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Of course some anti-vaxx groups got PPP funds

Completely on brand.

Texas-based anti-vaccine organization Informed Consent Action Network was among five anti-vaccine groups that collectively received more than $850,000 in federal loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Washington Post reported Monday. The organization received $166,000 in May 2020, according to founder Del Bigtree.

“Vaccine hesitancy” or “vaccine skepticism” poses a significant and ongoing challenge for health authorities trying to overcome mistrust within communities of color, by the anti-vaccine crowd and general uncertainty nationwide. Doctors and scientists say the coronavirus vaccines currently available in the United States are safe and effective.

“At a minimum, it’s a mixed message from the government,” said Timothy Callaghan, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health. “Those individuals who are hesitant are going to be looking to various pieces of information to help them make this decision…and if one of the key pieces of information coming out is the government funding anti-vaccine groups, it could send a signal to these individuals that maybe they shouldn’t be vaccinating,” he told The Texas Tribune.

The Austin-based nonprofit has more than 43,000 followers on Facebook and regularly posts information questioning the safety of the coronavirus vaccines. Bigtree’s online anti-vaccine talk show was penalized by Facebook and YouTube last year for violating misinformation policies and downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

As the WaPo story notes, this wasn’t just in Texas. In terms of actual dollars, it’s not that much, but boy does the principle of it rankle. And given how Greg Abbott has staked everything on getting the vaccine rolled out, it would be nice if he felt a little heat from this, since the anti-vaxxers have had more success than failure in the Legislature in recent years. You would think he’d be unhappy about this. Good luck getting him to say anything about it, though.

Assistance for renters coming

Good, but of course much more is needed.

Houston officials expect to get up to $70 million in federal stimulus funds to help renters in the city make their monthly payments and use toward other housing expenses.

The $900 billion federal stimulus package Congress approved late last year did not include more assistance for cities and states, but it did allot $25 billion in emergency relief for renters. Those funds will pass through states and local governments that represent more than 200,000 residents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday he expects Houston’s share of those funds will arrive soon. Bill Kelly, the city’s director of intergovernmental relations, said he estimates the city will get an allocation of $65 million to $70 million. The money will go through the Treasury Department, and the law calls for making the payments within 30 days of its passage, which would be Jan. 26.

“My personal goal is to make sure we have this thing done by February 1,” Kelly said of developing the city’s program.

[…]

To be eligible under the law, households must be renters and have at least one individual that qualifies for unemployment or has experienced financial hardship due to COVID-19; demonstrate a risk of homelessness or housing instability; and have a household income at or below 80 percent of the area median income. For a family of four in Houston, that would be $63,050.

The law prioritizes applicants who have been unemployed for 90 days and households below 50 percent of the median income, around $39,000 in Houston for a family of four. The city could adopt additional requirements and priorities.

The city previously used about $30 million of federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funds to direct toward renters. It also used roughly $20 million for direct assistance, in which recipients can use the money as they see fit. BakerRipley, a community nonprofit, administered those funds.

The first round of $15 million was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, but the city pivoted in the second round to distribute the money based on need.

I’m sure this will help a lot of people, and I’m sure the city will do everything it can to get the program up and running quickly. More is obviously needed, but I expect another, bigger relief package coming as soon as possible after January 20, so at least part of the problem should addressed. But look at all the qualifiers in the two paragraphs above, and ask yourself how many people might not know they’re eligible, or might not know how to apply for the funds, or who just need them faster than that to avoid eviction or other hardship. In normal times, it makes sense to make sure all the funds are used super-efficiently, and not wastefully. The cost of making it harder and take longer to get the funds is worth the tradeoff. We’re as far from normal times as we can get. Maybe we just need to make it easier to get as much money as is needed into the hands of everyone who might need it, and not worry too much if some of it goes to the “wrong” people. There’s got to be a better way to alleviate suffering in crisis times.

Ken Paxton’s attempted jihad against Harris County

Wow.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to get the Trump administration to revoke millions in federal COVID relief funding that Harris County budgeted for expanding mail-in voting earlier this year, newly revealed records show.

Paxton wrote in a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Harris County’s plan was an “abuse” of the county’s authority and an “egregious” violation of state law. The letter was obtained and published by the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”

The letter to Mnuchin illustrates the lengths Paxton went in his efforts to stop Harris and other counties from making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic, which included suing Harris County as it tried to send mail ballots applications to all 2.4 million of its registered voters. The mail-ballot application push was part of the county’s $27.2 million plan to expand voting options, funded in large part through CARES Act money.

[…]

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mnuchin heeded Paxton’s request to investigate how Harris County used the funding.

In a written statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the loss of the funds “would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely” during an important election held in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible,” she said. “To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party accused the attorney general of “picking fights” to distract from his personal life.

“In the middle of the biggest pandemic in American history, every Texan should have been afforded the opportunity to vote as safely as possible. Indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to try to pick fights to distract away from his personal life and his abuse of office. Paxton is a carnival barker who has made Texas a laughingstock with his ridiculous inquiries and lawsuits. To restore trust in the Attorney General’s office, we must all band together to vote him and his abuse of power out in 2022.”

I suppose if there’s one thing that the year 2020 has been good for, it’s to serve as a reminder to me that I am still capable of being shocked. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it was clear from the beginning that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins’ aggressive efforts to make voting easier, ably funded by Commissioners Court, were going to draw a heated response. I guess I had just assumed that the lawsuits filed by Paxton and others against the various things that Hollins pioneered were the response, with bills filed in the 2021 Legislature the culmination, but I had not expected this.

It is interesting that Paxton chose to fire this particular shot in secret. We would have found out about it at the time if he had succeeded, of course, but it’s strangely out of character for Paxton to do something like this under cover of darkness. Say what you will about Ken Paxton, the man does not lack confidence in the correctness of his positions. I don’t know what his motivation was for not being front and center about this – I mean, we saw the lawsuit he filed to overturn the election. Shame, or fear of being publicly dragged, are not inhibitions for him. Maybe he was afraid of spooking Secretary Mnuchin, who is generally less cartoon-y in his villainy. I’m open to suggestion on this point.

The story mentions that this letter came from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which led me to this:

CREW obtained Paxton’s letter to Mnuchin as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which remains ongoing.

The lawsuit in question is over the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. We might never have found out about this scurrilous and cowardly action otherwise.

I was going to spend more time in this post pointing out that Paxton’s allegations were 1) essentially baseless, and 2) should have been made in a lawsuit, as this would have fallen squarely under his law enforcement authority if Harris County were indeed breaking the law as he claimed, but honestly that CREW article laid it out thoroughly, so go read that for those details. The main takeaway here is that this wasn’t just a partisan dispute, which could and should have been carried out in public as so many other mostly ginned-up voting “controversies” this year were, it was 100% unadulterated bullshit from our despicable Attorney General. He’s not feeling any pressure to step down from his fellow Republicans, and do brace yourself for a pardon from our Felon in Chief, so it really is up to us to vote his sorry ass out in 2022. The Texas Tribune has more.

We still need more than the vaccines

The vaccines are great, don’t get me wrong, and they couldn’t have come at a better time, but they’re going to take awhile to be administered, and in the meantime a whole lot of people are still getting sick and dying.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday applauded the arrival of the new coronavirus vaccine, calling it a “monumental medical miracle” as he sought to boost morale amid some of the pandemic’s toughest days.

Speaking outside a UPS distribution center in Austin, the governor painted an especially rosy picture of the weeks ahead, promising a swift vaccine rollout even as national supplies are limited and the state is reporting high numbers of new daily infections. Hospitals in some cities across Texas have been overrun with COVID-19 patients.

The vaccine, which began rolling out on Monday, “is on a daily basis saving lives and beginning to restore normalcy in our community,” Abbott said.

About 90,000 doses have been distributed in Texas already, and another 150,000 were being shipped out on Thursday. The first batch is intended for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

State health officials are still determining whom to prioritize from there, including teachers, public safety employees and prisoners. The governor himself has yet to be inoculated but said he plans to at “the appropriate time.”

Texas expects to receive 1.4 million doses by the end of the year, not quite enough to treat all of the 1.6 million health care workers who would be eligible.

