Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Travis County

More masking

In Travis County.

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

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

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

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

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

Fort Bend is doing likewise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July.

Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses.

Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said.

COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives.

Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated.

“If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said.

Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

According to KHOU, “Almost every county in the area is seeing an increase in new cases”, and “Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area have jumped about 65% in the last two weeks”. (Cases and hospitalizations are rising nationally, too.) They show data from Harris and its surrounding counties except for Liberty and Waller. Harris has the lowest percentage increase, but it’s the biggest county so its sheer numbers are the highest.

We know how Travis County is responding to its increase in cases. Harris County had dropped its threat level to Yellow in May. Are we looking at a step up again?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has yet to announce any rollbacks for the region.

“There is no conceivable reason why a single additional hospital bed in our healthcare system should be filled with someone who is sick from COVID-19 when vaccines are readily available and free,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office.

Vaccination rates plateaued in late April amid high hesitancy rates and difficulty accessing immunization sites. In recent months, health officials piloted financial incentives such as scholarships to encourage younger people to sign up for an appointment.

Stay tuned on that. Maybe there’s some headway to be made with younger people, whose vax rates are the lowest among age groups. Better happen quickly, that’s all I can say.

Austin tries to slow down the Delta spike

Not really much they can do, though.

Austin city and public health officials on Thursday raised the city’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines for the first time since the winter surge, urging unvaccinated people to avoid non-essential travel and take other precautions after seeing a dramatic increase in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent days.

Officials placed at least part of the blame on the dangerous and highly transmissible Delta variant of the virus, which has contributed to similar spikes in more populous areas across Texas recently.

“We cannot pretend that we are done with a virus that is not done with us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during a Thursday news conference.

But the city’s move to Stage 3 guidelines has no weight of law behind it because Gov. Greg Abbott banned pandemic mandates in May. It also only applies to the city’s unvaccinated population; the guidelines recommend that vaccinated people only need to take precautions while traveling.

The move marks the first time a major Texas city has reinstated increased health protocols since dropping mask mandates, dialing back business restrictions and allowing large events to resume in the spring and summer as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations plummeted.

Stage 3 guidelines mean unvaccinated or partially-vaccinated residents should avoid gatherings, travel, shopping and dining out altogether unless it’s essential, and mask up when they leave their homes. Officials say they are weighing further precautionary recommendations in case these measures don’t reduce the numbers.

[…]

Among the alarming trends cited by Austin and Travis County health officials on Thursday: The average number of daily new cases has tripled, COVID-19-related hospital admissions are on the rise, cases of COVID-19 in children are rising, and 20% of the more than 100 people with COVID-19 in area hospitals are on ventilators, while 41 are in the ICU.

Almost all of the hospitalized patients are unvaccinated, said Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“This has to stop, and we know how to make that happen,” Walkes said. “We are hoping that this self-correction that we’re doing with the change to the stage three status will help bring us back to a place where our cases are again declining.”

At least 60% of Austin residents are fully vaccinated, and Travis County, where Austin is located, has the third highest vaccination rate among the state’s urban counties, which are also beginning to report increasing cases and hospitalizations.

Note that this is happening in one of the most-vaccinated counties in Texas. It’s much, much worse in other parts of the state, but we all know the politics of this. What might end up happening is for Austin and/or Travis County to encourage businesses to re-impose mask requirements, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they mostly go along with that. I’m sure Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is keeping a close eye on things here, and on how they go in Travis, and may take similar steps. It’s deeply annoying as a vaccinated person, because we all know why this is happening, but here we are anyway. All you can do is try to protect yourself, because Greg Abbott sure as hell doesn’t care. The city of Austin’s news release is here, and the Austin Chronicle has more.

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by demography

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts

I return once again to doing cycle-over-cycle comparisons in vote turnout, in this case for State House districts. There are a lot of them, and I’m not going to do them all but I am going to do enough of them that I will split this into two parts. Part One, this post, will group districts by demographic groups. Part Two, to come later, will be to group them by counties of interest.

First up, just to ease ourselves in, are the four big urban districts that are Anglo, wealthy, highly college-educated, and swung hard towards the Democrats since 2012:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
134  -10,943  15,312   6,540  17,771  -4,403  33,083  37,486
047   -2,005  14,218  13,145  27,678  11,140  41,896  30,756
108   -5,942  12,553   8,628  17,929   2,686  30,482  27,796
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573

As discussed before, the columns represent the difference in vote total for the given period and party, so “1216” means 2012 to 2016, “1620” means 2016 to 2020, and “1220” means 2012 to 2020. Each column has a D or an R in it, so “1216R” means the difference between 2016 Donald Trump and 2012 Mitt Romney for the Presidential table, and so forth. In each case, I subtract the earlier year’s total from the later year’s total, so the “-9,951” for SD114 in the “1216R” column means that Donald Trump got 9,951 fewer votes in 2016 in SD14 than Mitt Romney got, and the “56,887” for SD14 in the “1216D” column means that Hillary Clinton got 56,887 more votes than Barack Obama got. “Dem net” at the end just subtracts the “1220R” total from the “1220D” total, which is the total number of votes that Biden netted over Obama. Got it? Good.

Despite the large swings, only the top two are now Dem-held. HD108 managed to remain in the hands of Rep. Morgan Meyer despite being carried by statewide Dems all the way down the ballot, while HD121 still remains somewhat Republican-leaning. I don’t know what magic Republicans have in mind for redistricting, but their hold on these voters is slipping away rapidly. I can’t emphasize enough that Mitt Romney got 60% of the vote in HD134 in 2012, and look at where it is now.

I’ve written plenty about these districts, and I could have included more of them in this table. Most of those you will see later. There’s not much to add except to say that this particular demographic shift has been a huge driver in the overall blue-ing of Texas, and especially of its most populated areas. I don’t know what the future holds, but I don’t see that changing in the near term.

When I mentioned that this post was a look at the districts by demographic groups, I assume your first thought was that I’d take a closer look at Latino districts. Well, here you go:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
051      425  10,783   4,422  19,073   4,847  29,856  25,009
102   -4,430   5,333   2,511  10,832  -1,919  16,165  18,084
148   -1,481   8,555   5,598  10,113   4,117  18,668  14,551
107   -3,023   4,566     718   7,532  -2,305  12,098  14,403
103      -96   7,314   3,535  10,357   3,439  17,671  14,232
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
105   -2,249   4,377   2,900   8,547     651  12,924  12,273
078   -1,129   6,723   6,731   9,618   5,602  16,341  10,739
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
079     -453   7,038   4,976   6,495   4,523  13,533   9,010
075    1,734  11,011   9,747   8,599  11,481  19,610   8,129
104     -777   3,881   2,743   6,042   1,966   9,923   7,957
077   -1,530   5,080   3,539   3,936   2,009   9,016   7,007
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
145   -1,306   5,575   5,291   5,038   3,985  10,613   6,628
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485
076     -260   5,039   3,826   1,635   3,566   6,674   3,108
140     -733   4,433   4,140   1,810   3,407   6,243   2,836
144   -1,051   3,577   4,044   1,480   2,993   5,057   2,064
041    1,664   6,820   8,617   5,201  10,281  12,021   1,740
143   -1,038   3,244   4,483   1,446   3,445   4,690   1,245
022   -1,261  -2,280   1,510   2,254     249     -26    -275
034      620     799   6,012   3,759   6,632   4,558  -2,074
038    1,533   4,706   9,344   2,945  10,877   7,651  -3,226
040    2,384   3,753   8,981   3,433  11,365   7,186  -4,179
037      969   3,764   7,324      36   8,293   3,800  -4,493
036    1,482   5,527   9,847    -480  11,329   5,047  -6,282
039    2,071   3,256   8,411     836  10,482   4,092  -6,390
035    2,007   2,358   8,961   2,163  10,968   4,521  -6,447
042      882   2,195   7,908    -323   8,790   1,872  -6,918
043    2,532     162   8,001   1,059  10,533   1,221  -9,312
080    1,959   1,789   9,567     127  11,526   1,916  -9,610
074    1,127   2,708   9,454  -2,185  10,581     523 -10,058
031    3,017  -1,816  13,479    -412  16,496  -2,228 -18,724

A couple of notes here. Defining “Latino district” is subjective, and I make no claim that my way is optimal. What you see above is almost all of the districts that are represented by a Latino member, plus HD80, which despite being majority Latino is still represented by Democrat Tracy King. I skipped HDs 49 (Gina Hinojosa) and 50 (Celia Israel) because the’re much more Anglo than Latino. HDs 102, 105, and 107 were held by non-Latino Republicans before being flipped by Democrats in 2016 and 2018. HD43 is held by the one Latino Republican in the House, JM Lozano, who won originally as a Democrat in 2008 and then changed parties after the 2010 election. HDs 79 and 90 were held by Anglo Democrats in 2012; Lon Burnam was primaried out by Rep. Ramon Romero in 2014, and Joe Pickett resigned following the 2018 election due to health challenges.

There’s a lot of data here, and I’ll try to keep this manageable. All the districts that showed a net gain for Dems over both elections are in Bexar, Dallas, El Paso, Harris, Travis (HD51), and Tarrant (HD90), plus HD41 in Hidalgo County. In Bexar, Dallas, and Tarrant, there were net gains in each cycle. In El Paso, there were big gains in 2016 and more modest gains in 2020, with the exception of HD75, which had a slight gain for Republicans in 2020. HD75 is the easternmost and thus most rural of the El Paso districts. It also still voted 66.5% to 31.9% for Biden in 2020, just for some perspective.

In Harris, all five districts gained in 2016, but only HD148 also gained in 2020. HD145 came close to breaking even, while HDs 140, 143, and 144 all moved towards Republicans; we saw this when we looked at the Harris County Senate districts and talked about SD06. This is the first of several places where I will shrug my shoulders and say “we’ll see what happens in 2022”. Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. We’ve discussed this topic numerous times, and as there are forces moving urban and college-educated voters towards Democrats, the same forces are moving rural and non-college voters towards Republicans. The biggest of those forces is Donald Trump, whose presence on the ballot helped Republicans in 2016 and 2020 but whose absence hurt them in 2018. We just don’t know yet what 2022 will bring.

Of the districts that had net Republican gains, HD22 is in Jefferson County (basically, it’s Beaumont; Dade Phelan’s HD21 has the rest of JeffCo plus Orange County) and HD34 is in Nueces County. Jefferson County has been slowly losing population over time, and I think that was a big driver of what happened with HD22. It’s also much more Black than Latino, and thus maybe is a better fit with the next data set, but it has long been represented by Rep. Joe Deshtotel, and this is the decision I made. Nueces County also has the Republican-held HD32 in it, and it showed a net Democratic gain of 1,576 votes over the two cycles, with most of that in 2016 but still a small Dem net in 2020. Its Latino voting age population is about 46%, nearly identical to its Anglo VAP. HD34 was one of the tighter districts even before 2020, and I figure it’s on the target list for Republicans in redistricting.

Most of the other districts are in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Webb counties, and while 2020 was a better year for Republicans in all of them, I don’t think that will necessarily be the case in 2022, a belief driven in part by the incumbency theory and in part by my own wishfulness. That said, as noted before the shifts were more muted downballot, with Trump outperforming other Republicans in those districts. I had my doubts about the durability of Democratic gains in 2016 because of the disparity between the Hillary numbers and the rest of the numbers, and I think it’s fair to have those same doubts here. We do know how it went in 2018, but as before Trump is not on the ballot in 2022. Which force is stronger? Have the underlying conditions changed? I don’t know and neither does anyone else at this time.

HDs 31, 74, and 80 are all cobbled out of smaller counties, and I have much less hope for them, but who knows what the combined effects of the freeze and the Abbott Wall will have. The main thing I took away from analyzing this data is that there was already a Republican shift in 31 and 74 in 2016 with a near miss in 80, though they all rebounded in a Democratic direction in 2018. How much of this was caused by new voters, and how much by swapping allegiances, those are big questions to ponder.

