had a simple test before it, to affirm the basic principle that our democracy works best when voting is easy and accessible to all and that the bills being pushed in the Legislature are antithetical to that, as well as based on a lie. It failed. There should be consequences for that, and there are. Any diminution of their stature is on them.

Turner and Hidalgo rebuke GHP over voting rights failure

Good.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo no longer plan to hold their annual state of the city and county addresses with the Greater Houston Partnership because of the chamber group’s silence on bills in the Texas Legislature that the pair say will add unacceptable obstacles to voting.

The move, which the pair announced at a news conference, was a rare public rebuke of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, which typically has enjoyed a close relationship with Houston-area politicians. Hidalgo’s comments amounted to an accusation of cowardice, echoing comments a prominent Black member of the partnership board made a day earlier.

“We can’t in good conscience stand at the dais of the partnership when their will to represent their members and their community so easily crumbles in a time of need,” Hidalgo said. “We do not feel comfortable letting them after seeing them shrink from the civil rights fight of our time.”

Hidalgo said she would announce a new venue for her annual address at a later date. Turner said he would instead have Houston First Corporation host his state of the city speech.

“I think it’s important this year for me to find that venue that better reflects the diversity of our city and the values we hold so dear,” Turner said.

[…]

The partnership issued a statement saying it regretted Hidalgo and Turner had canceled the annual events, which its members “greatly enjoy.” The statement said there is no consensus among members on the voting bills, which prevents the group from taking a stance on the legislation.

Board members told the Chronicle, however, that GHP leadership had declined to hold a special meeting at which a consensus could be reached.

Hidalgo also questioned the partnership’s commitment to fighting racial injustice the group made after the killing of Houston native George Floyd last summer, given its inaction on the voting bills.

“The blunt truth is, you cannot stand for that and at the same time say silent on voter suppression,” Hidalgo said. “The right to vote is at the core of all of those rights.”

See here and here for some background. This is entirely appropriate and justified, and I hope it leaves a mark. You can’t proclaim yourself an icon of good government and civic engagement while sitting this out, and Judge Hidalgo is exactly right to question their self-proclaimed commitment to racial justice. (If you need a better understanding of why, read this Texas Civil Rights Project report on the sordid and racist history of poll watchers, which SB7 and HB6 and other bills are set to unleash.) This is an attack on democracy for partisan gain and based on a brazen lie, and if the GHP can’t or won’t recognize that then it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. Good for Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner, and shame on the GHP. The Press has more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board piles on.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

The Texas House on Tuesday passed a bill to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.

House members approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor Monday.

“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill, said Monday.

Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.

After tentatively approving the bill Monday, the House finally passed HB 20 on a 98-to-46 vote Tuesday. It is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.

The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

See here for the background. As this Chron editorial notes, HB20 is better than SB21 but still falls short because of its prioritization of cash bail. A fair and just system does not determine who gets to go home and who gets to stay locked up for weeks or months before even going on trial based on ability to pay. As Grits noted a month ago, any bail-related bill that has Greg Abbott’s support is highly unlikely to be upheld by the federal courts going forward. As such, the best move is to vote against HB20 and SB21, and wait for further direction from the Fifth Circuit.

Houston’s hospitals are still busy

Interesting.

While local hospital leaders aren’t sounding the alarm about capacity concerns, we heard a similar story from leaders at St. Luke’s and Houston Methodist: hospital beds and emergency rooms are regularly filling up as both health systems continue to manage coronavirus patients on top of all the folks finally heading to the hospital for care they may have delayed due to the pandemic, all while the number of patients coming into local emergency rooms is already hitting pre-COVID levels.

Roberta Schwartz, Executive VP of Houston Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, told the Press that it wasn’t surprising to hear that the Houston Methodist ER in Sugar Land was recently so busy it had to turn away ambulances temporarily.

“The emergency rooms and the hospitals are very full,” Schwartz said.

When we asked Dr. Brad Lembcke — Chief Medical Officer at St. Luke’s — about the current status of his hospital system’s bed count and ER capacity, he said “We’re full, I guess is probably the two-second version.”

[…]

Lots of Schwartz’s colleagues around the country have told her their hospitals are seeing lower numbers of emergency room visits than they did before COVID. “That is not the case at Houston Methodist,” Schwartz said, “and seems not to be the case in Houston.”

St. Luke’s is also seeing a similar trend of ERs packed with more patients than in other parts of the United States, Lembcke said. While “a lot of places report only recovering to about 80 percent of what their prior volumes were,” he said, St. Luke’s main downtown hospital is now seeing ER numbers that have “just about reached the pre-COVID states.”

Even though coronavirus hospitalizations have fallen after the winter surge, local hospitals continue to deal with steady numbers of COVID-19 patients. At Houston Methodist, the number of coronavirus hospitalizations has plateaued in recent weeks, and at a level higher than where that patient count leveled-off at after the first two surges in the spring and summer of 2020.

