December 5, 2021

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Rep. Dade Phelan trade shots over state response to power grid failure

Two of the top elected Republicans in Texas traded shots Friday over the state’s response to the February power grid failure, rekindling a feud from earlier this year when House lawmakers rejected a Senate proposal to retroactively lower electricity prices charged during the storm. The bill, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would have required state regulators to reprice billions of dollars in charges racked up by power companies and other retail electric providers during the storm, when regulators raised the cap on wholesale electricity prices. Though the change was aimed at incentivizing generators to funnel more power into the grid, an independent market monitor found that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, had left the higher cap in place for more than two days after the worst period of power outages had passed. Patrick, who slammed the House in March after the bill died, renewed his criticism in a statement published Friday by the Texas Tribune.

“With broad bipartisan support, the Texas Senate passed legislation to require a repricing to return money to ratepayers,” Patrick said. “House leadership refused to allow their members to vote on these issues.” House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican from Beaumont, responded with his own criticism of Patrick. “Lt. Gov Patrick has held his post since 2015 without making the grid a priority, but in only my second month as Speaker it was the House that first demanded action and accountability after the fatal grid collapse,” Phelan said. “The House's approach to grid reform was about saving lives in the future while the motivation behind and who benefits from the Senate's approach remains unclear.” In March, Phelan defended the pricing decisions by ERCOT, the nonprofit that manages the state’s electricity market, arguing that they “were made based on ensuring the reliability of the grid” and “may have saved lives.” He warned that the Senate’s repricing plan was “an extraordinary government intervention into the free market, which may have major consequences for both residential and commercial consumers going forward.” State regulators argued in the spring that the state may not have the authority to reverse the charges, and said providers likely would not pass the savings from repricing down to customers.

Austin American-Statesman - December 3, 2021

Former Capitol staffer found not guilty by reason of insanity in fatal shooting of neighbor

A former Texas Capitol staffer is headed to a maximum security mental health facility for an indefinite commitment after a judge found him not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of his neighbor and a series of random shootings that left two others injured. Charles Curry, 32, was charged with murder in the shooting death of 32-year-old Christian Meroney at the Post South Lamar apartments. State District Judge Julie Kocurek made the not guilty ruling Thursday, after a mutual agreement between Travis County prosecutors and the defense. Curry has schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type, a doctor appointed by prosecutors determined over the course of multiple evaluations. Curry and Meroney lived six doors from each other, and Meroney was found shot dead 10 feet from his apartment on July 9, 2018, according to an arrest affidavit. Investigators never offered a motive in the shooting, but people had reported before the shooting that Curry was exhibiting erratic and unstable behavior.

"Christian was loved by everyone he came into contact with and had the ability to connect and bond with anyone he met. ... Christian was a walking encyclopedia, knowing anything and everything about any topic you could think of," his obituary says. Curry had been hospitalized through an involuntary mental health commitment at the David Lawrence Centers for Behavioral Health in Naples, Fla., said Curry's attorney, David Gonzalez. Three days before Meroney was killed, Curry was admitted to a University of Kentucky hospital for the same reason, Gonzalez said. "His parents kept seeking a longer involuntary commitment, but he was shortly discharged from each facility by the hospital staff," Gonzalez said. According to investigators, days after Curry shot Meroney — but before police found and arrested him — he tried to buy a gun suppressor at the Range at Austin, which turned Curry away because he was acting strangely, the arrest affidavit said. Within a half-hour, police began receiving calls about a shooter targeting drivers across South Austin. The first shooting happened on the service road of Interstate 35, between William Cannon Drive and Slaughter Lane. A woman driving with three children in her vehicle was hit in the head by a bullet and was hospitalized with serious injuries, police said.

CNN - December 4, 2021

CNN fires Chris Cuomo

CNN said Saturday that anchor Chris Cuomo has been "terminated" by the network, "effective immediately." The announcement came after an outside law firm was retained to review information about exactly how Cuomo aided his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, when the then-governor was accused of sexual harassment. CNN said in a statement: "Chris Cuomo was suspended earlier this week pending further evaluation of new information that came to light about his involvement with his brother's defense. We retained a respected law firm to conduct the review, and have terminated him, effective immediately."

"While in the process of that review, additional information has come to light," CNN's statement added. "Despite the termination, we will investigate as appropriate." While the contours of Chris Cuomo's involvement with the governor's office were reported several months ago, the specifics were detailed in a massive document dump on Monday. The documents -- released by New York Attorney General Letitia James after an investigation into the governor -- showed that Chris Cuomo, while working as one of CNN's top anchors, was also effectively working as an unpaid aide to the governor. The cozy and improper nature of the relationship was conveyed through text messages obtained by James' office. The texts between the anchor and several aides and allies of the governor revealed that Chris Cuomo sought to use his connections in the press to help prepare Andrew Cuomo's team as accusers started to make their stories public. On the day his brother resigned, back in August, Chris Cuomo told viewers that "this situation is unlike anything I could have imagined."

State Stories

San Antonio Express-News - December 4, 2021

Dispute over Alamo burials, Native American worship may go forward after settlement talks break down

As Thanksgiving approached, it appeared state officials were ready to settle a dispute with a Native American group seeking access to the Alamo Church for religious ceremonies. That peace was short-lived. The 5th Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear the case filed by Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation last month, but lawyers on both sides said they had “reached a tentative agreement” in a Nov. 22 court document. “Therefore, oral argument in this matter is no longer necessary,” attorneys stated, offering to file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit within 60 days. In 2019, Tap Pilam was banned from holding its annual remembrance ceremony — honoring the tribe’s ancestors buried at the historic site and asking for forgiveness for disturbing their remains — inside the Alamo Church. The tribe filed the lawsuit against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Alamo Trust CEO Douglass W. McDonald, stating they violated the tribe’s religious rights.

Tap Pilam sought access to the state-owned building for its religious ceremonies and to have a say in handling human remains found at the Spanish-Indigenous mission. On Thanksgiving Day, a New York Times article reported on the tentative settlement, anonymously quoting “two people involved in the mediation proceedings.” But the Texas General Land Office, which partners with Alamo Trust to oversee operations at the historic site, said it might not sign an agreement because Tap Pilam broke the terms of the settlement. The proposed mediation agreement, intended to end “frivolous lawsuits” filed by the group, was “not finalized,” said Stephen Chang, communications director at the Land Office, in a statement. “We came ready to negotiate in good faith; however, Tap Pilam has already violated the terms and conditions of the mediation. Their actions are fatal to the entire agreement, and we currently plan to walk away from the proposed agreement,” he said. Chang said he had nothing to add to his statement when asked how Tap Pilam breached the terms and whether speaking anonymously about the mediation constituted a violation.

KUT - December 3, 2021

Leander ISD pulls 11 books from curriculum after year-long review

Leander Independent School District will be removing 11 books from high schoolers' curriculum after a year-long review of titles parents deemed inappropriate. This marks the final step in the district's plan to address a debate around student reading materials that began last fall. Parents complained about certain books available in English classes, arguing they contained inappropriate content and were not challenging enough for high schoolers. The district responded by removing some of the books until they could undergo a review process — an action that's caused backlash from groups like PEN America who are calling out LISD for censorship.

The 11 books, which include V for Vendetta and The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel, were not required reading, but part of student "book clubs." In English classes, teachers have students select one book from a list of around 15 to read and discuss in groups. Students are not required to read any particular book, and they can also ask to choose a book that's not on the provided lists. At school board meetings and on social media last school year, parents argued the books shouldn't be used in school because they contained sexual content, sexual assault references, foul language and graphic images. Following the backlash, the district had the books reviewed by a group of staff, parents and community members called the Community Curriculum Advisory Committee.

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Chris Tomlinson: Omicron forces businesses and consumers to accept COVID-19's new reality

Nineteenth-century business people would consider COVID-19 child’s play compared to the infectious diseases that triggered economic shocks and widespread devastation in their era. Yellow fever, typhoid and cholera epidemics routinely killed thousands and prompted quarantines across the United States. My ancestors, who developed cotton plantations for a living, kept up with the latest infection rates and adjusted their plans accordingly. “I cannot say what time we will start now. We will have to wait until yellow fever stops in New Orleans,” Churchill Jones wrote in 1853 to his son about moving family and enslaved people from Alabama to Marlin, Texas. Almost every other letter was about mitigating illness.

Keeping enslaved workers healthy was always a top priority. When cholera spread among the enslaved in Texas, Jones provided detailed instructions for home remedies, including giving “injections of soapsuds and oil, with some laudanum,” a tincture of opium. Businesses have dealt with mysterious, unpredictable illnesses for all of human history. The rise of the omicron variant is a signal that widespread infectious disease is again part of our lives, both personal and economic. The adjustment will be disheartening and inconvenient after almost a century of antibiotics suppressing most historical maladies. But humans are nothing if not adaptable. Financial markets are becoming accustomed to COVID waves. Investors sold stocks when scientists announced the discovery of omicron, but indexes did not drop as much as they did when news of variants broke in the past.

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Erica Grieder: Conservatives have a chance to overturn Roe v Wade, and may take it

As Texans, we’ve long been used to living in a sort of grim political science experiment. For example, we live in a state where abortion has effectively been banned, thanks to Senate Bill 8, a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year on a mostly party-line vote and took effect Sept. 1. So, for those who think things like that can’t happen here — well, they sure can. They already did. Americans this week learned, if they didn’t already know, there’s a good chance that the protections afforded by the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v Wade decision are seriously threatened. “I don’t feel super-hopeful,” said Caroline Duble, the political director for Avow Texas, on Friday. “The Supreme Court has not a made a strong effort to react to this humanitarian crisis.” That’s an understatement.

The high court on Wednesday heard oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a case concerning a 2018 Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. The Mississippi law isn’t particularly radical compared to Texas’s Senate Bill 8. It bans all abortions in the state after the six-week mark, before many women even know they are pregnant — and craftily empowers individuals to enforce the ban via a bizarre bounty-hunting scheme. In fact, the Mississippi law arguably isn’t radical at all, by international standards. Pro-life groups note that plenty of countries restrict abortions in the second trimester, if not prior to that. But what the Mississippi law does do is fly directly and deliberately in the face of Roe and 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision. The former protected the right to an abortion; the latter held that people should be able to exercise that right without undue burden up to the point of viability. The point of viability is generally considered to be around 24 weeks.

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo files for re-election bid

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced her 2022 re-election campaign Friday afternoon as she filed paperwork at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters. Although progress has been made during her tenure, Hidalgo said her desire is for the county to continue its momentum on various social issues. "This community has given so much to us, but we have to do better to remain competitive," Hidalgo said. "Over the past few years we have done that on flood control, on early childhood education, on putting politics behind people... there is so much left to do."

The incumbent Harris County judge will have to wait to see who she runs against. There are currently seven Republican candidates which include Houston City Councilman Randy Kubosh and Humble ISD School Board president Martina Lemond Dixon, who announced her candidacy on Sept. 22. Thirty-year-old Hidalgo, the first woman and Latina Harris County judge, came to her position at the age of 27 in 2018 after unseating Republican Ed Emmett. "The folks that are trying to stop us are trying to take us backwards because they are afraid of that change," Hidalgo added. "This is the choice, to keep waking up every day to make this community better and protecting the progress we've made or to go backwards."

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Who's clamoring for Austin apartments? Houstonians, not Californians, survey finds

People from California and other states aren't to blame for driving up rents in cities like Austin, at least not directly, according to data from a survey of prospective renters by real estate data company Apartment List. Instead, the largest inbound sources of prospective renters for Austin's hot rental market are Houstonians, who comprise a fifth of Austin apartment searches between July 1 and Sept. 30, followed by Dallas residents with 12 percent and San Antonians at just under ten percent. San Francisco and San Jose, home to Silicon Valley tech companies like Oracle and Tesla that have relocated to Austin, together accounted for only two percent of Austin apartment searches, the same share as Los Angeles.

Many of the professional transplants moving to Austin have instead opted to buy houses, contributing to Austin's soaring home prices. Home prices rose by over 30 percent in Austin from Sept. 2020 to Sept. 2021. But Austin's average rent price has also risen more this year than in any other tech hub. Travis County, where Austin is located, reached an average rent of $1,695 in September, a 25 percent increase from the year before, according to real estate platform Realtor.com. Despite the ballooning costs, Austin still had the cheapest average rent price out of the ten localities the platform compared, edging out Chicago at $1,700 and far below San Francisco at $3,450. Austinites looking to rent elsewhere have overwhelmingly chosen San Antonio, with 30 percent searching for apartments there and only five percent looking to rent in Houston. Dallas residents are the biggest group of hopeful Houstonians, comprising 14 percent of searchers, up from 8 percent during the previous quarter.

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

How I-45 between Houston and Dallas became nation's premier test track for driverless big rigs

The big rig’s steering wheel listed to the right and left as it drove along Interstate 45, maneuvering to make room for vehicles stalled on the side of the road and back into the right lane. But the hands of Darcy Desjarlais, the man in the driver’s seat, didn’t move during the entire 28-mile ride. Instead, the wheel slipped easily through his loose grip, with software making decisions usually reserved for humans. “It’s unnerving at first, but then soothing,” said Desjarlais, who has been driving trucks for nearly 30 years and is now a safety driver for autonomous driving tech company Aurora. “It’s one of those things where you learn about it, you believe in it, you trust it, you've been trained on it and eventually you're fully behind it.”

Texas, particularly the stretch of highway between Houston and Dallas, has emerged as one of the nation’s main proving grounds for autonomous trucking, with freight trucks driving themselves from pickup destinations to shipping warehouses hundreds of miles away. It’s a part of what transportation experts say will be an automated vehicle revolution, with passenger cars, local delivery vehicles and freight trucks driving themselves around towns and across states. Since late 2020, 18-wheelers operated by software and hardware created by Aurora have driven tons of freight from the Dallas area to Houston, often without the intervention of a human driver. The company partnered with FedEx in September to affix its hardware to some of the shipping giant’s Paccar trucks for its first real-world test of its autonomous trucking systems. And in November, Waymo, owned by Google parent Alphabet, announced its trucking division would partner with UPS to begin testing autonomous big rigs along the same stretch of I-45. The company has already tested its technology along most of the journey, but the deal with UPS is its first public partnership with a freight company.

San Angelo Standard Times - December 1, 2021

Over 50 years of dancing tradition ends in San Angelo after club calls it quits

Over half a century of a San Angelo tradition will end this week with the final steps of the Promenade Squares Dance Club. John Geen, caller for the square dancing club since 1991, announced the group's last dance, which will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 2, at the Promenade Square Dance studio, 618 Locust Street. "It's time to say goodbye," said Geen, 88. "My health hasn't been what it used to be, as has attendance. This will be the end of square dancing in San Angelo."

The group's first major square dancing festival was held at the coliseum in 1966 with an attendance of about 400. As time passed, festivals moved to the convention center, then Fort Concho until they stopped in the late 1980s. The Promenade Squares Dance Club kept the tradition alive in San Angelo for decades, with their dancers performing in local and state fairs. Festivals they performed at include the Texas Square Dance Festival, Heritage Folk Dance Exhibition along with 23 years at Christmas at Old Fort Concho. "This will be the first year we won't entertain a stage (at Fort Concho)," Geen said. "We will miss those folks." With 20 years of calling, Geen mentioned some of his favorite moments with the club involved going to festivals. "We were kind of recognizable, when we arrived, people would say 'San Angelo is here,'" Geen said. "We had a lively group." In 2017, Geen was also honored with the prestige award in the Texas State Callers Hall of Fame. Another special memory involved his late wife, when they celebrated their anniversary at the club. "I'm sorry to see it end, and I'm leaving with a lot of fond memories," he said. "While here, I taught several hundred people. I hope they enjoyed it, as it brought joy to my life."

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 4, 2021

Deborah Peoples of Fort Worth in Tarrant County judge race

Tarrant County has gone 28 years without electing a Democrat countywide. So far, the 2022 math doesn’t look any different. But the party’s longshot odds are slightly shorter now. Former mayoral candidate Deborah Peoples of Fort Worth has officially entered the race for county judge, joining fellow candidate Marvin Sutton of Arlington. Both will stir energy for a party left flat by local defeats in 2020 and the high-gear bulldozer of redistricting. “Tarrant County is changing, and I believe we have a good shot at winning,” Peoples said Friday, announcing that she would officially file to run this weekend. A week remains before the Dec. 13 deadline to sign up for the March 1 primaries. “The county judge sets the tone for leadership, and with so many critical decisions ahead at the courthouse and at JPS [the county hospital], I think there is a lot to address,” she said.

In June, Peoples raised more than $800,000 and finished with 46% of the vote in a runoff loss to Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker. “She’s a big name,” county Democratic chair Allison Campolo said. Sutton has already been campaigning for county judge. He gave up his council seat to run for mayor in June but finished third with 15% of the vote, far behind Mayor Jim Ross. Former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and Southlake lawyer Tim O’Hare are among Republicans competing for that party’s nomination for the job left open by retiring County Judge Glen Whitley of Hurst. (Technically, the “judge” only gavels commissioners court meetings. He or she is not a courtroom judge.) Peoples and Sutton are “both amazing candidates — they’ve run for mayor and served their city,” Campolo said. “I’m really thrilled to see folks with so much experience running for office.” Sutton said the Democratic primary race against Peoples will be “issue-focused.”

Dallas Morning News - December 4, 2021

State health department lifts emergency suspension of ex-Dallas paramedic seen kicking man on camera

A former Dallas Fire-Rescue paramedic who was seen on camera footage repeatedly kicking an unarmed homeless man can resume work as a paramedic while the Texas Department of State Health Services continues its investigation, the state agency announced Friday. DSHS lifted the emergency suspension of Brad Cox’s paramedic license Thursday after Dallas Fire-Rescue provided amended paperwork showing Cox’s role on the 2019 call was not to be a primary caregiver, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the state agency. “Because the emergency suspension in this case was connected to an imminent danger during patient care, the amended record prompted the suspension to be lifted,” Van Deusen said.

The Dallas Morning News and other local media outlets earlier this year published videos from police body cameras and a nearby business showing Cox, who is also a mixed-martial arts fighter, repeatedly kicking and punching Kyle Vess. Dallas Fire-Rescue fired Cox in October after the videos were published. State department records show Cox is not working for another department. Dallas Fire-Rescue sent DSHS a complaint about Cox on Oct. 14, according to the DSHS statement. The agency said it reviewed video of the incident and written documentation before suspending Cox’s paramedic license. The suspension was based primarily on a record from the fire department that designated Cox as a primary patient caregiver on the scene, Van Deusen said. Dallas Fire-Rescue sent an amended record Wednesday that does not specify whether Cox was involved in direct patient care during the incident, Van Deusen said. DSHS can still take action on Cox’s certification at the completion of its investigation.

Dallas Morning News - December 3, 2021

Emails: Dallas County DA signaled intent to investigate claim that judge’s coordinator posed as her

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot indicated he would open a criminal investigation into accusations that a state district judge ordered her court coordinator to impersonate her in an online court proceeding, according to an email exchange The Dallas Morning News obtained Friday. The Dallas County Defense Lawyers Association filed a complaint last week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct alleging that Judge Amber Givens instructed her employee, Arceola Warfield, to conduct an online court proceeding in her place. Givens denied the accusations in a statement to The News and in an Oct. 22 email to Creuzot. Emails released by the district attorney’s office show that Givens told Creuzot she learned that a prosecutor falsely alleged to other lawyers that the judge had Warfield oversee a virtual court proceeding while pretending to be her.

“It is an absurd allegation and is extremely troubling that this same individual is purportedly operating under the duties of a District Attorney,” Givens wrote. “I question his/her ability to serve justice in any matter.” Creuzot responded on Nov. 16 and indicated he would investigate whether any crime was committed. “In effect, you are suggesting to me that prosecutors or defense attorneys are expressing that a criminal offense may have been committed,” Creuzot wrote. “It is my intention to open a criminal investigation on what you have brought to my attention.” Creuzot would not confirm this week whether the office had launched an investigation or provide a status on any such investigation. The prosecutor has not been disciplined but was reassigned to another courtroom this week, Creuzot said. “We don’t comment that we are investigating or whether something is pending,” Creuzot said. Givens told The News last week that she experienced technical difficulties when she tried to log on to the virtual court proceeding Aug. 3 to approve a bail amount reduction and conditions of release from jail for Floyd Lee, who has a pending burglary case.

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

New Texas political maps face the least scrutiny of any since 1965, despite history of racial discrimination

Even before the state’s new political maps were signed into law, voting rights and Latino advocacy groups were filing lawsuits to overturn them, alleging the Republicans who crafted them unlawfully discriminated against minorities by diluting their votes. Though such court battles have succeeded in the past to stall the implementation of the maps — redrawn every 10 years — or force changes to them, there’s one critical difference this time. Texas is no longer subject to pre-approval — known as “preclearance” — by the U.S. Department of Justice or federal judges in Washington, as called for by the Voting Rights Act that for decades served as a check on the racial discrimination that has historically been a problem in Texas and other states. In every decade since that law was put in place in 1965, new Texas maps have been found in violation of it.

But after a 2013 Supreme Court decision stripped out the preclearance requirement, that extra level of oversight is gone. Now the seven legal challenges that are being heard in an El Paso federal court will have less of a foothold and inevitably will take longer, which means the maps being challenged in court are undoubtedly going to be in place for the March 1 primary election and most likely for the general election in November as well. Although we are doing our best to move as quickly as possible, the reality of litigation is that it takes time,” said Noor Taj, voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, who is representing one of the plaintiffs, the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee. “You can only imagine what the burden is on litigation now without that initial preclearance.” The Texas attorney general’s office, which defends state laws and officials in court, did not respond to a request for comment on the suits. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have defended the maps in public statements. “The Senate's map that passed today is fair and legal, and passed with bipartisan support,” Patrick said in a statement in October. “This map illustrates our commitment to making sure every Texan is well-represented in their state Legislature and their voices are heard.”

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Latina named to top spot at Rice University’s Kinder Institute

A Hispanic woman who is one of the top researchers on urban education in Houston will serve as the director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute, a move that will bolster diversity among the university’s leadership. Ruth López Turley, a professor of sociology and director of Rice University's Houston Education Research Consortium, will head the Kinder Institute for Urban Research when current director Bill Fulton steps down on June 30, the university announced. “I am very honored and delighted to have this opportunity,” said López Turley, a first-generation U.S.-born immigrant from Mexican parents who grew up in Laredo. The Stanford University graduate earned her master's degree and Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard University, where she participated in the Kennedy School’s Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.

Characterized by Rice as a “prolific education researcher,” López Turley is currently associate director of the Kinder Institute. She has raised over $30 million since founding the Houston Education Research Consortium, or HERC, to fund research to inform data-driven policies for school districts across Texas, according to the university. “I have great confidence in Ruth Turley’s leadership, locally and nationally, and look forward to the continued growth of the institute,” said Rich Kinder, chairman of the Kinder advisory board. He also recognized Fulton for “firmly establishing the institute as a thought leader on how cities evolve and work to address the challenges that communities are facing.” Fulton took the helm in 2015 when the institute became an autonomous campus institution, from previously being under the School of Social Sciences. The think tank focuses on urban topics, including housing, transportation and education. When she assumes the position, López Turley will be the first Hispanic woman heading a school or academic institute at Rice.

