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The Lege

Let’s talk “meaningful reform”

Chief Acevedo brought it up, so let’s go there.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo’s voice cracked several times and his eyes welled as he railed against the death of George Floyd beneath a policeman’s knee and implored protesters to demonstrate peacefully with him.

“I will not allow anyone to tear down this city, because this is our city,” Acevedo shouted on Sunday to the group of mostly black Houstonians surrounding him at one of many protests in the wake of video showing Floyd’s fatal encounter with police in Minneapolis. “Pay close attention! Because these little white guys with their skateboards are the ones starting all the s–t.”

Video of Acevedo’s profanity-laced remarks went viral and, along with his other blunt statements this week, won the chief acclaim from those outraged by the death of Floyd, a former Third Ward resident.

It has also drawn anger from those who say Acevedo has failed to address the very things he’s condemning at home. His calls for police to be more transparent and enact “meaningful reform” have refocused attention on a series of fatal shootings by his own officers, and his refusal to release body camera video of the incidents.

“We’re looking at him say one thing on camera, but locally, we know different,” said Dav Lewis, a local activist who was friends with Adrian Medearis, one of the men who died in the spate of shootings. “We know different locally. We have not seen police accountability.”

The chief has also resisted calls to release the results of an audit of his narcotics division, rocked last year by one of its worst scandals in decades, and he has downplayed calls to bolster the city’s Independent Police Oversight Board, long criticized as a “toothless watchdog” group.

“While these are great photo ops, and maybe the chief has political aspirations, and this is all warm and fuzzy kind of stuff he’s doing, it’s time for some action,” said Mark Thiessen, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association.

[…]

Protesters intensified their calls on Tuesday for Acevedo to make the videos public. Mayor Sylvester Turner’s remarks at City Hall were punctuated by several people chanting “release the tapes,” and hours later Acevedo was directly confronted by a group of critical protesters at the downtown park Discovery Green.

Some lawmakers questioned Acevedo’s rationale for not releasing the body camera video.

“It is not law enforcement’s job to worry about prosecution,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston. “It’s their job to be law enforcement.”

Wu, a former prosecutor who has called on Acevedo previously to release his audit, said Acevedo’s attitude “does more of a disservice to taint the public’s perception than anything else.”

“Right now you have the general public believing the police hide things,” Wu said. “When other cities during this crisis have shown they can release body cams immediately — that they can fire and discipline officers immediately — the fact we can’t get videos released months, sometimes even years later, is very telling.”

There’s more, and you should read the rest. On balance, I think Art Acevedo has been a pretty good Chief of Police. It’s not at all hard to imagine someone worse in his position – the current Chief of Police in Austin, for example. I also think that some of these reform ideas should be taken out of his discretion and mandated by the appropriate governing body. For releasing body camera footage and just generally being more transparent about it, that could be the Legislature or it could be City Council. Point being, the less room he or any Chief has to stall on releasing said footage, the less time we have to have this debate about transparency.

There are plenty of other things that can be done, at all levels of government, with the local stuff having the greatest potential for swift adoption. Tarsha Jackson, formerly with the Texas Organizing Project and now on hold in the City Council District B runoff, recommended several changes to the police union contract. CM Letitia Plummer, thankfully recovering from COVID-19, has proposed a budget amendment that would:

-Require officers exhaust all reasonable means before shooting
-Ban chokeholds and strangle holds
-Require de-escalation
-Require officers give verbal warning before shooting
-Notify Independent Police Oversight Board when death occurs
-Give IPOB subpoena power

It would also redirect funds currently allocated for a police cadet class as follows:

$2M, fund separate IPOB investigations
$1M, build online portal for residents to report misconduct
$3M, police training
$2M, permanent revolving fund for the Office of Business Opportunity, no-interest loans to minority-owned biz
$2M, enhance Health Dept’s Community Re-Entry Network Program
$500k, enhance Health Dept’s My Brother’s Keeper program
$1M, equipment and implementation of a “CAHOOTS” program (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets)

The point of that last item is to redirect a class of 911 calls that now go to law enforcement to this Crisis Assistance program, so the police can handle higher priority calls. Look at the photos she embedded in this Facebook post (specifically, this and this) to get a better feel for this. The city of Eugene, Oregon has used a program like this successfully since 1989. I strongly suspect most police officers would be happy to not have to respond to these kinds of calls for the most part going forward.

Stace adds recommendations from 8CantWait, which largely overlap the items noted by CM Plummer and Tarsha Jackson. Again, these are things that could be done now, if we wanted to. If there’s something you want to do in this direction, call Mayor Turner’s office and your district Council member along with the At Large members in support of these proposals. There are many ways to make noise.

There’s still more. Looking at the federal level, Sherrilyn Ifill and a triumvirate at The Atlantic have a list of action items for Congress, including an end (or at least a serious cutback) to qualified immunity, national data collection and tracking of police conduct and use of force, stronger enforcement of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and more. Ifill notes that “Currently, officers fired for misconduct and brutality against innocent civilians can be hired by other departments”. This will sound depressingly familiar to anyone who remembers the story of Tulia.

I personally would add: Decriminalization of marijuana and a complete shift of focus on other drug offenses from arrest and incarceration to treatment; Expanding Medicaid, which as I have said a gazillion times before will do so much to provide mental health services to countless Texans; Really attacking the homelessness problem by funding housing for the homeless and raising the minimum wage so that more people can afford housing in the first place; and repealing SB4, the odious “show me your papers” law. I believe these things will drastically reduce the interactions that ordinary people – overwhelmingly people of color – have with the police and the criminal justice system.

None of these things are panaceas, and none of them directly address systemic racism – I will defer on that to those who can speak more directly from their own experience – but I do believe all of them will have the effect of reducing harm to the black and brown people who have always received the brunt of the violence that comes from encounters with the police. Again, much of this is doable right now. Clearly, some other items will require winning more elections, in Texas and around the country, but we can still get started on what can be done now. If Chief Acevedo wants to come out in support of any or all of these things, that would be nice, too. Whether he does or he doesn’t, we can make them happen anyway.

State ordered to pay plaintiffs’ fees in voter ID case

Pending appeal, of course.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas ultimately won the long-winding fight to keep its voter ID law on the books, but a federal judge has ruled the state is on the hook for nearly $6.8 million in legal fees and costs.

In a Wednesday order, federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi found the state must pay that sum to the collection of parties who sued over the 2011 restrictions the state set on what forms of photo identification are accepted at the polls. A spokesperson for the Texas attorney general indicated the state will appeal the ruling.

The voter ID case ricocheted through the federal courts for nearly seven years and over several elections, with Ramos first ruling in 2014 that lawmakers discriminated against Hispanic and black voters when they crafted one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws.

Lawmakers eventually revised the voter ID law in 2017 to match temporary rules Ramos had put in place for the 2016 election in an effort to ease the state’s requirements as the litigation moved forward. After the state faced multiple losses in the courts, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld Texas’ revised law.

But left intact were findings that the original law produced discriminatory results.

It is what it is, and the appeals process will take many more months. No one should be making detailed plans for the money, because even if it survives appeal it’s going to be awhile before any checks get cut. This is a consolation prize, and not that much of one, but it’s what we’ve got. Until we can take back the Lege and more and repeal this stupid law.

A bipartisan equality bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Hotze and pals still crying to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Houston GOP activist Steve Hotze and a coalition of business owners and conservatives have launched a legal challenge claiming Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus violate the Texas Constitution.

In a 34-page emergency pleading filed Friday, lawyers for Hotze as well as three pastors, state Rep. Bill Zedler and five business owners ask the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the orders.

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

Attorney Jared Woodfill argued in the petition that the governor does not have the power to issue mandates that suspend state laws and that he should have convened the Legislature instead.

“Our senators and state representatives have been muted because Gov. Abbott has chosen to act as a king, and that is fundamentally unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong,” Woodfill said.

Even if the law that gave Abbott his emergency powers is constitutional, Woodfill wrote, the orders are still unconstitutional because they deny due process by assuming every Texan and business is a threat to public health without allowing them the chance to defend themselves; violate equal protection by allowing some businesses to stay open and others not; and are otherwise “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

[…]

Woodfill said the petitioners’ goal is to set the precedent for governors’ authority during future emergencies.

“What’s going to happen if we have a COVID-20?” Woodfill said. “Are we going to again surrender all our constitutional rights?”

It’s hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and petitions coming from the Hotze machine, but I’m going to try. He and this same cohort (more or less) had previously filed a lawsuit in Travis County against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay at home orders. This had followed a lawsuit filed in March against the Harris County stay at home order, which he then tried to get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court but was denied. He then filed another lawsuit against Harris County over the face mask order and sought an emergency ruling from the Supreme Court on it, but by that time Abbott had issued an order overriding local orders and forbidding the requirement that face masks be worn. It’s not clear to me if this pleading is related to the Travis County lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton or if it is a second front in their war on anyone who dares to try to tell them what to do under any circumstance. I’m also not sure if that Harris County lawsuit is still in effect or if it has been mooted by subsequent state actions.

All right, so that’s where I think we are now. I’ll say again, I think there are very valid questions to be asked about what powers the Governor does and does not have in emergencies. When must the Legislature be involved? What if any laws can be superseded or suspended by executive order, and under what circumstance? What power does the Governor have to unilaterally overrule cities and counties, whose executives have their own emergency powers? There’s plenty of room for robust debate on these topics, and I hope the Lege addresses some of them in the spring. It’s clear that the Governor – and Mayors, and County Judges – need to have some latitude to take quick action in times of crisis, but it’s equally clear there needs to be some limits on that, in terms of scope and duration and jurisdiction. I don’t want any Governor to have unchecked power, least of all Greg Abbott. I also don’t want a bunch of nihilistic cranks to have the power to disregard public health and safety with impunity. I don’t want the worst people in the world to be the ones asking the questions that will affect all of us going forward. I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of responding to this.

A note about voter ID and vote by mail

See if you can detect the same theme I’m detecting.

From Houston Public Media:

Rice University recently surveyed Harris County voters. And nearly 70 percent of respondents preferred voting by mail if that’s an option.

“We found that a large number of voters – particularly Democrats, women, and persons over 65 – were reluctant to vote in person at a polling location on or before Election Day,” said Rice political scientist Bob Stein.

[…]

But the Rice survey shows Republicans are far less likely to want to vote by mail, let alone to support others doing so for fear of catching COVID-19. One reason: potential voter fraud.

