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Texas

Greg Abbott is a threat to students and teachers

I have three things to say about this.

Lindsey Contreras feels backed in a corner.

The first day of school is just a couple of weeks away. The mother of two, whose older child attends school in Allen, has been watching COVID-19 cases surge again in Texas, spurred by the emergence of the much more contagious delta variant.

“I am absolutely scared to death,” she said.

Her older son is 11 years old, too young by just a few months to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. Now that Gov. Greg Abbott has prohibited schools from requiring masks and online classes will not be offered, she said she’s running out of ways to protect her child.

“I feel like a trapped animal that can’t do anything to protect her babies,” Contreras said. “I would really prefer for [the school district] to offer virtual learning again.”

Lakeisha Patterson shares Contreras’ concerns. She teaches third grade in the Deer Park School District. Her students and her own two children are all too young to be vaccinated. Teaching was scary last year, but she’s even more worried now.

“The precautions we put in place at the beginning of last year, things that were to help, to help reassure parents that we’re doing everything we possibly can to keep our kids safe — we’re not seeing that this year,” she said.

Parents who are concerned by the lack of mask mandates are left with few options this school year. While Texas provided funds for remote learning during the start of the pandemic, a bill that would have funded it for this year died in the Texas Legislature after the House Democrats broke quorum. Another bill that did pass made it impossible for the TEA to use the same emergency powers to fund remote learning this year, according to an agency spokesperson.

Although some school districts, including Austin and Pflugerville ISDs, have announced online options, several others canceled their virtual learning plans for the upcoming school year.

Contreras and Patterson are joined by physicians, health experts, teachers and advocates in pleading with the governor to allow school districts to require masks, one of the most consistent viable tools against the spread of the coronavirus, and for parents to have their kids wear them even if there isn’t a mandate.

This fall’s hoped-for, easier return to school, with lowered spread of COVID-19 and more of the population vaccinated, has disappeared with the emergence of the more-contagious delta variant of the virus, which experts say is fueling the surge and likely spreading rampantly among the unvaccinated.

1. If you have kids under the age of 12, I really feel for you. I don’t know what I’d do in your shoes. My kids are fully vaccinated, but I’m still worried about them. It’s going to be a rougher year than we were expecting, and after all this time that’s a lot. Get your kids vaccinated at the first opportunity, and make sure every member of your family who is eligible is vaccinated.

2. Your school can’t mandate masks or vaccines, but you can ask them to strongly encourage them, and you can apply social pressure on your fellow parents. Get involved with the PTA, get to know your kids’ teachers, and advocate for safe behavior as much as you can. No, you shouldn’t have to do this, but here we are anyway. You can make a difference.

3. Do everything you can to vote Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ken Paxton, and every pro-COVID Republican out of office in 2022. I mean, do I even have to explain this? There are plenty of consequences on us right now. There have to be some consequences for them. If there aren’t, we’ll never get past where we are now.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.

The march for voting rights

Good work, but it can’t be the end.

Saturday marked the third time in as many months that former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has headlined a voting rights rally at the Texas Capitol, as Democrats hope to keep momentum with just a week left before the end of the special session in Austin.

The rally, which drew several thousand attendees, marked the end of a Selma-style march to the state Capitol — a roughly 27-mile journey from Georgetown to Austin that activists split over four days. It was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, a group inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

As demonstrators finished the last leg of their march, they greeted a crowd in front of the Capitol holding signs: “Texas deserves better,” “It’s about us,” “We care, we vote.” They sang along with the performers on the center stage as they belted out the labor movement anthem, “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

“The right time to do right is right now,” the Rev. William J. Barber II, a national civil rights leader who spearheaded the march, repeated throughout the rally.

It culminated with a live performance by Willie Nelson, who sang the classics “Whiskey River” and “Good Hearted Woman.” His set ended with a newer song, “Vote ‘Em Out,” which opens with the line: “If you don’t like who’s in there, vote ‘em out; that’s what Election Day is all about.”

The marchers have demands ranging from a $15 minimum wage to immigration reform, but their most pressing concern is new voting restrictions that have been proposed or passed in GOP-led states. Texas, which already has some of the nation’s strictest laws on voter registration and mail ballots, is among them.

Lots of positive energy came out of this, and I hope it helps to sustain us through the next few weeks, which are going to be tough. But really, what I want to see next are headlines that say things like “Senate Democrats agree to pass voting rights bill that includes redistricting reform and new preclearance requirements”, and “Beto O’Rourke announces his entry into the Texas Governor’s race”. I’m not asking for much here.

We’re #2!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’re at it again,” Scoggin said.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what was Abbott’s eventual response?

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

A response to Paxton’s response

As you may recall, back in June we learned about a State Bar of Texas complaint against Ken Paxton for his ridiculous and seditious lawsuit that attempted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. That complaint was filed by four people: Kevin Moran, retired journalist, President of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Chew, former Chief Justice of the 8th Court of Appeals; Brynne VanHettinga, a now inactive member of the Texas Bar; and Neil Cohen, a retired attorney. A second complaint was later filed by Lawyers Defending American Democracy, part of a group that included four former Presidents of the State Bar of Texas.

I’ve had some email correspondence with Neil Cohen, who was introduced to me via a mutual friend, since that first complaint came to light. He sent me the following analysis of Paxton’s responses to the complaints:

Ken Paxton’s recent [7/15] Response to four Grievances arising from his December lawsuit to overturn the election demonstrates that his claims of a stolen election and of illegal voting procedures were merely posturing to improve his political standing. The top law officer of Texas put our system of democracy in grave danger for his own political benefit.

The Grievances charged that his lawsuit is filled with falsehoods and absurd legal claims, thus violating attorney disciplinary rules. Paxton’s response failed to defend large sections of the lawsuit. As to his claims of massive voting improprieties, Paxton stated that he had hoped to develop the evidence during trial. (1) That, however, was his only evidence in support of his stolen election claims. Thus, Paxton’s tacit admission that he has no evidence to support his claims is strong proof that there is no evidence of a stolen election. The “Big Lie” is indeed a big lie. His admission is also in marked contrast to his repeated claims in the month between the filing of the lawsuit and the meeting of the electors on Jan 6 that the election was stolen and his urging Trump supporters to take action. Those claims culminated in Paxton’s appeal to a mob to “keep fighting” shortly before they invaded the Capitol Building.

As to legal claims, Paxton did not offer a defense of several essential claims (2), including the most important, that the proper remedy was overturning the election and disenfranchising millions of voters. On the issue of standing, where by a 7-0 vote [two justices ruled based on other issues] the Supreme Court had rejected Paxton’s arguments that Texas had the right to dictate to four other sovereign states how they conducted their election lawsuit, Paxton merely reiterated his arguments.

Instead of better defending his lawsuit, Paxton instead relies on two very weak procedural arguments. First, the Bar shouldn’t hear the Grievances because the filers weren’t his client. (3) The Disciplinary Rules, however, specifically provide that anyone with information about rule violations can file a grievance. (4) He also argues, without citing cases specific to attorney discipline, that the separation of powers doctrine prevents a court system from disciplining an attorney general for a court filing. (5) This is contrary to the cases I found. (6) Also, moving from the abstract level of his argument to the specific facts of this case, Paxton is arguing for the privilege to lie and to bring lawsuits that lack any reasonable basis. That privilege is non-existent. In fact, an attorney appearing before a court acts as an officer of the court and is therefore subject to discipline from the court (and from the relevant bar associations).

The weakness of Paxton’s Response demonstrates that the lawsuit violates attorney disciplinary rules and that his claims of a stolen election are nonsense. Because of the serious consequences of Paxton’s action, including an invasion of the Capitol Building, the Bar should impose its most serious punishment, disbarment. In addition, Paxton should be removed from office.

1 Response, pp. 12-13.
2 What he did defend — See Response, p. 8 (standing), p. 10 (electors clause), p. 11 (equal protection and due process).
3 Response, p. 13.
4 https://www.law.uh.edu/libraries/ethics/attydiscipline/howfile.html The second question (which is not numbered) states, "Any person who believes that a rule of professional conduct has been violated may file a complaint with the State Bar."  (emphasis added).
5 Response, p. 20
6 In re Lord, 255 Minn. 370 (Minn. 1959) • 97 N.W.2d 287; Massameno v. Statewide Grievance Committee, 234 Conn. 539 (Conn. 1995) • 663 A.2d 317.

I have a copy of the Paxton response here, and further notes from Cohen on the response are here.

As it happens, there was also a story in Salon about the complaint and Paxton’s limited and technicality-laden response to it:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an ardent Trump supporter who was the lead plaintiff in a last-ditch Supreme Court case aimed at overturning the 2020 election, appears to be backing away from his past claims of widespread election fraud. Facing discipline or even potential disbarment in Texas, Paxton now merely alleges that there were “irregularities” in battleground states, while still suggesting those could somehow have affected the overall result

Paxton’s apparent retreat came earlier this month in response to an array of grievances filed by several members of the Texas bar: retired lawyer Neil Cohen; Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; former Texas Court of Appeals Chief Justice David Chew; and Dr. Brynne VanHettinga. In their initial complaint, the group argued that Paxton should face professional discipline over his bid to undermine the 2020 presidential election, saying that Paxton’s December petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that President Biden’s victory should be set aside, was both frivolous and unethical.

In Paxton’s response to their grievances, which was provided to Salon, the attorney general argued that “Texas’s filings were not frivolous” because “the 2020 election suffered from significant and unconstitutional irregularities in the Defendant States.” Paxton further claimed that, by this logic, he and his office “did not violate the disciplinary rules.”

Paxton’s response is a clear departure from his previous rhetoric, much of which explicitly supported former President Trump’s grandiose conspiracy theories about systemic election fraud. Earlier this month, Paxton told a Dallas crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his “fight” for election security “is not done.”

“When people tell you there is no election fraud, let me just tell you my office right now has 511 counts in court because of COVID waiting to be heard,” Paxton continued. “We have another 386 that we’re investigating. If you add those together, that’s more election fraud than my office has prosecuted since it started investigating election fraud years and years ago.”

Paxton is notably less bombastic in his response to the Texas bar, but mentions the same “irregularities” that his original Texas suit claimed had tainted the elections in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Effectively all of those supposed “irregularities” were changes in voting rules made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which created significant challenges for both in-person and absentee voting.

[…]

In an evident attempt to ward off the threat of disbarment, Paxton’s response seeks to explain why the suit had any legal basis or “standing.” He argues, somewhat confusingly: “Texas’s assertion that it had standing in Texas v. Pennsylvania could not have been frivolous. There are no Supreme Court cases contrary to its position that it had standing.”

But Paxton indirectly admits, in Cohen’s view, that he had no real evidence of fraud, and apparently “hoped to develop the evidence during discovery.” In other words, his entire case could be interpreted as a fishing expedition, or just an attempt to rile up the Trump base with unsupported allegations. “That’s in contrast to his behavior for the month after filing the lawsuit,” Cohen said, “when he repeatedly claimed the election was stolen and urged people to take action.”

So now you know. I have no idea when the State Bar may issue a ruling, and as richly as Paxton deserves to be disbarred, I can’t see them doing much more than issuing some kind of reprimand. But at least that would be something. My thanks to Neil Cohen for the info and the guest post.

