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Chambers County

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.

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by county

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts
State House district changes by demography

One more look at how state house districts have changed over the decade. For this exercise, I’m going to look at some key counties and the State Rep districts within them.

Bexar:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
122   -1,304  10,628  12,204  21,091  10,900  31,719  20,819
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
123   -1,427   5,225   3,742   9,272   2,315  14,497  12,182
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485

Bexar County doesn’t get the props it deserves for contributing to the Democratic cause. Each of its ten districts became more Democratic in each of the two Presidential cycles. Where Bexar had gone 51.56% to 47.04% in 2012 for Obama, it went 58.20% to 40.05% for Biden. Obama had a net 23K votes in Bexar, while it was +140K votes for Biden. The two districts that shifted the most heavily towards Dems are the two Republican districts (HD117 went Republican in 2014, then flipped back in 2016), with Biden carrying HD121 as Beto had done in 2018, and HD122 coming into focus as a potential long-term pickup (modulo redistricting, of course). Both HDs 121 and 122 were over 60% for Romney, with HD122 at almost 68% for him. Both can and surely will be shored up in the next round of mapmaking, but the long term trends don’t look good for the Republicans holding them both.

Tarrant:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
092   -1,102   3,986   4,166  13,144   3,064  17,130  14,066
094   -3,344   2,238   2,655  10,231    -689  12,469  13,158
096      821   4,468   6,527  15,522   7,348  19,990  12,642
098     -489   6,891   8,798  13,948   8,309  20,839  12,530
097   -3,267   3,654   6,147  11,472   2,880  15,126  12,246
101     -734   3,487   4,523   9,808   3,789  13,295   9,506
093    2,751   5,180   9,984  15,697  12,735  20,877   8,142
091      401   2,489   5,437   8,897   5,838  11,386   5,548
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
099    2,757   3,282   9,686  11,208  12,443  14,490   2,047

I know everyone sees Tarrant County as a disappointment in 2020. Beto broke through in 2018, we had a bunch of close districts to target, and the Republicans held them all even as Biden also carried Tarrant. The point here is that Democrats made progress in every district, in each cycle (the dip in predominantly Black and heavily Democratic HD95 in 2016 notwithstanding). That includes the strong Republican districts (HDs 91, 98, and 99), the strong D districts (HDs 90, 95, and 101), and the five swing districts. Tarrant will be another challenge for Republicans in redistricting because like in Harris they have mostly lost their deep red reserves. HD98 went from being a 75% Romney district to a 62% Trump district last year. They can spread things out a bit, but remember what happened in Dallas County in the 2010s when they got too aggressive. I’m not saying that’s what will happen in Tarrant, but you can see where the numbers are.

Collin:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
067   -3,022   8,595   6,135  19,411   3,113  28,006  24,893
066   -4,911   8,517   4,001  14,432    -910  22,949  23,859
089    1,038   6,667   9,980  17,338  11,018  24,005  12,987
033    4,656   8,268  18,234  20,233  22,890  28,501   5,611
070    7,648   8,675  21,284  25,686  28,932  34,361   5,429

Denton:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
065   -1,378   6,440   6,048  16,110   4,670  22,550  17,880
106    8,757  11,138  21,190  29,280  29,947  40,418  10,471
064    3,003   6,205   8,257  15,136  11,260  21,341  10,081
063    2,642   6,129  16,382  17,279  19,024  23,408   4,384

I’m grouping these two together because they have a lot in common. Both shifted hugely Democratic over the decade, in each case across all their districts. Both contain a district that was added to their county in the 2011 redistricting. HDs 33 (72-26 for Romney in 2012, 60-38 for Trump in 2020) and 106 (68-31 for Romney in 2012, 54-45 for Trump in 2020) were supposed to be super-red, but didn’t stay that way. I might have thought that the southernmost districts in each county – i.e., the ones closest to Dallas and Tarrant – would be the bluest, but that is not quite the case. HD65 is in southeast Denton, where it is almost entirely adjacent to HD115, but HD63 is the reddest district in Denton (61-37 Trump) and it is the other district on Denton’s south border, though it aligns almost perfectly with HD98, the reddest district in Tarrant. HD64 is the next most Dem district in Denton, and it’s in the northwest quadrant, catty-corner to HD65. I have to assume this is a function of development more than who its closest neighbors are; I’m sure someone who knows Denton better than I can comment on that.

In Collin, HDs 66 and 67 are on the southern end of that county, but so is HD89, where it abuts Rockwall County more than it does Dallas. HD70 is north of 67 and 89, and HD33 (which contains all of Rockwall County) is the outer edge of the county to the west, north, and east, dipping down into Rockwall from there. Both counties continue their massive growth, and I expect them to have at least one more district in them next decade. Republicans have more room to slosh voters around, but as above, the trends are not in their favor.

There are of course other counties that are growing a lot and not in a way that favors Republicans. Here are two more of them.

Williamson:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
136       52  10,901   7,842  22,330   7,894  33,231  25,337
052    2,422   8,335  11,479  22,872  13,901  31,207  17,306
020    7,373   2,895  20,820  14,926  28,193  17,821 -10,372

Fort Bend:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
028    4,053  14,090  19,260  24,010  23,313  38,100  14,787
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
085    2,908   5,495  10,258  10,161  13,166  15,656   2,490

HD20 also includes Milam and Burnet counties, and I suspect that’s where most of the Republican growth is. HD85 also includes Jackson and Wharton counties. The previous version of HD52 had flipped Dem in 2008, the first such incursion into the formerly all-red suburbs, before flipping back in 2010, but neither it (55-42 for Romney) nor the newcomer HD136 (55-41 Romney) were ever all that red. There were some maps drawn in the 2011 redistricting process (not by Republicans, of course) that carved HD26 out as a heavily Asian swing district (it went 63-36 for Romney as drawn), but it just needed time for the “swing” part to happen. Of the various targets from 2018 and 2020, it’s one that I feel got away, and I wish I understood that better.

Brazoria:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
029      496   8,084  10,828  15,387  11,324  23,471  12,147
025    1,759     215   8,293   3,874  10,052   4,089  -5,963

Galveston:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
024    2,403   3,959  13,045   8,928  15,448  12,887  -2,561
023    3,847     346  11,123   7,296  14,970   7,642  -7,328

Montgomery:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
015   -1,563   7,905  13,226  15,512  11,663  23,417  11,754
016    7,437   2,437  16,088   7,160  23,525   9,597 -13,928
003    7,758   1,807  17,456   8,286  25,214  10,093 -15,121

We’ve looked at these counties before, this is just a more fine-grained approach. Note that HD03 includes all of Waller County, HD25 includes all of Matagorda County, and HD23 includes all of Chambers County. HD23 was already Republican in 2012 when Craig Eiland still held it (Romney carried it 54.6 to 44.2) and while it has gotten more so since then (Trump won it 57.5 to 41.0), that has mostly been fueled by the Republican growth in Chambers. I did a quick calculation on the data from the Galveston County election results page, and Biden carried the Galveston part of HD23 by a slim margin, 29,019 to 28,896. (Republican rep Mayes Middleton won that part of the district 29,497 to 27,632, so this tracks.) The rest of Galveston, the northern part that’s all Houston suburb, is much more Republican, but like with these other two counties one can see a path forward from here. What to do about the likes of Chambers County, that’s another question.