Clay Mills of Humble has been a Republican poll judge for the past 10 years.

“In my opinion, based on all those years of experience, by far the easiest way to commit fraud is vote by mail,” Mills said. “I think we should always be concerned about health and do the best we can, but we also can’t destroy the purity of the vote based on health reasons.”

Such fraud is extremely rare, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

Michael Palmquist is also a Republican poll judge and army veteran from Spring. As for concerns about voting in person during the pandemic? “None whatsoever.”

“I mean, if I can go to the grocery store, and I can go to Sam’s, and I can go to Walmart, there’s no reason I can’t stand in line and vote,” Palmquist said.

And Joanne Thomas, an Alabama native and a teacher from West Houston, is battling cancer. But she’s still determined to vote in person, not by mail.

“I will wear my gloves, I will wear my mask, and I will go in and vote,” Thomas said. “I have family members who have died for the right for me to vote.”

Like Mills, Thomas is concerned about potential vote fraud.

“I have heard the term ballot harvesting, and I totally disagree with it because you can’t prove who you are,” Thomas said, “I am a firm believer that you should carry some form of ID to have the privilege to vote in the United States of America. You should be an American citizen and pay taxes. If you don’t, you don’t have the right to have the say on who will govern us.”

See here for more on the poll in question, but that’s not what I want to focus on.

From the DMN:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lewis Sessions, a Dallas lawyer who is not involved in the case, agrees with Paxton. Sessions, who has represented the county Republican Party in voter fraud cases, said he opposes expanded mail voting because the system can be exploited by fraudsters.

If mail voting is opened up to a larger portion of the population, he said, election officials will be unprepared to handle such an increase and unable to verify each ballot.

David Thomas, 72, of Oak Cliff said he was similarly concerned that officials would not be able to use the state’s voter identification law to verify ballots cast by mail.

“Somebody else can vote for you,” he said.

Sessions, 67, said the courts should stay out of the legal battle and let local officials determine the best way to hold elections during the pandemic.

“This can be done, it’s just a question of working through the logistics,” he said.

But not all Republicans are opposed to expanding mail voting. Kathaleen Wall, a GOP candidate in a runoff to replace Sugar Land Rep. Pete Olson, has urged her voters to vote by mail, saying in mailers that they have the “green light” if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus.

John Pudner, executive director of Take Back Our Republic, a national conservative nonprofit that works on campaign finance reform, said he supports expanding mail voting during the pandemic — with some caveats.

Pudner, a longtime Republican consultant who worked for President George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000, said mail ballot applications should be sent to all voters as long as the process includes a form of verification, like a signature, a witness match or a thumbprint.

His group does not support sending ballots to all registered voters or conducting the elections entirely by mail, as Nevada has announced. Pudner said he also thinks the changes should be temporary and not extend beyond the pandemic.

Did you notice the reference to voter ID in each of the two stories? I’ve previously discussed this, but it seems this is the sort of thing that will need to be repeated over and over again. The reason that the odious voter ID law does not apply to mail ballots is because the Republicans that passed the voter ID law chose to exempt mail ballots from any voter ID requirement. The reason they chose to exempt mail ballots is because mail ballots, at least at the time that the voter ID law was passed, strongly favored Republicans, and Republican legislators did not want to make it harder for their voters to vote. (Also, too, voters over the age of 65 are disproportionately white, as noted by LULAC when they intervened in the first federal lawsuit over expanding vote by mail.)

Now, I am not calling for voter ID to be extended to include mail ballots. The voter ID law is trash and needs to be thrown out. My point is simply that if you are going to trot out the creaky old talking points about “vote fraud”, you should at least be made to reckon with the fact that the Republican legislators who passed the voter ID law in 2011 specifically and deliberately chose to exempt mail ballots from its requirement. It was convenient for them to claim that “vote fraud” was not an issue for mail ballots then, just as it is convenient for them to claim that it is an issue now. You might want to ask yourself why that is.

Biden campaign says it will compete in Texas

That is what we want to hear.

Former vice president Joe Biden is planning to compete against President Trump in traditionally Republican states such as Arizona, Texas and Georgia as his campaign bulks up in size and turns to a general election made highly unpredictable by the coronavirus.

“We believe that there will be battleground states that have never been battleground states before,” said Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, on a call with reporters Friday. “We feel like the map is really favoring us if you look to recent polling.”

Biden’s campaign said it will also compete in other states such as Iowa and Ohio that Hillary Clinton lost by large margins in 2016.

The campaign’s public announcement of targets — which some Democrats feel are overly ambitious — is driven by what it sees as weaknesses for Trump that have been magnified by his response to the virus. It comes after weeks of criticism from Democrats, who worry Biden isn’t being aggressive enough.

[…]

Biden’s staff, on the call with reporters Friday, frequently pointed to national polling and surveys in battleground states that give Biden an edge. Recent public polls in Arizona, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin show Biden leading. Trump is beating Biden by small margins in Iowa and Texas.

The FiveThirtyEight average of the four polls of Texas post-primary have Trump leading Biden by two in Texas. That can change, of course, and there are a whole host of other factors to consider, from fundraising to organization to how the election will be conducted, but it’s hard to see Texas as un-competitive right now. It’s true that if Biden does actually win Texas he’s almost certainly run up the score to such an extent that he surely didn’t need to win Texas, but there are plenty of other considerations as well, from a US Senate race to multiple potential Congressional pickups to winning the State House and having a voice in the 2021 redistricting process. The Chron covers some of this ground:

In the 1990s, Bill Clinton came within 5 percentage points of winning Texas in both 1992 and 1996, but both those races had eccentric Texas tycoon H. Ross Perot taking voters from the Republican nominees. Minus those races, Hillary Clinton coming within 9 percentage points of beating Trump in 2016 is the closest a Democrat has come to winning Texas since Jimmy Carter won the state in his first election in 1976.

The chairman of the Texas Republican Party James Dickey has been warning the party faithful that Democrats are energized and are going to put a lot more money into Texas to try to flip it and Republicans need to be prepared. He’s been touring the state since last year outlining how the party is more aggressively fundraising, hiring field staff and registering voters than in past cycles. While he dismisses the state being a blue state, he has been emphatic that “Texas is on Red Alert” for 2020.

But while Republicans scoff at the idea of Texas turning blue, Trump has already spent more time and money in Texas than many past Republican presidential contenders.

Before the pandemic had even hit, Trump had made 14 trips to Texas since he was inaugurated. That is more than three times as many visits as President Barack Obama made during his first term in office. And with a big financial advantage over the Democrats, Trump has been able to do more to shore up Texas, rather than just focusing on traditional battle grounds in Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin.

It is not hard to imagine a race that is decided by 5 percentage points or less in Texas, said Jillson, the SMU political science professor. But Jillson said if Trump struggles to hold Texas, it would be a sign of a bigger problem nationwide.

“If Texas is in play, it probably means Joe Biden has won 40 other states,” Jillson said.

Forty is an overstatement. If you think I’m being pedantic, go ahead and list the nine states Trump would definitely still win in the event Biden carried Texas. I feel pretty confident saying you’d be leaving off a few obviously red states in such an exercise, all of which would be a much bigger shift towards the Democrats than Texas would, and without the corresponding poll numbers to suggest it. Here’s an illustration of this:

That’s not intended to be a rigorous predictive model, just as noted a simple way of viewing the state of play right now. Point being, Texas really has shifted, and it’s time to think about in those terms. How much of an investment it merits from a Presidential campaign perspective is open to debate, but the fact that it is competitive is not.

We don’t know enough about what’s happening at nursing homes

We’ve talked before about two of the main coronavirus hotspot types in Texas, prisons and meat processing plants. Now we’re going to talk about that third type, nursing homes.

As the death toll grows at Texas nursing homes, so has the number of requests for information kept by state health officials that would reveal which long-term care facilities have suffered coronavirus outbreaks during the worst pandemic in generations.

But the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is attempting to keep its records secret, despite calls for more transparency from open-government advocates, some Texas lawmakers and family members worried about vulnerable residents.

“The public is being left in the dark, and we’re losing control of our ability to oversee the operations of our government,” said Joe Larsen, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which published an open letter last month urging the health commission to release its records on nursing home infections.

In a May 4 letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Carey Smith, a lawyer representing the health commission, said the agency has received more than two dozen public records requests for nursing home data about coronavirus infections, but that federal and state laws prohibit the release of the information because it might identify infected residents and violate their privacy.

However, Texas legislators who wrote one of the laws cited by Smith said it doesn’t prohibit officials from releasing statistical information about COVID-19 in nursing homes.

“The statute was not intended to create a blanket protection for all health-related information,” said former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who authored the bill in the Texas Senate last year.

The sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said releasing statistical data from nursing homes could benefit both consumers and government authorities. And, like Watson, he said the bill they passed doesn’t prevent state officials from releasing that information.

“So long as you can’t get personal identifying information I don’t see why the current rules and statutes that we have don’t already allow that information to be released,” Capriglione said.

[…]

After facing criticism from families and advocates of nursing home residents, Texas began releasing statewide statistics that show the total number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes, which provide round-the-clock care, and assisted living facilities, which are less intensive.

As of [May 1], 478 COVID-19 deaths — nearly half of the 1,042 reported in Texas — were at nursing homes or assisted living centers, records show.

But state health officials haven’t disclosed infection rates for each location, which has stymied families trying to protect their relatives. The lack of information also leaves hospice workers and other contract caregivers in the dark.

That story was from early May. Since then, we have gotten more numbers from the state.

More than 3,000 Texas nursing home residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus, as well as nearly 400 assisted living facility residents, according to data released Friday by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Among the reported 311 nursing homes with confirmed cases, 3,011 residents have tested positive and 490 have died. Another 494 residents have recovered, according to the data. At 112 assisted living facilities in Texas with at least one confirmed coronavirus case, 382 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 95 have died.

Statewide, 1,272 people have died, but it was unclear late Friday if all of the long-term care facility patients’ deaths were included in that larger figure.

The state had previously released only the number of nursing homes with confirmed cases and fatalities, not the number of people who have tested positive.

The state is still not releasing the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases. Many families remain in the dark about whether their loved ones in nursing homes are at risk of exposure.