Will TxDOT pull funding from the I-45 project?

It could happen.

Supporters of state plans to rebuild Interstate 45 from downtown Houston northward trekked to Austin on Thursday to keep the imperiled project on pace, fearing the region could be stuck with an aging freeway and no sign of relief.

Urging state officials to stay committed to the project — and, most importantly, pay for it — supporters said it is up to highway officials to deliver the benefits they say will help heal issues of racial and income inequity raised by opponents.

[…]

Fifteen years in the planning, the project to rebuild I-45 around the central business district and north to Beltway 8 near George Bush Intercontinental Airport is estimated to cost $9 billion but can start construction only if the Texas Department of Transportation keeps its money on the project. Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, who oversee TxDOT’s spending, are considering removing all phases of the project from the state’s 10-year plan, essentially shelving it until Houston-area leaders and highway planners can come to agreement.

As part of the decision-making process, commissioners will hold a public comment session Monday and accept input via mail, phone, email and online forms until Aug. 9. The commission is scheduled at its Aug. 31 meeting to decide whether to remove the project from the annually updated 10-year plan. If removed, the rebuild would need to be reinserted into the plan, allowing TxDOT to redirect the money to other highway expansions or rebuilds in the meantime. Most of the money would have to remain in TxDOT’s Houston region that covers Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Montgomery and Waller counties.

Yes, that is the infamous I-45 survey. You still have time to fill it out.

Critics said the pause gives officials ample time to rethink the design but that a last-ditch online survey with a yes-or-no vote is not a way to come to agreement.

“Honestly, we are on the same team and we want the same things for all of the communities,” said Molly Cook, an organizer of the Stop TxDOT I-45 group opposed to the project. “We want economic development, we want to reduce flooding, we want safety, people to be able to move through the region freely. This is not the answer.”

Cook was one of two speakers Thursday among about a dozen opposed to the project. Transportation officials limited public comment to one hour as part of their meeting.

A larger turnout of opponents is expected for the full public hearing Monday. Stop TxDOT I-45 has continued walking door to door in affected communities where hundreds of homes and businesses could be impacted, as community business groups mounted an aggressive online campaign in support of TxDOT.

“You can find a way to connect this project with something someone cares about,” said Ben Peters, a Stop I-45 volunteer, as he walked in Fifth Ward on Saturday.

Opponents, Mayor Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo have said that rather than widen the freeway, more of it should be converted to accelerate Metropolitan Transit Authority buses, replacing two managed lanes with, perhaps, a transit-only lane and dedicated stations along the freeway.

TxDOT, while incorporating some changes from more than 300 public meetings over the past decade, has not wavered from the managed lanes plan, saying some of the suggested changes are too significant and would set the design process back years. Regional officials repeatedly approved those designs, TxDOT leadership noted.

“I-45 is established as one of the most pressing candidates in our region for TxDOT to make improvements to address safety, traffic delays and potential emergency evacuations,” said Craig Raborn, director of transportation services for the Houston-Galveston Area Council, which doles out some federal transportation money in the region.

H-GACs Transportation Policy Council supports the project but has encouraged critics and TxDOT to keep addressing differences. The policy council’s chairman, Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, urged his county leadership this week to write a letter in support of the project.

I kind of have a hard time believing that TxDOT would pull the money from this project – which would not kill it but would move it to the back of the line while the current funds were used on other projects – but I can imagine them getting a little antsy. We’ll know soon enough.

Day 17 quorum busting post: Testify

Ladies and gentlemen, Ms T.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

State Rep. Senfronia Thompson described to a U.S. House committee on Thursday occasions in 2010 and 2012 when white Republican poll watchers showed up at a Houston polling place where she and many other Black voters cast ballots.

“They had people that looked like they was from the Proud Boys looking at you like you were in the wrong place,” the Houston Democrat testified. “In a minority area, that has a chilling effect. The word gets out that these people are at your polls looking at you like they want to arrest you, keep you from voting.

“You’re damn right I left Texas, and I’m glad I did,” Thompson said. “I left Texas to give my people a right to be able to vote without them being infringed upon.”

It was one of several instances in which Texas Democrats detailed the ways they say Republican-backed legislation would make it harder for minorities to vote. Republicans, meanwhile, said the Texas Democrats were exaggerating the effects of the bill and should be back in Austin debating it in the Legislature, not complaining about it to Congress.

[…]

Three Texas Democrats — Thomspon, San Antonio state Rep. Diego Bernal and Dallas state Rep. Nicole Collier — gave impassioned testimony to the House panel as they urge Congress to advance new federal voting laws to head off GOP efforts in Texas and other states.

The congressional hearing also brought a bit of news: U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, a Sherman Republican, said his colleagues in Texas informed him they would remove a provision from the proposed legislation that would require voters applying to vote by mail to include a driver’s license number or social security number that they used when registering to vote.

“That speaks well for coming to Washington,” said U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the House Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “You made a little bit of progress.”

It all made for a big day for the more than four dozen Democrats who have drawn a national spotlight and met with a slew of their party’s leaders since their arrival in D.C. three weeks ago. The group left Texas earlier this month to break quorum in the state House and stop Republicans from passing new voting restrictions.

That’s what they’re there for, to make this not only real but timely for the Washington Democrats. And maybe, just maybe, there’s some hope on the horizon.

Senate Democrats have been crafting a revised voting rights bill that Sen. Joe Manchin might deign to vote for, particularly since he is in the group that’s working on it. The Rev. Sen. Raphael Warnock asked Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to convene the group to rewrite the bill, he told The Washington Post, and he, Schumer, Manchin and a few other senators met Wednesday. Further, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are meeting with President Joe Biden on Friday to discuss moving forward on voting rights, perhaps before August recess.

“It’s important that the American people understand that this is very much on our radar, and we understand the urgency, and we’re committed to getting some progress,” Warnock said. Manchin added, “Everybody’s working in good faith on this … It’s everybody’s input, not just mine, but I think mine, maybe … got us all talking and rolling in the direction that we had to go back to basics,” he said. Other Democrats in the meeting included Sens. Alex Padilla of California; Oregon’s Jeff Merkley, who is lead sponsor of the For the People Act in the Senate; and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, chair of the committee in charge of the bill.

A Democrat who did not wish to be named told the Post that the bill would largely follow the proposal for revisions Manchin put forward last month. It could also potentially include language to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, restoring provisions gutted by recent Supreme Court decisions. It’s not clear now whether it would incorporate the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, or just some provisions from it. That bill hasn’t been acted on in the House yet.

The same source also told the Post that it could include language to counter “election subversion”—specifically the kind of action the Republican legislature in Georgia is trying to pull by taking over the duties of elections officials in the state’s largest—and most Black—county.

As I said before, getting a federal voting rights bill passed would be the big, ultimate slam-dunk win for the legislative Dems. This may be the best opportunity yet, if it can get that crucial buy-in to not let the stupid filibuster be the roadblock. But time is running out, at least for our Dem legislators. The special session is nearly over, both chambers of Congress are fixing to go on recess, and then there’s also this:

If you want there to be preclearance, then you have to have it in place before the new maps get drawn. Leadership is aligned, but the Senate is as always the bottleneck. Keep pushing, it won’t happen on its own.

Justice Department sues over Abbott’s anti-migrant executive order

Good.

The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday, asking a federal judge to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that state troopers pull over drivers transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 as a way to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit comes a day after the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a letter to the governor, threatened to take legal action against Texas if Abbott didn’t rescind his order. Garland described the order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Department of Justice said in the lawsuit that Abbott’s order will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and it will disrupt immigration officials’ network of contractors and non government organizations that help host recently arrived migrants as their legal cases are pending.

“In our constitutional system, a State has no right to regulate the federal government’s operations,” the DOJ argued in a motion asking the judge to block Abbott’s order, adding “this restriction on the transportation of noncitizens would severely disrupt federal immigration operations.”

[…]

The lawsuit says that if migrants are not allowed to be transported by volunteers or contractors they would have to be confined to immigration facilities where there would not be enough space for every migrant.

I’d not blogged about this before, so here’s the background for you:

Gov. Greg Abbott draws criticism for ordering state troopers to pull over vehicles with migrants, saying it will stem COVID-19 risk
U.S. attorney general blasts Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest border directive and threatens a legal battle
‘Dangerous and unlawful.’ AG Merrick Garland threatens to sue over Gov. Abbott’s latest border order

Yes, the same Governor who has banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates for local government employees somehow thinks this will have a positive effect on COVID, even though 90% of migrants are vaccinated, nearly double the rate of the Texas population as a whole. For more on the lawsuit, which is an emergency motion seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order, see here. For a copy of the lawsuit itself, see here. For an analysis of why the Abbott executive order is “*flagrantly* illegal and unconstitutional”, see here. For more in general, see Dos Centavos and the Chron.

Paxton “wins” Trump endorsement

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Sure to be a collectors item

Former President Donald Trump has backed Attorney General Ken Paxton for reelection, passing over primary challenger George P. Bush in bestowing the highly sought-after endorsement.

“It is going to take a PATRIOT like Ken Paxton to advance America First policies in order to Make America Great Again,” Trump said in a statement Monday evening. “Ken has my Complete and Total Endorsement for another term as Attorney General of Texas. He is a true Texan who will keep Texas safe—and will never let you down!”

Trump has teased an endorsement in the primary ever since the days before Bush, the land commissioner, announced he was challenging Paxton. Eva Guzman, the former state Supreme Court justice, has since launched a primary bid against Paxton as well.

But the hunt for Trump’s endorsement had centered intensely on Paxton and Bush, who was the only prominent member of his famous political family to support Trump in the 2016 election. Paxton had expressed confidence that Trump’s endorsement would eventually come through for him, while Bush talked multiple times with Trump about the race and met with him earlier this month at his Bedminster club in New Jersey.

[…]

Bush made little secret that he badly wanted Trump’s endorsement. His campaign played up 2019 comments in which Trump said the land commissioner was “the only Bush that got it right.”

Minutes after Trump released his Paxton endorsement, Bush appeared to respond on Twitter by reiterating the incumbent’s legal troubles.

See here for some background. I think we know what the “P” stands for now. The Chron has more.

Big XII accuses ESPN of sabotage

Interesting!

In the long, sordid and divisive history of conference realignment, there has always been feverish levels of mistrust, backroom allegations and message board conspiracies when schools switch leagues. But in the decades of cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting that have always accompanied realignment, we’ve never seen a moment like Wednesday afternoon.

Yahoo Sports first reported that the Big 12 sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN essentially demanding the television network stop plotting to sabotage and cannibalize the league. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accused ESPN of attempting to “harm the league” for ESPN’s financial benefit. That wasn’t even the most memorable part.

From there, Bowlsby did a series of media interviews where he accused ESPN of plotting with another league – later revealed to be the American Athletic Conference per Yahoo Sources – to attempt to kill off the Big 12. Essentially, Bowlsby said he found evidence that ESPN had been “providing incentives” to a league to lure the Big 12 leftovers away after Oklahoma and Texas bolted without warning.