[…]

State and national health experts have cautioned that it will be well into 2021 before vaccines become widely available and that infections will continue to spread as long as some resist safety measures such as physically distancing and masking in public.

“It’ll still be weeks, perhaps months, before it is absolutely available to anyone who chooses to have it,” said John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services. “In the meantime we need to continue the kinds of things that have gotten us this successful so far.”

Abbott has so far refused to tighten the state’s mask mandate or impose other new restrictions, even as county officials have asked for them as they battle new waves of infections. On Monday the state reported nearly 18,000 new confirmed and probable cases, as well as 252 deaths. More than 24,000 Texans have died from COVID since March.

For a very sobering look at where we’re headed, read this:

What is the one thing that could mitigate this? Another lockdown, with a mask mandate alongside it. What is the one thing that could mitigate the devastating economic effect of another lockdown? A truly adequate COVID stimulus package from Congress. What are the two things Greg Abbott is never going to do? You get the picture.

There’s also this.

The start of COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers has sparked hope that the end of the pandemic crisis is within sight, but when it comes to vaccine distribution, this is still the easy part. Local and state health agencies say they will struggle to get hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccines to the general public without a huge amount of additional funding. Even if Congress does manage to pass a compromise relief bill, the amount it provides may not be enough.

The fates of the vaccine and the relief bill, both months in the making, are linked. The $900 billion proposal that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to debate has a number of provisions to mitigate the COVID economic crisis, including additional unemployment benefits and small business support. The latest available version also contains $6 billion in vaccine distribution funding for state and local health departments. But groups that represent state and local health departments say that this funding, while crucial, won’t be sufficient to distribute the vaccine on a massive scale as efficiently and widely as possible.

“We see the $6 billion that’s on the table as an important down payment to scale up staffing, develop and enact communications plans to address vaccine hesitant populations, and enroll more vaccinators,” Jasmine Berry, the communications director at the Association for Immunization Managers, says in an email. “There’s still going to be a need for additional funding for state and local health agencies.”

What’s more, the already months-long delay in getting this funding to state and local health departments may create problems down the line, as the country’s vaccination campaigns expand beyond health care workers and nursing homes.

“Where we’ll really start to see potential delays, or where we are not as successful as we could have been, may be as we move through the phases to the next group, where there’s a much larger population that would need to be served,” says Adriane Casalotti, the chief of government and public affairs at the National Association of County and City Health Officials, which represents local health departments.

How much of the vaccination tab are Greg Abbott and the Legislature willing to pick up if Mitch McConnell continues to block any COVID relief bills from passing? A miracle’s no good if you can’t access it.

Abbott is right that the vaccines will save lives and restore normality to our lives. But only if we live long enough to get vaccinated, and only if the funding is there to make sure everyone can get vaccinated. These things aren’t going to happen by themselves.

Here comes the vaccine

Houston’s first doses have arrived.

Months of waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine to arrive in Houston are almost — but not quite — over, as hospitals prepare to move the first doses from sealed subzero shipments and into the arms of thousands of front-line health care workers this week.

About 19,500 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine will arrive Monday at four medical centers in Texas: MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Methodist Dallas Medical Center, Wellness 360 at UT Health San Antonio and UT Health Austin’s Dell Medical School, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is overseeing deliveries of the first vaccine approved and shipped in the United States.

Another 75,075 doses will arrive at 19 additional sites on Tuesday, including seven in the Houston area. By midweek, 27 hospitals in the Houston region, most of them Texas Medical Center hospital system flagships or suburban campuses, will have received doses.

Officials on Sunday at some Houston hospitals compared it to waiting on an Amazon delivery: The package is confirmed, but the email with the tracking number and details hasn’t arrived. The first inoculations in Houston could happen in days, depending on when those shipments appear, said Dr. Marc Boom, president of Houston Methodist.

“If it arrives tomorrow, we will have a full day of vaccinations on Tuesday,” Boom said Sunday. “If it’s Tuesday, depending on what time, we could have some people come in. … I have people scheduled literally in five-minute slots.”

[…]

Under a tiered plan developed by public health leaders, the first vaccine doses will be given to front-line hospital workers. Later shipments will allow hospitals to administer doses to patients at high risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing serious complications, likely in January.

And after that it gets trickier. And it could get even trickier still.

Here are some basic outlines of what’s happening. As we learned last week the Trump White House skimped on actually buying enough doses of vaccine from Pfizer. But the federal government will cover the actual purchase of vaccines. The White House says the military is in charge of and has a plan to actual get the supplies to the states. And though we don’t know all the details let’s assume they have that covered. But that only appears to be getting the crates of supplies to a central staging point in each state. That’s not a negligible job. But it’s only a relatively small part of actually getting the country vaccinated. You need public health campaigns. You need staging areas and distribution from wherever the military drops it off to actual health centers and vaccination centers around each state. And finally you need a small army of medical professionals to actually administer the doses. It’s a big job and the Trump administration hasn’t funded any of that or devised any national plan.

In the absence of any federal plan or budget the CDC and HHS have cannibalized existing budgets to get some money to states for planning. But the sums are by most estimates an order of magnitude less than the amount needed.

State governments would be hard pressed to fund an operation like that during the best of times. But states and local governments around the country are already pushing massive cuts because of the dislocations caused by the pandemic. Through much of the latter part of 2020 the assumption was that this would be dealt with in a follow-up stimulus plan. But of course that never happened.

What the White House has arranged funding for is a critical but relatively small part of the vaccination effort: vaccinations for people in assisted living facilities and health care workers. Those are the two most critical populations. They should go first, and the plan is to get those people vaccinated in December and January. But that leaves the great bulk of the population unvaccinated. The plan is for that phase to end around Feb 1. Meanwhile CARES Act funding, which states can use for various purposes, has to be spent by Dec. 31.

That’s all that’s funded. It’s like a trap door set up for Biden to fall through. So as you can see, today’s excitement and anticipation over the vaccine is cued up to turn sharply to disappointment in February when people start asking where their shots are and blame the train wreck on President Biden. No plan. And no funding to implement a plan. Of course that is potentially catastrophic in human terms. But a lag in vaccination means not only more suffering and death but more delay in allowing the economy to get back on its feet, since people aren’t going to go to restaurants and participate in public life until case numbers drop dramatically.

That…would be bad. I suppose as long as there are still talks for another COVID relief bill, or if Dems win both Georgia Senate runoffs, we still have hope. But yeah, that could be a problem.

Also a problem:

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is increasingly suggesting that states including Texas begin shutting down again, saying in reports sent to state leaders this month that they aren’t doing enough to slow the worst surge in COVID cases that the country has seen.

“This surge is the most rapid increase in cases; the widest spread of intense transmission, with more than 2,000 counties in COVID red zones; and the longest duration of rapid increase, now entering its 8th week, that we have experienced,” say the reports, sent to Texas and other states on Dec. 6. “Despite the severity of this surge and the threat to hospital systems, many state and local governments are not implementing the same mitigation policies that stemmed the tide of the summer surge; that must happen now.”

Texas, the report says, “must increase mitigation to prevent ongoing community spread,” including “significant reduction in capacity or closure of public and private indoor spaces, including restaurants and bars.”

The task force’s reports over the last several weeks, meanwhile, have consistently pointed to the success of European countries — many of which have shuttered restaurants, bars and other businesses — in stemming the outbreak.

“The majority of the United States is not mitigating similarly,” Dec. 6 state report says.

You know how I feel about this. Do your best to take care of yourself, because Greg Abbott isn’t going to do anything to help you. The Trib has more.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even the White House thinks Texas sucks at COVID response

I mean

The White House Coronavirus Task Force says Texas is in the swing of a “full resurgence” of COVID-19 and the state’s mitigation efforts “must intensify,” while Gov. Greg Abbott and other leaders decline to take some of the steps the Trump administration is recommending.

A report issued by the task force before the Thanksgiving holiday calls for Texas to significantly reduce maximum occupancy for public and private indoor spaces and to conduct weekly coronavirus testing of teachers, college students, county workers, hospital personnel and others.

“Texas continues to be in a full resurgence and mitigation efforts must intensify,” the Nov. 22 report says. “The silent community spread that precedes and continues to drive these surges can only be identified and interrupted through proactive, focused testing.”