HD29 in Brazoria should have been a target in 2018 but the Dem who won the primary dropped out of the race, and there was no traction that I could see there in 2020. I expect that district to get a little redder, but the same story as elsewhere applies in that the geographic trends are a force that won’t be stopped by boundary lines. As for Montgomery, there are your signs of progress right there. HD15 is still very red, but as I’ve said before, the first goal is to bend the curve, and we’re on the right track there. HD15 is basically the Woodlands and Shenandoah, just north of HD150, while HD03 wraps around it and HD16 is the north end of the county.

Lubbock:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
084     -474     873   4,124   6,975   3,650   7,848   4,198
083    3,359     242  12,224   5,141  15,583   5,383 -10,200

Smith:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
006       67     938   6,922   6,208   6,989   7,146     157
005    4,565  -1,293   9,646   2,832  14,211   1,539 -12,672

These two districts, on opposite ends of the state, may seem odd to be paired together, but they have a couple of things in common. Both contain one district that is entirely within its borders (HD06 in Smith, HD84 in Lubbock) and one district that contains the rest of their population plus several smaller neighboring counties (HD05 also contains Wood and Rains counties, while HD83 contains six other counties). Both have a city that is the bulk of of its population (the city of Lubbock has over 90% of the population of Lubbock County, while a bit less than half of Smith County is in the city of Tyler). And both provide a bit of evidence for my oft-stated thesis that these smaller cities in Texas, which are often in otherwise fairly rural and very Republican areas, provide the same kind of growth opportunity for Democrats that the bigger cities have provided.

Both HDs 06 and 84 were less red than Smith and Lubbock counties overall: Smith County was 69-30 for Trump, HD06 was 68-32 for Matt Schaefer; Lubbock County was 65-33 for Trump, and HD84 was 61-39 for John Frullo. I didn’t go into the precinct details to calculate the Trump/Biden numbers in those districts, but given everything we’ve seen I’d say we could add another point or two into the Dem column for each. HD84 shows a clear Democratic trend while HD06 is more of a mixed bag, but it’s still a slight net positive over the decade and a damn sight better than HD05. HD06 is not close to being competitive while HD84 is on the far outer fringes, but that’s not the main point. It’s the potential for Democratic growth, for which we will need every little contribution we can get, that I want to shout from the rooftops. The big cities and big growing suburbs are our top tier, but we’d be fools to ignore the places like Lubbock and Tyler.

When the vaccine problem becomes more about demand than supply

Or to put it another way, what are we gonna do with the people who refuse to get vaccinated?

Low vaccination rates in counties that are whiter and more conservative could be impairing Texas’ ability to quickly reach herd immunity for COVID-19.

Texas counties that are poorer, whiter, less-educated and where former President Donald Trump won a larger than average share of the vote have vaccinated a smaller share of their population than the state average, a Houston Chronicle analysis found.

In the 144 Texas counties that meet these criteria, about 28.7 percent of people aged 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide, the average is 32.2 percent.

In Liberty County, fewer than 20 percent of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, one of the lowest rates in the state. What’s more, as Harris County residents have begun flocking to rural counties for easier access to vaccines, state data shows that providers in Liberty County — a rural patch between Houston and Beaumont — have put 27 percent more shots in the arms of Harris County residents than they have in residents of their own county

Meanwhile, in the 22 counties where Joe Biden won a majority of the vote — places that tend to be both more diverse and educated — an average of about 44 percent of eligible Texans have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

The vaccination gap between whiter, more conservative counties and the state average may not be cause for concern for the state’s vaccination efforts yet, said Rice University health economist Vivian Ho, but there is a potential for it to widen over the next two to three months.

“As more vaccines become available, that gap is going to widen, because there’s still excess demand for vaccines in our cities, where the majority of the population lives,” she said. “If, for instance, only 50 percent of people in these outlier counties are vaccinated, they will continually be subject to superspreader events that will overwhelm the weakest components of the state’s healthcare infrastructure.”

[…]

Across the state, health officials are searching for ways to reach and vaccinate people who are reluctant to do so.

State health officials are trying to think through the “last mile”, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. People who are hesitant to get vaccinated may not go to mass vaccination sites or hubs, but may go to providers they trust.

In Public Health Region 4/5 North — a group of counties in the northeastern part of the state, around Tyler — officials are working with faith-based communities and hosting vaccine fairs to vaccinate more people in the region with the state’s lowest average rate. They have also been conducting home visits as part of these efforts to bring vaccines to homebound people.

Ron Nichols, emergency coordinator for Chambers County, said having well known, local paramedics dole out doses has helped assuage some residents’ concerns. Nichols said demand for vaccines was initially high, but has begun to plateau in recent months because people are either waiting on the single-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, or because of distrust rooted in misinformation.

“There are a lot of people who just don’t understand, don’t know or don’t trust the process,” he said. “The Facebook misinformation machine has been running rampant.”

I suppose there may be fewer Houstonians taking vaccination road trips now that there’s more doses available. Be that as it may, the approach being outlined here makes sense. It’s largely the same strategy that has been advocated and used for communities of color and immigrants, and for the same reason – people trust people they know. It’s more arduous, but it has to be done. It would be nice if more of the state and federal elected officials who represent these areas stepped up and took some of the responsibility for convincing their constituents to get vaxxed, but I’m not holding out much hope for that.

(I am going to attempt to exercise some grace about the hesitancy in these parts of the state, even as we know that lies and propaganda are the main reasons for the fears that many of these folks have, and the risk that their hesitancy may help give rise to a stronger and more vax-resistant strain of the virus. For now, at least. We’ll see where the numbers are in a few months.)

SCoTX punts on ERCOT lawsuit question

Wimpy.

The Texas Supreme Court punted Friday on a question dogging millions of Texans affected by last month’s catastrophic power failure: Can ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, be sued?

The state’s highest court ruled 5-4 that it won’t decide — at least not now — on closely-watched case between Dallas electricity generator Panda Power and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. The $2.2 billion case filed by Panda Power in 2016 raised the question whether ERCOT is a governmental agency that has sovereign immunity protecting them from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country that has received such protection.

Five justices led by Justice Jeff Boyd said the Texas Constitution prohibits them from ruling on the case after the trial court issued a final judgment dismissing the case. Based on a finding of sovereign immunity by an appeals court, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that the dismissal by the lower court made the case moot and that it no longer had the authority to rule in the case.

“Because the trial court’s interlocutory order merged into the final judgment and no longer exists, we cannot grant the relief the parties seek,” the majority opinion written by Boyd stated. “As a result, any decision we might render would constitute an impermissible advisory opinion, and these consolidated causes are moot.”

Four dissenting justices led by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, argued they should rule on the case because the public has an interest whether ERCOT can be sued in the aftermath of last month’s storm. Several lawsuits have been filed against the state grid manager, including over the deaths of an 11-year-old boy and a 95-year-old man, who were both found dead in their freezing Houston-area homes.

“The answer to the immunity issue in this case has become perhaps more important to the public than even to the parties,” the minority opinion, written by Hecht stated. “The parties want to know. The public wants to know. The court refuses to answer.”

The ruling by the high court has widespread implications in the wake of last month’s deadly and devastating blackouts, which contributed to more than 50 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage.

