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Trib polling roundup, part 3

Once more, with approval ratings.

President Joe Biden

Texas Democrats think Joe Biden is doing a good job as president, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Texas Republicans don’t.

Overall, the president gets good grades from 44% of Texas voters and bad grades from 46% — numbers that are better or roughly the same as the state’s most popular Republican leaders. Underneath Biden’s overall numbers, as with other officeholders in Texas, are starker partisan grades: 88% of Democrats said Biden is doing a good job, and 86% of Republicans disapprove of the work he’s doing.

Biden does a little better — but still poorly — with Republicans on how he’s handled the response to the pandemic; 14% approve, and 67% disapprove. But 92% of Democrats approve. And overall, 49% of Texas voters give Biden good grades on the pandemic, while 35% think he’s done a bad job.

Overall, 38% approve of Biden’s handling of the economy and 46% disapprove. Only 23% of voters approve of his response to immigration and border security, while 59% disapprove.

See here for Part 1 and here for Part 2. I had noted that 49-35 rating in Part 1 and was surprised by how positive it was. This makes more sense. It’s still good, and likely has boosted his overall rating, and it may make it harder for Greg Abbott et al to claim all the credit as COVID (hopefully) continues to retreat in Texas. Hard to know if it will have any effect on how people will vote – we know that Trump overperformed his approval rating in 2020 in part because people had a higher approval of him on economic matters. Biden lags a bit there, but that question is now mostly a proxy for partisan identification. We’ll see if that changes as the economy continues to recover.

As for the rest of the politicians polled, let’s make a table:


Name     App  Dis  None
=======================
Biden      44   46   11
Cruz       43   48    9
Cornyn     31   43   25
Abbott     43   45   13
Patrick    35   39   26
Paxton     32   36   31
Phelan     20   22   57

Congratulations to Ted Cruz for being the politician most people have an opinion about. I’m not sure he has anything further to aspire to. Maybe this is why John Cornyn is tweeting so much now, so he can close that gap.

The gaudy approval levels Greg Abbott had last year during the Summer of COVID are officially over. As noted before, his high approvals were mostly a function of him doing OK with Democratic respondents, who did not have the visceral dislike that others generated. Not any more. What this tentatively suggests to me is that there will be less separation in 2022 between Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, who along with Sid Miller ran several points behind Abbott in the 2018 election. If this holds, and all else being equal, I’d still expect Abbott to outperform Patrick and Paxton, but not by much, maybe a point or two.

It’s interesting to me that everyone has a net negative rating. Even before his COVID boost, Abbott was usually in the black on this. I looked in the crosstabs for the three Republicans that are up for re-election next year, and they tell the story of why they’re under water:


Name       Dem     Rep     Ind
==============================
Abbott    7-83   77-13   34-37
Patrick   5-75   63-10   24-33
Paxton    5-68   59-11   23-26

I’d have to do some more research, but I feel confident saying that Abbott was received less negatively by Dems in the past. Again, this might change as we move away from the legislative session – Rick Perry always seemed to be in worse shape at this point in the cycle than he was headed into an election – but it’s worth keeping an eye on.

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

Or the year before that, or the year before that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whither downtown?

Nobody really knows when or if Houston’s downtown will return to something like it was pre-COVID.

Few areas of the local economy were hit as hard by the pandemic as downtown and few face as much uncertainty as the service sector — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, hair salons — that depends on people coming to work in the city’s center. Even as the pandemic’s end appears in sight and companies begin to bring workers back to the office, it remains unclear how fast employees might return downtown and whether they will come back in the same numbers.

Already, some companies are planning to continue the remote working arrangements forced by coronavirus and embraced by both employers and employees. The financial services company JP Morgan Chase, which has some 2,300 employees in two buildings downtown, recently said it will keep some positions remote and reduce the number of people in its U.S. offices, reconfiguring them to reduce the space it uses by up to 40 percent.

The chemical company LyondellBasell, which has about 2,300 employees in its downtown office, said it will consider flexible, remote alternatives to in-person work. The pipeline company Kinder Morgan, which has about 20 percent of its 2,100 working in its headquarters on Louisiana Street, said it has not determined when and how it will bring back other workers.

A recent survey by Central Houston, an organization that focuses on the redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, found that 75 percent of downtown employers expect at least 10 percent of their workforce will transition to a mix of in-person and remote work.

Only about 18 percent of employees are working from the office downtown, according to Central Houston’s survey. About half the companies said they expect to bring 50 percent of their workers back to the office by June and 70 percent said they expect to have half their workforce in the office by September.

[…]

It’s hard to say when the downtown workforce will return to pre-pandemic levels, said Bob Eury, president of Central Houston. The Houston utility CenterPoint Energy said it plans to bring all its employees who have been working remotely back to the offices at 1111 Louisiana St. in June.

Also in June, the University of Houston-Downtown, which has nearly 1,400 employees, said it will bring full-time staff on campus at least three days a week. By July, the staff should be working regular Monday-Friday schedules, the university said.

But some companies are still figuring out when they’ll bring employees back and how many might continue to work remotely. Porter Hedges, a law firm on Main Street, still has most of its 220 employees working at home, but has not set a timetable for their return to the office.

Employees at EOG Resources are working in the office roughly half the week, the other half at home as part of the company’s phased reopening strategy. A spokesperson could not say how long the policy would remain in place.

Developers and property managers, however, are confident that offices will eventually fill with workers again. Travis Overall, executive vice president for Brookfield Properties, which owns 10 buildings downtown, said he doesn’t believe the pandemic will lead to a major restructuring of the downtown workforce over the long term.

Nobody really knows what will happen, because we’ve never experienced anything like this. We don’t have any precedent to point to. I feel reasonably confident saying that the courts and government buildings will be returning to full in-person business soon, and that will bring a lot of people back, but a lot of other businesses are up in the air. I also think that if there is a relative glut in office space downtown, lower rents will lure in some new occupants. It may take three to five years to see how it has all shaken out.

The economic effects of voter suppression

From Forbes magazine last week:

The Texas economy could take a massive hit if the state enacts new voting restrictions—potentially costing the state’s economy tens of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs—according to a study from the Texas-based economic research firm the Perryman Group, as the Texas legislature Thursday moved one step closer to making the proposals.

  • The potential loss of conventions, major sporting events and tourism could cost the state $16.7 billion in annual gross product by 2025, and nearly 150,000 jobs, according to the study.
  • Internal factors, like decreased business activity and lower wages in the state, could lead to the loss of $14.7 billion in household purchasing power by 2025, according to the Perryman Group.
  • Retail trade would take the biggest hit, according to the study, losing more than 50,000 jobs from drops in tourism and economic development alone.

[…]

“If you strip away all of the emotion and all of the politics and say ‘this is just what happens in the economy,’ that is what we’re analyzing,” Dr. Ray Perryman said in an interview with Forbes.

Perryman said his firm’s modeling relies on 40 years worth of data and academic research, which has consistently shown voting laws that are restrictive or have “the appearance of discrimination” lead to negative economic impacts. The negative impacts are already being seen in Georgia, Perryman said. The long list of companies condemning the state’s new law will likely mean fewer conventions in Georgia, which mean fewer visitors spending money in the state, while some socially conscious travelers also choose to stay away. The resulting domino effect and supply chain reaction will likely mean the economy takes a major hit, Perryman said.

There wasn’t much detail in that story, nor was there a link to the study in question, but Reform Austin filled in those gaps.

The Perryman Group looked at the two different buckets for the economic impact of the bills. The first was internal losses, which is what happens in the Texas labor market as it relates to earnings, employment losses and the spillover on household purchasing power. The second was external losses, which comes from reduced travel and tourism and economic development.

Decades of research showing restricting ballot access to certain groups has adverse impacts on their earnings. These lower earnings also impact workforce participation and employment, which in turn affect household budgets and consumer spending. The report found Texas could lose $9.4 billion in personal income, $14.7 billion in annual gross product and 73,000 jobs over the next five years with the proposed voting restriction measures.

Based on survey information, The Perryman Group has an idea of how many convention planners avoid states for controversial laws, like HB 6 and SB 7, to avoid an appearance of supporting the policy. The most recent national example is the MLB decision to move the All-Star game away from Atlanta for Georgia’s voting restriction laws. A single conference could cost Texas $54 million. A lost Super Bowl hosting opportunity could cost Texas $1.75 billion.

The study also looked at socially conscious consumers who have been shown to avoid such areas for travel, be it for business or leisure. The report estimates Texas could lose $4.1 billion in personal income, $6.6 billion in annual gross product and 60,000 jobs in the tourism sector over the next five years due to the proposed voting restriction measures.

On economic development, controversial laws tend to diminish the ability to attract knowledge workers and the companies that employ them for economic development. The report estimates Texas could lose $6.3 billion in personal income, $10.1 billion in annual gross product, and 89,000 jobs over the next five years because of the proposed voting restriction measures.

All of this impacts the tax base of the state and local governments. Not included in the fiscal notes of either bill are the estimates in the report of $832 million in direct losses to state coffers and $454.6 million in direct losses to local governments over the next five years. As for external losses due to reduced tourism and economic development, the state gets hit by $1 billion and local governments get hit by $802.5 million by 2025.

The study is here. Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for media-based economic forecasting, and I give him credit for addressing questions like these. I have no idea how to evaluate something like this – there are a lot of assumptions being made, and it’s not clear to me how many of them are based on past experience – but as we’re unlikely to get any kind of rebuttal from the Republicans, whose main arguments are basically “nuh uh, no it isn’t”, this is what we have. I’m happy to bring all the ammunition we can against this travesty, but the case against the current bills that will make it harder to vote is that they are anti-democratic, deeply racist, based on egregious lies, and wouldn’t actually do anything to solve the “problems” they claim they will even if one were to accept that there were such “problems” in the first place.

The problem with basing the argument against SB7 and HB6 on economic claims is that there’s no way to adjudicate them later on. If the Texas economy does more or less what it’s expected to do in the years to come, especially if it gets the boost that it should from the Biden infrastructure plan, then that gives the vote suppressors the opportunity to claim an undeserved victory. The case against making it harder to vote is that it’s wrong to make it harder for people to vote, especially when you make it a lot harder for some people than for others. Let’s not lose sight of that. The Current has more.

DCCC starts with two targets in Texas

Consider this to be written in chalk on the pavement, pending the new Congressional maps.

Rep. Beth Van Duyne

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced Tuesday that it will target two Republican-held districts in Texas — the ones currently held by Reps. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio and Beth Van Duyne of Irving. They were one of 22 districts nationwide that the committee included on its 2022 target list, which it emphasized as preliminary due to redistricting.

Last election cycle, the DCCC sought to make Texas the centerpiece of its strategy to grow its House majority — and came up woefully short. They initially targeted six seats here and later expanded the list to 10 — and picked up none of them.

Van Duyne’s and Gonzales’ races ended up being the closest. Van Duyne won by 1 percentage point to replace retiring Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, while Gonzales notched a 4-point margin to succeed Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, who was also retiring.

The shape of those races remains very much in question more than a year and a half out from Election Day, most notably because Texas lawmakers are expected to redraw congressional district lines in a special session of the state Legislature later this year. Texas is on track to gain multiple congressional seats due to population growth. Republicans control the redistricting process and may be be able to make Gonzales’ and Van Duyne’s seats more secure.

On paper, Van Duyne’s 24th District looks to be the most competitive in 2022. It was the only GOP-held district in Texas that Democratic President Joe Biden won — and he carried it by a healthy margin of 5 points. The DCCC has already run TV ads against Van Duyne this year.

