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What I want from the next HCDP Chair

As you know, the Harris County Democratic Party will soon have a new Chair. And as you know, I am a Democratic precinct chair, which means I’m one of the several hundred people that will vote on who that is. So as a public service to you, and as my way of telling the candidates what will influence my vote, these are my priorities for the next HCDP Chair.

1. Start with a goal of 1 million Democratic votes for Joe Biden in 2024, and really aim for 1.1 million. Hillary got 700K votes in 2016. Beto got 800K in 2018. Biden (and Ed Gonzalez) got 900K in 2020. There’s already more than 2.5 million registered voters in Harris County, up about 100K from November 2020, and I expect there to be over 2.6 million by next November. Sixty-five percent turnout (we were at over 68% in 2020) gets 1.7 million voters total (up less than 50K from 2020), and hitting one million Dems would mean taking almost 59% of the vote for Biden, which so far is the only real reach here as he was at 56% in 2020. Beto got to 58% in 2018.

What I’m really aiming for is a net of at least 300K for Biden in Harris County; he was at plus 218K in 2020, after Beto was at plus 200K in 2018. If we want to talk about making Texas competitive for Biden, and whoever our 2024 Senate nominee may be, that’s the kind of Dem advantage in Harris County we’re going to need, at a minimum. That’s the kind of vision I want from the next Chair, and I want there to be a plan to go along with it.

2. Improve performance in base Democratic areas. Harris County went from being evenly matched in 2012 to the strong blue county it is now in large part because Dems have vastly increased performance in formerly dark red places. I’ve said this before, but Mitt Romney won 11 State Rep districts in 2012, and he won them all with over 60% of the vote. In 2020, Donald Trump only won two State Rep district with 60% or more, HDs 128 and 130, and he won nine overall with HDs 134 and 135 being won by Dems.

But Democrats didn’t do as well in a number of dark blue districts in 2020 as they had in 2016 and 2018, and as we saw in 2022 it was in those districts where Beto fell short, often well short, of his 2018 performance. We need to turn that around. Part of this is that we have a vibrant Democratic club structure in place, with a lot of that participation coming in the formerly red areas. There’s a lack of clubs, and thus neighborhood-based outreach, in a lot of traditional Democratic areas. It’s also a dirty secret that some Democratic elected officials in those areas do very little to help with GOTV efforts. Achieving the goal set in item #1 will require an all-hands-on-deck mobilization. I want to know what the next Chair intends to do about that.

3. Find ways to partner with Democratic parties in neighboring counties. I know the job title is “Harris County Dem Party Chair”, but we abut a lot of other counties, and in quite a few places the development just sprawls over the border, making the distinction between the two of lesser value. There are also a lot of offices that include parts of Harris and parts of one or more neighbors: CDs 02 and 22, SBOE6, SDs 07 and 17, and all of the Firth and 14th Courts of Appeal benches, of which there will be ten Democratic incumbents on the ballot next year. We should find ways to collaborate and cooperate to help our candidates in these races.

In counties like Brazoria and Montgomery, population growth near the Harris County border has led to some burgeoning Democratic turf, mostly around Pearland for the former and around the Woodlands for the latter. I also believe that Conroe is starting to become like Sugar Land, a small but growing urban center of its own that we ought to see as such, and seek to build alliances there. In Galveston and to a lesser extent Waller, the growth has been in redder areas, and we need to find the allies there who likely feel isolated and help them connect with and amplify each other. In Chambers and Liberty, anything we can do to help slow down the small but steady Republican advantage will help.

My point is that 10-20 years ago, as Democrats were starting to assert power in Harris County, it was still quite common for Dems in the then-dark red areas to believe they were the only ones like themselves there. A big part of what the county’s organizing, and the growth of the local clubs, has done is to dispel that notion and allow people the chance to enhance their communities. Anything we can do – in a collaborative, “how can we help?” manner that respects the people who have been doing their own work there for a long time – to help with that will help us all.

4. Threat management. I’m being deliberately provocative here because I think this is urgent and I want people to see the dangers. We know there’s a lot of disinformation and propaganda aimed at non-English speaking communities – we’ve seen the websites and Facebook posts, and we’ve seen the mailers and heard the radio ads. We know that “poll watchers” with malign intent are out there. We’ve just had multiple winning candidates get sued by their losing opponents, and many of them were left scrambling to pay for lawyers to defend themselves in court. We’ve faced previous legal challenges over voting locations and voting hours and mail ballots and on and on. For the latter at least, we’ve had a strong response from the County Attorney, but we can’t assume that will always be the case. We need to be aware of past and current threats to our elections and candidates, we need to be on the lookout for emerging threats, and we need to have a plan and dedicated staff and resources to respond to them.

This is where my thinking is. I don’t expect the candidates for HCDP Chair to have fully formed answers to these problems, but I do hope they agree that these are urgent matters and deserve attention. They may have other priorities and I’m open to that, I just want to be heard. So far the two candidates that I know of – Silvia Mintz and Mike Doyle – are the only two that have come forward. I’ll let you know if I hear anything more on that, and you let me know what you think.

Houston Landing

Meet the new kid on the local media block.

More than a year ago, researchers studying local news in the Houston metro area learned something critical to the launch of the Houston Landing.

“The community often times feels left out of the news,” said a nonprofit director in east Harris County, who was one of hundreds of residents who participated in the study. “I think there’s a lot of feelings of being forgotten, being left out, and the light not being shined on the community since [Hurricane] Harvey.”

It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to make our communities feel heard, seen and valued.

It just takes a vision that is as big and bold as Houston.

This is why we are announcing today the launch of Houston Landing, an independent nonprofit news organization devoted to public service journalism that will be digital-only and nonpartisan.
introductory column by former Chron reporter Maggie Gordon. (Not surprisingly, a number of their staffers are Chron alums.) They also have an email newsletter that I got subscribed to either by someone else or by them having a starter list of either “media” contacts or Chron/Texas Tribune newsletter-getters. Which is fine, I was happy to hear about their existence directly, just a bit unexpected.

I don’t know what to expect from their coverage yet, but as a non-profit media source they have obvious models to follow, like the Texas Tribune, the San Antonio Report, the Fort Worth Report, and El Paso Matters. I consider the San Antonio Report to be the gold standard among the city-focused publications – if they can replicate that, they will be of great value to me. They have not yet announced an opening day for their stories, so we’ll just have to wait. If this sounds interesting to you, check them out and subscribe to their newsletter as you see fit.

(Shout out to Bob Dunn’s late, lamented Fort Bend Now, the real innovator in this space, and unfortunately about a decade ahead of its time.)

EPA asked to investigate TCEQ’s water permitting process

Need to keep an eye on this.

The Environmental Protection Agency says an informal investigation is underway after more than two dozen environmental advocacy groups submitted a petition against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The petition alleges that state regulators are not doing enough to protect water quality in Texas, as is federally required.

The environmental groups are asking the federal agency to step in and repair Texas’ “broken system” of issuing permits to control water pollution, saying the state has made it too easy for industries to contaminate its water.

“We really feel that the TCEQ regulations, frankly, are not sufficient to ensure clean water,” said Annalisa Peace, executive director of Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, an environmental protection nonprofit based in San Antonio.

Historically, the TCEQ has been criticized for being a “reluctant” regulator and for being industry friendly. Many environmental groups have been pushing for permitting transparency, opportunities for more community input, and accountability of the state agency.

The Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, Environmental Integrity Project, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, Public Citizen and 16 other groups filed the petition in 2021, stating that Texas has a major water pollution problem with state rivers, lakes and estuaries “so polluted they are considered impaired under the federal Clean Water Act.”

The Clean Water Act is a 1972 law designed to reduce pollution in America’s waterways. According to the petition, the state’s water permitting process does not recognize people who use waterways for recreational purposes, such as fishing or kayaking, to petition for a contested court hearing — only those who own land nearby.

The petition also states that industries are not required to document “the economic or social necessity of projects.” Environment advocates believe companies should provide documentation that shows there are no other options to their projects that could avoid pollution of the waters in order to obtain permits.

“They are the ones who are wanting to pollute the environment,” Eric Allmon, an attorney representing the petitioners, said about the industry. “The applicant should bear the burden of demonstrating compliance.”

Allmon said the EPA’s informal investigation is a preliminary step that determines whether there is any merit to the allegations from environmental advocates before the agency formally reviews the TCEQ’s track record on enforcing water quality standards.

[…]

If the EPA concludes that TCEQ is not enforcing the Clean Water Act, then the federal agency can proceed with a formal investigation and could revoke TCEQ’s authority to regulate water quality. The TCEQ would have 90 days to fix the problems or lose its authority.

I confess that I look at this with at least as much trepidation as any other emotion. Sure, this could end up with the TCEQ actually doing more to protect Texas’ waters. It could also end up with Ken Paxton filing a lawsuit against the EPA that ultimately results in SCOTUS doing serious damage to the Clean Water Act and/or the EPA itself. I have no trouble believing that the TCEQ has at best been half-assing this job, and I don’t want to tell these groups to be ruled by fear. But in the current climate, with the courts being what they are and a state government that has no interest in serving the public, we have to take this kind of thing into consideration. I hope I’m being way too pessimistic.

Never underestimate the power of ducks

I don’t track “favorite stories” for a given year, but if I did, this would be a lock to make it for this year.

Alicia Rowe, an Austin therapist, first came across news of her death in a British tabloid.

The Daily Mail UK had run a story online about how her parents, Kathleen and George Rowe, had been sued for feeding the neighborhood ducks after feuding with their homeowners’ association in Cypress.

The article offered zero ambiguity about her demise: “Texas couple who began feeding neighborhood ducks to cope with loss of only daughter are sued for (up to) $250,000 by HOA for causing a nuisance and are forced to sell home to cover costs,” read the article’s headline.

Alicia, who is in her 30s, was the Rowes’ only child.

She stared at the article in shock. Then she wondered how she had died. She had her suspicions.

When she texted friends about the surreal development, they quickly found that versions of the story, which first ran in the Houston Chronicle in July, were everywhere: Alicia had also died in the Washington Post and in Business Insider India and in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The rash of stories had all come out roughly five months earlier, and thoughts about what people who knew her parents imagined had happened to her – what they were still thinking – niggled at the corner of her mind.

So she called the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the story, and the reporter called Kathleen and George Rowe’s lawyer, who called Kathleen.

“She wanted me to communicate her apologies,” the lawyer, Richard Weaver, told the Chronicle shortly afterward. “She reiterated her words to me. And it was that she had lost her daughter. When she told me she’d lost her daughter, I thought she’d passed away.”

Five months had passed, Kathleen and her lawyer had spoken to additional outlets and no one had asked for a correction.

Alicia had cut off contact with her mother years ago; she was estranged, not dead. The misunderstanding, by multiple parties (for the original story, the Chronicle had also spoken with Kathleen about the “loss” of her daughter), had landed everyone involved in a predicament. Newspapers, as a rule, don’t use euphemisms to talk about death.

[…]

A Chronicle tool charting how many people are visiting its website showed 83 people read the story in the month after the correction was issued. More than 100,000 readers had viewed the Chronicle story in the months prior.

That’s why the Chronicle proposed this followup story about her predicament, Alicia agreed. “It’s this weird intersection of media, family trauma and how fast information gets around,” she said.

Alicia said the last time she was on speaking terms with her mother was roughly six years ago.

“There was a lot of both physical and emotional abuse in my home growing up,” she said. Alicia said she was often manipulated through lies and misleading information, while being presented to those outside the family as the problem child in order to garner sympathy. That pattern led her to ask her mother to cease contact.

Soon after, her mother started telling neighbors that her daughter had “passed,” Alicia said. “She had taken down all the photos of me in the house and had planted a memorial garden to me in the backyard. I had this series of letters, basically saying, ‘If you want people to not think you are dead, you need to come back and talk to us and tell everybody that you are not dead.’”

She no longer had a copy of the letters, and Kathleen did not return phone calls about the factual dispute.

Alicia said that she had a hunch why her mom had told her lawyer and the media that she started feeding ducks after the loss of her only child: “to have a reason why she’s not following the rules.”

“It’s kind of hard to be mad at the lady with a dead daughter that just wants to feed the ducks, right?”

Hard to beat a story that contains family estrangement, newspaper style guides, and ducks. My first thought when I saw this was that surely I had blogged about the original article and this woman’s duck-feeding parents and their legal issues. But that was not the case, though I did blog about a different duck feeding matter. Instead, I had blathered about it on the radio, which is why it stuck in my mind. One way or the other, I am just drawn to a good duck tale.

This article also contained an update on the original:

Kathleen and George did not respond to calls for comment on this story. They were not home at duck-feeding time on a recent Tuesday. The ducks that had once lined up outside their porch, craning their necks to see the owners, were also gone. In their place was a “Sale Pending” sign and a lockbox on the door. The couple was moving out. On Jan. 19, their lawsuit with their HOA in the masterplanned neighborhood of Bridgeland settled.

I don’t have anything to add to that. If you read that original story, whatever you may have thought about the main characters and their HOA, now you know more.

Is it finally the time for Julian Castro?

This story is mostly about Ted Cruz and whether he might run for President again in 2024; the tone of the story is that he probably won’t. No one cares about that, but because it is a story about 2024 and Ted Cruz will be running for re-election to the Senate in 2024, it contains the following bits of speculation about who might run against him:

Not Ted Cruz

Cruz’s focus on his Senate bid follows a tough 2018 reelection fight against former Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost by 2.6 points. Combined, the two candidates raised close to $115 million, with O’Rourke bringing in more than $80 million. And Cruz may face another fight in 2024, with Texas and Florida the only conceivable pick-up opportunities for Democrats in a cycle that will have them mostly on defense — 23 of the party’s seats are up next year.