David Coale, an appellate partner with Dallas-based law firm Lynn Pinker Hurst & Schwegmann, said the Supreme Court could still decide on ERCOT’s immunity as appeals from the Panda Power case come up through the legal system. In the meantime, ERCOT’s immunity — upheld by a Texas appeals court in 2018 — remains intact, but the state grid manage faces an onslaught of legal cases without any guidance from the Supreme Court.

“The court may have punted, but it didn’t walk away,” Coale said. “It acknowledged that another appeal involving the same parties is on its way up to them, and it can revisit these issues then.”

See here and here for some background. I guess I can understand the “let’s do this all in the correct order” idea, but as the story notes the question about whether ERCOT has sovereign immunity or not is very pertinent right now. Maybe if the ultimate decision is that ERCOT cannot be sued it would be nice to let all those folks who are now suing them know, so they won’t waste a bunch of time and money pursuing their cases. I’m not a lawyer, what do I know? You can find all the relevant opinions and concurrences and dissents here if you need a little light reading for the weekend.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that Harris, Fort Bend, and Travis Counties submitted amicus briefs urging SCOTUS to find in favor of ERCOT not having sovereign immunity. This Bloomberg article, which is behind their paywall but which you might be able to see if you haven’t exceeded your monthly allowance, details those filings.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

Suing Griddy

This is going to be interesting.

A Chambers County resident filed a class-action lawsuit against electricity retailer Griddy on Monday, accusing the provider of price gouging customers during last week’s freeze. She is seeking $1 billion in relief for affected customers.

Attorneys for Lisa Khoury said in the lawsuit that her bill spiked to $9,340 the week of the storm, compared to her average monthly bills that range from $200 to $250. Griddy drafted payments from Khoury’s bank account several times, according to the lawsuit, pulling $1,200 before she blocked further charges from her bank. She still owes thousands.

Griddy passes wholesale electricity rates directly to customers, who in turn pay the company $10 a month. This differs from fixed-rate electricity plans which offer a consistent rate regardless of market conditions.

But because of a price hike fueled by a shortage of supply and skyrocketing demand, some customers were faced with bills charging tens of thousands of dollars. While electricity bills are likely to rise across the board, Texans on variable rate plans faced immediate and alarmingly high prices.

Texas’ Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9 per kilo-watt hour — a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour — in response to rising demand. The hope was power generators would be enticed to produce more electricity.

“Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply,” the order stated.

Representatives for Griddy could not immediately be reached for comment. The electricity retailer addressed concerns of price gouging on its website and firmly placed the blame on the Public Utility Commission. The company states that it did not profit from raised prices.

A quick perusal of Griddy’s Twitter shows that they are blaming the PUC, and that they did suggest alternate electricity providers for their customers to switch to during freeze days; there are several news stories, including this one that ran in the Chron, about that as well.

This is one of those situations where the system is working exactly as designed – here are a couple of stories that explain the mechanics of this. I guess the courts could rule that what the PUC did violated the state’s laws on price gouging, but that seems like a stretch to me. I Am Not A Lawyer, so if you know better than me, please speak up.

More likely, there will be some kind of legislative solution to this. This Trib story goes into that option.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas lawmakers are promising relief for Texans hit with massive electric bills after a winter storm bludgeoned the state’s power grid, leaving millions of residents freezing without electricity.

But how they’ll accomplish that remains unclear. The state’s deregulated electricity market not only allows for staggering price spikes, but effectively compels them for some customers.

While many Texans are on “fixed rate” electricity plans that insulate them from market swings, others pay rates tied to the spot price of wholesale electricity, which skyrocketed during the storm.

As the bad weather bore down, it froze natural gas production and wind turbines, choking off the supply of electricity as demand skyrocketed. In response, the Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, let the wholesale market price of electricity rise to $9 per kilo-watt hour, a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour.

The rate hike was supposed to entice power generators to get more juice into the grid, but the astounding costs were also passed directly on to some customers, who were suddenly being billed more for electricity each day than they normally pay in a month.

[…]

Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the costs would be passed on to customers one way or another.

“If they [the electric provider] don’t have a mechanism that allows them to do that in the immediate — like on the next bill or the next several bills — it’ll end up getting rolled into the overall cost of service,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to get passed on in an immediate way, in a shocking way … or spread out over time.”

Tim Morstad, associate state director with the Texas AARP, said “prices are going to rise” but with a delay for those not on variable rate plans.

“Forgive me for stepping back to say — this system is truly designed to have high prices and huge fluctuations. And putting consumers through that by design is a bad process. It’s setting people up for pain,” he said.

Texas has an unusually deregulated electricity market that’s touted for offering customers the ability to pick from hundreds of plans offered by dozens of electric providers. Parts of the state are carved out, including cities like Austin, that get energy from a municipally owned utility, or people served by cooperatives. Those too could see cost increases down the line.

Lawmakers and Abbott have pledged to protect consumers from the big bills, and excoriated the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the outages last week. The reliability council, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, is overseen by a Public Utility Commission.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about what options were on the table.

Lawmakers have demanded that the utility commission roll back its decision to allow the huge rate increases, or suggested cobbling together some package of emergency waivers or relief money to buffer Texans’ from the high bills.

“We cannot allow someone to exploit a market when they were the ones responsible for the dire consequences in the first place,” said state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa.

I have no idea what Abbott will suggest. He’s nobody’s picture of a creative thinker, and “solving problems” is not in his skill set. I’m hardly an expert either, but it seems to me that the first order of business is to prevent people from getting multi-thousand-dollar electric bills, and the simplest way to do that is probably just to order everyone’s bill capped at some value that relates to their usual experience, and have the state pick up the difference since the providers do in fact have the legal right to charge these amounts. That’s the easy part. The much harder question, at least for the leadership we are stuck with, is what to do about it for the future. That either involves some form of re-regulation that puts limits on how “free” the electricity market is, or ignoring it and hoping you survive electorally. I know what I’d do, but I’m not a Republican. Good luck with that.

One more thing, as long as we are talking about freeze/blackout-related lawsuits:

The family of an 11-year-old boy who died last week in Conroe during power outages while Texas endured a freezing winter storm is suing Entergy Texas and operator of the state’s power grid for a total of $100 million.

In the lawsuit filed Saturday, the family said Cristian Pineda died of hypothermia after the temperature in his house plunged due to the forced blackouts. Pineda’s family of five shared a single room for warmth, and Cristian shared a bed with his younger brother, the lawsuit states.

His family found Cristian unresponsive in the morning. The Houston Chronicle first reported news of the lawsuit.

The family is suing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the decentralized electrical grid system. The Texas grid is not governed by federal regulations.

As the story notes, our old buddy Tony Buzbee is filing this lawsuit, along with at least seven others, against ERCOT. Whether or not he can do that is an open question.

ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

The ruling by the high court will have widespread implications in the wake of last week’s blackouts. It would not only determine whether Texans can use the legal system to hold ERCOT accountable for power outages that led to more than 48 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage, but also the future of ERCOT and the state’s power markets if the court opens the door to the likely flood of lawsuits.

[…]

“The political rhetoric around ERCOT and the weather emergency has embraced transparency and accountability,” Rottinghaus said. “A ruling that holds ERCOT immune from such lawsuits may run against that. It could be a political liability.”

Panda Power filed suit in 2016 against ERCOT, alleging the grid operator issued “seriously flawed or rigged” energy demand projections that prompted the Dallas power company to invest $2.2 billion to build three power plants early last decade. The plants ended up losing billions of dollars, with one forced into bankruptcy.