KERA - December 3, 2021

A toxic neighbor: Grand Prairie Latinos want answers about hazardous waste site

The Beltrán family always stocks two to three cases of bottled water in the cluttered garage of their home in Grand Prairie. They’ve used it to drink and cook for 15 years, and they trek to the nearest Walmart to stay fully stocked. Her family has lived in Grand Prairie, west of Dallas, for over 30 years,. She said it’s a common belief among her neighbors that Grand Prairie’s water is not safe to drink because “contamination floods the streets of the neighborhood.” Beltrán said she knew nothing about the Superfund toxic waste site two blocks away. But it’s possible the talk she’d heard for years about contaminated water wasn’t about Grand Prairie’s drinking water, but referred to a plume of highly polluted groundwater that’s spread beneath the neighborhood.

The Environmental Protection Agency added the Superfund site, once occupied by a company called Delfasco Forge, to the National Priorities List in 2018. That ranked it as one of “the nation’s most serious uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites.” Tests showed that trichloroethylene (TCE), a highly toxic chemical used to clean machinery, had contaminated soil at the site, seeped into the groundwater and vaporized into the air from the groundwater plume. That affected about 80 homes in the neighborhood. The EPA placed Delfasco Forge on the NPL more than three years ago. But EPA documents show that it still lacks data on whether the human health threat is under control and has been unable to mitigate the groundwater contamination. KERA knocked on more than two dozen doors in the predominantly Latino, low-income neighborhood of Burbank Gardens and conducted extensive interviews with residents. Most knew nothing about the superfund site or the ongoing health threat. Delfasco Forge, a defense contractor, manufactured military suspension lugs used to attach weapons to aircraft bomb racks on the 1.25-acre site from 1980 to 1998. The company declared bankruptcy in 2008, in part because of liabilities related to the cleanup.

Dallas Observer - December 2, 2021

In East Texas, a man has spent two years in jail waiting for a bed at a mental health hospital

As his brother's mental health spiraled, Devon Pickard grew alarmed. He had spent the last five years working as a diving instructor in Hawaii and had just moved back to Van Zandt County, where he lived with his father while he tried "to regroup and figure out what's next." Meanwhile, his brother Logan had spent the better part of the past three years locked up between Gregg County and Van Zandt County jails, charged with a series of misdemeanor theft and drug offenses. Logan got out of jail the same week Devon returned to Texas. Within hours of their reunion, Logan said that Devon needed to drive him to California to claim riches left to him by Hugh Hefner, the late owner and founder of the Playboy brand. Logan believed he was the rightful heir to the Playboy empire Hefner left behind after he died in 2017, and that Hefner had planted a secret trail of clues informing him as much.

In the nearly two years since, Logan Pickard, now 28, has sat in jail without trial. His mother, Katrina Pickard, says he was held in solitary confinement for several weeks at a time at multiple points during this period because his unmanaged psychotic episodes caused problems among the jail’s general population. The Gregg County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment. It took 14 months for Logan to even receive an official psychiatric evaluation labeling him ‘incompetent’ to stand trial, meaning state psychiatrists concluded he was too ill to understand the proceedings of a criminal trial. When people like Logan are accused of a crime and deemed incompetent to stand trial, they are required to complete what's called a competency restoration program. These programs are designed to provide enough therapy to return alleged offenders to the point that they are able to grasp what’s happening in their trial. The waitlist for a bed in a state competency restoration program at one of Texas’ 10 state mental hospitals reached a new all-time high of 1,813 last month. Sources at the Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health say the waitlist grew to over 1,900 this month.

County Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 4, 2021

Three years in, Harris County flood bond progress slow but steady

Three years into Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond program, progress can feel maddeningly slow. After decades of underinvestment in flood protection, however, any completed project is a welcome improvement for nearby residents. Through October, 16 percent of the planned projects for detention basins, channel widening and other infrastructure was complete. All 181 projects are underway in some capacity, from design to construction, and each is on schedule. “Our project life cycle is three to five years, and in some cases that cycle has just started,” Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Alan Black said. “But at least they’ve all been started. And on top of that, no project has been delayed due to lack of funding.”

Several completed works already are providing better flood protection for hundreds of thousands of homes, Black said. Those include major maintenance along Cypress Creek and Spring Branch Creek, as well as the first phase of the Aldine Westfield detention basin project In Kashmere, local officials heralded the progress of a $100 million Hunting Bayou channel improvement project that will remove more than 4,000 homes from the floodplain. District B Council Member Tarsha Jackson said the project, which includes a detention basin and improvements to 17 bridges, is a welcome first step to protecting northeast Houston residents from flooding. “Every time there’s rain in the forecast, I brace for calls from constituents who see their streets flooding, their lawns flooding and water coming into their houses,” Jackson said. County leaders say the project, to be completed early next year, is an example of prioritizing poorer areas that historically had been neglected for flood protection.

National Stories

Associated Press - December 4, 2021

‘We just feel it’: Racism plagues US military academies

Eight years after he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Geoffrey Easterling remains astonished by the Confederate history still memorialized on the storied academy’s campus – the six-foot-tall painting of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in the library, the barracks dormitory named for Lee and the Lee Gate on Lee Road. As a Black student at the Army academy, he remembers feeling “devastated” when a classmate pointed out the slave also depicted in the life-size Lee painting. “How did the only Black person who got on a wall in this entire humongous school — how is it a slave?” he recalls thinking. As a diversity admissions officer, he later traveled the country recruiting students to West Point from underrepresented communities. “It was so hard to tell people like, ‘Yeah, you can trust the military,’ and then their kids Google and go ‘Why is there a barracks named after Lee?’” he said.

The nation’s military academies provide a key pipeline into the leadership of the armed services and, for the better part of the last decade, they have welcomed more racially diverse students each year. But beyond blanket anti-discrimination policies, these federally funded institutions volunteer little about how they screen for extremist or hateful behavior, or address the racial slights that some graduates of color say they faced daily. In an Associated Press story earlier this year, current and former enlistees and officers in nearly every branch of the armed services described a deep-rooted culture of racism and discrimination that stubbornly festers, despite repeated efforts to eradicate it. Less attention has been paid to the premiere institutions that produce a significant portion of the services’ officer corps – the academies of the U.S. Army, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Merchant Marine. Some graduates of color from the nation’s top military schools who endured what they described as a hostile environment are left questioning the military maxim that all service members wearing the same uniform are equal.

Associated Press - December 4, 2021

Trump media partner says it has lined up $1B in capital

Donald Trump’s new social media company and its special purpose acquisition company partner say the partner has agreements for $1 billion in capital from institutional investors. The former president launched his new company, Trump Media & Technology Group, in October. He unveiled plans for a new messaging app called “Truth Social” to rival Twitter and the other social media platforms that banned him following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. TMTG’s plan is to become a publicly listed company through a merger with the publicly traded Digital World Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company whose sole purpose is to acquire a private company and take it public.

The institutional investors were not identified in a press release issued Saturday by Trump Media and Digital World. The money would come from “a diverse group” of investors after the two companies are combined, it said. Digital World said in the release that the $1 billion is above the $293 million (minus expenses) that it may invest. “I am confident that TMTG can effectively deploy this capital to accelerate and strengthen the execution of its business, including by continuing to attract top talent, hire top technology providers, and roll out significant advertising and business development campaigns,” Digital World CEO Patrick Orlando said in the release. Trump is listed as chair of TMTG. He will get tens of millions in special bonus shares if the combined company performs well, handing the former president possibly billions of dollars in paper wealth.

December 3, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 3, 2021

Government shutdown averted after Ted Cruz blasts ‘pissant’ Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate

Congress struck a deal Thursday night to keep the government open through February, after overcoming a threat from Sen. Ted Cruz and a few allies to force a shutdown unless funds for a vaccine mandate were cut off. Federal courts have blocked the mandate, which is aimed at companies with at least 100 employees. The order allows workers who refuse the COVID-19 vaccine to take regular tests instead, but that didn’t mollify Cruz, who accused President Joe Biden of trampling individual autonomy. “No pissant politician, whether a local mayor or a governor or the president of the United States has the right or legal authority to force you to make that decision,” Cruz told reporters at the Senate on Thursday. “We have seen in the course of this pandemic Democrats being very comfortable with being petty tyrants and decreeing that you must obey their medical mandates.” At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki called the threat to force a shutdown “reckless and irresponsible political games.”

The Senate voted 50-48 against a proposal to cut funds to enforce the vaccine mandate. Moments later, the chamber finalized the spending plan 69-28, keeping the government open through Feb. 18 and averting a shutdown that would have begun at midnight Friday. The House approved the deal hours earlier on a party line vote 221-212, with Democrats blistering GOP holdouts like Cruz. “How do they explain to the public that they’re shutting down government because they don’t want people to get vaccinated?” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “This is so silly that we have people who are anti-science, anti-vaccination saying they’re going to shut down government over that. ...We’re not going to go for their anti-vaxxing, OK? So if you think that’s how we’re going to keep government open, forget that.” Utah Sen. Mike Lee and Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall led the effort. Their effort to hold the overall federal budget hostage over the vaccine mandate rankled not only the White House but GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, who likewise opposed the 16-day shutdown that Cruz instigated in 2013 in a failed bid to derail Obamacare. That episode cost the U.S. economy $24 billion but proved a huge personal boon for Cruz.

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Texas House Republicans urge court to quash Biden’s large-employer COVID-19 shot order

Virtually every Republican state representative in Texas has endorsed legal arguments urging a federal appeals court to strike down the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for businesses with 100 or more workers. Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and 83 other House Republicans signed the amicus brief filed Thursday. It calls the requirement an unconstitutional overreach by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency is making those workers be vaccinated by Jan. 4 or face mask requirements and weekly tests. Staunchly conservative state Republicans are urging Gov. Greg Abbott to call a fourth special session so lawmakers can ban COVID-19 vaccine mandates. But on Wednesday, Abbott said there would be no need for a state law if Republican-led states, businesses and other groups succeed in overturning President Joe Biden’s September vaccine mandates in court.

Some view the amicus brief as House Republicans’ best hope to show they oppose the mandates, short of another overtime session, which would disrupt their deferred family vacations and plans to pivot shortly after New Year’s Day to their re-election efforts ahead of the March 1 primary. The House Republicans, in a brief sponsored by the political action committee Texans for Responsible Government, argue that OSHA’s rule exceeds the authority of federal agencies to regulate interstate commerce. Congress didn’t delegate power to require vaccines to the subunit of the U.S. Labor Department, and it is Congress that should decide such matters, the brief argues. “The Constitution does not protect Americans exclusively in times of normalcy; indeed, it is in difficult times that the protections enshrined by our founding documents become most crucial,” says the brief, written by Houston lawyer David J. Beck of the firm Beck Redden LLP. The PAC’s brief was filed in the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where various lawsuits on the large-employer COVID rule have been consolidated. In an earlier suit before the 5th Circuit in New Orleans, which Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton helped to bring, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the rule was necessary to protect workers from the pandemic and was well grounded in law.

Austin American-Statesman - December 2, 2021

Free speech goes for companies, too: Federal judge blocks Texas social media law

A federal judge in Austin has blocked Texas' new social media law — which targets Twitter, Facebook and other large platforms that Republicans accuse of censoring conservatives — as an unconstitutional violation of the companies' free speech rights. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman said the law known as House Bill 20, which prohibits large social media companies from censoring users based on their viewpoints, interferes with the platforms' editorial discretion and their First Amendment right to moderate the third-party content they disseminate. "HB 20 prohibits virtually all content moderation, the very tool that social medial platforms employ to make their platforms safe, useful, and enjoyable for users," Pitman wrote in an order released Wednesday night.

The law was to take effect Thursday. Texas officials are expected to appeal. In his order granting a preliminary injunction against enforcing HB 20, Pitman said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled several times that private companies can use editorial judgment to choose whether to publish certain content — and cannot be compelled by the government to publish other content. In addition, HB 20 allows users to sue if they are blocked from posting on a large platform or their posts are removed. That threat, Pitman said, opens the companies to a myriad of lawsuits based on millions of individual editorial decisions, chilling the platforms from following their content-moderation policies. "Using YouTube as an example, hate speech is necessarily 'viewpoint' based, as abhorrent as those viewpoints may be. And removing such hate speech and assessing penalties against users for submitting that content is 'censorship' as defined by HB 20," Pitman wrote.

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Tilman Fertitta backs out of $8.6 billion merger that would have taken Landry’s public

Fertitta Entertainment Inc.,Tilman Fertitta’s restaurant and casino company, is backing out of a deal that was slated to take his empire public, according to documents filed with the Securites and Exchange Commission. The merger has been in development since February, when he announced his plans to merge with special purpose acquisition company FAST Acquisition. Fertitta Entertainment said in a letter Wednesday to FAST that it chose to terminate the agreement after the parties failed to close the deal by the termination date.

In a letter responding to Fertitta Entertainment, FAST argued the Houston company is not permitted to exercise the option given it failure to deliver financial statements held up the deal’s closing and its actions “are unquestionably the primary cause of the failure of the closing to occur by the termination date.” “Both sides” fulfilled obligations to close the deal, Fertitta Entertainment said in a statement Thursday, yet regulatory approval from the SEC was not granted until Nov. 24, “which made it impossible” to close by Dec. 1. “Fertitta Entertainment, Inc. believes it was in its best interest to elect to exercise its termination right under the Merger Agreement,” the company said, noting the deal’s termination won’t affect plans to sell Fertitta’s Golden Nugget Online Gaming to DraftKings. That deal, valued at $1.56 billion, was announced in August and was slated to close early next year.

State Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

White House scoffs at Texas U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson claim omicron is ploy to justify election fraud

Former White House physician Ronny Jackson, now a West Texas congressman, has accused the Biden administration of ginning up fear of the new COVID-19 omicron variant to justify fraud in next year’s elections. And he has refused to back down even as omicron has surfaced in the United States, leaving public health experts alarmed and scrambling to contain it. On Thursday, Jackson tweeted “NOBODY is surprised that Democrats are using the news about new variants to push lockdowns & other restrictions. What other unscientific ‘emergency rules’ will they implement? Their decisions are political - not science related!” “Here comes the MEV - the Midterm Election Variant!,” Jackson tweeted Saturday. “They NEED a reason to push unsolicited nationwide mail-in ballots. Democrats will do anything to CHEAT during an election - but we’re not going to let them!”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki called his assertion a conspiracy theory. “I think that the best thing we can do is not respond to conspiracy theories that are ... being pushed out there, including by medical doctors, that risk people’s lives, create confusion, and are done for political gain,” Psaki told reporters Tuesday aboard Air Force One. The omicron variant was first detected in South Africa. On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization designated omicron “a variant of concern,” and said it is “working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of this variant on our existing countermeasures, including vaccines.” A Dallas infectious disease specialist said it’s only a matter of time before omicron is detected in North Texas. It has already shown up in California and Minnesota. “Weird that ‘Mr. Science’ Dr. Fauci & Democrats have been SILENT about COVID flooding across our border,” Jackson tweeted Monday. “Don’t they want to ‘stop the spread’ like they claim? There’s no science behind this, just more excuses to expand lockdowns, mandates, and mail-in ballots. It’s about CONTROL!”

Dallas Morning News - December 3, 2021

Mask mandates banned again in Texas schools. These districts will continue requiring them anyway

Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates may be in effect once again, but it won’t make a practical difference in the North Texas districts still requiring face coverings. On Wednesday, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals halted a federal judge’s ruling that temporarily tossed out Abbott’s ban, delivering at least a temporary victory to the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. But families in Dallas public schools and Richardson elementaries won’t notice any change. School leaders in those districts will continue -- as they’ve done for much of this year -- defying the state’s Republican leadership by implementing the safety protocols they’ve deemed necessary to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend universal masking inside schools. Dallas schools are involved in a separate lawsuit challenging Abbott’s executive order.

“Dallas ISD’s mask protocol is still in place,” spokeswoman Robyn Harris said Thursday. “The superintendent and administration are looking at the protocol and will reassess sometime this month. “Knowing that the omicron variant is a growing concern, we are still going to look at all of the health and safety measures that may need to be in place.” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa -- who was the first schools leader in Texas to formally go against Abbott’s order -- previously announced plans to reconsider the district’s mandate after analyzing how many elementary students get vaccinated and whether the Thanksgiving holiday leads to a spike in cases. It’s unclear how worries over the new variant, which has been detected in at least four states, will factor into his decision. Richardson ISD, meanwhile, is keeping its elementary school mask mandate in place through mid-December. The district previously made face coverings optional in middle and high schools -- where students have had more time to get vaccinated. A vaccine for children 5 to 11 years old was approved in late October. RISD officials sent a letter Thursday to elementary parents, explaining that their decision to require masks is rooted in the local control granted to districts, not the ongoing lawsuit that put Abbott’s order back in play. “Yesterday’s ruling does not alter RISD’s elementary mask requirement, which previously has been announced to be in place through December 17 as students ages 5-11 have the opportunity to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and positive cases in RISD have declined,” it read.

Dallas Morning News - December 3, 2021

Pregnant Texans flood out-of-state abortion clinics foreshadowing future if Supreme Court ends Roe

They’re arriving by the day. Some come in cars packed with luggage and family. Others drive for hours alone, hoping to make the round trip in one day to get home in time to pick up their children from school. When Texas enacted the nation’s strictest abortion ban in September it touched off an exodus. Texans are flooding to clinics across the country for abortions, traveling to states as far away as Washington and Maine. Planned Parenthood clinics in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas saw 40 Texans last fall. Since September this year, there have been more than 800. The surge in demand from the second largest state is straining care across the region. The wait for an appointment at some clinics is now up to three or four weeks, a delay that not only takes an emotional toll on the patient, but also raises the procedure’s cost. Texans are also crowding out locals, some of whom are now going to other states for an abortion themselves.

What’s happening foreshadows the future should the U.S. Supreme Court roll back five decades of abortion rights. If Roe. v Wade falls, abortion is expected to be outlawed in two dozen states across the South and the Midwest. “People will be scrambling to get care in other areas,” said Emily Wales, Interim President & CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which has clinics in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. “The people who have resources will get the care. The people who don’t will be forced to either attempt to terminate the pregnancy on their own or carry one against their will.” The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on Texas’ six-week abortion ban, which has tried to evade legal scrutiny by outsourcing enforcement to private citizens. But the case that will likely determine the fate of abortion rights nationwide comes from Mississippi. A state law prohibiting abortions past 15 weeks into pregnancy is a direct challenge to Roe, which guarantees the right to an abortion until a fetus is viable outside the womb, or roughly 23 weeks. A ruling from the court isn’t expected until June. During oral arguments on Wednesday, however, the court’s conservative majority signaled a willingness to walk back abortion rights. “Why should this court be the arbiter rather than Congress, the state legislatures, state supreme courts, the people being able to resolve this?” Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked. “And there will be different answers in Mississippi and New York, different answers in Alabama than California.”

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Marvin E. Robinson, Dallas leader in civil rights and business, dies at 86

Marvin E. Robinson, who organized civil rights protests throughout the South during the 1960s before becoming an advocate for Black business leadership and equity in Dallas, has died at 86. Robinson died in his sleep Saturday at his Dallas home. “Marvin was one of the leaders of the student sit-in movement,” said the Rev. Peter Johnson, another Dallas civil rights leader. “It’s a tremendous loss in the civil rights movement. ... The generation of African American leaders in the civil rights movement is rapidly leaving this earth.” Born in Decatur, Ala., Robinson grew up in Gary, Ind., and attended Southern University, Louisiana’s largest historically Black university, in Baton Rouge, as a track-and-field athlete.

He was elected student government president, and in 1960 helped organize sit-ins at segregated lunch-counters and a march on the Louisiana State Capitol. His sit-in sparked similar ones in New Orleans, leading to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1963 that desegregated restaurants in the state. The protests got Robinson arrested for disturbing the peace and expelled from the university, 28 days before graduation. Johnson, who was a teenager in Baton Rouge at the time, said his father helped raise money to get Robinson and several other students out of jail. “Marvin was a tremendous advocate for civil and equal rights,” said Billy Allen, a longtime friend. “You had absolutely no worry that Marvin wasn’t going to fight to give his very best. He was going to represent the African-American community to his best ability.”

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Beto O’Rourke says Matthew McConaughey ‘will continue to do a lot of good for the people of Texas’

They were once seen as potential rivals, but now that Matthew McConaughey announced he will not run for governor next year, how does Beto O’Rourke feel about the Oscar-winning actor and his yet-to-be-fulfilled political aspirations? “Matthew McConaughey is someone who has done, and will continue to do, a lot of good for the people of Texas,” O’Rourke told The Dallas Morning News after he met with a group of several Asian American business owners and entrepreneurs in an Addison office building Wednesday night. While his exact stance on many political issues remained murky, polls released before McConaughey announced he wasn’t running indicated he could be a force to be reckoned with in the governor’s race.

A Dallas Morning News/UT-Tyler poll released earlier this month found that by nearly 2-to-1, all voters would be more likely to support McConaughey than O’Rourke. Pluralities of Democrats and independents wanted the movie star to run. The poll also showed him leading Gov. Greg Abbott by eight points in a head-to-head matchup. But in a video on Sunday, McConaughey said while he was humbled to be regarded as a potential candidate, it was a path he is “choosing not to take at this moment.” He also said he would help lead in other ways by supporting “entrepreneurs, businesses and foundations that I believe are leaders.” O’Rourke said Wednesday that he still appreciates how McConaughey and his family participated in relief efforts in the wake of the 2019 mass shooting at an El Paso Walmart that killed 23 people. Earlier this year, McConaughey and his wife Camila also helped fundraise for Texans impacted by the devastating winter storm. “He wasn’t worried about pointing fingers or assigning blame — he wanted to help get money to families who had been literally frozen out of their homes, or whose pipes had burst and destroyed their houses or apartments,” O’Rourke said. “So I’m grateful for his contributions to this state, and I certainly hope to be able to work with him and continue to see him do great things for Texas.”

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Feds, TxDOT agree to restart on pieces of I-45 project, but deal is a long way from resolving issues

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians. Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground. “Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

The project, the largest freeway redo in Houston’s history, will rebuild I-45 from the central business district north to Beltway 8 in Greenspoint. In addition, planners have proposed moving I-45 from the west side of the central business district to the east, parallel to I-69. The change would remove the elevated section of I-45 along Pierce, while preserving ramps to and from Memorial Drive and Allen Parkway — similar to how Spur 527 connects I-69 to various Midtown Streets. All of the work, however, has divided Houston area officials, elected leaders and residents in various communities. Harris County sued the state to stop development and the Federal Highway Administration ordered TxDOT to pause until it could further review the plans. Harris County abated its lawsuit last month, in an effort to work with TxDOT on solutions. After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Texas-based barge company set to pay over $15 million in damages from 2014 Galveston Bay spill

A Texas-based barge company involved in a 2014 Galveston Bay oil spill on Tuesday settled a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court's Southern District of Texas, agreeing to pay $15.3 million as a result of damages caused to natural resources, according to federal court records. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office announced that Kirby Inland Marine Company will deposit the funds into an account to be jointly used by both federal and state trustees on restoration projects designed to repair natural resources in areas affected by the spill. Attempts to reach the barge company, Kirby Inland Marine Company, for comment were not returned. The lawsuit was brought by both the United States and Texas. It stated the discharged oil “killed and harmed birds, dolphins and other aquatic life” while pointing to Galveston Bay as home to one of the largest dolphin populations in Texas.