Let’s move on. These are the predominantly Black districts:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
046     -331   7,462   4,363  20,080   4,032  27,542  23,510
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
147   -1,282   3,575   4,571   9,831   3,289  13,406  10,117
109     -914    -500   1,853  11,161     939  10,661   9,722
111   -1,449  -1,155   1,627   8,981     178   7,826   7,648
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
100     -840    -537   2,107   7,799   1,267   7,262   5,995
142      294   2,093   4,685   8,804   4,979  10,897   5,918
131     -642   2,681   4,289   6,642   3,647   9,323   5,676
146   -1,653    -923   2,438   6,798     785   5,875   5,090
139   -1,290   1,216   4,826   6,786   3,536   8,002   4,466
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
141      218    -721   2,594   4,405   2,812   3,684     872
110     -101  -3,010   1,820   3,362   1,719     352  -1,367

HD27 is in Fort Bend, HD46 is in Travis (it’s also much more Latino than Black but has long been represented by a Black legislator, with Dawnna Dukes preceding Sheryl Cole; it is the inverse of HD22 in that way), HD95 is in Tarrant, and HD120 is in Bexar. HD101 in Tarrant County has a higher Black percentage of its population than either HDs 46 or 120, but it’s held by the Anglo Dem Chris Turner, so I skipped it. All the rest are in Harris and Dallas. The range of outcomes here is fascinating. I think what we see in the 2016 results, at least in some of these districts, is a bit of a letdown in enthusiasm from Obama to Clinton, with perhaps a bit of the campaign to dampen turnout among Black Democrats finding some success. Some districts in Harris County like HD141 have had pretty modest growth in population and voter registration as well. I don’t know what the story may have been in HD110, but if one of my Dallas readers would like to offer a few words, I’d be interested in hearing them.

There was some evidence around the country of Trump making modest gains with Black voters, mostly Black men, in 2020. I do see a case for that here, because even as Dems had net gains in 2020 – significant gains, in some of these districts – their share of the total new turnout is smaller than you’d otherwise expect. For example, HD131 voted 80.6% to 18.5% for Biden, but only 60.8% of the extra voters in 2020 voted for Biden. HD131 had voted 84.1% to 13.3% for Hillary in 2016, meaning that Trump cut almost ten points off of his deficit from 2016. This is your reminder that a shift in vote share towards one party is not the same as a shift in total votes towards one party. We’ve had this conversation about Democrats making percentage point gains in some heavily Republican areas while still falling farther behind, and this is that same conversation from the other side.

Finally, here are the four districts represented by Asian American legislators:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
112   -2,140   4,427   5,086  10,634   2,946  15,061  12,115
137     -848   2,147   2,435   4,099   1,587   6,246   4,659
149   -2,592   3,504   8,134   4,645   5,542   8,149   2,607

This grouping is even more tenuous than the Latino districts, mostly because there’s no such thing as a plurality Asian district. Indeed, only HDs 26 and 149, which are the two most Asian districts in the state, are in the top five; HDs 66, 28, and 67 are the next three in line. They will all be covered in the next post in this series. HD137 is mostly Latino and HD112 is mostly Anglo. Like I said, these are the decisions I made. HD26 is in Fort Bend and was won in 2020 by Republican Jacey Jetton, after years of being held by Rick Miller. It was carried by Biden in 2020 and as you can see it has moved pretty heavily Democratic, but it was still Republican enough to be held by them in an open seat race. HD112 is in Dallas and is held by Angie Chen Button, and like HD108 it was otherwise Democratic in 2020. Good luck with redistricting, that’s all I can say. The other two are in Harris County, with HD137 being held by Gene Wu since 2012. It was 63-34 for Obama in 2012 and 67-31 for Biden in 2020. The most curious case for me is HD149, which as you can see followed a pattern similar to the Latino districts in Harris County; I noted this before when I did the Harris County numbers way back when. I’m not quite sure what to make of those totals, but they don’t keep me awake at night. As with the rest, we’ll see what 2022 has in store for us.

Next time, a closer look at some counties of interest. Let me know what you think.

We’re (sort of) halfway vaccinated

It depends on how you’re measuring it. And it’s still not enough, no matter how you look at it.

Texas has hit the halfway point.

As of Friday morning, 50.1 percent of Texans 18 and older are fully vaccinated from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While this is a milestone for the state, Dr. Susan McLellan is not celebrating.

“It means that 50 percent are not vaccinated, and that’s a problem,” said McLellan, professor of infectious diseases at University of Texas Medical Branch. “It’s been available for everybody 12-and-older for months. I don’t think that’s a very wonderful milestone.”

McLellan and other Texas doctors are concerned about the coronavirus case rate and the country’s newly-introduced, highly-transmissible delta variant. Now the dominant COVID strain in the U.K., experts expect the delta variant to become the dominant strain in Texas, as well.

Early studies show vaccination provides better immunity than contracting the virus does, McLellan said.

“Right now, there are pockets in the population that are not getting vaccinated, and they tend to congregate,” she said. “Young adults may think it’s no biggie to not get vaccinated, and then they go to a bar with a lot of people like them. They easily expose each other and spread it around.”

State vaccination rates can be misleading as a large percentage of vaccinated people live in large urban centers, such as Houston, Austin and Dallas, said Dr. David Lakey, a member of the Texas COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

In Harris County, more than 1.8 million people are now fully vaccinated, followed by Dallas County at 1 million. In Travis County, more than 631,000 people are fully vaccinated, the DSHS reported Friday.

[…]

Texas ranks 33rd among all states for its rate of vaccination. And its proximity to states with low vaccination rates — including Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama — could pose a threat to Texans, said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health.

“We don’t live in a bubble,” Troisi said. “People travel from state to state, and they can bring the infection with them.”

This story measured the vaccination rate for people 18 and older. Of course, kids are still vulnerable to COVID, and you can get vaccinated if you’re at least 12 years old, so that’s a somewhat odd way of measuring progress. The Trib identifies 40% of the state’s total population as being vaccinated, with Harris County continuing to be right at the same level as the state as a whole. They give totals for “people who are fully vaccinated”, which will include people who have had two Pfizer or Moderna shots plus people who got the one-shot J&J vaccine, and “total number of shots administered”, which includes people who have had just their first Moderna or Pfizer shot. I estimate from this that Harris is close to fifty percent of the total population having at least one shot, again consistent with the statewide number.

So that’s good and the number will continue to rise, but much more slowly since basically everyone who was eager to get a shot has had theirs. We’re fully into the “people who are hesitant” and “people who face obstacles” part of the journey, and that’s just going to take longer. In the meantime, the Delta and other variants are surging in the parts of the country (and elsewhere) that are less vaccinated, and while hospitalizations remain at manageable levels, that could change. A lot of the country, and a lot of Texas, remains at high risk because of low vaccination rates. I don’t know what more we can do about that.

An alternate route to Medicaid expansion

I’m okay with this.

Texas Democrats have tried for years to convince Republican state leaders to increase access to Medicaid. Now they think they have found a way to do it with or without their help.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and lawmakers from 11 other GOP-led states introduced a measure this week that would give money directly to local governments that want to provide coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans who currently fall into what is known as the “coverage gap.”

The Cover Outstanding Vulnerable Expansion-eligible Residents (COVER) Now Act would allow counties to apply for the money directly with the federal government, and it would prohibit state leaders from retaliating against them if they do.

Doggett said his aim is to avoid conflict with Republicans.

“You have your ideological objections to Medicaid expansion — I don’t agree, but I accept your position,” he said. “At least let those local leaders who want to take advantage of this and who recognize both the health and economic advantages of doing it, at least let them do that, and walk away and see how it works.”

[…]

Doggett estimated that if Houston, San Antonio and Dallas alone signed on to the proposal, half of the state’s eligible uninsured population would gain access. All three cities are led by Democrats and have pushed for Medicaid expansion.

Statewide, more than 1.2 million Texans would be eligible for Medicaid if state officials were to expand the program, according to a study by the The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University

More than two million people are thought to be in the coverage gap today, meaning they make too much to qualify for traditional Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidized insurance under the Affordable Care Act. Most are people of color, and the biggest group is in Texas, a state that has long had the highest uninsured rate in the country.

Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst for the left-leaning think tank Every Texan, said the new legislation would also increase funding to state health officials for any added administrative costs.

“Congressman Doggett’s bill really recognizes how entrenched the ultra conservative opposition to expansion is in Texas and the need to really connect the dots about what it’s going to take for us to get possibly a million and a half uninsured adults — the vast majority of them working — coverage,” she said.

I don’t know if the reconciliation process that Rep. Doggett envisions for this would be part of the infrastructure package or as a later budget bill, but either way there will be opportunities. I think the odds of it avoiding conflict with Republicans is basically zero, so the more important consideration is how well-defended it will be from Republican attempts to screw with it or obstruct it. We have seen too many examples in recent times of the state having control over federal money intended for local governments that have resulted in all kinds of bad outcomes, from the delays in appropriating COVID relief to the GLO’s screw job against Houston and Harris County. Cut the state completely out of it, and then hope it’s too difficult for a future Republican Congress or President to mess with it.

Assuming this does go through, I would expect quite a few more counties than those three cited would jump at this. Travis, El Paso, Fort Bend, Cameron, Webb, some other South Texas counties, probably Hays, would certainly take advantage. Nueces, Tarrant, and Williamson would be interesting to watch, and I bet this would add some spice to county races in Collin and Denton and maybe Brazoria. It’s possible that some Republican counties, especially ones with hospitals teetering on the brink of financial disaster, might decide to put aside politics and grab the money, as several Republican states have done. I could definitely see this making a huge dent in the uninsured population, and providing some fodder for the 2022 elections as well. It’s mostly a question of how durable it is, and that’s something that Rep. Doggett can work on. Here’s hoping.

The Trib adds on to the updated date rape drug story

I was a little surprised when there wasn’t a Texas Tribune story about the revelation that the date rape drug allegation levied against a lobbyist turned out to have been fabricated. They’re usually pretty quick on stuff like that, even when it wasn’t their scoop. With the publication of this story, I can see why. It focuses on the lobbyist in question, and it’s a deep dive.

Although it had not been officially released, the investigative report began ricocheting around computers and cellphones at the Texas Capitol early Tuesday evening, and it made one thing unambiguously clear: Rick Dennis, a lobbyist with one of Austin’s most prominent firms, was not guilty of using a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers during a night out in Austin.

Rumors that Dennis had been accused of doing so rocked the Capitol in late April, prompting outraged reactions from legislative leaders and state lawmakers. But a Texas Department of Public Safety investigation found the allegation baseless. Authorities soon after said they would not seek charges.

The DPS report, a copy of which was obtained by The Texas Tribune, concluded that the false allegation was fueled by two female legislative staffers, one of whom was trying to cover up behavior of her own that had nothing to do with Dennis.

Still, the incident laid bare larger questions about a Capitol culture that many female staffers say often leads to allegations of misconduct and harassment being brushed under the rug by those with the power to act.

Dennis has faced multiple accusations of inappropriate behavior with women as both a legislative staffer and lobbyist — and in at least two instances has been banned from visiting certain Capitol offices because of them, according to current and former staffers and documentation reviewed by the Tribune.

Those past allegations include offering graphic descriptions of sex acts inside a House member’s office, openly speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees, and creating “an office contest” in which Dennis demanded that he, as winner, would be able to “shoot white yogurt” onto the face of the loser, a female subordinate.

Those complaints, though, appeared to have little effect on his stature at the Capitol.

Dennis, through his attorneys, largely denied previous allegations to the Tribune. He did express regret about his time in state Rep. Tan Parker’s office during the 2015 legislative session, which he characterized as a stretch that “had too much of a locker room environment.”