Biden, meanwhile, lost Gonzales’ 23rd District by 2 points. The 23rd District is a perennial swing seat that stretches from San Antonio to near El Paso and includes a large portion of the Texas-Mexico border.

As noted, the Republicans have their target list as well, which will also be affected by whatever the final maps look like as well as any retirements. CD24 is an obvious target, but if the map were to remain exactly as it is now I’d have several CDs higher on my list than CD23 at this point based on 2020 results and demographic direction. I’d make CDs 03, 21, 22, and 31 my top targets, with CDs 02, 06 (modulo the special election), and 10 a rung below. I’d put CD23 in with that second group, but with less conviction because I don’t like the trend lines. Again, this is all playing with Monopoly money until we get new maps.

Just to state my priors up front: I believe there will be electoral opportunities in Texas for Congressional candidates, though they will almost certainly evolve over the course of the decade. I believe that if the economy and President Biden’s approval ratings are solid, the 2022 midterms could be decent to good, and that we are in a different moment than we were in back in 2009-10. I also know fully well that the 2022 election is a long way off and there are many things that can affect the national atmosphere, many of them not great for the incumbent party. I was full of dumb optimism at this time in 2009, that’s for sure. I also had extremely modest expectations for 2018 at this point in that election cycle, too. Nobody knows nothing right now, is what I’m saying.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston and Harris County are expected to receive more than $1.5 billion through the stimulus bill approved by Congress Wednesday, providing a massive cash injection that city officials say will help close a budget shortfall widened by the pandemic for the second year in a row.

The measure provides local governments with their most generous round of COVID-related funding yet, and it comes with fewer spending restrictions than last year’s aid. Houston will receive an estimated $615 million, putting the city at more than $1 billion in direct federal relief during the pandemic, while Harris County is projected to receive $914 million — more than double its allotment from the first round of local aid last March.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we will be able to use this money to, essentially, bail the city out of a very dire financial situation,” said City Controller Chris Brown, who monitors the spending of Houston’s more than $5 billion city budget.

[…]

Local governments will receive half their federal aid within 60 days of Friday, when President Joe Biden will sign the bill into law, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki. They will receive the second half of the funds at least a year later.

That means Houston will receive more than $300 million to offset its revenue losses next fiscal year, along with any potential shortfall before the current fiscal year ends June 30. [COVID recovery czar Marvin] Odum said the city finance department is projecting a budget gap of between $160 and $200 million next year, while Brown — whose office generates its own estimates separate from Turner’s administration — said he expects the shortfall to be even higher.

Brown noted that while finance department projections assume the city will see a less-than-1 percent reduction in sales tax revenue this year, the actual decrease has been 7 percent.

“The (Turner) administration, I don’t think, has properly evaluated the reductions in sales and property tax,” Brown said. “There’s a $40 million variance between us and (the) finance (department) in sales tax alone.”

Brown estimated city officials will have to lay off about a dozen city employees for every $1 million trimmed from the budget, meaning Houston could have been looking at more than 2,000 layoffs without any federal aid.

Instead, Houston’s relief will far exceed its budget deficit. The city also is expected to devote a chunk of the aid to direct COVID relief, such as testing and vaccinations. Turner’s administration exhausted the previous round of aid, totaling $405 million, in December. Those funds covered contact tracing efforts, city workers whose jobs were consumed by COVID, and relief to renters and small businesses, among other areas.

As the story notes, the ARP aid comes with fewer restrictions on how the money can be used than the CARES Act did, though the city was able to plug its deficit last year with those funds as well. The need for more funding has been known for a long time, and it’s only happening now because of the Presidential election and those two Georgia Senate runoffs. Elections have consequences, y’all.

Abbott lifts statewide mask mandate

Unbelievable.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Tuesday that he is ending Texas’ statewide mask mandate next week and will allow all businesses to operate at full capacity.

“It is now time to open Texas 100%,” Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate” any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding “most of the earlier executive orders” he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, “all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%” and masks will no longer be required in public. The mask requirement has been in effect since last summer.

Meanwhile, the spread of the virus remains substantial across the state, with Texas averaging over 200 reported deaths a day over the last week. And while Abbott has voiced optimism that vaccinations will accelerate soon, less than 7% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of this weekend.

Texas will become the most populous state in the country not to have a mask mandate. More than 30 states currently have one in place.

Abbott urged Texans to still exercise “personal vigilance” in navigating the pandemic. “It’s just that now state mandates are no longer needed,” he said.

Currently, most businesses are permitted to operate at 75% capacity unless their region is seeing a jump in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While he was allowing businesses to fully reopen, Abbott said that people still have the right to operate how they want and can “limit capacity or implement additional safety protocols.” Abbott’s executive order said there was nothing stopping businesses from requiring employees or customers to wear masks.

[…]

Texans have been under a statewide mask mandate since July of last year — and they have grown widely comfortable with it, according to polling. The latest survey from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune found that 88% of the state’s voters wear masks when they’re in close contact with people outside of their households. That group includes 98% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans.

The absence of statewide restrictions should not be a signal to Texans to stop wearing masks, social distancing, washing their hands or doing other things to keep the virus from spreading, said Dr. John Carlo, CEO of Prism Health North Texas and a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force.

Carlo declined to react specifically to Abbott’s order, saying he had not had a chance to read it. He also expressed concern that new virus variants, specifically the U.K. variant, could still turn back the positive trends cited by Abbott.

“We’re facing unacceptably high rates, and we still hear every day about more and more people becoming sick. And it may be less than before, but it’s still too many,” Carlo said. “Even if businesses open up and even if we loosen restrictions, that does not mean we should stop what we’re doing because we’re not there yet.”

It was clear from what Abbott said during President Biden’s visit that he was planning to take action to loosen restrictions. I was prepared for him to announce a step-down or a schedule or something more gradual. I did not expect him to just rip the bandage right off. I don’t know what to say, but Judge Hidalgo does, so let’s listen to her.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner slammed Gov. Greg Abbott Tuesday for allowing all businesses in Texas to fully reopen next week and lifting his statewide mask mandate, suggesting the governor timed the move to distract angry Texans from the widespread power outages during the recent winter storm.

“At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking,” Hidalgo said. “At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Turner said Abbott’s decision to rescind the COVID measures marked “the third time the governor has stepped in when things were going in the right direction,” a reference to the surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that ensued after Abbott implemented reopening guidelines last year.

“It makes no sense,” Turner said. “Unless the governor is trying to deflect from what happened a little less than two weeks ago with the winter storm.”

[…]

Before Abbott’s announcement, Hidalgo and Turner sent the governor a letter urging him not to lift his statewide mask mandate.

“Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to do anything to lose widespread adoption of this preventative measure,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote, arguing the mandate has allowed small businesses to remain open by keeping cases down.

The disparity between Hidalgo and Turner’s concerns — that Abbott would simply lift the mask order but keep other restrictions intact — and his decision to fully reopen the state puts on full display the diverging messages Houstonians are receiving from their local Democratic leaders and the Republicans who run the state. While Hidalgo is telling residents to stay home and buckle down, Abbott is giving the green light for a return to normal life, albeit one where Texans govern themselves using “personal responsibility,” he said Tuesday.

We know how well that’s worked so far. The irony is that other parts of state government still understand what’s at stake:

I’d love to say that Abbott will suffer political blowback for this, but polling data is mixed and inconsistent.

Texas voters’ concerns about the spread of coronavirus are higher now than they were in October, before a winter surge in caseloads and hospitalizations, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Almost half of Texas voters (49%) said that they are either extremely or very concerned about the spread of the pandemic in their communities — up from 40% in October. Their apprehension matches the spread of the coronavirus. As cases were rising in June, 47% had high levels of concern.

Caseloads were at a low point in October, as was voter concern about spread. And sharp increases through the holidays and into the new year were matched by a rise in public unease.

Voters’ concern about “you or someone you know” getting infected followed that pattern, too. In the current poll, 50% said they were extremely or very concerned, up from 44% in October, and close to the 48% who responded that way in the June poll.

“The second, bigger surge seems to have had an impact on people’s attitudes,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “In October, there was a trend of Republicans being less concerned, but this does reflect what a hard period the state went through from October to February.”

While their personal concerns have risen, voters’ overall assessment of the pandemic hasn’t changed much. In the latest survey, 53% called it “a significant crisis,” while 32% called it “a serious problem but not a crisis.” In October, 53% called it significant and 29% called it serious.

Economic concerns during the pandemic remain high. Asked whether it’s more important to help control the spread of the coronavirus or to help the economy, 47% pointed to the coronavirus and 43% said it’s more important to help the economy. In a June poll, 53% of Texans wanted to control the spread and 38% wanted to focus on the economy.

“The economy/COVID number is 2-to-1 in other parts of the country. Here, it’s almost even,” said Daron Shaw, a UT-Austin government professor and co-director of the poll. “What was a 15-point spread is now a 4-point spread.

So people are concerned about the pandemic, but also about the economy. Some of that may just be a reflection of the partisan split, but I have no doubt that Abbott thinks the politics of this are good for him, and that’s even before we take into account the distraction from the freeze. The scenario where he’s most likely to take a hit is one in which the numbers spike and a lot more people die. Nobody wants that to happen, yet here we are at a higher risk of it because of Abbott’s actions. It’s just enraging. So please keep wearing your damn mask, even after you get your shots. Wait for someone with more credibility than Greg Abbott to tell you it’s safe to do otherwise.

One more thing:

We both know how plausible that is. Texas Monthly, Reform Austin, the San Antonio Report, the Texas Signal, and the Chron has more.

The economic hardship of the freeze

We may have power and water again (mostly), but some things that were lost can’t easily be gotten back.

Last Tuesday, as Houston temperatures hovered below freezing for much of the day, Gloria Sanchez’s lights — and heat — cut off and on. For Sanchez and millions of other Texans, necessities usually taken for granted — including warmth, water and access to food — had suddenly been thrown into question. Then she got a call from her manager at one of the two jobs she works to make ends meet. Bath & Bodyworks would close because of unsafe driving conditions.

With that, 32 hours of wages disappeared.

“It broke my heart,” Sanchez said. “Because I knew my check was going to come out short.”

The winter storm will likely cost the country $50 billion in damage and economic loss, according to an estimate from forecasting company Accuweather. Much of the economic impact will be felt by hourly workers like Sanchez, economists said.

“You need to think about what’s permanently gone and what has just been delayed,” said Patrick Jankowski, an economist at the Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group.

Oil and gas production can ramp back up to meet demand. Sanchez’s 32 hours without pay are gone forever.

[…]

“It’s a kick while you’re down to all of the service industries, restaurants and others who were already battling through the pandemic,” said Peter Rodriguez, an economist and dean of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business. “So regrettably, it really exacerbates the pain for them, more than it creates new pains for other industries in particular.”

Last week had to have been especially tough for restaurants and retail, which have been dealing with the pandemic for a year already. Support your favorite neighborhood places, they could really use it right now. The one bit of good news for workers is that the federal COVID relief bill, which will include the additional $1,400 payments to many people, is on track to be passed soon. It may still take some time for the funds to actually get out to the recipients, though. It’s just going to be rough for a lot of folks this month.

The longer-term picture has some warning signs, too.

As for long term impacts, Rice’s Rodriguez fears employers may think twice about relocating their businesses, both to Texas generally and to Houston — no stranger to natural disasters — in particular. He said the prolonged outages could make it look like the state has unreliable infrastructure.

“It’s true that this is very rare, but that’s not the way it will play into the memories of people making investment decisions,” Rodriguez said. “They’ll wonder about just our overall ability to manage crises.”

