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The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

The contract health worker surge

Don’t know how sustainable this is.

Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System, said the hospitals in the system were at a breaking point when he learned that 100 temporary medical workers were being sent to help.

As cases surged, the hospitals were admitting more children and pregnant women with complications from COVID-19, and patients who needed intensive care waited in emergency rooms for ICU beds to become available.

The nurses, respiratory therapists and other contract staff “definitely arrived here at a pivotal moment,” Porsa said. “They did exactly what I had hoped that they would do, which is allowing us the opportunity of a couple of things: to provide a little bit of relief for front-line staff who have been running around ragged, but also created an opportunity for us to expand our capacity.”

[…]

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the Texas Department of State Health Services would deploy state-funded relief workers to hospitals, and 8,100 have either arrived from other states or are expected soon.

It’s the second time the state has taken such action. At the height of the state’s winter surge, almost 14,000 medical workers were deployed across the state, according to DSHS. From July 2020 to early August of this year, the state spent more than $5 billion in federal disaster funds and coronavirus relief funds on medical personnel.

Abbott’s move came after hospitals and local health officials complained that they were having to outbid each other to hire contract nurses amid a statewide shortage of hospital staff.

W. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, said that competition among hospitals meant “they’re going to take from Peter to give to Paul, so to speak. That’s why using the state with their purchasing power [is important].”

The new push to bring more health workers to Texas comes as many have reached their limits, said Carrie Williams, spokesperson for the Texas Hospital Association.

“This surge has come faster and stronger than previous surges, and it comes at a time when the frontline [worker] is burned out,” Williams said in a statement. “We were already starting from behind when this surge hit.”

According to DSHS, the state’s hospitals requested more than 15,000 temporary staffers between Aug. 12 and Aug. 25. As of Aug. 25, almost 4,000 have been deployed, with most going to regions with the state’s most populous counties and metro areas.

[…]

Health officials continue to stress that the main way to reduce the need for additional staff is clear: more vaccinations. As of Aug. 25, about 47% of Texans were fully vaccinated.

Since Jan. 1, Porsa said, everyone who has died at LBJ Hospital and Ben Taub Hospital from COVID-19 has been unvaccinated.

“Space is not unlimited, resources are not unlimited,” Porsa said. “At some point it doesn’t matter how many nurses you throw at the problem, we are going to arrive at a situation where we’re not going to have enough clinicians, we’re not going to have enough doctors, we’re not going to have enough something else.

“We will run out of options at some point, and this is really really important for people to realize that this cannot go on forever, and they know what the solution is.”

It’s still not clear to me how there could even be that many not currently working medical staff out there to be brought in, but they do exist in some number, for which we are grateful and lucky. It’s also not clear at what point demand will outstrip supply, and as noted above, we may run into other limits even sooner than that.

How long can we last? There’s actually a tiny bit of cause for optimism in the most recent data.

The average number of daily COVID hospitalizations in the Texas Medical Center dropped for the first time since early July from a record 390 patients to 388, the medical center reported Monday.

The metric reflects the daily average of hospitalized patients over the previous week. The drop comes amid declining COVID hospitalizations both nationally and statewide.
A three-day decline in total COVID hospitalizations in Texas brought the number to 13,557 on Saturday, the most recent day for which data is available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported a drop in the average number of new daily hospitalizations nationwide, from 12,354 on Thursday to 12,051 on Friday. More recent national data is not yet available.

Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine, said the decline is part of the natural course of the pandemic.

“When you see an outbreak like this, the virus kind of runs through the population until it gets to the point where it starts running out of people to infect,” he said, adding, “That does not mean herd immunity.”

He warned that the virus still has room to spread, especially as schools reopen. In an interview last week, McDeavitt said hospitals will continue to feel the strain of the current surge as cases decline.

Burnout among nurses, lingering staffing shortages and the record number of hospitalizations all factor into a longer recovery period.

“From the peak, we’re probably still a month-and-a-half to getting to something that feels like business as usual,” he said last week. “So best case, we’re into October now before we start to get some relief.”

So don’t get too cocky. It’s good that maybe we’ve peaked and will start to see a decline, but we’re still a long way out from where we were in May and June, and we could easily reverse course again. We need to keep getting people vaccinated, because the alternative is more of what we’re going through now.

The feds prepare to enter the mask mandate fight

Good.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott may soon be fighting a war on two fronts — with local officials and the federal government — to stave off mandatory COVID-19 prevention efforts after the Biden administration announced Wednesday it was going after states like Texas that try to ban universal masking at schools.

Saying that the federal government will not “sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators from protecting our children,” Biden said he will use the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights enforcement authority to deter states from blocking mask mandates in classrooms.

“I’m directing the Secretary of Education, an educator himself, to take additional steps to protect our children,” Biden said. “This includes using all of his oversight authorities and legal action, if appropriate, against governors trying to block and intimidate local school officials.”

“If you aren’t going to fight COVID-19, at least get out of the way of everyone else who’s trying,” Biden added.

Biden didn’t directly name Texas or Abbott in his Wednesday remarks, but both Florida and Texas have made national headlines for efforts to block schools from requiring masks, even as children under 12 remain ineligible for the vaccine and the delta variant affects mostly the unvaccinated.

Biden’s announcement could tee up another legal battle for Abbott, who is already fighting in state court Texas school districts which have implemented mask mandates as school kicked off this month. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

More than 50 school districts and at least eight counties are currently defying or have recently violated Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates, according to a tally released Wednesday by Attorney General Ken Paxton.

[…]

Last week, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel A. Cardona sent Abbott and Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath a letter expressing support for local school districts that have implemented mask mandates.

Cardona said in the letter that school districts had received COVID-19 relief funds to use for “contact tracing, implementing indoor masking policies, or other policies aligned with CDC guidance” and that the federal government was monitoring whether the state’s ban was in line with fiscal requirements attached to those funds. Texas has received $18 billion for public schools in COVID-19 relief dollars from the federal government and has already released $11 billion of it to the districts to spend.

Hard to know exactly what this means right now. Most likely, we’ll learn more in the coming days, and this is just an early flare to give some warning that stuff is about to happen. There needs to be a clear statement about what is expected, and what will happen if a state isn’t living up to it. As with the school districts defying Abbott on his mask mandate ban, if there’s no known mechanism of enforcement, it’s all voluntary. As I noted yesterday, the Biden administration can also get involved with the lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Texas, but that’s independent of whatever this will be. I want ’em both, and the sooner the better.

Abbott flails about on the COVID surge

He remains committed to the bit.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced new moves Monday to fight the coronavirus pandemic as it rages again in Texas, including asking hospitals to again put off certain elective procedures to free up space for COVID-19 patients.

Still, the governor did not back down on his refusal to institute any new statewide restrictions on businesses or to let local governments and schools mandate masks or vaccines.

Instead, Abbott announced he had written to the Texas Hospital Association asking hospitals to “voluntarily postpone medical procedures for which delay will not result in loss of life or a deterioration in the patient’s condition.” As coronavirus was consuming the state last summer, Abbott took a more restrictive approach and banned elective surgeries in over 100 counties before ending the prohibition in September.

Abbott also announced Monday he was asking state agencies to open additional COVID-19 antibody infusion centers that aim to treat COVID-19 patients with therapeutic drugs and keep them from requiring hospitalization. And he said the Department of State Health Services “will be utilizing staffing agencies to provide medical personnel from out-of-state to Texas health care facilities to assist in COVID-19 operations.”

That is a reversal for the state. In July, the state told cities and counties it would not send additional health care workers to aid hospitals with the latest surge of COVID-19 patients, like it had earlier in the pandemic. Instead, state officials said, city and county leaders should dip into $10.5 billion worth of federal stimulus dollars to pay for those workers should hospitals need them.

[…]

As part of Monday’s announcement, Abbott’s office said he was directing state agencies to “increase vaccination availability across the state” but did not provide further details.

“Texans can help bolster our efforts by getting vaccinated against COVID-19,” Abbott said in the news release. “The COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, and it is our best defense against this virus.”

Well, some hospitals had already taken the step of halting elective procedures, so way to be out in front on that, bro. Part of this “plan” includes recruiting more nurses from out of state to help us with the shortage we are now experiencing. I presume this means he’ll be trying to lure them from states that have COVID under a greater degree of control, probably places where the Governors in question made an actual effort to get people vaccinated and didn’t kneecap local leaders’ attempts to keep their people safe. I have no idea why any of them would want to come here now, but God bless ’em if they do. I guess we should be thankful that Abbott is doing something other than literally fiddling while the state burns, but color me a little too grumpy to care about such crumbs.

We’re #2!

More people have died of COVID in Texas than any other state except California, as Texas surpasses New York’s total.

Texas has passed New York to become the state with the second-most COVID-19 deaths, a feat experts say was driven by an inability to control transmission of the virus here.

Texas reached the milestone Wednesday, hitting 53,275 deaths, despite trailing New York by more than 29,000 fatalities last summer. Since then, though Texas is 54 percent more populous, more than twice as many Texans as New Yorkers have succumbed to COVID-19. California, the most populous state, leads the nation with 64,372 virus deaths.

Spencer Fox, associate director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, said he was surprised Texas had not passed New York in mortality sooner, since the northeastern state did a far better job limiting the spread of virus after it endured a horrific surge last spring.

“They enacted really strong, precautionary measures that overall are well based in the available science,” Fox said. “It seems that many of the Texas policies were put in place to try and prevent health care collapse rather than trying to prevent transmission.”

By June 30 of last year, as the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the United States, New York tallied 31,775 virus deaths. Texas had just 2,481.

While New York City hospitals were pushed to the brink in the spring and the region became a global epicenter of the virus, Texas had kept the virus at bay and begun to ease restrictions.

Over next 13 months, however, the states reversed roles. New York kept restrictions and mask rules in place longer and consistently maintained a lower positivity rate than Texas. In contrast, Texas endured two surges of the virus and is in the early stages of a third, as the Delta variant now sweeps the country as a fourth wave of the virus.

During that time, Texas steadily closed in on New York’s death tally, a Chronicle analysis found.

Another way to put it is this: Since June 30 of last year, 13 months ago, there have been about 51,000 COVID deaths in Texas. (That’s the official count, which as we know is too low for a variety of factors, but it’s what we’re using for comparison purposes.) In that same time period, there have been about 22,000 COVID deaths in New York. Texas, with 54% more people than New York, has had 131% more COVID deaths than New York in that time period. It’s mind-boggling, enraging, tragic, devastating, and all of it can be laid at the doorstep of Greg Abbott.

The rest of the story is a timeline of those past 13 months, the various things that governments in New York and Texas did and didn’t do to deal with the changing infection rates, and so on. New York has been far more restrictive than Texas has, sometimes to the point where its residents complained and experts questioned the risk calculation involved, but the numbers are what they are. New York also has a higher vaccination rate than Texas, so this trend is going to continue, and probably accelerate, in the foreseeable future. Indeed, given how much more vaccinated California is than Texas, we could conceivably catch up to them as well. Not a goal we should want to achieve.

