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Austin

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Will MLB come to Central Texas?

Drayton McLane thinks it might.

Drayton McLane, who knows a thing or two about the subject, believes Central Texas is closing in on being able to support its own Major League Baseball team. That pronouncement might lead you to wonder what we’ll call our new team—Lone Star Hipsters? Canyon Lake Coyotes?—and to look forward to summer evenings sipping a cold one at the ballpark as the sun sets on the San Marcos River.

Anyway, McLane has precisely the kind of can-do spirit Texas is going to need to land a third MLB franchise. No one thought he’d succeed in purchasing the Astros in 1993, and certainly no one thought he’d persuade Houston voters to approve, in 1996, the construction of Minute Maid Park. He breathed life into a franchise that had never won much of anything and led them to six postseason appearances during a nine-year stretch from 1997 to 2005. That run culminated with a National League pennant, which at the time was close to the sweetest moment Houston sports fans had ever experienced.

Now 84, McLane makes it clear he’s not going to lead this effort. That’s where Nolan Ryan comes in, but more on him later. In fact, McLane admits it’s a tad early to begin putting down a deposit on season tickets.

“Ten years from now, it’s a possibility,” he told me.

[…]

One thing that never came up in our conversation: the availability of a team. That’s the easy part. The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays are something akin to free agents, with both unable to land new ballpark deals in their host cities. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has given the A’s permission to shop around for better options, and team officials were to visit Las Vegas this week. The Rays, apparently desperate for leverage, have come up with the  far-fetched idea of playing half their games in Montreal and half in Tampa or St. Petersburg. Almost no one who follows the sport believes a split-city format is workable, and it seems only a matter of time before the Rays begin shopping for a new full-time home.

Plus, Manfred has said MLB will expand—by at least two teams—once the A’s and Rays are settled. While Portland may have a big head start on Central Texas, are there really four better North American markets than the Austin–San Antonio corridor? Think of San Marcos as perhaps the perfect accessible-to-both-cities spot for a ballpark. And McLane might be underestimating the market’s viability. The Interstate 35 corridor between Austin and San Antonio is booming, and a ballpark accessible to both cities would make the are more appealing than several current MLB cities.

Austin’s economy was the twelfth-fastest-growing among major metropolitan areas in 2019, according to the Austin Chamber of Commerce.  A sleepy government and university town no more, Austin now hosts some of the largest and most profitable companies in in the world, from Apple and Amazon to Tesla and Oracle.

There are plenty of TV sets, too. San Antonio is the nation’s thirty-first-largest television market, according to Nielsen, while Austin checks in at number 38. Together, the cities deliver 1.65 million television households, more than a long list of major-league cities, including St. Louis, San Diego, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore.

We’ve discussed the possibility of a second team in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, but I tend to agree with McLane. Central Texas is the more likely location, with enough population between Austin and San Antonio to support an MLB team. For a variety of reasons, MLB owners are not looking to expand now, but I expect that it will be on the table in the not too distant future, maybe some time after the next CBA. One possible obstacle to this dream is the nightmare that is I-35, which I guarantee will be overly congested no matter how much it gets expanded. Maybe this could be the fulcrum to finally get the Lone Star Rail line built. If I’m gonna dream, I may as well dream big.

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

Amtrak is all aboard the Texas Triangle, but there is a long way to go before more trains roll into Houston, headed for San Antonio and Dallas.

The national rail system’s new plan for expanding service, released Thursday, identifies potential routes to create or expand nationwide by 2035. The Texas Triangle, involving Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — and including Austin and Fort Worth — receives significant attention. Three daily round-trip trains are planned between Houston and Dallas, in addition to three between Houston and San Antonio.

For Houston travelers, Austin would be accessible via San Antonio.

Amtrak also identified potential stops along the routes where new passenger stations could be added, including Rosenberg on the way to San Antonio and College Station on the way to Dallas.

[…]

Amtrak trains along the Sunset Limited roll into Houston three days a week. As a result, use of the Houston Amtrak station — often mocked for being a single platform for the nation’s fifth-largest metro area — is low. In 2017, fewer than 20,000 people boarded Amtrak in Houston, a yearly total that is less than hopped aboard Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Red Line light rail on the typical workday.

The last time the Houston Amtrak station saw a large crowd, it was to welcome the world’s largest steam train, during a 2019 stop by Union Pacific.

Many argue that is because Amtrak trains to and from Houston only come every other day and often not on time. The Northeast corridor, where Amtrak is a common way to move between cities, offers more than 100 weekday trains.

That is in part because of the dominance of Amtrak in owning railroad tracks in the Northeast, compared with the rest of the nation, where most major lines are controlled by freight railroads. In many cases, including Texas, adding the service is likely to come with federal investment in projects aimed at improving reliability or speed of service.

Even then, with various stops, the trains would lag behind air travel or most car trips. Both Houston-to-Dallas and Houston-to-San Antonio would take more than 4½ hours.

The appeal is a more predictable trip than driving, with fewer hassles than air travel, said James Llamas, a principal planner at Houston-based Traffic Engineers Inc. Llamas, who recreationally and professionally travels by train often, said that where Amtrak or officials have invested in frequent train service, riders have embraced it. He noted investments in California, which historically suffered from a lack of passenger rail options until the state opted to develop them, have increased ridership to where it is the most-used lines in Amtrak outside the Northeast.

Though Amtrak can seek federal funding to start service, it is likely Texas would have to support the service or agree to some funding to continue it beyond the first few years. Texas has supported rail lines in the Dallas area but has not made any commitments to Houston services.

Increased train service also is likely to change if a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas happens. Texas Central Railroad continues development of its proposed 220-mile line between the metro areas, though the plan continues to face stiff opposition.

This has come up before, as part of the Infrastructure Not-Yet-A-Bill discussion. You can see the national rail line map Amtrak proposed at that time, which includes the Houston/Dallas/San Antonio triangle. I’m all in favor of more passenger rail service in Texas, but I don’t know how competitive this would be versus Texas Central and its high speed option, which if things go as they have planned would be up and running well before a Houston-Dallas Amtrak train would be. There have also been other high speed rail lines proposed, which would cover more of Texas than what is currently planned for Texas Central, but at this point I think we can consider them to be vaporware, at least until and unless something tangible gets put forward.

If Amtrak can get up and running in between Austin and San Antonio, that would serve as a version of the long-song Lone Star Rail line. Note that the issue there has long been availability of the existing freight rail tracks – without being able to share them, new track would have to be built, which is far more expensive and time-consuming and runs into the same kind of eminent domain issues that Texas Central has had to deal with (though one presumes that no one would get any traction claiming that Amtrak is not really a railroad). All of this is to say that while the idea is sound, there are many obstacles. I would sadly bet against anything like this being fully operational by 2035, assuming we’re all still here to see for ourselves.

Here come the young people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Other May election results

Roundup style, mostly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg easily wins a fourth term.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.

Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.

That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.

Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.

Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.

Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.

Nirenberg won by a much wider margin against Brockhouse this time. When I look around at current Mayors for future statewide potential, Nirenberg certainly belongs on the list, but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard his name bandied about. Maybe that will change now.

San Antonio had a high-profile ballot proposition, which would have stripped the city’s police union of it collective bargaining power. It was narrowly defeated, but its proponents are encouraged they did as well as they did, and expect to continue that fight.

Austin had its own slew of ballot propositions, with a particularly contentious one that would outlaw the public camps that homeless people are now using. That one passed, and we’ll see what happens next.

The folks behind Proposition B, the citizen initiative to re-criminalize public camping in Downtown Austin and near the UT Campus, got the victory they sought for the more than $1 million they spent. With all votes counted Saturday night, the measure backed by Save Austin Now prevailed by 14 points, 57.1%-42.9%.

That’s a slightly weaker showing than was predicted before polls closed by SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, but a win’s a win:

Those who have been paying attention will note that Mayor Steve Adler and much of Council have already decided that the June 2019 vote that Prop B reverses was a failed experiment, and have moved on to other strategies to house Austin’s unsheltered poor. Perhaps SAN will catch up soon. Whatever its merits as policy, the campaign for Prop B did almost certainly boost turnout, which all told was 22.55% countywide (just under 90% of that was city voters). That’s the highest Austin’s seen in a May election since 1994.

Even CM Greg Casar, the politician most directly rebuked by tonight’s results, is looking ahead: “I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes,” Casar said in a statement. “Our community must come together after this election & house 3,000 more people.”

I’ll leave it to the Austin folks to figure this out from here, but from my vantage point one obvious issue here is the ridiculously high housing prices in Austin, which is fueled in part by way more demand for housing than supply. I hope the city can find a way forward on that.

Fort Worth will have a new Mayor, after a June runoff.