We really need to get our act together. No one who hasn’t guzzled the Kool-Aid is still talking about Texas exceptionalism with a straight face.

Just raise the minimum wage already

It’s long overdue, it’s going to help a lot of people, and it’s just the right thing to do.

More than a quarter of the Texas workforce — 3.5 million employees — would get a raise if Democrats succeed in their bid to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, though Republicans say the effort would also lead to as many as a million jobs lost in the state as businesses try to weather the coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly half of those working in some parts of Houston and San Antonio — the vast majority of whom are workers of color and women — would be affected by the plan, according to estimates by the Economic Policy Institute, a pro-labor group that used federal data to analyze the impact of the proposal.

Democrats say those numbers are evidence of how badly the wage increase is needed, with nearly 200,000 Texans making the $7.25 an hour minimum now, according to federal data.

[…]

Texas would be among the states most affected by the legislation. Just less than 3 percent of Texas workers are paid at or below minimum wage, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data — among the highest percentages in the nation, according to the data. Texas is also one of 21 states that has not raised the minimum wage above the federal minimum, even as some other red states, including Florida and Arkansas, have done so.

“It’s been over a decade since Congress raised the minimum wage, and we must act with a sense of urgency to deliver for working families,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat. Castro said 40 percent of workers in his district would see their annual income increase by an average of nearly $4,000 dollars.

“That’s money directly in folks’ pockets to help cover the costs of housing and child care, and also will directly stimulate our local economy as we recover from this COVID crisis,” he said.

There’s plenty of pushback in this story and in the Trib story from business interests and various bad actors, and I have no time or patience for any of it. I’m sure some jobs will be eliminated as a result of a minimum wage hike, though the experience we have from other states and cities shows that the apocalyptic numbers offered by opponents are just fearmongering. But yes, having to pay their employees more will no doubt lead labor-hostile institutions like McDonald’s to invest more in automation (which they were doing anyway), and some smaller businesses may have some struggles with it. The main effect will be just as Rep. Castro says – more money in the pocket of people who really need it, and who will spend it on food and clothing and other necessities, which will be a boost to the economy. The bottom line is that if the economy we have now can only be sustained by paying millions of people starvation wages, then the economy we have now is bad and needs to be changed. Full steam ahead, I say.

Here’s the official budget forecast

“Could be worse” remains the watchword.

Texas lawmakers will enter the legislative session this week with an estimated $112.5 billion available to allocate for general purpose spending in the next two-year state budget, a number that’s down slightly from the current budget but is significantly higher than what was estimated this summer when the coronavirus began to devastate the economy.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday announced that number in his biennial revenue estimate, which sets the amount lawmakers can commit to spending when they write a new budget this year. But he acknowledged that Texas’ economic future remains “clouded in uncertainty” and that numbers could change in the coming months.

Hegar also announced a nearly $1 billion deficit for the current state budget that lawmakers must make up, a significantly smaller shortfall than Hegar expected over the summer. That number, however, doesn’t account for 5% cuts to state agencies’ budgets that Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered this summer or any supplemental changes to the budget lawmakers will have to make.

Hegar’s estimates portend a difficult budget-writing session for lawmakers. But Hegar acknowledged that things could have been a lot worse. The $112.5 billion available is down from $112.96 billion for the current budget.

See here for the previous update. I continue to hope that Congress will throw a boatload of state and local aid our way in the coming months, which will also help, but at least we’re not in truly dire territory. And bizarrely enough, there may be a silver lining in all this.

But advocates hope the pandemic, combined with the revenue crunch, could lead to an unlikely bipartisan agreement. Before the pandemic hit, Democrats saw a takeover of the Texas House as key for advancing the prospects of Medicaid expansion in the state. But as COVID-19 has ravaged the state economy and thrown even more Texans into the ranks of the uninsured, Democrats are guardedly optimistic this could persuade enough Republicans to put aside their political hangups and support expansion—even as Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton leads a national lawsuit to eliminate the entire Affordable Care Act.

Texas is one of 12 remaining states that have refused the federally subsidized Medicaid expansion, despite having the highest rate and largest population of uninsured residents in the country. Expanding Medicaid would cover 1 million uninsured Texans and bring in as much as $5.4 billion to the state, according to a September report by researchers at Texas A&M University.

State Representative Lyle Larson, a moderate Republican, voiced his support for expanding Medicaid soon after the election, pointing to six GOP-led states that have done so in the past three years. “It is a business decision,” Larson wrote on Twitter, noting that the move would help with the revenue shortfall and COVID-19 response, address rural hospital closures, and expand access to care. Dallas County Representatives Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button, both Republicans, pulled out razor-thin victories to keep their House seats after voicing support for some type of Medicaid expansion in their campaigns.

Even conservative state Senator Paul Bettencourt acknowledged that the fiscal crunch will force consideration of Medicaid expansion. “My back-of-the-napkin analysis shows that’s a $1.6 billion item, like that—boom!” he told the Dallas Morning News in September. “I’m pretty sure we don’t have that falling out of trees,” he said. “You can put Medicaid expansion up at the top of the list. There will be a debate.”

But there’s still plenty of staunch opposition. “For those that promote [expansion], I haven’t heard what they’re willing to cut,” state Senator Kelly Hancock, a Republican who chairs the Business and Commerce Committee, said in November. “It’s easy to talk about it until you have to pay for it, especially going into this budget cycle.”

As with casinos and marijuana, the smart money is always to bet against Medicaid expansion happening. But this is a bigger opening than I’ve seen in a long time, and while that’s still not saying much, it’s not nothing.

State budget situation not quite as awful as feared

Still bad, but could be worse.

Despite “historic declines,” state lawmakers will have more money to work with in the upcoming legislative session than Comptroller Glenn Hegar expected over the summer, he said Monday. But Hegar did not outline specifics as state coffers continue to suffer from the economic recession spurred by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sales tax revenues, by far the largest part of the state budget, fell by 4.8% in the second half of the 2020 fiscal year compared with the same stretch last year, Hegar said. It was a much softer hit than he anticipated, thanks to Texans staying home and spending money on “staycations instead of vacations.”

Other revenue streams, such as taxes related to alcohol, hotel occupancy, and oil and gas, were down more than 40% in the same period this year compared with last, Hegar told lawmakers Monday during a Legislative Budget Board meeting at the Capitol.

“Revenues remain down significantly relative to a year ago, and well below what we expected to collect when the Legislature wrapped up work on the budget in 2019,” Hegar said.

Legislative budget writers decide how much money will be allocated for large state expenses like how much school districts get, how well health care programs are funded, which transportation projects get built and what amount state law enforcement gets based on how much the comptroller says will be available during the next two-year budget cycle, which runs from September 2021 through August 2023. Hegar will likely unveil that number as the session nears.

Hegar, whose office is in charge of collecting taxes owed to the state of Texas, last formally updated lawmakers in July, when he wrote a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and lawmakers projecting the state’s current two-year budget to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That would put the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar wrote in July.

A few points:

– Let’s hope Hegar is a better revenue estimator than Susan Combs was. Her epic misfire in 2011 led to far more cuts being made than were needed.

– There are and will be plenty of stories written about how this is now the time that the Lege will consider marijuana legalization or casino gambling, because those things generate revenue that could be used to help stave off the deficit. The bit about gambling has been trotted out reliably every cycle since at least 2003, and it has never been true, in large part because the people who oppose expanded gambling still oppose it in deficit situations, and they remain with sufficient power to block it. I expect the same to be true for pot – it will happen when and if there is sufficient political support for it, and the budget situation will not be a factor.

– Also, too, people like Greg Abbott and especially Dan Patrick don’t want new revenue sources. They are perfectly happy to cut things out of the budget. Deficit situations are great opportunities for them.

– We could avoid all this if there is a federal COVID relief package targeted at cities and states. That’s only going to have a chance of happening if Dems win the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and even then it may be dicey. But it is a thing that Abbott et al could advocate for if they chose.

– Oh, yeah, the Rainy Day Fund. We didn’t use it in 2011 because Rick Perry decided that the fund, which was explicitly set up for the purpose of blunting the effect of economic downturns – hence the actual name “Economic Stabilization Fund” – was actually for natural disasters instead. I feel pretty confident that Greg Abbott will declare that COVID is no reason to tap the fund, and in the absence of a legislative majority to dip into it, it ain’t happening. (It’s possible some small amount may be used, if budget writers feel sufficiently desperate, and the nihilist caucus can be tamed or bought off. Don’t bet on it, that’s my advice.)

We’ll know more in January. Hope for the best. The Chron has more.

The economic effect of losing college football this fall

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rental assistance

We’re going to need a lot more like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston on Wednesday added another $20 million to its rent relief program, aimed at helping thousands of tenants catch up on late rent payments.

City council voted unanimously to add the money Wednesday, more than doubling the initial program the city launched in May. Private donors, including Texans owner Janice McNair, gave $5 million toward the effort, and the city devoted another $15 million from the federal money it received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The program requires concessions from landlords for them to receive the funds. They must forego eviction proceedings through September for all of their residents, even if only one of them is set to receive assistance. They also must waive late fees and interest on late payments, and agree to a payment plan for residents that are behind.

“The concern was, you took the money, and then a month later, you’re still trying to get them out,” said District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas, who chairs the council’s housing committee.

The application window will open first for landlords, and then their tenants will be able to apply. Thomas said that will open some time in the next two weeks.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has rejected calls for a grace period ordinance that would give residents more time to catch up before getting evicted, said the assistance and resulting concessions provide for a more fruitful approach. He said a grace period worsens the financial liability those tenants will have to cover later down the road.

“When their grace period comes to an end, they are facing a tsunami of a situation where the financial obligation has not been eliminated,” Turner said of cities that have implemented similar policies. “What will happen is that at the end, the hole is so much bigger.”

Advocates have said a grace period would provide blanket coverage to residents who will not get access to the city’s relief funds, which Turner and others have acknowledged cannot meet the overwhelming demand.

See here for the city’s press release. I’m not sure why the city preferred this approach, but I do know that it’s in everyone’s interests to keep people in their apartments if at all possible. Losing their homes, especially at a time like this, will have devastating and long-term consequences, and not just for the newly homeless people – there will be more strain on the city’s social services, and it’s not like there will be a long line of other folks waiting to take the now-vacant apartment. We really need the Senate to act on the bill that the House passed months ago, because there are millions of lives at stake. If nothing else, surely we can all agree that putting a bunch of people out on the street is not going to help the economy. Keeping folks in their homes is the right answer no matter how you ask the question. All levels of government need to do their part.

Of course Abbott’s “Strike Force” are all Abbott donors

I have three things to say about this.

Members of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus “strike force” have contributed hundreds of thousand of dollars to his re-election campaign as the number of COVID-19 cases and the death toll has mounted, records show.

Since naming members of the Strike Force to Open Texas in mid April, Abbott pulled in just over $640,000 from appointees or affiliated groups, according to his most recent campaign finance report on file with the Texas Ethics Commission. All had donated previously to Abbott, one of the most prodigious fundraisers in Texas political history.

The new contributions drew fire from ethics watchdogs and the Texas Democratic Party, the latter accusing Abbott of having “profited off this crisis” and calling on him to return the money.

[…]

Among the latest strike force donors who gave to Abbott in the last six weeks: former Astros owner Drayton McLane, $250,000; Texas restaurant operator Bobby Cox, $137,596; South Texas businessman Alonzo Cantu, $25,000; the Border Health PAC, closely tied to Cantu, $150,000; Sam Susser, chairman of BancAffliated, $50,000; Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission, $25,000; and Balous Miller, owner of Bill Miller BBQ, $5,000, records show.