Dennis’ history does not include accusations involving physical behavior or sexual violence, according to current and former staffers interviewed for this story. But his reputation for inappropriate comments, in part, explains why the date rape drug allegation took hold fiercely when it surfaced.

While lawmakers appropriately expressed outrage over fears that a staffer had been drugged, Capitol workers say, they’re bothered that years of documented complaints about sexual harassment didn’t meet the same threshold for those in power.

The latest incident has sent a message about what isn’t acceptable in the culture of state government. And what apparently is.

[…]

Dennis has been a presence at the Capitol for years. He worked for Parker — a Republican House member whose office declined to respond to a list of emailed questions for this story — from 2007-15, according to Dennis’ LinkedIn profile. Dennis also held a role as a strategist for the House Republican Caucus, his LinkedIn shows.

As the 2015 legislative session wrapped up, Julie Young, who at the time was working in Parker’s office, said she endured or witnessed multiple instances of harassment from Dennis, the lawmaker’s chief of staff. Young wrote a letter to Parker detailing incidents involving Dennis in the office and shared it with other staff members. Young said she brought a hard copy of the letter to discuss with Parker at a June 2015 meeting the two had scheduled.

The letter, a copy of which was shared with the Tribune, said the instances listed “made [the office] all extremely uncomfortable” and made Parker’s “office an unbearably hostile work environment.”

“We are under direction to discuss these issues with you first,” the letter said, “and then if the situation is not handled internally, we are told to go straight to House Personnel who will take the issue to [then-House Administration Chair] Charlie Geren.”

The letter described Dennis speculating about the sex lives of female and male employees in front of other members of the office. The letter said he repeatedly told two staffers they would “sleep together before session is over.” Dennis also “repeatedly said to multiple people” that Young has “Fuck me eyes,” the letter said.

The letter also described “an office contest” Dennis held “in which he demanded that the winner be able to ‘shoot white yogurt onto the loser’s face.’” A female staffer lost “and had white yogurt thrown in her face by Rick, in the office,” the letter said.

In the two weeks after receiving the letter, Parker met individually with staff members and confirmed with each of them the incidents detailed in that letter, Young told the Tribune. Soon after that, she said, Parker held a meeting with staff in his office and apologized, saying they wouldn’t have to come in contact with Dennis moving forward.

Parker, though, continued to pay Dennis and did not sign paperwork terminating his employment until five months later, in November 2015, according to House personnel and payroll records reviewed by the Tribune.

Dennis, in response to an emailed list of questions for this story, largely denied the allegations and said he felt the letter was “unfair.” But he did say that, “during that period of time,” Parker’s office “had too much of a locker room environment.”

“I admit that and regret it on behalf of all of us,” Dennis said. “However, it is absolutely false that I engaged in any of this activity that wasn’t being engaged in by all of us, male and female. The very same kind of banter was pointed at me as well.”

In response to the yogurt-throwing allegation, Dennis said it “was not a contest, but rather an agreement” with a friend and office colleague who had a birthday close to his.

“Instead of exchanging birthday gifts, we agreed that on her birthday she could throw a spoon of yogurt at me and I could do the same to her on my birthday,” he said. “Neither the instance where one spoonful of yogurt was tossed at me or at my colleague was done in a demeaning manner.”

Dennis said the idea came from the TV show “Modern Family” “and the fact that my colleague loved eating yogurt in the afternoons.” Staff members from other offices were present, as was his wife, he said.

“It was a joke in which we all engaged in willingly,” Dennis said.

See here for the background. That’s a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more where that came from, and you should read it. Richard Dennis was absolutely damaged by the false allegations made against him, and he has suffered for that. Based on this story, in which not one but two legislators called HillCo to tell them to keep him out of their offices, he didn’t have a great reputation among legislative staffers. You can make of that what you will.

The Capitol date rape drug allegation was fabricated

Jesus Christ.

The news landed at the Texas Capitol last month like a bombshell: State police were investigating claims that a male lobbyist from one of the most influential firms in Austin had used a date rape drug on two female legislative staffers.

The Capitol quickly swung into outrage mode. Female legislators wore pink in solidarity with the victims. The House speaker condemned the “disgusting, detestable allegations.” After the alleged culprit was identified, some legislators banned his firm, HillCo Partners, from their offices. And new laws requiring that lobbyists receive harassment training were proposed.

Within a week, however, the Travis County district attorney and the Texas Department of Public Safety announced in a statement that they would not be bringing any charges. “We have concluded there is not enough evidence to support these allegations. … No crime occurred in this instance,” DPS and DA Jose Garza said.

Now, a DPS investigation has concluded that a legislative staffer fabricated the story of the date rape drug to cover up embarrassing personal behavior. “No evidence or facts obtained during the investigation support the allegation,” the 50-page report said.

In a separate audio recording obtained by Hearst Newspapers, the investigator went even further, describing the accused lobbyist, Richard Dennis — not the female staffer — as “the victim” in this case. “She lied to me,” the investigator, Special Agent Patrick Alonzo, can be heard saying. “She orchestrated all this.”

DPS turned over the results of its investigation to the district attorney’s office indicating that the woman was deceitful in her dealings with the police, but prosecutors declined to charge her. Garza, a Democrat elected in 2020, did not respond to questions from Hearst Newspapers.

In a lengthy interview in the office of his attorneys, David and Perry Minton, Dennis said that when he learned he was the suspect in the drugging case, he felt like his career was over. At one point, he said, he thought about killing himself.

“I contemplated, with my life insurance, maybe I am at this point better off not walking this earth, to my family, than I am walking in it,” said Dennis, 42. “She needed an alibi. For some reason, this is the story that she settled on.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I believed the accuser. There was no reason not to – there was nothing fantastical about her claim. Far too many women have their own stories to tell, and the Capitol’s reputation as a hostile work environment for many women is well earned. The policies put in place following the 2017 stories about the Capitol’s culture were not very robust, with the omission of lobbyists from the mandatory sexual harassment training being dumb and obvious. I don’t regret emphasizing the voices of the women who were speaking out following this accusation.

But this story turned out to be a lie, and the lobbyist who was named by the accuser (and whose name was published by Michael Quinn Sullivan’s website The Scorecard) was the actual victim. That’s terrible for Richard Dennis, who did not deserve to have any of this happen to him. I was suspicious when the investigation ended with no charges being brought – we have certainly seen that outcome in cases where the story was not made up – and that turned out to be wrong. I hope Richard Dennis is able to get his life back together and that he gets any help he might need in processing what happened to him, and I hope that people remember him for more than this.

This is also terrible for everyone who has been or is being or will be victimized by an actual sexual predator, because now there’s another reason for many people to dismiss and disbelieve them. False accusations like this are quite rare, something like two percent of the total, but they sure leave an impression. I don’t know what drove this woman to make the decision she did, but I sure hope she lives with the regret and guilt of that choice for a long time. She did a lot of damage, and not just to Richard Dennis.

This story may have been untrue, but the culture at the Capitol, and so many other places, remains a problem. It still needs everyone’s efforts to fix it. Don’t let one lie and one liar distract you from that.

Precinct analysis: State Senate district comparisons

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020

Let me start with some Twitter:

There’s more to the thread, but those are the bits I wanted to highlight. It’s true, as noted in the previous post, that Dems lost some ground in the Latino districts in 2020. You’ll see that here in a minute. But it’s also very much true that they gained a lot of votes elsewhere, in the more white districts. Some of those are the ones that flipped in 2018 or might have flipped in 2020 had they been on the ballot. Some were in places where Dems were already strong. Some were in districts that actually look to be competitive now, having not been so even four years ago. Why don’t I just show you the data?


Dist   1216R   1216D    1620R   1620D   1220R     1220D	Dem net
===============================================================
14    -9,951  56,887   26,677  97,954   16,726  154,841  138,115
08    -7,593  38,270   32,030  82,158   24,437  120,428   95,991
16   -22,137  35,202   21,611  58,302     -526   93,504   94,030
17   -19,619  38,114   34,892  56,566   15,273   94,680   79,407
25     3,422  37,037   65,613  95,402   69,035  132,439   63,404
07    -6,676  33,604   42,494  60,489   35,818   94,093   58,275
15    -6,708  27,545   28,163  48,882   21,455   76,427   54,972
10    -8,347  13,076   23,099  54,113   14,752   67,189   52,437
26    -2,174  20,179   20,009  44,154   17,835   64,333   46,498
09       -60  17,910   24,193  48,973   24,133   66,883   42,750
12    13,859  30,860   59,095  84,527   72,954  115,387   42,433
23    -3,003   3,751   13,010  43,679   10,007   47,430   37,423
29    -1,674  34,889   29,559  30,398   27,885   65,287   37,402
05    14,069  25,990   54,548  74,087   68,617  100,077   31,460
11     1,957  20,541   46,098  46,384   48,055   66,925   18,870
06    -4,554  20,223   21,712  13,637   17,158   33,860   16,702
13    -2,928      72   16,907  30,419   13,979   30,491   16,512
19    10,638  16,958   45,127  42,821   55,765   59,779    4,014
02    11,532  10,026   35,894  38,391   47,426   48,417      991

As discussed before, the columns represent the difference in vote total for the given period and party, so “1216” means 2012 to 2016, “1620” means 2016 to 2020, and “1220” means 2012 to 2020. Each column has a D or an R in it, so “1216R” means the difference between 2016 Donald Trump and 2012 Mitt Romney for the Presidential table, and so forth. In each case, I subtract the earlier year’s total from the later year’s total, so the “-9,951” for SD114 in the “1216R” column means that Donald Trump got 9,951 fewer votes in 2016 in SD14 than Mitt Romney got, and the “56,887” for SD14 in the “1216D” column means that Hillary Clinton got 56,887 more votes than Barack Obama got. “Dem net” at the end just subtracts the “1220R” total from the “1220D” total, which is the total number of votes that Biden netted over Obama. Clear? I hope so.

These are the districts where Dems gained over the course of these three elections. Lots of Republican turf in there, including the two D flips from 2018 and the two districts that both Biden and Beto carried but didn’t flip in 2018 (SDs 08 and 17), but the big gainer is that Democratic stronghold of SD14, where demography plus population growth plus a heavy duty turnout game led to a vast gain. Really, we Dems don’t appreciate Travis County enough. SD15, my district, has a nice showing as well, while SD26 is there to remind us that not all Latino districts went the way of the Valley.

We have the two 2018 flip districts, SDs 16, now practically a D powerhouse, and 10, which didn’t shift quite as much but was the most Dem-leaning Romney district from 2012 – you may recall, Wendy Davis won re-election there despite it going only 45% for Obama – and we have the two Biden-won Republican in 08 – who knew this one would shift so radically left – and 17. We’ve discussed SD07 before, and how it’s now teetering on swing status and won’t be of much use to the Republicans when they try to shore themselves up, but look at SD25, a district that has moved strongly left despite encompassing Comal County, the I-35 version of Montgomery. Look at the shifts in SD12, which is still not competitive but also not as big a GOP stronghold, and SD05, which has moved along with Williamson County. The key takeaway here is that more of the Senate is going to have to be centered on the Houston-San Antonio-D/FW triangle, and that part of the state is much more Democratic than it was a decade ago. This is the big problem Republicans have to solve.

Dems have some room to improve as well. I discussed SD13 in the Harris County reviews, and I believe there’s untapped potential in this district. It’s 80% Democratic to begin with, so improvements in turnout and voter registration are going to pay off in a big way. SD23 was more like 13 in 2016, but acquitted itself nicely in 2020. I suspect there are a lot of voters here who will need more contact and engagement in 2022. I know there were votes left on the table in 2018, and we need to be conscious of that.