There are a lot of reasons why we need more and better reporting of this data. For one, just so that the people who have family and friends that live or work at these places can know what’s going on with them. For two, to better identify the places that are not up to standard on health and safety. For three, so we can learn from the places that are doing well as well as the places that are doing poorly, so the overall level of safety and care can be improved. This is not hard to understand, and at least it looks like there’s bipartisan agreement that the existing laws need to be upgraded for the future. Put that on the ever-lengthening to do list for the 2021 Lege.

More runoff debates

In case you had not seen this, as I myself had not before Sunday.

Watch Democratic Candidate Debates Here!

Every Tuesday and Thursday in May, join us for our debate series:

Debate Schedule:
Tuesday, May 5 – Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner
Thursday, May 7 – Texas State House District 138
Tuesday, May 12 – Texas State House District 142
Thursday, May 14 – Texas State House District 148
Tuesday, May 19 – US Congressional District 10
Thursday, May 21 – Texas State Board of Education Position 6
Tuesday, May 26 – Texas Railroad Commission
Thursday, May 28 – United States Senate

Video of past debates are on the page, so for example if you want to hear Anna Eastman and Penny Shaw, go here. In some cases, one of the candidates in the runoff has declined or not responded, but in most cases you can hear both candidates. Early voting begins June 29, so remind yourself of who’s on your ballot and start making up your mind.

CM Plummer tests positive for COVID-19

Get well soon.

CM Letitia Plummer

Houston City Councilmember Letitia Plummer has tested positive for COVID-19, becoming the first elected official in the city to have a confirmed infection of the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Plummer, a first-term council member and dentist, has been quarantining at home since Thursday and received her results Monday, she said. She briefly went to the emergency room on Saturday to receive fluids, but otherwise has been at home.

Her staff members will be tested for the virus Tuesday, she said. Her dental office staff have all tested negative, as have her three sons.

Mayor Pro Tem Dave Martin said the administration is working to ensure any council member or staff member who wants to get tested can do so Tuesday at City Hall, though they are still are working through the details. Mayor Sylvester Turner is scheduled to unveil his proposed budget Tuesday.

“We have to be careful. This is a great wake-up call for a lot of people,” Martin said. “We think this is over? No. For us, it’s just beginning.”

[…]

The council has continued to meet in person at City Hall each week, though members generally are spread out around the dais and at the press tables in front of the audience seats. Most wear masks, but they frequently are in close proximity to one another.

First things first, I wish CM Plummer all the best for a speedy recovery, and I am glad that no one in her family or office appear to have been infected. I hope that’s true for all of her colleagues and other contacts as well. This is a shock, but it’s not really a surprise. Sooner or later, this was going to happen to someone in local elected office – as we have already discussed, it has happened elsewhere, in some cases with fatal results. We all hope and pray for a better outcome here.

But look, it’s not great that Council has continued to meet in person like this, even with masks. Go back and read this link I posted in th weekend roundup. Even sufficiently distanced, and even with masks, having people in an enclosed space for a long period of time is a high-risk scenario for coronavirus. City Council, and every other elected body, needs to give very serious thought to transitioning their meetings online, like now. If the Lege isn’t working on a contingency plan for this as well, even with their next meeting not scheduled until January, they’re needlessly risking the lives of their members, their staff, their security and other support personnel, and everyone else who crowds into the Capitol every two years. If SCOTUS can handle its business over the phone, these folks can do so as well. The alternative is an outbreak that prevents a quorum or upends the elected balance of power, and that’s without considering how many of these people are in high-risk categories. Let’s not be stupid about this. Hold the meetings online, and don’t delay. I don’t want to hear any excuses.

The bad guys will be spending a lot in Texas, too

Don’t get complacent.

The Koch-backed Americans For Prosperity is planning an unprecedented push into Texas in 2020, throwing its support behind a slew of Republican candidates and expecting to spend millions as Democrats also commit more resources to the state ahead of November elections.

Americans For Prosperity Action, a super PAC affiliated with the nonprofit funded by billionaire Charles Koch that has long supported conservative causes. It announced Wednesday its plans to spend heavily to support Republicans in three key congressional races in the suburbs of Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. The group also plans to spend seven figures defending U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, for whom it has already spent more than $700,000 on ads, as Democrats try to win their first statewide race in a generation. And it’s supporting a dozen Republicans — and one Democrat — in state House races.

[…]

Americans For Prosperity Action says it plans “robust” spending in three of those races: U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a Central Texas Republican facing a challenge Davis; Wesley Hunt, an Army veteran challenging Fletcher in the west Houston suburbs; and Genevieve Collins, a Dallas business executive running against Allred.

That support will include ads, direct mail and efforts to reach voters through text messages, phone calls and virtual events.

The group says it has already spent more than $700,000 supporting Cornyn. It plans to run digital ads supporting the Texas Republican constantly through the election, as well as larger ad buys, such as $500,000 it spent on ads just after Super Tuesday.

While the group is mostly throwing its support behind Republicans, it is backing one Democrat this cycle: Longtime state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., locked in an unexpected runoff to hold onto his Brownsville district against Sara Stapleton Barrera, who ran at him from the left.

Yes, that’s Chip “You get coronavirus! And you get coronavirus!” Roy. We’ve begun to see the money for progressive candidates come in. This was inevitable, and it’s in many ways a good sign. They can’t take Texas for granted any more. Now we have to show them their money’s no good here. How sweet will it be for them to spend all that dough and lose?

Here comes Everytown

Bring it.

Gun safety groups planning to spend millions to turn Texas blue this year are rolling out their first round of ads, which say COVID-19 isn’t the only public health crisis facing the state.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the Michael Bloomberg-backed group that plans to spend $8 million in Texas this year, is launching $250,000 in digital ads targeting Republicans including Houston-area U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Michael McCaul, as well as Central Texas U.S. Rep. Chip Roy.

The group shared the plan exclusively with Hearst Newspapers. It includes ads targeting Central Texas U.S. Rep. John Carter and Beth Van Duyne, a former mayor of Irving running for a Dallas-area congressional seat. The ads say the Republicans “ignored our safety” by opposing universal background checks and other gun laws.

[…]

Everytown isn’t alone in targeting Texas, the top target in 2020 for groups pushing for more restrictive gun laws. BradyPAC, the political affiliate of one of the country’s oldest gun violence prevention groups, plans to spend more than $500,000 on elections in the state, more than it’s spending anywhere in the nation by far.

See here for the background. I approve of the target list, though I assume at some point these groups will turn to the State House races, since taking over the State House serves the goal of winning and holding Congress as well. But part of this is just about boosting Dem turnout, in the places where it grew the most in 2018. That should lift all the boats. The Trib, which has a longer story, has more.

Maybe all schools will start earlier this year

What do you think about this?

Texas Education Agency officials on Thursday pitched the benefits of starting the 2020-21 school year in early August, ending it later than normal and building in longer breaks that could serve as make-up days if campuses are closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In a presentation posted online, TEA officials said the upcoming school year is “likely to be disrupted” by building closures and high levels of student absenteeism, issues that could be alleviated by districts moving closer to a year-around academic calendar.

One sample calendar offered in the presentation shows classes starting in early August and ending in late June, with longer-than-normal breaks around the Thanksgiving, winter and spring break holidays.

TEA officials did not mandate or formally recommend districts change their academic calendar, noting that local school boards ultimately have the authority to set schedules. However, agency leaders said the option, called an “intersessional calendar,” provides more flexibility to address students’ academic needs.

“Given the ongoing disruptions caused by COVID-19, TEA has spoken with numerous educators about the need to adapt our school systems to this new environment,” a TEA official said in an email to the Houston Chronicle.

“One potential option is to adjust the school calendar, to improve our school systems’ collective ability to respond to continued COVID-19 disruptions and address any learning gaps that have emerged over the latter portion of this school year. The presentation lays out options informed by those discussions.”

[…]

TEA officials also promoted the possibility of offering instruction to the neediest students during longer breaks if make-up days are not needed. However, state law only provides additional funding — at half the typical rate — for students enrolled in grades prekindergarten through 5 if districts go beyond certain minutes and days of instruction.

Some of the changes also could require restructuring employee contracts for 2020-21 — many of which are not yet signed — and schedules for extracurricular events. In their presentation, TEA officials said calendar overhauls would require “substantial change management” and “immediate action.”

For now, at least, I’m taking this in the same spirit as all those “how MLB could play its season” proposals, which is to say mostly as a thought experiment so that they have some options at hand if they can go forward at all. I mean, if “reopening” leads to another, much higher, peak of COVID-19 outbreaks and deaths, we could be back in lockdown at this time. Nobody really knows what’s going to happen, and planning for uncertainty is by definition a dicey affair.

But let’s say for these purposes that this is feasible, that we will be able to open schools in August. In that case, I can think of a few objections to this idea. One is that families who plan travel in the summer will complain, since we’d be going from a ten-week break to maybe a five or six-week break, which will greatly hinder travel plans. Two is that this will make all kinds of summer activities for kids – camps, jobs, internships, what have you – basically impossible, for the same reason. Three, having more breaks during the academic year as well as having fewer opportunities to occupy kids during the summer will be an extra burden on working parents. Four, this will all naturally affect teachers and other school staff, and they will have their own objections. Some of these will carry more weight than others due to collective bargaining agreements.

So, to put it mildly, there are issues that would need to be worked out. Putting all of that aside, I don’t think this is a terrible idea, nor do I think it should be off the table even with these concerns about it. The chances that the school year will be disrupted by coronavirus, whether on a single-campus level or systemwide, are extremely high, and there needs to be a plan to handle that. Maybe this plan isn’t it, but maybe parts of it could be used in a modified version of it. Point being, we need to have something in place for when – not if – something happens, and we need to be making those plans now.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.

UT-Tyler/DMN: Trump 43, Biden 43

New day, new poll.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are in a dead heat in the race for Texas, signaling that the Lone Star State is evolving into a presidential battleground.

A new Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll shows that Trump and Biden are backed by 43% of poll respondents, with 5% opting for “other” candidates and only 9% undecided. Trump’s overall approval rating was 45%.

A February survey had Trump with a one-point lead over Biden, with 11% choosing neither.

The poll of 1,183 registered voters was conducted April 18-27 with a margin of error of +/- 2.85 percentage points. The survey asked additional questions of 447 registered voters who indicated they voted in the Democratic primary, with a margin of error of +/- 4.64%.

[…]

The poll also revealed that the coronavirus pandemic has had a pronounced impact on Texas politics, with state and local leaders trusted more than President Trump. The president’s handling of the crisis is approved by 43% of respondents, while 44% disapproved. Respondents were evenly split — 45% to 45% — on whether they trusted Trump to keep them safe.