Fort Worth voters will chose a new mayor for the first time in a decade in June with Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples apparently headed to the runoff.

Mayor Betsy Price’s decision not to seek an unprecedented sixth term sparked 10 candidates to run, including two council members, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and a slew of political newcomers.

According unofficial results in Tarrant County, Peoples, a former AT&T vice president, led with 33.60% of the vote Saturday night while Parker, a former Price chief of staff, had 30.82%, with all 176 vote centers reporting. Council member Brian Byrd was in third place with 14.75%.

Parker and Peoples maintained the upper hand with results for Denton County. There, Parker took 35.17% of the vote compared to 16% for Peoples. In Parker County, Parker had 42% of the vote followed by Byrd’s 23.3%. Peoples had 12.5%.

The runoff will be June 5.

Here are the Tarrant County results – scroll down to page 21 to see the Fort Worth Mayor’s race. There were 1,106 votes cast in total in this race in Denton County, and 176 total votes cast in Parker County, so Tarrant is really all you need to know. In 2019, Peoples lost to Mayor Betsy Price by a 56-42 margin. Adding up the votes this time, counting Ann Zadeh as progressive and Brian Byrn and Steve Penate as conservative, the vote was roughly a 55-42 margin for the Republican-aligned candidates. We’ll see how it goes in the runoff.

And then there was Lubbock.

Lubbock voters on Saturday backed a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that tries to outlaw abortions in the city’s limits, likely prompting a lawsuit over what opponents say is an unconstitutional ban on the procedure.

The unofficial vote, 62% for and 38% against the measure, comes less than a year after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in Lubbock and months after the City Council rejected the ordinance on legal grounds and warned it could tee up a costly court fight.

The passage of the ordinance makes Lubbock one of some two dozen cities that have declared themselves a “sanctuary … for the unborn” and tried to prohibit abortions from being performed locally. But none of the cities in the movement — which started in the East Texas town of Waskom in 2019 — has been as big as Lubbock and none of them have been home to an abortion provider.

It’s unclear when the ordinance will go into effect, and if it will be challenged in court.

The push to declare Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years and was galvanized by the arrival of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2020. Anti-abortion activists gathered enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the City Council — where it was voted down for conflicting with state law and Supreme Court rulings — and to then put it to a citywide vote.

Ardent supporters of the measure, who liken abortion to murder, say it reflects the views held by many in conservative Lubbock. They believe the ordinance would stand up in court and say they have an attorney who will defend the city free of charge if it is challenged.

But the strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even staunch anti-abortion activists, and Texas towns like Omaha and Mineral Wells have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar ordinances, has said they were watching the vote closely and hinted at a lawsuit in a statement Saturday.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the organization, said the “ACLU has a long history of challenging unconstitutional abortion bans and will continue to fight to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Lubbock.”

[…]

The Lubbock ordinance outlaws abortions within the city, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and anyone who assists someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic.

There isn’t an exception for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits.

Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, expects someone would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.

“As long as Roe is good law I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys fees and it takes time,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit that was filed against those seven towns was later dropped after the ordinances to remove language that declared the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund “criminal entities”. The language banning abortions in those towns remains, however. Lubbock is in a much different position than those tiny little towns, and I have no idea what happens from here. It can’t be long before someone files a lawsuit for something.

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Virginia Elizondo lost her race for Spring Branch ISD. I wish her all the best in the future.

The best time to buy a house in Houston was last year

Or the year before that, or the year before that

The O’Neals are part of a nationwide real estate frenzy playing out in Houston that is propelling prices to new highs. Houses are frequently drawing multiple offers, often above the asking price and can sell in a matter of days if they’re in good condition, according to local real estate agents.

The median price of a single-family home reached $260,212 in 2020, up 6.2 percent from 2019, according to an analysis of home sales and prices compiled by the Houston Association of Realtors for the Houston Chronicle. The increase in the median sales price was nearly twice the 3.2 percent year-over-year gain in 2019, according to HAR.

The increase came amid demand fueled by continued low interest rates, an extreme shortage of houses on the market and a rekindled desire for homes in the suburbs stemming from the pandemic as people spend more time at home. At the same time, despite the rising prices, the pandemic forced people to cancel vacations, stop eating out and allowed them to pay down debt, giving them more buying power than ever. Some of that may carry over to the future.

“We have a new habit of spending a lot of time at home,” said Ted C. Jones, chief economist with Stewart Title. “We’ll definitely eat out more, but maybe not as much as we did 24 months ago.”

Meantime, said Frank Lucco, an appraiser with Accurity Qualified Analytics, “Houses are flying off the shelves.”

Lucco said he has never seen Houston home prices rise this quickly in his 43 years as an appraiser. Traditionally, home prices have risen 3 percent to 4 percent annually over the last two decades. The veteran appraiser has been constantly adjusting his appraisals upward to reflect Houston’s fast rising prices.

“There’s multiple contracts on houses,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for houses to sell in the same day it’s listed.”

In March, 2,165 houses in the Houston area — 23.2 percent of the month’s sales — sold for above asking price, according to HAR. That’s nearly three times the 8 percent that sold for more than asking a year ago.

Everyone reading this in Austin and its environs is no doubt nodding their head grimly. You want crazy home prices and bidding wars, that’s the place for it. The same is going on in the greater D/FW area as well. As this story notes, there’s a lot of demand out in the burbs, with their bigger houses and spacious yards that have been a blessing for many in the pandemic, but there’s also a lot of demand for the urban core, especially among younger buyers. There’s plenty of construction in my neighborhood, and I can’t think of any lots that have been on the market for more than a couple of weeks. Whatever else you might say, it’s better to be a place where people want to live.

More on the Capitol date rape drug allegation

Good for Speaker Dade Phelan for forthrightly calling this out, but the underlying issue is a matter of culture, it’s been this way for a long, long time, and it’s going to be a slog to change it.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in a speech to colleagues Monday called for reforms to some of the chamber’s policies relating to sexual harassment training and reporting, days after an allegation came to light that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer.

“These allegations shake our Capitol family to its core,” the first-term Republican speaker said soon after the House gaveled in, “and I am disgusted that this sort of predatory behavior is still taking place in and around our Capitol.”

On Saturday, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed it had opened an investigation into a complaint made recently by a Capitol staffer. Officials though have so far declined to comment on further details, including the names of anyone allegedly involved. The news was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

News of the allegation prompted state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers to denounce the alleged incident, with some House members declaring on social media they were banning from their Capitol offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation.

By Sunday, HillCo Partners, a prominent Austin-based lobby firm, told state lawmakers in an email that it had launched an internal investigation into the matter, with one co-founder of the firm later telling The Texas Tribune that HillCo had been “tipped off” that one of its employees “is a person of interest” in the investigation.

Phelan said he was directing the House General Investigating Committee to establish an email hotline for staffers in House offices to submit reports or complaints of harassment in the workplace.

The speaker also said he had directed the House Administration Committee to change the chamber’s required sexual harassment prevention training to be completed in-person rather than virtually.

See here for the background. Again, I commend Speaker Phelan for taking this seriously – we’ve all seen plenty of examples of people in similar positions of leadership who have done much worse. But let’s be honest, there’s only so much that an email hotline and in-person sexual harassment prevention training can do. The problem is cultural, it’s deeply rooted, it’s not tied to a party or ideology, and it adapts to changing circumstances. It’s going to take the collective action of the entire Capitol community to make this stop – not just not tolerating the behaviors that have existed for decades, but calling them out and imposing consequences, even on friends and ideological allies. I don’t have to tell you that this won’t be easy – just look at how the “Me Too” movement has played out in society at large – and it won’t be quick. It’s just that there’s no other choice.

I’m going to end with a few more tweets, and the hope that the staffer who was victimized by this predator finds the justice she deserves. There’s video of Rep. Phelan’s speech at KVUE, and the Chron and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Welp…

Whoever was at the center of this was always going to defend himself. This tells me that his defense will be quite vigorous. It could get a lot more contentious from here.

DPS investigating allegation that a lobbyist drugged a female Capitol staffer

That’s the headline on this story, and it’s disturbing.

Texas Department of Public Safety investigators are looking into an allegation from at least one female Capitol staffer who believes a lobbyist used a date-rape drug on her during a meeting downtown, an agency spokesman told the American-Statesman Saturday.

Officials recently received a complaint from an alleged victim, prompting the investigation, DPS spokesman Travis Considine said. He would not identify the lobbyist and was unable to say when and where the incident happened.

No charges have been filed and no arrests have been made.

Authorities also said they were not prepared to disclose where in the Capitol the alleged victim worked or for which member to protect her identity.