“We are pleased to join our co-trustees to restore vital habitats, dolphins, birds and recreational areas injured by this oil spill,” stated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Director Nicole LeBoeuf in a U.S. Department of Justice press release. “Local communities and economies depend on resilient coastal ecosystems, and we look forward to working with the public on projects to restore them.” The spill happened on March 22, 2014 when a Kirby barge collided with cargo ship Summer Wind in the Galveston Bay near Texas City. According to court documents, the collision caused approximately 168,000 gallons of oil to spill into the Houston Ship Channel, affecting 160 miles of the state’s shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico from Matagorda Island down to Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi. According to the Texas attorney general’s office, recreational activities around the Galveston Bay were also shut down as a result of what happened and a portion of the damage money will be allotted to restore recreational areas affected by the spill. This isn’t the first time the company has agreed to pay out a sum of money for the 2014 incident. In a related 2016 enforcement action, the United States — on behalf of the Coast Guard — settled with Kirby for $4.9 million in civil penalties due to the incident, according to the U.S. Department of Justice press release.

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Chris Tomlinson: Houston startup develops revolutionary test that can measure your COVID immunity level in 15 minutes

A Houston startup has developed a revolutionary COVID-19 test that can measure immunity levels and determine whether or when people need a new vaccine or booster to protect themselves from the disease. The instant test could be widely available soon, if the Food and Drug Administration grants the new device fast-track approval. Knowing personal immunity levels could become increasingly important in the face of new variants, like omicron, when people need to decide whether or when they need a new vaccine or booster shot. The affordable, first-of-its-kind fingerstick blood test is offered by Brevitest, a company developed at Fannin Innovation Studios, a life sciences incubator in River Oaks. Researchers invented a new method for measuring antibodies, using cloud computing to process results and delivering them in 15 minutes to determine if an immune system needs a boost.

Doctors, companies and public health officials can use the tests to determine the COVID immunity levels for individuals, workforces or entire communities so they can employ more targeted strategies for slowing the disease. Since the technology is protected by patents, Brevitest can license the unique device and potentially become one of the most significant startups to emerge from Houston’s life sciences community in a decade. Leo Linbeck III, the CEO and co-founder of Brevitest, said his company’s technology builds on recent research that has determined how many antibodies per unit of blood people need to fight off or minimize a coronavirus infection. The new test lets people know where they stand, whether from a vaccination or natural immunity to determine if they need a booster or difference vaccine Brevitest can adapt the test to detect antibodies for any variant, including omicron. Once approved, the company could begin deploying the device across the country within a few months to carry out millions of tests a week.

San Antonio Express-News - December 2, 2021

Report: San Antonio’s volume of orders to vacate, demolish homes is ‘unprecedented’ among big Texas cities

San Antonio has used code enforcement measures heavily on the near West and East sides and ordered homes to be vacated and razed at a much higher rate than other large Texas cities, displacing vulnerable people of color, according to a new report. The city issued 626 orders to vacate and demolish occupied single-family homes between 2015 and 2020, says the study released by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law. That’s an “unprecedented” level compared with Houston, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth, which issued no more than 16 orders combined during the same time period. “I was surprised by the extent that San Antonio was such an outlier, just the sheer volume of these orders,” said Heather Way, the report’s lead author and co-director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the university.

The authors compared the distribution of orders for homes with the number of owner-occupied homes within each census tract. They found that the highest number of orders were issued on the near West and East sides, which also have been disproportionately targeted for sweeps for code violations such as overgrown yards and abandoned homes, the report states. In both areas people of color were systematically discriminated against for decades through redlining — the government’s designation of certain areas as risky for investment. Neighborhoods of color were usually outlined in red, restricting residents’ ability to access home loans. Investment lagged and many homes are old and in poor condition. The near West and East sides have also recently drawn more attention from developers and investors, fueling concerns about long-time residents being priced out of their neighborhoods. Having to leave their homes “can have really traumatic effects for families,” Way said. “This is their home, and when the city is issuing notices for families to vacate, they often don’t have any other alternatives — especially not alternatives that are affordable and any safer,” she said.

Axios - December 3, 2021

Lack of child care costs Texas billions

A dearth of affordable child care is putting a dent in the Texas economy. Driving the news: Parents are missing work or leaving jobs to take care of kids in a landscape pockmarked by the pandemic and labor shortages, per fresh research by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The big picture: Even as Texas — and Austin especially — is attracting new businesses, finding and affording child care is shaping up to be a critical issue for parents as they navigate a return to working away from home. Context: Relatively low wages, high rents driving child care workers further from Austin and ripple effects of the pandemic have led to crippling staff shortages and enrollment caps, day care operators report.

What they're saying: "Without suitable childcare options, many Texans will be forced to exit the workforce," the chamber's researchers found. This "has negative financial impacts on their household and limits the talent pool available to businesses in an already competitive labor environment." At Sammy's House, an Austin child care center that caters especially to kids with special needs, enrollment has been cut by 50% because of staffing shortages, executive director Isabel Huerta tells Axios. She says she is going to need to raise fees to keep up with fixed costs. "What's scaring me is that child care will start to serve only the affluent. The cost of child care is going to go up and become unaffordable," Huerta said. "When child care options start disappearing, I don't know how they're going to work."

KUT - December 3, 2021

UT Austin researchers are creating a statewide system to track drug overdoses

A team out of UT Austin is launching a platform that tracks drug overdoses across Texas. As opioid and other drug overdoses rise in the state, the researchers hope the program — known as Project CONNECT — will provide a more complete understanding of the state’s overdose crisis and help guide solutions. Texas has seen about a 30% increase in drug overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic. One hurdle to solving the problem is a lack of consistent and accurate data, says Kasey Claborn, lead researcher for the project and an assistant professor at Dell Medical School and the Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Many overdoses go unreported, and there’s not a statewide system for collecting data on both fatal and nonfatal overdoses.

“We just have a dearth of data, particularly in our rural communities, and we really don't have a way right now to actually track when spikes are occurring in real time,” Claborn said. “So, the goal of this platform is to start doing that.” The project is being led by developers, designers and researchers from Dell Med and the School of Social Work. The team created a digital reporting platform called TxCOPE.org that allows people to anonymously report overdoses — fatal or nonfatal. The platform asks for the location, type of drug involved and some demographic information. “Anyone can report an overdose,” Claborn said. “And we're encouraging people whenever you hear about an overdose, to go to the TxCOPE platform and submit an overdose report.” The data is then delivered to organizations that work directly with people at risk of overdosing to help inform community-response efforts. For example, Claborn said, it can help these groups determine where resources like naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdose, should be allocated.

San Antonio Express-News - December 2, 2021

Elaine Ayala: Archbishop Gomez might have delivered his most controversial take yet on life in the U.S.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles already had at least one controversial proposal before him. The head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the former archbishop of San Antonio, was in the midst of contentious debate among his bishops. It was about the Eucharist and whether politicians who support abortion rights — namely, President Joe Biden — could be denied communion at the altar. Biden is a practicing Catholic, and his election in 2020 spurred the priestly debate. At a meeting in mid-November, the bishops approved a new document on communion that emphasized the sacred rite but sidestepped any mention of politicians. The document, “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church,” also approved a plan for a three-year Eucharist revival campaign. The most conservative bishops had gotten their say, if not their way.

Also in November, Gomez addressed a group in Madrid via video ahead of the 23rd Congress of Catholics and Public Life. It was sponsored by the Catholic Association of Propagandists, a Spanish lay group described as committed to promoting faith in the public square. The theme for its conference was “Political Correctness: Endangered Freedoms,” which gives you some idea of the group’s perspectives. In his talk to them, Gomez addressed what he called “America’s new religions.” He was talking about U.S. social justice movements. It might have been Gomez’s most controversial statement about life in the U.S. Gomez, a Mexican immigrant ordained as an Opus Dei priest, declared that social justice movements — such as Black Lives Matter — are replacing the church and Christianity. He said they’re becoming “pseudo religions” and “dangerous substitutes for true religion.” Gomez also described a nation undergoing “aggressive secularization” and social justice groups as “profoundly atheistic.” Some Catholics, no doubt conservative ones, may have been waiting for such pronouncements, similarly viewing “woke” culture as a threat to U.S. society in general.

Progress Times - November 26, 2021

IDEA Public Schools had pilot on the payroll

The pilot — Flyder DeCastro, 49, of McAllen — worked for IPS Enterprises, a nonprofit organization created and controlled by IDEA. “Mr. DeCastro was employed from June 2019 until March 2020 by IPS Enterprises, Inc., the nonprofit entity that supports the establishment of IDEA schools outside of Texas,” according to a statement released by IDEA. “Prior leadership at IPS Enterprises hired Mr. DeCastro to provide air transportation within and beyond Texas.” How much IPS Enterprises paid DeCastro remains unclear. He couldn’t be reached for comment. “In 2020, IDEA’s national board of directors adopted a policy that prohibits the organization’s resources from being used for private air travel,” according to the statement released by IDEA. “While IPS Enterprises is not an entity subject to the Public Information Act, please know that IPS Enterprises has adopted the same policies that IDEA has adopted.”

Questions about IDEA and IPS Enterprises prompted state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, to author House Bill 2451 in March. “If the legislation would have passed, it would have ensured the public had a way to find out if IPS Enterprises hired a private pilot and how much they were paid,” Canales said in a statement. “Texans are demanding open and accountable government. When the public can’t access records, it prevents us from knowing if taxpayer dollars are being spent responsibly and in a way that reflects our values and priorities. We cannot ensure that our government is spending our money appropriately and fairly if we do not have access to information about these expenditures. It is in the best interest of Texas taxpayers that IDEA Public Schools releases information about the hiring of a pilot, whether Texas law compels them to or not.” IPS Enterprises hired DeCastro in 2019, when the IDEA board discussed plans to lease a private jet. While based in Weslaco, the charter school system operates campuses in Texas, Louisiana and Florida. It also plans to open schools in Ohio.

San Antonio Express-News - December 2, 2021

Texas Education Agency to investigate South San Antonio ISD’s board — again

The Texas Education Agency opened another investigation into South San Antonio Independent School District, months after closing a two-year investigation that resulted in a state-appointed monitor overseeing its board. The agency is investigating the board after receiving complaints alleging that trustees interfered with the duties of the superintendent in his suspension of an employee and by attempting to recommend who to hire as the district’s chief financial officer, according to a letter sent to district leaders Monday.

Board President Ernesto Arrellano Jr. and Superintendent Marc Puig did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A TEA spokesman said the agency could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Two months ago, the TEA appointed a monitor to the district after finding that the board failed to adequately collaborate with Puig on actionable items and that individual trustees operated outside their authority by contacting staff directly to try to discuss board discipline and change board agendas. Board members also contacted vendors, consultants, and other educational organizations without the superintendent’s knowledge, according to an Aug. 31 letter detailing the investigators’ report that resulted the monitor’s appointment. In October, Abelardo Saavedra began work as the TEA monitor for the board. He was South San ISD’s superintendent from Jan. 2014 to October 2018. Saavedra took over the district after a period of extreme turnover of superintendents there, a pattern that resumed after his departure.

Fort Worth Report - November 30, 2021

Panther Island drawn out of Granger’s congressional district

The footprint of the long-awaited, controversial Panther Island/Central City Flood Control Project will no longer be a part of Congresswoman Kay Granger’s district, raising questions about how the change will affect needed federal funding. Congressman Marc Veasey, D-TX 33, will inherit a two-decade-old, $1 billion project, which calls for re-routing of a section of the Trinity River north of downtown rather than increasing the height of aging levees that protect Fort Worth from flooding. Some were unaware of the redistricting change, but are hopeful bipartisan support will change years of what has been a federal funding dry spell for the project.

State Rep. Ramon Romero Jr., D-Fort Worth, was so focused on retaining the Diamond Hill and Como neighborhoods as part of his District 90 that he didn’t notice the change until contacted by the Fort Worth Report. The House did not have a lot of input in the congressional district maps. Because Republicans led the redistricting efforts in Texas, he said, it’s hard to believe that Granger wouldn’t have made her concerns known and they wouldn’t have been heeded if she had any about the change. “Everyone calls it Kay Granger’s baby. Maybe because we have a Democratic administration she felt like if it has any chance of moving forward, it would be better in the hands of Marc Veasey than it has been in her hands,” Romero said. In a brief phone interview with the Fort Worth Report, Granger said she isn’t concerned and she will continue to champion the project, although she didn’t offer specific details how. “There’s not going to be any difference whether it’s in my district or not,” she said.

Dallas Observer - December 2, 2021

Texas is the no. 2 state for puppy fraud

Texans looking to buy a puppy for their loved one this holiday season should be extra careful when shopping online. According to a new study by Veterinarians.org, Texas is the No. 2 state with the most puppy fraud. Between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31, it clocked 242 such scams, with 28% occurring in Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington. (California is the state with the most puppy fraud.)

The Lone Star State also reported an average loss of $913.20 per would-be pet owner. “People are still not really aware of this issue,” said Lily Velez, head of special reports for Veterinarians.org. “And as we’re heading into the holidays, especially, a lot of people are going to be looking for puppies — that Christmas puppy to add to their household.” Puppy cons have been on the rise during the pandemic. Earlier this month, Market Watch reported that a Cameroonian student pleaded guilty to participating in an online scam that tricked U.S. buyers into paying thousands for nonexistent miniature dachshunds. These scams are occurring at a time when many are looking to pets to help cope with loneliness, Velez said. Shortly after COVID-19 struck the States, some animal shelters began reporting 100% adoption rates. Scammers took advantage of senior citizens and others in pandemic-induced isolation as they looked to find companionship, she said. “Everyone wanted an animal because people were dealing with depression and anxiety from all the social isolation,” Velez said.

Dallas Observer - December 2, 2021

Between 2015 and 2019, Texas had the highest number of fatal holiday crashes in the U.S.

Over the weekend in Dallas, one sheriff’s deputy was injured and two people died in separate, unrelated car crashes. The first one was a three-car collision on northbound Interstate 35 near downtown, according to WFAA. The crash temporarily shut down the highway. On the way to the hospital to follow up with one of the victims of the first crash, two sheriff’s deputies noticed a stalled car on I-35. They stopped to help, and the next thing they knew, a Lincoln Town Car was spinning out of control and heading in their direction. The Lincoln slammed into one of the squad cars, killing a passenger and ejecting two others from the vehicle. Nearly 40,000 people in the country die in traffic accidents every year, according to a new report by the website HelpAdvisor. Between 2015 and 2019, Texas clocked in with the highest number of fatal car crashes during the holiday season.

HelpAdvisor studied fatal car crash statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to calculate the rates of deadly holiday driving in each state. “The data found in the helpadvisor.com report can serve as a much-needed reminder for everyone to be extra diligent when behind the wheel this holiday season,” Christian Worstell, the author of the report, said by email. “We should always practice safe driving, but data like this can heighten awareness of the issue at a critical time.” Worstell and the research team specifically looked at crashes occurring Dec. 24-26 and Dec. 31-Jan. 2. Fatal car crashes around Christmas declined by 17% in that time, but they increased by 13% around New Year’s Day. Overall, Worstell said, traffic fatalities around the holidays can be attributed to a combination of factors including increased travel, increased driving after dark (because there are fewer daylight hours during the winter), increased alcohol consumption during the holidays and winter weather.

National Stories

Washington Post - December 3, 2021

Sidney Powell, L. Lin Wood among attorneys ordered to pay $175,000 over Michigan ‘Kraken’ suit

A federal judge in Michigan has ordered a group of lawyers who brought a failed lawsuit challenging the 2020 election results to pay about $175,000 in legal fees to the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit, the latest in a series of rulings from federal judges seeking to hold lawyers accountable for trying to use the courts to overturn a democratic election. U.S. District Judge Linda V. Parker had already ordered that the group of nine lawyers — including Sidney Powell and L. Lin Wood, both allies to former president Donald Trump — be disciplined for their role in the suit, which in August she called “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process.” But the group had been balking at the fees requested by their opponents in the suit, particularly the city of Detroit, which had reported that it spent $182,192 defending the case. On Thursday, Parker said those fees were for the most part reasonable. She ordered the lawyers to pay nearly $153,000 to the city and another $22,000 to the state to pay their costs in the case.

She said the hefty fee was an “appropriate sanction .?.?. needed to deter Plaintiffs’ counsel and others from engaging in similar misconduct in the future.” She also wrote that she believed that the attorneys have the ability to pay the fees, particularly given that they have been soliciting donations from members of the public to fund lawsuits like the one they brought in Michigan. “We disagree with the district court’s decision in its entirety and we plan to promptly appeal to the Sixth Circuit,” said Howard Kleinhendler, one of the lawyers who also represents Powell. Wood said he also would appeal. “I undertook no act in Michigan and I had no involvement in the Michigan lawsuit filed by Sidney Powell,” he said in an email. (Wood made the same argument to Parker at a hearing earlier this year, but she was not persuaded to exclude him from discipline.) Federal prosecutors have also sought records from Powell’s fundraising groups as part of a criminal probe. David Fink, a lawyer for the city of Detroit, said: “These lawyers abused the federal courts to advance the big lie. They must pay a price for their misconduct, and this ruling is a good start.” Michigan Attorney Gen. Dana Nessel (D) concurred. “The awarding of fees further holds accountable the attorneys who worked to distort our democracy in favor of lining their own pockets,” Nessel said in a statement. “These attorneys demonstrated a flagrant disregard for the law and attempted to use the courts to further a false and destructive narrative. While there is likely no amount of money that can undo the damage they caused, I am happy to see these sanctions handed down.”

Roll Call - December 2, 2021

‘Not-so-secret weapon’: Critics warn Trump, GOP planning 2024 Electoral College heist

Donald Trump calls the 2020 presidential election “the real Big Lie,” a crooked race tilted against him by Democrats via “voter irregularities and fraud on a massive and determinative scale.” His critics accuse him of gaslighting voters, claiming he and his GOP loyalists are planning a 2024 heist. As he teases another White House bid, Trump on Sunday taunted Democrats in a statement, claiming — without providing evidence — “they cannot argue that facts in states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and others such as New Mexico, where the Democrat Secretary of State changed the voting laws without legislative approval just prior to the Election, making it virtually impossible for the Republican presidential candidate to win.” His critics warn he and other Republicans are making moves not to help voters stay healthy during a pandemic while voting, but to give the next GOP nominee a get-out-of-jail-free card. Republicans have revamped election canvassing boards in Michigan. Candidates who espoused Trump-like 2020 fraud claims won races to become elections judges and inspectors in Pennsylvania.

And there are movements in Colorado and other potential swing states for conservatives to apply for positions in key elections offices. Analysts and former officials warn of a scenario during a tight 2024 vote count where a senior state official in Georgia, or perhaps Arizona or Wisconsin, refuses to certify the Democratic nominee’s apparent Electoral College win there. That same state official would be hand-picked for this moment by Trump and his loyalists. In this hypothetical — for now — future, Trump appears publicly soon after, declaring victory and promising revenge against anyone who opposed him when his second term begins in two months. But outside the Mar-a-Lago ballroom, a constitutional crisis already is developing. “It’s Trump’s not-so-secret weapon, if he does run again,” said former Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla. “The proper way to view all of this is through a presidential cycle lens. Because it’s always about him.” “The goal here is to prevent certification of Electoral College votes in enough places that could help Trump get to 270,” Jolly said, referring to the number of electoral votes needed to secure the presidency. “It’s not simply a legal matter after this kind of scenario. Sure, the Constitution is there to protect us, but in a situation like that, which Trump tried to make happen in 2020, it’s anybody’s … guess what happens next.” The 45th president and still-leader of the GOP has endorsed nearly two dozen 2020 election skeptics in secretary of state and state attorneys general races — many in battlegrounds.

Bloomberg - December 1, 2021

Democrats poised to grab abortion case as fuel for 2022 turnout

Democrats stand to gain a powerful campaign tool to gin up support just ahead of the 2022 congressional midterm elections, based on the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to roll back abortion rights. While abortion rights are a perennial issue in congressional campaigns, Democratic strategists say that the kind of major shift to restrict access signaled by the court’s conservative majority in a case argued Wednesday would spur their base voters to turn out while moving swing voters away from the Republican Party. A court ruling is expected by the summer, giving Democrats a powerful pitch to raise money and recruit campaign volunteers as they head into the final stretch before the November elections. If the issue tipped the balance in even a few races, it could determine control of Congress, where Democrats currently have an eight-seat margin in the House and control the Senate only because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote.

Chris Hayden, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that Republicans are in a bind because their base wants the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling legalizing abortion. “If they have the Supreme Court and they still can’t get it done, that’s going to be a real problem for them,” he said. Both parties are vying for suburban female voters. Recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey showed that Democrats have lost ground with that bloc, after making gains during President Donald Trump’s administration. Republicans are currently favored to win back control of at least one chamber due to a combination of gains made from redistricting, President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings and the historical trend of the party in power losing in midterms. Democratic strategists say that a major court ruling would immediately become a top issue, pointing to polls that show the majority of Americans support the abortion rights recognized in Roe and reaffirmed in 1992. A recent survey by the DCCC found that the message that Republican candidates would seek to ban abortion was their strongest line of attack, followed by criticizing them for potentially blocking the debt ceiling and opposing letting Medicare negotiate cheaper prices on prescription drugs.

Wall Street Journal - December 3, 2021

Oil rises, stock futures waver as markets cap volatile week

U.S. stock futures wobbled, while oil prices continued to rise after OPEC and a group of Russia-led oil producers agreed to continue pumping more crude. Investors are grappling with the unclear impact of Omicron for the global economy. The variant has triggered fresh restrictions around the world, throwing up new obstacles to overseas travel just as it was starting to bounce back from last year’s Covid-19 measures. Scientists are trying to gauge how effective current vaccines will be against the variant. “What we see now this week since we had the Omicron news is extremely high volatility and extreme nervousness in markets,” said Carsten Brzeski, ING Groep’s global head of macro research. He expects this to continue until more is known about Omicron.

Brent crude futures, the benchmark in global oil markets, rose 2.4% to $71.34 a barrel Friday. OPEC and a group of Russia-led oil producers agreed Thursday to continue pumping more crude, betting that pent-up demand in a post-lockdown world would outweigh any hit to economic activity from the recent Covid-19 permutations. But the group said its session would remain open, a technical move that would allow it to reconvene quickly and change course if the Covid-19 situation changes dramatically. Investors are awaiting data at 8:30 a.m. ET on how many jobs U.S. employers added in November. Employers say they are eager to hire from a depleted pool of workers, leading to increased bargaining power and rising wages for many employees. A strong rebound in the labor market could impact the Federal Reserve’s timeline for paring back some of its monetary policy support that has supported asset prices. “After a week of mixed macro news, some stronger news would be good for the market,” Mr. Brzeski said.

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Vice President Kamala Harris unveils administration's priorities for space

Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized building a STEM workforce, addressing climate change, and promoting the rules and norms that govern space on Wednesday during the first National Space Council meeting of President Joe Biden’s administration. Her remarks in Washington — and the newly created U.S. Space Priorities Framework released Wednesday — are the first major space policy announcements to come from the Democratic administration. Snippets of information have come out, such as the continuing support for NASA’s Artemis Program that will return humans to the moon, but now there is a formal document outlining the Biden administration’s goals for exploring, defending and preserving space.

“Through our work in space, we have an opportunity to benefit not only the American people but all of humanity,” Harris said during a gathering of the council, which she chairs. “Our framework is therefore comprehensive. Our agenda is ambitious. But as an astronaut once told me about the advice he received ahead of his first spacewalk: He was told, ‘It’s simple. Just focus on what’s right in front of you, and from there widen your view.’ That, my friends, is how we will move forward.” The National Space Council coordinates federal space policies and activities, synchronizing efforts in the civil, commercial and national-security sectors. Variations of the panel have been used at various times by different administrations, with it first operating under a different name from 1958 to 1973 and then again as the National Space Council from 1989 to 1993. It was revived by President Donald Trump’s administration on June 30, 2017. The newly announced U.S. Space Priorities Framework will guide the council’s efforts to develop and implement national space policy and strategy.