O’Rourke did not respond to a request for comment on whether he was considering a second Senate run against Cruz. After losing his gubernatorial bid against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in 2022, he told the audience in his concession speech that “this may be one of the last times I get to talk in front of you all.”

But plenty of others are considering a Cruz challenge. A person close to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said that he is weighing a run. Democrats in the state are also watching Rep. Colin Allred (D-Texas); state senator Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, the town devastated by a school shooting; and state Rep. James Talarico, who sparred with Fox News host Pete Hegseth in 2021, according to a Texas Democratic strategist.

A senior adviser to Cruz, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said he plans to make his formal Senate run announcement within the first half of the year. They added that Cruz would make additional staff hires during that period and that he’s already started raising money, including “revamping completely the small-dollar operation.” Cruz currently has $3.4 million cash on hand.

Democrats acknowledge that Texas has not been an easy state for the party. But they argue that Cruz is more vulnerable than his other GOP counterparts, citing the close 2018 race and his castigated 2021 trip to Cancun while Texas underwent a power-grid emergency due to a winter storm.

“We look forward to our Democratic nominee retiring Ted Cruz from the U.S. Senate and finally allowing him some time to finally relax at his preferred Cancun resort,” said Ike Hajinazarian, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party. “That is, of course, should he even choose to run for reelection, which would be strange considering his newly-introduced legislation to limit U.S. senators to two terms.”

Cruz, who would be running for a third term, told reporters this week that he doesn’t support unilateral term limits, but would “happily comply with them if they applied to everyone.”

The term limits thing doesn’t even make my Top 25 list of Ted Cruz atrocities. I’m not going to expend any energy on that at this time. As for Beto, I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the last of him on the statewide stage, at least for the foreseeable future. He ain’t running for anything in 2024, I’m confident of that.

We have discussed Rep. Colin Allred before, and he would be a fine candidate if he chose to run. As far as I know, any words to the effect that he has an interest or is seriously considering the possibility have yet to come from his own mouth, and as such I put this in with the “speculation” files. The thing that strikes me about Allred is that he’s in a similar situation that his colleague Rep. Joaquin Castro was in 2017 and being talked about a run against Cruz in that cycle. Like Castro, Allred is in a (now, post-redistricting) blue district and he’s building up seniority while also being seen as a rising star within the party. It’s not hard to imagine him as a deputy whip or a powerful committee chair in a couple of cycles. Given that, what is the upside to making an at-best longshot run for the Senate? It would be one thing if the Senate seat were clearly winnable, but it’s a stretch and everyone knows it. He could win, and as was the case with Beto a close loss might still be a boost to whatever other prospects he ay have, but you still have to weight that against what he’d be giving up. Seems to me the easy choice is to stay put and wait until Texas is competitive enough to tip the odds in your favor. Rep. Allred may see it differently, but I think he’s not likely to make this leap.

And that brings us to Julian Castro, whose name has certainly been mentioned as a possible statewide candidate before. Indeed, we’re approaching the ten-year anniversary of “potential statewide candidate Julian Castro” territory, as those stories were being written at the start of the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. At this point, I don’t know if he really is thinking that the time is right or if he’s the 2023 version of John Sharp, destined to always be brought up in this kind of story because it would be weirder to not mention him. I don’t know who counts as a “person close to” him, but as with Rep. Allred, I’d like to hear the words come from his own mouth before I start to take it seriously.

I’ll say this: At least in 2017/2018, you could say that Julian Castro was really running for President in 2020, and as such it made no sense for him to campaign for something else in the meantime. Julian Castro is not running for President in 2024, and if what he really wants to do is run for Governor in 2026, maybe put the word out about that. I guess what I’m saying is that while there’s still no reason yet to get on the “Julian Castro might really run for something statewide this time!” train, there’s also nothing obvious out there that would be an obstacle to it. Either he actually does want to run and will eventually tell us so himself, most likely after multiple teases and hints like this could be, or he doesn’t and he won’t. This means I will need to stay vigilant for future references to his possible candidacy. Hey, I knew what I was getting into when I started blogging.

Finally, in regard to Sen. Gutierrez and Rep. Talarico, I mean, I’m sure someone mentioned their names as possibilities. I’ve speculated about potential future candidacies for people myself, it’s a fun and mostly harmless activity. Again, and I’m going to keep harping on this, until you hear the person themselves say it, that’s all that it is. I’m going to be tracking “potential candidate” mentions anyway, so we’ll see where they and maybe others fit in. It’s still super early, there will be plenty more where this came from.

Somehow, Texas could lose a state park

You wouldn’t think that would be possible, but you would be wrong.

Texas is at risk of losing a state park forever.

Fairfield Lake State Park, an 1,800-acre gem overlooking a beautiful 2,400-acre lake, nestled within the convergence of three Texas ecoregions – the Post Oak Savannah, Piney Woods and Blackland Prairies – and along the bustling I-45 corridor between Houston and DFW, could be lost to private development if a deal is not reached soon to continue the park’s existence.

“We are absolutely, clearly in dire straits of losing our park,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said during a recent briefing at a commission work session.

Texas owns most of its state parks, but not Fairfield Lake.

The lake was created in 1969 by Dallas Power and Light Company, Texas Electric Service Company and Texas Power and Light Company to cool the coal plant, Big Brown. Those three companies merged and eventually became TXU Energy, which eventually conveyed the property to Luminant, a sister company under Vistra Corp. The park property has been leased to the state since 1971, free of cost.

In 2018, Big Brown shut down and Vistra Corp/Luminant gave TPWD a two-year notice that it was going to end the lease. Since then, the lease has been extended, allowing the park to continue operations after 2020.

The park was put up publicly for sale in 2021, and the entire property, (the TPWD park, lake and additional land totaling more than 5,000 acres) is currently under contract with a private developer out of Dallas, Todd Interests. The lease with TPWD can be terminated with 120 days of notice and the park could close as early as this month. Public access to the lake would end, too.

[…]

Despite the hope to buy and eventually expand the park, TPWD remains in a challenging position. The property is under contract and chairman Aplin said during the commission work session that the buyer is intent on canceling the lease. Todd Interests did not respond to a request for comment.

“It’s all hands on deck, it’s very important to us,” Aplin said.

“The irony here of this being our centennial-year celebration and losing one of our gem state parks, is just absolutely unacceptable to me. Everyone has my word that we will work as hard as we can, but we can only deal with the cards that we’ve been dealt.”

Rep. Ken King (R), chair of the Texas House of Representatives’ culture, recreation and tourism committee during the 2021-22 session, vowed to not let this park go away quietly.

“Texas Power and Light was a regulated utility. Vistra is now going to sell the property they’ve acquired since. They’re not a regulated utility… There’s almost $70 million of taxpayer-funded improvements on this property. If they were still a tax-regulated utility, that money would have to go back to the ratepayers. That’s not how this works, now. They’re going to make a huge profit at the expense of the state of Texas. I think it is categorically wrong, and I’m going to fight it the whole way,” he told the commission.

Losing a park like this to private development would be unprecedented. “To our knowledge, we have not closed any sites,” a TPWD spokesperson said.

Fairfield Lake State Park is in Freestone County, between Buffalo and Corsicana off I-45, so closer to Dallas than Houston. As the story notes, the TPWD didn’t have the money to afford the property when it came on the market, but after the passage of prop 5 in 2019, which allocated more funds to TPWD via sales taxes on various sporting goods, it could try again now, but it may be too late. I’d suggest the Lege get involved, but it may be too late for that as well. If that’s the case, the Lege could still pass a law to require some level of public access to this land and the lake, and could put restrictions on any sales like it in the future. There are ways to at least mitigate this and learn from the experience, so I hope they will do that. We’ll see.

(If you’re trying to remember where you’ve heard the name Arch “Beaver” Aplin before, he’s the co-founder of Buc-ee’s.)

Winter storm 2023

I don’t know if this one will get a name, but I can imagine what a lot of folks are calling it.

Thousands of frustrated Texans shivered in their homes Thursday after more than a day without power, including many in the state capital, as an icy winter storm that has been blamed for at least 10 traffic deaths lingered across much of the southern U.S.

Even as temperatures finally pushed above freezing in Austin — and were expected to climb past 50 degrees (10 Celsius) on Friday — the relief will be just in time for an Arctic front to drop from Canada and threaten northern states. New England in particular is forecast to see the coldest weather in decades, with wind chills that could dive lower than minus 50.

Across Texas, 430,000 customers lacked power Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us. But the failures were most widespread in Austin, where frustration mounted among more than 156,000 customers over 24 hours after their electricity went out, which for many also meant their heat. Power failures have affected about 30% of customers in the city of nearly a million at any given time since Wednesday.

[…]

For many Texans, it was the second time in three years that a February freeze — temperatures were in the 30s Thursday with wind chills below freezing — caused prolonged outages and uncertainty over when the lights would come back on.

As outages dragged on, city officials came under mounting criticism for not providing estimates of when power would be restored and for neglecting to hold a news conference until Thursday. Mayor Kirk Watson said Thursday the city would review communication protocols for future disasters.

Austin Energy at one point estimated that all power would be restored by Friday evening, then later stated Thursday that full restoration would now take “longer than initially anticipated.” Soon after, Watson tweeted, “This is a dynamic situation and change is inevitable but Austin Energy must give folks clear and accurate info so they can plan accordingly.”

Unlike the 2021 blackouts in Texas, when hundreds of people died after the state’s grid was pushed to the brink of total failure because of a lack of generation, the outages in Austin this time were largely the result of frozen equipment and ice-burdened trees and limbs falling on power lines. The city’s utility warned all power may not be restored until Friday as ice continued causing outages even as repairs were finished elsewhere.

“It feels like two steps forward and three steps back,” said Jackie Sargent, general manager of Austin Energy.

School systems in the Dallas and Austin area, plus many in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Memphis, Tennessee, closed Thursday as snow, sleet and freezing rain continued to push through. Public transportation in Dallas also experienced “major delays” early Thursday, according to a statement from Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

The weather has been lousy here in Houston, but it has not been freezing, so we have escaped the worst of this. I feel so bad for everyone in the affected areas. The story says that so far seven people have died on the roads as a result of this storm.

On Twitter, I’ve seen a lot of people talking about the trees on their streets and the sound they make as they collapse under the weight of the ice on them. The Trib covered this as well.

All day and all night after the ice storm struck, Austin residents listened for the cracks, splinters and crashes. Each crack of a falling limb could shut the power off — if their home hadn’t gone dark already.

“It’s a really, really thick layer of ice,” said Jonathan Motsinger, the Central Texas operations department head for Texas A&M Forest Service. “Trees can only support weight to a certain extent, and then they fail.”

Across the Texas Hill Country this week, trees snapped under the weight of ice that accumulated during multiple days of freezing rain. Some of the most iconic trees were among the most severely damaged: live oaks (some of them hundreds of years old), ashe junipers (the scourge of allergy sufferers during “cedar fever” season), cedar elms. As their branches gave way, they took neighboring power lines with them.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

“The amount of weight that has accumulated on the vegetation is probably historic, extreme,” Austin Energy general manager Jackie Sargent said during a Thursday press conference.

Ice can increase the weight of tree branches up to 30 times, said Kerri Dunn, a communications manager for Oncor. The utility reported that almost 143,000 of its customers in North, Central and West Texas were without power Thursday afternoon.

[…]

Austin has almost 34 million trees in the city, according to an online tree census maintained by Texas A&M Forest Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

“It’s a big point of pride,” said Keith Mars, who oversees the city of Austin’s Community Tree Preservation Division.

Mars said that shade from the trees saves Austin residents millions of dollars a year in energy costs by cooling homes during hot summer days.

“Trees are infrastructure,” Mars said. “How much maintenance and how much care we provide, so that [the trees] can continue providing those other benefits, is the kind of tradeoff that we all have.”

I don’t really have a point to make here. I hope everyone who has had to endure this week’s terrible weather has made it through all right, and that there are enough trees left over to keep things shaded. The Austi Chronicle has more.

State Bar lawsuit against Paxton survives motion to dismiss

Good news.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton must face an ethics lawsuit by state attorney regulators over a case he brought challenging results of the 2020 election, according to a court ruling posted on Monday.

Judge Casey Blair on Friday denied Paxton’s bid to dismiss the case on jurisdictional grounds. Blair said he was not ruling on the merits of the case.

[…]

The ruling is a setback for Paxton, who had argued that his work as the top Texas state lawyer was beyond the reach of Texas attorney ethics regulators. Potential penalties if the case succeeds could include suspension or disbarment.

The Texas State Bar, an agency that oversees licensed attorneys in the state, filed the lawsuit against Paxton in state court in Dallas last May. The complaint said Paxton made “dishonest” statements in a lawsuit that sought to toss 2020 election votes in four states.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out the election challenge in December 2020.

Paxton’s lawyers told the Texas court that the bar’s allegations were tied to his “performance of his official duties” and that seeking to discipline him “is tantamount to a judicial veto over the exercise of executive discretion.”

The state bar countered that Texas attorney conduct rules “apply to any attorney engaged in the practice of law regardless of their position.”

Technically, this lawsuit was filed in Collin County, per State Bar rules. Both sides filed their briefs in July, and the hearing was in August. Paxton’s argument was basically that the State Bar had no authority over him in this matter, which the judge (a Republican from Kaufman County) rejected.