But we’re well on the way, and Texas’ hospitals are bracing for impact.

When Terry Scoggin left work at Titus Regional Medical Center in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday evening, there were five patients at the facility being treated for COVID.

Overnight, six more people suffering severe coronavirus infections were admitted to the rural Northeast Texas hospital — pushing the facility to its capacity limit and putting Scoggin, the hospital’s chief executive, on high alert for what he’s calling “a fourth surge.”

“We’re at it again,” Scoggin said.

That same night, hospitalizations in Bexar County rose by nearly 8%. Almost 100 people were admitted with severe COVID to local facilities on Tuesday alone, Bexar County officials said on Wednesday.

“These numbers are staggering and frightening,” said Eric Epley, CEO of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for Trauma in San Antonio.

Hospital and health officials across Texas are seeing similar dramatic jumps, straining an already decimated health care system that is starving for workers in the aftermath of previous coronavirus surges.

[…]

Fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus, which is contributing to skyrocketing cases not just in Texas but across the nation, the rising hospitalizations rates have spread outside of the heavily populated metro areas that first began to report increases a few weeks ago. Now they are being seen in all corners of the state, triggering pleas from hospitals for state-backed staffing help to handle the increasing pressure.

Trend forecasters at the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium said Wednesday that most regions of the state could see a return within a couple of weeks to the capacity-busting hospitalization rate facilities were experiencing in January — the height of the pandemic — if people don’t resume masking up and social distancing.

In Florida, hospitals are already seeing the numbers of COVID patients exceeding levels they saw during the worst of the pandemic, and consortium researchers told The Texas Tribune that Texas is not far behind.

“We are absolutely on a path to hit a surge as large, if not bigger, than the previous surges right now” said Spencer Fox, associate director at the consortium. “If nothing is done, we’re on a crash course for a very large third wave.”

The situation has caused health officials from both rural and metro areas to plead for more resources from the state.

“On behalf of the 157 rural hospitals across Texas, I am writing to ask you immediately take steps to provide additional medical staffing which we anticipate will be needed in our rural hospitals in short order because of the new COVID surge,” John Henderson, president and CEO of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals, wrote in a July 26 letter to Gov. Greg Abbott.

And what was Abbott’s eventual response?

The story is behind their paywall, but the basics of it that I could glean were that the state of Texas is declining to use any COVID stimulus funds to pay for more hospital staff. Instead, the state is directing cities and counties to use their own COVID funds for that. Because we’re all in this together you’re on your own, Jack. And remember, it’s all your fault and will be your fault when more people have died of COVID in Texas than anywhere else in the country.

How HISD intends to spend its COVID relief money

Seems reasonable.

Houston ISD expects to spend $1.2 billion of federal relief shoring up academic losses from the pandemic under a wide-ranging plan that would target accelerated instruction to kids that have fallen behind, bolster tutoring and after-school services, seek to retain and recruit teachers with $2,500 stipends, provide laptops to more middle school students and boost technology in the classroom.

Superintendent Millard House II sent an email addressed to “Team HISD” Thursday evening with a 54-slide presentation attached about how the district would use the money, according to a copy obtained by The Chronicle on Friday.

The money comes from $122 billion for Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds included in the American Rescue and Relief Plan Act, passed by Congress in March.

HISD has been awarded $804 million from that. It is the second round of education relief funding. The district was allocated $358 million from that earlier round this month.

According to the plan distributed by House, about a quarter of the overall funding will go toward reversing learning losses in reading, math, science and social studies. About $76 million would be spent on before- and after-school programs, $50 million would go to special education, $53 million for college and military readiness, and $60 million would be directed at social and emotional learning, including the hiring of up to 150 additional counselors and social workers.

It is not clear if the plan is final. A timeline included in the presentation lists two dates to submit applications to TEA and July 28 as the date to share the plan with “community.”

These priorities seem right to me. The first order of business is to get students back to previous levels, and that’s going to take a lot of resources. You can see an embed of the plan in the story, and there will be at least one virtual meeting to discuss it. This is a big challenge for the new Superintendent right off the bat, and I wish him and the Board and everyone else all the best with it. We need them to use this funding to its best advantage.

Can you tell me how to get (safely) to Memorial Park?

Safety is nice.

A $200 million-plus plan to improve [Memorial Park] is aimed at making it a signature destination for all Houstonians. With that success, though, will come the same challenges anything popular in Houston faces: How will people get there, where will they park and what can be done to give them an option other than driving?

A variety of projects are planned or proposed to offer safer or additional options, including new bike paths, wider sidewalks, even a possible Metropolitan Transit Authority hub to rapid buses. All of the ideas, however, are years away and still face some public scrutiny that could alter the plans.

Efforts to create or expand trails follow what has been the largest park investment in a generation — a $70 million land bridge that creates a hillside through which Memorial Drive passes, connecting the park’s north and south sides.

[…]

One of the biggest challenges to improving access to Memorial is the big roads that border it: Loop 610 and Interstate 10. Running along the west and north edges of the park, the freeways are a barrier where the freeway intersections with Washington Avenue to the northeast and Memorial and Woodway to the west can be chaotic for cyclists and pedestrians.

“What we want is a safe, easy, biking solution,” said Bob Ethington, director of research and economic development for the Uptown Houston District.

Ethington said along Loop 610, officials are considering how best to get runners and cyclists as far away from cars as practical. Those plans include a connection from the south, parallel to the Union Pacific Railroad tracks as far south as San Felipe.

The trail skirts a rail line south of the park, in the River Oaks area dotted with some of the most expensive homes within Loop 610. Other projects could follow, taking the trail as far as Brays Bayou and creating what could become a freeway of sorts for bicyclists between two popular bayou routes.

The key connection to the heart of Uptown, on the other side of Loop 610, is a planned trail running near the top of Uptown Park Boulevard, where it curves into the southbound frontage road, that will follow Buffalo Bayou beneath the clatter of 16 lanes of traffic above.

That connection, which could include a new bridge strictly for the trail across the bayou, would eliminate a stress-inducing street crossing for cyclists and runners at Woodway.

“The corner is terrible and the (Loop 610) underpass is not great,” said Randy Odinet, vice president of capital projects and facilities for the Memorial Park Conservancy.

The Uptown work, which follows Briar Hollow in the neighborhood south of Buffalo Bayou, recently received a boost, when $4 million of the $5.3 million price tag was included in the House version of a federal infrastructure bill at the request of Rep. Lizzie Fletcher, D-Houston, who represents the area.

For travelers headed to the park from the east, two planned projects could help. Construction is set to start in about 20 months on a new bike lane spliced through a narrow piece of public land on the south side of Interstate 10. The Texas Department of Transportation project would eliminate a broken link between the Heights and Shepherd corridors and Memorial Park, caused by I-10.

Now, cyclists can use the Heights Hike and Bike Trail and White Oak Trail to access the Cottage Grove neighborhood north of I-10, then a pedestrian bridge atop I-10 at Cohn. About a half-mile from the park at the end of the Cohn crossing, however, is where the easy access stops. The Union Pacific Railroad tracks and nearby streets force runners back to TC Jester, which many avoid because of the heavy traffic and truck volumes and high speeds.

Design of the TxDOT project is not finalized, but the work likely will include a trail along the south side of I-10 from Cohn to Washington, through a slice of state-owned right of way and beneath the UP tracks. At Washington, it is expected to cross at the intersection and into the park.

The project also will replace the Cohn bridge with a wider span and assorted street-level improvements north of I-10 along the frontage road.

Most Houston residents and travelers, however, cannot simply hop on a bike and get to the park. Current transit offerings are limited to three bus routes, two of which come every 30 minutes. The third, the Route 85 Antoine/Washington that skirts the eastern edge of the park, is the only frequent route, coming every 15 minutes. More than a dozen bus routes pull into the Northwest Transit Center less than 2,500 feet away from the park, but those 2,500 feet are impassable because of the I-10 interchange with Loop 610.

A planned bus rapid transit route along I-10, however, could radically improve access if Metro were to include a stop at the park. Metro officials, while not committing, said they are considering a possible stop at Washington on the park’s boundary.

The idea of a Memorial Park station has drawn interest from transit riders and officials. Often, transit is built and discussed in terms of moving people solely to jobs and schools, Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said.

“It is also about getting us to recreation facilities, parks,” Ramabhadran said.

Plans for the BRT line include an elevated busway along I-10 so large buses can move in their own lanes from the Northwest Transit Center to downtown Houston. Transit officials plan various public meetings before any station decision is made.

“You cannot order a BRT corridor on Amazon and have it delivered next week,” Ramabhadran said.

It all sounds good to me, and you can see each of the planned items in the embedded image. Years ago, when it was still possible to dream about more light rail lines being built in Houston, I proposed a rail line that was a combination of Inner Katy/Washington Avenue and the current Uptown BRT line, which would have included a Memorial Drive segment. That was included for the purpose of making it easier for more people to get to one of Houston’s biggest parks and premier destinations. That idea will never happen, but seeing a proposal for a Memorial Park-accessible stop on the now-proposed Inner Katy BRT line makes me smile. It really is kind of crazy that the only way to get to Memorial Park for nearly everyone is to drive there, especially considering how impossible it used to be to park. There’s more parking now, but we could get a lot more people into Memorial Park if they didn’t have to drive to get there. I very much look forward to seeing these projects take shape.

More federal stimulus money for education coming

Good.

Texas soon will receive another $4.1 billion in federal stimulus money to address the post-pandemic needs of public school students, many of whom fell behind academically during months of remote learning.

The funding comes come as the U.S. Department of Education announced Wednesday that it has approved Texas’ plans for spending $12.4 billion allocated to the state. The state’s plan was among the first proposals to receive approval from the federal government. While some of the money will be spent on improving academics, the funding also aims to address student inequities that were worsened by the pandemic, as well as kids’ social and emotional needs.

The Texas Education Agency’s plan calls for mitigating learning loss as a top priority. The agency estimates students in the state lost an average of 5.7 months of learning last school year. Meeting student and staff mental health needs, expanded tutoring, high-quality instructional materials and job-embedded learning are included in the plan.

“The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release.

We have all the evidence we need to know how vital this is. The next year or more has to be about getting kids back up to where they would have been without the disruption of the pandemic. Their future depends on it.

Superintendent House has arrived

He’s got a lot of work in front of him.

When Millard House II officially [started] as the new superintendent of Houston ISD on Thursday, he [had] a stack of challenges awaiting his attention.