Finally, there are three other Latino districts besides SD26 in this list. We’ve discussed SD06 before, which had a big uptick in Democrats while seeing fewer Republicans in 2016, then saw more Republicans turn out in 2020. In the end, the Dem percentage was basically the same in 2020 as in 2012, with a larger net margin, but the trend needs watching. SD19, which Dems took back in 2020 after that embarrassing special election loss, had a similar pattern as with SD06 except with a smaller net Republican gain in 2020. This district has a lot of border turf, which trended red in 2020, but it also has a good chunk of Bexar County, which got bluer and likely mitigated the overall shift. I feel like this district is more likely to drift in a Republican direction than SD06 is, but that will depend to some extent on how it’s redrawn. SD29, anchored in El Paso, had the same big Dem shift in 2016, then saw roughly equivalent gains by both parties in 2020. I think it’s more likely to get bluer over time, and there’s always room for Dem growth in El Paso, though as with SDs 13 and 23, it will require engagement.

Overall, these 19 districts represent a net gain of over 900K votes for Dems. Joe Biden collected about 600K more votes than 2012 Obama did, so there’s votes going the other way as well. Here are those districts:


Dist   1216R   1216D    1620R   1620D   1220R     1220D	Dem net
===============================================================
18    15,109  19,337   58,614  49,787   73,723   69,124  -4,599
04    10,564  14,667   54,680  39,023   65,244   53,690 -11,554
24    11,125   7,102   51,143  42,472   62,268   49,574 -12,694
21     9,828  13,573   43,738  26,297   53,566   39,870 -13,696
20     7,675  17,839   42,214  18,130   49,889   35,969 -13,920
22    17,969   6,092   48,183  37,910   66,152   44,002 -22,150
27     7,486  15,779   37,504   6,942   44,990   22,721 -22,269
28     6,727  -2,691   33,163  17,453   39,890   14,762 -25,128
31     6,956   3,954   36,050  10,696   43,006   14,650 -28,356
01    11,123  -6,966   34,452  17,623   45,575   10,657 -34,918
30    30,275   7,133   75,839  47,839  106,114   54,972 -51,142
03    20,610  -6,936   48,423  14,385   69,033    7,449 -61,584

Here’s the current Senate map, to remind you of where these districts are. SDs 22 and 24 have the most turf inside the big population triangle, while SD04 has most of its people there. SD22 currently includes Johnson and Ellis Counties, and it’s not too hard to imagine them beginning to trend blue over the next decade, while SD24 includes Bell and Coryell, which also have that potential.

I’m actually a little surprised to see that SDs 04 and 18 got a little bluer in 2016, before snapping back in 2020. I’ll have to take a closer look at them, on a county by county basis, to see what the big factors were. Fort Bend is going our way, and I have hope that we can make progress in Montgomery, and that’s going to be a big key to this decade.

The big Republican gainers, as noted in the last post, are mostly in East Texas and West Texas/the Panhandle, with SD03 including the north part of Montgomery. The main question will be how much of these districts will have to include the faster-growing parts of the state. That’s a calculation that won’t be very friendly to the incumbents, one way or another.

Finally, there are the three Latino districts, SDs 20, 21, and 27. All three followed the same pattern of a Dem gain in 2016 followed by a bigger Republican gain in 2020. SD27 remained solidly Democratic, while 20 and 21 are much closer to swing status though as noted in the previous post the incumbents all ran comfortably ahead of the pack. Republicans could certainly try to make a district more amenable to them out of this part of the state. How that would affect their other priorities, and how much of what we saw in 2020 continues past that year are the big questions. All other Dems carried these three districts as well, more or less at the same level as Biden. The good news for the Republicans then is that the new voters that Trump brought in were there for more than just him.

As you can see, there are fewer districts in which Dems lost ground, and the total number of votes they ceded is about a third of what they picked up elsewhere. You can see how G. Elliott Morris’ tweet thread applies here. As was the case with the State House and Congress, the Republican gerrymander of the State Senate in 2011 was very effective, until it wasn’t. It’s the same story here as it is for the other chambers, which is how do they assess the risk of a strategy that aims to gain them seats versus one that just aims to hold on to what they’ve got.

Next up will be a look at the State House district results from 2020. When the 2020 data for Congress and the SBOE finally show up, I’ll do the same for them as well. Let me know what you think.

HempLicenseGate

The headline on this Trib story is “Top political aide to Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller arrested in alleged scheme to take money in exchange for hemp licenses”, and I have no idea how to make it any pithier than that.

The top political consultant to Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller was arrested Thursday on allegations that he participated in a scheme to solicit money and campaign contributions for state hemp licenses issued by Miller’s Texas Department of Agriculture.

The consultant, Todd Smith, ultimately took $55,000 as part of the scheme, an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by The Texas Tribune says. Smith and others involved in the scheme are alleged in the warrant to have solicited a total of $150,000 to guarantee a license, including a $25,000 upfront cost for a survey that they said was required to get a license in Texas. Some of the money would also go toward funding unnamed political campaigns, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit alleges that Smith committed third-degree felony theft.

“Todd Smith created by words and his conduct, a false impression of fact that affected the judgment of others in the transactions to obtain a hemp license and/or conduct a survey that was never attempted by Todd Smith,” the affidavit says.

The allegations were investigated by the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit, which is responsible for looking into claims of public corruption.

[…]

The affidavit says Smith used another person as a middle man between himself and those interested in getting licenses. The affidavit does not provide much information about the middle man other than that he was “introduced to Todd Smith by a friend in August 2019.”

The affidavit includes the account of one man who wanted to get involved in the hemp industry and met the middle man at a social gathering in August 2019. The affidavit says the middle man told the license-seeker that he was “working directly with senior leadership at the TDA” and that he “needed $150,000.00 in cash, with some of the money going toward campaign contributions, in order to receive the ‘guaranteed’ hemp license.”

The license-seeking man agreed to the deal, setting off a chain of events that included a November 2019 visit to Austin where he handed the middle man $30,000 cash in a car outside El Mercado, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Austin near the TDA offices, according to the affidavit. Williams went through an alley to take the money to the TDA headquarters before returning to the car and collecting Vinson for a scheduled meeting at the offices.

The affidavit says the license-seeker learned later that month that he was not guaranteed a license, despite the scheme that had been proposed to him. He reached Smith via phone, who “denied any knowledge but did admit to receiving a $5,000.00 gift from” the middle man, according to the allegations.

You can see the affidavit here. As the story notes, these hemp licenses were created in the 2019 Legislature for the purpose of allowing farmers to grow industrial hemp, which had been illegal under prior marijuana laws. HB 1325 from last session modified the legal definition of marijuana as part of the solution for that, and in the process made it harder for prosecutors to pursue low-level marijuana possession cases. None of that has anything to do with this case, which appears to be your basic “greedy dude with access to power attempts to cash in” story, at least on the surface. Good luck to the famously articulate Sid Miller explaining that to the voters.

No charges files in Capitol date rape drug incident

A not very satisfying resolution.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and Travis County District Attorney’s Office said Thursday “that there is not enough evidence to support” an allegation that a lobbyist used a date rape drug on a Capitol staffer and that “no crime occurred in this instance.”

“DPS has conducted a thorough investigation following allegations of drugging of a Capitol staffer by a lobbyist,” the joint statement said. “Together, we have concluded that … criminal charges are not appropriate.”

The statement did not name the lobbyist, and officials have not offered further details — including the names of anyone allegedly involved — since DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, as first reported by the Austin American-Statesman.

Earlier this week though, after DPS confirmed it was investigating the allegation, Bill Miller, a co-founder of the prominent Austin-based HillCo Partners, told The Texas Tribune that one of its employees was “a person of interest” in the investigation.

In a statement after Thursday’s news, Miller said that neither the firm nor the employee “had absolutely anything to do with the” allegation and said “DPS found we are completely clear of any and all wrongdoing.”

“The announcement today confirms our own internal investigation into the issue,” Miller said. “We commend law enforcement for a forceful and swift investigation into this serious matter.

After news of the investigation surfaced Saturday, state lawmakers, staffers and other Capitol observers expressed outrage, with many House members declaring that they planned to ban from their offices any lobbyist or lobby firm associated with the accusation. By Sunday, Buddy Jones, another co-founder of HillCo told state lawmakers in an email that the group had hired outside legal counsel and “a respected former law enforcement official” to launch an investigation into the matter.

Meanwhile, Austin lawyers David and Perry Minton, who said earlier this week they were representing a person” purportedly being looked into” for the investigation, said in a statement Thursday that the allegation was “100% false.”

“It is our opinion that the individual or individuals involved in this outrages and immoral scheme [of making the allegation] should be held accountable by their employers and then prosecuted by our new district attorney,” the two said.

See here and here for the background. You can see the full statement here. Saying there’s not enough evidence to support the allegations is not the same as saying that nothing bad happened – to say “no crime occurred” is a tautology, since that is exactly what it means to not bring charges. We have due process for a reason, and this is the result. Maybe nothing did happen, or at least nothing that was ill-intentioned. Maybe it was too late for a drug test to render a judgment, since rohypnol metabolizes quickly. Maybe this was just another powerful guy getting away with it. We’ll never know for sure. If the lobbyist in question, whose name has been released by one right wing website, is innocent then this really sucks for him, since this incident will always follow him around. It’s going to suck even more for the woman who made the allegation, especially if it was true.

Putting all that aside, and putting aside the bills that have been filed to try to do something about sexual harassment and sexual assault at the Capitol, the one thing that seems clear is that little to nothing will change from a cultural perspective. Women aren’t going to be any more respected or valued at the Capitol, and the men who have been at the forefront of creating the hostile environment they work in – as well as the men and women who enable that environment – will not be held accountable. It’s aggravating, and I say that as a dude who has never been in a remotely similar position. My thoughts are with the woman who made the report, and with everyone who has ever gone through something like that. The Chron has more.

Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

Austin mask mandate somehow still in effect

I admit, I did not expect this.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County can keep requiring masks for at least a bit longer after a district judge denied Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request for a temporary block of the local mandate.

Paxton sued the local officials for refusing to end the mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott lifted state restrictions earlier this month. Paxton will likely appeal the decision.

District Judge Lora Livingston has yet to issue a final ruling on the merits of the case, meaning Austin and Travis officials may later be told to comply with state officials.

But in the meantime, County Judge Andy Brown said Friday’s ruling at least prolongs the amount of time masks are required in their communities — which gives them more time to vaccinate their residents.

“I’ve been doing everything that I can to protect the health and safety of people in Travis County,” Brown said in an interview. “And Judge Livingston’s ruling today allows us to keep doing that.”

[…]

The final outcome of the case could have implications for other Texas cities and counties on how local governments can enforce their own public health mandates, even after the state ordered them to end.

During Friday’s hearing, discussion broadly centered around the question: What powers do local public health departments have, and how do the governor’s emergency powers affect them?

Austin and Travis attorneys said public health officials have the authority to implement health measures — like mask mandates — outside of the context of the pandemic, and therefore should not be affected by Texas’ latest order.

State attorneys argued that Abbott’s emergency powers because of the pandemic trump any local orders.

Livingston pushed back on some of the state attorney’s arguments that not requiring masks allows for individual freedom.

“I’m trying to understand why the person with the deadly virus should have more power than the person trying to stay alive and not catch the deadly virus,” Livingston said.

See here and here for the background. Note that the judge still has not issued a ruling, she just hasn’t granted the state’s motion for an injunction while she makes her decision. The usual trajectory in this sort of thing has been for the good guys (i.e., whoever is on the opposite side of Ken Paxton, whether as plaintiff or defendant) to win in round one and sometimes in round two, but to ultimately lose. Since the legal question at hand in these matters is the imposition of a restraining order or injunction, and since Paxton loves filing emergency appeals, the outcome that matters in the short term – that is, whether or not the good guys get to do what they want to do or force their opponents to do or not do something – is decided quickly, and often renders the actual litigation moot. In this case, the judge has taken her sweet time issuing a decision, so there’s been nothing for Paxton to appeal. Plus, even if all they get out of it is a couple of weeks’ extra time, that extra time is consequential in terms of slowing the spread of COVID. I just did not see it playing out this way. So, whatever happens in the end, good for Austin and Travis County for finding a way to do something in the short term. I don’t know how replicable this is, but it worked this time and that did matter.