[…]

The allegation is reminiscent of 2017 media reports of sexual misconduct in the Capitol that went back years and led to lawmakers overhauling procedures for sexual harassment reporting in 2019.

The rules, which do not apply to lobbyists, require House members and staffers to take training on identifying and responding to such misconduct, and made the chamber’s general investigating committee the main body to vet allegations.

Obviously, there’s a lot we don’t know. There’s a good chance this won’t ever lead to an arrest, in which case we may never know any more than what we know now. What we do know is that the state Capitol has long been a hostile and dangerous place for women. (I presume that is also the case for nonbinary and gender non-conforming people, we just have less reporting on it.) A lot of the focus has been on the alleged behavior of some legislators, but it’s clear that lobbyists are a big part of the problem, too. Maybe this will lead to some names being named, or for the harassment rules to be extended to include lobbyists. For sure, there is much that needs to be done to make the Capitol environment safer, and all of it starts with regulating, punishing, and just generally not tolerating the offensive, harassing, dangerous behavior – committed overwhelmingly by men – that has been excused and ignored for so long. But even before that, we have to own up to the fact that there’s a problem first.

I’m going to end with a few words from the women who feel the threat of all this every session. We must do better.

UPDATE:

Make of that what you will.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story, with further comment from HillCo Partners.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Houston’s scooter problem

Wait, when did we get scooters?

A plan in Houston to prohibit vendors from renting motorized scooters on city sidewalks has suppliers of the two-wheel contraptions revved up, and city officials holding the line to have scooters clear the way.

To address what it says are growing issues along sidewalks, especially in the central business district, Houston’s administration and regulatory affairs department plans to ask City Council to amend three codes that would push vendors off public spaces around parks and other gathering spots and move scooters off downtown sidewalks into the streets.

“These vendors at times become a nuisance or even a threat to public safety,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the regulatory affairs department and head of ParkHouston, which operates the city’s paid parking and parking enforcement systems.

Rental companies said they have tried to work with the city to develop rules that would allow them to stay, but the city has scooted past that to an outright ban.

“Instead of coming up with a permit for us, like they did with ice cream trucks or the (Houston B-Cycle) bikes, they say we are blocking the right of way,” said Juan Valentine, owner of Glyderz, which started setting up by Discovery Green in May.

The rule changes would outlaw parking a vehicle or trailer on public property for the purposes of renting a good or service, ban the parking of motor-assisted scooters on sidewalks, streets and any rights of way, and outlaw the blocking of any part of a sidewalk that makes it impassable.

“The sidewalk exists for pedestrian use,” Irshad said. “It is not set up for a business.”

Separately, Irshad said officials want to tweak the rule that applies only in the central business district related to sidewalks so scooter riders would have to use the street. Bicycles are banned from downtown sidewalks and only may operate legally in the streets — the proposed change would add language putting scooters on an equal footing and out in the road.

[…]

Customers rent scooters and return them to the same location. Scooters are powered by a small electric motor, with many models capable of speeds around 20 mph. Valentine said most scooters have a range of around 40 miles before running out of power.

Not all vendors, however, opposed the city rules while reacting cautiously to the city code changes. Randy McCoy, owner of ScootsTx that operates in Midtown and Galveston, told city officials in a letter that he only set up near Discovery Green when other vendors appeared on the street.

“I would not want to limit my scooters just to give street vendors a competitive advantage over me,” McCoy wrote.

Others say they went where the customers wanted them. In less than a year, Glyderz has gone from 20 scooters operating out of a trailer to 100. Valentine is preparing to open a permanent location, but said staying on the street is smart business, especially at his location just off Discovery Green.

“You swing by here at 9 or 10 at night and we have a bunch of people renting scooters,” he said.

He questioned why officials allowed Houston B-Cycle to install kiosks on sidewalks, but will not allow him to park a trailer at nights and operate off the sidewalk.

A variety of businesses can obtain permits for street vending, including food trucks, ice cream vendors and sellers during special events.

Irshad said there are no plans to establish permits for scooter companies.

I’ve been following scooters for awhile. There seemed to be a brief moment for bringing scooters to Houston in 2019, but that never went anywhere. Other cities have had a more extensive relationship with them. San Antonio banned them from sidewalks, while Dallas has banned them entirely. The Chron article for that story, from last September, had no mention of Glyderz or ScootsTx, so I haven’t missed much. These things may be here now, but they haven’t been here for long.

For what it’s worth, I favor banning them from the sidewalks, and not just downtown – anyplace these things are going to be viable as a rental business, there will be a high concentration of pedestrians. I would either ban them from hike and bike trails or require them to cap the top speed for trail-use scooters at 15 MPH, which is about the speed of a pedal-powered bike being driven by a normal person. There should be some kind of enforced mechanism to ensure the scooters are picked up quickly and not left scattered on sidewalks, which is a hazard to all but especially to people with disabilities. With all of those caveats in place, I’d find a way to establish permits for these companies, and let them park a trailer in the same way that a food truck vendor can. We’re lucky we didn’t have to serve as the beta testers like other cities (Austin very much included), but now that we have their experience, let’s try to make them happen in a way that prioritizes safety but still lets them operate. If you have any thought about this, the city was soliciting feedback from the public here, though it’s past their stated deadline now. You can also reach out to your Council member and the At Large members. What would you prefer to see happen with scooters in Houston?

Austin mask mandate enforcement still in place for now

No ruling, just a delay for a fuller hearing.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

See here for the background. I certainly agree with Andy Brown about the ramifications for local governments, but it’s not like this is a surprise. Our Republican-dominated state government has been very clear about its priorities with respect to cities and (Democratic) counties. This is and will be just another example of that.

In the comments to the earlier post I was asked what would I have Austin and Travis County do about this. My deeply unsatisfying answer is that there isn’t anything they could do right now. The law and the courts are against them, and there isn’t even a symbolic win available. Paxton will prevail in court, very likely in swift fashion, and he’ll gloat about it. The only thing that can be done is to work extra hard to elect a better state government in 2022. Nothing will change until that happens. Believe me, I wish there were a better answer.

Paxton sues Austin and Travis County over its mask mandate

Completely expected.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Travis County and Austin officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

Texas on Wednesday lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain number hospitalizations for the coronavirus. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce the safety protocols, setting the stage for yet another fight over pandemic response between state and local officials.

“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

[…]

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who presides over the county government, said the authority to impose the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not from Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that means the order should hold up in court.

“I listen to doctors, not to politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.

As noted, Travis County and Austin extended their mandates on Wednesday, then Paxton sent them a letter saying basically “take that back or I’ll sue”. When they didn’t, he did. And look, no one holds Ken Paxton in greater contempt than I do, but he’s going to win this case. He may have to appeal it up a level or two to get there, but there’s just no way this story ends with the locals winning. I get the urge to defy the dumb order from Greg Abbott and to take a stand, but you gotta have a strategy and some reasonable expectation of achieving the outcome you want. This is not going to help.

Bills to allow casinos filed

Don’t bet on them, that’s my advice.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

Two Texas lawmakers on Tuesday filed legislation backed by the gaming empire Las Vegas Sands that would legalize casino gambling in Texas.

The legislation was filed by Rep. John Kuempel, R-Seguin, in the House and Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, in the Senate. The proposals would create special casino licenses for four “destination resorts” in the state’s four largest metropolitan areas: Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. At the same time, it would establish a Texas Gaming Commission to regulate the casinos, and it would separately legalize sports betting.

The legislation would require amending the Texas Constitution, which currently bans most gaming in Texas. That is only possible with a two-thirds vote of lawmakers in both chambers, and then voter approval in the November election.

Kuempel is the vice chair of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, which oversees industries regulated by the state, including current gaming options. Alvarado, meanwhile, chairs the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Las Vegas Sands, founded by the late GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, has spent the past few months building a massive push at the Capitol, spending millions of dollars to hire nearly six dozen lobbyists. The bill-filing deadline for the biennial legislative session, which got underway in January, is Friday.

“We appreciate the work of the bill’s sponsors and we are excited to engage in further discussion with elected leaders and community stakeholders on the possibilities for expanding Texas’ tourism offerings through destination resorts,” Andy Abboud, Las Vegas Sands senior vice president, said in a statement.

The legislation is consistent with the vision that Las Vegas Sands has laid out for casinos in Texas: a limited number of licenses for mixed-use “destination resorts” in the state’s biggest population centers, with a high minimum investment intended to attract only the best operators. To that end, the legislation calls for a land and development investment of at least $2 billion in Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston, as well as $1 billion for San Antonio and Austin.

The “destination resort” licenses would be considered “Class I” licenses. The legislation would then create three “Class II” licenses for “limited casino gaming” at horse-race tracks in Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. After that, two “Class III” licenses would be made available for similarly limited casino gambling at greyhound tracks in Corpus Christi and Harlingen.