Meanwhile, the fight over the coronavirus is obscuring the U.S. Senate race. In the Democratic primary, Air Force combat veteran MJ Hegar of Round Rock has a 32% to 16% lead over state Sen. Royce West of Dallas. But just as in other surveys, there’s a large group of undecided voters.

Incumbent Republican John Cornyn leads both Democrats by double digits in head-to-head matchups.

Elsewhere, poll respondents favored Democrats over Republicans in the rumble for the Texas House, a body the GOP has controlled since 2003.

And for the upcoming runoff elections, most voters feel comfortable voting at polling places, but the majority of respondents also favored having the option to vote by mail.

There were actually two UT-Tyler polls published in February, one of which was conducted in late January and one of which was just before the primary (scroll down, it’s the third poll cited). They publish registered voter and likely voter samples for each poll, which can make the reporting on them, especially comparison reporting, a bit tricky.

As is usually the case, the DMN story is out ahead of the poll data being published on the UT-Tyler Center for Opinion Research page, so there’s only so much I can tell you that isn’t in the article. The numbers for both Biden and Trump are down a bit from those earlier polls, which may just be a fluke of the sample or may indicate a higher level of uncertainty at this weird time. I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about it – it’s just one result, as we like to say – but it’s worth noting in case we see more like it.

The primary runoff poll between MJ Hegar and Royce West is also the first we’ve seen so far, as is this:

For the general election, Republican Cornyn leads Hegar and West by similar margins. The longtime incumbent is ahead of Hegar 37% to 24% and West 35% to 24%. For both head-to-head matchups, 34% of voters were undecided.

[…]

Perhaps the most competitive contests on November’s general election ballot will be for the Texas House. Republicans hold a nine-seat majority, which Democrats hope to topple.

As it did in February, the survey found that most respondents slighted trusted Democrats over Republicans to lead the House.

Those are large undecided numbers in the Senate race, and the lack of support for either Hegar or West is reflected in the fact that even most Democrats had no opinion. (The full poll data is not available as of this writing, but there were a few tables in the DMN article, including one for this race.) I believe Cornyn is leading this race, and I believe he may outperform Trump in November, but if Biden is even with or leading Trump, and if the generic State House ballot leans Dem, that’s going to be a problem for him.

One more thing:

Eighty-five percent of those polled intended to vote in the runoff election. The poll found that 51% of Texans were comfortable with voting in person, while 33% were uncomfortable.

Only 17% wanted to vote in person on Election Day, and 35% didn’t mind voting in person at an early voting location.

The majority of those polled (37%) preferred to vote by mail. Most Texans, even those who wanted to vote in person, support an expansion of vote-by-mail in Texas.

The current law states that only residents over 65, voters who are ill, out of town or in prison can vote with an absentee or mail ballot.

The poll found that 58% of Texans would allow residents to vote by mail without giving an excuse, and 50% would allow the activity for all elections. On that question, 22% opposed mail-in ballot expansion and 20% were neutral. Of those opposed to expanding mail-in voting, 95% were worried about election fraud.

The partisan breakdown given for the question “Do you support Texas revising its election laws to allow any registered voter to mail in a ballot without an excuse?” was Dem 76% support, 5% oppose, Independent 57% support, 18% oppose, Republican 42% support, 41% oppose. (Note that the options included “Strongly Support”, “Support”, “Neutral”, “Oppose”, and “Strongly Oppose” – I combined the two “support” and “oppose” responses in my numbers.) I expect that whatever the actual level of Republican support is for these things, the Republican politicians who are fiercely opposing any expansion of vote by mail will not suffer for it. The rank and file will ultimately follow their leaders on this.

One good thing that may come out of all this

We may get to keep booze to go sales.

On Twitter Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott suggested to-go alcohol sales should be made available in Texas past the coronavirus pandemic.

Texas restaurants will be allowed to open for dine-in Friday under a 25 percent occupancy limit, and they’ll also be able to still offer alcohol to-go with the purchase of food. The state may be able to keep the option permanently, Abbott said in a tweet.

“Alcohol-to-go sales can continue after May 1,” the governor tweeted Tuesday night. “From what I hear from Texans, we may just let his keep going on forever.”

Some of what the governor may be hearing — or seeing — is the online chatter between residents enjoying the ability to pick up drinks to enjoy at home throughout the pandemic. The new freedom has been the source of memes, jealousy from other states and was incorporated on El Arroyo’s famed marquee signage in Austin. Long drive-thru lines at places like Taco Cabana, where frozen margaritas are $2, have also been common.

Abbott included the hashtag #txlege in the tweet for the Texas Legislature. The next legislative session begins Jan. 12.

Hooray and all that. I can’t help but think of the multi-year struggle to get beer-to-go legislation passed in the Lege, and the big money opposition to it from the cartel known as the distributors. That was a big step forward, but there remain dumb laws that impinge on craft brewers. I wish we could wave a pandemic-powered magic wand to make it all make sense, but we’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way.

Day One of reopening

Just a reminder, this is where we started.

Texas reported 50 more COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, the most in any one day since the state reported its first deaths in mid-March.

The state also reported it had added more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 to its total of 28,000 — the biggest one-day increase in infections since April 10.

The numbers came out less than 9 hours before Gov. Greg Abbott was set to lift restrictions on many businesses, allowing malls, movie theaters, retail stores and restaurants to begin operating at 12:01 a.m. Friday. Those businesses can only operate at 25 percent of their maximum capacity for the next two weeks under Abbott’s phased re-opening plan. After that, if things are going well, Abbott has said he will increase the limit to 50 percent occupancy.

[…]

“Understand that Texas has either the 3rd or 4th best — meaning lowest — death rate in the United States,” Abbott said in a television interview on KVUE, an ABC affiliate in Austin. “Texas never has had a situation like New York, like California, like Washington, like Louisiana, like New Jersey, like Michigan, like Illinois with deaths. We’ve never had capacity strains on our hospitals like those states.”

But over the last two days, Texas reported more than 90 deaths from the disease, state records show. That number did not include another six deaths from Harris County, according to an independent tally by Hearst Newspapers.

On Wednesday the state reported 42 people had died. In the previous week the total deaths were 25 per day, on average.

Cheerful, I know. To be fair, the total on any one day is not itself that useful – it’s the trend, the rolling average over several days, that really matters. The point here is that we were not on a steady decline to begin with. Looking at the Trib’s chart, we’re still going up. Some of that is because of more testing, though we’re still at a pathetically low level of testing. If we can ever get to an adequate level, maybe then we’ll know how it’s truly going.

In the meantime, just because we can open doesn’t mean we will.

Arrows on the floor show customers which way to walk. Sanitizing stations appear on the walls. Signs advise shoppers to wash their hands.

On the first day that Texas’ stay-at-home order expired and non-essential retailers were allowed to reopen under social distancing protocols, customers, business owners and employees alike braved a new world together — six feet apart and at 25 percent capacity.

Most of Houston’s Galleria Mall, a massive up-scale mall that typically attracts 30 million visitors a year, stood empty. The majority of the mall’s 400 storefronts kept doors locked. Tables and chairs in the food court are missing, since only to-go orders are allowed. Kiosks that normally sell jewelry, perfume and gifts are draped with black cloths.

But lights flickered from some retailers, where masked workers stood anxious as the clock neared 11 a.m., when they would open their doors. Employees went about their business in the minutes leading up to the reopening; at ba$sh, a women’s clothing retailer, workers prepared the store with new inventory, pulling a rolling rack of flower-print dresses for display. Then, a handful of customers began to trickle in.

Mall general manager Kurt Webb said many tenants are anxious to get back to business, but he’s not expecting them to do so all at once.

“Early on, we’re OK with that,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re giving everyone enough space and earning people’s confidence that malls are a place the community can come and feel safe.”

Extra masks and sanitizing wipes are available for shoppers on the mall’s third floor office. But earning consumer confidence back will be a tough sell, particularly in malls. Only about a third of U.S. consumers feel safe going to the store right now, according to a Deloitte survey of consumer behavior.

[…]

Labor advocates and pro-business groups alike largely advised against the re-opening.

The Greater Houston Partnership, a business-financed economic development group, discouraged Houston companies from returning to the office if possible on the first day that the stay-at-home order had expired in Texas. Bob Harvey, the CEO of the GHP, said in a statement that office-based employees have been able to carry out tasks remotely for some time, and there is, “no need to add fuel to the fire,” when it comes to COVID-19 transmission.

Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy criticized the opening as a “premature green light,” if the state does not allow employees to refuse work if their employer does not meet safety standards in the pandemic.

Also not rushing to reopen:

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott in late March deemed churches to be “essential” services and superseded bans on in-person religious gatherings in Harris and other counties, many local congregations opted to stick with online services and follow the advice of public health experts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

A month later, Abbott has cleared the way for churches, synagogues and mosques across the state to resume larger gatherings as part of a plan announced Monday to restart Texas’ economy.

But there is far from a consensus among local religious leaders over whether now is the time to throw open church doors, even with Abbott’s social-distancing recommendations. A group of more than 80 Christian churches across greater Houston has signed a statement saying they would not hold in-person services during May.

“We believe that in-person gatherings for worship that are larger than 50 persons should not take place in April or May. We will not have in-person worship but will continue offering worship online,” said the statement. “In making this decision, we have the unanimous support of the leaders of the Texas Medical Center who strongly recommend these actions for all the faith communities of Greater Houston.”

Since the statement went out on Friday, about 25 more churches have added their signatures, according to Scott Jones, as resident bishop of the Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

“We can see clearly at this time that resumption of larger group gatherings should not happen in the next six weeks,” the statement reads. “Deciding when to resume in-person worship for larger gatherings should be evaluated as new information about the rate of new cases and the availability of testing is available.”

Not every church leader agrees. Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop for Galveston-Houston, which includes 1.7 million Catholics, announced Wednesday evening that masses would resume this weekend with social distancing.

Second Baptist Church, which counts tens of thousands of Houstonians as members, said it will resume services at its campuses — again with social distancing — on May 9. The church said it may add new services to allow congregants to worship while remaining 6 feet apart.

And then there’s restaurants:

Dozens of Houston restaurants will reopen for dine-in service on Friday, May 1.

This list includes almost exclusively locally owned establishments from across a variety of price points and parts of Houston. That’s not necessarily the case in other parts of Texas; our sister site in Austin declined to publish a similar list of restaurants because “our story would largely consist of mega-chains or restaurant groups based in other cities.”