Houston Chronicle - December 2, 2021

Biden moves against oil sector on federal leasing program

For decades Congress has resisted calls for overhauling the nation’s program of leasing public land for oil and gas drilling, even as royalty rates remain unchanged from when they were established more than a century ago. Now President Joe Biden is taking another shot at reforming the program, calling for a more measured approach to oil and gas drilling in light of climate change, while also looking to raise government revenues. But he’s likely to have his work cut out for him, asking moderates within his party to go up against an oil and gas industry that has fiercely resisted efforts to change the federal leasing program for decades.

“There’s no doubt the oil and gas industry is a powerful lobby, and they have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo,” said Autumn Hanna, vice president at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonprofit campaigning for reform of the leasing program. “They’re up there talking to lawmakers all the time and spending millions of dollars to keep these subsidies going for them.” The effort by the Biden administration puts a target on Texas oil and gas companies that have long operated on federal territory across Colorado, New Mexico and other western states, with federal lands and waters representing 20 percent of U.S. oil and gas production. Last week the Department of Interior released a much-anticipated report that found the nation’s onshore oil and gas leasing program woefully inadequate, with oil companies given too much opportunity to block public lands from being set aside for conservation and other uses. Royalty rates also remain far below those set by oil and gas producing states, the report found. For instance, the royalty rate on state lands in Texas is 20 to 25 percent, almost double the federal rate.

The Lilly - December 2, 2021

The woman who could bring down Roe v. Wade

Soon after the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Attorney General Lynn Fitch took a meeting with her communications team. As Mississippi’s top lawyer, she would be the face of the law that could bring down Roe v. Wade, responsible for crafting and publicizing arguments on behalf of the state. That day in July, they’d gathered to discuss their promotion strategy. Presented with several slogans designed to capture their approach to the case, the attorney general immediately selected a winner. “Empower Women. Promote Life.” The motto got right to the crux of Fitch’s argument, while alluding to a belief that has shaped her 12-year political career: Empower women, and they will help themselves. In the opening brief she submitted in July, Fitch asked the Supreme Court to use Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization to overturn Roe v. Wade. She argued that abortion prevents women from reaching their full potential. When Roe was decided in 1973, she wrote, the justices maintained that an unwanted pregnancy would doom women to “a distressful life and future.”

But nearly 50 years later, Fitch claims “sweeping policy advances” now allow women to fully pursue motherhood and a career, stamping out the need for abortion. To come up with this argument, which underpins the most important abortion case in decades, Fitch said she drew inspiration from her own life. After she and her husband divorced in 2004, she raised three kids as a single mother while ascending to the highest ranks of state government, becoming the state’s first female attorney general and the first Republican attorney general since 1878. The juggling act wasn’t easy, Fitch said — but with hard work and a color-coded calendar, she pulled it off. Now, she said, abortion bans like the one in Mississippi can help other women “have it all.” Critics immediately descended on Fitch. Abortion activists called her a hypocrite, highlighting her privilege, while a consortium of 154 economists scrutinized her argument in their own amicus brief to the Supreme Court. They pointed out that the United States is one of the only countries without a national paid family leave policy and the average price of child care, adjusted for inflation, has increased by almost 50 percent in the past three decades. Fitch stands by her argument. With this Supreme Court case, Fitch said in a television interview, God has presented women with an opportunity. “You have the option in life to really achieve your dreams and goals,” she said, addressing the women of America. “And you can have those beautiful children as well.”

Rolling Stone - December 2, 2021

Why mainstream media pros pledged themselves to the Oath Keepers

When joining a right-wing militia, most members brag about their military credentials, tactical training, or prowess with firearms. But a select group of members in the hacked Oath Keeper rolls touted a very different skillset — pledging to be information warriors for the extremist group. These Oath Keepers signed up pitching past affiliations with the Washington Post, USA Today, Tampa Tribune as well as local television news and newspaper outlets from New Jersey to Kansas to Arizona. Still others offered experience in film and radio production or pledged to serve the Oath Keepers on the public affairs front, helping to market the militia to the masses. “I spent 10 years as a TV news reporter,” wrote one New York man, who claimed his career was derailed “after speaking up for the police.” He pitched the militia on his services: “I can help tremendously as a media spokesman and recruiter.” A man from Virginia touted high-level jobs at national newspapers as well as his “Ph.D. and 28 years’ experience in opinion and marketing research and strategy.” He added: “If you want to do REAL polling/survey work, I’m your guy.” (This individual also highlighted his weapons expertise as an “NRA-certified instructor.”)

Another well-educated Oath Keeper offered broadcast experience: “I have a masters degree in radio, television, and film production and worked for… years in the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service producing television programs.” An Oklahoman highlighted similar, deep journalism experience — “I have been in print journalism for almost 30 years,” he wrote — and offered: “I can deal with the media/public.” For the Oath Keepers, having access to such a deep pool of media talent “can be incredibly useful,” says Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the Center on Extremism, housed at the Anti-Defamation League. These information warriors, he says, can help the militia group “create an image that is cool, competent, and appealing to potential members — and then blast it out to a far larger audience than if they were trying to recruit in person.” These media militiamen are among nearly 40,000 individuals listed in an Oath Keeper membership database that was hacked, leaked to a transparency group called Denial of Distributed Secrets, and then made available to the media. The membership rolls have formed the basis of reporting for outlets from New York Times and NPR to BuzzFeed and the Daily Dot. Rolling Stone’s own reporting has identified Oath Keepers in state government, sheriffs departments, and even the board of the National Rifle Association. None of the media professionals who signed onto the Oath Keepers are household names, but, collectively, their involvement with the militia shows how the extremist group has made inroads into an influential part of American public life.

Variety - December 2, 2021

Hulu pulls ‘Astroworld: Concert From Hell’ documentary after backlash

Hulu on Wednesday released a new documentary special — “Astroworld: Concert From Hell,” recapping the deadly events at a Travis Scott festival in Houston last month — but quickly pulled it from the service after a social-media backlash. The news special was produced by KTRK, ABC’s owned-and-operated local station in Houston. In a statement, a Hulu spokesperson told Variety, “This was an investigative local news special from ABC13/KTRK-TV in Houston that originally aired on November 20th. This was not a Hulu documentary and has since been removed to avoid confusion.”

In a widely circulated tweet about the special’s release on Hulu, one commenter — who assumed the “Concert From Hell” program was produced by the Disney-controlled streamer — said, “Hulu making a documentary about Astroworld is in poor taste all around. People are still burying their loved ones. The legal cases haven’t even started. Great documentaries are done when all the facts are laid out. Not enough time has passed to fully discuss this.” The description of the “Concert From Hell” news special that is still on Hulu’s site says: “Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival was supposed to be the concert of a lifetime. But it turned into a tragic nightmare. A minute-by-minute look at what happened in the crowd, the young victims who were killed, and what happens next.” On Nov. 5, Astroworld turned tragic during Scott’s performance at the festival when the crowd of 50,000 people surged, resulting in a panic that left 10 people dead. As first reported by Variety, Scott provided full refunds for all attendees who bought tickets to Astroworld.

December 2, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Gov. Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates back in effect after Appeals Court decision

Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on school mask mandates is back in effect in Texas after the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals halted a federal judge’s injunction on the order. Federal Judge Lee Yeakel decided in November that Abbott’s order banning such mandates in schools violated the rights of students with disabilities, opening a path for districts to put in place face-covering requirements to help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. But the 5th Circuit judges halted the injunction in response to an appeal from Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton celebrated the development Wednesday on Twitter, saying the governor’s order is “THE LAW.” Abbott also weighed in, thanking Paxton for the victory and calling it “GREAT NEWS.”

Lawyers with Disability Rights Texas, who filed the first federal lawsuit over Abbott’s ban in mid-August, alleged that the prohibition on mask mandates put students with disabilities at risk and violates protections afforded to them under the law. Among the plaintiffs is a child from Richardson. Disability Rights Texas argued that school leaders must be allowed to decide if mask mandates are required based on local coronavirus transmission data and student needs. The group represents children, mostly younger than 12, who have medical conditions “which carry an increased risk of serious complications or death in the event that they contract COVID-19.? In his ruling, Yeakel concluded that the governor’s executive order interfered with schools’ ability to satisfy their obligations under federal disability law. But in a court filing, the 5th Circuit judges pushed back on the notion that the absence of mask mandates would translate to harm for the students involved in the lawsuit. “The risks of contracting COVID-19 for these plaintiffs are certainly real, but the alleged injury to plaintiffs from the enforcement of [the governor’s order] is, at this point, much more abstract,” the judges wrote.

NPR - December 1, 2021

Supreme Court considers whether to reverse Roe v. Wade

An epic argument at the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday: At issue is whether to reverse the court's nearly half-century-old Roe v. Wade decision and subsequent decisions declaring that women have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy. Until now, all the court's abortion decisions have upheld Roe's central framework — that women have a constitutional right to an abortion in the first two trimesters of pregnancy when a fetus is unable to survive outside the womb, until roughly between 22 and 24 weeks. But Mississippi's law bans abortion after 15 weeks. A separate law enacted a year later would ban abortions after six weeks, and while the six-week ban is not at stake in this case, the state is now asking the Supreme Court to reverse all of its prior abortion decisions and to return the abortion question to the states.

This is not the first time the court has been asked to reverse Roe. The last major challenge to abortion rights was in 1992 in a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey. So it's worth listening to what three justices said back then in reaffirming what they called "the central holding of Roe." Justice Sandra Day O'Connor spoke first from the bench: "Our obligation is to define liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code." Justice Anthony Kennedy was next: "Our cases recognize the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child." And last was Justice David Souter: "The factual premises on which it rests are no different today from those on which the ruling rested initially ... so to overrule in the absence of the most compelling reason ... would subvert the court's legitimacy beyond any serious question." Those justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, were centrist conservatives, but today's Supreme Court supermajority of six justices, without exception, are all dramatically more conservative, and all have records opposing abortion rights.

Politico - December 2, 2021

Tick, tick: House ends day with no shutdown deal

Democrats are scrambling to avoid a possible government shutdown in less than 72 hours as they desperately seek an agreement with the GOP during a day of frantic cross-aisle talks. The state of talks had not improved by Wednesday afternoon, with GOP leaders dug in on their opposition to Democrats’ plans and the party’s right flank vowing to use its procedural powers to trigger a brief weekend shutdown over President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate. But some senior Democrats believe a deal could be within reach. "I have reason to believe, having talked to the speaker, that there may be an agreement," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said Wednesday afternoon.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her deputies had planned to reach a deal on a stopgap spending bill with Republicans by Wednesday morning, allowing both chambers to quickly approve the measure and avoid a funding lapse by midnight Friday. But the House will not vote Wednesday on a funding fix, according to senior Democrats, which gives party leaders just two fraught days to avert a shutdown — even a brief one. If a deal is reached, the House Rules panel could still meet Wednesday night, teeing up quick action on Thursday to send a bill to the Senate. Complicating matters further, the Senate is locked in a stalemate over the annual defense policy bill, leaving the chamber little floor time to process a stopgap spending bill before the weekend. House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has been publicly and privately confident that she can clinch a shutdown-averting deal with GOP leaders, seemed exasperated as she entered the House chamber Wednesday afternoon. “We’re still waiting. Still waiting,” she said. “Let’s keep some optimism.”

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Rep. Chip Roy calls for government shutdown over Biden's 'tyrannical' vaccine mandate

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy is leading calls from the right for Republicans to force a government shutdown over President Joe Biden's coronavirus vaccine mandates. The effort comes as Congress rushes to pass a stopgap spending bill before a government shutdown on Friday. Roy says Republicans should oppose the measure unless it strips funding to enforce the vaccine requirements. “Congress needs to man up, stand up and fight for the American people — and that means don’t fund a government that is tyrannically forcing people to get a vaccine that they don’t want to get,” the Austin Republican said in an interview on Fox News.

It’s the latest example of Texas Republicans going all-out to oppose Biden’s vaccine orders, which mandate federal contractors, large companies and health care providers to force their employees either to get vaccinations or be tested regularly for COVID-19. Some employers, including the U.S. Department of Defense, are making the vaccine a condition of employment. In Austin, there are also growing calls among Republican state lawmakers for Gov. Greg Abbott to call the Legislature back for another special session to ban vaccine mandates. Abbott issued an emergency coronavirus order earlier this year aimed at doing as much. Attorney General Kan Paxton, meanwhile, has joined other Republican states in suing to stop the mandates in court. The administration has said the mandates are necessary to get more Americans vaccinated as yet another COVID variant has emerged. About 60 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 55 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated.

State Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 1, 2021

Cory Session: George Floyd was wrongly convicted in Texas. Why is Gov. Abbott waiting to pardon him?

(Cory Session of Fort Worth is vice president of the Innocence Project of Texas, which works to free those wrongfully convicted, and the brother of Timothy Cole.) There is never a wrong time to do the right thing. In the spring of 1985, a string of aggravated sexual assaults occurred on and near the campus of Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Timothy Cole, a student at Texas Tech, was arrested and labeled the “Tech Rapist.” Cole, an army veteran, steadfastly denied the allegations made against him. However, he would later be tried and convicted for the aggravated sexual assault of a fellow Tech student whom he did not know. Cole would later suffer a massive heart attack, brought on by his asthma, and die in a Texas prison, having served 13 years and continuously professing his innocence. In 2008, the historic news came that, through DNA testing, Cole had been found innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. The test also showed that a man who was serving time in another Texas prison for two other 1985 rapes in Lubbock was guilty of the crime for which Cole was convicted.

Cole, my brother, became the first person in Texas and the nation to have died in prison and later to be proven factually innocent through DNA testing. In 2010, he received the first posthumous pardon ever issued by the state of Texas. The historic pardon was made possible by an opinion issued by the attorney general at the time, Greg Abbott. Today, as governor, Abbott has the sole power to grant another posthumous pardon, yet he fails to answer this plea for justice. For nearly two months, Abbott has refused to act upon a petition for an individual whom the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, composed of Abbott appointees, has unanimously recommended a full pardon. The pardon is for George Floyd — yes, that George Floyd. Floyd was convicted of a crime that he did not commit in 2004 in Harris County. In 2019, the Harris County district attorney’s office began an investigation into a now disgraced and indicted police officer, Gerald Goines. The Houston police department and the DA’s office have uncovered more than 100 fraudulent arrests and convictions in which courts have had to exonerate individuals. Somewhere, I read that “justice is blind.” And somewhere, I read that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Why the delay?

KSAT - December 1, 2021

‘Ratepayer scandal:’ $700 steak dinners, 100+ brunch trips and the downfall of a CPS Energy executive

A KSAT 12 Defenders analysis of CPS Energy expense reports revealed exorbitant purchases costing the publicly owned utility thousands of dollars under the tenures of ex-executives. The months-long analysis came after the Defenders obtained more than 4,300 pages of purchasing card expenditures of former Chief Operating Officer Fred Bonewell and former President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams. In October, Bonewell resigned days after the Defenders exposed past ethics and spending complaints against him, while Gold-Williams stepped down from her position with plans to leave the utility in 2022. The purchases raise questions about how Gold-Williams and Bonewell ran the utility, sparking concern from public policy experts and San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg. In 2019, Bonewell’s purchasing card expenditures totaled $53,444.53, higher than the median household income in San Antonio that same year, according to U.S. Census data.

Despite having an annual salary well over $300,000, according to the most recently available figures from the utility, Bonewell was a prolific spender of the public’s money. He previously served as CPS Energy’s chief safety & security officer before he was promoted in June to the utility’s number two position. Expense sheets and receipts covering Bonewell’s tenure show that he often charged multiple meals a day or high-price meals to his company purchasing card, including: On a single day in November 2018, Bonewell charged breakfast at the Guenther House, lunch at the now-shuttered El Mirador and dinner at J. Alexander’s; Bonewell ate (and expensed) at a North Side brunch spot called Snooze on more than 100 occasions, often multiple times per week; A $683 meal at Saltgrass Steak House on the River Walk in April 2018 included the purchase of more than a dozen steaks. The meal was described as a safety kickoff thank you luncheon and was attended by various other CPS managers and directors, records show; A $378 expense at Brazilian steakhouse Fogo de Chao Numerous high-price meals at various Paesano’s locations, costing taxpayers $704, $688 and $600.

Texas Tribune - December 1, 2021

Ross Ramsey: Betting a Texas election on a weather forecast

In spite of the confident assurances from Texas officeholders, there’s still a risk that your power will go off in the face of a big winter storm in the next few months. Sure, this is politics. The problem, as Austin energy consultant Doug Lewin told The Texas Tribune’s Mitchell Ferman, is not with technology, or even with the way electric plants are operated. It’s regulatory. This is exactly the sort of problem politics and government were made for — one that can be fixed in Austin. It’s a question of who the state government is working for at any given time. Was it the electric utilities? The natural gas producers who fuel so many electric plants? Commercial and industrial electric customers willing to weather a few blackouts here and there if it means cheaper electric rates? Was it residential customers who want light and heat and water, even (or especially) when it’s freezing cold?

Lobbyists are in power when the Legislature is writing laws, the governor is appointing regulators and the state agencies are writing rules. Voters are in power in election years. Winter is coming, and so is an election year. It doesn’t matter whether someone is a great fundraiser, an incumbent, a movie star or someone who flashes a skateboard in a Whataburger parking lot late at night. The job people like that are seeking starts with keeping Texans safe. Texas failed to do that in February. The Legislature passed some bills on the subject. Some think they came up short. The governor has said that everything that could be done was done, that there’s nothing to see here, that the risks are gone. "I can guarantee the lights will stay on," he told Austin’s Fox 7 News last weekend. He said he’s “very confident” and said he had signed “almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective.”

San Antonio Express-News - December 1, 2021

Elon Musk warns SpaceX faces 'genuine risk of bankruptcy' if engine production troubles continue

SpaceX is having engine trouble. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk warned employees of a “Raptor production crisis” for the engines needed to launch the massive Starship spacecraft from South Texas. SpaceX is aiming to launch Starship into orbit for the first time in early 2022 and then run a series of test flights as steps toward carrying cargo and humans to the moon and Mars. But Musk on Friday warned that delays in production of Raptor engines could hamper that progress and lead to significant financial problems. “We face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” he wrote in a company-wide email obtained by CNBC and Space Explored.

A longtime SpaceX observer said it was “classic Musk” to suggest workers should forgo their Thanksgiving holiday weekends to focus on the engines. And it isn’t the first time Musk, who’s also founder and CEO of Tesla, has openly discussed the possibility of financial hardship. In June, he said SpaceX’s constellation of internet satellites, Starlink, needed $30 billion to survive and continue its mission of launching 42,000 satellites into orbit over the next decade to provide high-speed internet service around the world. Musk’s latest warning came less than two weeks after he said Starship would launch into orbit from its Starbase site in Boca Chica in January or February, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. During a teleconference Nov. 17, Musk told members of the National Academy of Sciences the company would complete a launch pad and tower at the site about 20 miles east of Brownsville before running suborbital test flights this month. He also said he wanted to increase the number of Raptor 2 engines on Starship’s base from 29 to 33, giving the vehicle more thrust than the NASA-built Saturn V rocket used in the Apollo programs in the 1960s and 1970s.

Houston Business Journal - November 30, 2021

Construction and engineering co. Zachry Group rolls out new sustainability business

San Antonio-based construction and engineering company Zachry Group rolled out a new sustainability business with a focus on energy transition projects to help customers decrease their carbon footprint. The new company, Zachry Sustainability Solutions, is designed to develop and evolve ways to decarbonize existing industrial processes, said Chairman and CEO of Zachry Group, John Zachry. Zachry Sustainability Solutions will be led by Mike Kotara, who will serve as the company's president. "Our customers are making significant commitments toward meeting ambitious new emissions standards in their portfolios, and we intend to be part of the solution," Kotara said.

While Zachry Sustainability Solutions does not provide the technologies themselves, Kotara said it will deploy new technologies in four key areas: nuclear energy, carbon capture, hydrogen and renewable fuels and chemicals. "Zachry Sustainability Solutions will work with its customers from the earliest stages of project development including feasibility studies and technology selection, and then continuing through detailed engineering design and construction to integrate new technology into the customer's existing facilities," said Kotara. New technologies will include the use of process equipment to capture and remove carbon dioxide from existing flue gas or process gas emissions; producing hydrogen using renewable energy and then substituting green hydrogen for methane fuel; and using technology to promote more sustainable feedstocks such as beef tallow, vegetable oil or seed oil instead of crude oil to produce transportation fuels, he added.

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Lawyers say Dallas judge had staff member pretend to be her during online court proceeding

A group of defense lawyers has accused a Dallas judge of ordering her court coordinator to pretend to be her in an online proceeding. The Dallas County Defense Lawyers Association filed a complaint last week with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, alleging that State District Judge Amber Givens’ coordinator, Arceola Warfield, illegally acted as the judge in a hearing to consider a suspect’s bail and conditions for release from jail. The judge “actively controls most aspects of her docket, so we don’t believe that the coordinator acted independently but rather at the explicit direction of Judge Givens,” the defense lawyers association president, Amanda Branan, said. The association shared its grievance with The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday but redacted the names of the other people involved. Givens denied the allegations and said the prosecutor in the case spread misinformation.

Dallas police and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Office said they were not conducting a criminal investigation into the matter, and Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot declined to comment on whether his office is investigating. The state commission does not release information about its investigations or complaints it receives unless public action is taken. The commission has not taken public disciplinary action against Givens, executive director Jacqueline Habersham said. Givens recused herself from the case Nov. 18. She said she thought doing so was appropriate when she learned of the accusation against her. Impersonating a public servant is a third-degree felony in Texas. Givens, a Democrat who has served on the bench since 2015, is up for re-election next year. No one else had filed for the seat as of Tuesday. The filing deadline is Dec. 13. Givens, a former prosecutor in the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office, did not say whether she had been notified she was being investigated.

Dallas Morning News - December 2, 2021

Elections, abortion medication bills among new Texas laws taking effect Thursday

The far-reaching GOP elections bill and a ban on medication abortion are among bills passed in the Texas Legislature’s second special session that become law Thursday. Seven bills were passed following the return of quorum-breaking Democrats, but one of them -- a bill setting a later primary election date if redistricting maps weren’t passed by early November -- became moot after lawmakers wrapped up the redistricting session in October. Besides elections and abortion, a bill regarding teaching of critical race theory was among those becoming law 90 days after the second special session ended in early September. However, a federal judge in Austin late Wednesday blocked a bill limiting how social media companies control content. U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin ruled that platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have a right to moderate content.

The elections bill, known as Senate Bill 1, imposes several new voting restrictions that, when proposed, led nearly all state House Democrats to flee the state to prevent its passage. Enough Democrats eventually returned to Austin to allow Republicans to pass the bill. It includes many new provisions related to polling hours, mail-in voting and poll watchers. It puts in place rules that give poll watchers more freedom to move about polling locations to observe, without interfering, election activities. It also creates a certification process and curriculum for poll watchers and requires them to take an oath promising not to harass voters. SB 1 prohibits 24-hour voting and drive-through voting, a practice some urban counties used in 2020 as a pandemic safety measure. It also makes it illegal for county election officials to proactively send out mail-in ballots to anyone who did not request one. It also orders randomized election audits of four counties following presidential and midterm federal elections. Last month, GOP leaders shifted $4 million from Texas’ prison budget to pay for the audits. The bill is part of a wave of Republican-led voting laws enacted in the wake of the 2020 election and unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud.