Some students fell further behind during the coronavirus pandemic while others were “lost” amid its grip. The district expects to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 stimulus funding with no public plan for the funds in place yet. While teachers are set to receive a raise, their compensation has lagged neighboring districts, and trustees voted three weeks ago to mandate House propose a potentially larger teacher pay raise in August, when the district’s financial outlook may be clearer.

As House assumes his new role, members of the HISD community said they hope he can tackle a variety of priorities, from funding to inequities, and expressed excitement to work with him.

“The first job as a new superintendent is to learn the community, learn our schools, learn our neighborhoods,” said HISD Trustee Anne Sung, who bumped into House this week while visiting schools. “He’s already doing that so I think he’s off to a great start.”

House, 49, who was not made available for an interview this week, arrives from Tennessee, where he led the seventh-largest district in the state, the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System.

[…]

Among the biggest challenges for House and the district will be helping students who fell behind during the pandemic.

Standardized test score data released this week revealed one of the clearest looks yet at the pandemic’s impact. Roughly two-thirds of HISD eighth-graders did not meet math proficiency, compared with 28 percent in 2019.

Additionally, some students stopped attending class altogether, prompting recovery efforts, such as a recent four-day phone bank aimed at convincing some to return.

“We have a tremendous deficit,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson, who leads the district’s largest employees union. “We are very concerned about that. I want him to know that it is not an ‘us against them’ — it is ‘we.’ And we all need to be working together, and I think that if that happens … we can be successful.”

Add the STAAR scores to the pile. Superintendent House and the Board and all the stakeholders will have plenty to do to get things going, with federal COVID relief funds available to help out. Here’s his introductory message:

Welcome to Houston. Now please make yourself available for interviews. Thank you, and god luck.

And the STAAR results ain’t great either

Oof.

The COVID-19 pandemic appeared to undo years of improvement for Texas students meeting grade requirements in reading and math, with students who did most of their schooling remotely suffering “significant declines” compared to those who attended in person, according to standardized test results released Monday by the Texas Education Agency.

In districts where fewer than a quarter of classes were held in person, the number of students who met math test expectations dropped by 32 percentage points, and the number of students who met reading expectations dropped by 9 percentage points compared to 2019, the last time the test was administered. In districts with more than three-quarters in-person instruction, the number of students meeting math expectations only dropped by 9 percentage points and those who met reading expectations by 1 percentage point. Students of color and lower-income students saw greater gaps as well, although those gaps were smaller than the one between remote and in-person instruction.

“The impact of the coronavirus on what school means and what school is has been truly profound,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath told reporters Monday. “What we know now with certainty is that the decision in Texas to prioritize in person instruction was critical.”

[…]

Since 2012, test results in the state had been steadily improving, but after COVID-19 related disruptions, the percentage of students meeting reading expectations dropped back to 2016 rates and the percentage meeting math expectations dropped to 2013 passing rates. Math test performance saw the most significant drop, from 50% of students meeting their grade level in 2019 to only 35% this year.

Hispanic students in districts with over three-quarters of learning done remotely saw the largest drops compared to other demographics, with a 10 percentage point decrease in the number of students meeting reading expectations and a 34 percentage point decrease in those meeting math expectations. This is followed by Black students taking mostly remote classes, who saw a 6 percentage point decrease in those meeting reading expectations and a 28 percentage point in those meeting expectations for math.

Students who took the test in Spanish also saw “far more significant declines in rates of grade level” than those who took the test in English, Morath said.

“The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year,” he said. “Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most.”

He said parents can also sign in to TexasAssessment.gov to go over their children’s results and strategize how to catch them up.

As the story notes, there were places where remote learning was not associated with declines; indeed, some remote-heavy districts did just fine. The Lege is going to look into that, and so hopefully if nothing else we’ll get some good data about how and why remote learning can be successful. The STAAR was not the only standardized test to see significant declines, with math being the bigger issue than reading. There will be plenty of funds available, from a bill passed this session to the most recent COVID relief package from Congress, that will provide resources for tutoring, and that will be very necessary. If we work hard and get lucky then maybe this won’t have a big lasting impact on students’ lives. But we need to get serious about making up the lost ground, and we have no time to lose. The Chron has more.

You can’t use that money for your stupid wall

So say Democratic members of Congress from Texas, and they’re asking the Treasury Department to back them up.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Texas Democrats in Congress are irate that Gov. Greg Abbott can divert federal funds intended for COVID-19 relief to build a border wall. On Monday, they asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to step in and block the state from using any of its $15.8 billion windfall for this “costly monstrosity.”

“We are concerned by the prospect of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s potential misuse of these funds to continue the misguided plans of President Trump to extend a wall along the border between Texas and Mexico,” the 13 Texas lawmakers wrote.

Abbott announced a $250 million “down payment” on June 16 for Texas to build its own border wall, using funds from the state prison budget.

That’s one-tenth of the annual prison budget, but law and order allies seemed unconcerned. In March, Congress approved $1.9 trillion for pandemic relief, including $350 billion for state and local governments to use in almost any way they want, other than tax cuts or deposits to a pension fund.

Abbott’s office does not dispute that he intends to backfill the prison budget using the pandemic relief funds, though he hasn’t touted that aspect of his plan.

[…]

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin circulated the letter among fellow Texas Democrats in the House.

“Just as he unsuccessfully tried to steal federal education money from our schools, I would not be surprised if Abbott tries to divert other federal recovery funds from Texans” to project toughness on border security ahead of his reelection bid next year, Doggett said.

In the letter to Yellen, the Texans argue that the federal relief fund was meant to help states provide “premium pay to essential workers, assistance for small businesses, public health measures to respond to COVID-19, and investments in government services, including public facilities and infrastructure.”

Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported the $1.9 trillion package, which makes it even more galling to Democrats that the largesse could subsidize more border wall.

Treasury is finalizing rules on exactly how states can spend the funds.

The Texans asked the department to make clear “that these Recovery Funds cannot be used for a border wall, fence, or similar installation. This rule should also be clear that this prohibition cannot be subverted by accounting tricks that use Recovery Funds to supplant state funds, which are then used to construct a wall.”

While the $250 million Abbott shifted from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice isn’t enough to build more than “a token, symbolic portion of this costly monstrosity,” the Democrats wrote, “it certainly should not be paid for directly or indirectly with federal Recovery Funds in defiance of President Biden’s direction to cease wall construction.”

Here’s the letter, which was signed by all 13 Congressional Dems from Texas. This seems like a pretty clear case to me, and I would have a hard time seeing why Secretary Yellin would say no to this. That said, this will surely draw a lawsuit from Abbott and Paxton, so we should make sure there’s legal ground to stand on. Assuming there is, then by all means block this money grab. Let Abbott crowdfund his way out of this; he’s got a long way to go at this rate. The Chron and the Current have more.

Lawsuit filed against suspension of federal unemployment benefits

Not sure how likely this is to succeed, but it’s worth a try.

Thousands of Texans have banded together and hired an attorney to file suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott from ending emergency federal unemployment benefits before the programs expire in September.

The plaintiffs, two groups that organized over Facebook with more than 30,000 people, argue that the decision to end the benefits early exceeded the governor’s authority, according to the lawsuit, filed this week in state district court in Austin. The benefits, aimed at providing relief to workers during the pandemic, are scheduled to expire Saturday under Abbott’s order.

“Texas has what is known as a weak governor and a large part of Texas is run by commissions,” David Sibley, an attorney for the group of unemployment groups, said. “We just believe the governor is acting outside of his authority, and it’s something the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) should address.”

Abbott last month ordered the early end to federal programs that provided supplemental payments of $300 a week to unemployed workers and extended jobless benefits to gig workers and other self-employed people not covered by the traditional unemployment system. Abbott argued that job openings in the state are plentiful and the additional benefits were no longer needed.

[…]

On Friday, Judge Dustin Howell denied a temporary restraining order to block the governor from ending the federal benefits while the case is proceeding. Despite the ruling, Sibley said his clients will continue with their case. “A denial of a (temporary restraining order) does not mean the case is over,” Sibley said.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the Texas Workforce Commission to make the decision on whether and when to end the benefits. They acknowledge that the workforce commission could reach the same decision as the governor, but it would delay when the federal benefits would expire.

See here and here for the background. The only other news story I found about this is a paywalled DMN story, so I don’t have any more details. Seems to me getting denied the motion for a temporary restraining order is a big setback, but maybe there is still a way forward. I found a Facebook group with 30K members that appears to be related to this, but it’s private and I don’t want to go poking my nose in places where it doesn’t belong. I wish these folks well, but I don’t think they’re going to get what they’re asking for. The Texas Signal has more.

City’s budget passes

There was a little bit of drama, but nothing too big.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston’s City Council voted Wednesday to approve a $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year that relies heavily on a massive infusion of federal aid to close a $201 million budget hole and give firefighters their biggest raise in years.

Council members also banded together to rebuke the mayor by increasing the money given to district offices to spend on neighborhood projects for their constituents.

The council voted 16-1 to approve the spending plan after a lengthy meeting in which council members proposed nearly 100 amendments to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s budget.

At-Large Councilmember Mike Knox voted against the budget. At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer later said she intended to vote no and tried to get the council to reconsider the vote, but her motion failed.

The body met in person for the first time in a year, with the members — most of whom are vaccinated — discussing the budget unmasked around the dais in City Hall chambers.

[…]

Most district council members joined forces to raise the amount their offices receive in a program that lets them spend money on neighborhood priorities. The 11 districts currently receive $750,000, and the council voted to hike that to $1 million each, at a total cost of $2.75 million. District J Councilmember Edward Pollard proposed the amendment, ultimately using money from the city’s reserve funds, prompting visible disappointment from the mayor.

The amendment passed, 10-7, with the mayor opposed. Turner said it could take money from city services like Solid Waste and risked depleting reserves ahead of an uncertain year.

“I was going to insist on a roll call vote, because you’re going to have to justify it,” Turner said before members cast their votes. Those supporting the amendment were Pollard, Amy Peck (District A), Tarsha Jackson (District B), Abbie Kamin (District C), Carolyn Evans-Shabazz (District D), Tiffany Thomas (District F), Greg Travis (District G), Robert Gallegos (District I), Martha Castex-Tatum (District K), and Michael Kubosh (At-Large).

It is exceedingly rare in Houston’s strong mayor form of government for the mayor to lose a vote, though Wednesday’s motion marked the third time in seven years council members have aligned themselves to expand the district funds during a budget vote.

See here for the background. The “Council members add money to their budgets” thing has been done before, though as the story notes it may not actually result in that money going to them. This is money that is already being spent, it was just a matter of shifting it from one line item to another. I’d actually be in favor of Council members having some more funds at their discretion, though there’s not likely to be room for that most years. A chunk of the federal money available for this year’s budget was set aside for now, pending fuller guidance from the feds as to what it can and can’t be used on. Not much else to say here.

In related news, from earlier in the week:

People caught illegally dumping in Houston now will face a steeper fine, after City Council approved a measure doubling the penalty.