Those who choose to dine out this weekend will find restaurants to be different places than they were in February. Per regulations from Texas Governor Greg Abbott, diners will not be able to use valet parking. They will be expected to wash their hands upon entering a restaurant. Once seated — at parties no larger than six and at least six feet away from other tables — they’ll find that shared condiment dispensers such as ketchup bottles and salt shakers have been replaced by single-use, disposable items.

Picos has installed plexiglass partitions at the bar and in between some tables to separate both staff from diners and diners from each other. Many restaurants are limiting restroom occupancy to one person at a time, with a staff member monitoring the area to enforce social distancing. Contactless payment via Venmo or another app may be strongly encouraged.

Similarly, most restaurants have not only explicitly endorsed the Texas Restaurant Association’s Texas Restaurant Promise that recommends daily health screening of employees and frequent sanitizing of common areas but have also told CultureMap that their employees will be wearing masks and gloves when they interact with customers. Patrons should also strongly consider face coverings when they’re not eating to help prevent spreading the virus.

While the decision to reopen or patronize a restaurant’s dining room is controversial — one Instagram follower got blocked for a message that simply read “restaurants = death” — many people are ready to dine out. Representatives tell CultureMap that both Tony’s and Steak 48 are mostly booked for both Friday and Saturday, and Federal Grill had no trouble filling its available tables when it reopened last weekend.

I’m not, at least at this point, going to judge any business that felt they needed to reopen, or any person who wanted to patronize them. We are going to have to figure this out one way or another, and maybe at least we’ll get a better handle on how to do this by actually doing it, however risky or ill-advised it may be. I reserve the right to judge the hell out of anyone or any business that doesn’t reel it back in if it becomes clear that’s what we need to do, or who refuse to consider how their actions may affect others. I judge the hell out of these people, for example.

Speaking of which

Gov. Greg Abbott moved Friday to open up parts of the Texas economy, but he continues to get pressure from many Republicans to move faster even as Democrats have warned him to slow down.

Several conservative state legislators began a letter-writing campaign calling on Abbott to reopen other sectors of the economy — notably hair salons, barbershops, and bars.

“It is confusing to Texans that they have been allowed to congregate en masse at grocery stores and other big box stores since this crisis began, yet they are barred from patronizing a local barber shop or salon, for example, where they are served individually by professionals trained in sanitation and where they can social distance from other customers,” State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, wrote in a letter to Abbott on Thursday.

She’s not alone. Other lawmakers from around the state have been sending in letters as well and taking to social media to prod the governor to open more businesses.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, took to Facebook to post a story about a Dallas salon that tried to open in defiance of Abbott’s orders to remain closed but was later forced to shut down.

“Greg Abbott Respectfully, ENOUGH!!! You are the only one that can STOP this!!! ENOUGH!!!” White wrote.

Abbott has said he, too, wants to see barber shops and hair salons open “as quickly as possible.” In an interview on KSAT in San Antonio on Thursday, he said he’s working with health officials to determine when those businesses can reopen safely. He said in those settings, workers and customers are in such close contact that they have to get the precautions right to prevent a flare-up of coronavirus infections.

“The decisions we make are based upon data as well as input from doctors,” Abbott said.

The hills some people pick to die on, perhaps literally. I do not understand.

Let’s close on a better note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday announced a fourth step to the mitigation plan she unveiled earlier this week to help reopen and restart Houston’s economy.

The mitigation plan announced earlier this week calls for expanding testing, contact tracing and treatment options. The fourth step announced Friday, what Hidalgo called the fourth “T”, is teamwork from residents to continue practice social distancing, wear face coverings and to remain vigilant of the virus, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the stay-at-home order and reopen some businesses.

“We can’t ignore what is right around the corner,” Hidalgo said of a possible resurgence of the virus. “Some see today as a day of celebration…my message to them is not so fast.”

[…]

“Reopening doesn’t mean mission accomplished, it doesn’t mean the virus goes away,” Hidalgo said.

At least someone is keeping her eye on the ball.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

UT/Trib: Trump 49, Biden 44

Our first post-primary poll.

Donald Trump would beat Joe Biden by five points in Texas if the presidential race were held now, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

In a Trump-Biden contest, Democratic and Republican voters overwhelmingly back their own party’s candidate. But independent voters are on the fence, with 39% favoring Trump, 29% favoring Biden and 32% saying they haven’t formed an opinion.

The five point difference in support — 44% for Biden, 49% for Trump — is in line with previous UT/TT Polls taken before Democrats had settled on a nominee. In November 2019, the president was 7 percentage points ahead of Biden in a hypothetical general election matchup. In the February survey — conducted shortly before the presidential primaries in Texas and before the coronavirus outbreak was widespread — the two candidates were 4 percentage points apart. In all three of the most recent surveys, Trump’s lead was small, but outside the margins of error; none of the results could be called a statistical tie.

Trump has a harder race against himself. Ask Texans whether they would vote today to re-elect the president and, as they have done in four previous UT/TT polls, they split down the middle: 50% say they would vote for him, 49% said they’d vote against him.

Among Republican voters, 81% say they would definitely vote for Trump, and another 11% say they probably would. Democratic voters are just the opposite, with 85% definitely planning to vote for someone else, and 9% probably planning to. Most independent voters — 61% — would vote for someone else, while 39% say they’d vote for the president.

It’s only when you add Biden to the mix that Trump pulls ahead. “When you put a flesh-and-blood opponent against them, they do better,” said Daron Shaw, co-director of the poll and a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Here’s the previous UT/Trib poll, from February, and here’s four other poll results from just before the primary. Those were indeed the last polls taken, according to FiveThirtyEight. Biden has been closer in some polls and a little farther back in some others. There are probably still a few Dems who are in the “don’t know/no opinion” bucket right now, as was definitely the case during the primary campaign, so he ought to inch up a bit all else being equal.

The main thing I will note is that not only does Biden start out scoring higher than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 – she only reached as high as 44% in two polls the whole cycle – he’s also above where Beto was in 2018. Beto only reached the 44% mark once before August, then was pretty consistently at or above it after that. Beto was still a fairly unknown candidate at this point in 2018, and his rise later was a sign that he was genuinely growing his support. I said this a few times during that cycle that while we had seen occasional polls that showed a Democrat “close” to a Republican statewide, the actual numbers would usually be something like 42-36, with a ton of “don’t know/no opinion” answers. It was truly rare before 2018 to see a Dem score as much as 42 or 43 percent in a poll, let alone 44 or 45. Wendy Davis in 2014 and Barack Obama in 2012 seldom touched 40 percent. For good reason, it turned out – Davis finished at 39%, Obama at 41. Seeing Biden start out at 44 is a sign that the gains Dems made in 2018 seem to be durable, and while we may not win statewide again, we’ll have enough of a share of the vote to do some damage downballot, as we did then. Winning the Texas House, and picking up some Congressional seats, is likely going to depend on Biden at least coming close to the 48% Beto got in 2018. The polling we have so far, which goes back to those pre-primary polls, suggests this is within range. The rest is up to us.

The real problem is those uppity local officials

My God, the Republican playbook is so predictable these days.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Local governments have gone too far in issuing emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic and can expect to have those powers whittled down when the Texas Legislature meets again, key state lawmakers say.

State laws give local leaders broad power during emergencies, but state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, a leading Republican in the Texas Senate, said too many local officials have taken it too far.

“We are going to have to look at all these emergency powers and see if they have to be scrubbed down,” Bettencourt said.

In Chambers County outside of Houston, for example, 10 p.m. curfews have been imposed on adults. In other counties, it’s prohibited to have more than two people in a car. In Laredo, people were allowed to exercise, but bicycle riding was barred.

Local governments are accustomed to playing defense against the Legislature. During each of the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers have tried to curb local authority on myriad issues including tree ordinances, annexations and property tax collections.

Democrats say they’re getting used to this drumbeat of Republicans trying to take authority away from cities and suburbs as they have become more Democratic. They say the cities and counties needed to move quickly because Republican Gov. Greg Abbott waited to issue a statewide stay-home order until 30 other states had done so.

Democratic Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been a consistent target for frustrated Republicans.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said the Republicans should be thanking local leaders such as Hidalgo and Mayor Sylvester Turner. While Abbott waited to issue statewide orders closing restaurants or requiring residents to stay home, Turner and Hidalgo were moving far faster and helping keep down the spread of the virus, Wu said.

“It’s our local governments that have had to step up and done an outstanding job,” Wu said. “The reason our numbers are so low is because they took decisive action early.”

Hey, remember when Greg Abbott was only too happy to let local leaders do the leading, because “What is best in Dallas may not be best for Amarillo or Abilene”? Good times. Have I mentioned that it’s really important that Democrats win the State House this election? Now you have another reason why.

The rough fiscal road for school districts

It’s gonna be bad. How bad remains the question.

Coronavirus already has wreaked havoc on school districts — closing campuses for the remainder of the school year, shifting learning online, and exposing a wide digital divide between students who have ready access to the internet and those who do not. And that is only this year.

Next year, even if the restrictions are lifted, the coronavirus still could spark a budget crisis for traditional and charter school districts across Texas.

School finance officials and state leaders already are warning that the economic disruption caused by the pandemic, coupled with the ongoing oil slump, could result in a plunge in state revenues as sales taxes drop and commercial property values slip. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hagar already has said the state is in a recession.

As districts work to finish their 2020-2021 budgets for approval this summer, Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble, said it would be prudent for them to squirrel away some money, even if it is too early to tell how much of an impact the pandemic will have on funding next year.

“Talking to superintendents, my message to everybody is, let’s get through this year, let’s get to summer time, and next session we’ll need to watch things very closely,” Huberty said.

[…]

[2019 school finance reform bill HB3] requires districts to base their upcoming budget on current year property values, instead of the previous year’s values. Districts receive a larger infusion of state money too, but the rate at which they can tax local property owners effectively will be capped by the state, said Catherine Knepp, an associate at the Moak, Casey & Associates school finance consulting group. How much local tax rates have to be lowered depends on the rate local property values rise and several other factors.

“Districts were still figuring out how to do that,” Knepp said, “Then enter coronavirus.”

For local revenues, Knepp said districts most likely to be impacted by the coronavirus closures will be those in which a larger share of their tax bases are commercial or industrial property rather than residential. About 60 percent of Deer Park ISD’s tax base, for example, comes from industrial properties that could suffer if the oil slump continues or if businesses there shut down entirely.