Texas Public Radio - December 1, 2021

Gov. Abbott targets LGBTQ+ books as ‘pornography.’ Texas librarians say he’s wrong

In February, a parent brought a strap-on dildo to a Leander ISD school board meeting. She railed against a book in the school's library, “In The Dream House.” “‘In The Dream House’ is so explicit that introducing it to minors probably constitutes child abuse under Texas law, putting a lot of us in the position of reporting to Child Protective Services,” she said. She then plopped the dildo onto the podium. “It's a strap-on dildo,” she explained, before reading a passage from the book: “‘She shaves her c*nt smooth, and it glows like the inside of a conch shell. She loves wearing a harness. You suck her off that way, and she c*ms like it’s real…’”

In November, Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation into supposed “pornography” in school library catalogues. In a letter to the Texas Education Agency, he honed in on books about the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, including “In The Dream House.” Carmen Maria Machado wrote the book. “Whenever the book is quoted… it's always the sex scenes that are sort of highlighted,” she said. But, she stressed, ‘In the Dream House’ is a memoir about more than sex. “It’s about a lot of things, including a time that I spent in an abusive relationship with another woman,” she said. “So, it’s a memoir and a book exploring abuse in same sex relationships and the phenomenon of it and why it's not talked about.” She thinks that’s a big reason the story resonates with so many readers. “I still receive dozens of messages a week from people saying, you know, ‘This book was really important to me. This book helped me leave a bad relationship. This book helped me, gave me some perspective.’”

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

20 years ago, fraud destroyed Enron and ruined lives. But Houston survived — and thrived.

It was hailed as the most innovative company in America, a hometown energy giant whose name graced one of Houston’s skyscrapers and the Astros ballpark. Enron was founded in 1985 as a natural gas pipeline company and became one of the largest energy and commodities trading companies. Its incredible growth turned the company into the darling of Wall Street, an “it stock” that stood out even among rising tech giants during the height of the dot-com bubble. At its zenith, the self-proclaimed “world's leading energy company” was the nation’s seventh largest corporation valued at almost $70 billion. But it was a world of make-believe. On Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001, Enron filed what was at the time the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history after it became apparent that its gangbuster growth was based on accounting gimmicks and a web of lies. Enron’s 20,000 employees lost their jobs and $1.2 billion in retirement funds tied up in company stock; its retirees saw $2 billion of their pension funds evaporate.

Nancy Rapoport, who served as the dean of the University of Houston Law Center at the time of Enron’s collapse and wrote several books on the Enron scandal, recalled the company’s swift and stunning fall from grace. “Before it blew up, we thought Enron was this amazing company and donor to the city of Houston, the arts and higher education,” said Rapoport, now the law school dean at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “So it was a shock to all of us when we realized that Enron was so different from what we thought.” Twenty years later, the shock of Enron’s downfall has long faded, but it remains a cautionary tale of corporate hubris and fraud. Its lessons still carry weight, especially as Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes stands trial, accused of defrauding investors and patients about the viability and accuracy of its medical testing technology. Enron’s Chairman Kenneth Lay and CEO Jeff Skilling convinced the company’s board, Wall Street analysts and investment banks of the energy company’s supposed success. Similarly, Holmes was able to sway investors and Theranos’ esteemed board including former Secrectaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and Gen. James Mattis that the company could conduct hundreds of medical tests from a single drop of blood.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Houston charter school founder sentenced to three years in prison for mail fraud conspiracy

The founder of a now-shuttered Houston charter school on Wednesday was sentenced to three years in federal prison and ordered to pay more than $335,000 in restitution after being convicted of conspiracy to commit mail fraud related to embezzled school funds. Richard S. Rose, 65, who served as Zoe Learning Academy’s founder, CEO, superintendent and chief financial officer, pleaded guilty in August to falsifying government reports through the mail to use school money for personal expenses, including a Honolulu timeshare, $30,000 in legal fees and a $75,000 lawsuit settlement.

Zoe Learning Academy, which had an elementary school campus in Houston's Greater Third Ward and one in a Dallas suburb, shut down abruptly in September 2017, weeks after Hurricane Harvey, due to financial problems. At the time, Rose said the school’s enrollment was too low to generate enough revenue. Enrollment at the schools decreased from several hundred students to around 150 by the time the charter closed. The schools opened in 2001. Rose, of Missouri City, was arrested in December 2019 after a federal grand jury returned an 18-count indictment that included money laundering, conspiracy and theft from programs receiving federal funds. After reaching a plea agreement, he was convicted of one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud. At the time of his arrest, prosecutors said Rose failed to properly disclose nearly $1 million in payments he made to his brother’s company with taxpayer money. Rose used public funds to pay more than $60,000 to his wife and a company the couple owned, according to prosecutors. Zoe Learning Academy received a failing grade on the 2017 Texas Education Agency’s financial integrity rating for schools. The charter district also failed to meet state academic standards in 2013, 2015 and 2017. On Wednesday, Rose remained free on bail and will voluntarily surrender to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility in the near future, prosecutors said.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Whataburger launches $500,000 scholarship program for college students

One of Texas’ favorite burger chains is giving back to what might be one of its biggest fan bases — college students. Whataburger announced Wednesday the launch of its Whataburger Feeding Student Success Scholarship program, which commits $500,000 to help students planning for a post-secondary education, according to a release.

The program will award $5,000 scholarships to 100 students within the fast food joint’s footprint — all of whom plan to attend college, university or a non-for-profit vocational school. The first year of scholarships will award funding specifically to Black students and those from other racial minority backgrounds as a part Whataburger’s now-exceeded $1 million commitment to racial equity, which the chain announced in June 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. The scholarship, which is non-renewable, can be used for tuition, fees, books, supplies and housing for the 2022-2023 academic school year. The deadline to apply is Feb. 28, 2022.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Erica Grieder: Omicron provides yet another wake-up call for COVID-weary Americans

Certain problems, you can see coming. For example, as it stands, just six percent of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19. “What did we think was going to happen when we allowed the African continent to remain unvaccinated?,” asked Dr. Peter Hotez rhetorically, on Monday. “This was all predicted and predictable.” Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, was reflecting on the latest developments in the ongoing struggle against COVID-19. On Nov. 25th, scientists in South Africa had alerted the world to a new variant, called omicron. The news went over like a lead balloon. Americans are done with COVID. Done with the disease itself, which has already killed more than 70,000 people in Texas alone. Done with the various restrictions imposed on us in order to slow its spread. Done with the debates about whether those measures make sense.

Done with the occasional fistfights and shouting matches between strangers over proper mask usage, and so on. Done with all of that, and all the rest. But will COVID ever be done with us? That’s the question the omicron variant raises. And it’s a painful one for Houstonians, who might well have been hoping the worst was behind us. This summer saw a surge in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the region, spurred along by the delta variant. But that wave--the fourth wave, for those keeping track--is now behind us. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday lowered the county’s threat level from Level 2, Orange, to Level 3, Yellow--signifying moderate but controlled spread. The new variant raises the ominous prospect that all those gains could be reversed. Initial reports from South Africa, where it has spread rapidly through Pretoria and Johannesburg, suggest that omicron may cause relatively mild cases, but also that it may be highly transmissible. Scientists have also warned that omicron may be able to evade the antibodies conferred by vaccination or prior infection, thanks to key mutations, particularly in its spike protein.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

Houston City Council drops plan to hire lawyers to investigate housing scandal allegations

The city on Wednesday punted on hiring lawyers to investigate the former housing director’s allegations that the mayor tried to steer affordable housing money to select developers. City Council voted unanimously to refer back to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration a $275,000 contract to hire the Butler Snow law firm to probe the allegations. That is a procedural move often used to kill items entirely. There was no discussion of the proposed contract, which had been delayed by council twice. Turner had promised an independent investigation, led by City Attorney Arturo Michel, after former housing director Tom McCasland publicly accused him in September of manufacturing a sham competitive funding process to bankroll certain developers at the expense of families who need affordable homes.

The mayor fired McCasland and later withdrew his recommendation to give the development $15 million in city funds. Turner and Michel — who arranged the contract — argued that rendered the investigation unnecessary. Council members opposed the contract for several reasons: some frequent critics of the mayor argued it would not be sufficiently independent; others argued it was redundant given investigations by the state General Land Office and the Harris County district attorney’s office. Some also raised fiscal concerns, although the legal funds that would have paid for the investigation are budgeted for that purpose. The land office, which administers the federal relief money to the city, did not center on McCasland’s allegations in its inquiry because the city never submitted that development for approval. It reviewed two larger, earlier rounds of funding and found the city undermined what is supposed to be a competitive process to award the money, in part by allowing too much discretion by the mayor’s office and housing staff. The state put the city’s program on pause until it takes corrective action.

Houston Public Media - December 2, 2021

Houston fire and police staff have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination compliance rates among city employees, records show

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston's 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments. Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department. That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order. Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15. The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments. The list was provided by the city after a Texas Public Information Act request, and also showed just 72% of city council staff were compliant — second-lowest among all departments. But council staff pushed back on those numbers Wednesday and Thursday, saying they've reached nearly 100% compliance in the weeks since the Nov. 15 report. Houston Public Media surveyed all 16 council offices about compliance. Council members Edward Pollard, Dave Martin, Tiffany Thomas, Robert Gallegos and Tarsha Jackson all reported that their staff were vaccinated and in compliance. The council members added that they are vaccinated, as well – even though elected officials are exempt from the order, as are people appointed to boards or commissions. The 11 other council members did not provide a comment for this story.

Dallas Morning News - December 1, 2021

Businessman Ross Perot Jr. donates helicopter to help Dallas police ‘save a lot of lives’

Ross Perot Jr. descended onto the plaza in front of Dallas City Hall early Wednesday, piloting a new helicopter that the Dallas businessman was donating to help Dallas police fight crime across the city. Perot — whose father was a billionaire and third-party presidential candidate — said the gift has been in the works for about a year. He said he flew with the city’s helicopter unit in the 1980s and saw how a helicopter can “save lives and keep the city safe.” “This helicopter will save a lot of lives,” Perot said. “My family has a history of helping the Dallas police through the decades. This is just one more thing we can do to help.”

Perot, an Air Force veteran, in 1982 co-piloted a helicopter that was the first to circumnavigate the world. Four decades later, many of those involved in that historic flight watched as Perot, 63, flew the police department’s new helicopter over Dallas’ Reunion Tower before landing just outside City Hall. The helicopter, a white Bell 407 with blue stripes along its tail and bottom, is double the size of the department’s two existing choppers. It can fly at 165 mph and can carry a pilot and five passengers, as well as loads up to 2,000 pounds. Dallas police have had a helicopter unit since 1969 and have used drones since 2005. Police say the helicopters are used when there’s a need to scan a wide area or in high-risk cases, such as an armed suspect hiding from officers in a wooded area or an abandoned building. The department’s use of aerial surveillance faced some scrutiny last month after an anonymous hacker leaked more than 600 hours of mostly Dallas police helicopter and drone footage. The City Council was briefed in closed session last month regarding possible legal and security issues related to the incident.

County Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 1, 2021

JJ Koch and Theresa Daniel: Federal funds will not magically create broadband for all in Dallas County

(J.J.Koch and Theresa Daniel are Dallas County Commissioners. ) After passing in the U.S. Senate this summer, the much-awaited infrastructure bill has passed in the House. News reports breathlessly listed what it may cover — roads, bridges, etc. — and broadband! After living through the past 20 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can all rattle off why broadband is critical to life today. If you were working remotely or looking for work, you needed fast, dependable broadband. If your children were attending school online, you needed dependable broadband and enough devices to accommodate the family and the savvy to navigate it. And these are just for starters. Devices using these services now come in all forms: phones, tablets, computers and their home-based sibling devices from Amazon, Google and Apple. Further, the Federal Communications Commission and Health and Human Services have jointly issued a memorandum, for the first time ever, stating that access to broadband is a “super-determinant of health.”

Bottom line: Broadband is crucial to a full, modern life. Past efforts for universal broadband access have, in our opinion, failed for several reasons. There has not been a clear view of how broadband is defined. Pre-pandemic, there was not widespread government support, which is critical both in understanding what to pursue and what not to pursue. Industry and government had not migrated completely to online information and services. The link between broadband and education was not well understood before the pandemic, nor was the link between broadband and health care. These links are clear now. Further, business leaders also see opportunities both to help and to make money. This is one area where Dallas County can lead and innovate. Now that the $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has passed, does that mean access is around the corner? Not at all. Dallas County Commissioners have embarked on a far-sighted effort to define what our goals are and how to bring together a working coalition of public and nonprofit entities and private companies to commit to a realistic plan. We held the initial meeting in October with the support of all the Dallas County commissioners. Attendees represented the city of Dallas, Dallas ISD and other neighboring school districts, nonprofit entities like United Way and Dallas Foundation, advocacy and policy groups like North Texas Innovation Alliance, and representatives from the private sector.

City Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 1, 2021

Former Fort Worth City Council member Danny Scarth dies

Danny Scarth was loved by nearly all who knew him. The former District 4 City Council member, who died on Thanksgiving, was remembered as a tireless advocate for his district, his neighbors, and the city of Fort Worth. He was 60. Tobi Jackson, president of the Fort Worth school board, grew up with Scarth and attended Eastern Hills Elementary with him. She said he was the nicest, most genuine person she’d ever met. Scarth, who used a wheelchair after a neck injury playing college football, would go on to help Jackson make Fort Worth schools more accessible to similarly disabled students.

He always put a positive spin on criticism about the accessibility at the district’s schools, Jackson said, once joking that it took only 15 minutes to get across a school campus instead of the usual 20. He never let his disability be an obstacle, Jackson said. Instead he used it as an example to others of what they could contribute, she said. It was that need to contribute that drove him to run for Fort Worth City Council, said his son Payton. “He had good friends or neighbors who’d come over to trim bushes or mow a lawn, and he wasn’t physically able to do that, so his way to give back to his neighbors was to represent them at city hall,” Payton said. He served on the City Council from 2006 to 2015. During that time, Scarth distinguished himself for his ability to build consensus and his advocacy for east Fort Worth. He was always respectful and he looked out for everyone, former council colleague Sal Espino said.

Axios - December 1, 2021

Austin among 10 worst metros for package theft

Keep an eye on the porch as you're placing holiday orders and awaiting the arrival of those Black Friday and Cyber Monday purchases. Ouch: Austin ranked No. 6 on a list of the top 10 worst metro cities for package theft. Why it matters: The coronavirus pandemic changed Americans' shopping habits, driving consumers online and making porch pirates peskier than ever. In a survey of 1,000 Americans, Safewise and Cove Home Security found that roughly 210 million packages disappeared from porches across the country in 2021.

Denver ranked No. 1 for package theft, with San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Seattle and San Antonio trailing behind. Texas is the only state with multiple cities on the list, the survey found. What they're saying: "The more packages left for longer periods of time on a porch, the more likely they are to be stolen," said Ben Stickle, an expert on criminal justice and package theft and a member of the SafeWise advisory group. "Add to that, people are busier this time of year and have their routine shifted as they may work later and spend more time away from home shopping or visiting with family and friends, so packages are left sitting exposed on the porch for longer," he added. In response to package thefts, Round Rock Police Department's fifth annual "Operation Front Porch" kicked off earlier this month. The program allows residents to ship their packages to the police department for safe keeping.

Austin American-Statesman - November 29, 2021

Plan for 20,000-seat amphitheater project near Bee Cave ignites opposition

On what's now a wooded hilltop near Bee Cave, bordering property that is set aside for a nature preserve, picture this: A 20,000-capacity amphitheater, touted by its developers as a venue that will reinforce the Austin area's reputation as the "Live Music Capital of the World;" Two high-rise towers with 465 apartments; A Top Golf-style driving range with 96 bays; Nightclubs, restaurants and office space. But before developers of the proposed amphitheater project can turn this vision into reality, they face several hurdles — not the least of which is the need to raise perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars. The price tag for the project is estimated at $600 million to $750 million.

In addition, environmentalists and some homeowners in the area oppose it, saying the plans could degrade wildlife habitat and the water quality of nearby Barton Creek, as well as create noise and transportation issues. The project — dubbed the Violet Crown, a reference to lavender hues that can be seen when the sun sets over Travis County's western hills — is the vision of Chris Milam, founder of International Development Management Co. The project is planned for 71 acres of raw land at Texas 71 and Southwest Parkway, a well-traveled intersection near Bee Cave, about 15 miles west of downtown Austin. In the 2000s, Milam developed the Hill Country Galleria outdoor mall in Bee Cave and a large, big-box retail center across Texas 71 called the Shops at the Galleria. Those projects changed the face of what was then a mostly rural area. It continues to boom with ongoing residential and commercial development. Although Milam founded International Development Management, he has turned its leadership over to Craig Bryan, a corporate attorney who previously worked for Milam.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 2, 2021

Arlington approves fracking permit close to daycare, homes

Three months of contentious debate over public health risks tied to natural gas drilling in Arlington came to a head on Tuesday night, when City Council members narrowly approved a permit to add three new gas wells at a drill site just over 600 feet from a daycare center and homes. Council approved the Total Energies application 5-4, with members Ruby Faye Woolridge, Victoria Farrar-Myers, Nikkie Hunter and Raul Gonzalez opposing the measure. A final vote will take place before the final permit is issued to TEP Barnett, the Fort Worth branch of the French energy giant. Speakers against Total’s application, which earned national media attention in the days leading up to the public hearing, spent more than an hour urging council members to honor a June 2020 council vote denying a request to add more wells at the AC360 drill site.

Ranjana Bhandari, executive director of environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, cited census data showing that 25% of families in the neighborhood live below the poverty line. About two-thirds of gas wells are located in east Arlington, which is a majority-minority part of the city, she said. “Last year, we talked about why this was such a poor idea,” Bhandari said. “Among the no votes were two of the most ardent supporters of fracking the City Council has ever seen …It was the first time in the entire history of their votes that they voted no. I think that’s your roadmap for what needs to be done today.” Since that vote was held, four new members have joined the council alongside Mayor Jim Ross, who was elected in June. Three of the council’s newest faces opposed the measure on Tuesday. Council members who supported Total’s permit said they feared facing an expensive, unwinnable lawsuit if Arlington rejected an application that met all technical requirements. “It’s moments like now (that) make me wonder why in the world I decided to run for mayor, because I struggle with this,” said Ross, who voted in favor of Total. “If it came down to ‘it’s just about the kids,’ it’s a no brainer for me. But it’s not about just that.”

National Stories

CNN - December 2, 2021

First confirmed US case of Omicron coronavirus variant detected in California

The United States' first confirmed case of the Omicron coronavirus variant has been identified in California. In a White House news briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the case was in an individual who traveled from South Africa on November 22 -- before travel restrictions were in place -- and tested positive for Covid-19 on November 29. That individual, Fauci said, is self-quarantining and close contacts have tested negative for the coronavirus so far.

The person was fully vaccinated and is experiencing "mild symptoms, which are improving at this point," Fauci said. Dr. Grant Colfax, San Francisco's director of public health, said the person had not had a booster shot. The California and San Francisco public health departments confirmed the case was caused by the Omicron variant through genomic sequencing conducted at the University of California at San Francisco, and the sequence was confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Color Health said in a statement it returned the positive test result through an San Francisco Covid-19 testing program, and Omicron was identified in under 30 hours "from the time of collection to strain confirmation." The World Health Organization designates Omicron a "variant of concern." In a technical brief released this week, WHO noted that the variant poses a "very high" global risk. The variant was first identified by scientists in South Africa, and has since been detected in several countries.

The Hill - December 2, 2021

TSA extending mask mandate for domestic travel through March

The Biden administration will extend the requirement that passengers on domestic flights, trains, and public transportation wear face masks through mid-March amid concerns about the new omicron coronavirus variant. President Biden will announce the policy on Thursday as part of a broader effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic during the winter months. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to extend the masks requirements through at least March 18, according to a White House fact sheet. The TSA last extended the mask mandate in August through January 2022.

Under the rules, individuals who do not comply with the mandate will face a minimum fine of $500 with repeat offenders facing fines as high as $3,000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently recommends people wear face masks in areas of high transmission of the coronavirus. Public health officials have urged mask use, particularly in crowded indoor settings, especially in light of the new omicron variant. The administration has not instituted testing or COVID-19 vaccine requirements for domestic travel, as it has for international flights, though officials have indicated such requirements are not off the table. As part of Biden’s announcement on Thursday, the administration is also implementing stricter requirements for pre-travel testing for international travelers. Under the new rules, international travelers coming into the U.S. will need to present a negative COVID-19 test within one day of the flight regardless of vaccination status or nationality, rather than the current policy of three days.

Washington Post - December 2, 2021

ICE holds growing numbers of immigrants at private facilities despite Biden campaign promise to end practice

Activists fought fiercely to kick Immigration and Customs Enforcement out of the jail in this industrial city, where the red-brick tenements and glass storefronts have welcomed immigrants for generations. Detainees waged hunger strikes. Protesters blocked the road to the airport. Somebody spray-painted “free them all” on the sheriff’s suburban home. This year, county officials had enough: Bergen County became the third jail in New Jersey to stop detaining immigrants facing deportation for the federal government. One last facility is in court trying to stay open, and Gov. Phil Murphy (D) has signed a bill that prohibits new detention facilities statewide. The near collapse of immigration detention in New Jersey marked a significant victory for “abolish ICE” activists, but their mood these days is hardly celebratory. Instead of crippling immigration detention, they have simply relocated it. Agents transferred dozens of immigrants from New Jersey to other facilities, often run by private companies, in states such as Louisiana, Georgia, and New York.

“I can’t believe they did that,” said Chia-Chia Wang, organizing and advocacy director with the American Friends Service Committee in New Jersey, after ICE moved some detainees from Bergen County in November to a facility in Upstate New York. The transfer called fresh attention to the Biden administration’s unkept campaign promise to eliminate the vast network of private jails that researchers say detain most immigrants facing deportation. But it also exposes the pitfalls of activists’ strategy to push Democratic leaders to also boot ICE from local jails, where detainees are often closer to their loved ones, advocates and free legal aid. “Sometimes, you know, you get what you ask for but you don’t want what you’re going to get,” U.S. District Judge John Michael Vazquez, an Obama appointee, told an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who tried unsuccessfully to stop ICE from transferring dozens of immigrants out of the Essex County jail in New Jersey last summer, when the county executive, a Democrat, said they would stop holding immigrants. “It just seems as though this was not well thought out on behalf of the advocacy groups.” Biden had promised during his campaign to “end for-profit” detention, but he did not include ICE in his January executive order eliminating the use of private prisons. Instead he has expanded immigration detention, sometimes in the same prisons he deemed too unsafe for criminals.

CNN - December 1, 2021

Stacey Abrams announces she's running for governor in Georgia

Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams announced on Wednesday that she is running for governor, setting up a possible rematch with Georgia GOP Gov. Brian Kemp in what could become one of the most closely watched races in the country. The voting rights advocate and former top Democrat in the Georgia House of Representatives tweeted her announcement, saying she is running "because opportunity in our state shouldn't be determined by zip code, background or access to power." Abrams' announcement is a boon for Democrats. Abrams ran for governor in 2018, losing to Kemp by 1.4 points, but her campaign vaulted her into the upper echelons of the Democratic Party and made her a fundraising force who will be able to throw millions at a run.