Have you been pining for another Hotze/Woodfill lawsuit?

Well, then today is your lucky day.

Not that kind of face mask

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and conservative activist Dr. Steven Hotze, a prolific litigant, are suing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick for requiring COVID-19 tests for entry into the Texas Senate gallery and committee hearings.

In the 18-page suit filed in Travis County court, Miller and Hotze argue the Senate rule violates the Texas Constitution and Open Meetings Act and ask the court to block the rule. Patrick’s spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Gov. Abbott is opening up businesses while Patrick is shutting down the people’s access to their government,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Jared Woodfill said in a statement.

Members of the public wishing to view proceedings must receive a wristband that indicates a negative COVID-19 test. The rule was established to prevent the spread of the virus at the statehouse, which proved to be hotspots in other states.

[…]

The lawsuit says the Senate rule “unreasonably restricts speech” by mandating a “medical procedure as a prerequisite” and violates the right to free speech guaranteed by the Texas Constitution.

“The constitutional mandate that the legislative session be ‘open’ supersedes any statutory emergency authority that may otherwise apply to the Senate,” the suit reads, noting Hotze had tried to enter on March 2 but was denied entry when he refused a COVID-19 test.

See here for some background. I couldn’t find a copy of the lawsuit online, but Jasper Scherer has an image of the first four pages. In the name of preserving my sanity, I did not read them. One does not have to be a lawyer to think that the “free speech” argument here is a stretch, though maybe there’s something to the open meetings claim. I’ve got better things to worry about, so we’ll see what the courts make of it. We know what their recent track record is, I’ll just leave it at that.

HISD Board wins again in court

They’re still a thing, and Mike Morath can’t do anything about it right now.

The Houston ISD school board earned another win Friday in its effort to stave off Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plan to replace it with an appointed board, this time prevailing in a procedural battle before the state Supreme Court.

In an 8-1 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a state appellate court had the legal right to temporarily halt Morath’s move to oust HISD’s school board amid an ongoing lawsuit.

The ruling is not final victory for HISD in its fight with Morath. It merely means that the education commissioner cannot immediately move to replace trustees with a board of managers, which could vote to drop the lawsuit. The HISD board’s case remains pending, with an appeal related to the central issues of the case pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

Lawyers representing Morath and the Texas Education Agency argued that a state law precluded the courts from stopping state administrative actions — such as stripping power from school board members and appointing replacements — even if a trial court issues a temporary injunction. A Travis County judge overseeing HISD’s lawsuit issued such an injunction in January 2020.

An appellate court partially agreed with the TEA’s position, but the judges also found that they separately had the power to halt an administrative action under the state’s rules of appellate procedure, which they did in HISD’s case.

Lawyers for Morath and TEA disagreed and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that finding, but the eight justices sided with the lower court.

See here and here for the background. This is a procedural ruling, which just means that the TEA does not get to take over HISD while the appeal of the ruling that said that the TEA did not properly follow the law while attempting to do the takeover is being litigated. HISD still has to win that appeal, and then have that upheld by the Supreme Court, to get out of the current situation. In the meantime, there’s the Harold Dutton bill that would make all of this moot, though it too would surely be subject to a lawsuit. I dunno, maybe the TEA should try to negotiate a settlement of some kind if they lose again, so we can all get on with our lives? Just a thought.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

Austin mask mandate enforcement still in place for now

No ruling, just a delay for a fuller hearing.

Best mugshot ever

Austin and Travis County officials can continue enforcing their mask mandates after a district judge delayed action on the Texas attorney general’s request to immediately stop the mandates.

That means city and county officials can continue to require masks until at least March 26, when District Judge Lora Livingston will hold a trial.

“People have been wearing masks for a year. I don’t know that two more weeks is going to matter one way or the other,” Livingston said during a Friday hearing, according to the Austin-American Statesman, which first reported the news.

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers pushed for an injunction hearing Friday, but Livingston said it wouldn’t be fair to give the defendants only a day to prepare, the Statesman reported. Livingston said after she hears arguments March 26, she’ll rule the same day.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown counts the two-week delay as a win. It buys the area some time to keep requiring masks while residents get vaccinated. It will also keep the mandate through most schools’ spring break holidays.

Abbott’s latest order states “no jurisdiction” can implement local restrictions, except a county judge and only when hospitalizations in a region exceed 15%.

“This case raises a pressing question: who is ultimately responsible for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and other emergencies?” Paxton’s attorneys wrote in the lawsuit. “The Texas Disaster Act charges the Governor—not an assortment of thousands of county judges, city mayors, and local health officials—with leading the State’s response to a statewide emergency.”

But Brown and Adler argue that local public health officials maintain the authority to create orders on the local level to protect their community from pandemics. It’s different, they argued, from using emergency powers.

Brown said if the judge rules differently, it will have “huge ramifications” on local government moving forward.

Local government needs to be able to move quickly on issues of public health, he said, emphasizing that it’s “the whole point of the way our state government is set up.”

See here for the background. I certainly agree with Andy Brown about the ramifications for local governments, but it’s not like this is a surprise. Our Republican-dominated state government has been very clear about its priorities with respect to cities and (Democratic) counties. This is and will be just another example of that.

In the comments to the earlier post I was asked what would I have Austin and Travis County do about this. My deeply unsatisfying answer is that there isn’t anything they could do right now. The law and the courts are against them, and there isn’t even a symbolic win available. Paxton will prevail in court, very likely in swift fashion, and he’ll gloat about it. The only thing that can be done is to work extra hard to elect a better state government in 2022. Nothing will change until that happens. Believe me, I wish there were a better answer.

Paxton sues Austin and Travis County over its mask mandate

Completely expected.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing Travis County and Austin officials in an effort to force them to rescind their local mask orders, he announced Thursday.

“I told Travis County & The City of Austin to comply with state mask law,” Paxton tweeted. “They blew me off. So, once again, I’m dragging them to court.”

Texas on Wednesday lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions, including Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate and occupancy restrictions. Abbott’s order said that “no jurisdiction” can require a person to wear a mask in public if the area doesn’t meet a certain number hospitalizations for the coronavirus. But Austin and Travis County health officials have said they will continue to enforce the safety protocols, setting the stage for yet another fight over pandemic response between state and local officials.

“[Travis County] Judge Brown and I will fight to defend and enforce our local health officials’ rules for as long as possible using all the power and tools available to us,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said Thursday in a statement. “We promised to be guided by the doctors, science and data as concerns the pandemic and we do everything we can to keep that promise.”

[…]

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who presides over the county government, said the authority to impose the local mask mandate comes from the county health authority, not from Brown’s emergency powers. Brown told The Texas Tribune on Wednesday that means the order should hold up in court.

“I listen to doctors, not to politicians like our attorney general,” Brown said.

As noted, Travis County and Austin extended their mandates on Wednesday, then Paxton sent them a letter saying basically “take that back or I’ll sue”. When they didn’t, he did. And look, no one holds Ken Paxton in greater contempt than I do, but he’s going to win this case. He may have to appeal it up a level or two to get there, but there’s just no way this story ends with the locals winning. I get the urge to defy the dumb order from Greg Abbott and to take a stand, but you gotta have a strategy and some reasonable expectation of achieving the outcome you want. This is not going to help.

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

Best mugshot ever

When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.

Another look at how redistricting may go

RG Ratcliffe analyzes the geographic and political realities the Republicans face as they try to maximize their haul from the 2021 reapportionment.

Rick Perry famously called West Texas—a sparse land with few trees or humans—the Big Empty. The 92,016 square miles of the High Plains, the Panhandle, and western Hill Country have an estimated population of 2.2 million, less than that of Houston. But the region is also some of the most fertile Republican territory in Texas. The Big Empty delivered 78 percent of its vote to Donald Trump last year and elected three Republicans to Congress—all of whom supported overturning the president’s reelection loss in Pennsylvania and then opposed impeaching him on charges of inciting the Capitol riot in January.

These three congressmen are the kind of reliable soldiers and dependable votes the national Republican party wants voters to elect. Later this year, GOP Texas lawmakers will have the chance to redraw the state’s congressional map to try to make the most favorable conditions for similar representatives to win—and to exert great influence on the last two years of Joe Biden’s first term. Dictating the redistricting process because of the party’s House and Senate majorities and control of the governorship, Republican lawmakers will try to find a way to expand the GOP’s 23–13 partisan advantage in the Texas U.S. House delegation and to imperil the current 221–210 Democratic majority in the lower chamber.

But when those lawmakers begin redrawing the maps, they may look at the three West Texas representatives and find themselves saying, “Eeny, meeny, miney, moe, one of you has got to go.” The reason is simple: Even as the state has added enough population since 2010 to receive as many as three new seats in Congress, the Big Empty hasn’t kept pace. A congressional district drawn in Texas in 2011 needed to have a population of 698,488; districts drawn this year will need to have about 763,000. West Texas will be about 100,000 residents short of justifying three congressional districts.

The dilemma of the Big Empty is an example of how difficult it will be for Republicans to create the kind of partisan gerrymanders that have contributed to the large majority in the state’s House delegation that they enjoy today. Texas’s population has grown by 4.2 million since the 2010 census, according to the state demographer, Lloyd Potter, but that growth has not been where Republicans need it. Potter recently told a state Senate redistricting committee that most new Texans live in a triangle anchored by Dallas–Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio, and encompassing Austin. That triangle is home to the bulk of the state’s Democratic voters: the counties of those five cities went for Biden by 20 percentage points. Trying to redraw districts in the triangle, let alone fitting new ones in, will be a challenge for the GOP.

Republicans will have two main tools at their disposal to reduce the electoral power of the clustered populations of Democrats: splitting a block of them between or among districts to dilute their voting impact, or lumping multiple blocks together in a single district to limit the reach of their vote. We have some sense now, based on Potter’s estimates, of how they might do so, even as we wait for the Census Bureau to release gross population numbers in April and specific census tract data this summer. Here’s a tour of Texas and how the maps might be redrawn, starting out in the Big Empty.

Ratcliffe cites five areas where the GOP will have to make some tough choices: West Texas, where as noted above the population isn’t there for three whole Congressional districts; Austin, where the strategy of cracking Travis County into multiple districts put three Republican incumbents into jeopardy in the last two elections, thus leading to the possibility that they’ll just draw a super-blue district in the county again; Houston, where the same basic strategy of making CD07 more blue is probably the best way to protect other Republicans; the Metroplex, where the big suburbs just aren’t red enough for them any more; and South Texas, where Trump’s gains with Latino voters may be more illusory than real. We’ve touched on a lot of these topics before, but Ratcliffe brings some new details and puts it all into focus. There will be plenty of time to game this all out before actual maps start appearing, so go check it out.

TEA appeals HISD takeover ruling to Supreme Court

One way or the other, this should get a resolution.

Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency filed an appeal Wednesday asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a temporary injunction that has slowed Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to strip power from all nine Houston ISD school board members.

The filing comes nearly two months after the Third District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s school board with a state-appointed board.

TEA pledged in late December 2020 to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s highest court overturns the injunction, TEA leaders could install a new board that could vote to end HISD’s lawsuit.

[…]

In their filing Wednesday, state lawyers representing the state argued the Third District Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation of laws and regulations on all three fronts. The lawyers also claimed HISD should not be able to sue the state over an administrative matter.

“This case is of immediate importance to HISD students,” Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful wrote in the appeal. “And the court of appeals’ misinterpretations of the law endanger TEA’s future efforts to assist failing schools.”