Susser, the banker and investor who recently gave Abbott $50,000, said he gives money to the governor not to influence any policy outcomes but because he believes the governor is “doing a terrific job leading our state.”

“If any of those critics would like to have my job, and can do it better, more power to them,” Susser said. “I try to do the best I can. It cost me a ton of time and money to do those things. And I’m not very empathetic to whatever criticism may be out there.”

1. Duh!

2. I mean, seriously, this is the way Abbott has operated since Day One. Donors get appointments, and appointees make donations. As it ever was, as it shall be.

3. Hey, remember when Abbott first named the Strike Force, which was supposed to help him reopen the economy now that we had that pesky virus under control? And it had a couple of medical expert types who were supposed to help develop a strategy for comprehensive testing and tracing? Good times, good times. What metric do you suppose Sam Susser is using to evaluate his and his teammates’ performance on the Strike Force? Because from where I sit, I don’t think it would be that hard to find people who would in fact have done a better job. The bar to clear is not very high.

The cities still need COVID relief

Just a reminder, in case you’d forgotten.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As Congress resumes work on a new coronavirus financial relief package, nearly 100 Texas mayors are pressing the state’s congressional delegation for more funding to address revenue losses incurred due to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.

Texas received $11 billion in funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which were distributed among the state, counties and cities. Some Texas mayors said these have to be spent before the end of the year and for expenditures related to the pandemic response — and don’t address government entities’ losses in anticipated revenues related to decreased economic activity. Others said there’s been conflicting information about how the money can be spent.

Since March, the economic slowdown has directly hit cities’ revenues. According to the state comptroller, local sales tax allocations for cities in June dropped by 11.1% compared with the same month last year.

“The budget calamity looming over local governments is real and it requires extraordinary measures,” said a letter signed by 97 Texas mayors and directed to members of Congress. “We therefore fear that state and local revenue is going to take time to rebound. We also fear that if we do not stabilize our economy, we could see a drop in property tax revenue next year.”

In the letter, which included signatures of leaders from urban, suburban and rural areas, the mayors asked for “direct and flexible fiscal assistance to all cities.”

“What we’re asking [is] for direct assistance for state and local governments. Not for things like pension measures, none of that, but as a result of lost revenue as a result of coronavirus itself,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a press conference Monday. “We are the infrastructure that supports the public and private sector, and at this point in time, we are needing direct assistance.”

We’ve known this for awhile, and the need is still there even if the city of Houston was able to kick the can down the road with this year’s budget and existing CARES funds. The simple fact is that cities – and counties, and the state, and to a lesser extend school districts – didn’t do anything to cause the problems they’re facing now. The analogy that some have made to a natural disaster is apt, and the effect will long outlive the original cause of the problem if it isn’t addressed. The US House passed a large bill a couple of months ago that would address these needs, but of course it has to get through the Senate, and you know what that means. If we had a functional state government, it would be advocating on behalf of the cities as well, because the loss of many thousands of municipal jobs will not do anything to help the state’s economic recovery. Our state leaders don’t see it that way, unfortunately, so the cities are on their own. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On a tangential note, the Slate podcast “What Next: TBD” did a segment on this very topic last Friday, and spoke to City Controller Chris Brown as part of their reporting. Check it out.

The state deficit is quantified

Honestly, it’s not as bad as it could be.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar delivered bleak but unsurprising news Monday: Because of the economic fallout triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, the amount of general revenue available for the state’s current two-year budget is projected to be roughly $11.5 billion less than originally estimated. That puts the state on track to end the biennium, which runs through August 2021, with a deficit of nearly $4.6 billion, Hegar said.

Those figures are a significant downward revision from Hegar’s last revenue estimate in October 2019, when the comptroller said the state would have over $121 billion to spend on its current budget and end the biennium with a surplus of nearly $2.9 billion. The state, Hegar said, will now have roughly $110 billion to work with for the current budget.

Hegar’s latest estimate, he stressed in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders, carries “an unprecedented amount of uncertainty” and could change drastically in the coming months, thanks to the pandemic and, to a lesser extent, a recent drop in oil prices.

“We have had to make assumptions about the economic impact of COVID-19, the duration and effects of which remain largely unknown,” Hegar wrote. “Our forecast assumes restrictions [on businesses and people] will be lifted before the end of this calendar year, but that economic activity will not return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of this biennium.”

Returning to pre-pandemic levels, Hegar said, would not happen until consumers and businesses are confident that the virus has been controlled.

“Even then,” he wrote, “it likely will take some time to recover from the economic damage done by the deep recession caused by the virus.”

I mean, it’s not great, but this much deficit could be easily covered by the Rainy Day Fund, and there is still the likelihood that Congress will send some more relief money to the states. A lot can happen between now and when the Lege has to actually write and pass a budget, and some of those things are good. Of course, pretty much all of those good things are predicated on getting the virus under control, and let’s just say that’s a jump ball at best. As you might expect, Dan Patrick gets this exactly backwards, so, you know. But look, it’s pretty basic. If we can get the virus under control, we can get the economy going in a safe and productive fashion. Otherwise, it’s more of what we’re getting now. Seems simple, right? I hope our leaders see it that way, because we’re at their mercy.

A new homelessness initiative

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to authorize $18 million for a two-year program serving the homeless as advocates project a rise in homelessness with the novel coronavirus.

The program is the county’s most ambitious partnership with the City of Houston for people experiencing homelessness, with $29 million to be pledged by the city and an additional $9 million or more from private donors. The city and county’s dollars come from federal money allocated through the CARES Act.

While the city and county have collaborated on homeless initiatives in the past, this is their biggest joint investment yet.

“With the current COVID-19 crisis putting so many people’s living situations at an increased risk, having access to stable housing options is vital for the entire community,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a press release. Garcia brought the funding request to the county court. In commissioners court, Garica said, “This will have the most significant impact on the camps we see.”

Not only are people experiencing homelessness more vulnerable to coronavirus because of preexisting chronic conditions and a lack of even basic hygiene options, they are at higher risk of spreading it to others because people living on the streets have nowhere to self-quarantine.

“Housing is healthier for people experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus,” said Catherine Villarreal, communications director for the Coalition for the Homeless. The Coalition will be administering the programs. “People experiencing homelessness are uniquely vulnerable to coronavirus because of chronic conditions.”

The Coalition hopes that the programs can begin by mid-August and will roll out in stages pending city and county funding and contract approvals, said Ana Rausch, vice president of operations for the Coalition for the Homeless.

The initiative will provide rental assistance for about 1,700 newly homeless people who don’t need much case management, house about 1,000 people experiencing homelessness, support about 200 people at risk of homelessness, provide more mental-health case management and begin a homelessness diversion program. The Coalition projects the program will help about 5,000 people.

The best evidence we have now says that the most effective way to ameliorate homelessness is to provide housing or housing assistance to the people who need it. Other services may be needed for people with addition or mental health issues (by the way, expanding Medicaid would help a lot with those, too), and it turns out that having a stable place to sleep and eat and keep clothes and other possessions makes addressing those issues a lot easier, too. It seems to me that the main objection to providing this kind of direct aid is that it’s some kind of moral hazard, as in “well, if we help SOME people then we have to help EVERYONE, and if we do that then who’s ever gonna want to do for themselves” or some such. Putting aside the fact that such sentiments are facially untrue, if there’s one thing we should be learning from the coronavirus pandemic it’s that everyone does in fact deserve help. Hard times can come for any of us, at any time, without warning and without it being anyone’s “fault”. I want to live in a society that recognizes this truth, because the next person who needs it could be me or someone I love. Imagine how much more progress we could make on controlling this pandemic if everyone whose business or employment is threatened by it knew they would be tided over until it passed. Maybe now that we’re starting to take this kind of action, we’ll recognize the need to continue it after the current crisis has passed. Houston Public Media has more.

The pause effect on bars and restaurants

I feel terrible for them, but what could we do at this point?

Ed Noyes was trying to get some shut-eye when he woke up to seven different texts Friday morning.

Three of the five bartenders at his Fort Worth establishment — plus his girlfriend — delivered the news: Malone’s Pub had to shutter immediately under the governor’s orders. His employees wanted reassurances: Would the business survive? Should they file for unemployment? What were his next steps?

“We were just all in shock,” Noyes said.

On Friday morning, Gov. Greg Abbott delivered another economic blow to bars and other places that receive more than 51% of their gross receipts from selling alcohol. The establishments had to shut down by noon after a statewide surge in coronavirus infections officials said was largely driven by activities like congregating bars. There’s no immediate plan for when they’ll be able to reopen.

“The announcement just came out of nowhere,” Noyes said. “When I went to bed last night I thought we’d be open for the weekend, so this really blindsided me.”

Restaurants were ordered to scale back their operations to 50% capacity. And Abbott also banned river-rafting trips. They were his most drastic actions yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas.

But bars arguably faced one of the biggest challenges to operating in pandemic. Every tantalizing aspect of the nighttime hotspots — large crowds, prolonged bouts of close contact, mouths constantly open to drink or speak — clash with the health guidelines put in place as COVID-19 ravages the state.

[…]

Last weekend, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission launched “Operation Safe Open” to ensure bars and restaurants were following coronavirus safety rules. As of Wednesday, 17 bars — out of nearly 600 businesses visited by the commission — got their alcohol permits suspended for 30 days.

In some enclaves, residents have complained about staff not wearing masks, social distancing measures not being enforced and tables not being cleaned after use.

“I went with a friend for a quick night out,” Steven Simmons, who lives in Tyler, said of a June 11 visit to a local pub. “Easy to enter the bar, just checked IDs and that was it. No social distancing being enforced, no hand sanitizer anywhere, tables were not cleaned after use or anything. Employees were not wearing a mask at all.”

But in other parts of Texas, including Austin and San Antonio, some bar owners say they’re trying to strike a balance between their livelihoods and business and public safety.

“We joke at the Friendly Spot Ice House that we make a ‘bestie pack,’” said Jody Newman, the owner of the San Antonio hotspot. “The pact is that people ‘friendly’ distance, that they mask up, that they have clean hands and that they be friendly and understand we’re all going through this together.”

Still, since opening during the first week in June, Newman said she’s seen about 30% of the business she would normally get at this time of year.

With Friday’s announcement, Newman said, “thousands and thousands of livelihoods hang in the balance.”

Here’s a local view of this dilemma.

“The whole thing is a mess for everyone. Obviously, we’ll have to adjust again,” said Alli Jarrett, owner of Harold’s Restaurant & Tap Room in the Heights, adding that reducing capacity means she will not be able to bring back workers she had hoped to re-employ. “It’s not just restaurants. It’s every single business – every segment of the population. We’re all in the same boat. It’s just really, really hard.”

[…]

Brian Ching, owner of Pitch 25 in EaDo, fears the worst. “I don’t know if the business will be here in a month, two months,” said Ching, who also is readying another bar, East End Backyard, to open in July. “We were able to get PPE but we’ve burned through it all.”

He is most concerned for his workers, he said. “This time around, being closed with no PPE, we are likely going to have to furlough employees. I feel for all of them. There seems to be no end in sight.”

Bar owner Andy Aweida said he worries what the bar shutdown will mean not just to his staff but to all those in the bar industry.

“We did everything we were asked and did it well. It’s unfair to them and many others. So many people are doing what is needed and playing by the rules,” said Aweida, a partner in the Kirby Group whose bars include Heights Bier Garten, Wooster’s Garden and Holman Draft Hall. “I truly feel horrible for all those amazing employees, staff and many other good, hard-working people this affects.”