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”

There’s more, so read the rest, and see the letter in the original story. ESPN denies the allegations, as you might expect. I have no idea what happens next, as I have definitely been operating under the assumption that this is going to happen and will very likely happen well before 2025, but this suggests there will be a lot more friction than I anticipated, and that the Big XII will aim to make it as expensive as possible for UT and OU. And, apparently, ESPN. We’ll see how that works out for them.

Meanwhile, since this is of course all about money, there’s this.

The decisions by the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma to seek to leave the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference could affect more than just which teams they play. The decision can also have a big economic impact for the rest of the Big 12 and the communities that are home to their teams.

The move is not yet approved, but if it goes through, it could cost as much as $1.3 billion a year in lost athletic revenues, tourism spending and other economic activity for communities across the Big 12, according to an analysis by Ray Perryman, an economist and CEO of the Perryman Group, an economic consulting group in Waco.

Without Texas and OU, the rest of the conference is likely facing smaller television deals, lower attendance, and other negative consequences, Perryman said in a report released Thursday.

Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for this kind of economic analysis, and you have to respect his ability to crank them out in such a timely manner. I don’t doubt that the remnants of the Big XII will do worse without UT and OU, and some of that will trickle down to the cities the schools are in. I suspect those numbers are overblown, but I couldn’t say by how much. The report is here, judge for yourself.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

SEC accepts UT and OU

Time to start printing the money.

The Southeastern Conference voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma to join their 14-member league during a meeting with the league member’s presidents and chancellors.

“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”

[…]

Meanwhile, UT and OU could see their revenue climb significantly through the move from television revenue, ticket revenue and additional branding opportunities.

The decision may also tie into a Supreme Court ruling last month that says athletes can earn money based on their intellectual property, meaning flagship schools must find new ways to earn revenue.

Although UT and OU said in their letter to [Big XII Commissioner Bob] Bowlsby that they don’t plan to renew their deal with the conference past 2025, there is speculation that the two schools would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025. They would need to pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early, but are still legally required to give 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “That’s what they’ve done so far.”

After two closed session meetings this week, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted late Wednesday afternoon to support Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, despite concerns the Board had over the “communication process.” A&M joined the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago.

“The board concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M,” the statement read.

See here for the previous update, and see here for the story on the A&M Board of Regents getting on board, presumably once they realized the money involved. Put a pin in that quote from Bob Bowlsby, there will be more about him and the Big XII tomorrow. You know I believe that UT and OU will be playing SEC conference games well before 2025, but there may be more obstacles in that path than I first thought. The Chron has more.

Jake Ellzey wins CD06 special election runoff

I confess, I had totally forgotten about this.

Jake Ellzey

State Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie beat fellow Republican Susan Wright on Tuesday to succeed her late husband, U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, R-Arlington, and pull off a major upset against a candidate backed by former President Donald Trump.

With all precincts reporting Wednesday morning, Ellzey got 53% of the vote, while Susan Wright, a longtime GOP activist, received 47%, according to unofficial results.

Ellzey declared victory in a speech shortly after 9 p.m., addressing supporters in Ennis.

[…]

Susan Wright and Ellzey came out on top of a May 1 special election that featured 21 other candidates. She finished first with 19% of the vote, while Ellzey got 14%.

Trump endorsed Susan Wright in the final days before the May 1 election. He got more involved in the runoff, issuing three statements reiterating his endorsement, starring in a robocall for her and headlining a telephone rally for her on Monday night.

Ellzey relied on support from former Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Houston, a fellow Navy veteran who came off the sidelines in the runoff. Perry and other Ellzey allies suggested Trump had been misled into endorsing Susan Wright.

National attention on the race dimmed after Democrats narrowly missed the runoff, a disappointment for the party in a district that Trump won by only 3 percentage points last year. But Ellzey kept things competitive in the intraparty matchup, significantly outraising Susan Wright during the latest campaign finance reporting period and rallying his supporters against a barrage of attacks from the pro-Wright Club for Growth.

The DMN goes into the campaign and the Trump effect.

Ellzey’s victory was a blow to former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Wright over the objections of several major Texas Republicans, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Trump is perceived to be the leader of the Republican Party, both nationally and locally, and the 6th Congressional District race was a test of his political clout in his post presidency. Though he didn’t campaign for Wright in Texas, he hosted two tele-rallies on her behalf, but couldn’t push her past Ellzey.

[…]

The contest, which featured two Republican candidates, was largely a test on whether Trump is still the most influential player in the Republican Party.

His backing of Wright is believed to have helped her in Ellis and Navarro counties, both Republican strongholds easily carried by Trump in his presidential elections, and where Ellzey, who lives in Waxahachie, had hoped to establish a beachhead. He represents a Texas House district that is anchored in Ellis County.

Wright won Trump’s endorsement upon the advice from officials at the Club for Growth, and his belief, according to several with knowledge of his decision, that Wright had a built-in advantage because she’s the widow of Ron Wright.

In the days leading up to the general election, Trump stepped up his outreach to voters, twice restating his endorsement of Wright, recording automatic phone calls that went throughout the district and advertising through his super PAC on television.

Ellzey’s biggest challenge was to overcome Trump’s endorsement, and he struggled at times to find an answer to why the former president saw fit to get involved in the race.

For most of the campaign, Ellzey, with surrogates like Perry, appealed to base Republican voters. But days before the election he sent campaign mailers to Democratic Party voters in the district. Those mailers, along with text messages voters received from some source, portrayed Ellzey as a fighter for public education, while pointing out that Wright is endorsed by Trump.

It’s possible that Ellzey was able to mine Democratic voters who otherwise would have skipped a race featuring two Republicans. Wright’s campaign had already been pounding Ellzey as a tool for Democrats, so he couldn’t openly court those voters until the final days of his campaign.

“He would like it if Democrats vote for him, but he sure doesn’t want to go out on a date with one,” Democratic strategist Matt Angle said of Ellzey’s imagery.

There was some discourse, mostly on Twitter, about how this result was a referendum on Trump and his influence. I would advise anyone to take that with an extreme grain of salt, as we should always be at least a little skeptical of special election and runoff results. That said, if Wright had won, Trump would be crowing about it, and the received wisdom would be that his influence was the difference maker. That would have been way overblown as well, but to the extent that one accepts that premise, it’s worth keeping the counterexample in mind.

Ellzey’s last-minute campaign pitch to Democrats was a smart play. They were obviously not the main targets in the race, but this wasn’t a primary runoff and they were allowed to participate. One might also recall that CD06 is (at least as currently drawn) a purple district, one in which Joe Biden got 48% of the vote. In other words, there were plenty of Dems to court, even with a very simple message, and that could be a big deal in an otherwise close race. If what Dem voters got out of it was a finger in the eye to Trump, it was worth it. As relationships go, this was a total one-night stand, but it got Ellzey where he wanted to go.

One more thing:

It doesn’t change the math directly – 51 missing Democrats still make for a lack of quorum – but if a couple of Republicans are not there as well, for whatever the reason, then you’d need more Democrats to be back to get to the minimum number of 100 present members. I would normally expect the special election to replace Ellzey in the House (his district is HD10) to be this November, but it’s possible Greg Abbott will expedite it because of the forthcoming special session(s) on redistricting. We should know for sure in a couple of weeks. Daily Kos has more.

On the reaction by some people to the new mask recommendations

I have one thing to say to this.

Texas Republicans in Congress are fuming over new mask requirements on Capitol Hill and recommendations from the CDC that even vaccinated Americans begin masking again as an extra precaution in parts of the country where the Delta variant is spreading, including Texas.

“Which is it, vaccines or masks?” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a San Antonio Republican, in an impassioned speech on the House floor on Wednesday. “Do the vaccines work or they don’t work? Do the masks work or they don’t work? I’d like to know which it is.”

Health officials have been clear that the vaccines remain effective at preventing the worst outcomes of COVID, including hospitalization and death. The vast majority of breakthrough cases have been mild.

But COVID infections continue to climb throughout much of the U.S. — including Texas — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week revised its recommendations to urge even fully vaccinated Americans in those areas to wear masks indoors again.

That led to new mask mandates in the U.S. House and the White House, but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made clear he doesn’t not plan to require face coverings again in Texas.

Still, Republicans were outraged at the new guidance. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called mask-wearing “a virtue signal of submissiveness” as he referred to Democrats wearing face coverings again as “kabuki theater.”

If you are not fully vaccinated, have not made your vaccinated status known to others, and have not been a vocal advocate of vaccination, then you can take any and all complaints you may have about these new recommendations and go fuck yourself. Seriously.

I say again, with all the feeling I can muster: Go fuck yourself.

The I-45 survey

Who thought this was a good idea?

The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan.

The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether.

“A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

Many fear the state — if it does not get full-throated support — simply will pull the project and leave one of the spines of the local freeway system a crumbling mess.

If removed from the state’s 10-year unified transportation program, updated annually and approved by the commission, the planned rebuild of I-45 from downtown Houston to Beltway 8 would be shelved. That would leave drivers and residents waiting months, maybe years longer than promised for two managed lanes in each direction, updated and additional rainfall detention, wider frontage roads and upgrades bringing some aging parts of the freeway up to current standards.

See here for the previous entry. My first thought in reading this story was “SurveyMonkey? Really? How sure is everyone that this can’t be hacked or spammed?” But Mayor Turner in his full statement and Michael Skelly on behalf of the Make I-45 Better Coalition articulate a different problem: The survey doesn’t have enough choices. From Skelly’s email:

The worst part is that the only two options on the public comment form are both flawed:

  1. Supporting the I-45 expansion exactly as it’s designed — despite the many flaws we’ve previously discussed, or
  2. Rejecting the I-45 expansion entirely and removing all funding for it

What about keeping the funding, but building a redesigned project that actually supports the residents and environment of the City of Houston? We could “make I-45 better” by—for example—following the alternative designs that the City of Houston Planning Department unveiled after listening to many, many public comments. The City of Houston pushed for a Vision C which would have accommodated transit, reduced rights of way impacts, and saved money, but TxDOT completely ignored the City’s suggested plan. If TxDOT truly cared about the public, they would allow for a better, safer project to be built.

Just to be clear—despite a new public comment period opening, the I-45 project has not changed since the last comment period in 2020, following the release of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS).

Having a third choice would risk not getting a majority in favor of any one option, but it would be a better gauge of what the public actually wants. As configured, there’s an even higher risk of “be careful what you ask for”.

In the meantime, you have until August 9 to submit your comments, and there’s an online public engagement on August 2. See the Skelly email for all the details. I have no idea what might happen here, but you should make your voice heard while you can.

Day 13 quorum busting post: Just a reminder, the voter suppression bill still sucks

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first there’s this bit of business.

Rep. Philip Cortez

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, signed a civil warrant for the arrest of state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who rejoined his colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to help prevent the passage of a GOP-backed election bill.

The warrant is not likely to have impact since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state. It is the first one signed by the speaker since more than 50 House Democrats left the state to block Republicans from having the quorum needed to pass legislation during the special legislative session that began earlier this month.

Last week, Cortez returned to Austin from Washington in what he said was an attempt to engage in “good faith dialogue” about House Bill 3, the election legislation. Other Democrats criticized Cortez’s move, saying the lawmaker did not first consult with them before returning to Austin.