The full casino legalization would also extend to the state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes at their reservations in El Paso, Eagle Pass and Livingston. They are currently able to offer limited gaming.

See herer and here for more on the casinos’ latest push to legalize more forms of gambling in Texas. As the story notes, that recent DMN/UT Tyler poll included questions about casinos and sports betting, and found them both to have popular support; not a surprise, as gambling has always polled well in Texas. (They also have Mattress Mack in their corner.) The obstacles remain the same: Neither Greg Abbott nor Dan Patrick support this, and a two-thirds majority, which is needed to put the propositions to a vote, is a high bar to clear. Maybe this is the year it happens, but you could have said that about many previous legislative sessions. The smart money remains on the bills not passing.

More maskless mandate stuff

A bit of a roundup, because there’s so much out there.

Three of Gov. Greg Abbott’s four coronavirus medical advisers say they weren’t directly consulted prior to lifting mask mandate

In April 2020, an optimistic Gov. Greg Abbott announced at the Texas Capitol that he would soon take initial steps to allow businesses to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic.

The loosening of restrictions, his team said, would be informed by a statewide “strike force,” composed of business leaders and four medical experts who would advise the governor on a safe, phased plan.

“Every recommendation, every action by the governor will be informed and based on hard data and the expertise of our chief medical advisers,” James Huffines, a lobbyist who Abbott named as chair of the strike force, said at the time. “Everything we do will be medically sound. These nationally recognized advisers are leading experts in their fields and we will rely on their knowledge and expertise every step of the way.”

Since then, Texas has suffered through two major case surges and thousands of deaths. Abbott imposed a mask order in July, and vaccine distribution has begun to give residents a reason for hope. On Tuesday, Abbott made waves again by announcing the repeal of his mask order and declaring “it is now time to open Texas 100%.”

This time, however, Abbott’s team of medical advisers appeared to play a minimal role in the decision. Three of the four said on Wednesday that Abbott did not directly consult with them prior to the drastic shift in policy. The fourth said he couldn’t say whether the move was a good idea.

One such adviser expressed overt reservations about the move.

“I don’t think this is the right time,” Dr. Mark McClellan, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and director of the Duke-Margolis Center for Health Policy at Duke University, said in a statement. “Texas has been making some real progress, but it’s too soon for full reopening and to stop masking around others.”

McClellan said that he was “not consulted before the announcement.”

Hey, remember the Strike Force? Yeah, no, nobody does. Either you’re going to tell Greg Abbott what he wants to hear, or he won’t listen. What’s the point?

Texas’ largest cities will keep requiring masks in municipal buildings even after statewide mandate ends

Mayors in some of Texas’ biggest cities announced that they will still mandate the use of masks in municipal buildings, even after the statewide mask order ends next week.

Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and El Paso’s leaders announced Wednesday and Thursday that masks will be required to enter city-owned indoor spaces like libraries, police and fire department headquarters, convention centers and transportation hubs.

“I am going to issue an order mandating masks at all city-owned buildings. We have to do what we are legally allowed to do to get people to wear masks,” Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said on Twitter Thursday morning. “We also still need to practice social distancing. And we still need to avoid taking unnecessary risks. The pandemic is not over.”

[…]

In an email, Abbott spokesperson Renae Eze confirmed that cities are allowed to take this measure “just like private companies can with their property.”

I’m sure he’ll get the Legislature right on that, though.

Speaking of private companies, Texas businesses must decide whether to require face masks. Some worry they could lose customers either way.

“I do feel that we’ll probably lose guests based on whatever decision we do make, but I guess that’s just part of the environment that we are in now,” said Jessica Johnson, general manager of Sichuan House in San Antonio. “It’s either you wear masks and piss a couple people off, or you don’t wear masks and you piss a couple people off.”

At least one business owner, Macy Moore of HopFusion Ale Works in Fort Worth, said Wednesday on CNN that he had not slept since Abbott’s announcement because he’s so worried about the health and safety of his staff. Others, like Anne Ng of Bakery Lorraine in San Antonio, have decided to keep mask requirements in place for staff and customers regardless of what Abbott and the state government say.

“By repealing the mandate, the government is putting everyone at risk, and foodservice workers are sadly at the front lines in facing potential hostility from folks who will refuse to respect our mask policy,” Ng said. “We don’t deserve that.”

[…]

Christine Ha, a partner and co-executive chef at Xin Chao in Houston, sent out a notice to her whole staff Wednesday afternoon that the restaurant would continue requiring masks and operating at a reduced capacity. She expressed concern about enforcing those policies, though, because local agencies and law enforcement no longer have to support her restaurant’s safety requirements.

“This leaves it up to my team to enforce these policies, and they are in the business of hospitality, not policing,” Ha said.

There are many ways in this world to be an asshole. Yelling at a retail or restaurant worker who asks you to please observe their mask-wearing policy is one of the most effective ways to identify yourself as among the world’s biggest assholes.

For some Texans who lost loved ones to the coronavirus, lifting the mask mandate is a “slap in the face”.

What confuses Delia Ramos about Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent decision to cast off coronavirus restrictions in Texas isn’t his order to let more people into restaurants. The Brownsville school counselor knows people are hurting economically.

But with more than 43,000 dead in Texas — including her husband — is wearing a mask in public too much to ask? At the least, it could take pressure off the medical systems and help prevent more people from dying, she said.

“It’s not about taking away anybody’s job or making anybody else suffer financially because everybody has their families to take care of,” said Ramos, who lost her husband Ricardo to the coronavirus last year.

“People can go pick up groceries, people can go into a restaurant and people can shop around the mall in masks,” she said.

[…]

In nearby McAllen, Ana Flores watched Abbott’s announcement in disbelief on Tuesday. For the 39-year-old, who works at an adult day care, it immediately brought back memories of when Abbott loosened COVID-19 rules in May — weeks before infections surged and devastated the predominantly Hispanic or Latino communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She got severely sick with the virus. Her husband of ten years, a truck driver, who was cautious and “knew a little bit about everything,” was hospitalized and died at age 45.

“For [those of] us who lost a loved one, for us who survived — because I got pretty sick as well … it’s like a slap in the face,” Flores said of Abbott’s announcement, noting his “happy” tone and the “clapping” people around him.

For Abbott to say “it’s time for us to get on with our lives, everything to go back to normal,” she said, “normal is not going to happen for us ever again.”

She said it felt like Abbott “doesn’t care” that counties in the border are “still struggling” even if other parts of Texas are doing better.

Mandy Vair, whose father, a hospice chaplain, died with the virus last summer, saw the order and wondered: Did his death not matter? She and other family members were limiting social activities and wearing masks, but were infected in November and Vair was sick for weeks. Her family still hasn’t had a memorial ceremony for her late father because they don’t feel it’s safe to gather.

She said Abbott’s decision made her think, “He got his immunization and maybe all of those that are important to him already got the immunization. So [now] the rest have to kind of fend for themselves until their turn comes up,” she said. “We have to be responsible for ourselves — well, haven’t we been trying to be responsible for ourselves the whole time?”

Though I have to admit, Greg Abbott’s method is pretty effective as well. For more stories, if you’re not fully rounded up yet, here’s a collection from the Chron.

We also have to worry about water

Hopefully not for too much longer.

On Friday, as the ice melted and lights flickered back on in homes and businesses across the state, Texans were melting snow into their toilet tanks and mopping up water from busted pipes.

The state’s power outage disaster had firmly transitioned into a water crisis.

The state’s power grid operators declared the worst is behind us, as most Texans have their power restored and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is no longer calling for forced outages. They said residents can resume normal consumption of electricity.

But about half of the states’ population is still battling water infrastructure problems because of the cold weather — made worse as temperatures ticked up above freezing leading to pipes and water lines bursting.

For Texans who do have water, millions are being told to boil it before consuming in cities across the state including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The state is accelerating efforts to restore water to Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Friday press conference. The state will connect overloaded local facilities with other labs to expedite clean-water testing efforts and grow the number of plumbers available to fix broken pipes, he said.

More than 1,180 public water systems in 160 counties reported disruptions from the winter storms, affecting 14.6 million people as of Friday morning, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.

“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”

Water pressure improved noticeably at our house from Friday to Saturday – it feels pretty close to normal now, though I can’t say for certain. There’s likely a lot of stress on the system as well, as people who are newly back in their powered homes are showering and washing dishes and laundry. It’s hard to resist, but do try to keep your usage modest for the next few days.

Of course, if your pipes are busted, you’re not using any water anyway.