Lindsey Rae, who opened Two Headed Bar in Midtown only six months ago, conceded that the first year for any business is the toughest. But the bar closures are catastrophic.

“This is going to be a financial disaster for us,” she said. “We are down 85 percent since the pandemic. All of our revenues are exhausted. We can only afford to operate for about one more month unless Gov. Abbott will give us some gleam of hope.”

Hope, however, seemed fading on Friday for Lukkaew Srasrisuwan, owner of the new Thai restaurant Kin Dee in the Heights. She saw six reservations cancel after the announcement.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” she said. “We are complying with the guidelines. We are a small restaurant and we just opened. This is tough.”

At 75 percent capacity, Kin Dee was “doing OK,” Srasrisuwan said. But not for long. “We can’t sustain at this level for more than one or two months,” she said. “I’ve seen the number of COVID-19 increase so I am not surprised by Gov. Abbott’s announcement but I am worried. We don’t want to lose our staff but I don’t know how to keep operating at this rate.”

For some restaurant owners, Abbott’s pullback was not unexpected.

“It’s about time, to be honest. I thought we reopened too soon,” said Christopher Williams, chef/owner of Lucille’s in the Museum District. “It’s the most responsible thing I’ve heard from (Abbott) in a while.”

Williams said he will be able to weather the capacity reduction because he was able to remain solvent by streamlining his menu, dropping prices, and increasing take-out. “At a time like this everyone needs to take profitability out of the equation. It’s about sustainability.”

George Mickelis, owner of the iconic Cleburne Cafeteria, said he was grateful for Abbott’s decision, and said he would be able to continue staying in business even at 50 percent.

“Obviously, no one wants to return to a complete shutdown and we pray that that is absolutely never necessary again,” Mickelis said. “We are all Texas tough and we will prevail.”

Two things can be true at once. This is a terrible blow to a crucial part of the Texas economy and culture. I’m much more of a restaurant person than a bar person these days, but bars are a key ingredient to neighborhood life, and a vital hang-out place for many people. They also employ a lot of people who’ve just been put back out of work at a time when we don’t know if there will be further federal assistance coming and the state of Texas has gone back to requiring out-of-work people to be actively job searching in order to get unemployment benefits. It’s also the case that we should have been a lot more careful and deliberate in allowing bars to reopen in the first place, precisely because everything about them makes them a prime vector for spreading a disease like COVID-19. I don’t know what else we could have done now, but it’s surely the case there are things we can and should have done differently before now.

Other businesses are now in a similar bind.

In the backyard of her business, Cutloose Hair, salon co-owner Ashley Scroggins watched a livestream Friday morning on her phone. On the screen was an image of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo speaking of the risks of COVID-19 to the region.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.” She called for nonessential workers to stay at home.

Scroggins put down her phone and put on her mask. Then she walked into her salon, shut down the online booking system and began calling upcoming reservations: The salon was closing until cases subsided.

Officials have moved to contain the number of known COVID-19 cases spiking across the state, often through conflicting messages that left businesses attempting to weigh health risks against economic concerns.

While Hidalgo recommended nonessential workers stay home, she no longer had the power to enforce such a plan because Gov. Greg Abbott had superseded it with his own plan to reopen the state. Friday morning, Abbott rolled back portions of that plan — ordering bars and tubing and rafting establishments to suspend services and restaurants to cap dine-in capacity at 50 percent — but maintained other businesses could remain open.

That left salons, restaurants, gyms, offices, retailers and other businesses Friday to decide whether to heed Hidalgo’s call to return to the stay-at-home precautions she had the power to enact in March.

Many, like Cutloose Hair, decided shutting down on-premise operations was the right thing to do.

“It’s not getting better,” Scroggins said of the pandemic. “And the only way we can truly support our city is just to do what they’re asking us to do.”

It’s not an easy choice for many. My company, for which I’ve been working from home since March 6, two weeks before the city shut down, has suspended its plan to start bringing workers back to the office until further notice. I suspect there will be a lot more like this, and there should be. If you can reasonably work from home, there’s no good reason not to.

One possible small bit of hope for the bars and restaurants:

Under current state rules, restaurants and bars can sell beer, wine and liquor, but only in closed containers with their manufacturer’s seal intact.

The organization Margs For Life is lobbying to change that.

Founder Kareem Hajjar, also a partner in the Austin law firm Hajjar Peters LLP, is talking with Texas food and beverage associations to build support for an emergency order to let bars sell mixed drinks in containers that they seal on premises.

“While that work continues today, Margs For Life has evolved into a community of people who are either in the industry or support the industry, where we can share news and events, and help one another be as profitable as possible during this pandemic,” Hajjar told the Current.

Margs for Life’s proposed rule change, proponents say, would help restaurants and bars reduce inventory — and allow some facing dire financial circumstances to stay afloat.

“I’m privileged that I work at a bar that has granted me the ability to do to-go cocktail kits… But bars and restaurants would benefit from FULL to-go kits,” said David Naylor, a bartender at San Antonio craft-cocktail bar The Modernist, via a Facebook post. “Manhattans expertly built, Negronis that don’t require you to amass a stocked bar… ALL these are possible if [Gov. Abbott] would allow it.”

Abbott has expressed support for this idea.

Abbott originally signed a waiver March 18 allowing to-go alcohol sales, in an effort to support struggling restaurants after they closed their dining areas. The waiver was originally to last until May 1, but it was extended indefinitely. Abbott teased that this change could be permanent, tweeting at the time, “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let this keep on going forever.”

Abbott again tweeted late Saturday that he supports the idea of extending his temporary waiver. State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, replied, saying that he will file a bill in the upcoming legislative session to make it happen, also advocating to allow restaurants to continue selling bulk retail food items to go.

[…]

The Texas Restaurant Association submitted a proposal Thursday evening to Abbott’s office, asking to expand the waiver to also allow mixed drinks with liquor to be prepared, resealed and sold.

Cathy Lippincott, owner of Güero’s Taco Bar in Austin, said its margarita to-go kits were very popular during the beginning of the restaurant shutdowns, but as dining rooms began to reopen, sales dwindled. Now, days could go by without the restaurant selling a single kit.

Under the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission guidelines, restaurants can only serve liquor in manufacturer-sealed bottles and with the purchase of food. For several restaurants, including Güero, this means their drinks are served in do-it-yourself kits, where customers mix the ingredients and liquor together.

Lippincott believes that if mixed drinks were also allowed to be served to go, she could see that being a popular option.

I support this as well, and any action that can be taken now to achieve this should be taken. And then, when the Lege convenes in January, we should not only pass a law to make this permanent, but also revisit all of our archaic and anti-competitive laws that govern the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, and liquor. You know what I’m talking about. Let’s please at least let this terrible pandemic be a catalyst for something good.

Put a pause on that reopening

At this point, we had no other choice.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday took his most drastic action yet to respond to the post-reopening coronavirus surge in Texas, shutting bars back down and scaling back restaurant capacity to 50%.

He also shut down river-rafting trips and banned outdoor gatherings of over 100 people unless local officials approve.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Abbott said in a news release. “The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health.”

Bars most close at noon Friday, and the reduction in restaurant capacity takes effect Monday. Before Abbott’s announcement Friday, bars were able to operate at 50% capacity and restaurants at 75% capacity.

As for outdoor gatherings, Abbott’s decision Friday represents his second adjustment in that category this week. Abbott on Tuesday gave local governments the choice to place restrictions on outdoor gatherings of over 100 people after previously setting the threshold at over 500 people. Now outdoor gatherings of over 100 people are prohibited unless local officials explicitly approve of them.

Abbott’s actions Friday were his first significant moves to reverse the reopening process that he has led since late April. He said Monday that shutting down the state again is a last resort, but the situation has been worsening quickly.

I can’t emphasize enough that none of this had to happen. Greg Abbott laid out four metrics for reopening when he first lifted the statewide stay-at-home order: Declining daily case rates, positive test percentages below a certain level (I forget what exactly, maybe seven percent), three thousand contact tracers hired by the state, and sufficient hospital capacity. None of the first three were ever met, even at the beginning, and the predictable result is that now the fourth one is no longer being met. We could have driven the reopening by the metrics, instead of saying “on this date we’ll roll back these things and allow these things to resume”, but we didn’t. Greg Abbott made that decision. What is happening now is on him.

And so, here in Harris County, where our leaders’ efforts to take this pandemic seriously were entirely undercut by Greg Abbott, we are paying the price.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday moved the county to the worst threat level, calling for a return to the stay-at-home conditions of March and April, as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike.

She also banned outdoor gatherings of more than 100 people in unincorporated Harris County, while urging mayors to do the same in their cities.

Hidalgo described in dire terms the danger the pandemic currently poses, and said the county is at greater risk than at any other time since the outbreak began here in March.

“Today we find ourselves careening toward a catastrophic and unsustainable situation,” Hidalgo said. “Our current hospitalization rate is on pace to overwhelm the hospitals in the near future.”

Her remarks were a rebuke of Gov. Greg Abbott’s phased reopening strategy, which she said allowed Texans to resume normal life before they were safe. They also contradicted the rosy picture Texas Medical Center executives painted a day earlier of the system’s ICU capacity.

Hidalgo unsuccessfully lobbied the governor this week for the power to issue more restrictions, her office confirmed. Abbott’s refusal to let local officials again issue mandatory stay-at-home orders leaves Harris County “with one hand tied behind our back,” she said.

[…]

Though she lacks the power to require compliance, Hidalgo implored all county residents to follow the same rules as her stay-at-home order in March and April. That means residents should stay home except for essential errands and appointments, work from home if possible, wear a mask in public and otherwise avoid contact with other people.

Only a collective change in behavior can reverse the accelerating trend of COVID here, Hidalgo said. The alternative, she warned, is grim.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll be in a crisis,” she said. “If we don’t stay home now, we’ll have to stay home when there are images of hospital beds in hallways.”

Hidalgo and Dr. Umair Shah, the county’s health director, offered no concrete timeline for how long restrictions would be needed. The county judge noted that in some other states, lockdowns of up to three months were needed to bring the virus under control.

A tripling of cases and hospitalizations since Memorial Day have placed intense pressure on state and local leaders to act. With Abbott’s blessing, Hidalgo and other local leaders have issued mandatory mask orders since last week, mandating businesses to require their customers wear facial coverings.

The governor effectively gutted Hidalgo’s original order requiring residents to wear masks at the end of April by preventing any punishments from being levied against violators. Enforcement never was the point, Hidalgo said Friday, but she blamed the governor for signaling to residents that mask-wearing was unimportant.

See here for the background. We can’t know what shape Harris County would be in now if Judge Hidalgo had been allowed to make her own decisions instead of being overruled by Abbott. But it’s hard to say we’d be any worse off than we are now.

Of course, some people still think it’s all sunshine and puppies up in here.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick went on national television to declare Texas is not running out of intensive care hospital beds and to assure viewers that the state is “not stepping backward” in re-opening businesses.

Speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday night, Patrick acknowledged new COVID-19 cases are increasing in Texas, but assured viewers it was expected.

“We have seen a spike in cases. We expected that,” Patrick said pointing to increased testing. “Our hospitalizations are up, but here’s the good news, the good news is we’re not seeing it translate to the ICU unit or into fatalities.”

You can read the rest if you want, but really, what you need to do is CLAP LOUDER!

There is one piece of good news:

The Trump administration reversed itself and extended support for testing sites in Texas on Friday.