Assuming this doesn’t get appealed or is upheld on appeal, there will be a hearing on the merits. If that goes well, we may finally get some form of accountability for our lawless Attorney General. Note that a similar lawsuit filed against Paxton’s First Assistant Brent Webster was dismissed in September when the judge in that case bought the same argument about separation of powers. That ruling is under appeal; if there’s been any further news about it, I’ve not seen it.

So there you have it. Stay patient, there’s still a long way to go. MSNBC has more.

Anti-vaxxer defamation lawsuit against Houston Methodist dismissed

Of interest.

A state district judge has dismissed Dr. Mary Talley Bowden’s defamation lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital, which suspended the doctor’s privileges in late 2021 over COVID misinformation.

Judge Mike Engelhart, of the 151st Civil District Court, heard arguments Monday afternoon after the hospital asked to dismiss the case and strike evidence from the record. The ruling appeared on online docket Tuesday, but the written order has not been made available.

Bowden responded shortly after the decision on Twitter: “We will appeal.”

That’s the early version of the dismissal story. An earlier version, from before the ruling came down and which has more background on the suit, is here.

The hearing was the latest development in the months-long dispute between Bowden, an ear, nose and throat specialist who practices in River Oaks, and the hospital. The feud started in November 2021, after Methodist announced her suspension from its “provisional staff” and issued a statement saying the doctor spread “harmful” misinformation about COVID vaccines and treatment. The hospital also cited “unprofessional behavior,” including vulgar language on social media, as a key reason for the suspension.

The doctor, who later resigned, had been touting the benefits of ivermectin for treatment of COVID-19 at a time of intense public debate around the off-label use of the antiparasitic drug to treat the virus. Bowden also had suggested the COVID vaccines are dangerous. Large studies still show no benefit of ivermectin against the virus, and evidence shows the COVID vaccines are safe and effective.

Bowden filed her defamation lawsuit against the hospital in July 2022, saying she lost patients and was exposed to “public hatred, contempt, ridicule and financial injury.” Methodist has argued that medical evidence backs up its statements. The hospital also contends that Bowden repeated the alleged defamatory statements herself in multiple conservative media appearances and profited from the ordeal.

The central issue in Monday’s hearing was whether the doctor’s claims could be dismissed under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which protects free speech.

LeRoy argued that Bowden became a public figure by “inserting herself” into a public debate about COVID, and that Methodist had to respond when she falsely stated the hospital denied care for unvaccinated patients — a claim Bowden later walked back. Bowden also could not provide clear enough evidence to show hospital officials made false statements or acted with reckless disregard for the truth, LeRoy said.

Biss countered that Bowden could prove the hospital made false statements, in part because the hospital portrayed her as an “unfit medical doctor” despite using her COVID data. Bowden previously had said she had been “sharing data” with physicians at Methodist to help them publish research.

“It wasn’t so dangerous or harmful that Houston Methodist didn’t rely and collaborate with Dr. Bowden,” Biss said.

LeRoy said that sharing data with physicians for research “does not mean she is right.”

“This is exactly the type of case that the (Texas Citizens Participation Act) is made for — accusations about a serious issue of public concern that aren’t based in any specific evidence,” LeRoy said.

Here’s a fairly simple explanation of the Texas Citizens Participation Act, sometimes called the Texas Anti-SLAPP Statute. More lawyerly explanations of it are here and here. My interpretation of this is that Houston Methodist successfully argued that Bowden’s lawsuit was an attempt to suppress their ability to freely talk about COVID. I’m happy to hear from real lawyers about this.

I think you can guess where my sympathies lie on this one. Looking in my archives I had not previously noted this case, but I did write about another unsuccessful anti-vaxxer lawsuit against Houston Methodist. We’ll see what if anything happens on appeal, a process that is likely to take years if it does go anywhere.

Paxton seeks settlement with some of the whistleblower plaintiffs

Very interesting.

The only criminal involved

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal team is in settlement negotiation talks with three of the four former employees who filed a whistleblower lawsuit against him for firing them after they accused Paxton of criminal acts.

Paxton’s lawyers, in a joint filing last week with attorneys for Mark Penley, David Maxwell and Ryan Vassar — Paxton’s former deputies — asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the whistleblower case on hold to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement. The lawyers wrote they were “actively engaged in settlement discussions” with mediation set for Wednesday.

Lawyers for a fourth plaintiff, Blake Brickman, opposed the motion in their own filing and urged the court to move forward with its consideration. The news was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.

[…]

Paxton has argued in state court that he is exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he is an elected official, not a public employee and that he fired them not in retaliation for their complaint, but because of personnel disagreements. An appeals court has ruled against him and allowed the case to move forward. But last January, Paxton appealed his case to the Texas Supreme Court.

The joint filing by Paxton’s lawyers and the three plaintiffs says the court should defer its review of the case until Feb. 9 to give the parties an opportunity to resolve the issue outside of the courtroom.

Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Brickman’s lawyers, Thomas Nesbitt and William T. Palmer, said in their filing that Paxton’s team has been delaying the case for two years and “there is no reason for abating this case.” They argued that the other plaintiffs sought the pause only because they intended to settle the case, but since Brickman was not involved in those negotiations, his claims still needed a quick resolution.

“Brickman respectfully requests that this Court deny the request for abatement,” they wrote. “It imposes further needless delay of the adjudication of Brickman’s claim.”

See here for my last update, in June. I am unabashedly rooting for Blake Brickman here. I respect that Messrs. Penley, Maxwell, and Vassar wish to settle. If they think that’s in their best interests, then godspeed and good luck. But if Brickman wants to pursue the case, there’s no reason to make him and SCOTx wait until they come to an agreement – if indeed they do. The question of whether Paxton as Attorney General can be sued at all in this context matters, and we deserve to get a ruling on that. (Yes, I may end up regretting this request, but such is life.) From a slightly more selfish perspective, the only way to ensure that the more sordid allegations from this complaint get an airing is if there’s a trial. Sure, if the FBI ever charges Paxton with a crime we may find out more, but given how long that has already taken and the amount of time Paxton has been able to evade trial for his state crimes, we may all be dead by the time that happens. So yeah, let this lawsuit continue. We all deserve some answers.

The ongoing referee shortage

This news is not new, though the cause being cited is different than the last time I read this kind of story.

The official shortage seen in the Houston area is part of a nationwide issue, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. So much so, in fact, that the NFHS — which oversees state associations like the University Interscholastic League in Texas — has launched a  campaign called “Bench Bad Behavior,” aimed at providing a remedy for abuse against officials during games.

The NFHS has dedicated resources to its member state associations to improve the behavior of coaches, parents, players and other fans.

NFHS chief executive officer Karissa Niehoff said pre- and post-COVID-19 numbers reveal that around 50,000 high school sports officials nationwide have left the profession.

“Despite our efforts for five years now to do a recruitment campaign, we still realize that loss,” Niehoff said during a Zoom session with national media last week. “We have some numbers that are coming back slowly, but we really want to not only call attention to the loss itself and the crisis itself but the reasons — more importantly, why? What we’ve found is the reasons officials do not stay in the profession really center around behavior.”

When the National Association of Sports Officials conducted its most recent nationwide survey during the summer of 2017 — drawing more than 17,000 participants — 57 percent said sportsmanship toward officials was getting worse. When it was asked who caused the most problems with sportsmanship, parents (39 percent), coaches (29 percent) and fans (18 percent) were identified as the top culprits. When it was asked who was most responsible for improving that sportsmanship, coaches (54 percent) and parents (23 parents) were again the top two answers.

NASO president Barry Mano also stressed the importance of school administrators correcting bad behavior in the stands. He said schools should be doing more to make officials feel protected and appreciated.

“Referees are in charge of the game; we’re not in charge of the environment,” Mano said. “So when a crew of sports officials comes to a site, they need to be better taken care of. They need to be recognized; they need to be secure. Do some things that make them feel welcome, make them feel respected. It’s not about money. We could solve the problem we’re taking about today if we started paying $500 a game for high school. We’re not going to do that. The shortage is not going to go away, so we need to do these other things.”

Over the summer of 2022, the Texas Association of Sports Officials took a hard stance and adopted a new policy aimed at stopping the abuse of officials. The two-section document is short and to the point. The goal is to “collaborate with schools where excessive verbal and/or physical abuse has occurred to provide a safe and more positive climate for all participants.”

The first section of the policy focuses on the abuse and warns that schools will be reprimanded if the TASO presidents council deems there is a culture of failing to control players, coaches or spectators. If those accusations are not met with sufficient action and results, the consequences will be severely punitive. It states, “For schools that fail to address their negative culture of abuse, a notification will be sent indicating that, effective on a certain date, there will be no TASO officials, in any sport, assigned to home games for that school until the issues are satisfactorily addressed.”

Other states also are taking action to battle the issue. The California Interscholastic Association, for example, implemented a bylaw that bans fans who assault officials from attending any future events.

Mano said attacks on officials have become a way-too-common occurrence in recent years.

“Today, we are getting reports in our office every single week of physical assaults against sports officials,” Mano said. “I believe it is important that administrators come to the realization that they are going to have to put some lines in the sand, saying that certain types of behavior are not going to be tolerated.”

Back in 2017, when I last wrote about this, the issue was simple demographics – Texas’ population, which very much includes the school-age population, was growing faster than TASO’s membership, which was trending older. I’m sure bad behavior by fans was an issue then as well, and I’m sure that demography continues to be an issue now, but the bad behavior issue is more acute. I’m a little surprised that the pandemic, which has been blamed for worse behavior by the public in a lot of other contexts, wasn’t mentioned here. I kind of think that a bigger problem is that we have an ever-increasing share of the public that doesn’t feel restrained by the kind of behavioral norms that we all lived by for generations – you know, all that “we live in a society!” stuff. There’s an obvious parallel to modern politics and the behavior of a certain class of politician that I’m sure you can infer on your own.

On that score, I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a lobbying effort to criminalize or enhance the punishment of this kind of abuse. I don’t know that that’s the best way forward, but I do believe that there have to be consequences for being that much of an asshole at a scholastic sporting event, and that it probably does make the most sense to put the onus on the schools to control their own fans. I hope it works.

Meanwhile, there is that other issue, and this time it seems that maybe there’s been a bit of progress.

Recruitment and retention are key components to battling the official shortage, both in Texas and across the country.

When faced with scheduling issues, Simpson started to take action. The Houston Soccer Officials Association does not appear to have a social media presence, so she decided to take matters into her own hands.

“I just started tweeting,” she said. “I got the link on how to become a ref from the HSOA website and started sending it to every college in our area. I sent it to friends. Three actually signed up. I was focused on getting as many refs as we needed to recover so we don’t have to do this (scheduling) plan.”

Another solution is trying to get younger people involved in the profession. For those who have already joined on, it’s about using the available resources to train, develop and retain them.

“As far as the guys doing it, even though there are some younger guys that are having to call games they’re not ready for, the Houston chapter has done a really good job of putting veterans with those young guys and mentoring them, training them and leading them the right way,” Heston said.

Carl Theiss served as a high school basketball official for 26 years and is currently the Bay Area representative on the state board for the Texas High School Basketball Officials Association. He has also spent time on the TASO state board and officiated junior college basketball in the area for more than 20 years.

Theiss said one of his primary goals as a member of the THSBOA education committee is to get younger people involved. It starts with providing an avenue to learn about officiating.

Simpson and Heston are both local high school coaches. I also noted in 2017 an effort by the Houston chapter of TASO to recruit women to be football referees. That subject was not noted in this story, but as I had wondered about TASO’s recruiting efforts back then, I’m glad to see that at least someone is taking action. This really would be a good job for social media, especially if you’re trying to reach a younger audience. Fixing the abuse problem will surely also help, but actively finding the next generation of refs and umps needs to be a priority for these organizations. I wish them luck.

Precinct analysis: The different kinds of courts

PREVIOUSLY
Beto versus Abbott
Beto versus the spread
Hidalgo versus Mealer
Better statewide races
Not as good statewide races
County executive offices
Houston/not Houston

I’ve spent a lot of time and space on this blog talking about judicial races and trying to make sense of their numbers. As we’ve discussed, there is consistently a three-to-four point range between the top-scoring Democratic judicial candidate and the lowest-scoring one. That range is consistent across years, across baseline Democratic performance levels, across different types of judicial races. I’ve looked but never found patterns that I think satisfactorily and consistently explain the variations.

This was an interesting year for multiple reasons – the first non-Presidential election since the huge shift towards Democrats in 2018, the first time these judicial incumbents were running for re-election, tons of money being spent by Republicans and their backers to smear Criminal Court judges, the high-profile County Judge race that was closely tied to that same campaign spending, the first non-Presidential year with no straight-ticket voting, coming in a year with the extra-long ballot and so on. There were a lot of contradictory polls and a lot of dubious conventional wisdom, including questionable pronouncements about voters getting worn out before they reached the end of the ballot, and how that would be bad for Democrats.