Democrats believe demographic and political changes in Georgia -- as evidenced by President Joe Biden's electoral victory there last year and the state being represented by two Democrats in the Senate -- make it more possible for a Democrat to become the top executive in the state. "That's the job of governor -- to fight for one Georgia, our Georgia," Abrams said in her announcement video. "And now, it is time to get the job done." Abrams is also expected to clear the Democratic field in the race, something that has not been the case for Kemp and Republicans. After drawing the ire of former President Donald Trump for not more forcefully going along with his baseless claims of voter fraud in Georgia and elsewhere in the 2020 election, Trump turned on Kemp and has pledged to make him politically pay for his disloyalty. A possible vehicle for Trump's revenge tour: Former Sen. David Perdue, who lost reelection to Sen. Jon Ossoff in a runoff at the beginning of the year.

Politifact - December 1, 2021

Fact check: Viral image falsely claims omicron variant’s name is evidence the pandemic is a hoax

On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization classified a new coronavirus variant as a variant of concern. It’s called omicron, following a decision that the WHO announced in May to assign letters of the Greek alphabet to key variants. But some social media users are suggesting it’s all a big joke because "omicron" is an anagram of "moronic." "Leftists will be fooled," one post says. These posts were flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.

It’s true that "omicron" and "moronic" are anagrams. Those are words or phrases made by rearranging letters in another word or phrase, per Merriam Webster’s definition. But there is no secret message there, just as there wasn’t when we fact-checked a claim that the "delta" in the delta variant means "deep sleep." When the WHO announced that it was using letters of the Greek alphabet for new variants, it said that "these labels were chosen after wide consultation and review of many potential naming systems." The organization convened "an expert group of partners from around the world to do so, including experts who are part of existing naming systems, nomenclature and virus taxonomic experts, researchers and national authorities." Omicron is the 15th letter of the 24-letter Greek alphabet. When the WHO runs out of Greek letters to use, it will announce a new naming system for variants.

New York Times - December 1, 2021

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts says he won’t run for re-election

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a moderate Republican who defied former President Donald J. Trump during his two terms, announced on Wednesday that he would not seek re-election next year. “After several months of discussion with our families, we have decided not to seek re-election in 2022,” Mr. Baker and his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, wrote in a letter to supporters. Mr. Baker, 65, who is more popular in polling among Democrats and independent voters than he is among fellow Republicans, confronted a Trump-backed primary challenge and a general election in which he could have faced the state’s popular attorney general, Maura Healey, a Democrat.

A former health care executive, Mr. Baker is a popular, even-keeled, nonideological New England Republican who has been a proponent of abortion rights, same-sex marriage and some gun control measures. He would have been the favorite had he decided to run. But he was also a relic of the pre-Trump Republican Party that now exists mostly in television green rooms and Washington think tanks. Mr. Baker, along with Govs. Phil Scott of Vermont and Larry Hogan of Maryland, made up a cadre of northeastern Republicans who ran Democratic states during the Trump era. But while Mr. Hogan has toyed with running for national office as an anti-Trump Republican, Mr. Baker avoided commenting on Mr. Trump and rarely appeared on cable television. He made no reference to Mr. Trump in the letter announcing his decision not to run again. But he did caution that a difficult re-election campaign would distract from the state’s efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic. “We want to focus on recovery, not on the grudge matches political campaigns can devolve into,” he wrote.

December 1, 2021

Lead Stories

New York Times - November 30, 2021

What to know about the Mississippi abortion law challenging Roe v. Wade

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a Mississippi law that is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, setting the stage for what could be the most consequential abortion rights ruling in decades. The addition of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the court in 2020 has strengthened the court’s conservative majority and energized the anti-abortion movement, which has long sought to overturn Roe, the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion and barred states from banning the procedure before fetal viability. Here’s a guide to understanding what is in the law and what is at stake in the case:

What is in the Mississippi abortion law? The Mississippi law that will be reviewed by the court makes most abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy, about two months earlier than Roe and later decisions allow. Most experts estimate fetal viability to be about 24 weeks. The law was enacted in 2018 by the Republican-dominated Mississippi Legislature but never went into effect because of an immediate legal challenge that led to a federal appellate court blocking its enforcement. The law bans abortions if “the probable gestational age of the unborn human” is determined to be more than 15 weeks, with narrow exceptions for medical emergencies or “a severe fetal abnormality.” Why is this case considered so important? In recent years, Republican-controlled states have passed similar legislation only to have the laws struck down in appeals courts because they were in conflict with the precedent created by the Supreme Court. Those states, in effect, were vying for the chance to be heard by the court, especially after the retirement in 2018 of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a cautious supporter of abortion rights. Mississippi’s appeal of the lower court ruling sat on the Supreme Court’s docket since the fall of 2020, about one month before Justice Barrett was confirmed to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had died.

Texas Newsroom - November 30, 2021

Texas manufacturers report growth despite supply chain disruptions

The Texas manufacturing sector continued picking up speed this month compared to October, according to the manufacturing survey the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released Monday. Its monthly poll of company executives found production, new orders and shipments all increased in November from levels that have already been well-above average over the past few months. “And this is despite widespread supply chain disruptions and a lot of difficulty finding workers,” said Dallas Fed senior business economist Emily Kerr. “So far they’ve been able to continue to power through and have been in expansionary and recovery territory for quite a while.”

Nearly 93% of the survey respondents, who answered special questions related to the pandemic, reported supply chain disruptions or delays. The survey also showed growing pessimism among manufacturers about when the shortages of raw materials will end. “It’s almost split between about two-thirds saying they expect more than six months before their supply chains return to normal; and then just over a third saying within six months,” Kerr said. In contrast, Kerr said expectations regarding future manufacturing activity were generally more positive this month. “I think right now it’s sort of a mixed bag with some manufacturers still working to recover where they were pre-pandemic, while others are continuing to grow beyond that,” Kerr said.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 1, 2021

Will Texas natural gas companies be required to winterize?

Some natural gas producers will have the ability to opt out of requirements to prepare their plants for winter thanks to a rule approved Tuesday by the Railroad Commission, which regulates the Texas oil and gas industry. An exemption would result in a $150 fee, an amount officials say is set by state law. The commission is tasked with mapping out weatherization rules for natural gas producers, which extract and transport fuel to power plants. Power generators are regulated by a different agency, the Public Utility Commission, and are already facing some new requirements for winterizing their facilities this year. Several lawmakers and energy experts have expressed outrage over a June law that requires natural gas producers to voluntarily identify as “critical infrastructure” to be held accountable for insulating their equipment, amid other weather preparations.

The law has also been under fire for its extended timeline, which allows the Railroad Commission to finalize its weatherization regulations in early 2023 — two years after the February winter storm that nearly brought the Texas electricity grid to its knees. Fuel shortages, mostly driven by frozen equipment, were among the top causes of unexpected power outages, according to federal regulators. Natural gas companies have also been under scrutiny for enrolling in a state program that paid customers to have their electricity turned off during emergencies. At least 67 electric meters belonging to gas companies were enrolled in the program and lost power during Winter Storm Uri, including five that were later identified as critical infrastructure, according to a UT Austin report released in July. On Tuesday, commissioners met to vote on amendments that earned more than 900 comments from industry representatives and concerned residents. Matt Garner, who works in the commission’s Office of General Counsel, laid out several changes to the rule that came after public input.

Houston Chronicle - December 1, 2021

State Sen. Larry Taylor will not seek re-election after nearly 20 years in the Legislature

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, will not run for re-election next year after serving for nearly two decades, first as a member of the House of Representatives and then in the Senate, where he chaired the powerful education committee and leads the Senate Republican Caucus. Taylor had said in June that he intended to run again for the Galveston-area seat, but he announced the change of plans in a statement Tuesday. “This has been a very difficult decision, as having the privilege of representing my community in the Legislature for nearly two decades has been the biggest honor of my life,” he said. “Together, with my colleagues in the Legislature, we have dealt with multiple challenges and worked to secure Texas’ future as a leader for our country. I am so proud of our work and so incredibly blessed to have been a part of it.”

He added that public service is a “sacrifice” that both brings on stress and mandates time away from friends and family. Taylor later told the Galveston County Daily News that his decision was partially motivated by state Rep. Mayes Middleton’s intentions to run for the Senate seat. Middleton, R-Wallisville, has been a member of the state House since 2019 and also announced his campaign for the Senate on Tuesday. As head of the Senate’s education committee, Taylor spearheaded the state’s landmark school finance bill in 2019. He also serves on the committees for finance, higher education, border security and rural affairs. He owns an insurance agency in Friendswood. He is the fifth state senator to announce he won’t seek re-election in 2021.

State Stories

San Antonio Express-News - December 1, 2021

Gilbert Garcia: McConaughey’s non-campaign was all about selling books

There was never a chance that Matthew McConaughey would run for governor. On Sunday, we simply got confirmation of what should have been obvious. In a three-minute video that felt a lot longer, the Austin-based actor sounded like one of those politicians you see in movies, whose political affiliations and ideological stances are never defined. They just toss out meaningless inspirational gibberish about the need for all of us to work together to achieve progress and growth. The ultimate example, for me, is Sen. Charles Palantine, the presidential candidate in “Taxi Driver.” I’ve seen that movie at least 20 times and I still have no idea what he believed in. “We have some problems that we need to fix,” McConaughey said, with the kind of boldness and specificity we’ve come to cherish during his year-long flirtation with a gubernatorial candidacy.

That’s the way the whole video went. He declared that “our politics needs new purpose,” “we have divides that need healing,” “we need more trust in our lives” and “we need to start shining a light on our shared values.” Of course, in Texas, the more practical concern at the moment is whether our faulty power grid will enable us to shine a light on anything if another winter freeze hits. On Sunday, McConaughey announced that rather than running for governor, he would devote his time to support businesses and foundations that “are creating pathways for people to succeed in life.” If nothing else, McConaughey’s gimmicky, peekaboo campaign demonstrated his own entrepreneurial skills: his innate understanding of how to generate publicity and move product. He began his non-candidacy in November 2020 while promoting his memoir, “Greenlights,” which had been published just a month earlier and went on to spend 50 weeks on the New York Times’ best-seller list. His non-candidacy ended three weeks before the publication of a companion to “Greenlights.” Convenient timing, don’t you think?

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

Ted Cruz keeps joking about fleeing to Cancún as experts warn of future blackouts

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz left freezing Texas for sunny Cancún, Mexico, during a deadly winter storm last February that left hundreds dead and millions without power. Now Cruz is trying to turn it into a punch line. Cruz has joked at least three times about the trip, largely as an effort to lambaste high-profile Democrats for taking vacation. His most recent attempt was last week following news that California Gov. Gavin Newsom would vacation in Mexico for Thanksgiving while the state is in a COVID-19 state of emergency.

Cruz quipped on Twitter: “Cancún is much nicer than Cabo.” This joke came just a week after the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission released its final report on a disaster that triggered a near collapse of the state’s electricity grid, leaving 4.5 million Texans without power. At least 210 people died of hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, according to the report. Cruz was slammed for the February Mexico trip. After backlash, he cut the trip short and initially blamed his daughters. He also said he regretted the vacation, calling it "a mistake." But the senator has since been less regretful. Just days after he was caught fleeing the state, Cruz joked about it at the Conservative Political Conference in Orlando, Fla.

Austin American-Statesman - November 30, 2021

McConaughey said he won't run for Texas governor. What does that mean for Beto and Abbott?

Actor Matthew McConaughey said Sunday evening that he would not run for governor, ending months of speculation about his political aspirations and clearing the way for a more conventional race for the top job in the state. McConaughey had teased a run since earlier this year, refraining from indicating whether he’d enter the Democratic primary or the Republican primary or run as an independent candidate. Some polls showed that he would have been a serious contender in a hypothetical matchup against Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke.' His decision to stay out of the race clears the field for Abbott and O’Rourke to face off in a more traditional race next November, assuming both are successful in their primary contests.

“Both candidates, they’re breathing a sigh of relief,” said Brian Smith, political science professor at St. Edward's University. “They won’t come out and say it, but both candidates, by McConaughey not running, are very happy.” Actor Matthew McConaughey said Sunday that he won't run for governor after all. Political experts said the decision will benefit both Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a third term, and his likely Democratic challenger, Beto O'Rourke. Abbott is seeking a third term as governor and is facing at least two primary challengers: Allen West, former Texas GOP chairman, and Don Huffines, a former state senator from Dallas. O’Rourke, a former congressman from El Paso, has emerged as the highest-profile Democrat running for the seat. Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said the fact that McConaughey was polling so well before entering the race is a reflection of the growing dissatisfaction people feel with the current state of politics. Given that Abbott and O'Rourke are the favorites to emerge from their primaries, he said both will benefit from McConaughey’s decision not to run. “In a way, they are both better off,” Rottinghaus said. “People are frustrated with politics and politicians as usual. Both parties are going to have to grapple with that reality at some point.”

Dallas Morning News - November 30, 2021

UT Southwestern to pay millions for lax opioid oversight

UT Southwestern Medical Center must pay $4.5 million for failing to properly guard dangerous medications, including fentanyl that two nurses overdosed on inside one of its hospitals. The penalty, imposed by federal law enforcement officials, is the second highest of its kind against a hospital nationwide, and the biggest in Texas, the U.S. Department of Justice said. A Dallas Morning News investigation in 2018 found the nurses died from fentanyl likely intended for patients. Our reporting triggered a federal hospital inspection and a separate probe by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Texas.

“For years prior to our investigation, UT Southwestern exhibited an almost shocking disregard for its obligations under the Controlled Substance Act,” U.S. Attorney Chad Meacham said in a statement Tuesday. “The serial compliance failures we uncovered warranted a multi-million-dollar penalty and a stringent corrective action plan.” Drug thefts at hospitals are typically met with requirements to improve record-keeping, DEA Dallas Special Agent in Charge, Eduardo Chávez said in an interview. High-dollar penalties are rare, he said, and reflect the scope of UT Southwestern’s failures. Investigators reviewed more than five years of records at UT Southwestern and found thefts of opioids such as fentanyl at Clements University Hospital, where the nurses died, and Zale Lipshy University Hospital, a smaller facility on campus. Some employees stole the medications for significant periods of time, investigators found. Officials also found that UT Southwestern failed to keep thorough and accurate records of controlled substances and report thefts to the DEA. As part of a settlement agreement, UT Southwestern admitted no legal liability, but acknowledged that its policies to keep track of controlled substances and report thefts fell short of federal standards. UT Southwestern had made some security improvements before the DEA began its review of records, officials said. Even so, federal officials say more precautions are needed.

Texas Public Radio - November 29, 2021

‘Misleading and dangerous’ — Human rights groups condemn Gov. Abbott’s rhetoric on South African migrants at the border

Governor Greg Abbott responded over the Thanksgiving weekend to the Biden administration’s recent COVID-19 travel ban on South African countries, by claiming on Twitter that some migrants being apprehended at the border originate from South Africa. “Biden banned travel from South Africa because of the new Covid variant,” began Abbott’s tweet. “Immigrants have recently been apprehended crossing our border illegally from South Africa. Biden is doing nothing to stop immigrants from South Africa entering illegally. Pure politics and hypocrisy.” But human rights groups are saying that Abbott’s claim on South African migrants arriving from Mexico may be a stretch.

“There is no data to back that up that we know of,” said Ari Sawyer with Human Rights Watch. “There’s always a lag in the data that the Border Patrol publishes. But what I can say is that looking at (data from) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there’s really a negligible amount of asylum seekers coming from South Africa.” Sawyer is a researcher with Human Rights Watch in North America and has closely investigated human rights abuses at the U.S.-Mexico border for the past several years. She says UNHCR 2020 data shows only 51 migrants originating from South Africa in comparison to the more than 1.1 Million of all U.S.-Mexico border apprehensions reported by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Abbott tweeted a follow up on Monday that 50 immigrants from South Africa and other nearby countries have been apprehended by CBP this year. “South Africa does produce some asylum seekers. It’s just not a refugee producing country in general,” added Sawyer.

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

Elaine Ayala: In a world still looking for firsts, Norma Cantú exemplifies it

Civil rights lawyer and professor Norma V. Cantú points to the big impact little events made in her life. There was “the worst bring-your-daughter-to-work day,” she says, laughing. In those summers, her mother drove her to Robstown for a day to work in the cotton fields. Cantú’s assignment was to fill a big sack. It took all day. Then there was school, which began early. It led to graduating from college at 19 and graduating from Harvard Law School at 22. But perhaps the best event was in third grade, when she got her first library card. It was to Texas Southmost College. “And they didn’t limit me to the children’s section.” So, she began with religion and philosophy. By sixth grade, she was reading at a 12th-grade level. Cantú went on, most notably, to work for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the U.S. Department of Education and the University of Texas at Austin.

In April, she became chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the first Latina to do so. President Joe Biden appointed her to finish out the term of Catherine Lhamon, which ends at the end of 2022. Cantú, a longtime San Antonian, has kept a relatively low profile for someone who has been so influential for so long. A professor of both education and law at UT-Austin, Cantú led MALDEF for almost 14 years as regional counsel and education director. During the Clinton administration, she served as assistant secretary of education for civil rights. Cantú also served on the Biden-Harris transition team for education. This Saturday she’ll speak at the 14th annual Fabulous GED Brunch that benefits GED programs at Palo Alto, St. Philip’s and San Antonio Colleges. It’s a speaking gig the 67-year-old civil rights lawyer and educator had no problem accepting, given her own debt to a community college that gave her a library card. She talks about great-grandparents born on “ranchos” and Mexican American students punished for speaking Spanish at school.

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

Capitol riot suspect entered Air Force basic training in San Antonio, then got the boot

A U.S. Capitol riot suspect entered basic training at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in July and was later charged with attacking police during the Jan. 6 assault on Congress. He was in training at the base for about three weeks, until the FBI questioned him and the Air Force kicked him out. The Justice Department said Aiden Henry Bilyard, 19, of Cary, N.C., was charged with engaging in physical violence in a restricted building or grounds, civil disorder, and assaulting, resisting, or impeding certain officers with a dangerous weapon, among other allegations. He was arrested Nov. 23 in Raleigh, N.C., made his initial appearance in federal court in that state and was later released.

An Air Education and Training Command spokeswoman, Marilyn Holliday, said Bilyard entered basic training July 20 and was handed an entry-level separation due to “erroneous enlistment” on Aug. 11. The Air Force Recruiting Service said an initial background check done before Bilyard came to Lackland revealed nothing about his connection to the riot. Recruiters typically check with local law enforcement officials when conducting such reviews. The FBI later identified Bilyard as a possible suspect in the riot while conducting a security clearance investigation for Bilyard’s future job specialty in the Air Force, which officials could not immediately describe. The AETC did not respond when asked if it knew of other recruits with links to the riot who have trained at Lackland. In an emailed response to questions, Leslie Brown, a spokeswoman for the Air Force Recruiting Service, said potential recruits are asked about their past at several points, including a direct question during their initial appointment, “Have you ever had or currently have any association with extremist, hate organizations or gangs?”

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

TotalEnergies to produce transportation fuel in Texas using cow poop

TotalEnergies plans to build its first biomethane plant in the Texas Panhandle to produce renewable transportation fuel from cow manure. The French oil major on Tuesday said it has partnered with California-based Clean Energy Fuels Corp. to construct a biomethane plant on the Del Rio Dairy Farm in Friona, Texas, where it plans to produce more than 40 gigawatt hours of biomethane every year. The biomethane produced at the dairy farm will be distributed across the country through Clean Energy’s fueling station network, supplying renewable natural gas to as many as 300 trucks a year.

“We are pleased to consolidate our entry into the U.S. biomethane market by jointly developing this first production unit on the Del Rio Dairy farm, through our joint venture with Clean Energy,” said Laurent Wolffsheim, TotalEnergies’ senior vice president of green gases and growth. “This project marks another step in TotalEnergies' transformation into a multi-energy company, and in the implementation of its ambition to be a major player in renewables.” Oil and gas companies are increasingly investing in biogas and alternative fuel projects as they face mounting pressure from governments and investors to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. TotalEnergies said it expects its Texas biomethane project will divert 45,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by substituting fossil fuels with renewable natural gas made from cow manure, a significant source of methane emissions. Biomethane, also known as renewable natural gas, is chemically identical to natural gas that comes from fossil fuels. It is produced by processing organic materials, such as manure and agricultural and food waste, through a biodigester, or fermentation tank, to produce renewable natural gas.

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

Sen. Ted Cruz fires back at Dr. Fauci in ongoing feud, saying he's 'dishonest' and has 'hurt science'

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is escalating his brewing feud with Dr. Anthony Fauci, who the Texas Republican called “the most dangerous bureaucrat in the history of the country.” “I don’t think anyone has hurt science, has hurt the credibility of the CDC, has hurt the credibility of doctors, more than Dr. Fauci, because throughout this pandemic, he’s been dishonest,” Cruz said. “He’s been political. He’s been partisan, and the American people know it.” The latest dig comes after Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, brought up the Jan. 6 insurrection when asked to respond to calls from Cruz and other Republicans for Fauci to be investigated for statements about COVID-19.

“I should be prosecuted? What happened on Jan. 6, senator?” Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Cruz led an effort in the Senate to delay certifying Trump’s loss in the 2020 election and objected to Arizona’s electoral votes less than an hour before demonstrators breached the building. Cruz shot back on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Monday night, focusing especially on Fauci’s assertion that GOP criticism of him really amounts to a criticism of science, because “I represent science.” “It’s like Louis XIV, the Sun King in France saying ‘L’État, c’est moi,’ ‘I am the state’ — it is this delusion of grandeur that you cannot criticize him,” Cruz said.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - November 30, 2021

Arlington police groups cast no-confidence vote against chief

Area police unions, incensed after Police Chief Al Jones fired an officer two days following a fatal shooting, plan to present a vote of no confidence to the City Council on Tuesday evening. Unions voiced their dismay when Jones announced he fired Robert Phillips, an officer who shot Addison resident Jesse Fischer after a lengthy low-speed chase Oct. 20. Officers had responded to a call that Fischer had passed out in his vehicle, which was stopped in the middle of the road along Pioneer Parkway. Fischer fled, and officers followed him into Carla Court, a cul-de-sac. Dash camera footage showed Phillips firing multiple shots into the front window of Fischer’s car, after Fischer made a U-turn and drove toward Phillips. Fischer, 40, died from gunshot wounds, according to the medical examiner’s report.

Two days later, Jones announced he fired Phillips because there were many steps the officer could have taken before he fired his gun. Police could have blocked the street until Fischer surrendered, or Phillips could have gotten behind or returned into his police car. In front of a gathering of community leaders and police clergy, Jones said his decision was made in order to mend bridges with the community, which would have been outraged had Jones not taken action. “The facts as we know them today are not going to change,” Jones said in an Oct. 22 press conference. “They’re not going to change today, they’re not going to change tomorrow, they’re not going to change six months from now.” However, 365 of the city’s 671 officers had signed a petition of no confidence against Jones by 11:19 a.m. Tuesday, according to Arlington Police Association President J.P. Mason. His organization, as well as Arlington Municipal Patrolman’s Association, plan to present the petition to council during public comment at the 6:30 p.m. Tuesday meeting. Mason said in a phone interview the petition is not about Phillip’s decisions made last month. “The main thing is we want to make sure we have due process,” Mason said.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - December 1, 2021

Marcus Lamb, Daystar founder and anti-vaxxer, dies of COVID

Marcus Lamb, founder of Bedford-based evangelical television network Daystar and an outspoken opponent of COVID-19 vaccines, has died after being hospitalized with the virus, the network announced Tuesday. He was 64. “It’s with a heavy heart we announce that Marcus Lamb, president and founder of Daystar Television Network, went home to be with the Lord this morning,” the network said in a tweet. Joni, Lamb’s wife, confirmed the death during a Tuesday morning broadcast on the network. “This morning at 4 a.m., the president and founder of Daystar and the love of my life went to be with Jesus,” she said. Lamb was born in 1957 in Cordele, Georgia, and began preaching as an evangelist in 1973 at 15, according to the Daystar website. In 1985, Lamb founded WMCF-TV in Montgomery, the first Christian television station in Alabama.