Each of the three issues considered by the Third District Court of Appeals largely fell along technical lines.

See here for the previous update. The ruling in favor of HISD was bipartisan, so this isn’t an R-versus-D issue in the way some other recent lawsuits have been. No idea how long this may take, so just keep on keeping on until we know more.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

SCOTx allows Inforwars lawsuits to proceed

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected, without comment, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ attempt to toss out four defamation lawsuits by parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

The parents sued in Travis County, where Jones and his InfoWars website are based, arguing that they were defamed and suffered emotional distress after InfoWars broadcasts disputed the authenticity of the school shooting and the news coverage that followed.

Twenty young children and six adults died in the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Friday’s action by the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that had allowed the lawsuits to continue.

The state’s highest civil court also gave the green light to another defamation lawsuit against InfoWars and reporter Kit Daniels by a man mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

[…]

Friday’s announcement by the Supreme Court noted that two members, Justices Jeff Boyd and John Devine, would have granted Jones’ petition for review in the Pozner lawsuit, but the court order provided no reasons for their dissent.

In briefs to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Jones argued that the InfoWars host was engaging in protected speech because he was addressing matters of public concern.

“The pursuit of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ concerning controversial government activities has been a part and parcel of American political discourse since our Founding, and it is protected by the First Amendment,” they told the court in a brief for the Pozner and De La Rosa case.

Jones also argued that state libel laws required any harmful speech to be directed at specific family members, but the Sandy Hook families were not named in three InfoWars reports in 2017.

But a lawyer for the Sandy Hook families argued that Jones didn’t merely say the school shooting was staged by the government, he also generally accused family members of being actors to help sell a supposed coverup and exploit the event to attack gun rights.

As a result, Jones and InfoWars accused family members of collusion in a hoax “relating to the murder of their son … for nefarious purposes,” lawyer Mark Bankston told the court.

Jones also was reckless in publishing information that was so improbable that no reasonable publisher would have done likewise without substantial confirmation, Bankston argued.

“Mr. Jones’ fantasy about a shadowy government conspiracy to murder first-graders and then exploit the event with the help of the media and actors is the very definition of ‘improbable,'” he wrote.

The lawsuits are by the parents of two of the children that were murdered at Sandy Hook. You never know what can happen, but Jones’ record in defending himself so far isn’t great – he not only lost at the Third Court of Appeals earlier in the year, he was ordered to pay court costs for the frivolity of his appeal. He deserves to lose and to have the full weight of the consequences of his actions come down on him. Law and Crime has more.

SCOTUS rejects TDP petition on vote by mail

Back to the lower court, I think.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Democratic bid to force universal vote-by-mail in Texas, leaving intact a state law that lets people cast no-excuse absentee ballots only if they are 65 or older.

The Texas Democratic Party and its allies argued unsuccessfully that the law violates the Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”

Voting by mail became a sharply partisan issue amid President Donald Trump’s unsupported contentions that the practice led to widespread fraud in the November election. Texas’s Republican governor and attorney general urged the Supreme Court to reject the Democratic appeal.

A divided federal appeals court in September rejected the 26th Amendment claim, saying the Texas law didn’t make it more difficult for anyone to vote. The panel left open the possibility the law could be challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court also rejected Texas Democrats in June, when the justices refused to reinstate a trial judge’s order that would have let any voter request an absentee ballot to avoid the risk of contracting Covid-19. That order, which was blocked by the appeals court, was designed to govern the 2020 election and might have boosted Democrats’ prospects.

See here for the last update, which was a petition for review of the Fifth Circuit ruling that kept intact the existing law on vote by mail in Texas as the original lawsuit that claimed the existing law violated the 26th Amendment is litigated. If I understand this correctly, the original case needs to be re-argued, with guidance from that Fifth Circuit ruling, and then once there is a ruling on the merits, we’ll go through the appeals process again. Or maybe not, if Congress and President Biden can pass a new Voting Rights Act that would allow for this nationally. I don’t see that particular provision in there now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or wouldn’t be there. Anyway, it’s kind of a non-starter now, since the effort was to make that happen in 2020, but it’s never too late to make it easier to vote. Just don’t expect anything to happen in the short term, outside of what Congress may do. Reuters has more.

The Republican war against Harris County

To be fair, it’s not just Harris County that’s in the crosshairs, it’s the big urban counties, and cities in general. But it’s real and it’s dangerous and it’s anti-democratic.

Republicans in the Texas Legislature are gearing up to bar local governments from hiring lobbyists, punish cities that reduce their police budgets and restrict county judges’ power during future pandemics when lawmakers convene in Austin later this month.

The measures are sure to escalate the long-running feud between Texas’ conservative leaders and the mostly Democratic officials who run the state’s largest cities and counties. And while higher profile items such as coronavirus relief and redistricting are expected to eat up much of the 140-day session, Republicans have made clear they will carve out time for items such as the lobbying ban.

“In terms of (taxpayer-funded) lobbying, it’s morphed into a kind of partisan struggle,” said Michael Adams, chair of the political science department at Texas Southern University. “The Dems were hoping, particularly in the House of Representatives, they would fare better (in the November elections). But that didn’t happen, and so we still see the dominance of the Republican Party in all branches of the state government. And certainly I think they will send a signal.”

Local officials have been bracing for an especially difficult session since October 2019, when House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was caught on tape saying he had tried to make that year “the worst session in the history of the legislature for cities and counties.” Bonnen said he made his goal evident to “any mayor, county judge that was dumbass enough to come meet with me.”

[…]

Last session, Republicans nearly ushered through a bill to prevent large cities and counties from spending tax revenue on lobbying, but the measure died in the final days when voted down in the House. Bonnen in 2019 announced he would not seek re-election after he was heard on the same tape recording targeting fellow Republicans who opposed the lobbying ban.

Though the Legislature does not begin until Jan. 12, lawmakers already have filed numerous bills related to cities and other local entities. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, has proposed making cities liable for damages if they release someone from custody who was the subject of a federal immigration detainer request and that person commits a felony within 10 years.

A bill filed by state Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, would prevent cities and counties from requiring businesses to adopt labor peace agreements — in which employers agree not to oppose unionization efforts in exchange for employee unions agreeing not to go on strike — in order to receive a contract. State Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, has filed legislation that would allow business owners to halt local laws in court if the law “would result in an adverse economic impact” on the owner.

Swanson also filed a bill that would abolish the Harris County Department of Education, unless voters decide to continue it through a referendum on the November 2022 ballot. Conservative lawmakers have long sought to shutter or study closing the agency, the last remaining countywide education department in Texas.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, filed legislation that would codify a Texas Supreme Court decision that blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter in the county ahead of the November election. Swanson filed the House companion bill.

That’s a lot, and it doesn’t count the revenue cap, or this little gem that I had been unaware of:

During the 2019 legislative session, Abbott quietly backed a bill that would have maintained the current system in Texas’ rural Republican regions while changing it in more densely populated, mostly Democratic counties. That bill, which failed, would essentially have allowed the Republican governor to pick judges in the state’s Democratic areas, while Republican voters picked judges in the conservative areas.

I have to say, on reading all this my first reaction was why would anyone in Harris County want to be governed by people who hate us and want to do us harm? Sometimes I wonder what it would be like if Harris County were its own state. We’d have something like ten electoral votes all on our own, and we wouldn’t have to deal with this kind of bullshit.

It wasn’t always like this, of course. It’s not that long ago that “local control” was a Republican slogan rather than a quaint idea. But it’s also not that long ago that Harris was a Republican stronghold, and the radical shift in philosophy isn’t a coincidence. It’s very much of a piece with the Trump administration’s attacks on blue states, and of the increasingly bizarre and undemocratic legal arguments being made about this past election, including the one that the Supreme Court briefly considered that federal courts could overrule state courts on matters of state administration of elections. It has nothing to do with federalism or “states’ rights” or local control or any other mantra, but everything to do with the fact that Republicans don’t recognize any authority that isn’t theirs. If they don’t like it, it’s not legitimate, and the laws and the voters can go screw themselves.

This, as much as anything, is the tragedy of Dems not being able to retake the State House. With no check on their power, the Republicans are going to do what they want, and the best we can do is try to slow them down. It makes the 2022 election, and the continued need to break through at the statewide level, so vital. I’ll say it one more time, nothing will change until we can win enough elections to change the balance of power in this state. And if someone can give me an answer to that “how can Harris County become its own state” question, I’m listening.

There is a website for COVID vaccine signups in Houston

You can’t use it right now, but it’s there.

Houston’s Health Department launched an online portal for residents to apply for an appointment at its COVID-19 vaccine clinic Monday but quickly ran out of available slots for the remainder of the month.

“The response to Houston’s first COVID-19 vaccine clinic was massive, quickly filling the appointment slots for the department’s current vaccine allocation,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a City Hall news conference where he was about to get his own shot in the arm.

“The vaccine clinic appointments are booked for the rest of this month, and the department is not taking additional appointments at this time.”

Turner said the city is working to set up additional sites and create additional capacity, although it is unclear when new appointments will be available. Turner said the city hopes to open a “mega site” on Saturday.

The portal, available at houstonemergency.org/covid-19-vaccines, added another way for qualifying residents to book for an appointment. A hotline also is available at 832-393-4220.

The city clinic vaccinated nearly 2,000 residents with the Moderna vaccine in two days. It is accepting residents from the first two phases of the state’s distribution plan, which include front-line emergency workers, people 65 and older, and those over 16 with certain high-risk health conditions.

It’s a good start, but at 2K shots a day, we’re talking two years to get to 75% distribution in the city. We’d like to go a little faster than that. Obviously, the city is limited by how much vaccine it can get, as well as the state regulations. Harris County had its own rough rollout thanks to confusion over who was allowed to sign up. On that first front at least, help is on the way, so maybe in another month or two we’ll see much higher numbers. And at least there is now a central location for this for Houston residents, something that had been sorely lacking before.

There’s some more vaccine coming to Texas, but it’s still not a lot.

On Monday, state health officials announced that 325,000 additional vaccine doses would be getting into the hands of 949 providers in 158 Texas counties over the next week, part of the first round of vaccinations for front-line health workers as well as nursing home residents, Texans over 65 and those with certain medical conditions, among others. Some 121,875 doses are earmarked for long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and assisted-living centers.

But with the number of vaccine doses available still falling far short of what’s needed to cover those who are eligible — and with state officials pushing hospitals and other providers to administer vaccine doses that the providers say they don’t have, aren’t sure are coming or have already administered — confusion and frustration have surrounded the initial few weeks of the vaccination rollout.

Providers have 24 hours to report their vaccination statistics to the Department of State Health Services, and the agency updates its numbers each afternoon with data reported by midnight the day before, so the state’s numbers could lag up to two days behind the reality on the ground.

Officials from the White House down to local doctors have warned that it would take months to have vaccine doses available to everyone who wants one.

“The problem is unrealistic expectations based on the reality on the ground,” said Marshall Cothran, CEO of the Travis County Medical Society, which received 700 doses through a local partnership and had them all scheduled within 48 hours for physicians and staff who are not affiliated with hospitals or other care organizations.

With the new shipments this week, the state has been allotted a total of 1.5 million doses through the first four weeks of distribution, officials said Monday. Providers in 214 of the state’s 254 counties will have received shipments by the end of the week, health officials said.

Some 793,625 doses had been received by providers by midnight Sunday, according to the Texas Department of Health Services.

Of those, 414,211 — just over half of those delivered — had been administered, according to the agency’s dashboard.

Hardesty said the nearly 16,000 doses his facility received are being administered “fast and furiously,” and about 10,000 people have gotten their first dose, with second doses to start in the next week.

“We’re giving them as quickly as we can,” he said.