By Sunday though, Cortez was back in Washington, saying in a statement that talks with lawmakers in Austin on negotiating the legislation “have not produced progress.”

In a statement Monday, Phelan said that Cortez “has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber” after the lawmaker “represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas.”

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return,” the speaker said. “Instead, he fled the state.”

Cortez, who chairs the House Urban Affairs Committee, did not directly address the warrant in a statement Monday that said he owes “a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation.”

I didn’t blog about the Cortez situation at the time. There were conflicting reactions from different House Dems, with some being quite pointed in their criticism of his actions, saying he was not representing them. It seems clear from the Chron story that some but not all of that has been cleared up.

Cortez said in a Monday morning interview that he decided to rejoin his Democratic colleagues in the nation’s capital after three unsuccessful meetings last week with state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, the GOP sponsor of the elections measure.

He and Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, one of the few Democrats who decided not to flee the state, had gone into negotiations with “six or seven pressure points” that they’d hoped to address — mostly concerning provisions in the bill that deal with the role of partisan poll watchers. But Cortez said Murr wouldn’t budge until Democrats came back to Texas.

“There was not any positive progress in terms of being able to move forward and improve the bill or improve the language of the bill, and upon seeing that, I decided to return back to D.C. and join my colleagues,” he said.

[…]

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and the head of the Texas Democratic Caucus, issued a statement Sunday night lauding Cortez as a “valued member of our caucus” who colleagues welcomed back to D.C. “with open arms.”

It was a de-escalation of a bitter back-and-forth that at times played out over social media last week as Democrats expressed frustration over Cortez’s departure, which he did not discuss with the delegation beforehand. Abhi Rahman, a Democratic aide, called Cortez a “gutless coward who has earned himself a primary challenge.”

Rahman said in an interview Monday that public pressure likely pushed Cortez to return.

“This isn’t the time for negotiations on voting,” Rahman said.

No one ever said this was for the faint of heart.

I don’t know enough about what Cortez thought he was doing, or whether he had sufficient buy-in to do what he did, but I do know that this bill continues to suck, and while it will never be worthwhile from our perspective, it could be made to be less actively harmful.

Amid all the fighting, most lawmakers have apparently overlooked a provision that would force counties to automatically reject some mail-in ballot applications. Here’s why: The Republican-authored legislation would require voters to submit either their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number when applying to vote by mail. That number would then be cross-checked with the state’s voter-registration database. Most applicants would be fine, because almost 90 percent of all registered Texas voters have both their Social Security number and driver’s license number in the database. However, 1.9 million voters—about 11 percent of the total—have only one of the two numbers on file with the state.

During late-night testimony to a committee of the Texas House on July 10, Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, explained that most of the voters with only one number on file wouldn’t remember which number they filed, often many years earlier, and would have to guess. “You have a 50 percent chance of the voter guessing wrong,” said Davis. Guess wrong and your application would be rejected, even if it’s been twenty years since you used your Social Security or driver’s license number to register to vote. “I challenge any person on the committee: do you remember what you filled out when you got your voter registration? I certainly don’t. And I’m in the business of this. And if [the numbers] don’t match, we’re rejecting.”

[…]

First during the regular session and then again in the ongoing special session, the authors of the “election integrity” legislation increasingly weakened crucial guardrails protecting the security of mail ballots. In addition to the new ID-matching requirements, it now contains a flawed way for voters to “cure,” or fix, a rejected mail-in ballot.

Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, declined to answer questions about why the House moved the bill forward without addressing the ID-matching and curing issues, nor would he say whether there was any specific plan for addressing these issues if the House Democrats return to Austin. “There are no bills that can be considered on the floor until Democrats return home,” Marquez wrote in an email. “However, House Bill 3 author Andrew Murr has repeatedly stated he will work with all his colleagues to make the best bill possible.” (Murr’s chief of staff said Murr was aware of the problem and “looked forward to working with colleagues about remedying concerns about how differing numbers could result in a ballot not being counted.”)

Davis said many Republicans have failed to listen to the complaints of election officials, ignoring suggestions for improvements to nonpartisan, process-related issues. “It’s just like ‘Who is steering this bus?’” Davis told me. “They are following the pattern of only listening to their ‘the steal is real’ base and not consulting with any county elections officers.”

Davis said that while he decided to testify before the House, he chose not to give testimony before the Senate because Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee, had brushed him off so many times before. Davis said he reached out to Hughes’s office about the ID-matching problem multiple times, but never received confirmation that a fix was in the works. Two legislative staffers, one working for a Republican and one for a Democrat, confirmed that the Texas secretary of state’s office had also advised legislators that the ID-matching provision needed to contain a failsafe for voters who do not have both numbers in the registration system, but the changes were never made. The staffers requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about negotiations. “Why are [election administrators] going to waste our time testifying?” asked Davis, who was appointed to his nonpartisan job by the Williamson County Commissioners’ Court. “They don’t care what we have to say. They haven’t from the beginning.”

County election administrators say the ID-matching provision imposes significant burdens on their offices, and they are unclear how to enforce it. Under the new language, the ID number—either a partial Social Security number or a driver’s license number—would have to be written on the envelope, forcing counties to spend thousands of dollars redesigning envelopes in order to accommodate a privacy flap that poll workers would peek under to check the number. “We’ve joked about whether it should be a scratch-off,” Davis said. If poll workers make an error or if voters, for example, transpose two numbers by accident, the application would be rejected with little opportunity for the voter to address the problem. “We don’t have time for that,” Davis said. “We’re getting down to registration deadlines by the time we receive a lot of these. There’s no time for the voter to mail another one.”

You should read the rest to learn more about the “curing” issue, in which untrained partisans get to review mail ballots and determine whether the signature on the (unopened) envelope matches the signature that’s on file from when you registered to vote. As the bill stands now, there’s no way to appeal if your ballot is rejected, and no opportunity to fix it, even though this kind of “curing” is standard and easily done in many states. This would also be redundant if the driver’s license or Social Security number matches, since the point of that is to verify identity. There are simple fixes, and the Republicans in the Lege have been aware of them for months, yet here we still are. There might be room to get the Dems back if dumb stuff like this were taken out or fixed, but the Republicans say they can’t or won’t do any of that until the Dems return on their own. That ain’t gonna happen, at least not in this session.

One thing that will happen:

Texas House Democrats who left the state to block GOP-backed efforts to enact new voting restrictions will testify on those proposals before a U.S. House subcommittee this week.

State Reps. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Diego Bernal of San Antonio are expected to make appearances on Thursday before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a specially called hearing on contentious Texas legislation that would rewrite state election laws. The hearing will come in the middle of Texas Democrats’ third week in Washington, D.C., offering them a more formal stage on which to make their case against the legislation that prompted them to decamp to the U.S. capital.

“America is facing the most sweeping assault on the voting rights of the people since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement. “Texas is now Ground Zero in this battle, and we are honored to have these Texas lawmakers come to testify before our subcommittee about the struggle to defend basic democracy in their state.”

Again, the House isn’t really the problem, the Senate is, and it’s the ridiculous fidelity to the filibuster that’s at the heart of it. I refuse to give up hope, but time is not on our side. But at least our people in DC will get to be heard.

Still surging

Hospitalizations.

The number of lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in Texas broke 4,000 on Friday for the first time since March, a worrying sign of the pandemic’s quick resurgence since the Delta variant was discovered in the state.

[…]

As of Saturday, Texas Department of State Health Services data reported 4,320 lab-confirmed COVID hospitalizations in the state, more than three times the cases it had at its low of 1,428 less than a month ago. In the span of one week, COVID hospitalizations had spiked nearly 50 percent.

The increases in COVID hospitalizations have been dramatic. In the week ending July 24, Texas averaged 3,710 people hospitalized with COVID, up from 2,537 in the week before and 1,838 in the week before that.

Texas Medical Center hospitals are seeing an influx of COVID patients in ICU beds, and medical leaders may soon consider postponing elective procedures, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“Everywhere is experiencing that same sort of explosive growth right now, so that’s obviously very concerning,” said McDeavitt, who has been closely tracking local COVID data since the start of the pandemic.

Positive tests.

More than 1,000 people are testing positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than seven times last month’s daily average, according to the Texas Medical Center.

As the delta variant dominates new COVID-19 infections across the country, the Texas Medical Center is returning to daily coronavirus updates.

The takeaways, sent every morning from William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, provide a glimpse into one of the world’s largest medical complexes as its clinicians treat infected patients. Previously released weekly, the switch back to daily missives illustrate how rapidly delta is spreading across the region.

Last week, an average of 1,069 people tested positive per day for COVID-19 in the greater Houston region, more than double the prior week’s daily average.

“The COVID-19 Delta variant is spreading rapidly throughout Texas as only 43 percent of our population is fully vaccinated,” McKeon wrote in a Monday email.

If you don’t know what to do by now, I can’t help you.

UT and OU make their official move to exit the Big XII

It’s just a matter of time now. And money. Always money.

The University of Texas at Austin announced Monday morning that it will not renew its sports media rights contract with the Big 12 that is set to end in 2025, giving the first formal signal that it’s planning to leave the athletics conference.

The decision comes after rumors surfaced last week that UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, which would then include 16 schools.

The move was announced in a joint statement from UT-Austin and Oklahoma.

“Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future,” the statement read.

[…]

The financial impact on the [remaining] schools could be devastating. Records show that media rights represent the single largest income stream for Texas Tech athletics. Its total athletics revenue during the 2020 fiscal year was $90.4 million, meaning the Big 12 payouts accounted for more than one-third of its total earnings.

That major-conference money helped allow it to limit the amount of money the university transfers into its athletics department to under $50,000. Public universities outside of major conferences in Texas have been known to funnel millions into their athletics programs to keep the departments afloat. (TCU and Baylor are private schools, and their financial numbers are not public.)

See here for the previous update. I’m old enough to remember that one big reason why the old Southwest Conference fell apart is that some schools thought some other schools were not pulling their weight in terms of financial reward for the conference as a whole. (A broader geographic appeal, and thus bigger potential TV audiences, was another significant factor.) Speaking as a Rice Owls fan, I feel your pain, Texas Tech and Baylor. Sucks to be on the other side of that, doesn’t it?

Sources from the Big 12 told ESPN that Monday’s statement from UT and OU doesn’t fully guarantee that the schools remain in the Big 12 through 2025. There is the possibility that they can pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early and give a required 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

There is also speculation that OU and Texas would also not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025, according to the publication. If the future of the Big 12 conference is in doubt, other schools could also look elsewhere for a landing place.

I for one would bet on UT and OU making their exit from the Big XII well before 2025. All of the previous breakups, starting with Arkansas leaving for the SEC in 1990, happened within a year. Whatever the contract terms are now, UT and OU will have plenty of incentive to buy their way out of them, and the remaining schools will ultimately take the cash as a preferable option to uncertainty and a hell of a lot of awkwardness. I will be shocked if UT and OU aren’t fully integrated into the SEC by the start of the 2023 football season, and it would not surprise me if they’re there for 2022. That’s the world we live in. The Chron and Slate, which runs some financial numbers, have more.