The White House sends such reports to states weekly, but they are not typically made available to the public. The report was published by the Center for Public Integrity.

Three days before the report was issued, Abbott was assuring the public that local officials had been provided with all the tools they need to slow outbreaks, including a requirement that Texans wear masks indoors in public places and when patronizing businesses.

Abbott has also enacted mandatory occupancy reductions — including closing bars — in regions where the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients exceeds 15 percent of capacity for seven straight days.

But Abbott has declined to go further, instead focusing his message on treatment, touting a newly approved drug as proof that “the cavalry is coming.”

There are plenty of local officials who would disagree with Abbott’s assertion that they have all the tools they need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said he agreed with the White House report’s findings and implored Abbott to take a harder line or give local officials back the powers they had in the spring.

“We determined what the occupancy limits were going to be in large part. We had the ability to say ‘no,’” said Turner, who took questions from reporters after a holiday-themed event at City Hall. “The tools that we had in March and April, we no longer have. We are not driving this car. County judges and mayors are more like passengers. The state is driving the car.”

In addition to Abbott’s May preemption of local restrictions, bars that collect less than 51 percent of their revenue from alcohol also can reopen as restaurants, and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in August made that easier by broadening the scope of revenue they can count as not stemming from alcohol sales.

“Bars can be open. So, we’re doing what we can to limit gatherings, but that’s a big, big problem,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled meeting of Commissioners Court. “Because these things have been allowed, we’re seeing the numbers we’re seeing again now.”

Measures of the virus’ spread, Hidalgo noted, approximate the levels being reported when she placed the county at its worst, “red” threat level in June.

“It was soon after that that the governor pulled back a little bit, and the numbers kept climbing until finally they peaked at a level where they routinely exceeded base hospital capacity” in intensive care units, she said. “And so if we go much longer without action, we’re going to be in a bad place.”

One option the city does have is a curfew, which has been implemented in El Paso and San Antonio. Turner said he reserves the right to implement one in Houston, but views that as a “nuclear option” that punishes good actors along with the bad.

The mayor said he is trying to keep people alive for the next few months, until vaccines become available and strengthen the fight to contain the virus’ spread.

“My appeal to the governor is to join with us and do the same,” he said.

Remember how they once had to solve the riddle of the Sphinx to unlock some of those tools in the first place? Boy, those were the days. The Chron story notes that while the local numbers aren’t as bad as they were in July, they are all on an upward trend. That ain’t good.

What could be done? In addition to letting the locals actually do the things they want to do, Abbott could issue a new mask mandate, with enforceable penalties attached, and take the heat from the wingnuts for it. He could order more enforcement of bar and restaurant occupancy limits, to crack down on the bad actors. It also remains true that Abbott could be exhorting our two Republican Senators to get off their asses and support a big COVID relief bill that would get affected businesses through the next few weeks. Even this wholly inadequate effort would be better than nothing. “Doing nothing while we wait for the vaccine and try out new treatments for the many people who get sick” and “completely shutting down everything with no financial relief for anyone” aren’t the only options available. The Trib has more.

Who cares how much it will cost to build the Ike Dike?

Imagine how much it will cost to recover from a catastrophic hurricane whose storm surge could have been mitigated by the Ike Dike. You know, like that hurricane from earlier this year that would have done exactly that had it hit 150 miles or so west of where it did hit.

The Army Corps of Engineers has revised its plan for a coastal barrier that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline, with massive sea gates across the Houston Ship Channel and 43 miles of dunes and renourished beaches spanning Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston.

The newest version of the coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” was released Tuesday by the Corps and Texas General Land Office. While initial estimates said the project would cost as much as $32 billion, officials now peg the cost as $26.2 billion.

The plan incorporates feedback received during a contentious round of public meetings after the original plan was released in October 2018. Many coastal residents and environmentalists balked at a structure that they said could harm ecology and wildlife and tank property values.

But with three major hurricanes narrowly skirting the Houston-Galveston region this year during a particularly active season — 27 named storms — state officials noted that a project on the scale of the coastal barrier would protect the region for decades to come as the climate gets warmer and more volatile.

“The Corps of Engineers recognizes the coast as a extremely vibrant place to live and recognizes, and our metrics in the army show, that the Texas coast is leading economic growth for the nation,” said Mark Havens, deputy land commissioner for the General Land Office. “This hurricane season has given us pause because it’s given us too many close calls not to heed this warning.”

The Corps plans to convene three days of virtual public meetings, beginning Nov. 16. The public comment period will end on Dec. 14, and feedback will be incorporated into the final feasibility report, which the Corps plans to publish in May 2021. The Corps also emphasized interactive web features for the public such as 3-D virtual tours of some of the project’s features and flood impact maps.

Once the study is complete it will be proposed for congressional authorization and funding. If approved, it is expected to take 12 to 20 years to design and construct.

See here for the previous update. We are virtually certain to get a big honking infrastructure/stimulus bill from the Biden administration in its early days, and this project would fit nicely within it. All we need is for the Texas Congressional delegation to do its part. This will take a long time to build, as noted, so the less screwing around we do, the sooner we can get it started. In conclusion:

Indeed.

HISD also spending more money on mobile technology

Also good.

Houston ISD officials anticipate receiving a chunk of the $32 million that Harris County leaders allocated this week for helping school districts buy sought-after computers and wireless Internet hotspots.

HISD Chief Financial Officer Glenn Reed said early conversations with county officials suggest the district could get about $4 million for technology — an amount that the Texas Education Agency could match to lessen the district’s financial burden.

Trustees voted Thursday to approve spending an additional $31 million on computers and hotspots this fiscal year, which would help outfit students needing technology while learning from home. HISD plans to remain online-only from early September through at least mid-October, and all families have the option to continue virtual classes throughout the year.

“No one has said ($4 million) is the number that’s been agreed to, but right now, we think that’s potentially where it is,” Reed said.

[…]

HISD officials have stopped short of guaranteeing all students will have access to computers and hotspots by their Sept. 8 start date. Surveys taken in July showed about 22,750 students lacked a computer, while district officials did not receive responses for about 37,200 students. HISD expects to receive about 25,000 devices in August and another 40,000 in September or October.

Reed said the combination of county and federal funds has “allowed us to actually increase the number of devices we can purchase,” though the final tally remains in flux.

See here for the background. Given that the start of school has been pushed back to September 8, I hope that the vast majority of students who need this equipment can get it in time. It really is a shame we didn’t address this sooner, but here we are. Let’s make sure every kid has what they need to succeed.

Harris County to buy digital devices for students

An excellent use of CARES money.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday voted to spend up to $32 million in federal COVID-19 funds on providing hundreds of thousands of WiFi hotspots and devices to children in school districts across the county.

The funds, provided through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, will go toward the purchase of more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots. The county is partnering with the Texas Education Agency and T-Mobile as part of the initiative.

Commissioners stressed that the programs are targeted at low-income students, many of whom attend schools that could hold classes remotely during the fall due to the pandemic. Gov. Greg Abbott recently said public health authorities could not block schools within their jurisdictions from reopening, though he allowed for certain measures delaying the start of in-person instruction.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis cited a recent study that found about a quarter of Texas students lack the devices needed for at-home instruction, while about a third lack adequate internet access. Among the latter group, two-thirds are Black, Latino or Native American, the study found.

Honestly, this is the sort of thing that should have been done long ago, with the state providing the funds to every school district to ensure that all students everywhere could get online when they needed to. In the absence of that, this will have to do. Good job, Commissioners. A press release about this, with some extra details, from Commissioner Garcia is beneath the fold.

(more…)

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.

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.

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.

There won’t be furloughs after all

A slightly confusing bit of good news.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will not need to furlough roughly 3,000 city employees nor cancel its police cadet classes in the upcoming budget year, Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin announced during a city council budget committee meeting Tuesday.

Instead, the city will use federal coronavirus relief funds to help bridge its projected $169 million shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.

“No employee in the (City of Houston) will be furloughed,” Martin said.

The administration has updated Mayor Sylvester Turner’s initial budget proposal, eliminating many of the most dire consequences attributed to the revenue gap. The revised budget plan eliminates furloughs and adds back five cadet classes for police, Martin said.