The extension followed a public outcry after TPM revealed on Tuesday that federal help was set to end on June 30.

Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Brett Giroir said in a statement that his agency would support five testing sites in Texas for two weeks longer than initially planned.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John Cornyn (R-TX) sent a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday requesting an extension of support for the free, drive-through testing sites.

Local officials in Texas have spent weeks clamoring for the sites to be extended. The move comes as cases and hospitalizations in the state have skyrocketed, and as Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has paused the state’s reopening.

“Federal public health officials have been in continuous contact with our public health leaders in Texas, and after receiving yesterday’s request for an extension, have agreed to extend support for five Community-Based Testing Sites in Texas,” Giroir said in a statement. “We will continue to closely monitor COVID-19 diagnoses and assess the need for further federal support of these sites as we approach the extension date.”

See here for the background. It’s two weeks’ worth of good news, which isn’t enough but is better than nothing. Now let’s extend that out to infinity, or whenever we don’t need testing at scale, whichever comes first.

One more thing, just to hammer home the “it didn’t have to be this way” point:

Texas is also a wee bit larger than Taiwan, with less density and public transportation. They’re already playing baseball in Taiwan, have been for a few weeks now. I’m just saying.

It’s really hard out there on the restaurants

I feel for them, but none of this is unsurprising.

Celebrating her birthday in Galveston, Melinda Prince walked out of Yaga’s Cafe on Thursday full of coconut shrimp. What she didn’t realize was one of the employees at the restaurant may have been working while infected with the coronavirus.

Prince found out three days later through a post from the restaurant’s Facebook account.

“I freaked out,” said Prince, who plans to quarantine for two weeks and get tested if COVID-19 symptoms arise.

Facebook posts from Yaga’s Cafe, whose managers did not respond to requests for comment, indicate other employees have since been tested for the coronavirus, the restaurant voluntarily closed, a professional cleaning crew was hired and recent customers were also encouraged to get tested.The Galveston eatery is not alone. Restaurants and bars across Texas — including in Austin, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and San Marcos — have closed recently due to concerns about potentially spreading the coronavirus, according to social media posts and local news reports.

I wish there were a better answer. What should happen is another round of stimulus money from Congress – the original PPP idea was fine, if incredibly clunky at first – because we really can’t just reopen everything and hope for a return to normalcy. The virus is still out there, and we’re not doing nearly enough about it. At least we will have some new face mask orders, which should help a bit. Restaurants are a huge piece of our economy, with a ton of jobs at stake, and we’re not doing nearly enough to help them through this crisis. I don’t know what else to say.

Metro’s long road

It will be awhile before bus and rail ridership returns to pre-COVID levels.

Metro officials predict it will be months, and possibly years, before bus and rail service ridership return to pre-COVID-19 levels in Houston as economic uncertainty, a lack of firm dates for schools to reopen and commuters choosing to drive dents transit use.

“We have to understand some businesses are not going to reopen, period,” said Kurt Luhrsen, vice president of planning for Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Bus and rail use in the region, always dwarfed by automobile use, faces not only lost riders in fewer workers and students, but also questions circulating among some critics about whether it is safe to ride.

[…]

Transit officials eliminated fares in mid-March to reduce contact between bus operators and riders, a roughly $6 million monthly loss for the agency.

The biggest hit to Metro’s coffers, however, is a decline in the region’s sales tax revenues. Within Metro’s coverage area that includes most of Harris County along with Houston and 14 other cities, the transit agency is funded mostly from a 1 percent sales tax. Metro’s internal finance analysts expect revenues from the sales tax to drop by $102 million, about 13 percent of what the agency had budgeted for fiscal 2020, which ends Sept. 30.

“We are making some assumptions now,” Metro CEO Tom Lambert cautioned board members last week, noting sales tax revenues take two months to assess, meaning the latest figures are from March. “The reality is, we will probably get a couple months, and won’t know the impact until June.”

In the interim, the federal financial response will supplement Metro’s losses, and appear, based on estimates, to maintain the current budget. Metro’s share of Federal Transit Administration funds is $180 million, which officials said would cover all operations and fare revenue declines in the current budget.

The long-term outlook is less certain.

Since the close of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and a stay-home order in Harris County began on March 11, transit use in the region has dropped to about 40 percent of normal. Even as state officials began reopening many Texas businesses in early May, bus and rail use has continued to remain half or less of typical work days.

“Downtown is still relatively empty compared to what we have all come to expect,” Luhrsen said, noting that surveys of central business district offices by the Houston Downtown Management District found only about 10 percent of workers have returned.

Exacerbating the return is Houston’s reliance on the oil and gas industry, which remains mired in a downturn that means fewer people reporting to offices.

That uncertainty and industry furloughs, combined with a tough spring for food service workers and no students reporting to campuses, are expected to result in steep losses for Metro’s local bus service, rail lines that service the University of Houston and Texas Southern University, as well as commuter bus routes that connect many suburban dwellers to downtown white-collar jobs.

Park and ride poses the most difficult ridership to predict, Luhrsen said. Local bus and rail service already have started to tick upward, forcing Metro to gradually increase some frequency on routes to maintain buses at half-capacity.

[…]

Metro board member Lex Frieden also encouraged transit staff to consider assuring residents about the safety of the system.

“Many people will stop to think, what are the odds of being exposed,” said Frieden, an expert in disability rights and access, who often works with individuals most at risk from the virus.

In areas hit hard by the COVID pandemic, notably New York City, some studies have shown public transit packed with riders helped spread the illness because others were inhaling air fouled with the virus.

According to transit and health officials, no positive COVID diagnosis in the Houston area has been traced to exposure on a bus or train or transit stop, though 25 Metro workers or contractors — 14 of whom had contact with public — have tested positive for the virus.

In Houston, trains and buses typically are far less full than a New York subway and transit use accounts for 3 percent of trips regionally. Fewer people means fewer chances for positive cases to spread.

Metro is following Centers for Disease Control guidelines to limit riders and bus drivers being within six feet and encouraging — but not requiring — riders to wear masks. Frieden said if contact tracing and other data become available, Metro should make it public.

I feel like riding the bus or train, with everyone wearing a mask and with a brisk hand-washing afterwards (which we always should have done but for the most part never thought about), is probably fine. I wouldn’t want to be on a ride longer than 30 minutes or so, but the fact that no COVID cases have been linked to transit in Houston is encouraging.

It will take awhile for ridership to bounce back, but once there is a vaccine and the economy has stabilized, it should begin to do so. Metro needs the economy to hum again more than anything else, as that affects its revenue as well as its ridership. In the long run they’ll be fine, but it will be bumpy in spots. At least there were federal dollars to help tide things over for the short term.

How low can sales tax collections go?

If we’re lucky, no lower than this.

Texas collected about $2.6 billion in state sales tax revenue in May, leading to the steepest year-over-year decline in over a decade, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday.

The amount is 13.2% less than the roughly $3 billion the state collected in the same month last year.

A majority of the revenue collected last month was from purchases made in April and reflect the state’s first full-month look at how the novel coronavirus impacted businesses. That is when Texans lived under a statewide stay-at-home order and Gov. Greg Abbott, like leaders across the globe, ordered businesses across several sectors to close to combat the spread of the virus.

“Significant declines in sales tax receipts were evident in all major economic sectors, with the exception of telecommunications services,” Hegar said in a news release. “The steepest decline was in collections from oil and gas mining, as energy companies cut well drilling and completion spending following the crash in oil prices.”

[…]

Monday’s numbers are also reflective of the lag in data as revenues are collected and then reported by the state. Last month, for example, Hegar announced that the sales tax revenue collections for purchases in March dropped roughly 9% — which at the time was the steepest decline since January 2010.

Other major tax collections were also down in May, Hegar said Monday. Motor fuel taxes, for example, were down 30% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop since 1989. And the hotel occupancy tax was down 86% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop on record in data since 1982.

See here for the background. The presentation here is a little confusing, so let me clarify by quoting from the Chron:

Though the revenue totals are for May, they mostly represent transactions in April, when a statewide lockdown was in place to slow the spread of the virus. March sales were down 9.3 percent, state records show.

OK, so basically retail and other activity that leads to sales tax collection was down 13.4% in April after being down 9.3% in March. March was when the shutdowns began, though people had already slowed their activity before the official orders started happening later in the month. Pretty much all of April was in lockdown, while May is when things have begun to reopen. The hope would be that while May will be down compared to last year, it will be a lesser drop from 2019 than April and March were. That’s the hope, anyway. Maybe motor fuel taxes will inch up somewhat, but I wouldn’t hold my breath on hotel occupancy taxes. Check back in a month and we’ll see.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

Patrick’s megadonor task force tells him what he wanted to hear

Knock me over with a bag full of unmarked bills.

Local governments could find their emergency powers hemmed in during future emergencies under recommendations proposed by a task force that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick set up.

State government needs an off-switch to end local disaster declarations if necessary and clarify what steps mayors, counties and school boards can take during an emergency, says the Texans Back to Work Task Force in its 114-page report.

“The recent shutdown showed how the principles of representative government can be thwarted when mayors and county judges have too much power in making unilateral decisions without the agreement of the rest of the executive body,” the report says.

The report comes as public pushback against emergency orders is increasing at all levels of government, particularly from conservatives.

[…]

“Obviously we’re not calling for a one-size-fits-all,” said Task Force Chairman Brint Ryan, founder and CEO of Ryan, LLC. “But if there was a framework, you know a conceptual framework or guidelines in place, then you could achieve that local control and local initiative without confusing businesses that have to operate in more than one locale.”

Patrick echoed that concern, saying “we can’t have this patchwork” where even cities in the same county can have different rules.

See here for the background. Just a reminder, there was a time when Greg Abbott thought it was just peachy keen for local officials to make their own decisions about stay at home orders, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene.” Funny how these things work, isn’t it? Also as a reminder, those whiny conservatives are in the minority of public opinion. But Dan Patrick’s gonna Dan Patrick, and he chooses his megadonors wisely. We could have had this report the same day he named his task force, it’s not like they were going to come to any other conclusion.

Still trying to avoid total budget disaster

That federal money sure would help.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

As the prospect of mass furloughs and severe spending cuts looms over the city’s next budget, Houston officials are sitting on a pile of coronavirus stimulus money that amounts to more than double the shortfall projected by Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The rub, at least for now, is that the strings attached to the $404 million Houston received from the so-called Coronavirus Relief Fund — a $150 billion trove sent to states and local governments as part of the roughly $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — bar officials from spending the aid on expenses they already had budgeted.

Mayors, governors from both parties, congressional Democrats and even some Senate Republicans have pushed for looser restrictions that would allow sales tax-deprived governments to use the money to plug budget holes, instead of limiting them to expenses tied directly to the pandemic.

Meanwhile, as Congress weighs a second stimulus package for local and state governments that may earmark funds for lost revenue after all, Turner is under pressure to squeeze as much money as possible out of the initial round of CARES Act aid.

Prompting the tension was the Treasury Department’s April 22 guidance that eligible spending includes payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care and other employees “whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding” to the pandemic.

Last week, City Controller Chris Brown penned a letter to Finance Director Tantri Emo and Turner-appointed COVID-19 recovery czar Marvin Odum in which he urged the administration to craft a spending plan for the funds. He told city council members last week that officials in other Texas cities have begun determining how much of their public safety expenses are directly related to COVID-19.

“The potential exists for these costs to be offset by CARES Act funds, which could help alleviate added pressure placed on the General Fund,” Brown wrote, referring to the city’s $2.5 billion tax-supported fund that pays for most day-to-day core operations, including public safety, trash pickup, parks and libraries.