ERCOT’s reports calling for more power generators came in the aftermath of a major ice storm in February 2011, which crippled Texas power plants and forced rolling blackouts across the state.

Panda Power’s case was halted in 2018 when an appeals court in Dallas asserted ERCOT was protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The Texas Supreme Court in June 2020 said it would review the appellate court decision, heard the case in September 2020 and is expected to render a decision before it recesses in June.

We’ll see about that. There’s definitely some pressure, on the courts and on the Lege and on Greg Abbott, to Do Something about all this – and again, I remind you, that the “all this” in question is what was supposed to happen based on existing laws. How long that pressure lasts, and what happens if there are no legal or legislative outlets for it, that’s the big political question.

UPDATE: Multiple ERCOT board members have resigned. All are folks who did not live in Texas, which yes is one of the weirder things about ERCOT. Not directly related to this story, but this is as good a place as any to note it.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.

A high level look at the changing suburbs

The Trib takes a broad and high-level look at what I’m digging into now.

Although they didn’t get the blue wave they expected, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.

An analysis of the presidential vote in solidly suburban Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hays and Williamson counties, plus partly suburban Tarrant County, showed that Republicans went from an advantage of more than 180,000 total votes in those counties in 2016 to less than a thousand votes in 2020, according to the latest data.

“This was not, on a whole, a good night for Democrats, it’s not what they hoped,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “But Democrats did see some gains and some success flipping areas in the suburbs.”

[…]

Some of Democrats’ biggest gains happened in Central Texas. Williamson County, where Trump won by 9.7% four years ago, flipped in 2020 and went to Biden by just over 1%. Hays County, which Trump won by less than 1% in 2016, gave Biden a nearly 11% victory this year. Both counties also supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterm elections.

Greenberg said those two counties are a perfect example of the trend that is helping Democrats in the suburbs: a growing population, particularly in demographic groups that tend to be more left-leaning. Since 2010, Williamson County alone has added more than 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You see a growing population, a younger population, highly educated. Those kinds of voters are moving towards the Democrats,” Greenberg said.

In the Greater Houston area, Fort Bend County, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, was even more favorable for Biden, who won by 37,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s roughly 17,000-vote margin in 2016.

Fort Bend’s population is 811,688, and 20% of the population is Asian, according to the U.S. census.

“That county has become pretty solidly Democratic, and that happened quickly,” Cross said. “And it’s because of these younger, more educated and more diverse voters. It’s an example of what the Asian American vote can change.”

In North Texas, in Denton and Collin counties, Republicans expanded their margins from the 2018 midterms, but compared with the 2016 presidential election, Democrats narrowed the gap: In Denton County, Trump’s 20% victory in 2016 shrunk to 8.1% this year, while his margin in Collin County fell from 16% to 4.6%.

Meanwhile in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is surrounded by a tapestry of suburbs, counting is still ongoing, but the latest results show that Democrats might be able to flip the county.

Not all suburban counties became as competitive as Tarrant. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, where more than 270,000 people voted, Republicans still had a comfortable 44% margin in 2020, 7% less than in the 2016 presidential election.

All of this is true, and there are some nice charts in the story to look at, but it obscures a couple of points. One, with regard to Montgomery County, it’s not the percentage margin that matters, it’s the raw vote differential. Trump won Montgomery county by 104,479 votes in 2016. He won it by 118,969 votes in 2020. It’s nice that the second derivative of their growth curve is now negative, but we need to start shrinking that gap, not just slowing its acceleration. Joe Biden will end up about 650K votes behind Donald Trump. That’s about 160K votes closer than Hillary Clinton got. If we want to make it easier for Biden, or Kamala Harris, or someone else, in 2024, that’s the target. It’s preferable if Montgomery County is not making that job more difficult.

The other point is that this discussion leaves out too much. The reason I wanted to look at all the counties that surround the big urban areas is so we can be aware of the places that are growing into becoming like Montgomery – think Parker and Johnson Counties up north – as well as the small counties that punch well above their weight, like Chambers and Liberty. Maybe we don’t have a clear answer for those places yet, but we need to be thinking about them, and we need to make having a plan for them a priority. We’re just conceding too much ground otherwise.

Counties of interest, part one: Around Harris

There’s been so much focus in the past couple of years about the suburbs and how their traditional voting patterns have changed. I wanted to use the election results we have to take a closer look at what that means. My approach is to look at the results in the counties that surround the large urban counties in Texas, and see what we can infer from the Presidential election data since 2012. A few things to note before we get started.

– I will be looking at the counties that border Harris, Dallas/Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar. I’m skipping El Paso because there’s only one county in the state that is adjacent to it.

– I’m using Presidential results from 2012, 2016, and 2020. As we have discussed, this is only one dimension to the data, but I want to keep this fairly simple. We can discern direction from these numbers, and that’s good enough for these purposes.

– I’m going back to 2012 to provide some extra context. I could have gone back further, and maybe I will take a look at trends since 2004 in some counties at a later date, but I think keeping this study to after the 2010 election, when rural areas gave up the pretense of supporting Democrats at any level, makes more sense.

– In the chart below and in subsequent posts, “Shift” is the change in net votes from a Democratic perspective, from 2012 to 2020. A positive number means Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2012, and a negative number means Republicans did better. So for example, Obama trailed in Brazoria County by 36,431 votes, but Biden trailed by 28,159 votes, so a shift in the Democrat direction by 8,282 votes. Obama lost Chambers County by 8,997 votes, Biden lost it by 13,346 votes, so a shift of 4,329 away from Dems. Make sense?

All right. Let’s start with the seven counties that border Harris County.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Brazoria     70,862   34,421   72,791   43,200   89,939   61,780    8,282
Chambers     11,787    2,790   13,339    2,948   17,343    3,997   -4,349
Fort Bend   116,126  101,144  117,291  134,686  157,595  195,191   52,578
Galveston    69,059   39,511   73,757   43,658   93,306   58,247   -5,511
Liberty      17,323    5,202   18,892    4,862   23,288    5,779   -5,388
Montgomery  137,969   32,920  150,314   45,835  193,224   74,255  -13,920
Waller        9,244    6,514   10,531    5,748   14,206    8,130   -3,346

The first thing that should be clear is that just because a county borders a big urban county, that doesn’t mean it’s suburban. For sure Montgomery and Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston meet that definition, though all four of those counties also have some very rural areas, but I daresay no one thinks of Chambers or Liberty or Waller that way. Yet while the first four are seen as places of booming population growth, the other three are doing their share of growing, too. Chambers County has doubled in population since 1990. Waller County has more than doubled in that timespan. Liberty County is up by almost 75%.

But they’re still small. None has a city with more than ten thousand people in it, so they don’t have much in common with the other counties. Maybe it’s different for you, but while I personally know plenty of people in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties, I know all of one in the other three. I drive through Waller now and then on my way to Austin or to Camp Allen when my daughters were going there, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in Chambers or Liberty.