It also adds another fire department cadet class, giving that department four classes. The new proposal also adds $15 million back into the city’s rainy day fund as hurricane season gets underway; Turner’s original spending plan would have exhausted that fund entirely.

The changes comes as the city has weighed how it can spend $404 million in federal funds it received through the CARES Act, part of a stimulus package approved by Congress.

The administration plans to use roughly $19 million of those funds to cover expenses for redeploying city employees from their normal duties to address the coronavirus pandemic, freeing some budgetary space. It is not clear if the city plans to use additional federal funds to cover the remaining costs of the budget revisions.

See here, here, and here for some background. I’ve said all along that the city could avoid all of the issues for this year if it could use that federal money for previously budgeted items. Apparently, they have decided that they can, or at least that there’s enough of the money available to fill other needs to make the math work. I can’t tell from this story what may have changed to go from apocalyptic warnings about layoffs and furloughs to this – maybe the city got clarity from the feds, maybe they came to this conclusion on their own, maybe there was enough wiggle room to allow for budget items to get moved around, who knows? This is the outcome that should have been from the beginning. Remember, a large part of budgeting is determined by the calendar – if these federal dollars had been allocated earlier, there wouldn’t have been so many “previously budgeted items” to worry about. I’m a little worried that someone is going to come along and try to stop the city from doing this, maybe by lawsuit or some other decree, but until then, I’m glad they worked this out. There are plenty of things to worry about going forward, like sales tax revenues, but buying a year’s time before that reckoning allows for another CARES Act or other positive development to occur. Sometimes kicking the can down the road is all you need to do.

Sharing is CARES-ing

I’m still trying to understand this.

The state of Texas and its 12 largest counties are in a tug-of-war over who is responsible for handing out federal coronavirus relief funding for some small cities.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March sent $11.24 billion in aid to the state. Of that, six Texas cities and 12 counties with a population more than 500,000 received more than $3.2 billion.

The other 242 counties and cities within those counties were allowed to apply for per capita funding allocations from the state out of the remaining $1.85 billion earmarked for local governments.

With an apparent gray area in the legislation, the CARES Act did not specify which entity — the state or the dozen large counties — should cover the small cities within the dozen counties that received direct funding. State leaders including Gov. Greg Abbott want the counties to pay; the counties want the state to share more of its cut.

The skirmish has meant that months after the major relief package was passed, funding for some Texas cities is in limbo, including for Houston-area suburbs such as Pasadena that have been hit with major outbreaks.

[…]

Abbott — as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and the state Senate Finance Committee and House Appropriations committee chairs and vice-chairs — in a May 11 letter placed the responsibility on the counties.

Two days later, the counties wrote to state leadership to ask for their reconsideration. While the counties account for about 69 percent of all COVID-19 cases, they received just about 29 percent of the relief funds, they wrote in a letter shared with Hearst Newspapers.

“We ask you to address this shortfall,” they wrote. “Counties are your frontline partners in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Help us help Texans stay in their homes, keep their jobs, and have food on their table.”

I guess I need to know more about what the priorities are here. It seems clear to me that the funds should be distributed based primarily on need, with any other considerations coming after that. By “need” I mean testing and support for frontline responders and hospitals, food and housing for those in financial distress, buying supplies like hand sanitizer and PPEs, that sort of thing. Whether that should come from the money allocated to the state or the money allocated to the larger counties, I don’t care. It should come from both, depending on their capacity. Maybe there is a good objective case for it to come from one source or the other – I can’t tell from this story – but even if that’s so, I’d want the state and counties to be working together to maximize the return on these federal dollars. That’s what really matters, doesn’t it?

School districts set to get financial relief for coronavirus

Good.

Texas will distribute the vast majority of a $1.29 billion federal stimulus package to school districts this summer, using it to deliver on a promise that schools will remain fully funded this school year despite statewide closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told school officials on a call Thursday.

State officials told school districts in March there would be no financial penalties for attendance declines, as COVID-19 fears spread and school districts were required to close their buildings. Now, Texas has decided to use its share of the federal stimulus package to fund that promise, distributing 90% directly to districts based on their student poverty rates, aiming to forestall layoffs and budget cuts.

Texas school districts can see how much they can expect to receive on the Texas Education Agency’s website. Houston Independent School District, the state’s most populous, will receive the highest award of $81.7 million.

On top of that stimulus package, Gov. Greg Abbott and state lawmakers agreed to reimburse all school districts for up to 75% of their pandemic-related expenses to date, using money from a federal grant awarded to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. School districts have spent a state total of about $392 million on COVID-19 expenses.

School districts in Texas are funded based on student attendance, meaning the statewide school closures could have been a major financial hit. “With school closed to in-person attendance for nearly a third of the school year, generating the remainder of that entitlement would be impossible without us stepping in and making some changes,” Morath said Thursday.

States are allowed to use the federal stimulus funding to offset budget holes. “Federal guidance explicitly authorizes it as a way for states to sustain their school finance system, as long as net state funding remains above prior years,” Morath said.

From the description in the story, I don’t have any specific concerns. It sounds like the districts are going to have their COVID expenses mostly covered, which is what should happen in times like these. Now we just need the same thing for cities and states.

What the next CARES act could mean for Texas cities and counties

Short answer, a lot.

Cities and counties across Texas would get more than $29 billion from the $3 trillion coronavirus relief package House Democrats want to pass as soon as Friday.

That includes more than $1.7 billion to Houston and nearly $1 billion to San Antonio as both cities stare down massive budget holes caused by the outbreak. Harris County’s funding could top $2.6 billion and Bexar could be on tap for more than $1 billion, as well. Texas, meanwhile, could get nearly $35.5 billion from a separate pool of funding to aid states.

That’s all according to estimates compiled by the Congressional Research Service, Congress’ public policy institute. The estimates, which cover the rest of 2020 and 2021, are based on some factors not yet known, such as unemployment and infection rates, so they’re not exact.

[…]

At the top of the Democrats’ list is sending $875 billion to states, cities and counties to help plug huge budget deficits. Cities can’t use the aid that Congress has offered so far to close those budget holes and cities across the country, including Houston and San Antonio, are starting to lay off employees and cut programs.

The bill would also for the first time offer coronavirus relief aide to smaller cities, as past relief packages have only directed funding to cities with 500,000 or more residents, meaning suburbs could get tens of millions. New Braunfels, for instance, could get nearly $30 million. Sugar Land could get more than $58.5 million.

There’s a list of cities and counties in Texas and the amounts they would get here. As noted, it’s broken out over two years, so Houston would get $1.18 billion this year and $580 million next year, while Harris County would get $1.76 billion this year and $881 million next year. That’s way more than the current Houston budget gap, so I presume a lot of that money is intended for other purposes as well, such as perhaps rental assistance and maybe rebuilding public health infrastructure. The main point here is that this is a demonstration that someone has learned the lesson from 2009, which is that massive cuts and layoffs in city and state budgets is a huge drag on any economic recovery effort. (That someone is the Democrats, though for at least a few minutes the Republicans have decided that they need to take whatever steps they have to in order to keep the economy from completely collapsing on Trump.) I don’t know what a final version of this might look like – there are certainly things the Dems could concede on – but if something like this passes and cities and counties and states can “balance” their budgets without taking a chainsaw to them, it would be a bug freaking deal. Daily Kos has more.

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.

Turner to ask feds for some relief

Can’t hurt to ask.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner is asking the federal government to let Houston use an estimated $400 million in aid to help close its ballooning budget gap and reduce the number of expected furloughs in the fiscal year that begins in July.

Turner said the CARES Act, part of the $2 trillion stimulus passed by Congress last month, will give the city much-needed resources, but the rules accompanying those funds prevent the city from using the dollars where they are most needed: the budget.

“You don’t have to appropriate us more dollars, just allow us to have flexibility with regard to those dollars that have already been awarded,” Turner said he told lawmakers. The mayor said the request was made in a letter to Congress signed by 110 other Texas mayors.

There are three rules for the federal aid, according to Turner: expenditures must be directly related to COVID-19, it cannot previously have been budgeted, and it must be spent by the end of this year.