City and county leaders on Friday said tens of thousands of area residents and business owners suffered burst water pipes or other damage from the winter storm this week, with the resulting property damage likely costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Harris County engineer’s office estimated 55,000 homes in unincorporated portions of the county likely have pipe damage. The city reported it has received some 4,900 calls to its 311 system for water breaks, a figure officials said likely pales in comparison to the number of residents who have not reported the damage to City Hall.

“That number is higher, probably much higher,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that many people — including himself and some City Council members — shut off their water without calling the city. “There are still breaks that exist in our city that have yet to be reported, and the water is still running.”

With power restored to nearly all residents, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the most serious problems remain access to water and food.

“We’ve been in touch with the major grocery stores, and they said the supply chains will catch up by this weekend,” Hidalgo said. “The issue, of course, is hoarding. So, I’ve been asking folks to only purchase what they need for their own families.”

Turner has said the city will work with the county to launch a fund to help residents confront the costs of repairing their pipes and the damage water has done to their homes, though details on that fund have not been announced yet.

The major disaster declaration may help with that as well. We dealt with busted pipes on Thursday – we were fortunate that our regular plumber put his regular customers at the top of his priority list, and that meant he could deal with us. We had something like nine cracked pipes, all under the house, all now replaced. Not cheap, but we’re in a position to be able to afford it. (The total amount was less than the deductible on our homeowners insurance, so it was all on us to pay, in case you were wondering.) Lots of people are going to need help with their repairs, and they should get it with as little resistance or red tape as possible.

We should also remember, it can always be worse.

Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.

The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.

That story is from Monday, before we all froze solid. I’m sure the frigid weather, and the fact that you can’t fix water than has benzene in it by boiling it, has made the situation that much worse. I don’t know how things are today in San Angelo, but I sure hope those folks are getting the help they need.

State Capitol closed again

At least through Inauguration Day, which is to say Wednesday.

The Texas Department of Public Safety abruptly announced the closure of the state Capitol Friday evening after uncovering new intelligence that intensified security concerns and prompted the agency to ramp up security further.

The closure affects the building and the Capitol grounds, which only reopened to the public this month after being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and damage that officials said protestors did to state property during protests in May and June.

The closure begins Saturday and continues through Wednesday.

In a statement, DPS Director Col. Steve McCraw said that “the Texas Department of Public Safety is aware of armed protests planned at the Texas State Capitol and violent extremists who may seek to exploit constitutionally protected events. As a result, DPS has deployed additional personnel and resources to the Capitol and are working closely with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Austin Police Department to monitor events and to enforce the rule of law.”

Authorities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were bracing Friday for what law enforcement said could be violent protests this weekend through Wednesday’s inauguration of Joe Biden. The caution stems from intelligence gained after the deadly pro-Donald Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

Earlier this week, McCraw told state senators that authorities are monitoring multiple sects that could threaten Capitol security in coming days but stressed that the agency stood ready to neutralize any possible attack.

He said the groups have different political ideologies with 200 to 600 members each, according to three senators who attended the briefings. The senators did not want to comment publicly because DPS deemed the information confidential and said that releasing it could jeopardize safety.

McCraw said officials have ample troopers and other officers to respond should one of the groups travel to Austin to protest or riot. Their bigger concern, however, is that if the groups consolidate and mobilize together, that would pose a greater risk and prompt officials to call in reinforcements, the senators said.

We all know what this is about. I just hope it turns out to be a lot more talk than action. But whatever happens or doesn’t happen between now and January 20, the long-term threat isn’t going away and needs to be taken very seriously. The Chron has more.

More on police oversight boards

Ours in Houston isn’t very good. Some other cities do it better. We can learn from them.

Houston’s police oversight board is the weakest among Texas’ five largest cities and suffers from “a complete lack of transparency and public reporting,” a recent study from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research concludes.

The report, released last week, analyzed police oversight institutions in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth, concluding that the agencies in each city need more resources, and fewer legislative hurdles, while its members need more experience and training.

The Independent Police Oversight Board in Houston “has very limited powers to conduct its own investigations, instead being handed completed internal affairs investigations without the ability to independently collect further evidence on the event,” reads the report, co-authored by Kinder Institute director Bill Fulton, a member of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recent police reform task force.

The group detailed its recommendations in a 153-page report released in late September, about three months after Turner announced his 45 appointees to the board. The group recommended that city officials bolster the police oversight board with paid staffing and facilities outside the police department and by changing policy to allow the board to report some of its findings to the community, which it is currently barred from doing.

Turner has signaled he intends to adopt at least some of those recommendations, saying in early September he is “99.999 percent certain there will be some adjustments” to the police oversight board. The mayor later said he’s “overwhelmingly supportive of most of the ideas” in the task force’s report, though he said some could be difficult to fund or would require state legislative action.

The task force’s recommendations align with those presented in the Kinder report, which recommends the board be staffed with “people with legal knowledge, police expertise and research skills.” Austin has by far the most paid staff members on its oversight group among Texas’ five largest cities, the report found.

“(M)ost agencies in the state’s big cities have fewer than five employees to oversee forces of thousands of officers,” according to the report. “Houston’s IPOB has no staff or resources.”

See here for more on Mayor Turner and the task force recommendations. For more on the Kinder report, which you can find here, I’ll refer you to this Grits for Breakfast post, which goes into more detail. At this point, we have all the information we need to act. It’s time to act. I’m hopeful we’ll get some at the city level in the upcoming weeks, but as Mayor Turner says, some of this needs to happen at the state level. And there, I fear, we’re more likely to run into obstacles. For instance:

That bill is authored by Rep. Matt Krause, one of the vulnerable Republicans we were unfortunately not able to knock off this election. The problem goes a lot deeper than one State Rep, though. Cities are not going to be able to do what their voters want them to do if the Republican legislature and Greg Abbott have anything to say about it.

So what’s up with that National Guard story?

Hell, I don’t know.

Governors can deploy troops for numerous reasons, from natural disasters to border security.

But observers found it rare to the point of extraordinary when the Texas National Guard revealed that Gov. Greg Abbott has directed troops be prepared to respond to disturbances after the Nov. 3 election in major cities across the state.

Abbott has not explained his reasons, so far.

Ben West, a security analyst at the RANE subsidiary Stratfor, a consulting firm, said he anticipates most of the forces will be sent to Houston and Austin, which saw the bulk of the state’s racial justice protests this summer. Guard officials have compared the new mission to its response in June to the unrest.

While an election-related deployment is uncommon, 2020 might be the exception, West said.

“When everything is just upside down, things that in any other year would have been extraordinary get lost in the wash,” he said.

The governor has pushed hard in recent weeks to convey to voters his allegiance to law enforcement, and has proposed new laws that would stiffen punishments for unruly protesters, including mandatory jail time.

The Guard said Monday it would send up to 1,000 troops to Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio as early as this weekend. A top guard official, retired Maj. Gen. James K. “Red” Brown, said the deployment was in case of “postelection” disturbances, to support local law enforcement and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

He said the guardsmen’s role would be similar to that during last summer’s George Floyd protests, and the troops would act “as we previously did to deter any civil disturbance at sites in various cities in Texas.”

This was the original story. Since then, Abbott has assured officials in San Antonio there will be no troops sent there after they complained, and there was a clarification that none of the troops would be sent to polling locations. On Wednesday, Abbott finally spoke about the issue.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday answered questions about the deployment of Texas National Guard troops to Texas cities on Election Day, saying they will play no role whatsoever in the election process.

“Our job is to make sure that cities are safe and along those lines, we want to make sure that in the event there are any protests after the election that we will have adequate personnel in place to make sure that we will be able to address any protests that could turn into riots,” the governor said.

When asked specifically about the assignment of troops to Houston, Abbott indicated those decisions will be made on an as-needed basis.

“It is erroneous to say we will have a presence here,” he said.

My guess is that this was a typical politics-first move by Abbott that wasn’t very well thought out and neither took into account any stakeholder input, nor anticipated their reactions. It will probably not amount to much in the end, which is also typical of Abbott. I suppose this is as good a place as any to point out that violence from far-right groups is a much greater threat than people protesting police brutality, though I know there’s a zero percent chance Abbott knows or is much interested in that. It is what it is, as they say. The Press and the Trib have more.

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

Wait, you can’t cut that spending!

This is the sort of thing you come up with when you’re out of other ideas.

Property tax revenue would be on the line for cities that choose to defund their police departments under a new legislative proposal pitched Tuesday by Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

“Any city that defunds police departments will have its property tax revenue frozen at the current level,” Abbott said, flanked by the other two Republican members of the “Big Three” in Texas state government. “They will never be able to increase property tax revenue again if they defund police.”

The proposal comes after the city of Austin last week unanimously voted to cut at least $20 million from the city’s police budget and earmarked an additional $130 million to potentially be reallocated to other departments. The Austin Police Department, with over 2,600 sworn law enforcement and support personnel, has had an annual budget of more than $400 million for the past two years.

