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May 7th, 2021:

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.