July 2021 campaign finance reports: Congress

It’s July, and that means its campaign finance report season. I’m going to do a tour through the finance reports as I have done before, beginning with Congressional reports. I have posted reports from January 2021, which is the completion of the 2020 cycle, and the October 2020 reports, which gave a look back on that cycle and the 2018 cycle, but these are the first reports I’ve posted from the 2022 cycle, not counting the CD06 special election. Because we’re in that weird pre-redistricting period, when no one knows what districts will be where, there’s not a lot of new candidate activity. The list of mostly incumbents below will likely change over time, but for now here are some reports that may be of interest.

Dan Crenshaw – CD02
Van Taylor – CD03
Lizzie Fletcher – CD07
Morgan Luttrell – CD08
Mike McCaul – CD10
Vicente Gonzalez – CD15
Monica de la Cruz Hernandez – CD15
Chip Roy – CD21
Troy Nehls – CD22
Matthew Berg – CD22
Tony Gonzales – CD23
John Lira – CD23
Beth Van Duyne – CD24
Derrik Gay – CD24
John Carter – CD31
Donna Imam – CD31
Colin Allred – CD32


Dist  Name             Raised      Spent    Loans    On Hand
============================================================
02    Crenshaw      5,184,216  3,143,696        0  3,893,234
03    Taylor        1,137,073    250,293        0    909,277
07    Fletcher      1,225,493    182,475        0  1,104,114
08    Luttrell        461,429     12,672        0    448,757
10    McCaul          745,285    260,682        0    492,336
15    Gonzalez        607,467    454,132        0  1,523,826
15    Hernandez       438,341    218,901        0    226,945
21    Roy             678,470    385,959        0    756,093
22    Nehls           312,512    112,897        0    218,821
22    Berg            113,753     41,564    5,100     72,189
23    Gonzales      1,088,487    331,330        0    788,516
23    Lira            100,789     49,833        0     50,955
24    Van Duyne     1,084,713    296,053        0    857,070
24    Gay
31    Carter          429,329    216,023        0    413,711
31    Imam              7,682          0        0      7,682
32    Allred        1,216,765    329,397        0  1,046,790

Couple of things. I’m including Republicans here mostly because there just aren’t that many reports of interest otherwise. That will likely change later, but for now this is what I’ve got. I’ve no idea what districts will be of interest this cycle yet, but we know these were all of interest last time. CD08 is an open seat, and as you can see there’s a candidate who has established a presence to note. CD34 is also an open seat, but as yet no one has filed a report with anything of substance. There are a couple of Democrats filing reports in CD30, where longtime Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson may or may not step down – she’s had challengers in most of the last few cycles, but no one has come close to really threatening her.

So far there are announced Democrats in four districts that were competitive in 2018 and 2020, and will likely be at least somewhat competitive in 2022. Derrik Gay and Donna Imam, who was the CD31 challenger in 2020, entered late enough in the cycle to not have anything to report. I find it somewhat heartening that even without knowing what the districts will look like, Matthew Berg and John Lira started out with totals over $100K; as you recall, almost no Dem challengers raised as much as $100K for the entire 2012 cycle. We’ve come a long way from that. That said, freshman incumbents Tony Gonzales and Beth Van Duyne are not taking their upcoming challenges lightly.

Along with the now-open CD34, CD15 was unexpectedly close in 2020, and the challenger from that cycle is back for another crack at it. Monica de la Cruz Hernandez raised some decent money, but incumbent Vicente Gonzalez maintains a strong lead in cash on hand. For all of the districts with two candidates, I listed the incumbent first.

Not much else to say here. Given when we’ll get the apportionment data, and assuming we’ll have the redistricting-oriented special session in September as expected, we probably won’t get a feel for who’s running for what until the Q4 reports come in next January. There will probably be some further announcements before then, and there’s always the possibility than an incumbent will choose to step down, but everything is written in pencil until we know what the new districts – including the two extra ones – look like.

UPDATE: This was drafted before State Rep. Michelle Beckley announced her intent to run in CD24. Her July report from the TEC is here – she reports $25K on hand, with her ability to raise funds limited by being in session for most of the year. Also, there is now a candidate in CD10, but he announced in July, so we won’t see a report from him until Q3.

The case against moving the Paxton trial back to Collin County just got more interesting

Best mugshot ever

All right, settle in for a minute, this is going to take a bit of explaining, and there’s no accompanying published news story that I know of. Way back in March of 2017, visiting District Court Judge George Gallagher (from Tarrant County), who was appointed to preside over the Ken Paxton trial in Collin County after literally every other District Court judge there recused themselves, ordered the trial to be moved from Collin County. A couple of weeks later, in April, he set Harris County as the venue. There was a note in one of the news stories about this that I gave no real thought to at the time, which was that “Paxton respectfully advises the Court that he will not be giving the statutorily-required written consent… to allow the Honorable George Gallagher or his court staff to continue to preside over the matter in Harris County”.

Judge Gallagher declined to step down, but Team Paxton pursued the matter, initially repeating the assertion that they did not give permission for Gallagher to follow the case to Harris County, but later asserting that Gallgher was no longer able to be judge because his appointment had expired at the end of 2016. (Note that we are now in May 2017 in this timeline, this becomes important later.) At the end of May, the 5th Court of Appeals sided with Paxton and ordered Gallagher off the case, voiding his rulings after the one that moved the case to Harris County. In June, the case was officially reassigned to Criminal District Court Judge Robert Johnson in Harris County.

After that, we settled into a long fight about the pay for the special prosecutors, culminating in a muddled ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals in June of 2019 – yes, now two full years after the case was moved to Harris County. The issue of prosecutor pay was before Judge Johnson, but before he could begin to get anywhere on it, Team Paxton asked for the case to be moved back to Collin County; we are now in July of 2019. In December of 2019, Judge Johnson said he would rule on that Real Soon Now. That turned out to be six months later, in June of 2020, though that ruling had to be affirmed in October by a different judge, because Judge Johnson recused himself after it was pointed out that Paxton’s office was representing Johnson (among others) in the ongoing cash bail litigation. (That was yet another weird sideshow in a saga that has been little but sideshow, but never mind that for now.) Ultimately, Judge Johnson agreed with Paxton that Judge Gallagher’s ruling that sent the trial to Harris County was invalid because Gallgher’s term had expired at the time he made that ruling. In May of 2021, a three-judge panel on the First Court of Appeals agreed.

Just a little recap here, Judge George Gallagher was appointed to preside over the Paxton trial in July of 2015 by the administrative judge of the Second Court of Appeals (Mary Murphy). That appointment expired on January 2, 2017, but no one said anything at the time. In April 2017, Judge Gallagher ordered the trial moved to Harris County, where he would preside, but Paxton declined to approve his continued service (as is required by state law in these matters) and then filed a motion in May to boot Gallagher from the case because his appointment had expired back in January. That motion was granted later in May, Judge Johnson was randomly selected by the Harris County District Clerk in June, and on we went. Then in 2019, Paxton filed a motion to move the case back to Collin County, claiming now that Judge Gallagher’s original ruling to move the case was also invalid, again because his appointment had expired. That motion was granted and was upheld on appeal, which is now on hold as the special prosecutors have requested and were granted an en banc hearing to reconsider.

OK, now that we are caught up, you may be wondering why there was a four-month gap between when Gallagher’s appointment expired and Paxton first filed a motion that was based on said expiration. You may also note that said motion came shortly (but not immediately) after Gallagher’s order moving the trial to Harris County. Is that timing maybe a little convenient? I’m glad you asked, because that very subject comes up in the reply filed by the special prosecutors. I would encourage you to read that filing – it’s not very long, and it contains high doses of shade thrown by the special prosecutors at Paxton. We have previously seen how lethal and entertaining they can be when served a pitch in the zone, and you will get a good laugh out of their efforts this time as well.

But what’s crucial is this: Errors like nobody noticing that Judge Gallagher’s appointment had lapsed happen. Remember, his appointment had been made more than a year before, and I guess no one put a reminder on their calendar to ask for it to be re-upped. Normally, such minor errors are trivially resolved, but the thing is that the law requires any objections made to such a lapsed appointment be made in a timely fashion, and at one’s earliest opportunity. Paxton claimed that’s what they did, and in the initial First Court ruling, it was noted that there was no evidence to suggest otherwise. Except, as it turns out, they did know, and in fact they knew ahead of time, and then sat on that information until it was convenient to them to wheel it out. How do we know that? Because, as it turns out and as the special prosecutors managed to discover in the interim, there was an email sent by Administrative Judge Mary Murphy to Paxton’s defense team on April 24, 2017 – after Paxton refused to give his consent to Gallagher’s continued service on the trial, but before he first claimed that Gallagher was no longer allowed to continue because his appointment had expired – that sent them copies of communications about Gallagher’s appointment from July 2015, and which they said they had previously sent in November of 2015. In other words, Paxton received an inadvertent reminder of the appointment expiration from Justice Murphy in April 2017, right before he started arguing about it. He had that information all along, but did not do anything about it. And then it landed in his lap again, and they took advantage.

Again, I urge you to read the filing (the Team Paxton filing, which preceded this by about a week, is here. They lay out the argument for why Paxton “sandbagged” the court (their words), and show all the opportunities Paxton had to object to Gallagher’s continued presence on the case after the expiration but didn’t do so. That, they argue, invalidates the later objections based on the lapsed appointment because they didn’t do it in a timely fashion, and what’s more they knew or should have known they weren’t timely. I just wanted to provide a longer-than-I-originally-planned review of how we got here. The bottom line is that the special prosecutors’ argument is that the original rulings that ordered the case back to Collin County were in error, and they have a new piece of evidence to show why it was in error. Now we just have to wait and see what the First Court of Appeals does with that information. As you can see from this post, we may be waiting for awhile. But hey, at least we’re used to that.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

It’s not vaccinated people that are dying

Numbers don’t lie. It’s the unvaccinated that die.

Of the 8,787 people who have died in Texas due to COVID-19 since early February, at least 43 were fully vaccinated, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

That means 99.5% of people who died due to COVID-19 in Texas from Feb. 8 to July 14 were unvaccinated, while 0.5% were the result of “breakthrough infections,” which DSHS defines as people who contracted the virus two weeks after being fully vaccinated.

The agency said nearly 75% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were fighting a serious underlying condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or chronic lung disease.

Additionally, it said 95% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were 60 or older, and that a majority of them were white and a majority were men.

DSHS noted that these are preliminary numbers, which could change because each case must be confirmed through public health investigations. Statewide, more than 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 since March 2020, but the rate of deaths has slowed dramatically since vaccines became widely available in April.

Dr. David Lakey, the chief medical officer of the University of Texas System, said people succumbing to the coronavirus despite being vaccinated was “not unexpected.”

“No vaccine is 100%,” said Lakey, who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force. “And we’ve known for a long while that the vaccines aren’t 100%, but they’re really really good at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. … There will always be some individuals that will succumb to the illness in the absence of full herd immunity.”

He added that 0.5% is “a very low number of individuals in a state of 30 million. … In the grand perspective of everything, that’s not a large number that would call into question at all the use of this vaccine.”

I should note that some of those 43 vaccinated people who died may have had other comorbidities, we don’t have enough data on that. But still, we’re talking a tiny fraction. One out of two hundred. Which group would you rather be in?