Lamb launched the Daystar Television Network in Dallas in 1997 and moved it to Bedford 2003. The network has grown to reach over 108 million households in the U.S. and more than 2 billion people worldwide, making it one of the largest Christian networks in the world. Lamb’s network has featured well-known vaccine-skeptics and programming, as well a group of physicians who support alternative treatments for dealing with COVID-19. Lamb was hospitalized in mid-November. Joni, Lamb’s wife, said on the Tuesday morning broadcast that Lamb had diabetes and was hospitalized after his oxygen levels dropped. She said Lamb tried alternative treatments but was unable to recover. Pastors and evangelists on social media paid tribute to Lamb, saying he’s celebrated for his far-reaching work. “Millions have heard the Good news because he and Joni dedicated their lives to building a platform for the Gospel to reach the world,” evangelist pastor Greg Laurie said on Twitter. Evangelist and missionary Franklin Graham said in a Facebook post that Lamb will be missed but is with God. “He had preached about heaven, taught about heaven, and now he is experiencing heaven,” he said. Lamb is survived by Joni, his son, Jonathan, and his daughters, Rachel and Rebecca.

Click2Houston - November 29, 2021

Houston man sentenced to more than 9 years in prison for getting nearly $1.6M in PPP loans and spending it on Lamborghini, strip clubs

The Houston man accused of going on a shopping spree after receiving more than $1.6 million from the Small Business Association’s Paycheck Protection Program has been sentenced to 110 months in prison, the U.S. Justice Department announced Monday. According to court documents, 30-year-old Lee Price III pleaded guilty in September to charges of wire fraud and money laundering, submitting fraudulent PPP loan applications to two different lenders on behalf of three businesses: 713 Construction LLC, Price Enterprises Holdings LLC, and Price Logistic Services LLC.

Through these loan applications, Price sought over $2.6 million and actually obtained over $1.6 million in PPP loan funds. Court documents said Price falsely reported the number of employees and payroll expenses in each of the PPP loan applications. According to the official criminal complaint against Price, he started spending that PPP money almost immediately on incredibly lavish items, including a $233,000 Lamborghini Urus, an $85,000 Ford F-350 pickup truck and a $14,000 Rolex. Prosecutors say he also spent thousands of dollars at Houston nightclubs and strip clubs, and more than $100,000 to lease office space in Memorial City. The Department of Justice, along with law enforcement partners, seized over $700,000 of the funds Price fraudulently obtained, court documents said. On May 17, 2021, the Attorney General established the COVID-19 Fraud Enforcement Task Force to marshal the resources of the Department of Justice in partnership with agencies across the government to enhance efforts to combat and prevent pandemic-related fraud.

Texas Lawbook - November 30, 2021

Travis Scott hires high-powered celebrity attorney Daniel Petrocelli in Astroworld cases

Travis Scott has hired a prominent Los Angeles lawyer in the wake of the deadly Astroworld Festival concert and is offering to pay funeral costs of those who died at the Nov. 5 show in Houston. Scott’s new attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, on the day before Thanksgiving emailed the offer to lawyers for the 10 victims who died because of a crowd surge during the rapper’s concert. Hundreds of other fans were injured. More than three weeks after the concert at NRG Park, Scott and other defendants face some 120 civil wrongful death, personal injury and premises liability lawsuits. Petrocelli, 68, head of litigation for global corporate law firm O’Melveny & Myers, is known for representing high-profile clients and reportedly charges $1,500 an hour.

Petrocelli did not respond to a request for an interview. But in the emailed offer, he said Scott “is devastated by the tragedy” and grieves for the victims’ loved ones. In an email to Corpus Christi attorney Bob Hilliard, who represents the family of Ezra Blount, a 9-year-old Dallas boy who died days after he was crushed at the concert, Petrocelli said the rapper doesn’t want to intrude on the family’s privacy. “Travis asked me to reach out on his behalf to extend his deepest sympathies and condolences to Mr. Blount for the loss of his beloved son Ezra,” Petrocelli wrote. “Travis is committed to doing his part to help the families who have suffered and begin the long process of healing in the Houston community,” Petrocelli wrote. “Toward that end, Travis would like to pay for the funeral expenses for Mr. Blount’s son.” Hilliard rejected the offer: “Your client’s offer is declined,” he said in an email, adding that the rapper’s “journey ahead will be painful.”

Religion News Service - November 30, 2021

With The Jesuit Border Podcast, two Jesuit priests document their ministry along the southern border

In the years working toward their priestly formation, the Revs. Brian Strassburger and Louie Hotop became accustomed to difficult assignments. Hotop taught English in a single-room schoolhouse in Siberia and ministered to the unhoused in San Francisco, while Strassburger ministered to youth in rural Nicaragua and served as a chaplain in Boston. Now, after Strassburger and Hotop were ordained in July, the two are working together, having been sent to the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas to minister in the Rio Grande Valley along the U.S.-Mexico border. Without an existing Jesuit community there, they rented a house and got to work. They celebrate Mass with migrants on both sides of the border — at a humanitarian respite center in McAllen, Texas, and at a migrant camp in an outdoor plaza in Reynosa, a city in the northern part of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas — and have assisted in anything from making ham-and-cheese sandwiches to serving lines of people asking for milk and diapers for their babies.

It’s been eye-opening to witness the sheer number of migrant women and children along the border, said Strassburger — a contrast to what he referred to as the stereotype of young single men “looking to steal American jobs” — as well as seeing how migrants themselves are looking out for one another by cooking and providing security at the camp in Reynosa. Strassburger and Hotop have also been struck by the level of faith-based organizing at the border. These experiences are what propelled Strassburger and Hotop to start a podcast to document the stories of the migrants, advocates and organizations they’re encountering along both sides of the southern border. It’s called “The Jesuit Border Podcast” and so far includes two episodes: The first one features an interview with Bishop Daniel Flores, who leads the Diocese of Brownsville; the second features Nancy Dimas with the Project Dignity Legal Team, a ministry of Catholic Charities RGV. The aim of the podcast is to explore immigration through a lens of Catholic social teaching. The first episode went live Nov. 16.

Politico - November 29, 2021

Chip Roy is asking GOP leaders to formally urge members to oppose a CR and the NDAA, as written.

Rep. Chip Roy is urging top GOP leaders to oppose a temporary funding extension — or any other government funding legislation, for that matter — while any federal coronavirus vaccine mandates remain in place. In a letter addressed to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Texas Republican argued that the continuing resolution is one of the two tests GOP lawmakers will face this week. The second test relates to Congress’ annual defense funding bill. Roy has previously argued that Republicans should oppose the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) if it contains any provisions that would make it so women would also have to register for the U.S. draft. which the House-passed bill version does.

“Continuing to fund this kind of garbage is inexcusable and is precisely what our constituents want us to oppose, and oppose loudly. Whether or not the judiciary may eventually bail out Americans from certain mandates and whether we are in the majority or not, we should never vote to fund immoral, unlawful, and repugnant policies.” Background: Roy is drawing his lines in the swampy sand. He has previously threatened that he could not support any Republican who supports the NDAA with the draft provision, whether they are running for president, speaker, or another elected office, which comes as McCarthy (R-Calif.) has to be careful to maintain the support of his right flank as he eyes winning the majority and taking the gavel next Congress. And this latest letter signals he is adding CR to his list of demands.

County Stories

KUT - November 30, 2021

Travis County will shut down its rent relief program amid a spike in demand

Despite a surge in demand for emergency rental relief in the last two weeks, Travis County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to shut down the county's rent relief program. County Executive Sheri Fleming told commissioners the county has been waiting for roughly $5 million in an initial round of federal funding for the program. The county has seen a crush of applications since the City of Austin and the state closed their rent relief programs. Fleming said nearly 600 people applied for the program in the last two weeks alone. As it stands, she said, the program needs at least $4 million to cover the current pool of applicants.

"The number of applications that we have seen ... has created this concern," she said, adding that the program often sees a spike in rent relief requests in December, even before the pandemic. "There's also the added factor that the eviction moratorium, without further action, comes to an end in December." Eviction moratoriums in Austin and Travis County end Dec. 31. Under federal guidelines, the county was required to spend 65% of its federal money for rent relief by mid-November. The county made that deadline, then applied for an additional $7.6 million. Fleming said the county has heard "no indication" of if or when that money could be on its way. Fleming noted the $4 million shortfall is an estimate that could increase, but it could be offset by reserve money in the county's budget. In light of that funding gap, Commissioner Ann Howard supported a push to close the rent relief program as soon as possible. "We already have a shortfall. So it seems to me ... I would go ahead and tell the public, ‘We don’t have any more money at this point,’ and work through the cases we have," Howard said. "If we get more money, we open the program back up." County commissioners agreed, voting unanimously to shut down the program, but that will likely take a week or two.

Houston Chronicle - November 30, 2021

Harris County to spend $300M more to fix Ship Channel Bridge project, starting with demolition of work already completed

Resuming work on the Ship Channel Bridge along the Sam Houston Tollway will cost Harris County nearly $300 million more, including $50 million to rip out what had been built under what county officials say was a faulty design. Harris County Commissioners Court, acting as the board of the county toll road authority that builds and operates most local toll roads, unanimously approved the plan at its regular meeting Tuesday. “I do not want to be in my grave, turning over, that we didn’t do something to address the safety when we could have and not move forward to deliver,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday. Work on the massive new bridge stopped 23 months ago after a flood of concerns and developments made moving ahead impractical.

“The previous design was flawed,” said Roberto Trevino, executive director of the Harris County Toll Road Authority. “It would have led to failure of the bridge.” The changes approved Tuesday will add three years to the completion time. Commissioners said they will closely monitor the project’s progress, calling it vital to restoring trust in the project. “These changes are huge,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said, crediting toll officials for addressing and then redesigning the bridge. The new plan resolves design flaws, demolition of some parts of the incomplete bridge towers, changes to the construction and breach of contract claims against the county — at an additional cost estimated at $291.5 million. That is more than half the original cost of the span, estimated at $567 million as part of a $1 billion project to widen the tollway to four lanes in each direction north and south of the Houston Ship Channel and then replace the existing 40-year-old bridge. The project remains the county’s costliest single public works project, now topping $1.3 billion. Without the changes, however, Harris County and drivers would get virtually nothing for all the time and effort spent so far, said Trevino, an engineer selected to lead HCTRA in January.

City Stories

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

Too much of a good thing — Dripping Springs extends moratorium on new development

The city of Dripping Springs has extended its moratorium on new development until late February amid concerns about rapid growth and insufficient infrastructure. The small Hays County town, known as the “Gateway to the Hill Country,” enacted the moratorium on Nov. 18. It was set to expire Nov. 27, but the city council voted last week to extend it until Feb. 20 to give city officials time to craft a comprehensive plan for the city. Under the moratorium, the city no longer will approve “permits for new development related to subdivision, site planning, development, land use and construction in the City Limits and Extraterritorial Jurisdiction (ETJ) for both residential and commercial projects.”

The moratorium essentially means that construction and development is at a standstill within the 10-square-mile city limits and the 100-square-mile ETJ. Developers of existing projects can apply for waivers to continue construction, however. The moratorium was imposed in response to concerns about unbridled growth in the city and its ETJ. Dripping Springs, located about 60 miles northeast of San Antonio and about 20 miles west of Austin, has seen its population increase more than fourfold since 2011, from 1,788 to 7,500. “Our comprehensive plan was written in 2016, and at that time we did not anticipate - no one anticipated - this much growth this quickly, or the skyrocketing prices,” said Mayor Bill Foulds. “We’re seeing how fast the areas are growing right outside our city limits, and the density has changed as far as people wanting to build in much smaller lots, so we need a better comprehensive plan to help guide the council in how the citizens want to grow.” Foulds said he expects the moratorium will be extended again as Feb. 20 approaches.

San Antonio Express-News - November 30, 2021

CPS Energy slashes proposed rate hike

CPS Energy is planning to request a rate increase that’s significantly lower than the hike the city-owned utility had been considering. CPS officials plan to ask City Council to OK an increase of 3.85 percent at its Jan. 13 meeting. The increase, which would raise residential customers’ monthly bills by about $5, would go into effect March 1. Since May, CPS had said it needed to raise rates by as much as 10 percent to handle San Antonio’s population growth in recent years, invest in new power generation sources and upgrade its technology systems.

But CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams announced her resignation in October, the utility has decided to seek a rate increase only to cover its immediate financial needs, such as weatherization of its power plants and additional cash to hire employees before a wave of long-time workers retire. The rate increase CPS is proposing will bring in $73 million per year in additional revenue. CPS is not yet passing onto customers the $418 million in charges for power and natural gas it bought during the February winter storm. CPS is contesting another $580 million of charges in court, so it’s waiting to see how the cases will be resolved before passing the bills on. Ratepayers will have to pay off the $418 million in winter storm debt over the next 25 years, which will add $1.26 to the average customer’s monthly bill. Going forward, CPS expects to conduct a “rate evaluation” every two years. CPS officials have said they’ll consider additional rate hikes over the next few years.

San Antonio Express-News - November 26, 2021

City’s job training effort still off to slow start

Just under 800 people have gotten jobs through the city’s one-year job training program, launched in the wake of the pandemic — which is far below the thousands of trainees who were supposed to have started new careers by now. The number of people who have gotten jobs through the city’s Train for Jobs program climbed from 467 in August to 795 as of mid-November, according to city statistics. The first participant enrolled in the program in September 2020. Some City Council members are losing patience with the program’s slow start. Mayor Ron Nirenberg had set an ambitious goal for the initiative — saying it would place 10,000 trainees in new jobs annually — when he was pitching voters on the job-training program last year.

“I think there were some expectations, and I certainly had expectations, that I’m concerned that the program hasn’t met,” District 9 Councilman John Courage said. “I just can’t understand 800 or 900 jobs after a year — and expectations originally talked about where there were thousands of people who were out of work and thousands of people needed to get some kind of training.” The program, called Train for Jobs SA, was launched in the pandemic’s immediate aftermath in spring 2020, when 140,000 city residents were thrown out of work. It was funded with $65 million in city funds and was designed to offer shorter-term training that would place people into jobs quickly. Train for Jobs is the precursor to the $200 million, four-year Ready to Work program. Last November, a majority of San Antonio voters approved a 1/8-cent sales tax to pay for the initiative. Ready to Work was originally set to enroll residents for job training in August, but its rollout was pushed to early next year following the slow start for Train for Jobs.

Dallas Morning News - November 30, 2021

Irving to give $1M to Baylor Medical Center to help offset COVID-19 costs

The city of Irving will give its local Baylor Scott & White Medical Center $1 million to help offset staffing costs related to COVID-19. The city council voted this month to direct money it received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to the Irving branch of the hospital.

Baylor Medical Center at Irving can use the funds for payroll and benefits expenses — including regular pay and overtime — for employees who work in public health, health care and human services, as well as employees whose work is substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the pandemic. Funds will be reimbursed pending sufficient documentation and must be consistent with applicable laws related to the funds. The hospital initially requested $5 million in funds, according to the Nov. 11 city council agenda. In total, Irving received more than $13 million from the federal relief act. Texas has spent nearly $7 billion of federal COVID-19 money for temporary nurses, respiratory therapists and some doctors to maintain operations at hospitals and alternate care sites, mostly at nursing homes and convention centers.

KUT - November 30, 2021

Capital Metro spends thousands on brand overhaul, removes Texas Capitol dome from logo

Capital Metro is spending tens of thousands of dollars to redesign the logo that appears on everything from buses and trains to uniforms and trash cans. "We believe that CapMetro is what our community calls us," Executive Vice President Brian Carter told the agency's board members when unveiling the new logo. "We want to embrace that and just become who we already are." The current logo shows an icon of the Texas Capitol dome followed by the word "Metro." The new logo is a wordmark, a term for a logo made of only letters, that spells the word "CapMetro."

Capital Metro is "refreshing" its brand ahead of the single largest expenditure on public transit in the agency's history. The $7.1 billion expansion of public transit known as Project Connect includes the procurement of light-rail vehicles and electric buses along with the construction of new bus stops and train stations. "This is an opportune time as we're about to put a lot more investment into our system," Carter told the agency's Customer Satisfaction Committee this month. Some final tweaks to the design could happen by the end of the year. The cost of the brand refresh was $182,675, Capital Metro said. The market research firm Sherry Matthews Group and branding agency Asterisk were hired to work on the project. Capital Metro has budgeted an additional $230,000 for branding efforts in fiscal year 2022. The agency has a $658 million annual budget, almost half of which is funded by a 1% sales tax.

National Stories

Axios - November 30, 2021

Scoop: Biden restarting Trump's "Remain in Mexico" policy

President Biden will start turning asylum seekers back to Mexico as soon as next week under a reinstated Trump-era "Remain in Mexico" program — but will offer them the option to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Axios has learned. Why it matters: Under court orders, the president will officially undo a key immigration promise, which will force asylum-seekers to wait months in Mexico ahead of their immigration court hearings in the U.S. — as long as Mexico accepts them. One difference from the program under former President Trump's administration: All migrant adults enrolled in "Remain in Mexico" will be offered the vaccine, although it can't be required, according to two government immigration officials.

It's unclear at what point in the process the migrants would be able to get their shots, whether before being turned back, when they return to the U.S. for their court hearing or at some other time. The policy, formally called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), will first be reinstated in El Paso and Brownsville, Texas, as well as San Diego, California, one DHS official said. Yes, but: Timing has been in flux, and the administration is ultimately at the mercy of Mexico's cooperation. “In compliance with the court order, we are working to reimplement MPP as promptly as possible,“ DHS spokesperson Marsha Espinosa told Axios. ”We cannot do so until we have the independent agreement from the Government of Mexico to accept those we seek to enroll in MPP. We will communicate to the court, and to the public, the timing of reimplementation when we are prepared to do so.”

Wall Street Journal - December 1, 2021

CNN suspends Chris Cuomo indefinitely over role in brother’s response to sexual-misconduct allegations

CNN suspended prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo indefinitely after records released this week by the New York attorney general’s office provided a detailed look into his efforts to help his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, respond to allegations of sexual misconduct. In a statement released Tuesday, CNN said that the records “raise serious questions” about Chris Cuomo’s conduct. “These documents point to a greater level of involvement in his brother’s efforts than we previously knew,” a CNN spokesman said. “As a result, we have suspended Chris indefinitely, pending further evaluation.” The records, which were released Monday, include transcripts and exhibits from an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against Andrew Cuomo. They show Chris Cuomo gave detailed feedback on his brother’s statements to the press and gathered information about coming stories involving his brother’s accusers.

The records include text messages sent by Chris Cuomo to one of his brother’s top aides and a transcript of an interview with Chris Cuomo conducted by investigators working for New York Attorney General Letitia James. Mr. Cuomo didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Cuomo is one of CNN’s biggest stars, anchoring the network’s 9 p.m. hour in prime time. His suspension comes as CNN’s parent company, AT&T Inc., is preparing to merge its media assets with those owned by Discovery Inc. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav gathered with CNN President Jeff Zucker and his top lieutenants at the network’s Hudson Yards headquarters on Tuesday afternoon as part of a series of corporate pre-scheduled meet-and-greets that the two companies held since the deal was announced, according to people familiar with the matter. Mr. Cuomo’s fate at the network wasn’t discussed at the meeting, one of the people said.

Wall Street Journal - November 30, 2021

Judge temporarily blocks Biden vaccine mandate

A federal judge issued a temporary nationwide block against a Biden administration mandate that millions of healthcare workers get vaccinated against Covid-19 starting next week. In a ruling issued Tuesday in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, Judge Terry Doughty said there was no question that mandating a vaccine for healthcare workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid is something that should be done by Congress and not by a government agency. Even then the judge said it was unclear whether such a mandate would be constitutional. The mandate, issued by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, required all workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid to get their first shot of the vaccine by Dec. 6 and to have both shots by Jan. 4. The facilities risked losing federal funding if they didn’t comply.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment. The mandate applied to more than 10 million workers at such facilities, of whom about 2.4 million aren’t yet vaccinated, according to the ruling. The regulation allowed for medical and religious exemptions. The Biden administration said it had a responsibility to protect patients of these facilities from the Covid-19 virus. Hospitals and nursing homes said the mandate threatened staffing levels when many are already under strain. Louisiana sued the federal government in mid-November, joined by 13 other states. “While our fight is far from over, I am pleased the court granted preliminary relief against the president’s unconstitutional and immoral attack on not only our healthcare workers but also the access to healthcare services for our poor and elderly,” Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said Tuesday.

CNN - December 1, 2021

Students describe barricading doors with tables during Michigan high school shooting that left 3 dead and 8 injured

Students at a Michigan high school described terrifying scenes of barricading doors with desks and escaping out of windows during a shooting that left three dead and eight others injured. "We heard two gunshots and after that, my teacher ran into the room, locked it, we barricaded and then we covered the windows and hid," senior Aiden Page told CNN's Anderson Cooper. "We grabbed calculators, we grabbed scissors just in case the shooter got in and we had to attack them," he said, describing how the shooter was so close that a bullet pierced one of the desks he and other students used to block the door.

Officers who rushed to the scene at Oxford High School on Tuesday also made split-second decisions as the scale of the horror took shape following the mass shooting. The suspect -- a 15-year-old sophomore -- was taken into custody without incident two to three minutes after authorities responded to the shooting, Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.. One of the three students killed died in a patrol car as a deputy decided to transport 16-year-old Tate Myre due to the "severity of his wound," Bouchard said during a news conference Tuesday night. "Sadly, that child died in the car," he said. Two other students killed in the shooting were identified by investigators as Hana St. Juliana, 14, and Madisyn Baldwin, 17. Eight others -- seven students and a teacher -- were shot, Bouchard said. Three are in critical condition with gunshot wounds, including a 14-year-old girl who is on a ventilator following surgery.

Reuters - December 1, 2021

New rift opens between U.S. House Republicans over bigotry claims

A new fault line opened between Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday, as lawmakers squabbled publicly over accusations of religious bigotry and racism among party conservatives. In a fight that could further complicate Republican efforts to forge unity ahead of next year's elections, firebrand congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene on Twitter branded Representative Nancy Mace as "trash" for criticizing Republican Lauren Boebert for remarks about a Democrat that have been decried as Islamaphobic. "@NancyMace is the trash in the GOP Conference. Never attacked by Democrats or RINO's (same thing) because she is not conservative, she's pro-abort. Mace you can back up off of @laurenboebert or just go hang with your real gal pals, the Jihad Squad. Your out of your league," Greene wrote in a tweet early on Tuesday.

RINO, the acronym for "Republican In Name Only," is an epithet often used to criticize party members not seen as adequately conservative. Greene was attacking Mace over a recent CNN interview in which her fellow congresswoman likened Boebert's remarks about Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar to other "racist tropes and remarks that I find disgusting," which she said have come from both sides of the aisle. Mace quickly shot back at Greene on Tuesday in a tweet describing herself as an anti-abortion conservative and adding: "What I'm not is a religious bigot (or racist). You might want to try that over there in your little 'league.'" Greene, Mace and Boebert are all in their first two-year term.The exchange came a day after a failed effort to end the feud between Boebert and Omar, a Muslim who was born in Somalia. Boebert - like Greene an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump - had referred to Omar as a member of a "jihad squad" and said it was safe to ride with her in a Capitol elevator if she was not wearing a backpack. Greene and Mace have clashed before. But their new rift could complicate matters for House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy, as he seeks political unity to reclaim the majority in the House in the 2022 congressional midterm elections.