See here for some background. Let’s be clear, it’s more than just Houston facing this kind of problem. Every city, every county, every state has been affected. Federal funds, and a lot of them, are going to be needed. All this caterwauling you hear from haircut-freedom-fighters and grandma-sacrificers about getting the economy going again, none of it means anything if they aren’t willing to save local and state governments from making devastating cuts, which among other things will cause loads of people to lose their jobs and act as a huge drag on any economic recovery. If we could be sure we’d get this in the next round of stimulus then fine, use this money for whatever other purposes it’s intended for. But really, why wait? Let’s get a bit of certainty to bolster confidence.

Chip Roy would also like you to die for the economy

Truly, I struggle to understand this kind of thinking.

Rep. Chip Roy

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a firebrand freshman Republican, on Wednesday called for a return to economic normalcy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, in order to secure an “overall net positive outcome” for Americans.

“The goal here is for the least amount of human harm, right?” the Austin conservative said in a Wednesday interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith. “And so the virus is one piece of a much larger puzzle. So should we reopen our society? I believe yes.”

“I think it is important for us to engage as human beings together, to worship together, to work together. Can we do it in a way that protects the most vulnerable?…It’s important that we do that, and we can do that.”

Roy argued that the American economy cannot freeze for the months or years it will take for scientists to develop a vaccine.

“We need immune systems that are strong. We need immunity systems that can fight this,” he said. “We need herd immunity. So we have to work through this together to get re-engaged so we can build that up.”

When pressed over whether the herd immunity concept will lead to unnecessary deaths, Roy countered that the nationwide lockdown and its subsequent delays in cancer screenings, addiction treatment and mental health ramifications from unemployment have added to indirect death and suffering.

Just so we’re all on the same page here, the “herd immunity” strategy only works if something like 60% of the population becomes infected. Remember those very early projections of one to two million deaths if we did nothing and just let the virus run its course? That’s based on 150 to 200 million people getting COVID-19, and a one percent death rate. Are one to two million dead people an acceptable price to pay? I wish that question had been posed more directly.

Please note, that’s one to two million deaths from coronavirus, and that’s assuming it burns out after infecting 60% of the population – there isn’t anything magical to stop it from getting to, say 80% of the population, which adjusts the death toll up to about three million. That also doesn’t take into account deaths from heart attacks and strokes and falling down the stairs and whatnot that couldn’t be treated because the hospitals are completely overwhelmed from COVID-19 cases. Remember when we were concerned about that? Back before we all agreed that “flattening the curve” was for the collective good? Boy, those were the days.

But let’s say we get lucky and manage to limit ourselves to “just” one million deaths. It turns out that a significant number of COVID-19 patients experience serious and lasting health effects from the disease, and may need lifelong health care as a result. So maybe add in another five to ten million people with permanent health conditions, some of which will be disabling, some of which will be very expensive to treat. Are we approaching a price point that is too high yet?

I mean, it sure seems to me that all that death and destruction would also be bad for the economy, and that’s before we mention the effects of a society where anyone can just get infected at any time. I’m sure the places in America that rely heavily on tourists and foreign travelers will be happy with this. “Come visit Disneyland! You probably won’t get COVID-19 and die, but even if you do, YOLO!” I can’t decide if Chip Roy hasn’t fully thought this through, or if he has and he’s decided it’s still better to let pestilence win.

Oh, yeah, one more thing: We don’t know yet that getting COVID-19 means that you’ll be immune to it afterwards. You may be immune to it for awhile, but maybe not for all that long. What would be worse than getting COVID-19? Getting it a second time. That’s gotta suck.

So yeah. Even when you factor out the utter depraved sociopathy, it’s still a bad idea. Don’t you wish now that Donald Trump had been pushing full-tilt for universal testing and contact tracing? In his defense, he had a lot going on. Maybe next pandemic, if he’s not too busy. In the meantime, support Wendy Davis for Congress in CD21. She would prefer not to let millions of people die.

Down go the sales tax receipts

It’s bad. Expected, but bad.

Texas collected $2.58 billion in state sales tax revenue in April — a roughly 9% drop from what the state collected the same month last year, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Friday. That drop, from $2.8 to $2.58 billion, marked the steepest decline since January 2010, Hegar said.

April’s revenue, which the state collected from purchases made in March, is among the first official glimpses at the dramatic blows state and local budgets will take from widespread social distancing measures first taken last month to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. And Hegar warned that the state’s largest single source of funding will continue to “show steeper declines” in the coming months compared with a year ago as the economy continues what will likely be a slow crawl out of a weekslong virtual shutdown due to the pandemic.

“The steepest declines in tax remittances were from businesses most quickly and dramatically affected by social distancing,” Hegar said in a statement. “However, those losses were, to a degree, offset by increases from big-box retailers, grocery stores and online vendors. Remittances from oil and gas-related sectors also fell significantly as oil and gas exploration and production companies slashed capital spending in response to the crash in oil price.”

Hegar’s been sounding the alarm for awhile, it was just a matter of what the exact number was. If we’re lucky, April will be no worse. Whether things get better in May and beyond, which is the intent of the reopening scheme, won’t be known for a couple of months. How the population as a whole acts, and whether or not the virus comes roaring back, will be the keys to that.

How partisan is concern about coronavirus?

On the one hand:

Texas’ economy is taking a catastrophic hit — and hundreds of thousands of Texans are out of work — as officials shutter businesses and limit some establishment’s operations to stop the spread of the new coronavirus. But while Texans’ optimism about the state’s economy has fallen, they largely support those measures, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Two-thirds of registered Texas voters agree with decisions by Gov. Greg Abbott and several local officials to suspend nonessential business operations. And more than three-quarters of voters support orders to stay home except for essential activities. The poll’s findings come as Abbott says he will soon announce plans to reopen a wide range of Texas businesses.

Some hardline Republicans have pressured Abbott, who has taken a middle-ground approach in responding to the global health crisis, to relax his statewide stay-at-home order. And Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has suggested that saving the economy was more important than responding to the coronavirus. But after first making that suggestion last month, Patrick has experienced an uptick of disapproval among two groups: registered voters over 65 and independents. The poll was conducted before Patrick went on national television this week and said “there are more important things than living” as he advocated for reopening the economy.

“To the extent that some people are saying Republicans are beating down the doors of their houses… there is no evidence of that in this poll,” said James Henson, co-director of the poll and head of the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin. “There’s not evidence of resisting serious measures.”

On the other hand:

Texas voters are concerned about the coronavirus and believe it presents a serious crisis, and they are deeply worried about the economy, unemployment and the health care system. But they also think the disease could be contained enough to return daily life to normal within a few months, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

The coronavirus pandemic is a serious crisis, according to 66% of registered Texas voters, while 26% say it’s “a serious problem but not a crisis.” Democrats are more likely than Republicans to call it a crisis: 91% said so, compared with 48% of Republicans. And urban voters (75%) were more likely to call it a crisis than suburban voters (66%) or rural voters (54%). While 81% of black voters say the pandemic is a serious crisis, only 66% of Hispanic and 65% of white voters agreed.

“Partisans are relying on different sources of information,” said Joshua Blank, research director for the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “They’re hearing something different. It’s not that Republicans don’t think it’s a crisis. It’s that they don’t think the Democrats are getting good information.”

A majority of voters (54%) are “extremely” or “very” concerned that the coronavirus will spread in their communities. Again, the poll found differences: The level of concern is higher among Democrats than Republicans, urban voters over suburban and rural voters, and black and Hispanic Texans over white voters.

Large majorities are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national and state economies, unemployment and the health care system. At the same time, 43% say they’re satisfied with the health care system, while 52% are not.

The economic concerns erase party lines: 72% of Texas voters are “extremely” or “very” concerned about the national economy, and 67% say the same about the state economy. Worry over unemployment — 75% say it’s a top concern — is also amplified. Democrats (83%) were a bit more likely than Republicans (71%) to express deep concern, but the issue is clearly on the minds of a substantial majority of Texas voters.

“These attitudes are, to some extent, evidence that social distancing has worked,” Blank said. “People are more concerned about the economy. You might have no chance of getting the virus because you’re not leaving your house, but you could still lose your job. That affects more people directly than the coronavirus does.”

I don’t know what to make of that. To be honest, there may not be that much to make of it – it may just be a matter of question wording, or emphasis. It’s still the case that 72% of Republicans are at least “somewhat” concerned about coronavirus spreading in their community. It should be higher, but it’s a solid majority. And any time there’s an uptick in disapproval for Dan Patrick, things can’t all be bad. Let’s make sure we’re saving all that video for the 2022 campaign, please.

Greg Abbott’s grand plan is coming

Ready or not (spoiler alert: not ready).

Gov. Greg Abbott could make an announcement as soon as Friday about reopening a wide range of Texas businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic, including restaurants, hair salons and retail outlets.

During a series of radio interviews Wednesday, Abbott gave the most details yet about the highly anticipated announcement, which he has been previewing since he announced preliminary steps to reopen the economy last week. He initially advertised the next wave of steps as scheduled for Monday but made clear in some of the interviews that they could now come sooner.

Abbott stressed in the interviews that he is seeking approval from medical advisers on the business reopenings and that they will reopen under new standards to slow the spread of the coronavirus. He also suggested his announcement’s implementation could vary by county, depending on how prevalent the virus is in each place.

“We’re gonna be making an announcement opening so many different types of businesses, where you’re gonna be able to go to a hair salon, you’re gonna be able to go to any type of retail establishment you want to go to, different things like that, with a structure in place that will ensure that we slow the spread of the coronavirus,” Abbott told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty, adding that businesses won’t be “fully opened, but … will be opened in strategic ways, in ways that are approved by doctors to make sure we contain the coronavirus.”

[…]

Currently, Texans can patronize restaurants through takeout or delivery. Starting Friday, retailers will be able to deliver items to customers’ cars or homes under the “retail-to-go” model that Abbott recently announced. Abbott’s comments Wednesday seemed to suggest that Texans would soon be able to go inside those establishments, though they would still be required to follow unspecified standards to keep the virus at bay.

Abbott’s comments came five days after he announced his initial measures to restart the economy, naming a task force, reopening state parks, relaxing restrictions on medial surgeries and allowing “retail-to-go.”

See here for the background. Who knows what this means, and who knows what medical advisers he’s listening to. I mean, Lord knows I need a haircut, but last time I had one it was given by someone who was not six feet away from me. The word that first comes to mind in reading this is “half-baked”.

And let’s be honest about something here. Abbott could order all restrictions lifted tomorrow if he wanted, but the economy isn’t going to “reopen” until everyone feels comfortable going out in public and doing all the things we used to do before everything was shut down. And right now, all the evidence we have says most people are not going to do that. Would you go to a sit-down restaurant tomorrow? A movie theater? A gym? The Galleria? Is your office set to reopen? Mine isn’t, at least for the next week. Most of us have still done grocery shopping and things like that, but we have all greatly minimized our social interactions, to the extent that our jobs allow. What exactly do Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and all of the cheerleaders for reopening the economy think is going to happen? And what happens if the curve that everyone hopes is peaking starts to climb upwards again? The Chron has more.

Meet your recovery czars

For Harris County:

Rep. Armado Walle

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday named state Rep. Armando Walle the county’s COVID-19 recovery czar as local leaders determine how to eventually ease restrictions on public life meant to slow the spread of the disease.

Walle, a Democrat, has represented the Aldine-area House District 140 since 2009. He serves on the appropriations, higher education and redistricting committees and was a state budget conferee in 2019. Hidalgo said Walle understands the needs of the more than 2 million residents of unincorporated Harris County.