[…]

It’s unclear how the legislation will define defunding police; Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen did not respond to questions requesting clarification. In Austin’s case, most funds will stay within city coffers but will address different needs.

Yeah, I’ll bet. This was the equivalent of the three of them ripping open their shirts and shouting “HULK SMASH!”, and it should be taken as such. Here’s what Scott Henson had to say.

Grits finds this bizarre on several levels. First, I thought conservatives believed revenue caps were a good thing, not a sanction applied to liberal cities for doing something they don’t like.

Indeed, I’m old enough to remember when conservatives favored less spending and smaller government. Now the governor wants to punish cities that reduce spending. We’ve passed all the way through the looking glass, it seems.

Austin cut its police budget by less than five percent. By contrast, Gov. Abbott, the Lt. Governor and the House Speaker recently told state agencies they all must cut their budgets by 5% because of declining tax revenue in the COVID era. Isn’t what’s good for the goose good for the gander?

Finally, cities around the state face budget shortfalls because of COVID combined with revenue caps the Legislature already approved. “Austin bashing” is one thing – folks in the capital city have come to expect that – but are you really going to punish every small town that must cut its police budget because tax revenue declined thanks to the virus?

Ten years ago, Texas Republicans were all about “less government” and “local control.” Now Abbott wants to micromanage municipal budgets to keep spending high. This debate is becoming downright surreal.

That’s one word for it. If you read that second link, you’ll find that most of what Austin did was move some functions out of the Police Department, thus requiring less money to be budgeted in that way, and deferred a cadet class until they revamp their training curriculum. That will likely have the effect of reducing headcount a bit in the short term through attrition, as they cut positions that are currently unfilled. It’s the most basic thing cities do, and they do it with other departments all the time.

But hey, it’s Austin, and thus Something Must Be Done, because [insert primal scream here]. I’m sure if Abbott proposed having the state fund the Austin Police Department as a way of ensuring that it never goes without ever again, Austin City Council would be willing to listen. Until then, my advice is for Abbott to resign his current position and run for Mayor of Austin. It’s clear that’s the job he really wants. The Current has more.

The economic effect of losing college football this fall

I have some sympathy, but I also have some skepticism.

Texas’ five major conference football teams – Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin — are massive economic drivers for their cities of Waco, Fort Worth, College Station, Lubbock and Austin, respectively, generating a flood of seasonal business for hotels, restaurants and bars in a typical year.

Economists and city leaders said canceling football would be devastating to local businesses that rely on the huge influxes of cash from home games.

“Forgoing even a single game costs the economy millions,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco economist and CEO of The Perryman Group. “Dealing with the health crisis is essential and must be given paramount priority, but the economic costs of restricting or eliminating college sports are very high.”

[…]

Doug Berg, an economics professor at Sam Houston State University, said towns like Lubbock and College Station would feel the impact of lost game day revenue more than larger cities like Austin with its more diversified business base.

Still, UT-Austin reported in 2015 it had a local economic impact of more than $63 million per home game.

A bigger proportion of municipal budgets in smaller towns is derived from sales and hotel occupancy taxes – both of which typically experience significant hikes during football season. For college towns, “it’s like losing Christmas,” Berg said.

The toll of losing football is “larger than we care to fathom,” said Eddie McBride, president of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce.

One typical home game at Texas Tech, with an average attendance of about 60,000 people, pours “millions of dollars” back into the city of Lubbock, McBride said.

“We do count a lot on football,” McBride said. “It isn’t just sold seats…it’s going to people’s houses and buying food and drinks from the local grocery store and the beer store, and then going to the bars and the restaurants to watch the game.”

As we now know, the Big 12 will be playing football this fall, though what the situation with fans in the stands will be remains unclear. That’s not great for the Lubbocks and Wacos, but it’s not the worst case scenario, either. I can believe that Game Day is an economic boon in these smaller cities, but I’m way too skeptical of this type of financial forecasting to take the gloom and doom too seriously. The pattern is always big statements up front about what will or may happen, then no followup after the event in question to say what did happen. I’ve just been conditioned by too many of these in the past to take them at face value.

I mean sure, there will be fewer people visiting Lubbock and Waco on these Saturdays, and that will undoubtedly mean fewer hotel rooms rented and less beer consumed. That adds up to something, whatever it may actually be. One might speculate that the savings from fewer people catching COVID-19 as a result of this lessened activity balances this out. Maybe Ray Perryman can work up a spreadsheet on that.

No eviction moratoriums

So opines Ken Paxton, and we all know what an unimpeachable source he is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised Friday that local Texas governments’ attempts to delay evictions for renters grappling with the COVID-19 recession amounted to rewriting state law — something they can’t do, he said in nonbinding legal guidance.

“While local officials do possess certain emergency powers … statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised ‘on an appropriate local scale,’” Paxton said in a letter. “Government Code does not authorize local governmental entities operating under a declared disaster to independently rewrite state law as it applies to their jurisdiction to prohibit, delay, or restrict the issuance of a notice to vacate.”

Paxton’s letter, issued in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, seems to chide local officials like Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who last month extended the eviction moratorium in the city until Sept. 30. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe extended his ban until the same date. In other counties, like Harris and Dallas, some justices of the peace have decided to not hear evictions. It is unclear if Paxton’s opinion will influence those judges.

Adler said in a statement that his orders were lawful and “do not amend statewide eviction procedures,” but rather aim to “reduce person-to-person contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for Travis County, said officials there are reviewing the opinion.

Paxton’s opinion could have weight if someone were to sue a local government over its eviction moratorium.

“I can’t say I’m shocked that the state attorney general would side with landlords. Nothing he has done to date shows us that we could expect something different,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the housing advocacy group Texas Tenants Union. “A lot of tenants are facing eviction in Texas by zero fault of their own, and putting protections that are normal in almost every other state should be allowed in this pandemic.”

As we know, AG opinions don’t carry the force of law, but they are an obstacle. As with other contentious matters on which Paxton has opined, someone will have to take this to court to force the issue. Of course, this is also something the Legislature can review and revise, and I’d say it needs to be on the ever-increasing list of things the Lege very much needs to do at its first opportunity. On a side note, this adds some context to the city of Houston’s rental assistance program, which has been offered instead of an eviction moratorium order, which a number of people advocated for. A moratorium would certainly have been a more comprehensive tool to keep people who have been affected by the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from it in their homes, but not if it could not be enforced. Whatever you think of Mayor Turner’s approach, it was not affected by this action.

We’re still not doing great with the Census

There’s still time, but we have a lot of work to do.

Despite an extended deadline, local government cash infusions and grassroots campaigns to improve Houston’s 2020 census response rate, almost half of Houston households are still missing from the official count.

As of July 5, 52.5% of Houston’s estimated 2.32 million residents have completed the decennial survey, according to the most recent census data. In Harris County, the response has been about 56 percent.

But Houston is not alone. Across the country, many other large metropolitan areas are also struggling to get their populations counted, reporting similar self-response rates to Houston’s. In Los Angeles, the household response rate is 51.6%, while Chicago polls higher at 54.5%, and 53.1% in New York City.

Other cities in Texas have slightly greater household response rates so far, with Austin hovering around 60.4%, Fort Worth at 58.9%, and Dallas at 53.4%.

Texas ranks 40th in state census response, according to recent census findings. The state’s response rate of 56.7% lags behind the national rate of 61.9%. In 2010, the response rate was slightly higher at both the state and national levels, according to a recent report from Understanding Houston, which analyzed census data. The state had a 64.4% self-response rate compared with a national self-response rate of 66.5%.

With the deadline extended to Oct. 31, the hope is that more Texans will complete the survey, pulling the response rate up.

[…]

A 2019 study by Lopez Negrete Communications found that one helpful tool for ensuring people participate was through community action— which has become increasingly difficult with stay-at-home orders in place. Traditional forms of influence noted in the report include churches, schools, public events and community health clinics, yet many of these cultural and community centers remain closed.

It’s not hard to see why it’s been a challenge to get people to do the Census. If we can’t go door to door and can’t engage with the community, there’s only so much that can be done. It’s bad enough that the Lege didn’t appropriate any money for Census outreach, now we have Greg Abbott’s lousy handling of the pandemic acting as headwinds. Maybe we’ll be lucky and things will improve enough by October to make some more progress. I sure hope so.

Give reformers a seat at the police collective bargaining table

This is a clear path forward.

Chas Moore watched in shock one night in 2017 as Austin City Council voted on the city’s proposed police contract.

He and other criminal justice reformers had spent months observing contract negotiations and lobbying council members to reject a deal they said was too expensive and lacked crucial accountability measures.