I don’t doubt that, but let’s be clear that 1.5 million doses is five percent of the state’s population, and that 414K is just a bit more than one percent. Seven hundred doses for Travis County, with 1.3 million people, is a drop in the bucket. If you vaccinated 700 people a day in Travis County, it would take you six years to get everyone. In the end, this won’t take anywhere near that long, but we are talking months, and in the meantime the hospitals are also dealing with an insane surge in new cases. I can’t emphasize enough how much we needed to keep a lid on this, and how badly we failed at that.

Anyway. Here was the Harris County website for vaccine registration, which is still up but doesn’t have any method for signing up for a COVID shot at this time. Dallas County has its own website, while Bexar County had a similar experience as Houston did. It will get better, I’m sure, but the early days are going to be chaotic.

TEA still barred from taking over HISD

Still in a state of limbo.

Texas is still temporarily barred from taking over Houston Independent School District, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday, upholding a lower court’s order.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Texas Third Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction that stops the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board of its largest district with an appointed board of managers. The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the lower court that in January blocked the state’s takeover effort.

The appellate judges said Houston ISD had a “probable right to relief” since the TEA did not follow proper procedure and acted outside its authority as it moved to sanction the district. It also ordered the state to “pay all costs related to this appeal.”

The TEA plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. “While the Agency is disappointed with the split ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, this is only a temporary setback,” the agency said in a statement. “We are confident that the Texas Supreme Court will uphold the Commissioner’s legally-authorized actions to improve the educational outcomes for the 200,000-plus public school students of Houston.”

[…]

[T]he appellate court’s ruling Wednesday said Texas’ “proposed actions are not authorized by the Education Code.” The opinion stated that the state did not have the right to appoint a conservator to oversee the entire school district in 2019, force Houston ISD to suspend its search for a new superintendent, or impose sanctions based on an investigation, among other things.

The opinion was written by Judge Gisela Triana, who was joined by Judge Jeff Rose in the ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Baker wrote that Texas is authorized to take over Houston ISD, the injunction should be removed and the district’s claims should be dismissed.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. The Chron story goes into the opinion in some more detail.

To start, HISD’s lawyers argued Wheatley High School did not trigger a state law requiring the school’s closure or the board’s ouster after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019. While the law is intended to punish districts with campuses receiving failing grades in multiple consecutive years, the justices found that the TEA failed to take a technical step — ordering HISD to submit a campus turnaround plan for Wheatley — that it says was required under the statute.

The two justices also ruled that the TEA incorrectly interpreted a state law that says Morath can replace the school board in any district that has had a state-appointed conservator for more than two years.

State officials appointed conservator Doris Delaney to oversee long-struggling Kashmere High School in 2016, then clarified that her authority extended to district-level support in 2019. TEA officials argued Delaney’s presence since 2016 met the criteria for triggering the state law, but the two justices ruled that only her time as a district-level conservator counted toward the two-year requirement, which thus hasn’t yet been met.

Finally, the two justices found that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures related to a special accreditation investigation, which Morath cited as a third reason for replacing HISD’s board.

For what it’s worth, the “affirm” opinion came from a Democratic justice (Triana) and a Republican justice (Rose), while it was a Democratic justice (Baker) who voted to overturn the district court opinion. I don’t know when this might be resolved – the appeal to the Supreme Court is of the injunction, while the case itself was sent back to the district court – but until there is a final ruling that says the TEA can install its Board of Managers, I’m going to operate on the assumption that there will be HISD Trustee elections this year. I guess there would be regardless, but at least for now those elections mean a bit more, since the Board of Trustees is still running things. The Press has more.

A new high in hospitalizations

This is fine.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported Monday a pandemic high 11,351 hospitalizations from COVID-19.

This surpasses the previous all-time high of 10,893, which occurred on July 22.

The record comes in the midst of a holiday season public health experts worry could exacerbate the already rapidly spreading virus and following an increase in cases weeks after Thanksgiving.

This hospital data does not account for people who are hospitalized but have not gotten a positive test, and DSHS says some hospitals may be missing from the daily counts. As of Monday, the state is also reporting 49 deaths from COVID-19, a lagging indicator of the extent of transmission rates, and more than 12,800 new confirmed COVID-19 cases. Reported cases may have appeared lower the last few days because some local health departments did not report data to the state over the holiday week.

Earlier this month, Texas’ ICU capacity was already the lowest since the start of the pandemic, leaving health care experts worried hospitals could be pushed to the brink as coronavirus cases continue to climb. Across the state, COVID-19 patients occupy 17.8% of the state’s hospital beds, and only 745 staffed ICU beds are still available.

At a press conference Monday, Mark Escott, Austin’s interim medical director and health authority, said that this week alone, “ICU utilization” is up 62% in Travis County and that hospital beds could become scarce in a matter of weeks.

“Our projections forward into the new year continue to look worse and worse day after day,” Escott said. “I think right now it appears we’re going to enter 2021 in a state of emergency.”

This is fine:

This is fine:

Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he anticipated a major fall surge amid a wave of new infections in West Texas and the Panhandle.

Those areas are among the hardest hit in the country, he said.

“Up in Midland and places like that, it’s still a really tough area,” he said, adding, “In terms of surges, I’m maybe a little less worried about the Texas Medical Center. But in other parts of the state, it’s going to be a real concern.”

There are 745 ICU beds available across the state, according to data from the Department of State Health Services, the lowest number available since the pandemic’s surge during the summer. Among 63,679 staffed hospital beds, 13,416 are available statewide.

Further, 15 of the state’s Trauma Service Areas are reporting that more than 15 percent of their total hospital capacity is taken up by COVID-19 patients, crossing the threshold for what the state considers “high hospitalizations.”

At the Texas Medical Center, the weekly average of new COVID patients has more than doubled since early November, from 104 to 248. Medical center data from Sunday shows 1,594 total COVID patients and another 404 in the ICU. There are 1,298 total occupied ICU beds with hundreds more available, the data shows.

“The medical center has gotten a lot of heft, in terms of being able to accommodate COVID patients,” Hotez said.

[…]

The sporadic use of masks has contributed to the surge, said Hotez, adding that he doesn’t anticipate the number of statewide hospitalizations decreasing anytime soon. He noted that the number of beds is less of a concern than the number of trained staff available.

Hotez said he did not know how much Christmas gatherings would impact the number of infections. But he warned people that New Year’s celebrations would be the “best party the COVID virus can hope to have.”

“I would just say any kind of New Year’s celebration is fraught with risk ,” he said. “Because when you have this high level of transmission going on in the state, anytime you bring four or five people together, there’s a good likelihood they’re going to have COVID.”

I’m really scared for what the next few weeks may bring. Wear your mask, practice social distancing, avoid indoor gatherings, and try to survive until you can get vaccinated.

TDP asks SCOTUS to review age discrimination claim in mail voting

From the inbox:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party and voters filed their final brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking its review of the case filed last Spring which challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s law that limits voting by mail, without excuse, to voters age 65 and older. The 26th Amendment prohibits “denying or abridging” the right to vote based on age, which Texas law does. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in September that so long as all voters can vote in person, it does not abridge the right to vote if the state provides some voters with additional voting options. The Texas Democratic Party and voters argue this ruling runs contrary to the 26th Amendment and is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to confer regarding this case on January 8, 2021. On January 11, 2021, at 10:00 am ET, the Court will issue its orders list for the 2021 term. At that point, the Court may grant review of the case, deny review, or hold the case over for further consideration at a later time. If the Court grants review, the case could be heard this term, with a decision before Summer or it could decide to hear the case in its term beginning Fall of 2021. If the court denies review of the case, it will return to the U.S. District Court in San Antonio, where it will proceed to the final trial and, thereafter, potentially go back through the appeals process.

See here for my last update on this case, and here for a copy of the filing, which in fancy lawyer-speak is a “petition for a writ of certiori”. SCOTUSblog has a concise summary of the case so far. The brief makes three arguments, of which the first two are technical and boring to non-lawyers, but the third is a straightforward claim that the Fifth Circuit erred in its ruling:

The error in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning was powerfully illustrated by the statement respondents’ counsel made at oral argument: “[I]f a state were to pass a law saying that White people must vote by personal appearance but Black people can vote by personal appearance or by mail-in balloting, …. the Fifteenth Amendment would not prohibit that law because that law does not deny or abridge the right to vote within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.” Or. Arg. Rec. at 41:27-42:07. To state that position is to show its indefensibility.

1. The Fifth Circuit treated “abridge” as solely a temporal restriction: In its view, a state’s law does not “abridge” the right to vote when it adds voting opportunities for some, so long as one manner of voting remains in place for those not given the new voting opportunity. See BIO App. 38a. That holding is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents that the concept of abridgement “necessarily entails a comparison” of “what the right to vote ought to be.” Reno v. Bossier Par. Sch. Bd., 528 U.S. 320, 334 (2000).

Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s arid resort to dictionary definitions of “abridgment,” BIO App. 33a34a, the proper baseline under the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments is given in the text of those amendments themselves. Those amendments provide that the right to vote shall not be abridged “on account of” or “by reason of” specific characteristics: “race,” “sex,” taxpaying status, or “age.” By their plain terms, those amendments call for a comparison between the law’s treatment of voters of different races, sexes, taxpaying statuses, or ages—not between the scope of the right a particular voter enjoyed yesterday and the scope of the right he or she enjoys today. It cannot be that the Fifteenth Amendment would have nothing to say if a jurisdiction gave white voters an early voting period, as long as it left untouched a preexisting ability for Black voters to cast a ballot in person on election day. But that perverse consequence is exactly what the Fifth Circuit’s logic commands.

The reason why the voting amendments use the word “abridge” is not to create a temporal comparison, but to make clear that any race-, sex-, taxpaying-, or age-based suffrage rule, and not only categorical denial of the right to vote, is covered. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, illustrates this point. While Section 5, the provision at issue in Bossier Parish involved a statute with language explicitly requiring a temporal comparison, Section 2 echoes the Fifteenth Amendment text and requires an inter-voter comparison. Section 2(a) prohibits practices that result “in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote on account of race or color or membership in a specified language minority. 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a). Section 2(b) declares that a violation of that prohibition occurs, among other things, when the plaintiff group has “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” 52 U.S.C. § 10301(b) (emphasis added). That understanding of abridgment is also, as the petition explains, more consistent with this Court’s decision in Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965). See Pet. 20-22.

Basically, the Fifth Circuit said that giving one set of voters (in this case, voters over the age of 65) something extra (no-excuses absentee ballots) was fine and not a form of discrimination against other voters, who were still able to vote. The TDP argues that the correct interpretation of the 26th and other amendments to the constitution is that not giving the under-65 voters the same benefit as the 65-and-older crowd is an abridgement of their rights, and thus unconstitutional. I think the plaintiffs have a solid argument, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, and also this particular Supreme Court is nobody’s friend when it comes to voting rights. We’ll know in January if we’ll get a short-term resolution or if this goes back to the trial court for a do-over.

No Walmart liquor stores

Some non-election litigation news of interest.

Texans still won’t be able to purchase liquor at Walmart, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by the retail giant that would have allowed the booze to be sold at stores in the state.

Texas is the only state in the nation that does not allow publicly traded companies, like Walmart Inc., to obtain liquor permits — but they are allowed to sell beer and wine.

Walmart claims the law is discriminatory and has argued that 98% of liquor stores in the state are owned by Texans.

Turned away by the nation’s highest court, Walmart will now have to prove intentional discrimination before a federal trial court.

Lawyers for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said the law is in place to make liquor less readily available and curb its consumption.

“The law precludes large corporations from using their economies of scale to lower liquor prices and increase the density of liquor outlets in the State. This approach has served Texas well — it has consistently ranked among the States with the lowest per capita liquor consumption,” lawyers for the commission stated.