“We need someone who will be laser-focused on helping families right now and combating the long-term economic effects and the long-term human impacts of this crisis,” Hidalgo said at a news conference.

[…]

Walle echoed Hidalgo’s pledge to base decisions to remove restrictions on data rather than arbitrary deadlines. He vowed to work with business, nonprofit, philanthropic and faith-based leaders as well as elected officials across Harris County.

“We need to work together on an inclusive recovery that responsibly ensures the economic health and well-being of the people of Harris County,” Walle said. “We need to save lives and also save livelihoods.”

And for the city of Houston:

Going for the tried and true, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner Monday named former Shell president Marvin Odum to the position of Houston COVID-19 Recovery leader.

Odum was also the first Hurricane Harvey recovery leader appointed by Turner in 2017. Saying Odum had performed to “rave reviews” the last time he led the city’s recovery efforts, Turner said Odum will be working with a number of groups including business leaders , non-profit groups, members of the mayor’s exectuive team, as well as just-announced Harris County COVID-19 Recovery Czar Armando Walle.

Critical issues, the mayor said, include how to restart the economy, specifically how to send people back to work and the need for robust testing. Odum is also charged with coming up with a plan if the area starts to see an increase in the number of positive cases and developing some way to implement contact tracing so the city knows where the virus is traveling.

Another area of importance will be making sure at-risk, vulnerable populations are not left behind, the mayor said, as well as: “How do we prepare for the next pandemic?”

In turn, Odum pledged to “act as quickly as possible.” He said collaboration with other governmental units was key because “We don’t want to duplicate work or waste any time.”

Both task forces will work with each other. I would expect there to be more of these, perhaps from other cities within the county, and perhaps they will work with other task forces from other counties. Lord knows, there will be plenty to do, and right now no one knows what a lot of this looks like. Both men are good choices – Odum has the experience with Harvey, and of course is very well-connected in the business world, which will need to buy into whatever the plan is. Walle is a terrific member of the Legislature, so he has that going for him, and he’ll be a voice for working people and their needs. They, and whoever they work with, will have a lot of responsibility, and may very well run into obstacles at both the state and federal levels, especially if their ideas of when and how “reopening” should occur are in conflict. I wish them a lot of luck, and I think they will need it.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the Chron story that includes the Odum appointment.

So this is reopening

There’s not much to this, is there?

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday announced initial steps to reopen the Texas economy during the coronavirus pandemic, including those that in the next week will loosen surgery restrictions at medical facilities, allow all retail stores to provide product pickups and reopen state parks.

Abbott also named a “statewide strike force” devoted to getting the economy going again. Austin banker James Huffines will chair the task force, while veteran lobbyist Mike Toomey will lead its staff. The group will oversee what Abbott described as a phased reopening, starting Friday with additional announcements set for April 27 and sometime in May.

At the same time, Abbott announced all Texas schools will stay closed through the rest of the academic year. He had previously shuttered them until May 4.

Abbott made the announcements during a news conference at the Texas Capitol that he began on a note of optimism.

“Because of the efforts by everyone to slow the spread, we’re now beginning to see glimmers that the worst of COVID-19 may soon be behind us,” Abbott said, noting the number of infections is “beginning to level off” and the death toll, while tragic, has “not come close to the early, dire predictions.”

“We have demonstrated that we can corral the coronavirus,” Abbott added.

[…]

Abbott said the task force will include fellow state leaders such as Patrick and Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, as well as top medical experts including state health commissioner John Hellerstedt and Mark McClellan, former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The medical advisers will focus on developing a strategy to “comprehensively test and trace COVID-19 that will enable Texas to gradually and safely” begin returning to normal, Abbott said.

The task force will be rounded out by an advisory group of business leaders, Abbott said, naming prominent entrepreneurs including Kendra Scott and Michael Dell.

The first phase came in a series of executive orders issued Friday. One order allows for product pickup at retail stores — what Abbott described as “retail-to-go” — that will begin April 24. Outlets will be allowed to bring orders straight to customers’ cars in a manner similar to how many restaurants are currently offering curbside pickup.

Another order, which goes into effect 11:59 p.m. Tuesday, will allow a limited amount of nonessential surgeries at hospitals, as long as those surgeries don’t deplete the hospitals’ supplies of personal protective equipment and allow the facilities to keep at least 25% of their capacity available for the treatment of patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

A third order will allow state parks to open Monday. Visitors to parks will be required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from people outside their households.

Additional openings will be announced April 27 “after further input from medical staff,” Abbott said.

See here for the background, and here for the very manly-man-named Strike Force. Just so we’re clear, “beginning to level off” means we’re still not yet at the peak, which is to say the curve of new cases and deaths is still increasing. Go read that previous post about the curve maybe starting to flatten in Houston. “Near the peak” is not where you want to be.

There’s also no actual plan for expanded testing, which is a bare minimum for easing the restrictions. We are not testing more people in Texas. We don’t even really have the funding to test more people. Who are your medical advisors, and what is their advice for getting true comprehensive testing off the ground?

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott decided that it was better to let Mayors and County Judges lead the way on stay-at-home restrictions? Well, local leaders are nowhere to be found on the Strike Force.

What happens if the Strike Force and Dan Patrick’s Secret Megadonor Team disagree? Do they fight it out?

What if Greg Abbott reopened the economy and no one came, because they’re more worried about ramping down social distancing too quickly than they are about being able to go out in public like they used to? I can tell you that the latest word from the large multinational corporation that I work for is that they expect us all to still be working from home into May. I won’t be surprised if a lot of similar businesses are thinking along the same lines.

You get the idea. We all want to return to normal. We all want businesses to open again. But we all also want to not get sick and maybe die. I don’t think we’re ready for the returning to normal and opening things up part yet. The Chron, the Texas Signal, the Press, the Observer, and the Current have more.

UPDATE: What RG Ratcliffe says:

The problem is not so much that Abbott has named an advisory committee but that he has again found a way to deflect responsibility before taking action. Just as he let mayors and county judges do the hard work of shutting the state down to stop the spread of COVID-19, he is now hoping the strike force will help him balance competing demands for fighting the virus and getting Texans back to work. Abbott put his toe into the water on Friday, but put off big decisions until April 27, saying he wanted to be guided by data, doctors, and the advice of his strike force.

Such a weak leader.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

Examination of a planned high-speed rail line between Houston and Dallas should be halted as the country addresses the new coronavirus pandemic and the company rethinks its financial shape, 30 elected officials in Texas told federal regulators.

In two separate letters to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, 28 state lawmakers and two members of Congress said work by the Federal Railroad Administration on the Texas Central Railway project — which has faced stiff opposition for six years even as Dallas and Houston officials showed support — should stop entirely.

“It has become clear Texas Central simply does not have the financial resources required or expertise employed to continue with this project,” state lawmakers, led by state Rep. Ben Leman, R-Anderson, wrote. “To proceed otherwise would be an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars and jeopardizes the integrity of the rules making process.”

Leman, a long-time critic of the project which rural residents have assailed as a boondoggle that will ruin the Texas countryside and never be financially sound, said the aim of the letter is to stop all analysis of the project’s safety procedures and environmental effects, which the FRA has been working on since 2014 with Texas Central. Federal regulators must approve the safety of the trains — unlike any other trains in the United States — and apply federal soil, air, noise and species protection rules to the construction and operations.

Texas Central last month said COVID-19’s effect on financial markets could impact the project, tightening its ability to secure the $15 billion or more necessary to build a 240-mile sealed corridor along a utility alignment between Houston and Dallas. Global response to the pandemic hits every sector of the company’s plans, which rely on Japanese trains, a Spanish rail operator and engineering from Italy. Within Texas, the company has laid off 28 employees.

It was also last month, right before the coronavirus shit hit the fan, that Texas Central was expressing hope they would begin construction this year. That sure seems like a no-go at this point, regardless of what effect this may have on their finances. As far as that goes, I would expect the process would take into account the financial solvency of the firm in question – certainly, Metro’s finances were closely scrutinized during its journey to get funds for the light rail expansion – so I don’t see why this would carry any more weight than that. This seems more like a signal from the prominent bullet train opponents to their supporters that they’re still out there fighting the good fight than anything else, but you never know.

Speaking of which, the signers of this epistle are for the most part the usual suspects who have opposed the high speed rail line all along. The two names on there that caught my eye are Rep. Tom Oliverson, whose HD130 in northwest Harris County would be on the path of the train, and Sen. Joan Huffman, the one legislator in there from a mostly urban area. I’d think at least a few of her constituents might actually want to ride this thing some day, so my eyebrows went up a notch upon seeing her name. Make of that what you will. The DMN has more.

Only the megadonors can save us now

Actual headline, from an actual Houston Chronicle story:

Dallas megadonor leads secret team charged with carrying out Dan Patrick’s plan to restart economy

Remember how I said that the story of Steve Stockman and his supporters using the cover of the coronavirus pandemic to butter up Donald Trump for a pardon was the most 2020 story ever? Took less than a week for events to prove me wrong. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

You can read the story if you want, in which you will learn that the people who are closest to and/or have worked for said megadonor, whose name is G. Brint Ryan, think he’s a swell guy who only wants to do good, and that he himself swears he would never use the position of favor and access that he bought for himself fair and square to benefit himself or his businesses. Nope, he’s just there to look out for the little guy, by which he means people who couldn’t afford Dan Patrick’s list price and thus depend on even richer people like him to make sure they don’t get forgotten. Truly, we are blessed to have the likes of G. Brint Ryan in the favorite contacts of our state leaders. As to what he might be doing in secret to restart the economy in a way that won’t kill too many people, well, if he told you that then there wouldn’t be a secret, now would there? Just cool your jets and let the magic of the patronage system do its work, OK?

What does “reopening the economy” look like?

We’ll find out (sort of) later this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday that reopening the Texas economy will be a “slow process” guided by public health concerns as he continued to preview a forthcoming executive order that will detail his strategy to reignite business in the state.

Abbott, who first hinted at his plans during a news conference Friday, said he’ll outline them later this week. Asked for more details Monday, he indicated his announcement will include a “comprehensive team” that he said will “evaluate what must be done for Texas to open back up, ensuring what we are doing is consistent with data, with medical analysis, as well as strategies about which type of businesses will be able to open up.”

“This is not gonna be a rush-the-gates, everybody-is-able-to-suddenly-reopen-all-at-once” situation, Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin where he announced $50 million in loans to small businesses suffering under the pandemic.

Abbott also told reporters to expect an announcement this week on whether schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Abbott previously ordered them closed until May 4.

[…]

As he did Friday, Abbott said Monday that testing will be a part of his announcement later this week on reopening the economy.

“We will ensure that a component of that will include adequate testing,” Abbott said, adding that he just had a hourlong conference call with Vice President Mike Pence and Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, about the testing necessary to “safely reopen the state for doing business.”

That last part is interesting, since so far the state of Texas has sucked at doing testing. Far more of it will be necessary to really open society up again, or else we’ll be right back where we started, with this giant unstoppable risk that we’re all vulnerable to. I’ll wait till there are more details before I go too far down the rabbit hole, but the first question on my mind is will this override whatever stay-at-home orders there are still in the counties? You may recall, Abbott was perfectly happy to let mayors and county judges lead the way when the hard decisions had to be made about shutting down. Will he still respect them later this week when he wants to start things up, or will that all be yesterday’s news? How will the Abbott plan compare with the reopening plans in other states? Stay tuned and find out.