In the end, the results largely defied negative pronouncements about Democrats’ chances. I turn as always to the numbers to see what they tell us. One way that I decided to approach this was to look at the different type of judicial races on the ballot, to see if there was anything interesting there. Turns out there was:


Court         R Avg    D Avg    R pct   D pct
=============================================
Appeals     520,019  549,533   48.62%  51.38%
Dist Civil  518,475  545,206   48.74%  51.26%
Dist Crim   520,900  542,986   48.96%  51.04%
Family      508,801  546,195   48.23%  51.77%
C Civil     515,292  545,092   48.60%  51.40%
C Crim      522,321  534,175   49.44%  50.56%
C Probate   511,900  540,619   48.64%  51.36%

You may have noticed that the ballot is arranged in a particular order. At a high level, it’s federal races, then state races, then county races, then city and other local entities if applicable. In this context, after the statewide offices and the legislative offices (including the SBOE), there are the judicial races. They start with the appellate courts, the 1st and 14th for those of us in Harris County, then the District Courts in numerical order, which means that Criminal District Courts and Civil District Courts are mixed together. Last in line for the state courts are the Family Courts, also in numerical order. After the last Family Court race is the County Judge, the top race in the county, and then the County Civil courts, the County Criminal courts, and finally the County Probate courts. (I am not taking the Justice of the Peace courts into consideration here, as they are not countywide and you only have one of them on your ballot.)

That’s the order displayed in the table above, so each line represents a group that came entirely after the group above it. I took the average number of votes each party’s candidates got in these races – I omitted the one Appellate Court race that had a third candidate in it so that we’d have a cleaner comparison – and the average vote percentage for each group, which you see in the table.

Breaking it down this way revealed three things to me that I might not have noticed otherwise. One is that the many millions of dollars spent by the Mealer/Mattress Mack cohort did have some effect, specifically in the criminal court races, with that effect being slightly larger in the county courts than in the district courts. Republican criminal court candidates, at both the district and county levels, actually got more votes on average than their civil court counterparts, while the Democrats in those races got fewer votes than their civil court colleagues. It’s not clear to me why the gap was greater in the county (which is to say, misdemeanor) courts; the anti-Democratic advertising wasn’t at all subtle about who was responsible for whatever outrage they were fulminating about. To the extent that it did work, the voters seemed to understand the difference between “criminal courts” and “not criminal courts”. If anyone on the Republican side thought that the other Democratic judges might become collateral damage, there’s no evidence to support that.

Two, the Family Court judges were the stars of the 2022 elections for the Democrats. The gap is the greatest between them and their Republican challengers, and they got the most votes in the aggregate of any non-appellate group. They may have drawn some support from people who otherwise voted Republican, or they got more people who might have been skipping other judicial races to push their buttons. Again, I don’t know exactly why. Just eyeballing the 2018 results – I may go back and do these calculations for that year, just as a point of comparison – I think the Dems that year did better overall than in other races, though they had about the same range of results. One thought I’ve had about this is that the Family Courts were kind of a mess before the Dem sweep of 2018 – there were some stories that made it into the papers about happenings in the Family Courts, and of course there was then-Family Court Judge Lisa Millard ruling against the city of Houston giving health insurance benefits to same-sex spouses of city employees even after DOMA had been ruled unconstitutional by SCOTUS. Maybe there’s a general impression among (at least some) voters that Republicans can’t be trusted on Family Court benches, in the way that Republicans tried to push than message about Dems on Criminal Court benches. I’m just guessing – the evidence is minimal, there aren’t that many of these races, the gap isn’t that much – but it’s what I’ve got.

And three, there’s no evidence to support the hypothesis that I have seen too many times that “ballot fatigue” disproportionately hurts Democratic candidates. Democratic Probate Court judges, all the way at the bottom of the ballot, did basically as well as their counterparts in appellate and civil court races. The dropoff in votes cast for each party from appellate to probate, and from county civil to probate, is about the same; the dropoff from district civil to probate favors the Dems. If anyone thought that eliminating straight ticket voting would give Republicans more of a chance to win these farther downballot races because Dems would lose interest or get tired or whatever, they were wrong. I made this point till I was sick of having to make it back in 2018 and again in 2020. I will never not be mad about all of the lazy, uninformed, and frankly kind of racist assumptions that went into that hypothesis.

Let me close with a visual reminder of all this. The table above is the average vote and percentage for the different types of judicial races. The chart below is the vote percentage for both parties in each of those races individually.

The Y-axis is the percentages. The X-axis is where they are on the ballot, so on the left we start with the appellate races, then go through the district and family courts, then into the county civil, criminal, and finally probate courts. You can see the four races that Dems lost, one district criminal court and three county criminal courts.

And as you can see, while there is that dip in percentage that we have discussed for the county criminal courts, it bounces right back for the probate courts. There’s no overall downward trend. Many millions of dollars in advertising was able to move the needle a bit in a handful of races, but that’s it.

I still have a couple more of these posts to work through. As always, please let me know what you think.

Can we finally end Ken Paxton’s egregious court-shopping?

File this under “About damn time”, even if it eventually comes to naught.

The only criminal involved

As soon as President Joe Biden entered the White House, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched an unprecedented campaign of obstruction to block his agenda in the courts. Paxton took advantage of a quirk—really, a loophole—in the federal judiciary: A state can pick the specific judge who will oversee its case by filing in a small division where only one judge sits. Using this strategy, Paxton has positioned his cases before a rotating cast of the same conservative judges, most of them nominated by Donald Trump. They have dutifully played their role in this pantomime of litigation, issuing an unending series of sweeping injunctions that block Biden administration policies nationwide for months or years.

On Thursday, the administration finally said: enough. In response to yet another Texas lawsuit exploiting this loophole, Biden’s Justice Department called out Paxton—and, implicitly, the judges playing along with his scheme. The DOJ highlighted Texas’ “blatant” and shameless “judge-shopping,” urging a transfer to another court “in the interests of justice.” Naturally, Trump-nominated Judge Drew Tipton is unlikely to oblige; that is, after all, why Paxton hand-picked him for this lawsuit. But the DOJ’s filing marks a new phase of battle against Republicans’ judicial gamesmanship: The Justice Department is playing hardball in the lower courts, forcing compromised judges to address their own complicity in a cynical partisan chicanery.

As soon as President Joe Biden entered the White House, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched an unprecedented campaign of obstruction to block his agenda in the courts. Paxton took advantage of a quirk—really, a loophole—in the federal judiciary: A state can pick the specific judge who will oversee its case by filing in a small division where only one judge sits. Using this strategy, Paxton has positioned his cases before a rotating cast of the same conservative judges, most of them nominated by Donald Trump. They have dutifully played their role in this pantomime of litigation, issuing an unending series of sweeping injunctions that block Biden administration policies nationwide for months or years.

On Thursday, the administration finally said: enough. In response to yet another Texas lawsuit exploiting this loophole, Biden’s Justice Department called out Paxton—and, implicitly, the judges playing along with his scheme. The DOJ highlighted Texas’ “blatant” and shameless “judge-shopping,” urging a transfer to another court “in the interests of justice.” Naturally, Trump-nominated Judge Drew Tipton is unlikely to oblige; that is, after all, why Paxton hand-picked him for this lawsuit. But the DOJ’s filing marks a new phase of battle against Republicans’ judicial gamesmanship: The Justice Department is playing hardball in the lower courts, forcing compromised judges to address their own complicity in a cynical partisan chicanery.

The underlying lawsuit in Texas v. Department of Homeland Security is another frivolous effort to shift control over border policy from the executive branch to a single federal judge. Paxton has pulled this off before: In August 2021, he persuaded another Trump-nominated judge, Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, to block Biden’s repeal of a Trump policy that forced U.S.-bound migrants to remain in Mexico. Kacsmaryk even forced U.S. diplomats to negotiate with Mexican officials under threat of sanctions. Texas’ new suit, filed on Tuesday, seeks to do something similar. The state is infuriated by a new agreement between the Biden administration and Mexico regarding migrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Venezuela. (The U.S. cannot send these migrants back to their home countries.) The agreement compels most of these migrants to stay on the Mexican side of the border. But it allows a small number of them to enter the U.S. legally—and remain here for a limited period—if they are vetted and have financial supporters in the country already.

This policy, first implemented in December, has already contributed to a dramatic reduction in unlawful entry among migrants from the four relevant nations. But Texas is furious that the new rules will allow some migrants to enter the U.S. lawfully. So its lawsuit asks the judiciary to strike down the entire policy, blowing up negotiations between the Mexican and American governments.

Paxton strategically filed the suit in the Victoria Division of the Southern District of Texas, where exactly one judge sits: Tipton, not just a Trump nominee but also a longtime Federalist Society member. This is the seventh case that Paxton has positioned before Tipton. The first, filed two days after Biden’s inauguration, sought to block the new president’s 100-day halt on deportations. Tipton swiftly granted a nationwide injunction against the pause.

Paxton’s suit is also the 25th time he has exploited the single-judge loophole to get a case before an ideological ally in Texas, according to statistics meticulously compiled by law professor (and Slate contributor) Steve Vladeck. (That count shoots up when you factor in suits filed in other red states with single-judge divisions, like Louisiana.) This plot goes way beyond any Democratic forum-shopping under Trump. Democrats filed in favorable district courts and hoped they drew a left-leaning judge. Paxton, by contrast, zeroes in on a handful of divisions within districts where he is guaranteed to draw a hard-right judge.

The Justice Department is asking for the case to be moved to either Austin or Washington, DC, on the theory that as the plaintiff is the state of Texas and the defendant is the USA, the case should be heard where one of them “resides”, which is to say one of their capitals. Alternately, the Justice Department asks for the suit to be moved to another division within the Southern District of Texas, one that has multiple judges in it, so the case can be randomly assigned as per the norm, instead of going to one of Paxton’s pet judges by default. I have no idea what the likelihood of that is – clearly, Slate author Mark Joseph Stern isn’t optimistic – but it can’t hurt to ask, if only to see what kind of weak justification is given for denying the request. I don’t know if this is appealable, but if it is I’d expect the Justice Department to go for it, since why not. It’s worth the effort and if nothing else it may at least put a little sand in Paxton’s gears. Anything is better than what we have been doing.

No 2024 DNC for Houston

Not a surprise.

The Democratic National Convention told Houston officials this week the city will not host Democrats’ national convention in 2024.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office confirmed Thursday that Houston no longer is in the running. The snub leaves New York City, Chicago and Atlanta vying to host the convention, which Democrats have estimated could bring more than $230 million in economic activity.

Houston did not publicize its bid, but the convention would have been split between the Toyota Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, according to officials at Houston First Corp., the city’s convention arm.

The city separately is vying to host the 2028 Republican National Convention. It could not bid for that party’s 2024 gathering because it conflicted with other events at the two facilities.

See here for the background. I’d put a few bucks on Atlanta being the eventual winner given the competition, but who knows. Would Houston have had a better chance if Dems did better in Texas last year? Again, who knows. All I can say is that if we somehow win the bid for the 2028 RNC, I’ll be making plans to be out of town when it happens.

Not quite the same old gambling story

This Trib story about the state of gambling expansion in the Lege is not the usual formula. It has a lot of the usual elements, but for the first time there’s some hint of maybe something could happen. Maybe.

Photo by Joel Kramer via Flickr creative commons

Gambling legalization advocates in Texas are going all in again this legislative session, confident that they have built more support since their efforts came up far short in 2021.

The push is still an uphill battle, however, as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate, continues to pour cold water on the idea. But supporters have found promising signs elsewhere, and they have returned to the Capitol with an army of well-connected lobbyists after doling out millions of dollars in campaign contributions during the 2022 election.

There are two main camps pushing for expanded gambling in Texas — and right now, they appear to be operating on parallel tracks. The first is a continuation of a lavishly funded and high-profile effort initiated by the late Sheldon Adelson and his gaming empire Las Vegas Sands to legalize casinos, specifically high-quality “destination resorts” in the state’s largest cities. The other lane is the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, a coalition of professional sports teams in the state and betting platforms that is exclusively focused on legalizing mobile sports betting.

Gambling is largely illegal in Texas with exceptions including the lottery, horse and greyhound racing and bingo. Texas has three tribal casinos, which are allowed to operate under federal law.

The Sports Betting Alliance already made a splash in the lead-up to this session by hiring former Gov. Rick Perry as a spokesperson.

“What’s changed [since 2021], I think, is the continuing education of the general public that this is not an expansion of gambling,” Perry said in an interview, suggesting that Texans already participate in this sort of gambling in other states or illegally. “It’s going on, it’s gonna continue to go on and the state of Texas needs to regulate it and make sure that its citizens’ information is protected.”

[…]

Given the stiff headwinds to getting any expansion in gambling passed, sports betting and casino advocates may be competing against each other, rather than working in tandem.

The Sports Betting Alliance is officially neutral on legalizing casinos, but the Sands team has welcomed collaboration, noting its proposal would additionally legalize sports betting.

Advocates for sports betting see their cause as a standalone issue that is more palatable for lawmakers. Perry said there is a “clear delineation” between what the Sports Betting Alliance is pushing for compared with legalized casinos.

“The other issues that are out there, they’ll have to stand or fall on their own,” Perry said. “I don’t think these will be tied together in any point in time.”

It is unclear if Patrick, the highest-ranking hurdle to expanded gambling, sees a similar distinction between the causes and could be more amenable to sports betting. His top political strategist, Allen Blakemore, recently signed up to lobby for the Sports Betting Alliance through the end of the year. And Patrick is close with Perry, once calling him “one of my best friends in life.”

Neither Patrick’s office nor Blakemore responded to requests for comment.

In the December TV interview, Patrick said no one had mentioned expanded gambling to him and no Republicans had filed bills on it yet. But advocates are making the case to Senate Republicans, and at least one of them, Sen. Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, is giving thought to the sports-betting push.

“It’s true that Senator Kolkhorst is studying legislation to regulate ongoing app-based sports betting in Texas but she doesn’t comment on pending legislation,” Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, Chris Steinbach, said in a text message. “She will have more to say once a bill were to be filed.”