Not sure I buy the cause-and-effect logic there, but whatever. Walmart, which at the time still had a hyphen in its name, originally sued in 2015 in federal court in Travis County. They got a favorable ruling in 2018, which was remanded back to the district court by the Fifth Circuit (opinion here). Walmart had appealed this ruling to SCOTUS, so the denial means they have to go back to the district court and try again under the tougher guidelines set out by the Fifth Circuit. We’ll see if they proceed, or if they decide it might be faster and cheaper to try to elect a bunch of legislators who will pass a bill to do what they want. I’m no fan of Walmart, but I really don’t see the point of this state regulation. Everything we do with alcohol in this state is weird and anachronistic.

Counties of interest, part three: Around Travis

Part 1 – Counties around Harris
Part 2 – Counties around Dallas/Tarrant

Travis County has been at the forefront of the Democratic renaissance in Texas, punching well above its weight with both performance and turnout. Its blue essence has been spilling over its borders into its neighbor counties, and overall the picture here is as bright as you’ll see anywhere. Let’s have a look:


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Bastrop      14,033    9,864   16,328   10,569   20,486   15,452     -865
Blanco        3,638    1,220    4,212    1,244    5,429    1,905   -1,106
Burnet       12,843    3,674   14,638    3,797   18,721    5,615   -3,937
Caldwell      6,021    4,791    6,691    4,795    7,975    6,536     -209
Hays         31,661   25,537   33,826   33,224   47,427   59,213   17,910
Williamson   97,006   61,875  104,175   84,468  138,649  142,457   38,939

Williamson and Hays get all the ink, and they certainly present opportunities for further growth. I believe the same dynamic is here as it is in Dallas and Collin/Denton, which is that Travis County and all of its characteristics have simply expanded into the adjacent counties, making the distinction between the two, at least in the areas near the border, basically meaningless. I’ve long felt this about the southwest part of Harris County and Fort Bend. The numbers certainly bear it out.

Of great interest to me is that Bastrop and Caldwell counties took a step in the right direction in 2020, after going the wrong way in 2016. I was especially worried about Bastrop, home of Jade Helm hysteria, starting to slip away, but perhaps they too will begin to go the way of Hays as development from Travis creeps farther out along State Highway 71. Caldwell County was a pleasant surprise, as it is more of a rural county, and one I honestly hadn’t realized bordered Travis – you pass through Caldwell on I-10 between Houston and San Antonio – until I was reviewing the map I consulted for this post. Whatever happened in Caldwell in 2020 to get it moving in this direction, I approve.

That leaves Burnet and Blanco, both to the west and northwest of Travis. I haven’t been to Burnet since the 90s and may well be talking out of my ass here, but just looking at the geography, I could imagine some of the Travis overflow that had been going into Williamson going a little farther west into Burnet, and maybe that will blue it up a little. Just a guess, and even if there’s merit to it that’s likely not a short-term prospect. Until then, if Dem activist folks in Travis are looking for new worlds to conquer, I humbly suggest Burnet – and Bastrop, and Caldwell – as opportunities to consider.

A high level look at the changing suburbs

The Trib takes a broad and high-level look at what I’m digging into now.

Although they didn’t get the blue wave they expected, Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans in five of the most competitive and populous suburban counties in Texas.

An analysis of the presidential vote in solidly suburban Collin, Denton, Fort Bend, Hays and Williamson counties, plus partly suburban Tarrant County, showed that Republicans went from an advantage of more than 180,000 total votes in those counties in 2016 to less than a thousand votes in 2020, according to the latest data.

“This was not, on a whole, a good night for Democrats, it’s not what they hoped,” said Sherri Greenberg, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “But Democrats did see some gains and some success flipping areas in the suburbs.”

[…]

Some of Democrats’ biggest gains happened in Central Texas. Williamson County, where Trump won by 9.7% four years ago, flipped in 2020 and went to Biden by just over 1%. Hays County, which Trump won by less than 1% in 2016, gave Biden a nearly 11% victory this year. Both counties also supported Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 midterm elections.

Greenberg said those two counties are a perfect example of the trend that is helping Democrats in the suburbs: a growing population, particularly in demographic groups that tend to be more left-leaning. Since 2010, Williamson County alone has added more than 160,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“You see a growing population, a younger population, highly educated. Those kinds of voters are moving towards the Democrats,” Greenberg said.

In the Greater Houston area, Fort Bend County, which supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, was even more favorable for Biden, who won by 37,000 votes, compared with Clinton’s roughly 17,000-vote margin in 2016.

Fort Bend’s population is 811,688, and 20% of the population is Asian, according to the U.S. census.

“That county has become pretty solidly Democratic, and that happened quickly,” Cross said. “And it’s because of these younger, more educated and more diverse voters. It’s an example of what the Asian American vote can change.”

In North Texas, in Denton and Collin counties, Republicans expanded their margins from the 2018 midterms, but compared with the 2016 presidential election, Democrats narrowed the gap: In Denton County, Trump’s 20% victory in 2016 shrunk to 8.1% this year, while his margin in Collin County fell from 16% to 4.6%.

Meanwhile in Tarrant County, where Fort Worth is surrounded by a tapestry of suburbs, counting is still ongoing, but the latest results show that Democrats might be able to flip the county.

Not all suburban counties became as competitive as Tarrant. In Montgomery County, north of Houston, where more than 270,000 people voted, Republicans still had a comfortable 44% margin in 2020, 7% less than in the 2016 presidential election.

All of this is true, and there are some nice charts in the story to look at, but it obscures a couple of points. One, with regard to Montgomery County, it’s not the percentage margin that matters, it’s the raw vote differential. Trump won Montgomery county by 104,479 votes in 2016. He won it by 118,969 votes in 2020. It’s nice that the second derivative of their growth curve is now negative, but we need to start shrinking that gap, not just slowing its acceleration. Joe Biden will end up about 650K votes behind Donald Trump. That’s about 160K votes closer than Hillary Clinton got. If we want to make it easier for Biden, or Kamala Harris, or someone else, in 2024, that’s the target. It’s preferable if Montgomery County is not making that job more difficult.

The other point is that this discussion leaves out too much. The reason I wanted to look at all the counties that surround the big urban areas is so we can be aware of the places that are growing into becoming like Montgomery – think Parker and Johnson Counties up north – as well as the small counties that punch well above their weight, like Chambers and Liberty. Maybe we don’t have a clear answer for those places yet, but we need to be thinking about them, and we need to make having a plan for them a priority. We’re just conceding too much ground otherwise.

A few thoughts about Election 2020 before Tuesday

Just a brain dump, to get this all out there before we find out what happened. Let’s start with this:

After the conclusion of three weeks of early voting, 9.7 million Texans have cast ballots, crushing previous early voting totals in the state and setting Texas on a course for record turnout in this Tuesday’s general election.

At least 9,709,376 voters cast early ballots, according to preliminary final numbers released by the Texas Secretary of State and the counties on Saturday morning. That is 57.3% percent of registered voters, just shy of the overall turnout of 59.4% in 2016 by 2 percentage points.

Of those early votes, 8,738,363 were cast in person; 971,013 were cast by mail.

Early voting, which Gov. Abbott extended by six days this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, has already eclipsed total votes during the 2016 general election, when 8,969,226 Texans voted.

Texas has added 1.8 million registered voters since the 2016 election. Texas has not surpassed 60% turnout of registered voters since the early 1990s.

Harris County, Texas’s most populous county, leads the state with 1.4 million votes cast. Among large counties, Collin County outside of Dallas has the highest early voting turnout with 69%.

As we have discussed before, high turnout is generally more favorable to Democrats, but not universally, and there’s been plenty of activity in heavily Republican counties:

Comal County is like Montgomery County’s little brother, and Guadalupe is pretty Republican, too. That said, it’s important to keep in mind the distinctions between “percentages”, especially when we are talking about increases, and absolute numbers. Comal County cast 62K ballots total in 2016; I don’t know what their early voting numbers were in 2016, but a 26% increase over their final turnout would be close to 80K votes. Harris County has had a *net increase* of over 80K votes so far, with Election Day still to come. A 26% increase in total final turnout in Harris County would mean about 1.67 million total voters, or an increase of about 350K from 2016, and at this point that’s the low end. In short, Harris County is big. Always keep that in mind.

If you go back to the Derek Ryan report from Thursday, when “just” nine million people had voted, the electorate at that point was 52.1% female, and 43.4% male. (Not all people specify their gender on their voter registration.) Assuming that hasn’t radically changed as of Friday, that means that something like 800K more women than men have voted in Texas. (In Harris County, the gender ratio was 55.3 to 44.3, a gap of a bit more than 150K.) Given the greater preference for Joe Biden among women, that could be a factor in how this election turns out.

Now let’s talk about how easy, or not-easy, it was to vote in Texas this year. There’s a lot, but I’ll try to be concise. Let’s start with this:

Maybe bullet points will help.

– I agree – and have said on this blog – that the actual impact of the “one dropoff location” order and rulings is minimal. Hell, I didn’t even know that dropping off mail ballots was a thing you could do until this year. I think it’s fair to say that the number of people who have used this option in the past can be counted on your fingers. I don’t know how many people would have used it this election, but even if we’re talking five figures, it’s on the order of five percent of total turnout. People had plenty of other options available to them, including the Reliant Arena dropoff location (which is in many ways more accessible than the Clerk’s office downtown), the US mail, and voting in person. I have a hard time believing anyone was truly disenfranchised by this.

– But all of that is beside the point. The multiple dropoff locations, all at official County Clerk offices, was consistent with the letter and intent of the law, and the amended order to limit them to one, which came more than two months after Harris County announced its dropoff plan, was an obvious partisan exercise that had no basis or reason other than to make voting less convenient, and to slap down an innovative Democratic County Clerk in a heavily Democratic county. On every level, this was a screw-you to Chris Hollins and Harris County.

– Yet even there, we must acknowledge that Greg Abbott did in fact expand access to voting. That third week of early voting was huge – I’m sure that Allen West and the seething hordes of the Republican base are super pissed about that. Plus, the fact that mail ballots could be dropped off during early voting at all was the result of Abbott’s executive order, the same one that allowed for the extra week of early voting. State law as written only allows mail ballots to be dropped off on Election Day. Abbott expanded that. He weaseled out later on, but he was weaseling on himself

– So one might claim, as John Cornyn did on Twitter, that it can’t be all that hard to vote in Texas, because so many people are doing it this year. But once you get past Abbott’s original executive order – which, you may recall, the State GOP and Harris County GOP, among others, tried to kill via the courts – it was local officials, with Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins as the exemplar, backed by $31 million from the Democratic majority on Commissioners Court – that did all the work to make it easier. And again, Republicans from Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton down to dregs like Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill, fought them every step of the way.

– Finally, we have to acknowledge that whatever was done to make voting easier this year, we started from a baseline of voting not being easy, in so many ways. One big reason why the effect of the “one mail ballot dropoff location per county” ruling was minimal is precisely because access to mail ballots is so limited, and we saw that play its way out in the courts. If counties had to spend large amounts of money setting up early voting locations, it’s in part because the Legislature took away the option of temporary voting locations in the 2019 session, not to mention the removal of straight-ticket voting, which meant it would take longer for people to vote and might lead to longer lines at voting locations. We haven’t even talked about Texas’ notoriously strict voter ID law, or its refusal to allow online voter registration or same-day voter registration, or its recent efforts to purge voter rolls, or the problems of how hard it is for people with disabilities to vote, and on and on and on. If we have heroic levels of turnout this year, it’s in spite of all these obstacles.

– So my bottom line is that while turnout this year has been truly remarkable, and I hope that the results will be equally remarkable, none of this should obscure the fact that we have a lot of room to improve. And the only way that will happen is if we win enough election to make the systemic changes we need.

Hope that wasn’t too long. I’m out of thoughts for now. Go vote if you haven’t already.