Need more? Go look at these charts from the CDC, one of new COVID cases and one of COVID deaths. The spike in new cases is much higher than the increase in deaths, because vaccinated people who still get COVID get a much milder version of it. They don’t go to hospitals, and they don’t die. If more people were vaccinated, that first chart wouldn’t have that big uptick in it, either.

And one more thing:

Just three states are now driving the pandemic in the United States, as the divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated regions of the country becomes ever more stark, as the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Forty percent of all new cases this week have been recorded in Florida, Texas and Missouri, White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients revealed at a press briefing Thursday.

Florida alone accounts for 20 percent of all new cases nationally, Zients pointed out, a trend that has stretched into its second week.

Zients added that “virtually all” hospitalizations and deaths — a full 97 percent — are among unvaccinated people. “The threat is now predominantly only to the unvaccinated,” he said. A few vaccinated people do experience so-called breakthrough infections, but they tend to experience only mild COVID-19 illness, or no illness at all.

Encouragingly, Zients said the five states that have experienced the most significant rise in infections — Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Nevada and Missouri — all also saw vaccination rates beat the national average for a second week in a row. But because immunity takes two weeks to develop, and the Delta variant spreads so rapidly, the benefits of the increased uptake of vaccinations may not be evident right away.

Singling out the three states where infections are now spiking could have the effect of putting pressure on elected officials there to do more to encourage vaccinations.

One of those elected officials is Greg Abbott, and we know how much he cares. But maybe some other people are less resistant. The numbers don’t lie.

More masking

In Travis County.

Public health officials in Austin and Travis County are now encouraging vaccinated people to wear masks both indoors and outdoors, and for those unvaccinated to stay at home except for essential needs — the first major city in Texas to take such a step.

This comes as the highly contagious delta variant continues to spread across the state, pushing the county’s seven-day average of new hospitalizations to 35 — the threshold for Stage 4 of the area’s COVID-19 risk-based guidelines.

County officials made the announcement in a virtual news conference Friday morning. Under Stage 4, officials want residents — vaccinated and unvaccinated — to wear masks at all times in public, and for unvaccinated people to only leave their homes for essential trips.

The city can’t enforce the restrictions, however, because Gov. Greg Abbott banned all local pandemic-related mandates in May. The recommendations differ from those of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says it safe for people who are fully vaccinated to “resume activities that you did before the pandemic without wearing a mask or physically distancing.”

It was just last week that Austin had gone to Stage 3. Of course as noted they can’t make anyone do any of this. They can just ask nicely and recommend as hard as they can.

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

Fort Bend County officials highly encourage people to wear masks indoors and get vaccinated as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads through the community.

A month after confirming the presence of the Delta variant in Fort Bend, health officials have detected an increase in the COVID-19 test positivity rate and in the number of cases, hospitalizations and ICU admissions, said Dr. Jacquelyn Minter, director of the county’s health and human services department.

In the past week, roughly 77 percent of the reported cases were the Delta variant, Minter said. The vast majority of cases of severe illness involve people who are unvaccinated. There has been a spike in the number of infected young adults.

“We are finding that this variant is especially adept at spreading in close groups of unvaccinated people,” Minter said.

Officials recommend that people who are vaccinated and unvaccinated wear masks indoors, practice physical distancing and wash their hands. County staff will post signs recommending that people mask up.

“This is a preventive action that is being asked,” said County Judge KP George. “This is not a mandate. But it is strongly advised to reduce the number of infected people.”

Harris County has gone up a notch as well, and it won’t surprise me if they take the next step. Just as a reminder, masking and social distancing did a pretty good job of keeping things under control when there was no vaccine. If we could at least do that, we could get this back under control pretty quickly. I think we all know that the overlap between “won’t get vaxxed” and “won’t wear a mask” is pretty high, so keep your expectations in check. If only there were some way to do more than encourage and recommend…

One more with UT, OU, and the SEC

It’s happening. I know, it’s early, and there’s resistance, and stuff can happen, but come on. It’s happening.

Texas and Oklahoma are prepared to inform the Big 12 they will not renew their media rights agreement with the league when the current deal expires in 2025, a conference-shattering move that could come as early as Monday morning.

A Big 12 source confirmed both the Longhorns and Sooners are preparing to break from the league they helped found in 1994. The Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the schools had discussed a move to the SEC and that an announcement could come in the next few weeks. Declining to extend or negotiate a new media rights agreement (first reported by Dallas television station WFAA) with the Big 12 and providing notice of intent to withdraw to will allow Texas and OU to formally begin the process of aligning with a new conference.

But Texas and Oklahoma would still be bound by the grant of rights, which bestows the schools’ first- and second-tier media rights to the Big 12. If Texas and Oklahoma exit prior to June 30, 2025, when that agreement expires, the Big 12 gets to keep the TV money a school generates even after it leaves.

Withdrawing members are also obligated to pay a commitment buyout fee. That amount is equal to conference media rights distributions that would otherwise have been paid out to the program(s). The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million each to its 10 member schools during the 2020-21 fiscal year, a $3-million drop from the previous year due to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby believes distributions could jump to $40 million or more next fiscal year, which could make Texas’ potential buyout hit $80 million.

Even with all the potential obstacles – Texas A&M’s fervent objections, vitriol from the rest of the Big 12, an effort by some Texas and Oklahoma representatives to turn conference realignment into a legislative issue – the belief is Texas and Oklahoma are bound for a new conference sooner rather than later.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WFAA story. The money issue will work itself out one way or another, even if it is just a matter of waiting until the current agreements expire. I suppose that might give the legislators now frantically filing bills and making unanswered phone calls to Greg Abbott some time to throw up obstacles to UT, but I don’t believe there’s a force in this world that will stop the money train. Nothing ever has.

Assuming this does happen – and you should be – there will be massive ripple effects throughout the rest of the NCAA, just as there were a few years ago when we last went through a big round of inter-conference shuffleboard.

Expect the Big 12 to be aggressive in adding schools. It’ll knock on doors at Arizona and Arizona State. Perhaps it’ll try and lure Colorado back and pry Utah. The Pac-12 is weak now, but the core of USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington are all more attractive to be aligned with than any of the Big 12 schools.

From there, the Big 12 will decide how big it wants to get. It has to decide whether to add two, four or six schools. Four seems like the most reasonable number, with Cincinnati, UCF, USF, BYU and Boise State the most likely candidates from outside the state of Texas. The potential addition of Houston and SMU becomes complicated, as Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech wouldn’t have much interest in more in-state competition.

Remember, it’s streaming subscriptions, not cable boxes, that matter most. BYU would appear to have the best option for that, with its national following. But BYU is always complicated, which prevented the Big 12 from adding it in 2016 when the Cougars’ complicated LGBTQ history became a factor.

UCF and USF have great markets, but would the Big 12 want two Florida footholds? Cincinnati is a preseason Top 10 team that has been working hard behind the scenes to build for this moment. It also brings a big market and fertile recruiting area.

This is all sub-optimal for the American Athletic Conference, as it’ll be a familiar trickle-down. In a similar food chain fallout that followed the ACC cannibalizing the Big East a decade ago, the Big 12 will go after the most attractive AAC candidates. The AAC will do its best to hold on to its top programs but a reconstructed Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma should offer a more attractive financial landing spot than the current AAC.

[…]

The ACC is in a difficult spot because it ate a bad deal from ESPN to get a linear network. Now it is frozen for two decades in an antiquated agreement, as the ACC gives schools more than $32 million per year.

[ACC Commissioner Jim] Phillips needs to do something dynamic to blow up that deal and get back to the bargaining table. Those options are limited, and ESPN isn’t going to be eager to give up a sweetheart deal on its end.

The loss of Texas as an option is a huge blow to the ACC’s ambitions, as multiple sources indicated that the ACC was caught by surprise Wednesday. The ACC’s other big play was Notre Dame, but the league failed to use any leverage it had on Notre Dame as a quasi-member the past few years. The new College Football Playoff proposal doubles as a security blanket for Notre Dame’s independence, which means little incentive for it to find a league home. Especially with its own lucrative TV deal coming.

The best remaining option for the ACC will be some type of scheduling arrangement or merger with the Pac-12. And that hints at another potential ripple from this move – is this going to be remembered as the pivot point toward super conferences?

There has long been a notion in college athletics that the Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from all the other leagues because of the financial success of their networks and the corresponding success on the field. Now, the Big Ten will go to market without the adrenaline jolt that the SEC got in its deal. The only corresponding move the Big Ten could make would be a play for Notre Dame, but that remains unlikely because of how secure Notre Dame’s future is in the new football playoff.

The issue for the Big Ten would be that Ohio State is isolated as the league’s power. Could the Big Ten leverage the potential of its next deal with a move to answer, adding Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson to cover the league’s Eastern flank and fortify the Interstate 95 corridor? There will be pressure on Warren to be bold. But the ACC is protected by a grant of rights through the length of its TV deal.

“It’s about combining forces now,” said a high-ranking college official. “Who teams up with who? Do we end up with four leagues? Do we end up with three? Or do we go to a 32-team NFL model. This is going to be earth-shattering.”

[PAC 12 Commissioner George] Kliavkoff joked on Twitter about his active first month as commissioner getting more interesting. The Pac-12 is last in line to go to market, and there’s a feeling that it needs to do something creative. There’s still great value in the West Coast, even if the football has been subpar for the past five years. But this move, the Big Ten deal and an upcoming deal for Notre Dame potentially put the Pac-12 in a position of weakness thanks to a lack of suitors.

The ripples of this potential SEC deal will be felt from coast to coast. And it’s not good news for any of the other leagues because of how much ESPN oxygen this sucks up. As one industry source put it: “The current schools in the SEC wouldn’t agree to this if all of a sudden their games are relegated to ESPNU. It’s not just money, it’s exposure.”

The ACC, PAC 12 and Big 10 all have new commissioners whose jobs just got a lot more stressful. New Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren had his first media day after the UT/OU story broke, and that subject was a big part of the conversation. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but assume that whatever the college football world looks like now – and as that Yahoo story notes, this is entirely driven by football, with basketball at best an afterthought – it will be different soon. If your school isn’t part of the action, it’s being left behind. I don’t make the rules and I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s how it is.

Day 11 quorum busting post: The Beto factor

Early on I mentioned how one potentially limiting factor in the Democratic exodus to Washington DC was funding, as housing and feeding 50+ people in the Capitol for up to four weeks would run into some money. Turns out, Beto O’Rourke had that covered.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke has funneled $600,000 to Texas House Democrats in Washington, D.C., to help fund their stay, which could last for up to another two weeks as the lawmakers attempt to block passage of a GOP election bill at the state Legislature.

Powered by People, the group started by the former presidential candidate and El Paso congressman, will wire the funds to the Texas House Democratic Caucus sometime this week, according to state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston.

The money will be used to help offset costs for lodging, meals and transportation as over 50 Democrats and roughly two dozen staffers stay in the nation’s capital. Members left Texas about 10 days ago and have said they plan to stay out of state until after the special session ends Aug. 6.

The funds will also help pay for costs associated with a virtual voting rights conference the caucus helped to host this week, Walle told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday.