The council unanimously approved hiking the fine to $4,000, the maximum amount allowed under the law.

“This is to make people pay for illegally dumping,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “It makes things far, far worse, it’s unattractive, it’s not safe. It’s a public health problem.”

Turner, who characterized the city’s efforts against illegal dumping as an “all-out attack,” also encouraged judges to enforce the law sternly.

Illegal dumping can range from a Class C misdemeanor — akin to a parking ticket — to a state jail felony, depending on the weight of the trash and whether the person previously has been caught dumping. Most cases involve Class B misdemeanors, or between five and 500 pounds. Enforcement is somewhat rare as it is difficult to identify perpetrators if they are not caught on camera.

The measure received wide acclaim from council members, who have noted anecdotal increases in dumping of late.

“It should be more,” Councilmember Tarsha Jackson said of the fine hike.

Illegal dumpers are scum who deserve to be fined heavily, no doubt about it. The problem is catching them in the act, because that’s about the only way this ever gets enforced. The city has deployed more cameras at frequent dump sites and that has helped some, but there’s a lot more of it going on. We have a ways to go to really make a dent in this.

The non-high speed rail option

Here comes Amtrak.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here comes our boring budget

Save the drama for the budget amendments.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Sylvester Turner painted a dire picture of the city’s finances as he laid out his plan to balance last year’s $5 billion city budget.

Like other cities across the country, Houston’s sales tax revenue had plunged as the public stayed home, and Turner was proposing to make up the loss by furloughing 3,000 municipal workers, deferring police cadet classes, cutting the library budget and draining the city’s emergency reserves.

“These are financially difficult times, and it’s simply unavoidable,” Turner said of the cuts.

One year later, the city is emerging from the worst of the pandemic with its finances largely unscathed. Thanks to a payout of more than $1 billion in federal aid, Turner and city finance officials avoided the projected furloughs, reinstated the police cadet classes and are heading into the next fiscal year with replenished emergency reserves and a rare budget surplus.

Still, as City Council prepares to consider Turner’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan Wednesday, not everyone agrees on how the city should use its newfound wealth. Since prior mayoral administrations, city officials have passed annual budgets that spend more than the city takes in through recurring revenue, such as taxes. They have made up the difference by selling city-owned land, deferring hundreds of millions of dollars in maintenance on city buildings, dipping into cash reserves and using other one-time fixes. Turner has attributed much of the budgetary struggles to the city’s revenue cap, which limits annual growth in property tax revenue to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of inflation and population, whichever is lower.

City Controller Chris Brown and a number of council members have urged the mayor to use the relief money to address the long-standing budget issues, warning that added costs will leave the city in a precarious position when the federal money runs out. Eventually, the thinking goes, the city will run out of land to sell, while city infrastructure will continue to deteriorate and demand for city services will keep rising faster than the revenue used to fund them.

“The challenge is when that money runs out, if we add too many of the wrong things, i.e. recurring expenditures, it’s only going to exacerbate this structural imbalance in the future and make it that much worse,” Brown said.

Houston received a $304 million haul this year from the federal stimulus package approved by Congress in March, and it is set to receive the same amount in 2022, on top of a $400 million allotment it received last year from the first round of COVID aid. Turner is asking city council on Wednesday to approve a spending plan that uses $188 million of the aid to close most of the city’s projected budget deficit, and a chunk of the remaining funds to increase pay for Houston firefighters by 6 percent when the new fiscal year begins July 1.

See here for the previous entry. I tend to lean towards what Controller Brown is saying, but we’ll see what the details of this budget are, and go from there. I know that my calls to trim the police budget while we still can went unheeded, but I’d welcome an amendment to that effect from one or more Council members. We have two years to make good use of these federal funds. Let’s do what we can to get the most out of them and put the city on a stronger financial footing going forward.

Let’s try and get those federal transit funds now

Works for me.

Transit officials, sensing the timing may be right to tap federal funds for major projects, are moving quickly on portions of a planned bus rapid transit line viewed by some as the backbone of Houston’s future movement.

The segment of the planned University Line between Hillcroft Transit Center in Gulfton and the Wheeler Transit Center in Midtown is one of the most highly sought but historically controversial routes in the Metropolitan Transit Authority system.

Envisioned as bus rapid transit that uses some dedicated lanes to stop at key stations, delivering service similar to rail without the expense or design complexity, the project was included in the long-range Metro plan voters approved in November 2019. With a new federal government in place, proposing massive investment in transit, Metro officials said speeding up at least central portions of the line makes sense.

“Getting it in line for potential federal funding is critical,” Metro board member Sanjay Ramabhadran said. “The sooner we do it, the better.”

Accelerating the project means beginning discussions with the Federal Transit Administration around September, pending Metro board approval next month. From there, planners would spend about two years designing the project and holding public meetings to gauge community preferences.

That timeline would allow for the project to gain federal approvals — and perhaps money from Washington — by September 2023. Construction would take months or potentially years, depending on what exactly Metro builds.

“There is some risk to go with it,” Metro Deputy CEO Tom Jasien said of the acceleration. “We are going to have to work our way through this project development process very quickly.”

The reward, however, is federal clearance for a long-sought link, along with funding for it.

“It is our best chance to get in line for the federal funding we keep hearing that is likely to come,” Jasien said.

[…]

Having projects in the planning stages for construction three-to-five years away is warranted, Metro officials said, noting the agency’s $7.5 billion long-range plan means transit planners will need to juggle numerous projects simultaneously so all of them are poised to proceed to design or construction when money is available.

Those aims align with indications from federal officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has said projects that add transit options are needed to revive America’s cities.

See here for some background. Metro is also seeking funds for the Hobby Airport light rail extension, though that may require the infrastructure bill to happen. I’m in favor of anything that will make this happen in as timely a fashion as possible, but looking at the dates in this story made me realize that if everything goes well, we might be able to have this project completed in time to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 2001 Metro referendum that authorized a Universities Line in the first place. I am now going to get myself a beer, write John Culberson’s name on a piece of paper, go out into the back yard, and light that piece of paper on fire. Feel free to celebrate along with me.

Two arguments against Abbott’s rollback of extended unemployment insurance

It’s bad economic policy.

“I’m still nervous that we’re bowing out of this program before the labor market is fully healed,” said Dietrich Vollrath, an economics professor at the University of Houston. “The bad consequences of doing too much is limited,” he said, “but the bad consequences of doing too little can really be detrimental.”

About 800,000 Texans were receiving federal jobless assistance at the end of April, according to the most recent data. Nearly half of them — the self-employed or other gig economy workers — will lose all of their benefits at the end of June, when the governor is ending the additional aid. The rest will see a steep drop in their weekly checks.

[…]

While the Texas economy has largely rebounded from the height of the pandemic, when the unemployment rate topped 12 percent, companies across the state are still firing employees at two to three times the normal rate, according to Vollrath. He said that’s a sign the recovery remains fragile.

Labor experts already have some preliminary findings on the impacts of increased benefits during the pandemic. Economists at Yale University found that the $600 unemployment checks approved early on under the Trump administration did not significantly deter unemployed people from reentering the workforce.

Belinda Román, an assistant economics professor at St. Mary’s University, said ending the payments could backfire and instead drive people further into poverty. If it does work, she said, it may force at least some people into underpaid jobs that they have decided are no longer worth the time or health risk.

“My perspective is, pay better and that probably incentivizes a lot of people to come to work,” she said.

See here for the background. Those $600 checks also largely kept the economy from cratering a year ago. Taking away this benefit now, when the economy is still in recovery and lots of people are still not vaccinated and being cautious about going out, will mostly have the effect of making people who are already on the economic margins even poorer.

Also, too, there are other reasons why some businesses are having problems hiring.

Britt Philyaw, executive director of the Heard That Foundation, a Dallas non-profit that provides support for hospitality workers, said she doesn’t know of anyone who has turned down restaurant jobs to stay on unemployment.

“I find it really disturbing some of the things that I’ve seen on social media. I don’t like that the labor shortage is being politicized and how it is being said that people are lazy or they’re making more money on unemployment. I don’t think it’s the truth. The people we’ve worked with throughout the pandemic who were on unemployment and got their stimulus checks were not making ends meet,” she said.

What the pandemic did, in her opinion, was highlight the instability of restaurant jobs. The quirks of service industry work like tips and irregular schedules are often draws for many people in the industry, but they were cast in a different light when the pandemic hit, Philyaw said. Suddenly the things that were once perks of the business were no longer worth sacrificing health insurance, predictable pay and stability for.

“Something that is desperately lacking from the conversation is the fact that 70% of the population that works in the industry are women, some of them single with kids. I think that should be a huge part of the conversation,” Philyaw said.

The service industry labor market was already tight before the pandemic, and with even more jobs than there are workers, Philyaw said employees have the ability to be choosy about who they do go work for, which is making it even harder for employers, some of whom are offering sign-on bonuses and raising wages to attract new hires.

“People in front-of-house and back-of-house [of restaurants] are shopping around,” she said. “And they’re looking for things they value like, ‘Am I going to work in a safe environment? Am I going to work in an environment where I’m not going to be harassed or bullied or forced to work for free?’ So there’s just a lot of things at play, but I really don’t think it’s as simple as the stories that grab the most attention.”

For Andrea Winn, a long-time restaurant industry professional who’s held server, sommelier and wine director positions at Dallas restaurants like Bolsa and Abacus, the decision to leave the restaurant industry came when the downtown Dallas restaurant she was working at reopened over the summer and management did not adhere to capacity limits, mask mandates and other safety protocols.

She took a full-time job as a wine and beer buyer for Whole Foods, stepping away from the industry she loved and had worked in since completing her degree in history and getting out of a desk job she loathed. It wasn’t easy to leave the dining room — she was saying goodbye to higher pay, flexible hours and the ability to travel when she wanted — but the benefits outweighed the cons, she said.

“I have a job now [at Whole Foods] where I am guaranteed a certain amount of hours every week, I know how much I’m going to get paid, and I have health insurance and sick time. The sick time was a really big thing because working in restaurants, unless you are really sick, you are expected to work sick. You’re looked down upon, and your schedule will be threatened if you don’t [work],” Winn said.

There is a common perception that restaurant workers are young, uneducated and in the industry out of necessity, Winn said, and such thinking makes it easy to believe that the shortage of workers is due to an unwillingness to work. But the reality is the industry is made up of seasoned professionals like her who sought out restaurant and bar careers and are now choosing to pursue careers that offer a better quality of life, she said.

Some jobs are better than others. People who have kids at home and no child care available don’t have a lot of options right now. Making them desperate doesn’t seem like a good idea to me.

Of course business groups want Abbott to cut off unemployment payments

Completely on brand.

The Texas Association of Business and more than three dozen other business groups are pushing Gov. Greg Abbott to cut the additional $300 in federal benefits currently going to unemployed Texans.