[…]

Huberty said the Legislature plans to save $1 billion of federal stimulus money for the next session to help fund schools and other parts of the state’s budget. Although it is too early to tell how much damage could be done as businesses and much of public life remains closed, he said money could be tight next session and said superintendents should begin looking where they could trim their budgets.

“The bones of what we put together with HB 3 remain intact, and we got some stimulus money from the feds to help us out with next year,” Huberty said. “But we’re going to have to look at everything.”

It’s a whammy from multiple fronts, as state revenue as well as local property tax revenues will be down, and the deep drop in oil prices will mean the Rainy Day Fund isn’t as topped up as it has been lately. On top of all that, when local revenues do start to recover, they will have to deal with the cap imposed by HB3. Which, as I understand it, does have an exception for things like epidemics, though who knows how that will play out. Even if everyone agrees to waive the restricting revenue cap, even the previously existing one could force tax cuts at a time when the districts are starved for funds. This will be an issue for multiple Legislatures, not just the 2021 Lege. It’ll also be a fine how-do-you-do for the TEA-appointed Board of Managers in HISD, whose first task (assuming they eventually get seated) will be dealing with the expected ginormous budget hole. Bet all those people who applied for the position a couple of months ago are having second thoughts now.

The next school year is going to be different, too

As with many things, just how different remains an open question for now.

When Houston campuses finally re-open in 2020-21, at a date very much to-be-determined, the region’s million-plus children will experience a school year unlike any other.

Some students may spend more time in the classroom, arriving weeks earlier than usual or staying later in the day. Others may receive added attention from teachers, counselors and social workers. Many will get lessons typically delivered the prior spring.

“They’re going to have so much work to make up that I don’t know how they’re going to do it,” said Angie Tyler, the grandmother of a high school junior in Aldine ISD. “She’s so used to having her teacher on hand, teaching her math or physics she doesn’t get. Is she going to get to learn what she’s missed?”

Amid enormous uncertainty about the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Houston-area school leaders have started mapping out contingency plans for the upcoming school year, one in which students will arrive with learning gaps and significant health needs.

[…]

“We have to look ahead,” Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “We’re looking at instructional time as it relates to programming in the summer, possibly an extended calendar, maybe an extended school day.”

None of the region’s superintendents have suggested wholesale changes in the way students are taught. Rather, multiple district leaders have discussed increasing the amount of time spent in the classroom and adding more mental health support for vulnerable students.

If buildings can re-open in the coming weeks, Lathan said her district may allow more children to enroll in summer school, which normally runs from early June to early July. Typically, HISD only opens summer school to students at risk of failing to advance grade levels or who need to pass state standardized tests to earn promotion.

In Fort Bend ISD, the region’s fourth-largest district, Superintendent Charles Dupre said district leaders will have “serious conversations” about beginning the 2020-21 school year before the planned Aug. 12 start date. Under one possible scenario, Fort Bend students would spend August catching up on missed instruction from the prior year, then start their new grade-level classes after Labor Day.

Aldine ISD Superintendent LaTonya Goffney, who leads the Houston area’s fifth-largest district, also said her district’s calendar “cannot be August to May.”

There’s more, and you should read it with an understanding that this is all contingency planning, with lots of things likely to change between now and whenever. School districts are limited by law in how early they can open, but it’s possible that could get worked around or waived. Basically, if you have a kid in the public schools, pay attention to the communication you get from your district and your schools. This is not going to be back-to-school as usual, and you’ll want to make sure you know what is going on.

Texas Central opponents see an opportunity

Never waste an opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on the potential delay of redistricting

Some further details from the Statesman.

On Monday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced that, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, all Census Bureau field operations would be canceled until June 1, and the agency would not be able to complete the count until Oct. 31.

Ross wants Congress to enact legislation delaying the deadline for delivering apportionment counts to President Donald Trump from Dec. 31 to April 30, 2021, and for delivering redistricting data to the states from March 31, 2021, to July 31, 2021. Ross said he couldn’t rule out further delays.

That would mean that Texas lawmakers would not have the numbers they need to redraw political districts in the upcoming 140-day regular session, which ends on May 31, 2021.

The Texas Constitution requires that the Legislature redraw state Senate and House maps “at its first regular session after the publication of each United States decennial census.”

But, with the delay, that would not be until 2023, too late for the 2022 elections.

“Texas will have to have a special session to do redistricting,” said Michael Li, the former Dallas attorney who is now senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights and elections.

Depending on the census count, Texas is expected to add three seats to the 36 it already has in the U.S. House. Li said that, under federal election law, if new maps have not been drawn in time for the 2022 election, any new seats would be elected at-large.

“Or alternatively, a court might draw maps,” Li said.

The same likely would be true if the Legislature fails to draw state House and Senate districts in time for the 2022 election.

[…]

[If] the Legislature were able to take up redistricting in the 2021 session, Republicans would be well situated even if the House and Senate were unable to pass a state legislative redistricting plan that was signed by the governor, because responsibility for devising a plan would then fall on the Legislative Redistricting Board made up of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the Texas attorney general, the state comptroller and the land commissioner. Unless Democrats take control of the Texas House in 2020 and elect a Democratic speaker, all those officials are Republicans.

That Legislative Redistricting Board provision does not apply in a special session.

The provision in the Texas Constitution means that even if the Legislature, meeting in special session, drew new state legislative lines in 2021, it would have to repeat the process when it convenes in regular session in 2023, said Eric Opiela, an election lawyer and former executive director and associate general counsel to the Texas Republican Party, with long experience in redistricting.

That means that Democrats, who have made flipping the Texas House the centerpiece of their 2020 campaign, “might have two bites at the apple” — the 2020 and 2022 elections — to gain control of the House in time for the last word on redistricting, he said.

The 120-day delay makes redistricting in time for the March 2022 primary, “tough but still manageable, but if there are further delays, then you start bumping into the filing period for candidates and potentially the primary,” Li said.

“The extension is in everyone’s interest, however,” Li said. “Texas is behind in census responses, and it’s important from the standpoint of Texans that the bureau have the time to get the census as right as possible.”

See here for the background. The relevant Constitutional amendment is this one. The 2013 Legislature did indeed revisit the House and Senate maps following the 2011 special session that drew them, but that was also for the purpose of amending the maps to conform with the interim districts the federal court had already drawn for the 2012 election. There are two scenarios where Dems have real leverage. One is in 2021 with a Dem majority in the House. The Legislative Redistricting Board can draw most maps if there’s no agreement between the House and the Senate, but it can’t draw a new Congressional map. That would go to a three-judge panel if all else failed, and it’s not hard to imagine the Republicans not wanting to roll the dice on that. In that situation, there would be lots of room for some horse trading, with legislative maps and a Congressional map that all cater to incumbent protection over maximal partisan gain. I’m not saying this would happen, but it could.

Alternately, Democrats could win or maintain the House in 2022 and win enough statewide offices, including Governor, to force a redraw in 2023 or direct it if a redraw is mandated because the previous exercise had been done in a special session. It should be noted that the same opportunity exists for Republicans, who start out in a much stronger position to make it happen – they would just need to take back the House (this situation only applies if they didn’t have control of the House in 2021) and re-elect Greg Abbott. I definitely have some fear of this scenario playing out, as it is not at all far-fetched, and the 2003 experience shows that they have no shyness when it comes to a bit of mid-decade map-drawing.

All this is getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, the main point is that any delay in the Census has a big ripple effect in Texas, thanks to the legislative calendar and our early-in-the-year primaries. Such a delay is almost certainly necessary to get an accurate count, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and we need to be aware of what would happen as a result. This is a subject we will come back to again and again between now and January.

Coronavirus and redistricting

Big surprise.

A delay in census counting because of the coronavirus pandemic could push Texas redistricting into legislative overtime next summer.

Trump administration officials on Monday proposed delaying reapportionment counts and the distribution of redistricting data by four months, which would kick the delivery of data Texas lawmakers need to redraw political districts from March 2021 to July. That puts it past the end of the next scheduled legislative session.

The proposal must be approved by Congress. Under that plan, census counting would extend to October 31.

[…]

The Texas Legislature meets once every two years from January to late May. Under the bureau’s proposal, the redistricting data would come “no later than July 31,” meaning Gov. Greg Abbott may have to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session to redraw congressional and legislative maps.

It was not immediately clear what this would mean for the involvement of the Legislative Redistricting Board, a five-member board that steps in to redraw state Senate and House maps if lawmakers fail to redraw them during the regular legislative session following “the publication of the decennial census.”

No one could have seen this coming. In truth, I’m kind of glad to see it. I’d much rather have a delayed redistricting process than one based on a rushed and surely inaccurate Census. We all know the Census cannot proceed normally now. By far the best thing to do is give it some extra time (and money) so we can get the best count we can. Delaying the redistricting process by a couple of months, which in turn may force the 2022 primaries to be later in the year as they were in 2012, is a small price to pay for it.

That said, there must be heavy oversight of any changes to the process.

The bureau’s plans were first made public Monday by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

In a press release describing a phone call Ross held with some members of Congress about the plans, Maloney says the committee “will carefully examine” the request to change the census deadlines, while also criticizing the administration for not providing more information and not allowing Dillingham, the bureau’s director, to brief the committee about its plans in response to the pandemic.

“If the Administration is trying to avoid the perception of politicizing the Census, preventing the Census Director from briefing the Committee and then excluding him from a call organized by the White House are not encouraging moves,” Maloney said in the written statement. “The Constitution charges Congress with determining how the Census is conducted, so we need the Administration to cooperate with our requests so we can make informed decisions on behalf of the American people.”

According to the House oversight committee’s press release, Ross “acknowledged that the Administration had not sought input from Congress about this request in advance of this call because of concerns about leaks to the press.”

Asked by NPR why no Census Bureau officials participated in the call, Cook responded in an email that Dillingham now plans to speak with members of Congress “as soon as possible,” noting: “The Secretary of Commerce is statutorily delegated responsibility to conduct the decennial census and took the role of calling key congressional leaders to continue the consultation process.”

The bureau’s changes for the 2020 census were supported by Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, one of the main groups advocating for participation in the count.

“If it’s not safe to have census takers visiting people’s homes by June, then Congress has an obligation to consider other options to protect census workers and the communities they serve, and to ensure an equitable count,” Gupta said in a statement. “We cannot afford to compromise the health of our communities or the fairness and accuracy of the census.”