I say all this to note that while Montgomery is the driving force behind the Republican strength in this area, with Galveston right behind it thanks to places like Friendswood and League City, the other three counties have increased the Republican bottom line over the past few elections by a significant amount as well, with far fewer people in them. Jane Robinson would be the incoming Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals if Chambers County had had the same numbers in 2020 as they had in 2016. It makes a difference.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is just to highlight the places where we’re losing ground, if only so we can be aware of it. We’ve got our arms around Fort Bend County, and Brazoria is starting to head in the right direction. Montgomery and Galveston are problems, but we have infrastructure in those places, and just by virtue of being suburban I have some reason to think we’ll get to a turning point. I have no idea what exists in the other three counties to promote Democratic policies or candidates. We need a strategy for these places, and the resources to carry it out. We don’t need to win them – we’re no more likely to win Chambers than we are to win Montgomery any time soon – but we at least need to keep up with Republican voter growth.

That’s a theme I’m going to return to more than once a I proceed through these. I don’t pretend to know what the right answers are, I’m just trying to make sure we know there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope you find this helpful.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

Houston officials and public health experts are expressing concern that Tropical Storm Laura could amplify the spread of COVID-19 by displacing residents to public shelters or residences outside the area, increasing opportunities for transmission.

With that scenario in mind, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday encouraged Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 before the storm makes landfall. Forecasters have predicted it will come ashore late Wednesday or early Thursday, though the path remained uncertain by Monday evening.

Officials from Harris County and the American Red Cross began preparing for potential shelter needs months ago, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday. At Red Cross shelters, officials will provide face coverings, conduct health screenings and follow federal social distancing guidance, the organization announced in a news release. It also will operate more shelters with a reduced capacity in each.

“This is not a situation where we would have the same kind of shelters we’re used to, where it’s completely open space and no division between folks,” Hidalgo said.

Turner, who urged people to get tested on Monday or Tuesday, tweeted, “You need to know your status for yourself, family members and friends.”

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while disaster officials may come up with creative solutions to help contain the spread of COVID, public shelters would be “a nightmare even under the best circumstances.”

The effect may be especially pronounced, Hotez said, because those most likely to seek shelter in a public setting come from low-income communities where people are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

It also would be difficult for contact tracers to follow the spread of the virus during an evacuation, he said.

“If you think about it, without a vaccine, what do we have? We have masks, we have contact tracing and social distancing — which are not great, but it’s all we have,” Hotez said. “With a hurricane, we’ve knocked out two of our three pieces of artillery equipment.”

These are obviously not the best of circumstances. Tropical Storm Laura is now officially Hurricane Laura, and it’s already a pretty strong one. Jefferson County, Chambers County, Orange County, and Galveston County are under mandatory evacuation orders, with parts of Harris County issuing a recommendation that areas in the storm surge zone evacuate as well.

Harris County officials urged residents of some coastal areas to evacuate Tuesday as Hurricane Laura could strike the Houston region Wednesday evening.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for zones A and B and urged residents to leave immediately. She warned of a storm surge of three to five feet and high winds that could knock out power.

“All of us need to be prepared for the very real potential of a direct hit from this storm,” Hidalgo said. “Of course, we hope for the best, but we don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the worst case scenario.”

These zones include part or all of Deer Park, La Porte, League City, Friendswood, Seabrook, El Lago, Morgan’s Point and southeastern portions of the city of Houston.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned residents of congested traffic on freeways heading away from the coast and urged non-evacuating residents to avoid traveling if possible. Residents in the evacuation zone should not delay, he stressed, because Laura could change course unexpectedly.

“At this point in time, if it veers further to the west and becomes more of a direct hit on Houston-Harris County, we don’t really have a lot of time,” Turner said.

The mayor urged residents to be prepared for extended power outages, and noted that some households were without electricity for two weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He said people should be off the streets by 8 p.m. Wednesday, but stopped short of calling for a curfew.

Immediate safety concerns take precedence over more theoretical longer-term safety concerns. In the meantime, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. As of last night, it looks like the worst will probably (though not 100%) miss Houston, but that means Beaumont and Port Arthur are directly in its crosshairs. We’re going to need to mobilize a strong response, because it’s going to be bad.

As a programming matter, it is certainly possible that power and/or Internet outages will have an effect on my publication schedule. That’s a pretty minor consideration, but I wanted to note it just in case. Stay safe, everyone.

Ready or not, here we vote

Hope it goes all right.

Poll workers [began] greeting voters from behind face masks and shields as early voting begins in primary runoffs that will look and operate differently from any Texas election in the past 100 years. Although the first statewide election during the pandemic is expected to be a low-turnout affair — primary runoffs usually see single-digit turnout — the contest is widely regarded as a high-stakes dry run for the November general election, when at least half of the state’s more than 16 million registered voters are expected to participate.

More than 30 runoffs are ongoing for party nominations to congressional, legislative and local offices. The most prominent race is the statewide Democratic contest to see who will challenge incumbent John Cornyn for U.S. Senate.

But the shot at working through a new set of considerations — and challenges — for running a safe and efficient election could be complicated by its timing. The runoff was postponed from May and takes place as the state’s tenuous grip on controlling the coronavirus outbreak unravels into record-high daily infection and hospitalization rates.

“We’re saying our prayers,” Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator, said last week. “With this spike in the numbers, I’m praying our good ol’ election officials are going to hang in there with us.”

Like other administrators, Callanen worked to complete a census of the county’s regular fleet of election judges and workers, who tend to be older and at higher risk for complications from the coronavirus. She saw little drop-off, with most willing to work the election.

That was before the effects of Gov. Greg Abbott’s reopening of businesses and dismantling of local health restrictions were fully felt, and the county was reporting 30 or 50 new daily cases of people infected with the virus. In recent weeks, that number has skyrocketed to hundreds of new cases a day. If her prayers fail, Callanen has a set of backup county workers ready to step in.

[…]

Texans voting in person will be met with many of the precautions that have become customary at businesses and grocery stores, including 6-foot distance markers and plastic shields at check-in stations. Poll workers will be offering masks and hand sanitizer. At least one county is advising voters to bring umbrellas to shield them from the hot Texas sun while they wait.

But many regular polling sites will have far fewer voting booths — and probably lines out the door — or will be shuttered altogether as officials try to minimize breaches of social distancing.

Collin County election officials typically set up 20 to 25 voting machines at their main polling place in their office building, but they will only be able to fit eight machines 6 feet apart. It likely won’t be a problem for the runoff, but the county will have to be “as creative as possible” for November, said Bruce Sherbet, the county’s election administrator.

“All the things we’re doing for this will really be problematic for November,” Sherbet said. “It’s a tall challenge.”

In a possible bellwether for electoral troubles in November, some counties have lost polling places unwilling to host voters during the pandemic. In Williamson County, officials were informed last week that one of its busiest sites — a community center that primarily caters to older voters — was scrapping plans to reopen for voting. In Bexar County, Callanen had to pull the county courthouse — a longtime voting site — and several school sites off her list of polling places. In Travis County, officials ditched regular voting sites at nursing homes, grocery stores and Austin Community College.

Abbott’s postponement of election day from May 26 to July 14 granted election administrators more time to set up public health precautions. But with the runoff election moving forward at what is arguably the state’s worst point in the pandemic so far, poll workers will be forced to navigate keeping voters safe while safeguarding their right to vote.

In Chambers County, a smaller county east of Houston, County Clerk Heather Hawthorne was waiting on guidance from the Texas secretary of state’s office after the local public health authority asked if poll workers can direct masked voters and those not wearing masks to separate voting machines.