Nearly 1 million Texans remained unemployed and dependent upon benefit payments for income in March.

In GOP-led states, rescinding the extra pay is considered a way to force workers back into the job market to address labor shortages as the economy recovers from the COIVD-19 pandemic.

GOP governors in at least 16 states have announced plans to cut benefits: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming.

“Employers believe that supplemental [unemployment] benefit payments from Washington is disincentivizing work and resulting in many good Texas jobs going unfilled,” the Texas business association and 38 chambers of commerce and business associations wrote in a letter to the governor and the Texas Workforce Commission, the agency that oversees jobless benefits.

“With COVID-19 on the decline and job openings on the rise, we believe it is time for Texas leaders and the Texas Workforce Commission to re-examine unemployment benefits, unemployment insurance work-search requirements and Texas’s role in federal supplemental unemployment benefits,” the letter said.

[…]

Critics of the decision to cut the additional unemployment pay argue it would hurt people who can’t work because they’re sick, caring for a person with COVID-19 or can’t find adequate childcare.

In response to Montana’s decision to rescind the benefit, worker advocacy group National Employment Law Project’s executive director Rebecca Dixon said return-to-work bonuses “can become a tool to coerce workers to accept substandard jobs, rather than enabling workers to pursue quality jobs that provide financial security.”

This is a lousy idea for the reasons stated above, and also because the states that have jumped on this bandwagon are among the worst at getting people vaccinated. Texas fits comfortably in that group, and yes there is a strong correlation to Republican-ness, since Republicans are less likely to want to get vaccinated, and as the people in charge are less likely to expend much effort to get vaccines to the lower-income, mostly people of color, that they’re now demanding go back to crappy jobs. As it is practically our state’s motto that the interests of bidness come first, I’m sure this will happen in short order. You already know what I’m going to say about that, so let’s just stipulate and move on.

UPDATE: Even faster than I expected.

Governor Greg Abbott said Monday that Texas will end federal pandemic-related unemployment assistance, effective June 26. This includes the $300 weekly unemployment supplement from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.

“The Texas economy is thriving and employers are hiring in communities throughout the state,” Abbott wrote in a letter to the Department of Labor. “In fact, the amount of job openings in Texas is far greater than the number of Texans looking for employment, making these unemployment benefits no longer necessary.”

These guys sure got their money’s worth, didn’t they? The Trib has more.

More than one way to fund the Ike Dike

As long as it gets funded, that’s what matters.

When President Joe Biden proposed a nearly $2 trillion infrastructure bill, some Texas officials had high hopes that it might include funding for the long-awaited “Ike Dike” project to protect the Houston-Galveston region from catastrophic storm surge.

However, the Army Corps of Engineers is pursuing another funding route for the $26 billion project.

Col. Timothy Vail, commander for the Corps’ Galveston district, said the agency is adhering to a methodical federal process as it works toward completing the chief engineer’s report on the massive coastal barrier, siloed from Washington’s political headwinds.

The goal, Vail said, is for that report to be ready for funding through the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country.

“Congress would have a substantial amount of time to review this report, potentially have hearings on this report, ask questions on their report, both formally and informally before the Water Resource Development Act (of 2022)” was drafted, Vail said in an interview at the Corps’ Galveston headquarters.

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are exploring whether the infrastructure bill could at least partially fund the project, but time is a factor with Biden aiming to get a bill passed by this summer. The Corps is still months away from officially putting the project on the table for congressional funding.

Corps officials said they are sorting through a final round of public comments as they target late August or early September for release of the final report. The agency will first submit the project for review to the governor’s office and federal and state officials. Then it goes to Congress for consideration.

[…]

Vail did not dismiss the possibility that Congress could choose to fund the barrier through other forms of legislation, but he said “largely, Congress needs a (chief engineer’s) report to authorize” funding.

“The important thing is the due process,” Vail said. “It’s not for me to tell Congress what they can or can’t do. Clearly, it’s within their authority to authorize (funding for the coastal barrier) outside of a Water Resource Development Act.”

Rocio Cruz, a spokeswoman for [Rep. Lizzie] Fletcher, clarified that she is pushing to create a funding stream for coastal resiliency projects such as the Ike Dike.

“She’s aware that the (Ike Dike) final report isn’t going to be ready for the American Jobs Plan, but we wanted to make sure that there’s a federal funding mechanism in place for when that is available,” Cruz said.

See here for some background. The reference to Rep. Fletcher is about her statement that she will push for Ike Dike funding in the infrastructure bill. I will admit, I did not know about the Water Resource Development Act, and I do not know why there was no action to leverage that before now. Maybe the plan just wasn’t ready yet, I don’t know. Whatever the case, it makes sense to pursue both options. We’ve come this far, let’s not leave anything on the table.

Which reminds me, there’s also a third option:

SB1660 is noted in that first link above. Like I said, pursue every option.

Houston gets to have a boring budget

Thanks, President Biden and all you voters in Georgia!

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner plans to use an influx of federal cash to give firefighters a “raise the city can afford,” expand the Houston Police Department and replace lost revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the mayor’s $5.1 billion annual spending plan.

Turner’s budget proposal relies on roughly $304 million in federal relief money that was set to be deposited into the city’s coffers this week. The administration would use $188 million of that money to close most of the city’s projected $201 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year, while fully replenishing the $20 million rainy day fund ahead of hurricane season.

“Without this flexibility, the city would be facing catastrophic cuts across all services,” Turner said, a nod to the city’s estimated $178 million in lost revenue during the pandemic, mostly driven by sales tax.

The proposed spending plan largely would leave the city’s $214 million in reserves, which officials have relied on in recent years to help balance the annual budget, untouched. Turner also did not account for $112 million of the city’s stimulus funds in his initial spending plan, leaving the door open for other initiatives that he declined to detail Tuesday.

A portion of the extra federal aid likely will cover the firefighter raises, which Turner did not include in the budget as proposed Tuesday. The mayor declined to reveal the size of the firefighter pay increase, saying only that he plans to implement raises over three years, starting July 1, when the 2022 fiscal year begins.

[…]

Without the firefighter raises, Turner’s spending plan represents a 4.7 percent increase from last year’s budget. The tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for core city services, would total $2.58 billion next year, up 3.9 percent. The largest increase would come from the police department, which would see its budget rise to $984 million, about $33 million more than city officials expect to spend this year.

The additional police spending would fund six cadet classes instead of the usual five, and cover a 2 percent raise for officers. The city’s contract with police officers has expired and the two sides have not agreed on a new one, but an evergreen clause in that deal secured the raise. The raise accounts for $11.7 million of the added funds.

The Houston Fire Department also would see a modest budget increase, with funding for four cadet classes. The initial $515 million HFD budget includes funding for 3,648 classified firefighters, according to city finance officials, about 76 fewer than the current budget.

For now, the two public safety departments account for roughly a quarter of the mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and half the general fund costs.

Controller Chris Brown said the federal stimulus money bailed the city out of a truly dire scenario — Houston’s worst-ever deficit, which could have resulted in as many as 2,500 layoffs.

“I’d breath a sigh of relief and look at the fact that the city really dodged a bullet this budget cycle,” Brown said, adding that his biggest concern is the city’s continuing structural imbalance. Its recurring expenditures outweigh revenues, meaning the city usually has to employ stop-gap measures such as land sales and deferrals to balance its books.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember now, but a year ago things were looking really bad. The CARES Act helped, but the American Rescue Plan provided more money with fewer strings attached. It also provided money for the next fiscal year, by which time hopefully the city’s sales tax revenue will have bounced back. Not having this money would have made the next budget so much worse than it was in 2010. We still have challenges ahead, but at least the hole didn’t get exponentially bigger.

(As for the increase to the police budget, well, I didn’t expect anything different. Here’s hoping the Lege fails to carry that ball across the goal line.

The I-45 effect on Metro

There will be a lot of disruption to mass transit as a result of the I-45 project.

Metro’s board on Thursday approved hiring design and engineering firm STV Incorporated for services related to the controversial Interstate 45 project. Though the bulk of the project will widen I-45, it includes a near-total redesign of the downtown freeway system, starting with work along Interstate 69 at Spur 527, putting Wheeler — where Texas Department of Transportation officials plan to bury the freeway below local streets — in the first phases.

The contract with STV, valued at up to $9.6 million for the next five years, allows Metro to consult the company as it plans for transit operations during construction and how what is built will affect its own upcoming projects.

The goal, officials said, is to limit disruptions to bus and rail service and preserve the space Metro will need for future transit lanes and stations, so adding them later does not become a costly and complicated challenge.

“It is absolutely imperative we understand the impacts of the (I-45 rebuild) on the Wheeler site,” said Clint Harbert, vice-president of system and capital planning for Metro. “That includes all of the stakeholder activity around us and the loss of property at the Wheeler site, as well as how is BRT going to go through.”

The transit center, which at times has had safety concerns because of its isolated location practically beneath the freeway between Fannin and Main, is rapidly getting new neighbors and more visibility. The former Sears property in Midtown is the centerpiece of a planned “innovation hub” and redevelopment is occurring on many nearby blocks.

[…]

Though TxDOT has halted development of many segments, the portion along I-69 from Spur 527 to Texas 288 — which includes Wheeler — remains on pace for construction to start next year. Widening I-45 and redoing the downtown system is spread across many distinct but connected projects, and TxDOT had approvals and design ready for the first segments, but has halted development of the others until a lawsuit filed by Harris County and the federal review are settled.

That work could affect Wheeler and the Red Line early on, as burying the freeway through Midtown and rebuilding city streets could mean months of detours and delays for transit in the area.

The Wheeler work and potential to have the Red Line, the most-used transit line in Texas, cut in half by construction is not the only impact Metro is weighing with the I-45 work. In 2017, Metro estimated reconstruction of I-45 could cost transit officials an additional $24 million annually simply in employee time and fuel related to detours.

Wheeler already is a major stop in the Metro system, but its importance is set to increase, based on the agency’s long-range transit plan. Riders will use Wheeler to transfer to and from the Red Line light rail, the spine of the train network, and the longest planned bus rapid transit line serving northeast Houston, Midtown and Westchase.

See here, here, and here for some background. The thought of the Red Line being interrupted for months because of freeway construction blows my mind – the amount of chaos that will cause is enormous. I won’t relitigate the question of if it’s all worth it or not – if nothing else, we can wait and see what the Harris County lawsuit brings. There is the potential here for federal money to pick up some of the cost of the BRT line that is now the Universities Line plus a northeast extension, and that would be sweet. And who knows, maybe some of this construction chaos doesn’t happen, or at least isn’t as bad as we now fear. There’s still hope. Some of this work would be done regardless anyway. Whatever happens, I wish all the best to everyone who’s going to have to deal with it for however long.

State finally releases most federal stimulus funds for schools

About damn time.