Neither Perry nor Blakemore as lobbyists impresses me. If hiring the right lobbyists was the key, this would have happened a long time ago. If there’s one thing the gambling interests know how to do, it’s hire lobbyists.

What does make me raise my eyebrows and go “hmmm” is the possibility that Sen. Kolkhorst could file a pro-gambling bill. That would at least contradict Dan Patrick’s statement about there being no Republican-filed bills; note that for these purposes, what he really means is a Senate Republican-filed bill. He doesn’t really care if House GOPers file these bills. Kolkhorst is a big Patrick ally, and I just don’t think she’d waste her time on a bill that she knows going in won’t get a committee hearing. If she does file a bill, it will be after she’s had some conversations, and assurances, from Patrick about its future.

Now, note that we don’t actually have Kolkhorst saying she’ll file a bill, nor do we know what might be in that hypothetical bill. We have chatter from the lobbyists that she’s thinking about it. That doesn’t sound like much, but it’s more than we’ve seen before. I do think that whoever sourced that info to the Trib wouldn’t have done so without Kolkhorst knowing about it. It would be an extreme rookie mistake for a lobbyist to drop a name like that and have it vehemently denied and maybe get that legislator mad at you.

The dynamic of the two main interests competing against each other, and thus possibly decreasing the already slim chances that something could get voted on, is something we’ve seen before. Back when the discussion was about casinos and slot machines, we had the horse racing interests pushing for casinos at their racetracks, while the casinos were pushing for, you know, casinos. Here, the sports betting interests don’t need for there to be casinos for them to operate – as we know from those tedious Mattress Mack stories, where he drives to Louisiana to place one of his ridiculous bets on his phone, an app is all they need – but you can of course also bet on sporting events at casinos, and that’s what those folks would want. And “destination-style” casinos are what Abbott and Phelan have said they’d be interested in. You can have both but you don’t need both, and they’re both incentivized to say “hey, if you only want to support just one, support us!”

Two more points. One is that these interests have already spent a crap-ton of money, mostly on Republicans since that’s who they really need to convince, and will spend a lot more before all is said and done. I don’t know how much that has actually gotten them – the old adage about “if you can’t take their money and drink their liquor and screw their women and vote against ’em anyway you don’t belong in the Lege” still applies – but it’s what they do. You can feel however you want about expanded gambling – as you know, I’m adamantly ambivalent about it – but if you’re a Democrat and you support gambling, you should keep that in mind. And two, the usual opponents of expanded gambling are quoted at the end of the story like they’re not worried, they’ve seen this all before and they say they’re not seeing anything new. I tend to believe them – the “gambling expansion will fail” position has been correct for a long time – but to be fair, they could well want to project that same calm and confidence even if the tide was turning. So draw your own conclusions.

Sen. Gutierrez files more Uvalde bills

Wish I could say any of these had a chance, but the work he’s doing is still vital and necessary regardless.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, said Tuesday that he is leading legislation to make it easier for families of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims to sue the state and police officers over the botched law enforcement response.

The San Antonio Democrat and other Democratic senators are introducing four new pieces of legislation that seek to increase gun safety and law enforcement accountability. The news came during a press conference, where they were flanked by several of the victims’ families.

“We’re not asking for the moon and the stars. We’re asking for commonsense solutions,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez filed Senate Bill 575 to end qualified immunity for police officers, a judicial doctrine that shields government officials from liability for constitutional violations. The doctrine has been spotlighted nationally in recent years because it is routinely used to protect law enforcement officers from being sued in cases of excessive force. He said ending qualified immunity will make it easier for the families of the Uvalde shooting victims to seek damages after the flawed law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting, in which hundreds of officers descended on the school but did not confront the gunman for over an hour.

This bill is accompanied by Senate Concurrent Resolution 12, which he co-authored with other Democratic senators, that “empowers” families of the Uvalde shooting victims to sue the state and its agencies.

“I support law enforcement 100%, but under no circumstances should they have [allowed] what happened on that day,” Gutierrez said. “They failed these children for 77 minutes for a lack of leadership — under no circumstances should they be allowed to walk away and not compensate people. There’s no amount of money that’s going to bring back their children. But there should be justice, so today’s about justice.”

Gutierrez said he plans to file about 20 bills in total in response to the Uvalde shooting.

See here and here for the background. Like I said, I expect basically nothing from any of these bills. The Republicans have made their position clear, and they see no reason to budge. Their rabid voters wouldn’t let them anyway. The next best thing, which we need to do anyway, is make the case to the public. We know plenty of people support a lot of these ideas. Getting them to vote for politicians who support them, that’s the problem. Sen. Gutierrez almost certainly won’t get any of his bill passed this session, but he is – and should be – working for the next session, or the one after that. It’s good to start now.

The Pierce Skypark and the Midtown McDonald’s

Fascinating.

The now closed McDonald’s in Midtown isn’t the only parcel at play in the area that could – when combined with a major proposed “sky park’ – help to reshape the southern edge of downtown.

The Greyhound bus station next to McDonald’s in Midtown is expected to close next year, laying the groundwork for a potential redevelopment opportunity in an area on the cusp of a major transformation. The site is near where economic developers are pitching a proposed elevated park on top of a section of Interstate 45 slated to be abandoned if state officials can move forward with their massive overhaul of the highway.

The proposed sky park is steps away from the Greyhound bus station at 2121 Main Street. A spokesperson for Greyhound said the bus station is open and running now, but they acknowledged Greyhound is looking for a different site.

[…]

Marlon Marshall, director of engineering and construction at Midtown Redevelopment Authority, said the closure of the McDonald’s site and the sale of the Greyhound station could benefit future Midtown development activity. While much is unknown, the potential for both sites to be redeveloped puts a spotlight on a section of Midtown that already could see significant change if city and local economic development officials move forward with the proposed sky park nearby.

The Midtown group is hosting a public meeting Feb. 22 on updates to its master plan for the neighborhood, which will include a discussion about what to do with Pierce Elevated, Marshall added.

The sky park proposal has been bandied about for several years and could become more of a possibility as the Texas Department of Transportation inches closer to launching the I-45 expansion.

The proposal involves converting an abandoned section of the highway into an elevated linear park stretching from roughly Heiner Street to Hamilton Street along the southeastern edge of downtown. The section of the highway is known as the Pierce Elevated.

Downtown economic development group Central Houston has pitched the elevated sky park as part of a broader effort to establish a 5-mile so-called proposed “Green Loop” of green spaces, parks and multi-modal pathways encircling downtown. The sky park itself could be reminiscent of the High Line Park, a former railroad spur in New York City converted into an elevated greenway.

“For me the opportunities are almost limitless, there are ways in which you can carve out sections (of I-45) and sell the dirt itself and have someone build a building abutting the freeway – whether it’s a hotel, residence or business and people could walk out of their residences and be on this esplanade that is above the grid,” said Allen Douglas, chief operating officer at Central Houston, who is also Midtown resident and board member of Midtown Redevelopment Authority.

We first heard of the Pierce Skypark back in 2015. The next update we had for it was that it was included in the Central Houston compromise proposal for I-45, the one that the city and county signed off on. I like the idea of it conceptually, though as noted then and now there isn’t a current mechanism to fund whatever the vision for this thing eventually is. I personally think TxDOT should have to kick in at least a piece of it, but beyond that I figure it would be up to the city and whatever developers get on board.

I mean, obviously turning this piece of downtown/Midtown from a busy highway overpass into a genuine urban amenity would be great for the city, and there’s limitless potential for what could be done with it. It’s also a reminder that turning the US 59 overpass on the east side of downtown into a larger US59/I-45 joint overpass would be not so great for that part of town, and that’s even before we take into account all of the current buildings that would have to be knocked down to make it happen. This is the issue with running interstate highways through the center of cities. Are we sure it’s too late to consider the proposal to re-route I-45 to either Loop 610 or Beltway 8? Please? Houston Public Media has more.

More on the PUC’s attempt to fix the grid

From TPR:

After the last big blackout, state lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3, telling the commission to improve grid reliability. So, commissioners have been working on changing the state’s electricity market. They want to reform how energy is bought and sold on the power grid to create a market that makes sure power is there when people need it.

To do that, the commission hired a consulting firm that came up with a plan called a Performance Credit Mechanism, PCM for short.

Basically, this plan would create reliability credits that electricity providers (the companies most Texans pay their power bills to) have to buy from power generators (the companies that own the power plants). The credits represent a commitment from those power generators to deliver electricity when the grid is most stressed.

“I believe that PCM is the right solution because it’s a comprehensive solution that sets a clear reliability standard as required by [Senate Bill] 3,” Peter Lake, chair of the Public Utility Commission, said earlier this month.

The consulting firm that came up with the plan says it will cost $5.7 billion more a year. Supporters say power generators will use that money to invest in new power plants and to keep the energy supply humming in extreme weather. They also argue that not all that extra money will be shouldered by consumers. But, in Texas, consumers typically end up eating extra costs.

The plan is supported by power plant owners, who stand to earn money from the credits. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s grid operator, is in favor of it. Gov. Greg Abbott and Public Utility Commissioners, including Lake, who are appointed by Abbott, also support the PCM.

The list of opponents appears to be significantly longer.

The independent market monitor, a position that serves kind of as a third-party auditor for the Texas grid, does not think it is a good plan. Consumer and environmental groups oppose it or are skeptical. The Texas Association of Manufacturers, a group that represents big industrial energy users in the state, is against it. The oil and gas lobby is not convinced it will work, and many state politicians also oppose it.

This group of opponents represent diverse interests, so their reasons for opposing the PCM vary.

Environmentalists point out that the plan is designed to bring more natural gas power plants to Texas, which is bad for climate change and air pollution.

Others, who want more natural gas plants built, argue that the PCM may not accomplish that goal. Some would prefer more direct subsidizing of new plants instead of the addition of a new layer of rules into the already complex Texas energy market.

And others say a big overhaul of the energy market is not even necessary, and that the grid can be improved without investing billions in building more power plants.

“I think we have an operational flexibility problem,” Carrie Bivens, the PUC’s independent market monitor, told a state Senate Committee late last year. “I do not believe we have [an energy] capacity problem.”

One thing all opponents agree on is that the plan is untested. It will cost billions, but there’s no real-world example to show it will work.

See here for the background. At this point, it’s not about whether this plan works or not. The issue is with going forward with an untested plan when there was a lot of disagreement about what that plan was and even a lack of consensus that this was the right kind of plan. It’s also not clear to me what the definition of success is for this plan. If new plants are built, which is the goal of this plan, but big outages still occur, is that a “success” because the new plants were built? If the capacity issues that Carries Bivens identifies are fixed before any new plants get built and the outages go away, is that a success for the plan? This is a basic thing that happens in the business world. If we can’t be sure that the plan worked, how will we know if it’s a good idea to do again if the same problems arise later? We’re just rolling dice and hoping for the best here.

Project Unloaded

I approve of this.

Jordan Phan spoke into the camera in a Tik Tok post with background music and several hash tags.

“I’ve spent the summer researching whether guns make us more or less safe, and the unfortunate truth is that guns make us all less safe,” the college sophomore said, listing several facts about women’s safety and domestic violence. “Guns are rarely used to protect, but often used to kill.”

The post was part of a wider campaign for a group called Project Unloaded. Instead of pushing for policy change or working with at-risk youth in neighborhoods, the organization aims to save lives and tackle gun violence by changing America’s gun culture — starting with young people on social media.

“I felt there was a missing piece in the larger movement to prevent gun violence, ” said Nina Vinik, the organization’s founder and executive director.

Most people think guns make them safer, she said, but research indicates the opposite is true.

“That myth is really at the core of America’s gun culture,” said Vinik, a Chicago lawyer. “We’re out to change the cultural narrative, to bust that myth and create a new narrative that guns make us less safe.”

The group launched a social media campaign called SNUG – Safer Not Using Guns – roughly a year ago in Houston and Milwaukee. It has since expanded into ten more cities, according to the organization, and the message has reached more than a million people on Tik Tok and Snapchat.

The campaign is meant for young people because their opinions and views are still changing. It includes partnerships with young Tik Tok influencers and Instagram posts loaded with statistics about the risks associated with firearms.

For example: Firearm-related injuries are the leading cause of death for American children and adolescents; suicide rates are four times higher for young people with guns at home; families in gun-owning homes are more than twice as likely to die by homicide.

[…]

Nearly a third of young people have had personal experience with gun violence, according to a report released in September by Project Unloaded. Black and Hispanic youth are more impacted than their peers.

The report found, too, that teens and young adults ranked gun violence as a bigger issue than abortion access or climate change. Half of the respondents in the survey said they think about school shootings every week.

The survey also discovered that young people changed their minds about gun ownership after reviewing facts about firearm risk.

“Gun violence is having a devastating impact on this generation of young people, and Gen Z is at the forefront of culture change,” Vinik said. “We’re talking directly to teens and really empowering this generation to be the ones to kind of propel that cultural change.”

While gun-related policies stall in the legislature, Hoyt said he hopes to help drive a cultural change by equipping people with information.

“We want to make sure we’re providing people all the facts we have, but we also don’t want to tell them exactly what to do,” he said. “Each person on their own has to decide.”

You can learn more about Project Unloaded here, and I presume on TikTok; as an Old Person, I don’t use that particular app, but I’m sure their target audience does. Founder Vinik talks a bit later about finding ways to make change that doesn’t rely on elected officials. Changing, or at least affecting, the culture is a great way to do that, but at some point the legislative and judicial processes need to be addressed as well. Putting out an effective message that can later help drive electoral behavior is a great way to start. I wish them all the best.