“Everybody is just trying to help figure out, as our Texas numbers grow, what we’re going to do to provide safe voting locations,” Hawthorne said.

See here and here for the background. Postponing the May election was the right call, based on conditions and what we knew at the time. The fact that Greg Abbott screwed up after that and left us in a more dangerous position now is a separate matter. For this election, which ought to be fairly low turnout, my strategy is going to be voting either early in the morning – like, right at 7 AM if my work calendar is open – or maybe between 9 and 10, when I figure the morning commuters are done and the lunch crowd hasn’t started to shuffle in. At least we’ll learn from this experience in a lower-stakes environment. And who knows, maybe something will go sufficiently wrong in a Republican runoff that state leadership will be forced to reckon with the problem in a broader sense than just mindlessly clinging to the idea that it’s sinful for anyone under the age of 65 to cast a mail ballot. Because let’s be clear, letting more people vote by mail, and being prepared for more people voting by mail, is the best answer here.

Here’s the perspective from Travis County, where turnout is likely to be higher than other places due to the SD14 special election.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir reports that a huge crush of mail voting requests by those 65 and older, who are automatically eligible to receive mail-in ballots, could foretell an exceptional turnout by runoff standards, and she promises that in-person voting in this novel circumstance is being conducted with extraordinary attention to public health.

“I don’t think we should be voting in person at all, quite frankly, in the middle of a pandemic,” DeBeauvoir, who would have preferred universal vote-by-mail under the circumstance, told the American-Statesman late last week. “Which is why we’re taking all of these extra precautions to try and make voting in person as safe as humanly possible.”

While the pandemic might logically be expected to depress turnout, DeBeauvoir said that in Travis County, the reverse may be the case.

While turnout for runoffs generally runs in single-digits, DeBeauvoir said this time, “it just might get as high as 30%.”

[…]

Ordinarily, she said, her office would get 1,000 to 2,000 requests for mail-in ballots for a runoff.

But by Friday, she said, “the levels of by-mail ballot requests we are getting are rivaling presidential levels. The most by-mail requests I’ve ever had for a presidential was 31,000. We already have more than 28,000 in house.”

Of those, she said, 85% are from those 65 and older, and another 12% are those with a disability, the other category that is automatically eligible to vote by mail.

But DeBeauvoir said that an estimated quarter of Travis County voters have disabilities, and that, despite the Texas Supreme Court decision that fear of the coronavirus alone was not sufficient reason to seek a disability ballot, that ruling also made clear that “a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If so, they can check the “disability” box on the vote-by-mail request, and return it to her office, no questions asked, because, she said, election administrators do not and, under law, cannot check disability claims.

There is still time for any Travis County voter seeking a mail-in ballot to download the application from the clerk’s website, fill it out, check the appropriate box, sign it and return it to her office as long as it received by Thursday.

Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued warnings that anyone who advises voters that they can vote by mail simply out of fear of COVID-19 can be subject to criminal sanctions.

“Certainly there’s been an effort to make it seem very confusing. It is not confusing at all,” DeBeauvoir said.

“That’s why I am using very carefully picked language,” she said. “That’s why we have decided a voter, using their own health history, can make a determination about their risk of injury to their health if they show up inside a public place.”

If you haven’t and still want to, you can go here to apply for a mail ballot in Harris County – the deadline to submit is the same, this Thursday. Note that if you make an electronic application you must follow it up within four business days with a snail mail application, so don’t skip that part. It will be fascinating, and quite possible horrifying, to see if Ken Paxton targets some mail users for the purpose of making an example of them. The past history of election fraud prosecutions, which this Star-Telegram story catalogs nicely, is one part about persecuting people of color, and one part about loudly trumpeting initial arrests or investigations that eventually end very quietly in dropped charges, dismissals, acquittals, or plea bargains to minor misdemeanors. I won’t be surprised if we get something like that this year.

I will of course be posting early vote totals, but I’ll probably be a day behind, since I expect the results will come in sufficiently late to make it inconvenient for me to be up to date the following morning. Turnout expectations should be kept modest, but with the Senate race and several Congressional races it won’t be a total snoozefest. If Dems can get to 500K, that would be a record for them.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon says he expected to announce a stay-at-home order for his rural county this week, following the lead of other major counties in the region.

But then Duhon studied other localities’ orders and reflected on President Donald Trump’s message about how the country needs to start getting back to work in the coming weeks, a view not shared by many public health experts.

“It was just the notion that we can’t paralyzed by this event,” Duhon said by phone Wednesday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “America is about ingenuity, it’s about working, it’s about enterprise, it’s about free market. People get up, they go to work. They earn a living. They move up the ladder. That’s what we do. That’s what makes America successful. So, if we’re paralyzed and we do nothing, then everything will just collapse.”

On Wednesday, Duhon stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, reflecting a reluctance among some local leaders to adopt the most stringent rules available to them to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Democrat-led Harris and Fort Bend counties have issued stay-at-home orders, GOP-majority Montgomery County has not. Two other counties led by Republicans — Galveston and Brazoria — have opted for stay-at-home orders.

“This action is not being taken lightly,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, a Republican, during an address live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesday. “As cases rise, the advice across the board has been to take action (now) to slow the spread of this disease.”

[…]

Duhon wasn’t calling for restrictions to be lifted in his county of 51,000 residents, but he acknowledged struggling with how far to go in imposing them.

His order calls for residents and workers to stay 6 feet apart from one another and for restaurants to remain take-out, drive-thru and delivery only. It discourages gatherings of 10 or more and encourages residents to remain in their homes as much as possible, unless they’re going to work, for example. He advised that trips out of the house should be made for essential items only. Churches and other religious institutions should aim to provide services via video or teleconference. However, they are permitted to hold services outdoors if people are 6 feet apart.

If the number of coronavirus cases goes up in Waller County, he said, he would reassess. There were no confirmed cases in the county as of Wednesday afternoon.

The order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until April 3.

In his Facebook post, Duhon said it bothered him “measures are being taken so easily and without regard to our basic constitutional freedoms.”

“This is NO QUESTION that this is a public health emergency, and there is no doubt about that, but at each and every step, we must always carefully balance the restrictions we put in place with a person’s ability to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Duhon wrote.

As we know, Montgomery County has since issued a stay-at-home order, despite its County Judge sounding a lot like Trey Duhon as of Wednesday. Also since then, the first case of COVID-19 in Waller County has been reported. I think we all know it’s just a matter of days before that number is a lot higher than that.

Waller County is one of seven counties that border Harris. It’s mostly rural and sparsely populated (about 53K people as of 2018). Liberty County (population circa 86K) and Chambers County (population circa 42K), both of which also border Harris, are similar in nature, yet they have both already issued stay-at-home orders, Liberty on Thursday and Chambers on Tuesday. Both were stronger for Trump in 2016 than Waller was – Chambers 79% for Trump, Liberty 78%, Waller 63% – but that did not factor into their decision-making process. What’s it going to take to get you to take this seriously, Waller County?

We’re still #4

We’ll probably be that for awhile.

According to the new report from the Greater Houston Partnership, the domestic population growth for the Houston region has slowed down over the last eight years. The report, which is based on population estimates data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this spring, cited factors such as the downturn of the oil and gas industry and Hurricane Harvey as reasons for the slump.

“At the current pace, Houston won’t overtake Chicago for another 25 years,” the GHP stated in a July 2019 Economy at a Glance report.