The city’s 10 council members and mayor raised their hands to vote the deal down.

“I don’t think anyone thought that would happen,” said Moore, president of the Austin Justice Coalition. “Historically people fight police unions — and they do not win.”

The vote sent police back to the negotiating table, and the resulting contract included a slew of reforms — at half the cost of the previous version.

In Houston, that negotiating table is behind closed doors.

Activists here want to change that as the city and the police union negotiate a new contract this year. They are again seeking the right to observe deliberations and to try to change provisions they say protect officers accused of wrongdoing. But while other cities with similar bargaining rules allow residents to observe negotiations, Houston does not, aided by what critics say are gaps in the state’s government code that do not clearly require union contract negotiations to be open to the public.

Houston’s police budget in 2020 tallied about $911 million — by far the largest allocation in the city budget’s general fund. While other cities across the U.S. slashed police budgets, Houston’s City Council unanimously in June passed a budget with a $20 million increase for the police department.

The pressure for reform rose around the country in the wake of the killing of former Houston resident George Floyd in police custody, and organizers say it’s overdue here.

Not long after that Austin contract rejection, community organizers in Houston sought to observe police contract deliberations here.

Local criminal justice advocate Tarsha Jackson said she approached City Hall in 2018 to try to share community concerns — but the criminal justice reformer with the Texas Organizing Project said she found an opaque process.

“It was not public. It was like a guessing game,” Jackson said.

The contract was settled behind closed doors without them getting a chance to see it or offer their input.

“As we’re having these conversations around police accountability and reform, how can we have these conversations without the community?” Moore asked regarding the efforts around the country to get a seat at the table during contract negotiations.

We all recognize that a big piece of police reform must be done via the collective bargaining process. Given that, and given the action items that the reformers are seeking, they need a seat at the table or those items will not be addressed. The Lege can and should address some items as well, but they already have a lot on their plate, and it’s never a good idea to depend on a particular bill making it through the Lege, because so many things can happen to knock it off course. This is something we can do now, because the new CBA is coming up soon.

Who wants to enforce Greg Abbott’s mask order?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Gov. Greg Abbott called on police across Texas to step up enforcement of his mask order amid the mounting pandemic, explaining Thursday that they can either “be part of the problem or part of the solution.”

Facing a revolt over the mandate within his conservative base, the governor acknowledged in a new round of interviews that masking is inconvenient, but said the alternative of locking the state down again is far worse.

“We have a short period of time in the next couple of weeks to bend the curve of this explosion in cases and hospitalizations,” he said in an interview on KSAT in San Antonio. “If we can enforce this, we will be able to keep the state open and reduce hospitalizations.”

Some local law enforcement officials, including the sheriffs in Montgomery and Gillespie counties, have refused to enforce the new order, citing personal liberties or enforcement logistics. On Wednesday, the Montgomery County Republican Executive Committee voted 40-0 to censure Abbott, joining at least three other county executive committees that have taken similar steps.

It’s more than just a few.

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide executive order requiring Texans to wear masks in public, he gave counties the opportunity to opt out if they have a low number of active coronavirus cases.

A week later, 78 counties have taken him up on that offer. And a handful of other local governments have insisted that they won’t enforce the order even though they don’t qualify for the opt-out provision. Officials cited a desire to preserve personal freedoms or concerns about enforcement.

“I think it’s an insult to Texans to be required to do something they should have discretion for,” said Hugh Reed, the top administrator for rural Armstrong County, near Amarillo, which opted out.

In a press release announcing the order, Abbott said that “wearing a face covering in public is proven to be one of the most effective ways we have to slow the spread of COVID-19.” Public health experts broadly agree that masks slow the spread of the virus, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend face coverings for anyone 2 or older in public settings.

The order came as coronavirus cases have grown quickly in the state. As of Thursday, more than 9,600 people were hospitalized with the virus.

In order to opt out of the requirement, the counties need to have 20 or fewer active COVID-19 cases. Given the spread of the virus in recent weeks, only counties that are sparsely populated and rural tend to qualify. Most are in conservative areas of the state.

Rex Fields, the top elected official in Eastland County, said Abbott’s option for counties with low coronavirus case counts “gives people some personal freedom.”

But a few local officials without that freedom are also choosing not to enforce the order. In Montgomery County, which has a population of over 600,000 and has reported more than 2,700 coronavirus cases so far, the sheriff’s office said July 3 that it would not take action on the mask rule.

“This order includes specific language prohibiting law enforcement from detaining, arresting, or confining to jail as a means to enforce the order,” the agency wrote in a press release. “This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law.”

Yeah, so maybe undermining the rule of law was not a great idea. Greg Abbott could be in a position to insist that his order be enforced, if only Greg Abbott hadn’t so clearly demonstrated that Greg Abbott’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 are just suggestions.

That said, some places are more serious about trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled his encouragement Wednesday to Austin city leaders to move forward on “additional enforcement mechanisms” related to a recent order Abbott issued requiring Texans to wear masks in most public spaces.

In a letter to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Abbott said the city’s consideration of new enforcement measures “to ensure compliance with my Executive Orders is an important step toward reducing the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).”

“As you know, these Orders were created and adopted based on advise from medical experts, and if these Orders are followed, we will be able to protect both public health and the livelihoods of our citizens,” he added.

The Austin-American Statesman reported Wednesday that the City Council will meet Thursday “to vote on a resolution that would allow for a fine of up to $2,000 for anyone violating a ‘health authority rule’ like not wearing a mask” and to take “civil action against any person who maintains a business or site that does not comply with minimum health standards.”

Another riddle solved, apparently. That resolution passed unanimously on Thursday. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before the Hotze contingent files a lawsuit against this, but in the meantime it’s something. (Hey, Greg! Now do letting counties issue stay-at-home orders.)

Now to be fair, if I’m going to advocate for letting local authorities have some of their authority to make local decisions back, I’m going to be circumspect about criticizing a small rural county with a still-low infection rate for not wanting to enforce a mask order. But let’s be clear that all parts of the state are vulnerable, and those lightly populated places also tend to be many miles away from hospitals, so their residents are in greater jeopardy should they get sick. The approach I’m looking for here is one that says “this is the minimum that counties must do – they can go above and beyond it within reason, but they have to do at least this much”. That philosophy has been distinctly lacking in recent years in this state.

But here we are, and here we once again face the worst case scenario, at least as far as Greg Abbott is concerned.

With Texas continuing to break records for new coronavirus deaths and hospitalizations this week, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated Friday afternoon that things will continue to get worse. And if people keep flouting his new statewide mask mandate, he said, the next step could be another economic lockdown.

“Things will get worse, and let me explain why,” he told KLBK TV in Lubbock. “The deaths that we’re seeing announced today and yesterday — which are now over 100 — those are people who likely contracted COVID-19 in late May.

“The worst is yet to come as we work our way through that massive increase in people testing positive.”

Texans will also likely see an increase in cases next week, Abbott said, and people abiding by his face mask requirement might be the only thing standing between businesses remaining open and another shutdown.

“The public needs to understand this was a very tough decision for me to make,” Abbott told KLBK of his face mask mandate. “I made clear that I made this tough decision for one reason: It was our last best effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. If we do not slow the spread of COVID-19 … the next step would have to be a lockdown.”

And then when sheriffs in heavily Republican counties refuse to enforce that, then what? Say it with me now: None of this had to happen. But it did, and it’s Greg Abbott’s fault.

Masks up

We solved Greg Abbott’s riddle, so all is well now, right?

With Gov. Greg Abbott’s apparent blessing, Bexar and Hidalgo counties have imposed a new mask rule for local businesses, saying they must require employees and customers to wear masks when social distancing isn’t possible. The move appears to open a new way for local officials to require mask use in certain public spaces after Abbott stymied prior efforts by local officials to put the onus on residents.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff’s and Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez’s orders comes after Abbott issued an executive order June 3 banning local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public.

Wolff’s order states that, starting Monday and running through the end of the month, businesses in Bexar County must require face masks “where six feet of separation is not feasible” before the business risks facing a fine of up to $1,000. Cortez’s order states businesses in Hidalgo County will risk being fined starting Saturday and will remain in effect until further notice.

The orders also state that, consistent with Abbott’s executive order, “no civil or criminal penalty will be imposed on individuals for failure to wear a face covering.” Later in the day, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg signed an update to his emergency health order to express support for and adopt Wolff’s order, saying that, as the number of coronavirus cases increase in the city, “masks are our best line of defense.”

[…]

“I’m pleased that the Governor has changed his mind. I’m asking our county lawyers and business leaders to look at this and plan to make a proposal for the Commissioner’s Court to look at very soon,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said in a statement, who said he’s already looking into whether he’ll follow suit.