Texas’s top state leaders announced Wednesday they are releasing $11.2 billion out of nearly $18 billion available in federal pandemic relief funding that has been dedicated for the state’s public schools.

The announcement comes as education advocates and Democratic lawmakers have been urging officials in recent weeks to release the money that was set aside by Congress for Texas’ public schools to address learning loss and cover pandemic-related education expenses.

It’s unclear how the state plans to spend the remaining $7 billion in stimulus money, which was allocated through multiple aid packages in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That funding could not be immediately released due to federal requirements, state officials said.

[…]

State officials had previously argued the reason they hadn’t allocated the one-time funding to the schools was because they were awaiting federal government guidance about whether the state would need to increase funding for higher education to make the K-12 funding available.

Last week, the federal government weighed in and clarified the state must maintain both higher education and public education funding at the same proportion to the budget as it was in 2017, 2018 and 2019 to tap into those dollars. Effectively, that means Texas would have to increase higher education spending by $1.2 billion to unlock the K-12 stimulus dollars.

Abbott has applied for a federal waiver that would allow Texas to bypass increasing higher education spending, but no decision has been announced on whether the waiver was granted. His office did not respond to questions about what this announcement means for higher education funding or why the public school funding was released. The announcement said legislative leaders will work to address outstanding issues about distributing the rest of the federal funding by the end of the legislative session.

K-12 and higher education advocates argue increasing funding for higher education is worth it to receive the nearly $18 billion in relief funds for K-12 schools.

“The state is seeking a federal waiver to avoid this additional spending, but that is the wrong thing to do, especially at a time when our institutions of higher education need the additional funding to cover extra expenses incurred during the pandemic,” said Texas Faculty Association President Pat Heintzelman in a press release this week.

School districts also called the state to release the money because they need to know how much money schools will receive as they develop budgets for next year. While the funding can be used for a variety of resources, including extra mental health support, counselors and more staff, school leaders were growing concerned they would run out of time to hire the necessary staff without access to more money.

“This is a positive first step in getting the funds our schools need,” said Zeph Capo, president of Texas American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. “It’s unfortunate that it took nearly two months of pushing the governor to get to this point. Many districts that have been contemplating cuts related to pandemic expenses can now implement plans to help students catch up.”

See here for the background. One reason for the increasing concern is that school districts have to be planning their budgets for next academic year, and there will surely need to be a lot of summer instruction as well. It’s so much better to have the funds in place and know what you’re getting rather than guess how much and when. The Chron adds a few details.

Houston-area district leaders have not yet detailed precise plans for stimulus money, largely because they did not know how much they will receive or when funding would arrive. However, several superintendents have identified top priorities, such as hiring more staff, extending the school day or year, upgrading ventilation systems and providing retention bonuses.

TEA officials released each district’s share of the $11 billion on Wednesday, cautioning that only two-thirds of the money will be available immediately. The remaining one-third will arrive once the U.S. Department of Education approves Texas’ written plan for the money.

The funds will flow in proportions similar to federal Title I money, meaning public school districts with a higher percentage of students from lower-income families will receive a greater share of the cash.

Houston ISD will receive about $800 million, equal to roughly 40 percent of its annual general fund operating costs. The more affluent Cy-Fair ISD will secure about $190 million, slightly less than 20 percent of its annual operating costs. The even-more affluent Katy ISD will net about $67 million, just under 10 percent of its annual operating costs.

This money will do a lot of good. It’s frustrating we had to wait as long as we did to get it, but at least it’s finally here, with more to come.

Rep. Fletcher will push for Ike Dike in the infrastructure plan

A good thing to champion.

Rep. Lizzie Fletcher

As congressional Democrats hash out a plan to spend more than $2 trillion on the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, it’s unclear how much — if any — of that money would go toward a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge.

But at least one Houston Democrat is making it her mission to ensure the package includes funding for the latest version of the so-called Ike Dike, a proposed $26 billion project that would fundamentally alter the southeast Texas coastline.

“This is the time to make the case,” said U.S. Rep. Lizzie Fletcher.

Fletcher is telling the Biden administration and Democrats on key committees drafting the infrastructure bill that the Ike Dike isn’t just a project to protect Texas. If storm surge were to head north into the Houston Ship Channel and shut down the Port of Houston — the busiest port in the country and home to much of the nation’s petrochemical industry — it would have “dire” economic consequences for the entire nation, Fletcher recently testified to a House committee.

“The potential environmental and human catastrophe that would come from that storm surge … it’s beyond anything I think our country has ever seen,” Fletcher said in an interview with Hearst Newspapers. “People need to know and understand that.”

However, Fletcher may be facing an uphill battle even with a fellow Democrat in the White House.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan doesn’t include specific projects, and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says it’s too early to say whether even some of the $50 billion that the plan earmarks to gird against storms would help fund the Ike Dike.

Meanwhile, delegations from other states are revving up efforts to secure funding for their own projects, though the White House has said it doesn’t want specific projects written into the plan and would rather set up competitive grants to dole out the funding.

“Obviously every member is going to have something in their district or state they’re going to want to bring home and show they’re doing something,” said Bill Stahlman, a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Committee on America’s Infrastructure. “Whether it’s a small, local, rural bridge that needs to be rebuilt or on the magnitude of the Ike Dike…they all have value to that community.”

See here, here, and here for some background. While the Lege is taking up a bill to establish a funding source for coastal flood mitigation, that would be a long-term project and it’s not at all clear to me that it wouldn’t require federal supplement anyway. The Ike Dike is exactly the type of project that should be tackled as a big federal investment, and Rep. Fletcher makes a good case for it. Having a champion for this project in Congress is better than just having interest groups push for it, and having a champion who’s in the legislative majority with a President of the same party that wants to have a big infrastructure bill is even better. There are still no guarantees, of course, but this is the best shot we’ve had.

As the story notes, Rep. Fletcher is now working on her colleagues to get their support as well – Rep. Al Green has already signed on, and I expect most if not all of the Dem caucus will join. Getting Republicans on board is a different challenge, and it may not mean anything if they’re just going to vote against the final bill anyway, as they all did with the COVID relief bill. I’m sure Sen. Cornyn might come out in favor of a standalone Ike Dike bill, but such a thing is a much longer way away from passage, and it would need at least ten Republican Senators on board to defeat the filibuster. I wouldn’t bet a dollar on Ted Cruz being on board with this, so you can imagine the likelihood of Cornyn putting together a winning coalition to make such a separate bill worthwhile. This is the reality of it, and it’s a challenge. In the absence of any viable alternatives, you’re either with Rep. Fletcher or you’re against the Ike Dike. NBC News has more.

House passes its budget

The rites of spring in Texas: The start of baseball season, the first 90-degree day, and in odd-numbered years, the House Budget Amendment-Palooza.

The Texas House on Thursday night unanimously passed its proposed two-year, $246 billion state budget after members spent hours deliberating which tweaks to make to the massive spending plan.

The House’s proposed budget includes measures that would ban school vouchers, empty the governor’s economic development fund and cap some attorney general spending. But such amendments are not guaranteed to remain in the final spending plan. The proposal now heads back to the Senate, where the legislation will all but certainly then head to a conference committee for the two chambers to hash out their differences before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said the chamber passed “a balanced budget that keeps spending in check while addressing the multitude of challenges that our state experiences, especially those experienced over the past year.”

One of the more notable votes happened Thursday afternoon when state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, introduced an amendment that aimed to expand state and federal health care coverage for uninsured Texans. After a brief debate though, the amendment failed 68-80, with one Republican — state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio — voting for it.

Later Thursday, House members also tackled another point of contention that’s emerged in recent weeks at the Legislature: What to do with tens of billions of dollars in federal funding for coronavirus relief. The chamber unanimously adopted an amendment by state Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, to require a special legislative session to appropriate billions in funds that may come in after the Legislature adjourns from its regular session in May.

Before the vote, Morrison said “it is clear … that our founding fathers intended for appropriations to be handled by the Texas Legislature.”

House members also signed off Thursday on a supplemental budget to cover expenses from the current budget. The vote on that legislation, House Bill 2, was also unanimous.

See here for a bit of background. One sign that the ground on which we fight the big culture wars these days has shifted is that I hadn’t given a single thought to school vouchers this session. That great bugaboo from the early to mid-2000’s has lost its luster as a divisive force. Even Dan Patrick had bigger fish to fry this session. I’m perfectly happy to give vouchers a kick in the nads every other year, but I do wish some of the newer culture war hot button issues were as beatable.

Of interest.

The Texas House moved Thursday to rein in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spending on outside attorneys that are costing taxpayers up to $3,800 an hour.

A state budget amendment brought Thursday by Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, caps the amount that Paxton’s office can pay for outside legal expenses at $500 an hour. The amendment passed the House 73-64.

The House version of the budget, once finalized, will still need to be reconciled with the Senate’s version.

Paxton found himself in hot water with Texas lawmakers this budgeting cycle after he requested more than $43 million for an antitrust lawsuit he launched against Google and hired attorneys at a rate that could cost the state as much as $3,780 an hour for the most senior attorneys, according to their contract.

González, who is an attorney, said her bill is aimed at avoiding such costs in the future.

“Think about all the good we could do with that money,” she said. “How many lives could we improve by spending this money on public education or health care? While our indicted attorney general is dealing with scandal in his own agency, we as legislators need to ensure our constituents’ tax dollars are being used to help people, and not being wasted on exorbitant legal fees.”

During a tense hearing in February, the Texas Senate’s Finance Committee chastised Paxton for his spending on outside counsel in that suit. Paxton had argued that the lawyers were necessary because the case involves a specialized area of law, and the body ultimately did not slash his budget.

See here for some background on that. It’s not clear to me what effect this amendment would have, assuming it survives in the Senate and the conference committee. Maybe Paxton will still be able to pay those fancy outside lawyers as much as he agreed to pay them, they’ll just have to bill for more hours in order to be able to claim all of it. My guess is that this is a symbolic slap on the wrist, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong.

The infrastructure bill and Texas flooding

It’s more than just the Ike Dike.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $50 billion to fortify states against future extreme weather events such as the droughts, floods and hurricanes that caused up to $200 billion in damage in Texas over the past decade — a tally that includes six droughts, five hurricane landfalls and five floods that each left at least $1 billion in damage behind.

Texas was hammered by 67 major weather disasters from 2010 to 2020, more than any other state in the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-nine of those were billion-dollar disasters — more than double the 25 costly storms the state saw in the decade prior as major weather events have become increasingly common.

The NOAA data does not include the deadly winter storm that killed nearly 200 Texans and caused billions in damage. The state was bracing for more severe weather on Monday with Gov. Greg Abbott ordering rescue boats, helicopters and other resources to stand at the ready for spring storms expected to bring heavy winds and hail.