Another notable trend the report found is that international migration to the Houston region has outpaced domestic migration over the last eight years, meaning more U.S. residents are moving to Houston’s outskirts while immigrants are moving to the city.

[…]

One-third of the metro Houston population now lives outside of Harris County, according to the report. Harris County accounted for all of the negative losses in domestic migration for the region from 2016 through 2018 – more than 100,000 residents. No other Houston area county experienced a loss in domestic migration, according to the report.

In fact, domestic growth into Houston’s nine surrounding counties has picked up over the last decade. Fort Bend County was ranked as the nation’s No. 10 fastest growing county from 2010 to 2018; while Montgomery was ranked No. 18; Waller No. 41,; Chambers No. 52 and Brazoria No. 83, according to the report.

“Harris County, with two-thirds of the region’s population, captured only 56.3 percent of the region’s growth over the past eight years,” the report stated. “The suburban counties, with one-third of the region’s population, captured 43.8 percent of the growth.”

It doesn’t really matter when, or even if, Houston passes Chicago to become the third largest city in America. This isn’t a race, and there’s no winner or loser. Growth trends can change on a dime, too, so the same kind of report made in, say, 2024 might well give a very different timetable. What does matter is how we respond to and plan for the effect of these growth trends. What can and should the city of Houston do to attract migrants, and retain existing population? Remember, population is representation, which is to say political power. How can the region react and get on top of housing, transportation, and flood mitigation needs in a coordinated way? We’ve had decades of growth in the Katy Prairie area that have had all kinds of negative effects downstream. We can’t afford to continue that. Part of the challenge here is precisely that there isn’t much in the way of regional authority. Needs and solutions don’t end at county lines, so more and better cooperation is needed. These are the things we need to be thinking about and acting on.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Chron overview of HD23

We go to Galveston for one of the few interesting Legislative races in the area.

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

A former Democratic state legislator is trying to recapture the Texas House District 23 seat from the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction.

In one of the few competitive legislative contests, Democrat Lloyd Criss, who represented Galveston County in the Texas House from 1979 to 1991, is challenging first-term Republican Rep. Wayne Faircloth.

Faircloth, 63, won the seat in 2014 by defeating Criss’ daughter, former Galveston County District Judge Susan Criss.

Although the district was redrawn to favor the GOP by combining the predominantly Democratic areas of Galveston County with overwhelmingly Republican Chambers County, Republicans have struggled in the district. Faircloth fell short in his first attempt to win the district in 2012, losing to then-Rep. Craig Eiland, a Democrat.

Lloyd Criss

Lloyd Criss

The seat came open in 2014 after Eiland decided to retire from a post he had held for two decades.

The district includes Democratic-leaning Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, Texas City, La Marque and the unincorporated community of San Leon before stretching across Galveston Bay to take in more conservative Chambers County.

[…]

[Sean Skipworth, who teaches government at the College of the Mainland,] said that Faircloth won during a mid-term election with low turnout, which usually favors Republicans. Incumbents are most vulnerable during their first reelection campaign, he said, and having presidential candidate Donald Trump at the top of the ticket could hurt Republicans farther down the ballot like Faircloth. The 75-year-old Criss also has high name recognition in Galveston County, which has 80 percent of the district’s population.

“If I was Faircloth, I would be a little nervous,” Skipworth said.

True, but Eiland was the only Democrat to receive a majority of the vote in HD23 in 2012. The district, like Galveston County itself, had been trending the wrong way for some time, and I suspect Eiland’s decision to retire rather than run in 2014 was predicated as much by an inking about which way the wind was blowing as anything else. That said, Susan Criss did about as well as one could expect in that environment, and it’s hardly outrageous to think that a guy like Faircloth, who represents a relatively balanced district, could get swept out in the Year of the Trump. It’s just that if that does happen, he’d immediately be the favorite to win it back in 2018, at least until we get a feel for where there will be a more permanent effect from this election. Bottom line, if the statewide polls are accurate, this seat could well be in play. Holding it after this year, that’s the challenge.

Our gay state

Is getting gayer, according to the Census.

It’s no secret that Austin and Central Texas have much appeal for same-sex couples, but new census data from 2010 underscore the depth and breadth of the attraction. Among the highlights from an American-Statesman analysis of the data:

• Travis County has the state’s highest rate — 1.25 percent, more than twice the statewide average — of households describing themselves as led by same-sex couples. There were about 5,000 same-sex households in Travis County in 2010, a 69 percent increase since 2000.

Travis County’s percentage of same-sex couple households ranks 13th among U.S. counties with at least 200,000 households, according to City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson. Travis ranked 10th nationally in percentage of lesbian couple households.

• The percentage of same-sex couple households in Austin also grew since 2000 and was even higher than the county’s — 1.28 percent of the city’s 324,892 households were led by same-sex couples in 2010. Those 4,182 same-sex couples were split almost evenly between male couples and female couples.

• Growth among same-sex couple households extended to the four other counties which make up the Austin metropolitan area — Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson — expanding on a trend noted across the country after the 2000 census, which found more same-sex couples living in suburban communities outside traditional urban enclaves.

Like Travis, other metro area counties exceeded the statewide average for same-sex couple households and had gains from 2000 ranging from 52 percent in Caldwell to 146 percent in Hays and 170 percent in Williamson, where the overall population increased 69 percent since 2000. Hays’ total population grew 61 percent since 2000.

Bastrop County ranked third, and Hays County fourth, among Texas counties with at least 4,300 households.

You should see the accompanying graphic of growth by county for more information. The greater Houston area saw considerable growth as well, with Montgomery and Fort Bend Counties registering in the 101-300% range, while Galveston, Brazoria, Liberty, and Waller Counties were in the 51-100% group. Harris and Chambers grew at “only” 1 to 50%, which is obviously too big a range to judge whether those scare quotes are needed. Please note that a high growth rate may be simply a function of a very low starting point. Going from one to three represents 200% growth, after all. Also, as the story notes, the growth may really be a reflection of how many such households are willing to identify themselves as such. Anyway, just another dimension to the diversity of Texas to think about.

Seliger-Solomons 2.0

Go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us and have a gander at Plan C130 to see the version of the Seliger-Solomons Congressional plan that was passed last night by the Senate redistricting committee. The biggest changes are in and around Harris County, mostly due to CD36, which Rep. Solomons had admitted was ridiculous. Gone is its bizarre shape, which had been described by me and others as “the Gateway Arch”, a “horseshoe”, and a “Gulf shrimp”, which is my favorite. Here’s a before and after look for comparison. First, the original, Plan C125:

What once was

And here’s Plan C130:

What now is

CD36 loses all of its western turf and takes in territory that had originally been drawn into CDs 01, 02, 08, and 14. While it can now be more accurately described as an East Texas district, it still takes a chunk of Harris County, which I daresay will remain the population center for it. I don’t know if this is more of what State Rep. James White had in mind when he complained about the original CD36, but if it’s not I don’t know that he’s going to get what he wants. East Texas didn’t gain population in the past decade, the Houston area – Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Harris – did. One way or another they’re going to get yoked to this area. This is probably about as good as it’s going to get for them.