The next round of voter suppression bills are coming

Brace yourselves.

Texas Republicans spent most of the 2021 legislative session focusing on election security — and this year, it’s a top priority for them again.

GOP leaders are discussing a range of election security measures, from higher penalties for voter fraud to broader power for the attorney general to prosecute election crimes. Many of them target Harris County, which Republicans have spent the past two years chastising for back-to-back elections blunders.

“Harris County is the big problem,” said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican who plans to file close to a dozen election bills this legislative session. “You’ve got the nation’s third-largest county that has had multiple problems with multiple election officers, to the point where one had to resign, and the problem is that it’s too big a piece of the electorate to ignore.”

Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum did not respond directly to the criticism, but said the office supports any legislation that increases voter registration and access to voting.

“Right now, we are focused on implementing new systems to promote the efficiency with which our office runs elections,” Tatum said in a statement.

[…]

Bettencourt said he’s considering a bill that would raise the charges for some voting-related misdemeanors, such as failing to provide election supplies.

He also questioned the existence of — and the accountability measures for — the election administrator position in Harris County. [Isabel] Longoria was the first, appointed under a newly created office in late 2020; Tatum was named as her replacement last July.

“That’s somebody that’s supposed to have better acumen and better results than elected officials, but the reverse has been proven to be true in Harris County,” Bettencourt said. “One of the things we’re going to have to explore is: Why aren’t the elected tax assessor-collector and the elected county clerk — which are, quite frankly, both Democrats — why are they not running the election, where there’s some public accountability?”

I’ve said this multiple times before, but as a reminder for the slow kids in the class, many counties have election administrators, including many Republican counties like Tarrant and Lubbock. Ed Emmett first proposed the idea for Harris County. There were problems with elections back when the County Clerk – specifically, Stan Stanart – was in charge of running them. This is nothing but a pretext.

Beyond Harris County, lawmakers are looking at a slate of statewide elections reforms, starting with returning the penalty for illegal voting to a felony instead of a misdemeanor. The Legislature lowered the punishment when it passed Senate Bill 1, but top Republicans — including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — have pushed to return it to the stiffer penalty.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, whose chamber amended the bill to include the lower penalty, rejected the idea when it was first floated during a series of 2021 special sessions.

“This important legislation made its way through the House after several thoughtful amendments were adopted,” he said. “Now is not the time to re-litigate.”

[…]

State Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Richmond Republican, said he’s exploring legislation to facilitate [the mail ballot] process, such as enabling election officials to check all identification numbers associated with an individual at the Texas Department of Public Safety. He also wants to review the system’s new online mail ballot tracker and ensure it’s working properly.

Republicans have also introduced bills to further investigate election fraud, to limit the state’s early voting period from two weeks to one, and to set earlier deadlines for handing in mail ballots. And some of them are hoping to give Attorney General Ken Paxton stronger authority to prosecute election crimes, after the state’s highest criminal appeals court ruled in 2021 that he could not unilaterally take on such cases.

Currently, Paxton can only get involved if invited by a district or county attorney, according to the court’s ruling. The decision led to an outcry from top Republicans, including Abbott and Patrick, who called for the case to be reheared.

Paxton encouraged his supporters to launch a pressure campaign and flood the court with calls and emails demanding, unsuccessfully, that they reverse the decision. The move prompted a complaint to the State Bar accusing Paxton of professional misconduct for attempting to interfere in a pending case before the court.

Much of this is also covered in this Trib story. I don’t know if Speaker Phelan will be persuaded or arm-twisted into changing his mind about making whatever minor infractions into felonies, but I hope he holds out. I commend Rep. Jetton for his interest in reducing the number of mail ballot rejections, though I have a hard time believing anyone can get such a bill through the Lege. As for Paxton’s continued desire to be Supreme Prosecutor, the CCA’s ruling was made on constitutional grounds. I feel confident saying that a constitutional amendment to allow this will not pass.

Anything else, however, is fair game and just a matter of whether the Republicans want it to pass or not. They have the votes and they have the will, and there’s basically nothing Dems can do to stop them. They’ll fight and they’ll make noise and they’ll employ the rules and pick up the occasional small-bore victory, but in the end they have no power. You know the mantra: Nothing will change until that changes.

And yes, it really is all about voter suppression, even if Texas Republicans are better than their Wisconsin colleagues at keeping the quiet part to themselves. It’s certainly possible that these laws aren’t as good at actually suppressing the vote as they’re intended to, but that’s beside the point. If they keep making it harder to vote, and they keep making it costlier to make an honest mistake in voting, and that cost is almost entirely borne by Democratic-leaning voters of color, it’s suppressive. The debate is about the extent, not the existence.

Egg smuggling

We live in strange times.

As the price of eggs continues to rise, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are reporting a spike in people attempting to bring eggs into the country illegally from Mexico, where prices are lower.

The jump in sightings of the contraband product can be best explained by the high price of eggs in the U.S., which soared 60% in December over a year earlier. A combination of the deadliest bird flu outbreak in U.S. history, compounded by inflationary pressure and supply-chain snags, is to blame for the high prices shoppers are seeing at the supermarket.

It’s forcing some drastic measures: some grocery store chains are limiting how many cartons customers can buy.

And some people are going as far as smuggling eggs from out of the country, where prices are more affordable, and risking thousands of dollars in fines in the process.

A 30-count carton of eggs in Juárez, Mexico, according to Border Report, sells for $3.40. In some parts of the U.S., such as California, just a dozen eggs are now priced as high as $7.37.

Shoppers from El Paso, Texas, are buying eggs in Juárez because they are “significantly less expensive,” CPB spokesperson Gerrelaine Alcordo told NPR in a statement.

Most of those people arriving at international bridges are open about their purchase because they don’t realize eggs are prohibited.

“Generally, the items are being declared during the primary inspection and when that happens the person can abandon the product without consequence,” Alcordo said. “There have been a very small number of cases in the last weeks or so” were eggs weren’t declared, and then subsequently discovered during inspection, Alcordo added.

If the products are discovered, agriculture specialists confiscate and destroy them, which is routine for prohibited food. Those people are fined $300, but the penalty can be higher for repeat offenders of commercial size illegal imports.

There’s a joke in there somewhere involving Greg Abbott and the Texas National Guard, but I don’t quite feel up to the task. If you want to know more about why eggs are so expensive right now, it’s all about avian flu, as Your Local Epidemiologist explains. If you’re planning a visit to Mexico sometime in the near future, please be aware of what you can and cannot bring back with you. (If you’re planning a, um, unofficial trip to Mexico, you’re on your own.) In the meantime, know that this too shall pass. CNN and the Current have more.

New Mexico sues its “abortion sanctuary cities”

Good.

New Mexico’s top prosecutor on Monday asked the state’s highest court to overturn abortion bans imposed by conservative local governments in the Democratic-run state where the procedure remains legal after Roe v. Wade was struck down.

The move comes after the New Mexico cities of Hobbs, Clovis and two surrounding counties bordering Texas passed ordinances in recent months to restrict abortion clinics and access to abortion pills.

New Mexico Attorney General Raul Torrez filed an extraordinary writ in New Mexico Supreme Court to block the ordinances which he said were based on flawed interpretations of 19th century federal regulations on abortion medication.

“This is not Texas. Our State Constitution does not allow cities, counties or private citizens to restrict women’s reproductive rights,” Torrez said in a statement.

[…]

New Mexico’s largest cities of Las Cruces and Albuquerque have become regional destinations for women seeking abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court in June ended the nationwide constitutional right to the procedure.

Located on New Mexico’s eastern plains, Clovis and Hobbs do not have abortion clinics but approved ordinances to stop providers locating there to serve patients from Republican-controlled Texas, one of the first states to impose a near-total ban on abortion.

In direct response, New Mexico Democrats have drafted legislation to prevent cities from overriding state laws guaranteeing womens’ rights to reproductive healthcare. The legislation is due to be debated this month and has a strong chance of passing the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

See here for some background, and here for a reminder that New Mexico has been a regional access point for abortion for some time now.

More details here.

It’s not clear how soon the New Mexico Supreme Court could decide to take up the issue. Torrez said he hopes his petition to the Supreme Court will inspire a quick response within weeks or months — avoiding the potentially yearslong process of pursuing a civil lawsuit.

The filing targets Roosevelt and Lea counties and the cities of Hobbs and Clovis — all on the eastern edge of the state near Texas, where most abortion procedures are banned.

Clovis and Lea County officials declined to comment Monday, citing pending litigation. Officials could not immediately be reached in Hobbs and Roosevelt County.

Prosecutors say abortion ordinances approved in November by an all-male city council in Hobbs and in early January by Roosevelt County define “abortion clinic” in broad terms, encompassing any building or facility beyond a hospital where an abortion procedure is performed — or where an abortion-inducing drug is dispensed, distributed or ingested.

Torrez warned Roosevelt County’s abortion ordinance in particular gives private citizens the power to sue anyone they suspect of violated the ordinance and pursue damages of up to $100,000 per violation.

“The threat of ruinous liability under the law operates to chill New Mexicans from exercising their right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy and health care providers from providing lawful medical services,” the attorney general wrote in his petition to the state Supreme Court.

In 2021, the Democrat-led Legislature passed a measure to repeal a dormant 1969 statute that outlawed most abortion procedures, ensuring access to abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year that overturned Roe v. Wade.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she wants to see legislation that would codify the right to an abortion across the state.

Lawmakers have already proposed measures that would prohibit local governments from placing restrictions on abortion access — and call for putting in place protections for doctors and patients.

During her reelection campaign last year, Lujan Grisham cast herself as a staunch defender of access to abortion procedures. She has called a local abortion ordinance an “affront to the rights and personal autonomy of every woman in Hobbs and southeastern New Mexico.”

In June, the governor signed an executive order that prohibited cooperation with other states that might interfere with abortion access in New Mexico, declining to carry out any future arrest warrants from other states related to anti-abortion provisions.

The order also prohibited most New Mexico state employees from assisting other states in investigating or seeking sanctions against local abortion providers.

She followed up in August with another executive order that pledged $10 million to build a clinic that would provide abortion and other pregnancy care in Southern New Mexico.

Not much for me to add here other than I wish Attorney General Torrez good luck. This is clearly the right approach to take, and I hope the New Mexico legislature follows up as well. I look forward to the day when the state of Texas doesn’t make it necessary for them to do all this extra stuff. The Albuquerque Journal has more.

More on the lawsuit against Paxton’s deranged ballot access opinion

There are actually three counties suing him, not just the one I had originally noted.

The only criminal involved

At least three Texas counties — Tarrant, Williamson, and Harris — have sued Attorney General Ken Paxton and are asking a judge to strike down a legal opinion he released last year that says anyone can access voted ballots right after an election. The lawsuits allege Paxton’s opinion violates state and federal law, contradicts his own previous direction on the issue, and exposes local election administrators to potential criminal charges.

For decades, the attorney general’s office advised counties that voted ballots were to be kept secure for 22 months after an election, a timeframe mandated by federal law and Texas state election code. But only months before the November 2022 general election, even though neither law had changed, Paxton released an opinion saying the documents could be released to anyone who requested them, almost right after the ballots were counted.

Now, counties and election officials across the state are stuck. They can follow Paxton’s new opinion — which is only a written interpretation of the law — and potentially open themselves up to criminal penalties for violating state law, or they can defy the state attorney general and open up themselves to costly lawsuits.

That’s why now the counties are asking a judge to step in and settle the question.

Paxton’s office did not respond to emails requesting comment. Paxton so far has filed a response only to Tarrant County’s lawsuit, which was filed in October and was the first of the three challenges. Paxton’s office denied the county’s claims.

Experts say the move by three different counties to challenge the Texas attorney general’s legal opinion speaks to the complicated position it has put local election officials in. His opinion, they say, has caused chaos, and has no basis in state law.

“These counties don’t have a choice. They have to worry about whether Ken Paxton is going to take action against them,” said Chad Dunn, an Austin-based attorney and an expert on Texas election law. Dunn said Paxton’s opinion “is laughable. The election code is clear. I’ll be just shocked if the state court system ends up agreeing with Ken Paxton and the ballots are public.”

[…]

The Texas attorney general’s office, including Paxton’s own administration, has affirmed this interpretation of the law since the 1980s. The practice of keeping the ballots preserved and confidential for 22 months, experts say, prevents the documents from being tampered with or compromised and protects the documents’ reliability in case there’s a request for recount or other election challenges.

Paxton released his opinion in August after a request from state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans, who said members of the public and legislators desired “to audit the outcome of Texas elections.” In a footnote, Paxton acknowledged that the attorney general’s office had issued a previous opinion in 1988, before he took office, saying unauthorized access to the ballots during the preservation period is prohibited. But the new opinion offers no clear explanation of his decision to change a decades-old precedent.

Paxton’s office “does not have the authority to make or change the law; that is a responsibility that solely rests with the Texas Legislature,” Tarrant County’s lawsuit says.

Paxton’s new opinion does not address the potential criminal exposure of election officials, who could be charged with a misdemeanor amounting to $4,000 in fines or up to a year in jail, or offer a clear timeframe of how quickly election clerks must provide the records to requesters.

“The Election Code provides a few limited circumstances where the custodian has express authority to access ballots prior to the 22-month expiration. Responding to [public information] requests is not one of those circumstances,” the Williamson County lawsuit says.