Schwartz said that after the first surge last spring, coronavirus hospitalizations at Houston Methodist fell to around 50. Following the summer surge, they averaged “about 100 COVID patients on a daily basis.”

“When we came down from this latest surge in December and January, we’re settling in at about 180 to 200,” Schwartz said.

“If you had a normal load of patients, and you add on 200, that would put some stressors to the system, and I think that you’re seeing that across Houston. And this comment on saturation is not just us, it’s lots of hospitals,” she said.

Lembcke said that St. Luke’s average number of coronavirus hospitalizations these days is “maybe a little higher” than what they saw right after the summer surge. “But it’s more consistent. It’s been pretty stable over the last month or so.”

When asked about why Houston’s hospitals are still so full, Schwartz said she and her colleagues have a few educated guesses.

“We do know for sure — 100 percent, this is documented in many papers — that people have delayed their care in many cases, and are coming in with later stage illnesses,” many of whom whose conditions got bad enough that they needed emergency care, Schwartz said. Some of those patients “were people who said ‘I don’t want to get COVID from going to the hospital or to the doctor.’ We know that.”

They note also that a lot of nurses have retired or left the industry due to burnout from the previous high volume of COVID cases, and that they are seeing a lot more younger patients with serious COVID issues, as is “needing a lung transplant”-level of seriousness. I certainly hope we’ll get back on a downward trajectory as more people get vaccinated, but this is a reminder both that we really need to get as many people vaxxed as we can, and that even as the overall numbers have dropped we’re still not out of the red yet.

Funding weatherization

I’m okay with this, with one caveat.

A plan to help finance what will likely become mandatory power plant upgrades to withstand more extreme weather in the wake of the February power crisis received preliminary approval in the Texas House on Monday.

The failure of power plants to produce power during very cold temperatures was a major cause of the February power outages in Texas that left more than 4.8 million customers without electricity for days and caused more than 100 deaths. Natural gas plants shutting down or reducing electricity production due to cold weather was the most significant source of outages, according to an analysis by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the grid that covers much of the state.

House members voted 126-18 in favor of a $2 billion program that would be created by House Bill 2000 by state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston.

“We are looking forward to make sure these things don’t happen again,” Huberty said. “We can’t shut the Texas economy down by losing power and losing lives. That can never happen again.”

Modeled after the state’s water infrastructure fund, House Bill 2000 and the corresponding House Joint Resolution 2 would allocate $2 billion of state funds to help finance what could be expensive — and likely mandatory — upgrades to power plants in Texas to withstand more extreme weather conditions by providing electricity generators with access to grants and low-cost loans for the projects. House Joint Resolution 2 was also advanced in a 126-18 vote.

Most power plants in Texas are not built to withstand very cold weather and experts have said that retrofitting plants will be more costly and difficult than building weatherized plants in the first place. Still, it is technically and economically possible, energy experts have told the Tribune, depending on the type of weatherization the state may eventually mandate.

Concerned that a mandate to upgrade would cause companies or municipalities to shut down power plants and further reduce the state’s available power supply, lawmakers sought a way to provide a financial boost to the effort.

A State Utilities Reliability Fund (SURF) and the State Utilities Reliability Revenue Fund — modeled after the state’s existing funds for water infrastructure projects — would be created by Huberty’s proposed constitutional amendment and corresponding bill. The plan would need to be approved by voters in November if passed by two-thirds of the Texas House and Senate because it alters the state’s constitution.

In 2013, the Legislature created the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, known as SWIFT, by allocating $2 billion from Texas’ economic stabilization fund, better known as the “rainy day” fund. It offers subsidies and help with low-cost loans for municipal water infrastructure projects, said Rebecca Trevino, chief financial officer of the Texas Water Development Board, which is charged with managing the fund.

The “SURF” fund would function similarly, but instead of offering the low-cost loans and grants to municipalities, the fund would also offer those financing tools to for-profit power generation companies and others to upgrade plants to withstand more extreme weather conditions.

I’m okay with this approach, even if it is using public funds to subsidize for-profit companies, because the need outweighs the other concerns. We’re not going to scrap the system we have now for something that makes more sense, so the least we can do is address this glaring need so we (hopefully) never face a situation where hundreds of people die because of weather.

The caveat comes from the comparison to the water infrastructure fund that the Lege authorized following the 2011 drought. There may be a nice clean report on the SWIFT homepage that tells me just how much new water infrastructure has been financed and built (or is being built) as a result of that fund, but I’m not seeing it. I would like very much for there to be an easy-to-find progress report on whatever future SURF page we wind up with, so this is visible to everyone. Maybe if the progress we get isn’t what we hoped for, that will enable us to spot it and do something about it in a timely fashion.