I agree with Vanita Gupta that this is the right thing to do. But I also agree with Stacey Abrams that we cannot trust the Trump administration to have good intentions, and we need to watch them like a hawk to make sure they are doing what they are legally obligated to do. Anything else would be just as bad an outcome.

Dutton’s colleagues ask for investigation of Natasha Ruiz

Hey, look, it’s actual election news!

Rep. Harold Dutton

Nearly the entire Harris County Democratic legislative delegation has asked the county attorney and district attorney to open a criminal investigation into the candidacy of a Texas House candidate whose existence was called into question after this year’s March election.

The candidate, one of four in the primary race for state Rep. Harold Dutton’s seat, received enough votes to help force Dutton, a longtime Houston Democrat, into a runoff this year.

“We are concerned that more than 2500 Harris County voters may have been duped into voting for a non-existent candidate, a serious theft of those voters’ most important right, and three legitimate candidates were harmed by the crimes committed,” reads the March 18 letter, which was signed by every delegation member except Dutton and released to a Tribune reporter on Thursday. “We request that your offices coordinate an immediate investigation into the events documented in the attached memo and take appropriate prosecutorial action at the earliest possible time.”

Dutton was the only Democrat from Houston not to sign the letter.

[…]

Dutton, who had previously said he had hired a private investigator to look into the matter, told the Tribune on Thursday that he was not involved with the delegation’s letter to Ogg and Ryan and was focused on winning the runoff election, which is now slated for mid-July instead of May.

“I hope someone takes a look at the system that allows this to happen and cleans it up so that it can’t happen again,” he said. “If there are people who have engaged in a conspiracy, I hope that law enforcement will deal with them in the proper context.”

The delegation’s letter also included an attached “Indices of Election Fraud,” which detailed the background of the long-winding drama and “known facts indicating election fraud.”

See here and here for the background. The letter sent by the delegation is here, and the “Indices of Fraud” attachment is here. The latter is the more interesting, and contains the most new information. It suggests strongly that the person originally identified as “Natasha Demming” is not the person who filed for a spot on the ballot, but was perhaps a victim of identity theft. What I had considered to be the wilder option, that someone impersonated this person when they filed for this seat, appears to be the more likely explanation based on what the delegation claims.

So yeah, this should be investigated. Start by talking to the private eye that Dutton hired, and talk to all the political insiders to see what crazy things they might have heard about this. The big question here isn’t who did this (if it really was a deliberate attempt to put a sham candidate on the ballot) but why they did it. If the intent was to hurt Dutton’s re-election chances, it seems to me that there are more straightforward ways to do that than putting an impostor on the ballot in the hope of forcing Dutton into a runoff that maybe he’d lose. (What do you think might have happened if Dutton’s runoff opponent had been Natasha Ruiz, for example?) For sure, if there is someone behind this, maybe that person isn’t the most clear-headed thinker you’ve ever known. Whatever the case, getting a handle on the motivation might at least point you in the direction of a suspect. There doesn’t appear to be much physical evidence (unless maybe someone managed to take a picture of “Natasha Ruiz”), so if this gets cracked it’ll be because someone talked. Find out who that might be, and the rest may follow.

UPDATE: And indeed, there will be an investigation.

The Harris County Attorney’s office told the Houston Chronicle on Thursday that it was looking into the matter.

The county’s District Attorney Kim Ogg responded to the delegation in late March by saying that she had forwarded the case to the public corruption division but could not confirm or deny whether it was under investigation.

“Please be assured that the protection of our democratic election process, along with enforcement of all related laws, is a top priority for my administration and that your complaint will be addressed by this office,” Ogg wrote.

Not exactly sure why it’s the County Attorney jumping in on this, but whatever. I very much look forward to seeing the results.

The gun safety fight is coming

Bring it on.

As the coronavirus outbreak ravages fundraising efforts by political campaigns across Texas, the political affiliate of one of the country’s oldest gun violence prevention groups is bringing reinforcements to the state, where it sees Democrats’ efforts to flip the state houses as among the most important races in the nation.

BradyPAC is the latest gun safety group to turn its attention to Texas, planning to spend more than half a million on elections in the state — more than it’s spending anywhere in the nation by far — as it remains the top target in 2020 for groups pushing for new gun laws.

“If you can get Texas passing strong gun laws, I think that sends a really strong message to the rest of the country,” said Brian Lemek, executive director of the political action committee affiliated with Brady, a nonprofit formed in 1974 that advocates for assault weapons bans, red flag laws and stricter gun storage requirements, among other things.

Texas gun rights groups are also stepping up fundraising, warning supporters that they need to help defend 20 seats in the Texas House this fall.

BradyPAC’s spending plans — the full extent of which were shared exclusively with the Houston Chronicle — come as other activists, including the Everytown for Gun Safety group backed by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, have said they plan to spend millions in Texas on an “unprecedented financial and grassroots effort” to flip the Texas House, defend vulnerable freshmen Democrats in Congress and help Democrats take congressional seats in the suburbs.

I read this story and it reminded me that I had drafted a post about Everytown making the same pledge to pour a bunch of money into Texas with an eye towards helping Dems take over the Lege. That was from before the coronavirus madness, so about five hundred years ago in quarantine time. To save myself a bit of typing, here’s what I had written then, which works as well for this story now, plus the extra vigorish of the knowing that our current leadership thinks gun stores are “essential businesses”. Read on for that earlier post.

(more…)

Coronavirus and beer

Houston’s craft breweries are adjusting to life with closed taprooms and beer-to-go sales.

The team at Saint Arnold Brewing sat down to taste some test beers one Wednesday morning, as its members do when they work on new releases. But their meeting didn’t happen in the usual conference room. Instead, the 10 staffers each sat at a separate table in the brewery’s 10,000-square-foot taproom, with ample social distance between them.

There was another difference from normal times, of course: The vast taproom, typically bustling with people, had not seen a single customer inside since the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order. Across Houston, craft brewers have shut off their taps and closed their beer halls, gardens and patios. But they want Houstonians to know that they’re still brewing.

“Our production side is operating at full strength,” says Brock Wagner, founder and brewer of Saint Arnold.

The team has stopped kegging, but has shifted to canning and bottling more beer than usual in order to ramp up to-go sales, something they had never really focused on before, being a destination brewery. They have also seen an uptick in grocery and liquor store sales as more people hunker down at home.

“Everybody’s consumption of alcohol has probably gone up a little bit,” says Wagner. “I know that mine has.”

These new sources of revenue aren’t even close to making up for the loss of business usually generated from Saint Arnold’s taproom being open, their bar and restaurant orders, and other big buyers such as the Minute Maid stadium. But every little helps, a sentiment many local brewers echo. As taprooms — a major source of revenue for these businesses — lay empty, to-go and off-premise sales, even if a drop in the bucket, have become crucial to the survival of the industry.

Brody Chapman, founder and CEO of Spindletap Brewery, says big stores like H-E-B, Kroger and Spec’s have moved a lot of inventory, which has helped local breweries immensely. He’s also been amazed at how many loyal customers have been supporting their business by taking advantage of Spindletap’s new curbside and drive-through beer sales.

“Without the local support, honestly, we would be dead in the water,” he says.

[…]

There are also efforts to lobby state and local governments for relief, spearheaded by the Texas Brewers Guild. While Gov. Greg Abbott issued a temporary waiver last month relaxing liquor laws for bars and restaurants, breweries are still not able to offer services like direct-to-consumer delivery.

“When breweries are fighting for their lives, it would be nice to have more opportunities to get product out to people,” says Chapman. However, he says that a Houston-based start-up called HopDrop, a craft beer delivery service, has been instrumental to propping up local breweries during this time.

The craft brewing boom in Houston, with its lively on-premises social scene and great dining options, has truly been one of the best things to happen in my thirty-plus years in this town. These guys are huge supporters of school and charitable/non-profit fundraisers as well, which we’re going to need a lot more of in the coming months. There are many good reasons to stock up on your favorite brews at this time, which you can do via curbside pickup at the breweries – It’s Not Hou It’s Me has a handy guide to what’s available – or at the grocery store. As with so many other things, let’s make sure this part of our lives is still there when we get to have a life again.

Oh, and for sure let’s remind the Legislature again that the existing laws we have regarding beer distribution were ridiculous in the best of times and super anti-business in the worst. Let’s hope that our archaic and bizarre beer laws are among the things we learned we could do just fine without when this crisis is over.

(Turns out I was a little skeptical of home beer delivery in general and HopDrop in particular when it first came out. Shows how much I know.)

Coronavirus is taking its toll on the Census

The timing of this pandemic really sucks.

The nonprofit Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston had more than 15 tabling events planned over the next several weeks where volunteers were going to post up at festivals, fairs and other community gatherings and educate people about the value of filling out the census.

Then the coronavirus crisis hit. One by one, gatherings were canceled, and Texans increasingly became subject to stay-at-home orders.

“This is a very challenging census,” said Ana Mac Naught, census coordinator of the Houston in Action coalition, a collaboration between the city of Houston, Harris County and more than 50 local organizations, including Interfaith Ministries. “We are focusing on what we’re able to do at this moment.”

Local governments and nonprofits knew they already had their work cut out for them when Texas — in keeping with many other Republican-led states — declined to approve funding for grassroots census outreach.

Initial returns show Texas is already behind the rest of the nation: The self-response rate statewide is 31.3 percent compared to 36.2 nationally, as of Monday, the most recent data available. Most households have responded online. After the last census in 2010, Texas tied for the 7th lowest response rate in the country at 64.4 percent.

Now, leaders of groups helping with the count say they’re facing a whole new set of challenges as the coronavirus crisis thwarts their efforts to engage people face-to-face, and they’re forced to quickly pivot to digital and phone-based alternatives.

[…]

Harris County trails the rest of the state with a 30.7 percent response rate while Bexar County is ahead at 32.7 percent. So far, the more affluent, suburban parts of both metropolitan areas are participating at higher rates than the urban cores. That’s something local leaders say they are watching closely, as they try to target the large Hispanic and other hard-to-count communities in both cities.

It’s too early to tell whether the decline is related to coronavirus, but Texas has faced an uphill battle.

According to the Center for Urban Research, one in four Texans belong to a hard-to-count population, which includes racial and ethnic minorities, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants and refugees, renters, college students, children under the age of 5, and the LGBTQ community.

This time period of self-response is especially important, local leaders say, because the more households participate now, the fewer people that stand to be missed later and the fewer households that will require a visit from a census taker.