O’Rourke announced the news during that virtual conference Thursday morning, saying that his group will continue fundraising for the Democrats in Washington.

“We’re gonna make sure that we get the full amount, 100% of what’s raised, to y’all,” he told lawmakers. “It is the least that we could do for everything that you all are doing for us. We want to do more.”

Walle said that the infusion of funds will go toward Democrats’ goal of raising $1.5 million to continue to help pay for the bills while in Washington. The caucus, he said, is “on a good pace to meet that goal.”

There are a number of ways that this exodus could end badly for the Dems. Running out of money and having to visibly scramble to cover living expenses would be one of them, made worse only by having to slink back home because there were no other choices. That outcome at least should be avoided, for which we can all be grateful. (And we could chip in a few bucks, if we felt so moved.)

And Beto’s role in this is appreciated.

Whether Beto O’Rourke is ready to run for governor or not, the Texas House Democrats’ fight over voting rights has already given him a springboard if he decides to take the plunge.

Over the past several weeks, the former presidential candidate from El Paso has been their biggest promoter, holding fundraisers with celebrities, co-organizing a 1960s-style civil rights march with prominent national leaders, and writing big checks to cover expenses for the Texas House and Senate Democrats who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop an elections bill.

It has all given O’Rourke a new boost of national media interviews and political relevance at a critical time for statewide candidates in Texas to build momentum if they are going to have a shot in an election cycle that starts faster than in most states because of the early primaries in March.

“They are keeping the coals hot on issues like election reform and redistricting, which Beto would try to leverage in 2022,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor.

While Democratic activists are pushing O’Rourke to get into the governor’s race, he insists he’s not thinking about that right now and is focused on fighting the elections bills Texas Republicans are trying to pass.

[…]

What O’Rourke is doing is a rarity in Texas politics, an arena where few are willing to pitch in without getting payback, said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

“He’s built an authentic platform with a lot of Texans and put it to good use to help us,” he said.

State Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said the donations that O’Rourke has been sharing have been a big morale boost. He said seeing so many Texans giving small donations to help the cause has lifted spirits as the Democrats in D.C. push ahead.

“It’s meant the world to us,” Walle said. “It’s been a shot in the arm.”

Yet while O’Rourke may not be looking for an immediate tradeoff, he still benefits in a big way from what the House Democrats have done.

Rottinghaus said the Democrats’ battle over voting rights has teed up the very issues that O’Rourke would want to talk about on a campaign for governor.

“Now all they need is for him to step into the tee box,” Rottinghaus said.

One can only hope that is being communicated. I feel reasonably confident that Beto will have plenty of volunteer and establishment energy if and hopefully when he announces his candidacy. In the meantime, he’s definitely helping.

Sure, let’s have a fraudit here in Texas

What could possibly go wrong?

Unfair to clowns, honestly

Republican House members are seeking a forensic audit of the November election results, but only in Texas’ largest counties that mostly went for Democrat Joe Biden.

Legislation filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, requires the state’s Republican leadership to appoint an “independent third party” to carry out the audit. Among the bill’s 15 GOP co-authors are Deer Park Rep. Briscoe Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee, and Cypress Rep. Tom Oliverson, vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus.

“Texans want to know more about the claims of voter fraud and deserve to have confidence in their elections,” Toth said in a statement about House Bill 241. “Voters want to know that their legal vote counts and matters.”

The legislation will likely go nowhere in the 30-day special session, since Democrats’ walkout stopped the GOP-led House from conducting any business. But the push shows how, despite no evidence of widespread fraud and in a state Donald Trump carried, some Republicans are still raising questions about the 2020 election results six months after Biden took office.

[…]

Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday that the legislation sounds like “it’s all based on the lie that there’s widespread voter fraud and Donald Trump really won the election.”

“I don’t know if these folks are aware of it, Trump actually did carry Texas,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “So I’m not sure what they’re trying to find in their audit.”

The same thing they’ve been looking for from the beginning, which is strategies, methods, and justifications for delegitimizing Democratic votes and voters, especially non-white votes and voters. The tell is in the way the size of the counties that are in scope for this is defined: Counties with at least 415,000 people, which as noted are the top 13 counties by population in Texas. Why stop there, and why such a weird population cutoff number? Well, if you take the next 13 counties, 11 of them were carried by Trump. If you go down to the next 13 on the list, which gets you to all counties with at least 100,000 people (a much nicer, rounder number than 415,000), all 13 were won by Trump. It’s just that simple – maximize the scrutiny on Democratic counties and find ways to make them look suspicious, while minimizing it on Republican counties. It’s genius, in its malicious way. And by the way, this isn’t just my inference. It’s what Steve Toth has explicitly said.

Now some of these counties not-top-13 counties were close – Jefferson and Nueces were just barely won by Trump – and some others are (as we have seen) clearly trending Democratic, like Brazos and Brazoria. But still, they were won by Trump and thus are not of interest to anti-democrats like Toth and Cain. Ken Paxton, who knows a thing or two about making egregiously false claims about the 2020 election, has signed on to this farce as well. Does anyone think Greg Abbott will resist? Hope he’s distracted by some other shiny object, or that someone reminds him of how these audits have caused tons of election equipment to be decertified as a result of being mauled by the incompetent frauditors. As with everything else at this point, if they want to do it and a quorum exists, there’s precious little Dems can do to stop them.

One million reasons why Greg Abbott thinks the grid is just fine

Or 2.4 billion reasons, depending on how you want to count it.

The Texas electric grid collapse during the February winter storm killed hundreds of Texans and caused an estimated $295 billion in damages, while generating seismic gains for a small and powerful few. The natural gas industry was by far the biggest winner, collecting $11 billion in profit by selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis. No one won bigger than Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren: Energy Transfer Partners—the energy empire Warren founded and now is executive chairman of—raked in $2.4 billion during the blackouts.

That immense bounty soon trickled down to Governor Greg Abbott. On June 23, Warren cut a check to Abbott’s campaign for $1 million, according to the governor’s latest campaign finance filing, which covers January through June. That’s four times more than the $250,000 checks that the billionaire has given to Abbott in prior years—and the most he’s ever given to a state politician in Texas.

In the months after one of the worst energy disasters in U.S. history, Abbott has dutifully steered scrutiny away from his patrons in the oil and gas industry. Last month, the governor signed into law a series of bills that strengthened regulation of the state’s grid. But experts warned that lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent another grid failure and failed to crack down on natural gas companies. At a bill signing ceremony on June 8, Abbott proclaimed that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.”

The unusually large contribution from the blackout’s biggest profiteer raises questions about Warren’s influence over the governor and has prompted outrage at what many see as a blatant political kickback for kowtowing to the powerful natural gas industry.

[…]

As he gears up for a reelection bid in 2022, Abbott has resisted calls to include further power grid fixes in a special session. Instead, his current special session agenda centers on sweeping “election integrity” legislation that prompted House Democrats to break quorum for the second time this year and hole up in Washington, D.C., until the session expires.

The governor has relentlessly pinned blame for the grid failure on renewable energy sources like wind and solar, Electric Reliability Council of Texas officials (ERCOT), and even the state’s giant power generators, all while ignoring the significant failures of the natural gas industry. Lawmakers watered down proposed regulations on the gas supply system in the face of aggressive industry lobbying.

By refusing to include additional grid reforms in special sessions, Abbott has ensured that the natural gas sector will avoid any further legislative scrutiny. That, experts warn, means the state’s grid remains at risk of future collapse. Earlier this month, Abbott issued another love letter to his fossil fuel benefactors, ordering his three brand-new Public Utility Commission (PUC) appointees to create incentives for fossil fuel and nuclear power generators and impose new costs on wind and solar plants.

While gas companies made huge profits during the winter storm, the financial fallout has been passed on to Texans. In May, lawmakers passed legislation that provided several billion dollars in state bonds for power companies that were waylaid by the exponential hike in energy costs. Texans will be paying that off through higher gas bills for at least the next decade.

Not really much to add to this, is there? It’s not like this is anything new, but it sure feels more blatant than usual. If there isn’t an effective advertising message in this, I don’t know what one might be.

When might SCOTX rule on the line item veto thing?

The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.

Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.

Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.

Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.

“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”

And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”

And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.

“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”

[…]

Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.

“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”

It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.

“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.

“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”

The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.

Abramson agrees.

“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”

Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.

Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.

Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.

“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.

If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.

“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”

I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.

The fourth wave

We’re not ready.

One local hospital is reinstating visitor limits and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is mulling a change to the county’s threat level amid a wave of COVID-19 variant cases that medical leaders warned Tuesday could overwhelm area hospitals and wreak further havoc as schools reopen next month.

The warning came amid massive spikes in hospitalizations across the Houston region, which Hidalgo’s office is closely monitoring to decide if the county needs to raise its emergency threat level from yellow to orange — or moderate to significant.

“We’re watching this very, very closely,” Hidalgo spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre wrote in an email. “The trends are moving in the wrong direction again and we are in a high-stakes race against the delta variant of this virus. Our message to the community is simple and clear: If you haven’t been vaccinated, take action now.”

In May, Hidalgo lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide.

But this month, hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000.

Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said he fears the closing of many testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the extent of COVID’s spread in the coming weeks.

“As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

[…]

Memorial-Hermann Health System plans to readopt visitor restrictions this week, and will test all patients for COVID, regardless of their vaccination status, said Dr. Annamaria Macaluso Davidson, vice president of employee health medical operations.

The hospital system had about 100 confirmed COVID cases on July 4; by Tuesday, there were more than 250.

We’ve been discussing this, and you know how I feel. The hospitalization numbers are still relatively low, but that’s a sharp increase, and there’s no reason to think there won’t be more. And I hadn’t even thought about the drastic reduction in testing facilities – I don’t know how big an effect that may have, but it’s not going to help.

I drafted this a couple of days ago, and before I knew it, Judge Hidalgo had already taken action.

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region.

“It’s not too late,” Hidalgo said. “But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people…. We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.”

The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population.

She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic.

Get your masks back on, and hope for the best. I trust Judge Hidalgo to do everything she can to ameliorate this situation, but as we know, there’s not a lot she can do. Greg Abbott has seen to that.

One thing that could help is if more places of business begin putting in their own vaccination requirements, mostly for employees but also possibly for customers or business partners, depending on the situation. Putting some limits on what one can do as an unvaccinated person is one of the few effective ways to compel people to get their shots. That will have to come from the private sector, because it sure won’t come from the state. The FDA giving final approval to the Pfizer and Moderna shots will help, too. I just don’t know how long we can wait.

Another State Bar complaint against Paxton

He certainly deserves all the trouble this has brought him. Whether any of it leads to actual consequences, we’ll have to see.

Best mugshot ever

Four former presidents of the State Bar of Texas joined a group of high-profile lawyers on Wednesday to file an ethics complaint against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, over his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory against former President Donald Trump.

Paxton filed a widely criticized lawsuit with the Supreme Court in December, in which he sued the battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over what he claimed were “unconstitutional irregularities” in their election processes. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, which came as Trump and his allies repeatedly promoted baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” or “stolen.”

The organization Lawyers Defending American Democracy, which asserts it is not partisan, filed the lawsuit in connection with 16 prominent Texas attorneys.