The storm damage figures are a key piece of the White House’s efforts to sell Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure proposal, which administration officials stepped up on Monday as they released breakdowns of needs in each state.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pointed to the winter storms that left millions of Texans without power for days as an example of the need to make infrastructure more resilient to increasingly severe weather.

“We saw what happened in Texas — and that’s an example of a resilience problem,” Buttigieg said. “It’s not a fundamental technology problem. Natural gas plants were part of what failed not because they couldn’t conceivably work, but because there wasn’t weatherization … Things like wind power can operate in sub-zero conditions — I’ve seen it myself in Iowa — but only if you build it in a resilient way, which was not necessarily the case in Texas.”

[…]

In Texas, the Biden administration says the plan could help fix more than 800 bridges and over 19,400 miles of highway in poor condition, expand broadband to the estimated 12 percent of Texans who live in areas without access to it and increase affordable housing options for more than 1.7 million renters in Texas are who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, among other things.

It’s the most detail the administration has offered so far on what Biden’s proposal could send to Texas — and could be as much detail as the White House will offer until the plan becomes law. The administration has said its goal is to establish competitive grant programs to dole out much of the funding, meaning Texas and its cities and counties would have to make their case for projects.

No explicit discussion of the Ike Dike yet, but one has to assume it’s in scope. Preventing a hurricane from wiping out a bunch of refineries is a matter of national security (not to mention environmental protection), and it has always needed to be treated as such. We’re in the middle of a dumb debate about what counts as “infrastructure”, and of course the Republicans, led by Ted “Just get yourself on a plane to Cancun” Cruz, will reject every last penny of this because, well, I have no idea why. Doesn’t really matter anyway. Go back and look at that dollar amount for the past few years’ worth of emergencies in Texas and ask yourself why we wouldn’t want to do something about it right now. I’m sure you can think of a better reason for action than Ted Cruz can for sitting on his thumbs.

Is there an infrastructure boost in the works for Texas Central?

Maybe!

The federal government is serious about spending money on high-speed rail, and Texas could be among the first beneficiaries.

The recent interest in investing in bullet trains capable of going 200 mph or faster comes at a time when many Texans — after hearing promises about high-speed rail for the past 12 years — are skeptical that such a project will ever come to fruition.

But Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is talking up the potential of using modernized passenger trains to revolutionize the way people travel across the Lone Star State. And several members of Congress, including a former official with the proposed Texas Central Railway high-speed rail project who now represents Massachusetts in the House of Representatives, have filed a bill that would provide $205 billion in funding for projects nationwide over the next five years.

[…]

Buttigieg championed Texas high-speed rail during several recent public appearances, including during a Wall Street Journal podcast March 23 in which he mentioned the state by name without being prompted.

“I mean, if you just imagine what it would mean for Minneapolis and Milwaukee and Chicago and Louisville and Cincinnati and Detroit and all these cities, all to be within a swift ride of each other,” Buttigieg said on The Journal podcast last week. “But also think about Texas, think about what it would mean in Texas to have excellent high speed rail.”

When asked if his vision for rail was achievable in a bipartisan infrastructure bill, the former South Bend, Ind. mayor and Democratic presidential candidate replied that it was unacceptable for the U.S. to lack a passenger rail system on par with other countries.

“Yeah, I mean, my question is, when it comes to rail, why should Texas be inferior to China?,” he said. “And I’m going to keep putting it that way and see if it resonates.”

[…]

The Biden administration is expected to soon introduce a $3 trillion economic plan that could include a record amount of funding for development of high-speed rail.

And several members of Congress have filed a bill dubbed the American High-Speed Rail Act that would provide $41 billion annually for five years. Among those members is Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., who in the early 2010s lived in the Dallas area and served as a managing director with Texas Central Railway.

The American High-Speed Rail Act would create at least 2.6 million jobs over five years, Moulton said.

“High-speed rail is faster, cleaner, safer and better for our economy,” Moulton said in a statement. “It will connect people to more jobs in new places, give Americans freedom and choice in how they travel, and put us on par with the rest of the world.”

In addition to the $41 billion in annual federal grants available for rail projects, the bill would provide incentives worth $38 billion for high-speed rail construction, he said.

This story came out before the announcement of the Biden Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, and I’ve covered some aspects of it elsewhere, for the Ike Dike and the power grid. Whether there is something specific in here for high speed rail in general or Texas Central in particular remains unclear at this time. The eventual infrastructure bill will likely contain piece from other already existing bills, so the Moulton bill could be in there as well. But let’s not count our chickens before the eggs are even laid. Back in the glory days of 2009 when we were all daydreaming about the Obama stimulus plan and various SUPERTRAIN proposals, it was very easy to get swept up in the hype and lose sight of the fact that high-speed rail is pretty pie-in-the-sky, and among the first things to get ditched in favor of higher priorities when the going gets tough.

That said, we know that President Biden is a train guy, and the plan does specifically mention Amtrak. Amtrak responded with a proposal for a bunch of new routes, including several cities in Texas that have little or no service today. If you look at the map that accompanied their statement, you may wonder what that means:

I assume we wouldn’t have both the Texas Central high-speed line and a normal-speed Amtrak line between Houston and Dallas, plus the proposed extension to Fort Worth. At some point, there ought to be clarity about that.

Now, even with federal funds, there remain obstacles to Texas Central. Those obstacles in Texas include a big fight over eminent domain, which won’t be resolved by federal grants. (There have been efforts to strictly limit any state funding to Texas Central, so this wouldn’t be for nothing.) For whatever it’s worth, I’ve not heard anything about the usual sorts of anti-TCR legislation so far this session, but that may just be a matter of timing, since the “emergency” items have taken up all the oxygen so far. The bottom line is that this is all encouraging if you’re a Texas Central fan, but we’re a long way from anything actually happening. Ask me again in a year and we’ll see.

Where are the stimulus funds for the schools?

Ridiculous.

For more than a year, the federal government has been pumping billions of dollars into school districts across the country to help them meet the demands of the pandemic. Most states have used that pot of stimulus funds as Congress intended: buying personal protective equipment for students and teachers, laptops for kids learning from home, improved ventilation systems for school buildings to prevent virus transmission and covering other costs.

But in Texas, local schools have yet to see an extra dime from the more than $19 billion in federal stimulus money given to the state. After Congress passed the first stimulus bill last year, officials used the state’s $1.3 billion education share to fill other holes in the state budget, leaving public schools with few additional resources to pay for the costs of the pandemic.

Now, educators and advocacy groups worry that the state could do the same thing with the remaining $17.9 billion in funding for Texas public schools from the other two stimulus packages. Because of federal requirements, Texas has to invest over $1 billion of the state’s own budget in higher education to receive the third round of stimulus funding for K-12 public schools. Experts said the state has applied for a waiver to avoid sending that added money to higher education, but the process has caused major delays in local districts receiving funds they desperately need.

“Principals’ budgets are being eaten up with personal protective equipment, with tutoring, with trying to get kids back engaged, while the Legislature is sitting on a whole bunch of money,” said Michelle Smith, the vice president of policy and advocacy for Raise Your Hand Texas. “And that will have an impact on our school districts not just this school year, but for several school years to come.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott told The Texas Tribune that state leaders are waiting for more guidance from the U.S. Department of Education before opening the spigot and letting billions flow down to school districts.

Because of the state’s waiver request, Texas lawmakers likely will not decide how to parcel out the money until they either hear back from Washington D.C., or until the Legislature finalizes its plans for the state budget. But the waiver only applies to the latest stimulus package, so the state could unlock $5.5 billion for education from the second relief bill at any time.

Libby Cohen, the director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said dozens of states are already sending these federal dollars to public schools, and the most recent stimulus package also includes guidance on how to use that money. Texas and New York are the only two states that have provided no additional funding to public schools during the pandemic, according to Laura Yeager, a founder of Just Fund It TX.

“We find it baffling that Texas is pumping the brakes on this particular issue to the extent that it is,” Cohen said. “The dollars are there … and districts need to know if and when they’re coming because they’re writing their budgets right now, and they’re making decisions about summer programming right now.”

Many Texas teachers and administrators say they need money now, and want the Legislature to start funneling the federal funds to school districts as soon as possible.

But state lawmakers holding the most power over budgeting and education funding want the Legislature, instead of local school districts, to decide what to do with these federal stimulus dollars.

“The federal funds will ultimately get to school districts but the overriding question is how should these funds be spent and who should make that decision?” said Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston chair of the House Public Education Committee. “I think the primary obligation for educating Texas children vests in the Legislature according to the Texas Constitution.”

I can accept that the Legislature should have oversight of this process, but I don’t accept that they must play the part of approving each allocation. All that does is put a bottleneck on things, at a time when the schools need the funds now. More to the point, it’s not even clear that it will be the Lege making these decisions:

I see even less point to that. There’s a lot of money at stake, not all for the schools, and it makes sense to want to ensure it’s being spent for its intended purposes. But it doesn’t make sense to sit on it and take a lot of time figuring that out, because that money is needed now, especially the money for schools and students.

One more thing to consider: Rising property values, which have fueled an increase in local property tax revenues, have already been used by the Legislature to pay for other things.

Because of the way public schools are funded, a rise in local property tax revenue means the state doesn’t have to send as much money to local school districts. The schools would get the same amount as before — it’s not a budget cut — but the money that might have come from the state comes instead from local school property taxes.

This year, that amounts to $5.5 billion — most of it from property value increases. About 21% of that amount — $1.2 billion — comes from what the Legislative Budget Board called “lower-than-anticipated Average Daily Attendance rates, increased non-General Revenue Funds revenues, and federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding.”

In plain language, that’s a drop in the average number of students that school funding is based on, money that comes from sources other than state taxes and money from the first round of federal COVID-19 relief.

That last one is a sore spot for local officials, who see the state skimming from a pot of money that was supposed to go to public education. Here’s how that scam works: The money is still going to public education, but the amount the state would have sent is being reduced by the same amount, freeing the state to use money it would have used on schools on some other part of government.

The budgeteers’ word for that is “supplanting” — instead of getting the state money that was coming to them, with the federal money on top, the schools get the same amount of money they’d have received without any federal aid.

Give the schools their money already. There’s no more time to waste. The Chron has more.

The infrastructure bill and the Hobby Airport light rail extension

More good thing we could get from the eventual Infrastructure Bill.

Houston was made and marketed by the slogan “where 17 railroads meet the sea.” Local elected officials now think its short-term future, and the local success of a proposed $2 trillion infrastructure package, is getting light rail to Hobby Airport.

“Yes, there will be some repaired bridges, that’s very important,” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, said Thursday along a stubbed section of rail south of MacGregor Park. “But in an urban center like this, I hope everybody can see we will get a route to Hobby Airport and other routes that have been waiting to enhance the quality of life for our citizens.”