The three lawsuits are technically challenging Paxton’s Public Information Act decisions — which experts say is not an uncommon practice — and not his legal opinion directly. In order for counties to be able to challenge an attorney general’s opinion in court, the counties must have “standing and show a reason why it affects” them said Bob Heath, an Austin-based election and voting rights lawyer and a former chair of the opinions committee of the Texas attorney general’s office. The counties are doing so through the Public Information Act challenges that are based on Paxton’s decision, which Heath says is “wrong.”

“That’s a way to get to this opinion, and the opinion obviously poses a real problem for counties or for election administrators and county clerks,” Heath said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t have much to add to what I’ve already said, I’m just waiting to see when the court will issue a ruling. After that, it’s a matter of what the Supreme Court will do. I have some hope, but these days that always has to be tempered with extreme anxiety. Stay tuned.

The “True The Vote Freedom Hospital of Ukraine”

This story has broken my brain.

Gregg Phillips and Catherine Engelbrecht are best known as the election deniers behind True the Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit responsible for amplifying conspiracies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

But soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, they shifted some of their focus to the war effort, jumping into the fray with an inspiring idea — to bring a mobile hospital to the region to care for victims of the conflict.

They called it The Freedom Hospital.

Phillips solicited donations on conservative media platforms, linked up with American veterans working in Ukraine and traveled to the region in March to meet with local officials. The Freedom Hospital’s website announced it was halfway to its goal of raising $25 million.

“Our recent project, The Freedom Hospital, in Ukraine helps old folks, women and kids near the fight receive healthcare,” Phillips wrote on the conservative social media site Truth Social on June 5.

But that was one of a series of misrepresentations from Phillips and The Freedom Hospital about the operation’s donations and accomplishments, according to a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Dallas Morning News. The Freedom Hospital never got off the ground, and, through their lawyers, Phillips and Engelbrecht now say they never raised significant amounts of money for the project.

They never brought the mobile hospital to the region.

Both Phillips and Engelbrecht declined to answer questions. According to their lawyers, who spoke to ProPublica and the News, the pair’s Ukraine project was a good-faith effort that was unsuccessful.

They said Phillips realized during his March trip to the region that the mission wasn’t feasible because local officials weren’t interested, because potential donors felt the U.S. government was already funneling enough money into the war effort, and because he was worried about the potential for local corruption.

“They pretty much abandoned it all as of, like, April,” Cameron Powell, a partner at Gregor, Wynne, Arney who’s one of the pair’s attorneys, said during a December interview. “Pretty much during his trip, he was deciding it’s probably not going to be feasible.”

Phillips continued to seek donations for months after that and gave the impression that the project was still in the works. The lawyers now say that is because the pair kept pushing forward “with their due diligence for a while longer” and declined to clarify exactly when the project was abandoned.

Asked about Phillips’ statements that The Freedom Hospital had raised half of its $25 million goal, the lawyers said that amount was an in-kind donation from the mobile hospital manufacturer, not cash. The manufacturer’s CEO disputed that account, saying it never pledged to make such a donation.

As noted, this story also appears on ProPublica and The Dallas Morning News. I trust we are all familiar with the main characters of this story. They’re the reason this is a story, after all.

I look at it this way: If there were a couple of people who did not have the history of Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips that had allegedly done these things, one might reasonably conclude that they were well-intentioned but in over their heads, and they made things worse in their good-faith-but-doomed efforts to get out of the hole they were in. But because they are Catherine Engelbrecht and Gregg Phillips and they have a long history of lying and grifting, you can’t believe a word they say and you should not ever give them the benefit of the doubt. The burden of proof is on them. Just add this mess to their karmic tab, which one hopes some day will come due. Now go read the rest of this story and try not to obsess about it too much.

HISD in TEA limbo

No one knows how long this might take.

Houston ISD is in limbo as the Texas Education Agency weighs how to proceed with a possible takeover of the state’s largest school system allowed under a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling.

The court lifted an injunction on Jan. 13 that had halted Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s 2019 move to take over the HISD school board, after allegations of trustee misconduct and repeated failing accountability ratings at Phillis Wheatley High School.

The state agency is now tight-lipped about the possible next steps, saying only that the “TEA continues to review the Supreme Court’s decision in order to determine next steps that best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community of the Houston Independent School District.”

While the state Supreme Court kicked the decision back to the lower courts, the Texas Education Agency could take action independent of the court. Experts say a few possibilities could play out: the TEA could appoint a conservator, replace the elected board with a board of managers, or allow the district to remain autonomous.

Even when well-intended, takeover efforts cause a great deal of chaos for parents, students and teachers, said Cathy Mincberg, president and CEO for the Center for the Reform of School Systems, a Houston-based nonprofit that provides consulting services for school boards.

“My impression when you look at takeovers across the country, they have not yielded the results that people wanted,” Mincberg said. “They swoop in trying to make a huge change in the system, and sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Mincberg, who has worked with school districts during takeovers, describes them as resulting in “highly confusing times.”

[…]

Attorney Christopher L. Tritico has represented three Houston-area districts — North Forest, Beaumont and La Marque — through their takeovers and due process hearings, which he described as “not a winning proposition.”

HISD will have a right to due process hearings, per state code, a move Tritico anticipates it will take. However, that hearing will be held by the TEA and overseen by a hearing officer the commissioner selects, making it difficult for school districts to get a ruling in their favor, he said.

Action may come soon, Tritico said.

“The time they are trying to buy is over,” he said. “I expect to move forward fairly soon now. There is nothing really standing in the way of (the TEA) moving forward in what the commissioner wants to do.”

[…]

In Houston ISD’s case, some legal and education experts raised the question of whether its still appropriate for the state to attempt a takeover. They say the issues that triggered a takeover — Wheatley’s failing accountability grades and board dysfunction — are now dated after the case has been deliberated in the courts for the last four years.

Since the initial announcement of a takeover, and the following lawsuits, Wheatley has increased its accountability grades to a passing score, and most of the board has been replaced.

Mincberg, president and CEO for The Center for the Reform of School Systems, said the threat of takeover gave the issues the public attention they deserved, and resulted in the board members being voted out.

“To me the Houston (ISD) problem got fixed,” Mincberg said. “The board members who were doing things that the TEA had trouble with were turned out and the district has become a lot more stable.”

See here for the background. As you know, I am of the same mind as Cathy Mincberg. I’m not even sure what the TEA would try to accomplish with a takeover. It seems very unlikely that they would be able to achieve any measurable improvement that wouldn’t have happened anyway. That’s assuming that the takeover would be about tangible results and not political aims. It’s hard to say at this point, and won’t be any clearer until the TEA says or does something. Until then, we wait.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

Spring Branch ISD to discuss a book ban today

I don’t post stuff like this often – it’s not really my remit, and timeliness usually works against me – but this one really annoyed me, so here it is. Via Facebook:

PLEASE CONSIDER SPEAKING ON TUESDAY @ 1PM! (If you cannot make Tuesday, consider speaking to the topic at tonight’s board meeting instead)

This is the first book complaint that has been elevated to a level-3 for consideration under our new school board. This book complaint was reviewed by a committee of 7 (1 middle school librarian, 1 middle school teacher, 1 high school librarian, 1 high school teacher, 1 secondary campus administrator, 1 parent that has both a middle & high school students, and 1 district admin. The committee voted unanimously that the age recommendation and content were appropriate and recommended retaining the book at SBISD libraries in both middle and high school.

Level 2 Review: Denise Thompson Bell appealed the decision made by the reconsideration committee so the book was escalated for review by upper administration. Dr. Kristin Craft reviewed the comments and work of the review committee and upheld the decision that the content and age recommendation were appropriate and retained the book in SBISD libraries.

Denise Thompson Bell has since appealed the decision again, escalating this to a level 3 complaint to be heard by the board for final decision. There will be a public comment period and I ask that if you can participate at all, that would be incredibly helpful!

We know that the right to have access to books that are meaningful to a student support literacy efforts and have shown increased rates of reading. Being able to read books on different subject matters refines a student’s critical thinking skills. Parents have always had the right to restrict the reading of their own children, but this personal parenting choice should not be imposed upon the general public.

In most cases, school board meetings should be restricted to those who live in district. In this case, however, it would be beneficial for the board to hear why and how this book is important literature that should remain available to our students, regardless of the district residency of the speaker. If you or anyone you know have been affected by the more subtle aspects of racism that are described in the book, either as the target of racism, or as an individual who has actively worked to educate themselves on anti-racism, then there is benefit to you speaking up. The board needs to know that limiting books on racism and other helpful topics will cause students to feel alienated from their own school district, which will have a deleterious effect on their education and mental well being.

Speakers will need to arrive at 12:30 in order to fill out paperwork and have it submitted PRIOR TO 1pm. Public comment opportunity will be at the beginning of the meeting. Then, the board will sit with their attorney and hear the grievance as presented by Denise Thompson Bell and deliberate. After deliberation, and hopefully consideration of public comment, the decision will be made to either retain the book in SBISD libraries as has been recommended by the specialists that review books and the specialists in our district, place the book on their newly enacted restricted shelf, or ban the book from district libraries altogether.

Spread the word, far and wide! We need speakers to stand up. This will not stop at one book on racism. A book complaint for a book that has a wedding with two brides has already been escalated to level 2, and likely will be appealed again (as John Perez requested). This affects all people, whether or not they have experienced any form of bigotry or not.

I have included information regarding the board meeting in the pics attached, as well as supporting documentation of the complaint and appeal process. Documents acquired via public information request. Hope to see you then!

That’s from a closed Facebook group, so I’m omitting the link since many of you would not be able to see it anyway. The book is called The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person. Here are the pictures mentioned, which include some information about the meeting:

Here’s the public notice and agenda for this meeting; general info about SBISD meetings is here. I said this annoyed me because SBISD normally holds meetings at 6 PM, a time when many working people can attend. This one is for 1 PM, in the middle of many people’s work days, and it was called on Friday afternoon for this Tuesday, so there was very little time for anyone to even hear about it. You probably can’t be there, if you even see this in time, but if you do and you can, you can show up and push back. Good luck to those who do.

Pushing the panic button

This feels like security theater to me, but it’s what passes for progress these days.

All school districts in Montgomery County will soon be using panic alert technology during emergencies, including an active shooter situation, a security measure Texas education officials have proposed to in the wake of the deadly Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde.

Conroe, Willis, Magnolia, New Caney, Montgomery and Splendora school districts will roll out the Rave Panic Button that will allow users to summon police, medical or fire personnel with the touch of one button on their cell phone.

The Montgomery County Emergency Communication District is partnering with the school districts to fund part of the $170,000 cost for three years.

Andrea Shepard, associate director at the emergency district, said the technology allows a faculty or staff member to push a button for help in an emergency and immediately be connected with 911 dispatchers. The app alerts other faculty and staff on the campus of the threat as well.

“The safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is and will always be our No. 1 priority,” Shepard said. “Our school community should be focused on learning, not worrying about their safety.

[…]

The partnership comes after the Texas Education Agency released more details in November regarding panic button technology to beef up school safety after the shooting deaths of 19 children and two adults in May at Robb Elementary.

Currently, districts in 46 states are using the panic button technology, including several in Texas.

I can understand why schools and school districts find this kind of solution appealing. It feels like you’re doing something, which in an environment where not much is in your control has to provide some comfort. It’s not clear to me what the practical advantage of using this app is over just calling 911, especially if you still have to describe the reason for pushing the button. I’m sure some academic is currently collecting data to try to find the effect of one of these apps – there are several options, apparently, with Montgomery schools choosing a product called Rave – so we’ll eventually see a study or two to tell us. The bigger issue – well, one of them, since the root cause problem is only mentioned at the end of this story – is what happens once the button is pushed.

Uvalde had a similar panic system in place when the gunfire erupted in May. State Sen. Roland Gutierrez (D-San Antonio) told KHOU that panic buttons work to a degree but won’t solve the gun violence in schools.

“It did work to a certain degree. It warned people and law enforcement there was an intruder,” said Gutierrez, whose districts represents the Uvalde area.

He said the technologies are just a band-aid to the real problem.

“There are remedies on both sides of the aisle but they are not really addressing the real core of the problem, which is we are putting assault rifles in the hands of 18-year-olds,” said Gutierrez.

Calling law enforcement in a more efficient manner is only an advantage if law enforcement’s response is up to the challenge. The example from Uvalde is not promising. Maybe Montgomery County is up to the task. I’m sure Uvalde would have said they were up to it as well, and we haven’t even mentioned DPS and their manifest failures. I mean, I dunno, maybe putting in some effort on the prevention part of the equation might be worthwhile? Just a thought.

PUC makes an attempt to fix the grid

People are skeptical.

The Public Utility Commission voted Thursday to make a substantial change to the state’s electricity market in a controversial effort to get the whole system to be more reliable. The agency said it will let the Legislature review its plan before moving forward with putting it in place.

The idea, known as the “performance credit mechanism,” is a first-of-its-kind proposal. It’s meant to help produce enough power when extreme heat or cold drives up demand and electricity production drops for various reasons — such as a lack of sun or wind to produce renewable energy or equipment breakdowns at gas- or coal-fired power plants.

Under the new concept, which still has many details to work out, companies such as NRG would commit to being available to produce more energy during those tight times. The companies would sell credits to electricity retailers such as Gexa Energy, municipal utilities and co-ops that sell power to homes and businesses.

The credits are designed to give power generators an added income stream and make building new power plants worthwhile.

Theoretically, the credits help retailers and customers by smoothing out volatile price spikes when demand is high — but there’s wide disagreement over whether this will happen in practice. Some electricity providers filed for bankruptcy after the 2021 winter storm because they had to pay so much for power.