“The injunction Mr. Paxton sought with the Supreme Court would have usurped the presidency for the next four years and cast doubt on whether truly democratic presidential elections would ever have been restored in America,” Jim Harrington, one of the complaints signers and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement published on LDAD’s website.

Harrington said Paxton’s actions “demonstrated his disregard for the ethical rules which govern lawyers and for our country’s democratic principles.”

As you may recall, there’s already such a complaint against Paxton. I don’t know how the State Bar works, but I would assume these two would be combined. Reading that earlier post reminded me that Paxton was supposed to have responded to that complaint within 30 days, and indeed he has responded, asking for the complaint to be dropped – he’s basically saying that the original complainant doesn’t have standing to file against him. As a non-lawyer, I shrug my shoulders as I have no way to evaluate this claim on my own. Those of you who are lawyers, feel free to enlighten us.

Above the Law adds some details.

The bar complaint alleges that Paxton violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by filing a frivolous suit, making false statements of fact and law to a tribunal, engaging in deceitful conduct, and failing to uphold the Constitution.

The complainants point to Paxton’s representation that Biden’s odds of winning the election were less than one in a quadrillion, a gross distortion of a economist Charles Cicchetti’s assertion that this was the probability of Biden winning if the votes before and after 3am were randomly drawn from the population as a whole. Cicchetti’s analysis was ridiculous on its face even before Paxton mangled it — the differential between in-person votes favoring Trump and absentee ballots favoring Biden had been widely predicted. And furthermore, smaller rural areas, which tend to lean Republican, were always going to complete their counting before cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta.

As for misstatements of law, the complainants point to Paxton’s bizarre theory of standing which “flew in the face of the Electors Clause and the bedrock constitutional principle of each State’s sovereignty within our federal system.”

“The standing to sue Mr. Paxton sought from the Supreme Court had no basis in law and would have been a prescription for an autocratic President to perpetuate his power indefinitely against the will of the voters,” said Gershon (Gary) Ratner, co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy and principal author of the complaint.

Here’s the LDAD statement on their complaint, and here’s the complaint itself for your perusal. Note that they had called for Paxton to be sanctioned within a week of his filing that ridiculous lawsuit. I don’t know if it took them this long to prepare their complaint or if there was something else going on, but here we are. I don’t know enough to add anything else at this point, so stay tuned.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.

Day 9 quorum busting post: See you in August

Here’s your endgame, more or less.

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end.

“It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.”

[…]

He said Democrats want to soften some of the “sharp edges” of the voting restrictions Republicans are proposing — specifically, how the GOP bill enables felony charges against election officials who violate its provisions, as well as for people who help voters fill out their ballots without the proper documentation, even for inadvertent offenses.

“There really has been no attempt to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We are all putting our hopes in a federal standard.”

Other Texas Democrats have said their plan right now is to keep their caucus unified and focused on spurring national action. State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said Abbott’s threats to have them arrested or to call more special sessions don’t mean much to her.

“Our presence here together ensures that those Texans who are not being heard by Gov. Greg Abbott continue to be stood up for,” Johnson said.

Democrats on Tuesday said while in Washington, they are pushing for a meeting with President Joe Biden and were continuing to meet with key leaders. That included a strategy session with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the House from South Carolina.

But if the Texans are counting on Congress acting, they don’t have much time. The U.S. House goes on its annual August recess starting July 30 and the U.S. Senate leaves a week later. Neither returns to Washington until after Labor Day.

When Texas Democrats do finally return, Abbott has made clear he’ll call them back into special session again to pass an elections bill and other key priorities of Republicans who control the agenda in state politics. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to call as many special sessions as he wants, but each cannot last for more than 30 days.

It’s the Senate that matters, and their recess (assuming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allows it in full) corresponds to the end of Special Session #1. The House is not the problem for the Dems. Same story, different day.

Timing may be a problem for Greg Abbott, as Harvey Kronberg suggests.

HK: Article X Veto may have compromised full Republican control of redistricting

In theory at least, Democrats may have leverage they should not otherwise have; Article X cannot be revived without a special and with a hard August 20 deadline looming, the Legislature is on the edge of mutually assured destruction

“The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘cancelling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto” – Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to the Democrats’ Texas Supreme Court request to overturn his Article X veto.

Let’s be clear up front.

The conventional wisdom is that although there is a threat of arrest upon arrival, the House Democrats will come back at some point and watch Republicans pass some version of their election bill. A substantive question is whether the bill becomes more punitive due to Republican anger over the quorum break.

Let’s not bury the lede here. The House is boiling and Governor Abbott’s veto of legislative funding could conceivably lead to Republican loss of control in redistricting. While there is much chest beating and both feigned and real anger over the quorum bust, it camouflages a much bigger issue.

The rest is paywalled, but I was able to get a look at it. The basic idea is that per Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the state has until August 20 to reinstate legislative funding for the software to be updated in time to write checks for the next fiscal year beginning September 1. If that hasn’t happened by then, the Texas Legislative Council, which does all of the data crunching for redistricting, goes offline. No TLC, no ability to draw new maps. Pretty simple, as far as that goes.

What happens next is unclear. If the Lege can’t draw maps, that task falls to a federal court for the Congressional map. They wouldn’t have the needed data, and they wouldn’t have a default map to use as a basis, since the existing map is two Congressional districts short. The Legislative Redistricting Board draws the House, Senate, and SBOE maps if the Lege doesn’t, but they wouldn’t have data either, and per Kronberg “the LRB cannot constitutionally convene until after the first regular session in which census numbers have been received. (Article 3, Section 28).” Which is to say, not until 2023. You begin to see the problem.

Now maybe funding could be restored quickly, if Abbott were to call everyone back on August 8 or so. But maybe some TLC staffers decide they don’t need this kind of uncertainty and they move on to other gigs. Maybe Abbott declares another emergency and funds the TLC himself, though that may open several cans of worms when the litigation begins. Maybe the Supreme Court gets off its ass and rules on the line item veto mandamus, which could settle this now. Indeed, as Kronberg points out, the amicus brief filed by the League of Women Voters is expressly about the failure of the Lege to do its constitutional duty in the absence of funding for the TLC.

There are a lot of things that could happen here, and Kronberg is just positing one scenario. His topline point is that any outcome that includes a court drawing maps is a big loss for Republicans, for obvious reasons. Does that provide some incentive for “good faith negotiation”, if only as a risk mitigation for the Republicans? I have no idea.

One more thing:

When Texas Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the regular legislative session in late May, they successfully killed Republicans’ prized bill: a slew of restrictions on voting statewide. Or that’s how it seemed at the time, at least.

Less than three weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing an equivalent version of the so-called election integrity bill alongside other conservative legislative priorities.

The same day Abbott announced his plan for the special session, AT&T, whose CEO has said the company supports expanding voting rights nationwide, gave Abbott $100,000 to fund his reelection campaign.

[…]

In April, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said, “Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue. It is likely our employee PACs have contributed to policymakers in support of and opposed to any given issue.”

How could the left hand possibly know what the right hand is doing? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

Abbott affirms he will take no action to mitigate future COVID waves

He’s on brand, that much is for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he will not impose another statewide mask mandate, despite COVID-19 cases being on the rise again.

“There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott told KPRC-TV in Houston on Tuesday. “There are so many people who have immunities to COVID, whether it be through the vaccination, whether it be through their own exposure and their recovery from it, which would be acquired immunity.”

It would be “inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” Abbott said.

During a news conference Wednesday in Houston, Abbott went further and expressed blanket resistance to any new restrictions to fight the virus. He said Texas is “past the time of government mandates” and “into the time for personal responsibility.”

[…]

Abbott reiterated Tuesday that Texas schoolchildren will not face mask requirements as they return to school later this summer.

“Kids will not be forced by government or by schools to wear masks in school,” Abbott said. “They can by parental choice wear a mask, but there will be no government mandate requiring masks.”

Well, he answered my question, and that answer is “You’re on your own, it’s not my problem if you get sick”. What happens when and if hospitals begin to get overrun remains a mystery. The most charitable explanation of this stance is “Look, we all know that the idiots who haven’t gotten vaccinated are the same idiots who refuse to wear masks, so what’s even the point?” If only he as Governor had some power to enforce compliance, or to be a voice of persuasion to those who have refused to bear any responsibility. But at least he cleared that up for us, so thanks for that. The Chron and Reform Austin have more.

Federal judge halts Arkansas law against gender affirming care for trans kids

Of interest.

In an in-person hearing in Little Rock on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to block an Arkansas law that criminalizes gender-affirming care for transgender kids.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.’s bench ruling was made in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, which argues that Arkansas’ law violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment right to free speech. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four trans kids and their families in Arkansas, plus two physicians working in the state.

Still, legal advocates warn that a rare amicus brief signals that the battles over legislation targeting trans youth are not over.

[…]

The legal battle over Arkansas’ ban — the only one of its kind to be passed in the United States — also attracted the interest of 17 state attorneys general, who filed an amicus brief last week to bolster support for Arkansas’ law. Nearly all of the states that backed the brief have introduced their own bills to ban gender-affirming care, bar trans kids from playing sports that match their gender identity, or prevent them from discussing their identities in school, according to a bill tracker by Freedom For All Americans.

Four of the states that signed the brief through their attorney general — Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee — enacted legislation this year to ban trans youth from sports that match their gender identity. Idaho, which also counseled on the brief, signed its ban on trans kids’ sports participation in March 2020.

Two attorneys told The 19th that such a brief is largely unprecedented, although any weight it carried in Moody’s decision on Wednesday was unclear. It is not guaranteed that a federal judge would take a brief like this into account.

Ezra Ishmael Young, a civil rights attorney and founding board member of the National Trans Bar Association, did not recall a similar brief ever being filed about trans kids’ health care at the trial level.

“It’s very rare for an amicus brief to be filed by a bunch of states that have no stake in the actual issue at all,” Young said, adding that it takes time to coordinate a response from so many attorneys general.

“It’s not totally unusual for AGs to team up and push their state’s policy preferences in courts outside their jurisdiction,” he said. “What makes this tack odd here is that the AGs are pushing for policy preferences that have been soundly rejected by their legislature, sometimes repeatedly.”

Carl Charles, a Lambda Legal staff attorney, told the 19th that the brief — which also he sees as unprecedented, based on research undertaken by him and his paralegal — is concerning on another level.

“To write affirmatively in support of an outlier law in one state, where there are no related laws on the books in their respective states … they have nothing really to stand on in terms of, ‘We’ve passed these similar laws and we’re in support,’” he said.

“They’re essentially taking an inherently political position and one that’s outside the scope of their office, which is to say, ‘We have an interest in seeing this law stand because we too want to pass a law like this.’ Well, that’s not the AG’s job. The AG’s job is not to pass laws. The AG’s job is to enforce the laws on the books,” he said.

As we know, Greg Abbott is plotting some executive action to block this health care for trans kids, so this ruling is quite timely. Arkansas is not in the Fifth Circuit, so the ruling would not apply here, but it’s significant nonetheless. Also significant is that the state of Texas and its felonious AG Ken Paxton were on that amicus list, as I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear. None of this is going to stop Abbott from doing whatever he plans to do, but there will very likely be a legal roadblock in his way once he does do it.