The folks in SN22 no longer have to be worried about being represented by someone from 200 miles away, but in return they get stuck with Ted Poe, whose CD02 is now entirely within Harris. CD08 takes most of the non-Harris portions of what had been the west and north ends of the CD36 arch – Grimes, Madison, Houston, and Trinity counties – while CD10 takes the piece of Washington county and the rest of Harris that didn’t go to CD02. Angelina County is reclaimed by CD01. CD22 gives up much of its east Harris turf and picks up more of Brazoria. The Brazoria bit came from CD14, which loses Chambers and picks up the rest of Jefferson.

There are some minor changes elsewhere in the map, which Greg discusses. He also disagrees with the contention made in the Trib that the changes to CD14 target Ron Paul. While I’ve long held the crackpot belief that this next round of redistricting would do Paul no favors, I also don’t think this is much of a threat to him. His district has been changed more significantly in the past, and it didn’t stop him. Short of eliminating his district altogether, I daresay he’ll keep on keeping on. According to this interactive Trib map, the redrawn CD14 is less red by a few points, but still pretty red and encompassing counties that are going the wrong way from my perspective. Paul has no real reason to lose any sleep.

Anyway, this is what we’ve got for now. Most of what will happen between now and the eventual adoption of a map is aimed at the lawyers, since there clearly isn’t going to be much public input allowed. See Greg‘s liveblogging of the Senate committee hearing, the Trib, and Texas on the Potomac for more. Finally, while I doubt it will be considered during this session, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez sent out this press release about “legislation which would establish new guidelines for the process of redrawing congressional district lines.” It doesn’t create a non-partisan commission for this purpose as Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s biennial bill would, but it does require that districts “not be drawn based on partisan data nor with int ent to favor or disfavor any individual or organized group”. The bill is SB32 if you want to have a look.

Are there any seats Dems could lose?

I’m sure you’ve heard someone express the view that if there’s a silver lining for the Democrats after the 2010 election, it’s that their decimated caucus offers no real targets for the Republicans to aim for. The Rs weren’t completely powerless in that regard, as their choosing to round down Harris County to 24 seats and pair Hochberg and Vo as a result will attest, but beyond that it’s slim pickings for them. Almost all of the remaining Democratic seats are VRA-protected, and even if they weren’t the Rs have to move the voters they don’t want somewhere. What else is there?

HD23

Well, there’s HD23, for starters. Held by Craig Eiland, one of the very few Anglo Democrats remaining in the House, it’s a dwindling bit of blue – Galveston Island, mostly – surrounded by growing pockets of red. At the Presidential level, it’s redder than several GOP districts, with McCain defeating Obama there 51.35% to 47.77%. Every other Democrat on the ballot did get a majority, so it’s not quite as grim as that, but one can easily imagine a campaign against him that amounts to little more than Obama bashing and hoping it sticks to Eiland. The good news, if you can call it that, is that if he survives 2012, he may have an easier time in 2014. Bill White won HD23, though no other Democrat cracked 47%. In a more normal off year, the numbers ought to be not too bad, basically a tossup much like SBOE2. It’s the population trends, which favor Democrats in many other places, that are working against Eiland here. Unless something changes, I don’t see that seat remaining Democratic for the decade.

No other seat should present any challenges to incumbent Democrats. Besides HD23, in only nine currently held seats did Obama fail to clear 60%:

Dist Incumbent Obama Houston =================================== 043 Lozano 57.63 62.16 074 Gallego 57.91 61.32 116 Mrtnz-Fscher 59.89 59.67 118 Farias 56.36 58.81 119 Gutierrez 58.59 60.38 123 Villarreal 59.58 59.35 124 Menendez 59.79 60.05 125 Castro 58.14 58.86 148 Farrar 58.27 61.75

I rather doubt any of these folks are sweating their next November.

Even going by 2010 numbers, the vast majority of Dems look to be in good shape. Bill White carried every incumbent Democratic district. Generally, the low score for Democrats came in the AG race. Here are all of the other districts in which Greg Abbott won at least a plurality; I’m throwing in the David Dewhurst numbers as well for comparison. As before, there are nine of them:

Dist Incumbent Dewhurst Abbott =================================== 043 Lozano 47.06 53.32 048 Howard 46.52 49.53 050 Strama 46.94 50.39 116 Mrtnz-Fscher 44.30 50.43 118 Farias 45.36 51.54 119 Gutierrez 44.19 50.88 123 Villarreal 43.40 49.10 124 Menendez 44.74 51.00 125 Castro 45.52 51.83

Note that Bill White scored at least 55% in each of these districts. In a more normal year, I would expect each of them to be about that Democratic, if not more so. But if there’s an open seat, or if it’s a bad year overall or just for one of them, you could see a race.

So in short, other than Eiland I don’t really have anyone on my long-term watch list. That may change after I see 2012 results, or if 2014 shapes up more like 2010 than I currently expect. Otherwise, I think it’s safe to say there’s nowhere to go but up.

Ike Dike update

As the first Atlantic tropical storms of the year make their appearance, we get an update on the proposed Ike Dike.

One of Hurricane Ike’s legacies may be the hardening of the upper Texas coast against hurricane storm surges.

Within weeks, a post-Ike committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry will recommend that six Texas counties band together to form a storm surge suppression zone.

In effect, this would empower the counties — Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Orange, Chambers and Jefferson — to seek state and federal funding and identify the best system of dikes, gates and seawalls to protect coastal communities — including the city of Houston and its Ship Channel industries — from devastating surges.

“We would like the counties to work together to study the potential of protective measures, whether it’s a levee system, a dike, an offshore barrier or something else,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who chaired the Ike committee.

Ultimately, such a project is likely to cost billions, with funds coming primarily from the federal government.

Oh, that evil, evil federal government and its dirty, dirty money! Always doing things for us that we’re unable to do for ourselves. Why must we suffer under the burden of their yoke?

The recommendation will come amid a growing discussion in the area on whether Ike’s primary lesson should be to harden the Texas coast against storm surges, or to pull back from development in threatened areas such as Bolivar Peninsula.

The committee appears to back the “Ike Dike” approach advocated by oceanographer William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

[…]

“We viewed the Ike Dike as an interesting idea, but not necessarily the solution,” Eckels said. “It’s a good starting point.”

He said area county judges are receptive to studying the idea further. But some, including Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, are skeptical.

“It’s an expensive proposition for a potential protection from one hurricane factor — storm surge — while doing nothing to protect us from wind, which was obviously a great problem here in Harris County,” said Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker.

Additionally, many environmentalists and scientists believe more coastal development — which a dike could encourage — is not the best public policy.

In June the Houston Endowment gave $1.25 million to Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters center, in part to study coastal development and storm surges.

The money will allow environmental attorney and coastal expert Jim Blackburn and others to explore alternative visions to simply hardening the coast as part of a report due in two years.

Blackburn says dike alternatives include turning much of Bolivar Peninsula into a national seashore and expanding wildlife refuges in Chambers and Jefferson counties.

“Perhaps the coast should just be a place to visit,” Blackburn suggested. “Everyone who goes there wants to move in. I understand that, but maybe unfettered development right on the beach is not the best public policy.”

I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I also have a lot of doubt that the political support to go that route. Is there a viable non-dike solution if you assume that the current level of development will remain as is? I could maybe see that happening. Alternately, I could see putting some restrictions on new development, which maybe you could get through as an accompaniment to an Ike Dike. I’ll be very interested to see what their proposed alternatives are, but I have my doubts as to their prospects.