The national debate over infrastructure places one of the most expensive and controversial projects in Metro’s long-range transit plan front and center locally as officials juggle dozens of smaller bus-focused projects, as well as expansion of bus rapid transit across the region.

Lee, joined by elected officials, Metropolitan Transit Authority leadership and community groups, said new train service to the airport — through struggling areas ripe for investment — could be a primary local benefit of a proposed infrastructure package by the Biden Administration.

“This will be life-changing for them,” community advocate Cesar Espinosa said of the students and elderly residents in southeast Houston who need improved transit options that connect them to major locations, such as downtown and Hobby Airport.

[…]

That allowance for planning and prioritizing projects that have local support and ready planning is what officials argue makes light rail appealing. Metro in 2019 won voter approval of a $7.5 billion long-range plan that included a $2.1 billion for light rail expansion, the bulk of that aimed at Hobby rail expansion.

Years of study and planning are needed to finalize the proposed light rail extensions, but Metro officials have suggested a route that extends the Purple Line from the Palm Center Transit Center along Griggs and Long, where it would connect to the Green Line and both would operate along shared tracks into the airport.

Getting the Green Line to Telephone Road or somewhere close remains undecided. Various officials prefer different routes and there has yet to be consensus in the community over whether to use Telephone or Broadway.

Wherever the line eventually is located, officials said they expect it to be a major boost, not only for jobs during construction, but for development in the future.

“If the president’s plan is implemented it will absolutely transform our community,” said Carrin Patman, chairwoman of the Metro board.

The original idea (click to expand MetroRail LRT) was to extend the Green and Purple lines separately, and have them both go to Hobby. That was expensive and there were questions about the routes, so in the end the plan was one extension to Hobby, route to be determined as noted above. Funding for that would come later, but could be greatly accelerated if the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill develops as hoped. The intent is to boost local transit, and this would certainly do that. Maybe we could even get that extension to Washington Avenue on the other end of the line. A boy can hope, can’t he?

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

The infrastructure bill and the power grid

Of interest.

President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan could help rebuild Texas highways and ports and push broadband into rural parts of the state, where up to 31 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

It could help Texas weatherize the grid in a way that wouldn’t stick consumers with the bill as well as guard the Gulf Coast against hurricanes and address racial disparities that have made Latino and Black communities particularly vulnerable to natural disasters.

The infrastructure pitch is the president’s latest attempt to offer up money for things Republican leaders in Texas have been looking for funds to cover, as well as some that state lawmakers have been reluctant to take on.

But the president’s latest proposal also comes with a heavy emphasis on clean energy that some Texas Republicans have framed as an attack on the state’s oil industry, and Biden is calling for corporate tax increases to foot the bill.

[…]

Though Biden outlined the package in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the pitch may as well have been aimed at Texas.

“As we saw in Texas and elsewhere, our electrical power grids are vulnerable to storms, catastrophic failures and security lapses to tragic results,” Biden said, pledging to “put hundreds of thousands of people to work” rebuilding a “modern, resilient and fully clean grid” and capping hundreds of thousands of dry oil and gas wells, many in Texas.

[…]

The infrastructure bill could also help pick up the tab — if not cover completely — the cost of weatherizing Texas’ power grid, which state lawmakers are so far requiring the industry to cover. Consumer advocates have warned those costs would then be passed down to consumers.

So far the White House has not detailed specific projects, but the plan calls for $100 billion to be spent on energy projects, including upgrades to electrical grids. [Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin] said given that Texas accounts for about 8 percent of the U.S. population and 10 percent of the GDP, a proportionate slice of that $100 billion would cover the estimated $8 to $10 billion price of weatherizing the grid.

But the president’s push for green energy in the infrastructure package already has state leaders pushing back.

The Texas Legislature is working to counteract tax credits for clean energy Biden would extend as his proposal aims for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035. The state Senate passed a bill this week adding fees on solar and wind electricity production in the state in hopes of boosting fossil fuels.

More far-reaching proposals for clean energy in the plan could have major implications for the Texas oil and gas industry. Republicans are calling it Biden’s latest attack on fossil fuels after moves to end the Keystone XL pipeline and pause drilling on federal lands.

As Biden is calling for pouring $174 billion to juice the electric vehicle market and another $213 billion to retrofit 2 million homes and businesses to increase energy efficiency, he is also proposing spending $16 billion plugging oil wells — an endeavor Webber said could be a multi-billion dollar industry in Texas offering plenty of jobs to oil workers worried about Biden’s clean energy bent.

“This is a multi-hundred million to multi-billion dollar economic opportunity,” he said. “If you’re looking to be angry, you could be angry about what this might do to oil and gas — but I would say actually it’s a pretty good opportunity.”

As a reminder, right now this is the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, though the House is now working on what it will look like as legislation. The Texas Senate has passed its bill to overhaul the electricity market, which has some good things in it as well as that dumb and petty attack on renewable energy, which last I checked was still big business in Texas. The fact that Biden’s plan includes ending tax subsidies to fossil fuel companies will I’m sure have heads exploding all over the state. I have to assume that federal funds to cover the cost of weatherizing the grid would be scooped up and used, though never acknowledged and certainly not voted for by Republicans.

It’s hard to know how any of this will play out, given that we don’t have a piece of legislation yet, and we very much have to take into account the whole filibuster obstacle in the Senate. I have read elsewhere that the legislative calendar is such that this would all need to be done by late summer, so to say the least it’s a race. As a reminder, if you want to know more about the plan, see Slate and the Trib.

What the American Rescue Plan means to Houston

First and foremost, no layoffs.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The economic hardship of the freeze

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

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

With that, 32 hours of wages disappeared.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County approves its budget

Good priorities.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously approved a $3.3 billion general fund budget that includes new investments in pollution control, public health and attorneys for indigent criminal defendants.

The $64 million in new spending represents a 2 percent increase over the current budget.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia praised the spending plan, which he said is based on a new model that seeks to fund needs rather than departments, as a more sensible approach to meeting the needs of residents.

“With a metrics-based budget … this is another new day in county government,” Garcia said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the new budget process is more transparent and said the county has made key improvements after events in the past two years, including the 2019 series of chemical fires and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“This budget isn’t perfect, but we’re light years ahead of where we were in terms of ensuring we’re using every dollar wisely to help tear down barriers no individual can take on alone,” Hidalgo said in a statement.

[…]

By streamlining services and spending less on debt service, the new budget includes $132 million in new investments. Those line items include increases for the fire marshal and Pollution Control Services, totaling $1.3 million, to improve the county’s response to chemical incidents, and $5 million to launch a non-law enforcement 911 system to handle incidents including mental health crises.

The budget also includes $18 million for several justice and safety initiatives, including the hiring of visiting judges to help clear a backlog in criminal cases, expanding the Public Defender’s Office and studying racial and ethnic disparities in policing, non-punitive responses to social problems and strategies to prevent violence.

Berry proposed holding back $19 million in reserve to potentially allocate when Commissioners Court does its mid-year budget review in September, and members agreed.

An additional round of federal stimulus aid for local governments would help in the future, Berry’s budget summary states, though the county is not counting on another influx of cash.

Most of the money that the county had to spend on COVID-related expenses has been reimbursed via the CARES act. We’re probably in good enough shape that we don’t need much more from the current COVID relief bill, but I’ll be happy for us to get something anyway. There’s plenty more we can invest in if the funds are there for it.

Since the subject has come up and will no doubt continue to come up, we can discuss how Judge Hidalgo goes about her business and what it might mean for 2022 all we want. What I know is that she’s done excellent work, the county is in solid shape, and we’ve got good priorities. I’ll play that hand in a re-election campaign any day of the week.

Getting the kids caught up at school

Gonna be a big job, and hopefully we can do it in earnest beginning in August.

With students finally settling into a pandemic-altered routine and widespread vaccine access on the horizon, Texas education leaders are turning to their next great challenge: catching up potentially millions of children falling behind in school.

Faced with the possibility of devastating student learning loss, educators across the state are in the early stages of planning for the 2021-22 school year and beyond, starting to devise significant — and likely disruptive — changes to their calendars, curricula and staffing.

Several of Texas’ largest districts already have restructured their upcoming school year, adding multiple weeks of instruction or moving up their start dates to stem the so-called “summer slide.”

The adjustments will impact many of the state’s more than 5 million students, whose academic, behavioral and emotional development have been stunted by the pandemic.

The effort also will test the state’s dedication to equity, the oft-cited-but-frequently-unfulfilled principle that children with the greatest needs should receive the most resources and support. While conclusive data on the pandemic’s impact remains elusive, educators widely agree that Black and Latino children, as well as students from lower-income families and those with disabilities, are more likely to fall behind than their peers.

“We need to use this opportunity to really step back and think about what students need, and then build a system and schedule and structure that helps them get that,” said Bridget Worley, executive director of the education nonprofit Texas Impact Network. “If we start back where we left off, we’re doing them a disservice.”

[…]

In Dallas ISD, the state’s second-largest district, school board members voted Thursday to give staff and families at each school the option to add 10 weeks of in-person instruction spread across 2021-22 and 2022-23. District administrators are gathering feedback to determine which campuses want to adopt the revised calendar. Attendance will not be mandatory for students and staff at schools making the change.

The idea, which could cost up to $90 million to implement, marks the most ambitious proposal to date among Texas’ largest school districts.

Derek Little, Dallas’ deputy chief of academics, said administrators still are crafting plans for the 10 weeks of support, but they envision smaller classes in a lower-stress environment for children.

“We knew we had to do something really bold to help our students recover from their learning loss and pandemic challenges,” Little said. “The research here is really compelling, that when students have more time in a high-quality learning environment, that extra time makes a difference.”

The Dallas plan mirrors an initiative launched this school year in neighboring Garland ISD, home to about 54,100 students. The district added 17 days of optional instruction into its 2020-21 calendar — eight weekdays spread throughout the normal school year, plus nine weekdays tacked on in June — and plans to offer 21 more optional class days in 2021-22.

[…]

In a statement this week, Houston ISD officials said they are “in the initial stages of planning our summer program and strategic planning for the 2021-22 school year.”

“Normally, this process typically occurs during the first few months of a calendar year,” the administrators said. “Like other districts, HISD is prioritizing students who are struggling academically and socially/emotionally, beginning with making district-wide credit recovery available to our 11th and 12th graders in February 2021.”

Clearly, everyone wants students back in school, in a much lower-risk environment. When that happens, a lot of students are going to need a lot of remedial work, because distance learning has its problems, and many students had technology and Internet issues on top of that. There are lots of options for this kind of remedial work, but they all boil down to more time in the classroom and more instruction. Both of those things, along with tutors and materials and who knows what else, will cost money. Ideally, there will be federal funding to pay for this, but the Legislature will have a role as well, even if it’s just to appropriate the federal money. What the actual on-the-ground plans are will be done locally. Whoever is in charge of HISD when this all comes around will have their hands full.