Critics of the plan say the idea is risky because it wasn’t properly analyzed and has never been tested in another place. Members of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce wrote to the PUC in December that they had “significant concern” about whether the proposal would work.

[…]

Experts disagree on whether the performance credits will actually convince power companies to build more natural gas plants, which are dirtier than wind and solar energy but can be turned on at any time. Some say new plants will be built anyway. Others say companies can simply use the credits to make more money from their existing plants without building more.

Michele Richmond, executive director of Texas Competitive Power Advocates, wrote in her comments to the commission that the group’s members were “ready to bring more than 4,500 [megawatts] of additional generation” to the state grid if the new system were adopted. That would be enough to power 900,000 homes. The group’s members include Calpine, Luminant and NRG.

If the PUC doesn’t change the market, there won’t be enough reason to invest in building new power generation facilities and keep operating existing facilities, she wrote.

The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club was among groups that asked the PUC to spend more time considering whether the new credits are the best solution “before making fundamental changes to our market that would increase costs to consumers,” as Conservation Director Cyrus Reed wrote.

The independent market monitor, Potomac Economics, which is paid by the PUC to watch the market for manipulation and look for potential improvements, does not support the idea. The group believes enough corrections have been made already to make sure the grid is reliable.

Still others, such as Alison Silverstein, a former senior adviser at the PUC and the Texas Public Power Association, which is made up of municipal-owned utilities, cautioned that there wasn’t enough reliable information and analysis about the proposed credits to make such a significant decision.

The grid’s reliability must improve, Silverstein wrote to the PUC, but “we cannot do so at any cost, and we cannot do so using poorly understood, poorly-analyzed, or unproven market mechanisms to address unclear problem definitions and goals.”

Silverstein added: “If the commission makes a bad decision on … market reform due to haste, erroneous problem definition, sloppy analysis or misguided rationalizations, all Texans will bear the consequences for years through higher electric costs, lower reliability, and a slower economy, and millions of lower income Texans will suffer degraded health and comfort as they sacrifice to pay their electric bills.”

See here for some background. The PUC unanimously approved the plan, which was spearheaded by Greg Abbott’s appointed Chair. I sure don’t know enough to say whether this will work or not. It sounds like it could, but there’s more than enough uncertainty to make it a risky proposition. I get the argument against waiting for more data, but I have to wonder if there were some other ideas with greater certainty that could have been used in the meantime. Not much to do but hope for the best now, and maybe take the idea of “accountability” more seriously in the next election. The Chron, whose headline says that electricity prices are likely to rise under this plan, has more.

So is Henry Cuellar still being investigated by the FBI?

It’s been a year since his home was raided. Is there another shoe to drop?

Rep. Henry Cuellar

Last January, FBI agents raided U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar’s home and office in Laredo, emerging with a computer and plastic bins and bags containing personal items in a stunning spectacle that occurred just weeks before a tough primary election.

The raid cast a shadow over a competitive election year for the longtime Democratic congressman who defended his seat from a progressive in the March primary and then a well-funded and coordinated effort to flip his seat by Republicans in November. Cuellar emerged largely unscathed — soundly winning his November reelection for a 10th term in office.

One year later, there have been no arrests or charges filed related to the case. Cuellar maintains that he was never the target of the investigation and will ultimately be cleared of wrongdoing. And the public remains largely in the dark about what set off the investigation.

“There has been no wrongdoing on my part,” Cuellar said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “My focus remains the same from my very first day in office: delivering results for Texans across my district.”

Cuellar declined to be interviewed. The FBI declined comment for this story.

Legal experts say the lack of answers or information a year later by federal authorities shouldn’t be construed as either an exoneration or a reflection of guilt of anyone associated in the case.

Experts cited myriad reasons for the continued silence around the case: The FBI search may have yielded no evidence, indictments could be sealed, the case could still be developing or there may have been delays because law enforcement did not want to interfere with the recent November elections.

“The government moved forward at that point, but it’s not necessarily surprising that we haven’t seen any other announcements or any other information that’s gone public,” said Edward Loya Jr., a Dallas-based attorney and former federal prosecutor.

“It’s too early to draw any firm conclusions one way or another,” Loya said. “What we can glean from this is that the investigation appears to be ongoing, and the government hasn’t reached a resolution one way or another as to how it plans to proceed.”

John Bash, a defense attorney who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Justice and served as a U.S. attorney in Texas, said that the DOJ is under no obligation to publicly announce that a case is closed or that a subject related to the case is not a target.

“If they got new information that caused them to reopen the investigation, they wouldn’t want to convey to anybody that ‘No, we will never look at this again,’” Bash said. “But oftentimes, they’ll tell the defense they’ve been communicating with, ‘Hey, this is over.’”

I didn’t blog about the raid at the time, mostly because I prefer not to think too much about Henry Cuellar. Be that as it may, however one may choose to interpret the lack of news about this situation, I feel compelled to note that the FBI has been investigating Ken Paxton since November of 2020, and served subpoeanas to his office in December that year. A lot has happened since then, all related to the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, but if we were expecting to see Paxton get frog-marched by the FBI one fine day, we’re still waiting. Make of that what you will.

Tesla to build a factory in Brookshire

Good luck, Brookshire.

Tesla appears to be preparing a large new industrial facility west of Houston in a project that further deepens the electric vehicle-maker’s investments in Texas about a year after billionaire Elon Musk moved its headquarters to Austin.

Little is known about Tesla’s plans, but the Fortune 500 company signed a lease late last year for about 1.03 million square feet at 111 Empire West, part of the 300-acre Empire West Business Park in Brookshire, according to research reports from real estate brokerages Cushman & Wakefield and Savills. The landlord and developer of the park, Dallas-based Stream Realty Partners, declined to comment. Tesla officials did not respond to a request for comment.

A certificate of occupancy issued by the city of Brookshire in October names Tesla in Building 9 at Empire West, about 6 miles west of Katy and 36 miles west of downtown Houston.

Mike Barnes, Brookshire’s interim city administrator, said he didn’t know details about a lease, but added that Tesla officials have been in communication with the city’s permitting office. Permits are being processed for a portion of the building but haven’t been issued, city officials said.

“We’re familiar with the Tesla project primarily from a permitting perspective. Some of their engineering-construction folks have come in with regards to initiating some dialogue,” Barnes said Tuesday.

Although Austin is the focal point of Tesla’s manufacturing presence in Texas, with its roughly 4.3 million-square-foot, $1.1 billion Gigafactory there, opening a large industrial facility in Brookshire would raise the small city’s profile among industrial developers and auto manufacturers.

“If that indeed comes to fruition, that will give us bragging rights,” Barnes said. “A company of international renown like Tesla choosing Brookshire, Texas, really helps us diversify and enhances greater Houston’s standing in the global marketplace.”

I’ll be honest, Brookshire is far enough west of here that I don’t think of it as “greater Houston”. Maybe that’s just me being narrow-minded, I’ll leave that to you. Assuming this actually happens, the effect on a sleepy little town like Brooskshire is certain to be enormous, for good and for bad. I wonder how many future employees of that place will live in the actual Brookshire area, and how many will be driving in from 20+ miles away. File this away under “things to look at again in another ten years or so”.

Poncho Nevárez’s recovery

Good story.

State Rep. Poncho Nevárez felt the sudden urge to fall back on old tendencies when the state’s top law enforcement officer gave him a call in the fall of 2019.

An envelope, with his official letterhead, containing about 2 grams of cocaine had been found by authorities on the floor of the Austin airport weeks earlier, Texas’ Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told him.

Nevárez was tempted to cover it up with more of the lies, omissions and deceit that had marked the last several years of his life.

A personal injury lawyer who’d been representing his Eagle Pass district for about six years at the time, he now likens the addict’s mentality to that of a mouse constantly searching for a way to escape traps and still somehow keep the cheese.

It was the same way of thinking that led him to make a choice that any sober person would find superbly dense: taking drugs to a federally secured airport in a receptacle with his own name on it.

“It doesn’t even seem like a choice,” he recalls, adding he didn’t even realize at the time where he’d lost it. “There’s a part of you that’s dominated by the disease that tells you that whatever the risk is, it’s worth it.”

This time, though, there was no room for deception: Police had video of him dropping the drugs.

Weeks later, as a meeting with prosecutors approached, he drank and used again. The next morning, weary and hungover, as he dropped off his son, Ponchito, at school, the reality of how his actions had been affecting others stirred something in him.

“You look sad, papi,” his 9-year-old told him from the backseat, stretching his small arm toward his father, offering him a pouch of Welch’s fruit snacks. “I like these because they make me happy because they’re good.”

“It broke me,” Nevárez said. “I didn’t just need to change — now I wanted to… I just kind of intuitively felt that If I tried to defend it, or if I tried to make it go away, I wasn’t going to survive it, and I’m not talking about the fallout. I’m talking about living.”

At the meeting with law enforcement, he came clean and learned he was eligible for pretrial diversion, an alternative to prosecution for offenders who stay out of trouble and comply with other terms, such as mandated counseling or community service.

That was Oct. 14, 2019. Ever since, Nevárez says he has maintained not just abstinence, as he likes to stress, but the conscious everyday choice of sobriety.

See here for a bit of background. I hadn’t thought much of former Rep. Nevárez since then, though I’d occasionally see him on Twitter, often in the replies to political and Texas media types that I follow, usually making a wisecrack. He’s making music now, and seems to have had some success at it. The impression I came away with from this piece, which includes quotes from several of his former Lege colleagues, is that he is in a better place now, and I’m glad to see it. I hope that continues. Go read the rest and see what you think.

Why are people mad about R’Bonney Gabriel?

I don’t know why this story fascinates me so much, but it does. Please indulge me just a little longer.

R’Bonney Gabirel

Just days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe at the first Filipina American winner, the Miss Universe Organization has issued statement calling social-media rigging claims “absurd,” according to Today.com.

On Saturday, Gabriel became the first Miss USA to win Miss Universe in 10 years. She beat out first runner-up Amanda Dudmel from Venezuela and second runner-up Andreína Martínez from the Dominican Republic in the contest in New Orleans.

Social media followers complained during the broadcast that the competition was manipulated in Gabriel’s favor. They called it a “fraud” and used the hashtag #rigged in Twitter replies. Multiple competitors complained about alleged rigging, too.

In an interview with E! online in October after similar rigging claims by competitors, Gabriel said, “I would never enter any pageant or any competition that I know I would win. I have a lot of integrity.”

See here and here for the background. The Today.com story contains the more relevant info:

The Miss Universe Organization called accusations that it rigged this year’s pageant in favor of the winner “absurd” after crowning its first Filipina American champion over the weekend.

The organization issued a statement on Jan. 16 denying the allegations, two days after Houston native R’Bonney Gabriel was crowned the 71st Miss Universe.

“The false rigging allegations are absurd and distract from the incredible milestones our organization and the delegates experienced this weekend,” the Miss Universe Organization said. “Instead of focusing on unfounded statements, we will continue to shine a light on global women’s empowerment, inclusiveness, diversity, and transformational leadership.”

The controversy came in the wake of multiple competitors alleging similar rigging during Gabriel’s win in the Miss USA pageant in October.

[…]

The Miss Universe Organization suspended the head of the Miss USA pageant and opened an investigation in October after more than a dozen contestants alleged the contest was prearranged in Gabriel’s favor.

One contestant told NBC News that Gabriel “was allowed to do different walking patterns on stage, when we were all told to strictly follow the walking pattern that we were given to by the choreographer.”

I mean, I know basically nothing about beauty pageants, so I have no idea if those allegations represent legitimate concerns or are basically Mealer-esque whining from people who were beaten fair and square. It doesn’t sound like there are new concerns about the Miss Universe pageant, just a re-airing of the Miss USA complaints. I don’t suppose I can stop myself from keeping an eye on this, so if and when there are further developments, I’ll post an update.

You can donate to Ted Cruz’s 2024 opponent now

Kudos to Daily Kos for being out ahead of the curve.

Not Ted Cruz

We’re not gonna lie: Holding the Senate in 2024 is going to be hard. Democrats are defending 23 seats to just 11 for Republicans, and three of those are in states Trump won. Several more are in swing states.

But Democrats have defied political gravity before. In 2020, against all odds, we flipped not one but two seats in Georgia in those epic runoffs, enough to retake the majority. And in 2022, we gained a seat by flipping Pennsylvania, despite the fact that the party in power almost always loses ground in midterm years.

That means only one thing’s for sure: You can’t draw any foregone conclusions about what the coming election cycle may hold.

What’s more, there are two races where we can go on offense in ’24, targeting two of the most odious Republican senators who escaped with just narrow wins when they were last on the ballot: Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida.

We also have a plan that’ll allow us to start preparing for battle right now—we don’t need to wait. Thanks to ActBlue’s nominee funds, we can donate funds to all of the top races immediately.

Those funds hold all donations in escrow and then give them to the winner of each Democratic primary. That gives our nominees a huge boost just when they’ll need it most, ensuring they can hit the ground running and make the strongest possible case to voters.

Right now, we’re starting with Texas and Florida as well as the open Democratic seat in Michigan, but we’ll be adding more races as the election develops.

Please donate $10 or even $20 apiece to each of these races to help Democrats keep the Senate blue in 2024!

We need to find an opponent, or at least start talking about one, soon. As noted, Rep. Colin Allred’s name is out there, but you know the rules: Until we hear those words from his lips or keyboard, it’s all just rumor. But at least it’s a start. And look, Texas and Florida are the two best, and possibly only even remotely plausible, Democratic pickups in 2024. To say the least, there’s a lot of work to be done. May as well get started.