That helps, Turner said, but it would help more to use the funds as a budget stopgap. Southwestern cities like Houston have incurred fewer direct pandemic expenses than northeast cities because they took earlier social distancing actions, Turner said. The real brunt for governments here is the projected drop in sales taxes, which is expected to punch a massive hole in the Houston’s already cash-strapped budget. Sales taxes are the city’s second largest revenue stream, after property taxes.

It’s that or budget catastrophe, and there’s no good reason why we should have to have the latter. Which doesn’t actually matter, since I’m sure the Trump administration will say No, and even if somehow they say Yes or the Turner administration tries to find some clever way around the obstacles in their path, state Republicans will turn fire and fury our way. Because, obviously, being able to stave off massive cuts from a budget shortfall that was unforeseen and no one’s fault is totally irresponsible. That’s just math. Anyway, this is the process before us. May as well see where it leads.

Metro will get some stimulus money

Good.

Transit agencies in southeastern Texas are set to receive more than $300 million to stem revenue losses linked to COVID-19, federal officials announced Thursday, most of it coming to Houston.

As part of the first round of Congress-approved stimulus funding, $25 billion will go to transit agencies nationwide, doled out by the Federal Transit Administration. The money “will ensure our nation’s public transportation systems can continue to provide services to the millions of Americans who depend on them,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a release.

Money will be distributed by urban areas, with most of Houston’s $258.6 million going to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which has seen ridership to drop to less than half its normal workday use. Bus and rail ridership Wednesday was 129,000, a 55 percent decline from the same day last year, Metro spokesman Jerome Gray said.

[…]

Fewer riders means less money coming in from fares, but that pales in comparison to the expected drop in sales tax collections Metro relies on for most of its funding. With various businesses closed and most of the Houston area hunkered down, collections from Metro’s 1 percent sales tax are expected to nosedive.

We’ve talked about the effect of the sales tax revenue decline before. This should help a bit, and there may be more coming. Having a fully functional transit system for when everyone gets to go back to work is going to be a big deal, so this is very encouraging.

The digital divide

Online learning is great, if you can get online.

The lack of access to technology among students — commonly referred to as the “digital divide” — has come into sharper focus in recent weeks as school districts across Houston transition to online-based learning amid widespread school shutdowns.

Districts throughout the region are scrambling to equip tens of thousands of children with computers and internet access, jockeying with each other to secure coveted devices in high demand during the pandemic. In the meantime, many districts are providing those students with rudimentary paper materials, asking families to return completed coursework to their schools or take pictures of completed worksheets and send them to teachers.

“This has been on the education docket for, gosh, probably at least 20 years,” said Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K-12 CTO Council, an association that supports school district chief technology officers. “It’s been a struggle for people to realize that this is an important piece of learning for students if we want to keep them competitive on a global scale.”

Educators and advocates long have warned about the digital divide facing American children, with the nation’s most impoverished children suffering most. The ubiquity and declining cost of computers and internet access has helped shrink the gap, but stark disparities remain.

In the Houston area’s 10 largest school districts, about 9 percent of households — nearly 142,650 — do not have a computer, according to the most recent U.S. Census estimates. Nearly twice that number — about 267,250 households — lack broadband internet access.

Three of the region’s largest and most impoverished districts — Alief, Aldine and Houston ISDs — face the greatest shortages, according to Census data and estimates from district leaders.

[…]

Despite extensive warnings about the digital divide, state and federal legislators have not allocated nearly enough funding to schools to cover costs associated with providing laptops, wireless internet devices and broadband services to all students at home.

Districts can obtain some technology and internet access at steep discounts through a federal program known as E-Rate, but the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“If we want our kids to be competitive and stay up-to-date with tech, we need to be investing in our students for the future,” Owen said. “We’ve got to get over the way school used to be run, and we need to think about the ways that schools are run in the future.”

In a letter sent last week to the top four ranking members of Congress, 35 Democratic senators called for providing $2 billion in E-Rate funds that would allow schools and libraries to deliver wireless internet devices to students without connectivity at home.

“Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education,” the senators wrote. “Congress must address this issue by providing financial support specifically dedicated to expanding home Internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education.”

Maybe addressing this could be part of Infrastructure Week, or maybe it can be its own item. As the story notes, HISD and some other districts issue laptops to high school students – my daughter has one – which helps with those students, but obviously only goes so far. Charters are not exempt – KIPP reports a similar issue with its students. This is, plain and simple, an issue of poverty. If fixing the underlying issue is too hard, then maybe we can agree that all students need to have the equipment required for an education, and provide them all with laptops and Internet access. The choice is ours – are we going to learn from this crisis, or are we going to face the same problems the next time, without the excuse that we didn’t know any better?

Is it finally going to be Infrastructure Week?

I have three things to say about this:

Lawmakers have been talking about striking a deal to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure for years. It might take a pandemic to finally get them to do it, and Texas officials are already working on their wish lists, with ports, highways, high-speed internet and more potentially on the line.

There’s growing talk of tackling infrastructure as the next step in Congress to stave off economic collapse from the coronavirus outbreak, following the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Wednesday that House Democrats are beginning work now on the next package, including “bold action to renew America’s infrastructure.”

President Donald Trump appears to be on board.

“With interest rates for the United States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long awaited Infrastructure Bill,” Trump tweeted. “It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Trillion Dollars, and be focused solely on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our Country!”

In Texas that could mean a massive injection of federal funding to rebuild highways and bridges, expand ports and brace waterways for future floods. The federal push could also expand much-needed broadband — which 2 million Texans don’t have — with many Americans now stuck at home, relying on the internet for work, school, telemedicine and more.

“Getting the infrastructure bill done makes a lot of sense,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, a Houston Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It will be a really important driver to get our country up and running and back to work once we’re on the other side of COVID-19.”

[…]

In the Houston area, planned widening of Interstate 10 in Fort Bend and Waller counties could be at the top of a priority list of projects, along with expanding Texas 146 from two to three lanes in each direction to relieve a well-known truck bottleneck.

Metropolitan Transit Authority has a long list of projects, but also is still drafting much of its $7.5 billion plan, making it unclear whether Houston’s costliest train and bus projects are ready to reap federal dollars.

Then there are the ports and the Intercoastal Waterway, which will likely be at the top of the list for any major federal infrastructure package, said Ed Emmett, the former Harris County Judge who is now a senior fellow at Rice University.

The Houston Ship Channel needs to be deepened and widened, for one thing. Officials with the Port of Houston have been lobbying for federal help for the $1 billion project that would allow the nation’s busiest waterway to accommodate two-way traffic.

[…]

Emmett said he’ll believe there’s federal infrastructure money coming when he sees it.

“I’m a total cynic when it comes to this,” he said. “Anytime there’s a crisis Congress always says infrastructure — ‘we’re going to go spend on infrastructure’ — and it never happens.”

1. What Ed Emmett says. Past attempts at Infrastructure Week have failed because Donald Trump has the attention span of a toddler who’s been guzzling Red Bull. Show me a bill that at least one chamber has on track for hearings and a vote, and get back to me.

2. If we do get as far as writing a bill, then please let’s limit the amount of money we throw at TxDOT for the purpose of widening highways even more. Fund all of Metro’s projects. Get Lone Star Rail, hell even the distant dream of a high speed rail line from Monterrey to Oklahoma City, off the ground. Build overpasses or underpasses at as many freight rail traffic crossings as possible. Make broadband internet truly universal – hell, make it a public utility and break up the local monopolies on broadband. You get the idea.

3. Ike Dike. Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike, Ike Dike. Seriously, any gazillion-dollar infrastructure plan that doesn’t fully fund some kind of Gulf Coast flood mitigation scheme is not worth the paper it’s printed on. Ike Dike or GTFO.

The federal stimulus package includes money for elections

What we’ll do with it remains unknown at this time.

Be like Hank, except inside

The $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package Congress is working to pass this week includes $400 million for election costs states face in wrestling with how to hold high-profile 2020 elections in a time of social distancing.

Advocates estimate the that could mean as much as $20 million for Texas, where state officials have so far opted to delay election dates — including pushing back a runoff to pick the Democratic challenger to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn until mid-July — rather than expand vote-by-mail options or offer up online voter registration.