“People definitely understand that the census is not on the top of people’s priority list,” said Katie Martin-Lightfoot, coordinator of Texas Counts, a statewide initiative from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy. “We are trying to look for these very non-intrusive ways to get the message out there about the census.”

See here for the background. As I said before, the most obvious answer is to do to the Census what has been done with the primary runoffs, the Olympics, and so many other things – push the deadlines back by however long you think it may take to get past the worst of this, and adjust from there. There’s no reason at all why we have to be slaves to the original schedule, given the life-altering event that has disrupted literally everything else on the planet. If that pushes back the 2021 redistricting process and the 2022 primaries, then so be it. The only impediment is our own willingness to recognize the truth. Houston Public Media, which interviews County Judge Lina Hidalgo about this, has more.

No school accountability ratings this year

No surprise.

Texas public school districts and campuses will not receive accountability ratings in 2020 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, state education officials said late Thursday.

The announcement is a mere formality after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month canceled the state’s annual standardized tests, commonly known as STAAR, which largely serve as the basis for calculating accountability ratings issued in an A-through-F grade format. All Texas public schools will be labeled “not rated: declared state of disaster” for 2020.

“While we continuously work to ensure our ‘A-F’ accountability system paints an accurate picture of school performance, these unprecedented circumstances have forced all of us to change and adapt,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a statement.

[…]

State officials have not yet decided if or how state accountability ratings will be issued in 2021.

Under Texas’ current accountability system, many ratings are partially based on students’ year-over-year growth, as measured by performance on state standardized tests. With no tests administered in 2020, the Texas Education Agency cannot use its current method of evaluating academic growth.

Districts and high schools also are partially rated on measures of college, career and military readiness from the prior year’s graduating class. Many exams used to measure post-secondary readiness have been canceled or changed for the Class of 2020, which would significantly impact academic accountability ratings in 2021.

Terry Faucheux, an associate with the Austin-based education consulting firm Moak, Casey & Associates, said state officials likely would need to make several tweaks to the current accountability system before ratings could be issued in 2021. If state leaders move forward with an accountability framework next school year, she expects to see a proposed system no later than February or March 2021.

“It would be a very difficult lift to get that past the Legislature and federal government to scrap STAAR altogether and not do accountability for another year,” Faucheux said.

STAAR tests were waived three weeks ago, and at this point it seems likely that schools will not reopen till the fall, so this was just acceding to reality. The Lege will have the task of figuring out how to do accountability ratings in 2021, given that 2020 was basically a wash. Depending on how big a fight that turns into, it could have a ripple effect on other business the Lege needs to attend to, not least of which is redistricting. Expect the next session to be quite the whirlwind.

If you’re wondering what effect the cancellation of accountability ratings for 2020 might have on the ongoing takeover of HISD by the TEA, which is currently held up in court, the answer is basically none, though if Wheatley had made standard this year it might have increased the level of skepticism that a takeover was called for. Any districts that were in peril of the same fate will get a one-year reprieve, as HISD did to a limited extent following Harvey.

Coronavirus and the state budget

Ain’t gonna be great. How bad, we don’t yet know.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar briefed Texas House members on the state’s economy and budget Sunday night, saying that while it was too soon for specific forecasts, both are expected to take potentially massive hits in the wake of the new coronavirus pandemic, according to multiple people who were on the conference call.

The members-only call, led by House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, was one of state lawmakers’ first glimpses of the impact the virus is expected to have on multiple industries, state finances and Texas’ largely oil-fed savings account, known as the Economic Stabilization Fund or the rainy day fund.

Hegar, who referred to the state of the economy as “the current recession,” according to multiple people on the roughly hourlong call, predicted both the general revenue for the state budget and the savings account balance will be drastically lower — possibly by billions of dollars — when he makes a revised fiscal forecast. He said that update could happen in July.

Later Sunday, the comptroller’s office said that unless the Legislature spent money out of the savings account before July, the balance for the fund would be revised down, but not by more than $1 billion.

In October 2019, Hegar estimated that the state budget would have a nearly $3 billion balance for the fiscal 2020-21 biennium. The balance of the Economic Stabilization Fund, Hegar announced at the time, would be around $9.3 billion by the end of the 2021 fiscal year in August of that year.

[…]

Abbott, for his part, noted last week that he and the Legislature can tap into the state’s disaster relief fund immediately to help respond to the virus. He also said that the Economic Stabilization Fund could be used “at the appropriate time,” which he said would happen when state leaders “know the full extent of the challenge we’re dealing with.”

Before the stabilization fund could be used, Abbott would need to summon state lawmakers back to Austin for a special session before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2021. When asked at a town hall about the possibility for calling such a session, Abbott said “every option remains on the table,” while noting that there would not be any need for such an action if every Texan followed guidance to help curb the virus.

Obviously, the crash in oil prices doesn’t help the state’s financial picture, either. It’s sales tax collection that will really suffer, and that pain will be spread to the cities and counties as well. As always, the big picture here is “how long will this take” and “how many businesses and jobs will be lost in the interim”, and right now we don’t know.

I will say, situations like this are among the reasons why balanced budget requirements are such a bad idea. Let the state – and the cities – run a deficit for a year or two, rather than cut a bunch of programs and lay off a bunch of employees, both of which will exacerbate the effect of the overall downturn. I assure you, society will not crumble around us if we do that. We will see plenty of shenanigans pulled by legislators to worm their way around the balanced budget requirement, as we have always done. So why not be honest about it and just admit that the whole thing is a sham and we should just not worry about it, at least for this cycle? We can always get back to it next time. Much easier said than done of course – constitutions and charters can’t be so easily cast aside, which again goes to my point about why these things are stupid – but in a world where everything has been thrown into chaos, this just makes sense. Same for revenue caps as well – if the revenue for the state, or the city of Houston, falls ten percent this year, it will take three years under the existing 3.5% revenue cap just to get revenue back to existing levels, while forcing needless cuts in the meantime. It’s all a sham, we should seize the moment to recognize it for the sham that it is, and free ourselves once and for all from its ridiculous shackles. Won’t happen happen, but I’ll never stop pointing it out.

Coronavirus and the Census

Oh, man, does this have the potential to be devastating.

In some corners of the state, the meticulous planning spanned more than two years.

Detailed maps of Texas communities were pored over. A ground game to knock on doors was worked out, and plans for educational meetings and seminars were set. It was all in service of getting the high-stakes, once-a-decade census of everyone living in the state right.

Then came the coronavirus.

Now, with the count already underway, the contingent of local government employees, service providers and volunteers who had been working to breach the gap left when state officials decided not to fund any census outreach work are scrambling to figure out how to urge Texans to respond to the census amid a pandemic that’s forcing everyone to keep their distance.

The constitutionally mandated count that began in Texas last week is supposed to wrap up by July. While the U.S. Census Bureau has said it’s monitoring the evolving coronavirus situation, it has not changed its deadlines so far, leaving communities to press forward with their efforts to get everyone counted by the summer.

But the pandemic is making what was already a hard-to-count state that much tougher to enumerate and further raising the stakes for the Texans — residents who don’t speak English, people living in poverty and immigrants, to name a few — who were already at the highest risk of being missed.

“From the beginning, we identified this as a ground game. The more people we could physically talk to, the better,” said Margaret Wallace Brown, a planning and development director for the city of Houston who has been leading the community’s census outreach efforts. “We were shaking hands and kissing babies. Well, those two things are not doable right now, so how do we replace that with another ‘high-touch’ circumstance that will convey the message as compelling as a face-to-face conversation?”

I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s one of many that everyone who wants to get an accurate Census count must try to answer. But as the federal government is grappling with many coronavirus-related questions, it also needs to keep in mind that the currently-mandated deadlines may be meaningless, and adjust accordingly. If that means redistricting, and ultimately the 2022 primaries, need to get pushed back a few months, as they were in 2012 due to litigation, then so be it. Getting the count as accurate as we can is the top priority. Everything else is subservient to that. Mother Jones has more.

Coronavirus and voter registration

Time for Plan B.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas was making record gains getting voters on the rolls. Now the coronavirus threatens to grind that progress to a halt, throwing up major hurdles to Democratic efforts to make the state’s November elections competitive for a change.

Texas’ emergence as a battleground in 2020 depends largely on new voters, and both Democrats and Republicans have poured millions into efforts to register them — massive campaigns that have already added two million voters since the 2016 election.

But the coronavirus countermeasures — particularly limits on public gatherings — threaten to seriously hamper those efforts.

Because Texas is one of 11 states that do not allow voters to register online, much of the work depends on face-to-face interaction — going door to door and setting up booths on college campuses, at concerts, naturalization ceremonies, graduations and other big events that are prohibited in the time of COVID-19.

“Crises like this really expose the failures in our system — the fact that we don’t have online voter registration, the fact that we are a state currently that doesn’t allow vote by mail,” said Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a former Democratic U.S. senate candidate who launched Jolt, a group focused on mobilizing Texas voters, where she is now a consultant.

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party, meanwhile, says it is reworking everything, launching a fully digital organizing project that will include a new Nextdoor.com-style website where people can post about everything from politics to what’s happening in their communities during the pandemic. They say they’re doing aggressive outreach to get people on it. And the party says it is starting weekly calls with groups in all 254 Texas counties.

“Obviously the challenges are not insignificant,” said Cliff Walker, Deputy Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party. “But it helped us reorient and take our organization program that was going to be focused on voter registration at the doors — and we had great plans to ramp up a lot of that type of face-to-face interaction — and to do something that’s different and could be a silver lining on a really big dark gray cloud.”

The party says its most effective registration efforts in 2018 were reaching out to people who were new to Texas — and that effort won’t change now.

But the virus makes other outreach efforts impossible.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s a democratic tragedy,” said Drew Galloway, executive director of Mobilize Organize Vote Empower, a group that registered 7,500 voters on college campuses in three weeks in before the pre-primary deadline in February.

See here and here for some context. The story notes that Republicans are trying to register voters now too, and once again I muse about how they probably wish there was an online option available to them. Not gonna happen as long as they’re in charge, that much is for sure. As with everything else, how much of an effect this has is directly proportional to how long we’re all under some form of restricted movement. If things have more or less returned to normal by, say, the end of April, then this will be a blip in the trend. The longer it takes, the bigger the blip. If nothing else, it’s a extra point of emphasis for why we need to revamp our crappy existing system.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)