A spokesperson for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said they are checking with the county attorney’s office on Wolff’s order, adding that “we’re not any safer today than we were in March. There is no vaccine. No cure. We remain very concerned about the trajectory of hospital admissions.”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office had already warned officials in big cities, including San Antonio, to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that featured stricter coronavirus restrictions than those of the state, while hinting of lawsuits if they do not. Paxton’s office declined to comment on Wolff’s order Wednesday.

See here for some background. The city of Austin has already issued a similar order, and I figure it’s just a matter of time before Harris and Dallas and a bunch of other places follow suit. I feel confident saying that the wingnut contingent will not take this lying down, so the question is whether they fight back via Hotze lawsuit, or do actual elected Republicans with their own power and ambition like Ken Paxton get involved? And when they do, what inventive technique will Abbott find to shift the blame to someone else this time?

Whistling past the ICU

Clap louder!

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas health officials on Tuesday responded to growing alarm over hospitals now swelling with coronavirus patients, assuring there is still plenty of space available even as some facilities have neared or surpassed capacity.

Speaking on yet another day of record high hospitalizations from the pandemic, Abbott said he is confident the state can continue reopening while controlling the spread of new infections.

“As we begin to open up Texas and Texans return to their jobs, we remain laser-focused on maintaining abundant hospital capacity,” said Abbott, a Republican. “The best way to contain the spread of this virus is by all Texans working together and following simple safety precautions.”

On Tuesday, the Department of State Health Services reported just over 2,500 COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, the highest single-day total since the pandemic began and nearly 67 percent more than on Memorial Day in late May. State and local leaders have pointed to the holiday weekend as one likely cause for the increase.

Statewide, there are still thousands of hospital beds and ventilators available. But in some of the largest cities, including San Antonio and Houston, the surge is pushing new limits. In Harris County, some hospitals said late last week that their intensive care units were near or above capacity.

Bill McKeon, CEO of the Texas Medical Center, said their number of COVID-19 patients has nearly doubled from its previous peak in late April. Many of the patients admitted now are younger and generally healthier, but are still susceptible to serious illness or death from the disease.

“If it continues to grow at this rate, we’re going to be in real trouble,” McKeon said of the admissions. He added that while it may not be feasible to reimpose lockdowns or other restrictions, state leaders should consider slowing the reopening if the uptick continues.

The official death count is past 2,000 now, though everyone knows that’s an undercount. On a per capita basis that’s still pretty low, but we’re doing our best to catch up. The idea that we’re “controlling the spread” in any fashion is laughable, except there’s nothing funny about what’s happening. And then we get this:

Abbott remained unwilling Tuesday to allow local officials to enforce their own mask ordinances, even as he acknowledged that many Texans are not wearing them. He instead accused Democratic county judges of not having done enough to punish businesses that fail to comply with other protocols, such as limits on public gatherings.

While they have the authority, Abbott said, many “haven’t lifted a finger.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott cravenly flip-flopped on consequences for not following his own executive orders? Good times, good times. What would you like the county judges to use, harsh language? Let’s not forget who’s in charge here.

But local officials are still trying, at least:

The mayors of nine of Texas’ biggest cities urged Gov. Greg Abbott in a letter Tuesday to grant them the “authority to set rules and regulations” mandating face masks during the coronavirus pandemic.

As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to climb in Texas, an executive order from Abbott bans local governments from imposing fines or criminal penalties on people who don’t wear masks in public. The mayors wrote that many people in their cities continue to refuse to wear face masks and that “a one-size-fits-all approach is not the best option” when it comes to regulating the issue.

The letter is signed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo, Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams, Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere and Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen.

The letter asks Abbott to consider allowing each city’s local officials to decide whether to require the use of a face covering in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Mayor Turner’s press release is here, and a copy of the letter sent to Abbott is here. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.

Finally, let’s not forget that even as businesses may want to reopen, coronavirus may not let them. It’s almost as if an unchecked pandemic is a hindrance to having your economy run at full capacity. But don’t worry, Greg Abbott has everything under control. Now keep clapping!

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Abbott issues disaster declaration following protests

Where we are now.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Sunday afternoon that the entire state of Texas will be placed under a disaster declaration in response to demonstrators in several Texas cities protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed Monday in Minneapolis police custody.

The declaration allowed Abbott to designate federal law enforcement officers to perform the duties of peace officers in Texas.

Thousands of protesters marched in Texas cities on Friday and Saturday, outraged after Floyd was filmed crying out for help as a white police officer pinned him to the ground with a knee to his neck. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was later arrested and charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.

“Every Texan and every American has the right to protest and I encourage all Texans to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Abbott said in a statement. “However, violence against others and the destruction of property is unacceptable and counterproductive.”

His announcement comes a day after he activated the Texas National Guard “in response to protest violence” across the state. In several of the state’s large metropolitan areas — including Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio — protesters clashed with police who sometimes used rubber bullets and tear gas.

Abbott also sent state resources to Houston, Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Saturday afternoon and said he’s spoken to the mayors of all four cities, as well as law enforcement officials. He said Sunday that he also increased those resources for cities throughout Texas and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has deployed tactical teams to assist state and local law enforcement.

[…]

Prior to Abbott’s announcement, several Texas cities took measures into their own hands. On Saturday evening, the mayor of San Antonio imposed a curfew as a result of escalating tensions due to the protests.

In Dallas, where officials defended the use of tear gas at protests for Floyd, Dallas Police Chief Reneé Hall said Sunday afternoon that a 7 p.m. curfew will go into effect Sunday and end at 6 a.m. “for the next several days,” The Dallas Morning News reported. In Austin, meanwhile, organizers canceled a protest planned for Sunday afternoon out of fear that “white agitators and other agitators of color” would co-opt the event and put black Texans in harm’s way.

The single best thing that can happen right now is for law enforcement agencies around the country to stand down and stop being violent themselves. After that we’ll see, but people have been pushing for moderate and incremental police reforms for a long time now with little success. What are people supposed to do now?

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

Here come the shelter-in-place orders

The shutdowns are getting shut-down-ier.

Be like Hank, except inside

Many of Texas’ biggest cities and counties are ordering residents to shelter in place whenever possible.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday evening ordered residents to stay in their homes as the state grapples with the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus. The move came one day after Dallas County issued a similar order. Meanwhile, the Austin City Council and Travis County will team up Tuesday to issue a stay-at-home decree, Austin Mayor Steve Adler told The Texas Tribune on Monday. And Fort Worth city officials said Mayor Betsy Price and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley will do the same at a Tuesday morning press conference.

By lunchtime Tuesday, residents in at least four of the state’s five biggest cities are expected to be under such orders. The only possible holdout is Houston, the state’s most populous city, which hasn’t publicly announced any plans. But the Houston Chronicle has reported Harris County officials began drafting a shelter-in-place order over the weekend.

“Our message is simple: You must stay at home,” Nirenberg said at a press conference in San Antonio on Monday evening. “The best way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus is through strict social distancing.”

San Antonio’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order is effective 11:59 p.m. Tuesday through 11:59 p.m. April 9.

You can add in Galveston County and some other places as well. If Greg Abbott isn’t going to do it, then it looks like everyone else will. As for Houston, here’s that Chron story:

Harris County officials over the weekend began drafting an order to place further restrictions on public activity in order to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, according to sources with direct knowledge of the discussions.

Doctors and health experts across the country have said such orders are necessary to prevent COVID-19 from spreading so rapidly that it overwhelms the nation’s health care system. Texas Medical Center president and CEO William McKeon said Monday morning the presidents of TMC hospitals and other institutions were “unanimous in our strong recommendation to move to shelter in place.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a news conference Monday morning “it may be that we issue a stay-at-home order or something of the sort.” She said county officials are still assessing whether to do so, and seeking the advice of other local leaders including Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner are holding a joint press conference with local health leaders this morning “for a COVID-19 related announcement”, which sure sounds like the prelude to a shelter-in-place announcement, but we’ll see.

What this means is that most businesses are ordered to shutter, minus “essential services” like grocery stores, pharmacies, and of course health care facilities. You’re either working from home, or you’re on a break, likely for two weeks initially (what Bexar County ordered), though it could get extended. You can go outside to exercise as long as you maintain social distancing, and there may be civil enforcement for violations. I’m making some assumptions here – who knows, maybe Judge Hidalgo and Mayor Turner have something else to say, though I can hardly imagine what it could be – but this is what we have seen in cities that have already gone down this road. So, on the likelihood that this is what’s in store, get ready to hunker down a little harder. It’s what everyone thinks is our best hope right now.

UPDATE: The shelter in place order for Harris County is now in effect, effective tonight at midnight through April 3.