It’s unclear how the state would use the funding — which still has to clear Congress and get signed by President Donald Trump — but advocates were already pushing for state leaders to consider expanding mail-in voting and offering online registration, something 39 states do now.

“Every Texan needs should be able to safely register to vote and cast their ballot whether by mail or in person,” Anthony Gutierrez, Executive Director of Common Cause Texas, said in a statement. “The way we make that happen is to use these funds to implement online voter registration, expand vote by mail, extend early voting, recruit more election workers, and ensure all poll sites meets public health safety standards.”

I don’t know if $20 million is enough to accomplish that, but then I also don’t know what if any conditions there are on this money. I hope there are some and that they are clear, because I have no doubt that our state leadership would use the money in some way that they could claim was about supporting the 2020 elections but really wasn’t. I have no idea what that may be, but I have faith in their ability to conjure something.

The Republican death wish

It would be one thing if they were just putting their own lives at risk, but that’s not how viruses work.

After Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins became the first to announce a mandatory stay-at-home rule, conservative groups including Empower Texans began ringing alarms in opposition to Jenkins and to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who they say paved the way for the move.

Abbott had said he would applaud local leaders who felt they should issue stay-at-home orders for their communities.

“I’m extremely concerned about what Dallas Co just did, and Abbott’s apparent sanctioning of it,” Empower Texans president Ross Kecseg wrote on Twitter.

So far, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is the highest-ranking state official to echo those concerns.

“What I’m living in fear of is what is happening to this country,” Patrick said in a Fox News interview. “I don’t want the whole country to be sacrificed.”

Patrick, who turns 70 next week, went on to say he’d be willing to risk his own life and well-being to help preserve the way of life for other Americans — a statement that drew harsh rebukes on social media and inspired hashtags such as #DieForTheDow.

[…]

Critics of the stay-at-home orders are contradicting the advice of public health authorities at every level of government, from the World Health Organization to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to local health officials. Epidemiologists have stressed that keeping people apart is the best way to fight back against a new virus for which there is no vaccine, and that aggressive early steps are the only way to get ahead of COVID-19.

The discord in Texas mirrors what’s going on at the national level with Republican governors showing more reluctance than Democratic ones, like Cuomo, to shutting down their states, said Timothy Callaghan, assistant professor of health policy and politics at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

“On the one hand, they certainly want to protect the public health, but they are also afraid about hindering the freedoms of their citizens and they’re also concerned about the economic impact of having society in many ways shut down,” Callaghan said. “It’s a tricky balancing act for many politicians on the conservative side.”

Not only does that send Texans a mixed message but Callaghan said it could also reduce the effectiveness of the orders.

“If you want to see a true impact of flattening the curve throughout the state of Texas, it’s important for it to be a statewide policy,” Callaghan said. “Certainly in those areas that choose to enact some sort of shelter in place policy, you’re going to see some effect, but we don’t know if it’s going to be a smaller effect than if the entire state had chosen to do something.”

See here for the background. It’s not actually clear that they want to protect public health, since everyone who knows anything about public health and epidemiology is practically shouting from the rooftops that these shutdowns are necessary and we risk having literally millions of people die without them. Indeed, rightwing magazines are touting the virtues of deliberately spreading coronavirus, in a ridiculous and dangerous belief that it’s preferable to social distancing. I suspect there’s a certain amount of cognitive dissonance going on, since the one thing that can mitigate the economic impact of the stay-at-home orders is massive government action to put money in people’s pockets to replace the income they’d be losing, and that would seem to be the thing that Dan Patrick fears more than his own death. It’s clear that they’re taking their direction from Donald Trump, because that’s what they do these days and Trump is getting tired of the whole pandemic thing. It will be interesting to see if actual elected Republicans turn on Greg Abbott if he however reluctantly orders a statewide shutdown. In the meantime, I don’t know what there is to say other than there’s one way to get through this without a lot of people dying, and what these Republicans are agitating about is not it.

B-Cycle’s future

There’s some trouble in San Antonio.

San Antonio B-Cycle could be on the verge of following rideshare and disappearing from the San Antonio landscape, multiple sources have told the Rivard Report, unless it can win the local government, corporate and philanthropic financial support that bikeshare enjoys in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Houston, and Austin. The same sources said Cindi Snell, the unpaid executive director since B-Cycle’s started here, announced at a Tuesday B-Cycle board meeting that she has decided to step down later this year. Snell has recently told friends and colleagues in the cycling community that she is exhausted after four years of unsuccessful efforts to win any major sponsorships and operating on a bare bones budget and pro bono support services to survive.

Sources say the B-Cycle board will have to consider shutting down or scaling back operations even as it seeks a new executive director, which it lacks funds to pay. One option would be to turn down the $1.2 million TXDOT grant to avoid the increased operating costs associated with an expanded network, but that would signal an end to rideshare’s growth in San Antonio, disappoint many neighborhoods awaiting stations, and the board would still face an underfunded system that would have to operate after losing Snell, bikeshare’s strongest and most visible advocate in San Antonio.

The bulk of funds that have built the San Antonio B-Cycle system flowed through the City’s budget from federal stimulus programs, and like the pending TXDOT grant, were for bikes and stations. Snell, co-owner of the Bike World cycling stores, has worked full-time for free while B-Cycle’s seven employees are paid modest salaries or hourly wages. The City, County and regional government entities do not contribute any funding to support B-Cycle. The 80/20 Foundation and Baptist Health Foundation have each contributed $50,000 grants this year, but no national company or locally-based company has shown interest in sponsoring bikeshare in the city.

That story, which has been shared 126 times after being posted to the San Antonio B-Cycle Facebook page, has generated promises from city leaders that they would work to save the program, but as yet I’ve not seen any reports saying that a sponsor or other funding source has been found. San Antonio was the first city in Texas to get B-Cycle, and it’s been very successful, with more stations and bikes and checkouts than Houston’s B-Cycle. It would be a big loss for them if it can’t sustain that success. Next City has more.

Meanwhile, Houston has a sponsor for its existing B-Cycle stations and is looking for more grant money to allow for further expansion.

Houston so far has avoided pitfalls, said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle, by stretching the seed money it received from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas in 2013 to expand the system.

“That and the fact that we have operated on a very lean basis,” Rub said. “We have been able to cover approximately 70 percent of our operating expenses through the income generated by the system, therefore we’ve been able to stretch the sponsorship dollars. We’ve even had a few months where the system income has exceeded our monthly operating expenses.”

More money would help Houston to expand the system. Right now it is focused on downtown and nearby areas such as the Museum District, Midtown and Montrose. Adding stations or offering service in additional neighborhoods, like the Heights or close to the University of Houston and Memorial Park, would require corporate partnerships or grant funding.

Rub said he has applied for funding from the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal money for transportation options such as biking. The proposal would be for $3.4 million from H-GAC, with the local B-Cycle matching 20 percent of that with money they collect from fares or raise via other sources.

“If we receive the award we will put a plan into action that will result in adding 71 more stations over the next two-plus years,” he said.

The plan would also add 600 bikes.

“That would establish a very well networked bike share program,” Rub said.

If the H-GAC proposal does not happen, Rub said, finding a title sponsor would be hugely important to maintaining and expanding the system.

“We, along with the entire bike share industry, feel that we can provide a great deal of value to a title sponsor,” Rub said. “But bike share is still a relatively new industry and doesn’t have the advertising industry metrics to justify the investment, from a sponsor’s perspective. That is the challenge faced by many of the programs around the country.”

I hope they can get that grant and execute that expansion plan. I also hope they will have the same kind of backing from the next Mayor as they have had from the current one. You know how I feel about this sort of thing.

Fixing pipes needs to be part of the state water plan

The idea of conservation is to use less than you are currently using. When a large part of your water usage is due to leaks and losses, any sensible plan for conservation should start with addressing the underlying issues causing those leaks.

About 40 percent of the pipes supplying Houston’s water are still in use years past their life expectancy with some dating back nearly a century to the era of the Ford Model T and 2-cent stamp.

When last year’s historic drought and searing 100-degree temperatures put added pressure on the city’s aging infrastructure, it sprouted 11,000 leaks. Some of these ruptured pipes gushed for days and weeks.

The city lost or could not account for 19 percent of its water in the 2011 fiscal year that ended in June. That amount escalated in September and October of last year when about one-fourth of the city’s water was being lost, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle showed.

“We don’t need that much water running down a rat hole,” said Dale Thompson, a Houston engineer who has served on several water district boards. “For instance, I saw crews patch the same short stretch of Gessner near my home about five or six times this past year.”

[…]

According to recently released city records, about 40 percent, or 3,000 miles, of the pipelines winding through Houston have already been used longer than 50 years – which industry experts say is the average life expectancy for a pipe.

The city has no idea of the exact age of the bulk of these pipes – except that they are well past their prime.

A third of the city’s pipelines – some 2,500 miles – had their date of installation accidentally omitted when handwritten data was converted to new records about 50 or 60 years ago, authorities said.

Houston is not the only community reaching a critical juncture where it needs to replace aging infrastructure inherited from previous generations. The American Water Works Association released a report this year that warns $1 trillion will be needed to replace America’s aging pipelines over the next 25 years.

Ari Copeland, a water engineer with the association, said municipal governments don’t want to deal with the high cost of digging up and replacing these old lines. “Some in New England date to the 1800s and are still made of wood,” Copeland said.

That Trib story from last week about conserving water discussed fixing broken pipes as part of the overall picture. The reason municipalities don’t like having to deal with this is because of the large capital costs. It’s truly unfortunate that a few billion dollars to begin to address this issue wasn’t part of the original stimulus package of 2009 and hasn’t been seriously discussed since then, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. What we can do in Texas is insist that there be a provision for helping cities pay for repairs and improvements to their water infrastructure as part of the state’s overall water plan. Losing water needlessly like this costs everybody.

It’s not so easy being green

For cities, anyway, at this time.

Easy for him, at least

College Station, the maroon-hued home of Texas A&M University, is finding it is not easy being green.

Four years after launching an ambitious local effort to fight global warming, city leaders say their high hopes have fallen to hard economic realities, forcing them to abandon their green-at-all-costs approach.

The College Station City Council decided last month that its green efforts should be “fiscally responsible” and create “a real and tangible return of investment to the city.” The city also no longer will strive be a leader in energy efficiency and the reduction of emissions from carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases.

“Enthusiasm remains, but it is tempered by the current economy,” said Bob Cowell, the city’s planning director.

So, now the city, for example, will look at the cost of maintenance and the lifespan of a hybrid vehicle before buying one. If the objective is a greener fleet, the city may look at reducing its size, instead of adding another hybrid, Cowell said.

“We are being a little more deliberate,” he said.

The problem is that these things have sizable up front costs, which are recouped over some number of years in lower energy expenses. Cities and states are still feeling large effects of the economic collapse from 2008, so investments of all kinds tend to get deferred, no matter how good the payoff is. The federal government helped once with the stimulus, and it would make a lot of sense to do it again what with interest rates being as low as they are and the need being as strong as ever, but suffice it to say that ain’t gonna happen any time soon. So here we are, and when cities are able to start doing this again it’ll wind up costing them more, both from the lost time and from higher interest payments.

Texas’ unemployment rate spikes

Texas unemployment rate hits its highest mark since 1987. That’s probably not the kind of headline Rick Perry wants to read right now.

As Gov. Rick Perry touts job creation and limited government on the campaign trail, the Texas’ unemployment rate tied a 1987 record in July and the Austin-area took the brunt of the state’s job losses in the public sector.

The Texas Workforce Commission on Friday termed the employment results “mixed” because the state added 29,300 jobs but the seasonally adjusted jobless rate increased from 8.2 percent in June to 8.4 percent last month.

Having the state tie a 24-year high for unemployment rate could be coming at just the wrong time for Perry. Perry has long called Texas a national jobs-creation leader in a country besieged by unemployment. He traveled through Iowa this week on a bus with “get America working again” painted on the side.

The latest unemployment numbers could weaken that message. The rate hasn’t been this high since the mid-1980s oil bust. And even though Texas has received numerous accolades for creating more jobs in recent years than any other state, 26 states had a lower unemployment rate in July.

In other words, Texas’ unemployment rate is slightly worse than the median, and is now only 0.7 points better than the national rate. What a miracle!

There’s more from the Chron and the Trib. I have often complained in this space about how a writer from some national media outlet will do a story about Texas that gets things fundamentally wrong, but so far it’s a non-Texan who has made a critical point about these figures that has been unmentioned by the locals. As Jared Bernstein has pointed out, an awful lot of Texas’ job growth in recent years has come from the govern sector. As quite a few of those jobs were in public education, the stimulus played a large role as well. We are of course now seeing many of these jobs get lost, thanks for the most part to the state’s budget cuts. Growth elsewhere is thankfully enough to offset that, and since many school districts had been prepared for even worse cuts than what they ultimately got, fewer education jobs than originally anticipated will be lost. The point is that Texas’ job picture is much better than it otherwise would have been in the past thanks to government hiring, and it will not be as good as it could be in the future thanks to government firings. You can’t talk about Rick Perry and jobs without talking about that if you want to tell the whole story.

Subsidies for jobs

Let’s be clear about what this is, shall we?

When Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst crisscrossed the state last year touting his program to provide state subsidies to anyone who would hire unemployed workers, Texas employers lined up.

To the state’s most powerful lawmaker, the rationale for wage subsidies was simple: The Texas economy would benefit and state government could save money if employers would hire Texans who were starting to receive unemployment benefits.

Put them to work rather than put them on the dole.

“We’re talking about creating jobs that will continue long term, not just for several months,” Dewhurst said at the time. “This is smart money.”

Over the past 15 months, more than 3,000 employers -— from conglomerates to mom-and-pop establishments — have answered the call. More than 12,000 people have been hired into jobs in call centers, restaurants, security firms, banks, warehouses and retail stores.

For every person hired into a $15-per-hour or less job, employers received $500 a month from the state for up to four months.

The Texas Back to Work program proved so popular that it spent its $16.3 million in state money in a matter of months and went on to spend an additional $5.1 million in federal funds. The U.S. Department of Labor also gave the program an award for being innovative.

Now after 15 months, Dewhurst has proposed that the Legislature allocate $15 million in state funds to extend the program. And that, in turn, raises questions about how effective the program has been at meeting its goals.

Has the program saved the state money? Has it created jobs? Or has the program used state money to fill jobs that would have been filled anyway?

This is what is commonly called an economic stimulus program. It’s when you spend government money for the purpose of enabling job creation. People tend to freak out when it’s done by a Democratic President, but when a Republican Lieutenant Governor does it, no one bats an eye. I’ll leave it to you to figure out why that is.

Federal education funds officially on their way

That’s $830 million that the Senate was counting on for education funds that it will now officially have.

Just two weeks after a bipartisan federal budget deal ended an eight-month impasse over $830 million in federal education funding, the U.S. Department of Education agreed Friday to send Texas the money that previously had been in dispute.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan quietly made the announcement on Good Friday. But Texas Republicans immediately declared victory in a two-front political war that had been waged for months.

“Today our schoolchildren and teachers received the funding they should have never been denied,” said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, who led Texas House Republican efforts to secure the aid. “This $830 million will give our schoolchildren, teachers and communities additional funding during this financial crisis. Today is indeed Good Friday.”

Burgess said he received word of the aid reversal during a conversation with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had condemned the attempt by Texas congressional Democrats to attach strings to the federal school funding.

Texas Democrats, led by Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, had required the state to pledge that it would not divert the federal education funding to other uses as the Legislature attempts to plug a state budget shortfall.

Republicans will celebrate the political win, which resulted from the budget deal that avoided a federal government shutdown, and everyone in Texas is no doubt glad to have these funds, but Doggett was right to do what he did. In the end, this money will be used for education and not for plugging other holes in our own budget, so as far as that goes Doggett got some of what he wanted as well. What happens in 2013 will be up to that Legislature.

Doggett Amendment repealed as part of budget-shutdown deal

Oh, the things that can happen in the dark of night.

In a victory for Gov. Rick Perry, the most recent Congressional budgetary stopgap — passed Friday night to avoid closing the federal government — contains language that repeals the “Save Our Schools” amendment from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. The measure would have prohibited Texas from using federal dollars to replace state funding of schools.

Last summer, Doggett and other Democrats in the House supported an amendment to a bill allocating $10 billion in federal funding for education that said Texas couldn’t use its portion — $830 million — to supplant rather than supplement state public education money. Because Perry refused to guarantee future funding without the permission of state lawmakers, the Department of Education denied the Texas application for money. In a Jan. 10 New York Times letter to the editor, Doggett wrote that he worked to pass the measure because Perry and state lawmakers used $3.25 billion in federal stimulus dollars marked for education to replace state funding for schools in 2009.

The US House had repealed the Doggett Amendment in February, but that was before the hostage standoff that resulted in last weekend’s deal. Even before that, there was speculation that the funds would come our way, and indeed the Senate version of the budget assumed those funds would be available. I still wish someone would provide me with a roadmap for when federal money is pure and wholesome and when it’s the tool of the devil. Anyway, it looks like we will get this money after all, and given how dire the budget is there really isn’t a bad way for it to be used.

San Antonio bike share

I love the idea of B-Cycle, San Antonio’s new bike sharing program, I’m just not sure how well it will work.

“I think it will encourage faster infrastructure for bike lanes and all the things we need because suddenly it’s there, visitors will use it, and we need to make sure we can get around,” said Cindi Snell, executive director of San Antonio B-cycle and co-owner of Bike World, the local bike shop that won the contract from the city to run the new program.

This is also the first such bicycle-sharing program in Texas, a fact not lost on anyone Saturday.

“Yee haw,” Snell said. “We don’t ever do anything first. I’m just so excited that we have it before Austin.”

The city received stimulus funds, plus grant money for the program from the Energy Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bike World created a nonprofit called San Antonio Bike Share, which will administer B-cycle, a national bike-share program.

Bike World will maintain the bicycles and run the daily operations. The organization has hired a full-time operations manager who will monitor bike maintenance and ensure they are evenly distributed throughout the city, Snell said.

[…]

Bicycles, 140 total, will be distributed among 14 docking stations in or near downtown; all but one, at the UTSA Downtown Campus, are now open.

Users can rent the bicycles free for the first half-hour and $2 for each half-hour after that, or pay $10 and keep them 24 hours.

A seven-day membership is available for $24, and an annual pass costs $60 for adults and $48 for seniors or students.

I guess I’m thinking of it as a value proposition for the casual bike user. A decent new bike will run you a couple hundred dollars, or you can get a used bike pretty cheaply. I bought one a few weeks ago for $40. On the other hand, joining a program like this saves the hassle of looking for an affordable bike and won’t take up any space in your garage or apartment, so there is definitely some appeal. I wish them good luck with the effort.

When I read this story, I thought that Houston might have been a better fit for the trial run of this – we have a pretty decent bike infrastructure, and a lot of people living in the city’s inner core. Turns out I was right to think so – Houston is on the way to getting its own bike share program, thanks to a grant from the EPA that will help with the startup funds. Here’s a KUHF story and a Houston Tomorrow post about that. There’s also a Houston Bike Share Facebook page, though it’s not exactly overflowing with fans just yet. I wanted to know more, so I contacted Laura Spanjian with a few questions. Here’s what I learned:

– The City expects to have bike stations installed, electronic access system and customer website implemented, and bike sharing up and running by fall of 2011. This will begin with three stations at which five to seven bikes will be available, at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Market Square, and City Hall. Longer term, this will be extended to the rest of the city, with about 500 bikes available in all. A map of the pilot stations plus more information about how bike sharing works is here.

– In the meantime, logistical issues such as who will operate the bike share – in many cities, such as San Antonio, it’s handled by a non-profit – are being worked out. You can find out more details in this fact sheet Spanjian sent me.

– Houston has a number of excellent off-road bike trails, but the bike infrastructure on the streets is lacking. The task force working on this will be considering ways to make what we’ve got work better for bicyclists so that more people will be encouraged to give it a try.

– Along those lines, I asked Spanjian who the target audience is for a bike share program. She said not the hardcore bicyclists, since they have their own rides, but folks who have an interest in bike riding but also have concerns about safety. I presume this might include people who aren’t willing to shell out three or four hundred bucks on a bike on the chance they might not feel comfortable riding it but who could be persuaded to shell out, say, ten bucks for a day.

– B-Cycle, the group running the San Antonio Bike Share, will be in town on April 20 at the City Hall Farmer’s Market to demonstrate how the program works. I’m going to try to be there to check it out.

So there you have it. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes in San Antonio, and how it gets implemented here.

House repeals Doggett Amendment

This may be a partial answer to my earlier question about the status of the $830 million in federal education funds that await Texas if Governor Perry will attest that they will be actually spent on education.

In the latest round of the political feud over $830 million in federal funding, House Republicans, led by U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, passed a bill Saturday that blocks the enforcement of the Texas-specific Education Jobs amendment.

Republicans do not like the amendment, introduced by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, last summer, because it requires Texas — and only Texas — to guarantee that it will maintain state funding for education throughout 2013. Democrats support the amendment because it requires the state to use the federal money to supplement, rather than supplant, its public education funding.

[…]

“There is a clear path to get this money,” Doggett said. “All the governor needs to do is sign a three-page application, like the one he signed to get the $3.25 billion of aid he kept for purposes other than education.” That $3.25 billion would be the federal stimulus money— marked for education — Perry accepted in 2009 and used to offset spending in other areas of the budget.

In a statement, Burgess said, “The schoolchildren and teachers in Texas will finally have the opportunity to receive the $830 million they should have had in the first place. This money should have never been denied when the original bill passed, and it is a shame that Mr. Doggett put education funding at risk.”

The legislation still has to make it through the Democratically-controlled Senate, where U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn have sponsored a companion bill.

Two points. One, if this thing makes it through the Senate I have a hard time seeing it get Presidential approval, given that Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently warned Texas to fish or cut bait. What possible reason could President Obama have to fold on this and give Rick Perry an unqualified propaganda victory?

And two, I seem to have lost the ability to determine when it is that federal funds for Texas are evil and fascistic and must be resisted lest they pollute our precious bodily fluids, and when they are good and wholesome and must be fought for. Is there, like, a Wikipedia page or something I could use as a guide to aid me in these matters? Thanks.

The balanced budget fantasy

There’s really only one thing to say about this.

One of Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign staples last year was that America would be a far better place if it were more like the Lone Star State — limited government, fewer taxes, sensible regulation and, of course, a balanced budget.

Now, Perry and his cohorts in the Texas Legislature are making that critique more explicit by pushing for a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment that would force Congress to do what those in Texas are required to do: balance the budget annually.

Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst called for a federal balanced budget amendment in their inaugural addresses, and Perry declared support for a balanced federal budget an emergency issue, which means that lawmakers can begin to consider it right away.

“It fits into his overall philosophy about government and fiscal responsibility,” Perry spokesman Mark Miner said. “In Texas, at the end of the day, the budget will be balanced. It’s the Texas way versus the federal way, which is to continue spending without being accountable.”

Dewhurst, in an Austin American-Statesman article co-written with state Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, contended that Congress “lacks fiscal responsibility and is spending all of us into serious debt. … It is time for Texas to lead the way and seek a convention so that the states may propose a national balanced budget amendment.”

In Washington, another Texan is making a similar push. U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, along with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and 21 other senators introduced a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution last week.

Let’s put aside the economic illiteracy of this proposal – Lord only knows how much higher the unemployment rate would be right now if the federal government had been forced to cut a bunch of spending in 2009. And let’s put aside the irony of Perry, Dewhurst, et al lecturing others on fiscal responsibility given that they’ve presided over budget deficits in three of the last five Legislative sessions – they were bailed out of having to face up to it last time thanks to the federal stimulus that they all profess to hate – and given that they’ve built a structural deficit into Texas’ budget thanks to the irresponsible 2006 property tax cuts. Let’s just focus on one simple question: Why, after ten years of governoring, is this such a high priority for Rick Perry right now? I mean, it’s not like the federal government wasn’t running deficits during his first eight years in office. In fact, when Rick Perry took office, the federal government was in surplus, thanks to the economic policies of President Bill Clinton, but it didn’t take long for President Bush to fix that. But only now that Bush is safely out of office is Rick Perry concerned about this. Whyever do you suppose that may be?