Wall Street Journal - November 30, 2021

White House considering Richard Cordray as top Fed banking regulator

Mr. Cordray, an attorney, served as head of the CFPB from 2012 to 2017, a watchdog Congress created after the 2008 financial crisis to regulate lenders and other companies tied to consumer finance. He is currently a top official at the Education Department, serving as the chief operating officer of Federal Student Aid, overseeing the $1.6 trillion student-loan program. Mr. Cordray declined to comment. The White House said last week it would announce additional Fed appointments beginning in early December. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) said Tuesday that Mr. Cordray was one of several candidates under consideration. “I’m talking to the White House about him and a number of other people,” he said. At the CFPB, Mr. Cordray brought significant changes to consumer finance, a corner of the financial industry that had previously escaped regulatory scrutiny. The agency tightened underwriting standards for mortgages, required more disclosure on credit-card rates and fees, and introduced federal oversight to payday lending.

Mr. Cordray’s nomination for the Fed post could hearten progressive Democrats who have called for the central bank to take a tougher approach to regulating big banks and addressing financial risks posed by climate change. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) has privately pushed senior White House officials to consider Mr. Cordray for the role, one of the people familiar with the matter said. A spokeswoman for Ms. Warren declined to comment. Without citing a specific candidate, Ms. Warren said Monday that the Fed job should go to “someone who has the insight to recognize how important regulation is to the effective functioning of the financial markets and has the courage to follow through on that insight.” Mr. Cordray won Senate confirmation on a 66-34 vote in 2013 for a five-year term as the CFPB’s head, following a lengthy delay. He received backing from 12 Republicans, including four who remain in the Senate. Before the vote, he had been serving as CFPB director for over a year through a recess appointment. Mr. Cordray could face a closer confirmation vote if he is nominated for the Fed job. “I like Richard. I respect Richard. Richard is to the left of Lenin,” said Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.), a member of the banking committee, which holds hearings on Fed nominees. “Richard believes that only government can make America great. He and I disagree.”

November 30, 2021

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Gov. Abbott says he can 'guarantee the lights will stay on' this winter in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott promised that the state’s electric grid would be able to withstand pressures caused by any potential winter storm that occurs this year in a television interview Friday. “Listen, very confident about the grid. And I can tell you why, for one: I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective,” Abbott said. “I can guarantee the lights will stay on.” After the winter storm in February that left millions across the state without power, the Legislature passed a number of bills requiring additional “weatherization” measures for companies that maintain the state’s electric grid.

But experts have expressed concerns that loopholes have allowed some natural gas providers to exempt themselves from the weatherization requirements, potentially leaving the system still vulnerable. “Everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas,” Abbott said in June when he signed two of the bills. In a poll from the University of Texas-Austin and the Texas Tribune, voters were asked their opinion on the policies advanced by the Legislature throughout the regular and special sessions this year. Among the most popular were gun rights, public safety and the election laws, while “reliability of the electric grid” was dead last, with a negative 42 percent favorability rating. In interviews earlier this month, a Republican political consultant and two political scientists said this amounted to a potential political vulnerability for Republicans, particularly if another winter storm hits that shuts down the grid.

Quartz - November 29, 2021

Texans are bearing the cost of keeping the working class out of the statehouse

In March, members of the Texas House of Representatives presented a proposal to expand Medicaid benefits. The bill, signed by 67 Democrats and nine Republicans, had enough votes to pass. It would have set Texas on the path to join the majority of US states (38 so far) that have expanded their populations’ eligibility for Medicaid—which provides healthcare insurance to low-income groups—since it became a possibility under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Yet the bill was never brought to the House floor, as the Republican leadership opposed it based on two main arguments. The first was that the expansion isn’t financially sustainable in the long run. The second was ideological: Opponents of the expansion think it promotes dependency on government support while taking resources away from children and others in need, to the benefits of individuals who don’t deserve the help.

The uninsured Texans, known as the “working poor,” include about 1.4 million hourly or low-wage workers. These people, disproportionately Hispanic (61% of the uninsured) tend to have low levels of education (48% of the uninsured don’t have a high school degree), and earn less than $35,000 a year despite typically working full-time, often in jobs such as construction or the service industry. They are, in other words, part of the working class—a group to which precisely zero Texas legislators belong. Would the path of the Medicaid expansion—or at least the motivations to deny it—be different if more of the elected officials had direct experience in low-wage, working-class jobs? It’s likely, according to research by Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, who has been studying whether being part of the working class has an impact on legislator voting behavior. The Texas legislature isn’t very representative of the state. Out of its 181 members—150 representatives and 31 senators—just three (1.7%) are Asian, 18 (10%) are Black, and 43 (23%) are Hispanic, even though nearly 60% of Texans are non-white. Women are underrepresented too, making up just over a quarter of the legislature. The lack of diversity is especially striking among Republican legislators: Out of 101, 98 are white, and 88 male.

The Guardian - November 29, 2021

Beto and the Spanish name-game in the Texas governor’s race

Within hours of former congressman Beto O’Rourke announcing his intent to run for governor of Texas against incumbent Greg Abbott, the Republican party apparatus began tweeting about “Robert Francis O’Rourke.” It harkened back to the days the GOP referred to “Barack Hussein Obama”. But instead of suggesting to the American people that Obama might be some kind of foreigner, the recent GOP maneuver has the opposite goal: reminding voters of O’Rourke’s all-American, all Anglo pedigree. “Robert Francis O’Rourke thinks it is ‘dangerous’ for you to have a gun to defend yourself,” Abbott tweeted of the Democrat on his campaign account after the acquittal of murder suspect Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. “Texans know that self-defense is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. We won’t let dangerous progressive policies hijack your God-given rights.” It should be an interesting maneuver by Abbott who, pre-O’Rourke, was waging an aggressive anti-immigrant campaign that many view as anti-Hispanic.

Now, with O’Rourke in the race, Abbott appears to be following the Ted Cruz campaign model of trying to appeal to Hispanic sentiment by accusing the Democratic challenger of cultural appropriation. To be sure, there is an element of anger that can arise among Hispanic voters who view politicians as cynically trying to appropriate elements of their culture for votes, particularly the tired attempts by candidates of appealing to Hispanics by saying a few broken lines in Spanish during stump speeches. I can recall many debates about cultural appropriation that I had with fellow Hispanics when O’Rourke was challenging Cruz for the US Senate in 2018. I always fell back on what I call “Guero’s phenomenon”, named after a popular Austin Mexican restaurant, favored by Bill Clinton. After his first meal there, the wait to get into that restaurant was upwards of three hours, something I experienced when out-of-town visitors asked to eat there when I lived in that city. What I noticed when we were finally seated was that the vast majority of the clientele at this Mexican restaurant was Anglo. The only Hispanics that I could see in the dining room were serving food and bussing tables.

Associated Press - November 29, 2021

Inside the 'big wave' of misinformation targeted at Latinos

Before last year’s presidential election, Facebook ads targeting Latino voters described Joe Biden as a communist. During his inauguration, another conspiracy theory spread online and on Spanish-language radio warning that a brooch worn by Lady Gaga signaled Biden was working with shadowy, leftist figures abroad. And in the final stretch of Virginia’s election for governor, stories written in Spanish accused Biden of ordering the arrest of a man during a school board meeting. None of that was true. But such misinformation represents a growing threat to Democrats, who are anxious about their standing with Latino voters after surprise losses last year in places like South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Heading into a midterm election in which control of Congress is at stake, lawmakers, researchers and activists are preparing for another onslaught of falsehoods targeted at Spanish-speaking voters. And they say social media platforms that often host those mistruths aren’t prepared.

“For a lot of people, there’s a lot of concern that 2022 will be another big wave,” said Guy Mentel, executive director of Global Americans, a think tank that provides analysis of key issues throughout the Americas. This month’s elections may be a preview of what’s to come. After Democratic incumbent Phil Murphy won New Jersey’s close governor’s race, Spanish-language videos falsely claimed the vote was rigged, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud — a fact the Republican candidate acknowledged, calling the results “legal and fair.” In Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin campaigned successfully on promises to defend “parental rights” in classrooms, false headlines around a controversial school board meeting emerged. “Biden ordenó arrestar a padre de una joven violada por un trans,” read one of several misleading articles, translating to “Biden ordered the arrest of a father whose daughter was raped by a trans.” The mistruth was spun from an altercation during a chaotic school board meeting months earlier in Loudoun County that resulted in the arrest of a father whose daughter was sexually assaulted in a bathroom by another student. The father claimed the suspect was “gender fluid,” which sparked outcry over the school’s policy allowing transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identity.

State Stories

Texas Tribune and NBC News - November 29, 2021

“People should probably be worried”: Texas hasn’t done enough to prevent another winter blackout, experts say

After last winter’s freeze hamstrung power giant Vistra Corp.’s ability to keep electricity flowing for its millions of customers, CEO Curt Morgan said he’d never seen anything like it in his 40 years in the energy industry. During the peak days of the storm, Vistra, Texas’ largest power generator, sent as much energy as it could to power the state’s failing grid, “often at the expense of making money,” he told lawmakers shortly after the storm. But it wasn’t enough. The state’s grid neared complete collapse, millions lost power for days in subfreezing temperatures and more than 200 people died. Since the storm, Texas lawmakers have passed legislation aimed at making the grid more resilient during freezing weather. Signing the bill, Gov. Greg Abbott said “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid.” But Morgan isn’t so sure. His company has spent $50 million this year preparing more than a dozen of its plants for winter. At the company’s plant in Midlothian, workers have wrapped electric cables with three inches of rubber insulation and built enclosures to help shield valves, pumps and metal pipes.

No matter what Morgan does, though, it won’t be enough to prevent another disaster if there is another severe freeze, he said. That’s because the state still hasn’t fixed the critical problem that paralyzed his plants: maintaining a sufficient supply of natural gas, Morgan said. Natural gas slowed to a trickle during the storm, leaving the Midlothian facility and 13 other Vistra power plants that run on gas without enough fuel. The shortage forced Vistra to pay more than $1.5 billion on the spot market for whatever gas was available, costing the company in a matter of days more than twice the amount it usually spends in an entire year. Even then, plants were able to operate at only a fraction of their capacity; the Midlothian facility ran at 30% of full strength during the height of the storm. “Why couldn’t we get it?” Morgan said recently. “Because the gas system was not weatherized. And so we had natural gas producers that weren’t producing.” If another major freeze hits Texas this winter, “the same thing could happen,” Morgan said in an interview. The predicament in Midlothian reflects a glaring shortcoming in Texas’ efforts to prevent a repeat of February, when a combination of freezing temperatures across the state and skyrocketing demand shut down natural gas facilities and power plants, which rely on each other to keep electricity flowing. The cycle of failures sent economic ripples across the country that cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

North Texas man charged with assaulting cops during Capitol insurrection is running for Texas House

A North Texas man facing federal charges for allegedly assaulting police officers during the Jan. 6 insurrection and siege at the U.S. Capitol is now running for a Texas House seat. Mark Middleton, who was indicted in May by a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., is challenging incumbent GOP Rep. David Spiller of Jacksboro in House District 68. Following this year’s redistricting, the district stretches from the Oklahoma border south to Lampasas and San Saba counties at the edge of the Texas Hill Country. According to the Texas secretary of state website, the state Republican Party has accepted Middleton’s application to be a candidate in the March 1 primary. Middleton and his wife Jalise, of Forestburg, were captured on video and in photographs participating in the riot, the FBI says in a federal criminal complaint. They were arrested and released in April from the Collin County jail, according to jail records.

The couple have pleaded not guilty and are free on a personal recognizance bond while they await trial on nine counts involving assault of a law enforcement officer, interference with a law enforcement officer during civil disorder, obstruction of an official proceeding, unlawful entry on restricted grounds, and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. Mark Middleton could not immediately be reached for comment. Middleton, 52, lists on his LinkedIn profile that he is a volunteer firefighter and Cub Scout leader who worked in sales for Nortex Communications, an internet services company. He holds two business degrees and a Masters of Theology from Liberty University, according to his campaign website. On his candidate filing papers, Middleton listed a P.O. box in Era, which is 15 miles east of Forestburg, in Cooke County. He and Jalise live in southwest Cooke County on a small family farm, according to his campaign website. In the complaint, the FBI says it obtained body camera video that shows a man, later identified as Mark Middleton, pushing against the Capitol barricades and police line during the riot. The man yells an expletive at officers and struggles against them “for more than 30 seconds” as police tell the rioters to get back.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Jones, Flowers join growing Dem field for Coleman’s House seat

At least four candidates have announced they are running for state Rep. Garnet Coleman’s seat, less than two weeks after the longtime Houston Democrat announced he would not seek re-election next year. The field, made up entirely of Democrats so far, includes Jolanda Jones, a former Houston ISD trustee and at-large city council member, and Reagan Flowers, a Houston Community College trustee. Jones announced her candidacy Monday morning, days after Flowers’ announcement last week. Whoever wins the Democratic primary likely will succeed Coleman in the solidly blue district, which covers Midtown, Third Ward, a majority of Montrose and other parts of Houston’s urban core. It also takes in the University of Houston and a large chunk of southeast Houston along Interstate 45.

It is among the more diverse House districts in the state, with a population that is about 37 percent Hispanic, 35 percent Black, 22 percent white and 7 percent Asian, according to Census Bureau estimates. In a statement announcing her candidacy, Jones said she would be “a champion for affordable health care, better jobs, safer streets and stronger schools” if elected to the seat. She rolled out an initial list of endorsements from elected officials and community leaders, including state Sen. Royce West of Dallas. “Representative Garnet Coleman raised the bar for public servants in Texas,” Jones said. “He cannot be replaced, but I will do my best to carry the torch for the residents of District 147.” Following a stint on Houston City Council from 2008 to 2012, Jones served on the Houston ISD board from 2016 to 2020, where she was known to openly criticize state education officials and her fellow trustees. She opted not to seek re-election, and mounted an unsuccessful challenge to Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett in last year’s Democratic primary.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Outlier: Among this year’s affordable housing proposals, the deal at the center of City Hall scandal stuck out

When Houston officials began soliciting proposals from developers for this year’s highly competitive affordable housing tax credits, they had a very different message than in recent cycles: Do not count on money from the city. For the prior two years, the city had used a pot of $450 million in Hurricane Harvey disaster recovery funds to pair with the tax credits to help developers build affordable housing. The 38 projects currently in the pipeline will help fund more than 4,700 affordable apartments throughout the city. By the start of this year, however, the city had just $12.6 million of those Harvey moneys left. Officials told developers to look elsewhere to bridge any financing gaps. All but one of the applicants responded by arranging financing that did not rely on new city money. Dozens of the proposals were withdrawn altogether, and about half of the 17 developers who submitted a full application trimmed the number of housing units from their initial plans.

The one developer who did not follow the city’s advice was MGroup, which pursued a senior housing deal called Huntington at Bay Area. That proposal would later spark an unprecedented public broadside against Mayor Sylvester Turner by the city housing director, who accused him of arranging a sham funding process and steering city money to the developer. Instead, MGroup forged ahead with a request for $15 million the city said it had no plans to offer, incurring significant costs and risk along the way. Mark and Laura Musemeche run MGroup. Barry Barnes, the mayor’s longtime former law partner, and his colleague Jermaine Thomas were co-developers on the plan. Among the 17 complete tax credit proposals, Huntington was the largest project, with plans for 148 units. It also had the highest number (60) and share of market-rate apartments (41 percent), and the highest overall development costs at $37 million. MGroup also topped the others with a developer fee of $4.2 million, and it had the highest expected cash flow — $3.1 million over 15 years, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of the applications. The averages for competing proposals: 94 overall units including 13 market-rate apartments, $21 million in development costs, $2.1 million in developers fees and $1.3 million in cash flow.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

SMU announces Miami offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will replace Sonny Dykes as head coach

For the past five weeks, there’s been a question overshadowing the SMU football program: would this be the final year for head coach Sonny Dykes? Before that question was answered officially, SMU already answered the next question: who will replace Dykes? Miami (FL) offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, formerly an offensive coordinator at SMU, was announced as the next head coach of the Mustangs on Monday morning.

“As with previous transitions, our process was thorough and competitive. Ultimately, though, our conversations kept leading us back to one man — Rhett Lashlee,” Athletic Director Rick Hart said in a written statement. “Rhett’s ability to connect with recruits, his passion and love for his players and his alignment with our vision and values are among the many reasons he has been selected to lead SMU Football. We will provide Rhett with the support and resources he needs to bring a championship to the Hilltop, and are thrilled to welcome Rhett back to SMU. Lashlee met with SMU players Monday morning, sources told The Dallas Morning News. Senior offensive lineman Hayden Howerton, the school record holder for games played and games started, tweeted after, “The future of SMU Football is in GREAT hands.” “I am humbled and excited to be returning to SMU to lead Dallas’ College Football Team,” said Lashlee in a statement. “I want to thank President Turner, Rick Hart and the members of the search committee for this opportunity. My family and I look forward to engaging the community and continuing to strengthen the program’s ties to the city. On the field, we want to build on the foundation of success we’ve established and compete for — and win — championships.”

Dallas Morning News - November 30, 2021

Migrants head to U.S. to flee poverty, violence, disasters and more, survey shows

Poverty, food insecurity, gang violence, and weather-related disasters are root causes for continued mass migration to the United States, a trend now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a report released Monday by Hope Border Institute. Further, the migration is not expected to slow down anytime soon, and may in fact, keep rising as conditions worsen throughout Latin America, particularly in Central America and Mexico, which surprisingly, showed a dramatic increase of “internally displaced” Mexican migrants due to violence that’s pushing people out of key states like Michoacan, Guerrero and Guanajuato. The report, No Queda de Otra (There’s No Other Choice): An Exploration of the Root Causes of Migration to the Southern Border. The report surveyed 51 people over a two-month period in three different migrant shelters in Ciudad Juarez, across from El Paso.

As the Biden administration faces criticism for its border and migration policies from all sides, this study provides a first-hand account of the migrants, seeking to explain their determination to reach the United States. Among the findings: About 60% of those surveyed migrated as part of a family. And about 60% were internally displaced in their country of origin before attempting to migrate to the US. “I think the Biden administration needs to understand that deterrence is not a solution,” said Hannah Hollandbyrd, author of the report and policy specialist at the Hope Border Institute, a non-profit organization that advocates on behalf of migrants and asylum seekers. “And root causes will require a big investment of effort, but it’s not compatible with a deterrent approach. We need a coherent migration policy approach that focuses on why people are leaving rather than criminalizing them once they’ve already taken that step.” While in recent years, attention has been focused mostly migration from Central America, Mexicans fleeing violence has often been overlooked, Hollandbyrd said. “For the Mexicans we interviewed, migration was mostly tied to extortion and violence,” she said “For Central Americans, there was more a diversity of causes. A lot of people mentioned poverty and just not having access to basic needs like health care, food, lack of work, and climate change.

Dallas Morning News - November 30, 2021

How Southwest Airlines and American avoided a holiday travel meltdown despite big crowds

Southwest Airlines recorded just one canceled flight Sunday on the busiest travel day since the COVID-19 pandemic began and landed 85% of its flights on time, according to Flightaware.com. Fort Worth-based American Airlines had 25 cancellations, less than 1% of its entire operation despite anxiety approaching the holiday weekend stemming from several operational meltdowns since summer, controversial vaccination mandates for employees and normal worries about weather and big crowds. In fact, the biggest air travel news of the weekend was a man stowing away on an American Airlines flight from Guatemala to Miami in the plane’s landing gear. As a note, that plane landed 16 minutes early, even if the surprise passenger caused a bit of a delay. U.S. airports recorded a pandemic high of 2.4 million passengers passing through security checkpoints Sunday, but airlines seemingly handled the busiest travel day of the year with ease, with just 83 cancellations in the entire country on Sunday on more than 22,481 domestic flights.

Chicago-based United canceled 10 flights Sunday, Seattle-based Alaska had two and Spirit and Delta didn’t have any, according to FlightAware.com. Weather played a big role. Despite heavy rainfall in the furthest reaches of the Pacific Northwest and snow in areas such as Vermont, the most heavily populated parts of the country saw little cold or precipitation over the last week, said Joseph Bauer, a meteorologist with Accuweather. “You are talking perfect conditions for getting flights out,” Bauer said. The entire holiday travel week seemed to run smoothly, even though operational meltdowns in recent months by Dallas-based Southwest, American and Florida-based Spirit had analysts wondering whether the stress of the holidays would lead to widespread cancellations and delays. There were also worries about vaccine mandates, staffing issues, Transportation Security Administration staffing and a number of other factors that could have turned the end of the vacation weekend into a nightmare for travelers.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

This North Texas city is the best place to live in the nation, New York Times says

An opinion column in The New York Times lists Euless as the best place to live in the nation. Other North Texas cities placed in the top 10 in the piece by Farhad Manjoo titled “Everyone’s Moving to Texas. Here’s Why.” Manjoo’s rankings examined criteria such as the cost of living, jobs, racial diversity and climate. The study examined 16,847 towns and cities across more than 30 metrics. “If you’re looking for an affordable, economically vibrant city that is less likely to be damaged by climate change than many other American cities, our data shows why Texas is a new land of plenty,” Manjoo wrote. Manjoo’s top 10 list also includes Edgecliff Village, a small suburb south of Fort Worth; Garland; Grand Prairie; DeSoto; Mesquite; and Cedar Hill. Other area cities, including Plano, McKinney and Allen, “came up a lot,” Manjoo wrote.

Manjoo identified jobs, housing, highly rated schools, good restaurants, clean air and racial and political diversity as some of the reasons. The area offers it all “at a steep discount compared to the cost of living in America’s coastal metropolises.” Manjoo also noted that tens of thousands of Californians have moved to Texas every year of the last decade, linking to a Dallas Morning News story about how Elon Musk’s relocation to the state follows 687,000 other Californians who’ve moved here in last decade. Texas is also out-competing every state in the race for California company relocations, The News reported in August. Euless has about 58,000 people with large numbers of Tongan and Nepalese residents. A sizable portion of the city is home to DFW Airport.

Houston Chronicle - November 26, 2021

'This is going to be a marathon': Texas congressional delegation preps push for Ike Dike

Members of Texas’ congressional delegation are gearing up for a "marathon" effort to secure funding for a long-sought barrier to protect the Texas Gulf Coast from catastrophic storm surge. That’s because it’s unlikely much, if any, of the resiliency funding in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law this month will go toward the $29 billion project. The effort will begin in earnest next year, when Texans in both chambers will push to include federal authorization for the so-called “Ike Dike” in a massive water resources bill that Congress passes every two years. But members of the delegation are bracing for what will likely be a long, difficult push for as much as $18 billion in federal funding.

“This is going to develop over a number of years,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, told Hearst Newspapers. “This is going to be a marathon.” Cornyn said he doesn’t anticipate trouble getting the federal OK for the project in the 2022 Water Resources Development Act, a biennial, typically bipartisan bill that helps pay for flood mitigation infrastructure across the country. But the water bill typically doesn’t pass Congress until fall or winter, and it isn’t expected to include funding for the coastal spine. “That’s going to be a heavy lift because, unfortunately, it’s easier to get money after a natural disaster than it is to prevent one,” Cornyn said. The project draws its name from Hurricane Ike, a catastrophic storm that hammered Galveston and the Texas Gulf Coast in September 2008. Ike rampaged through 26 Texas counties, leaving dozens dead and causing nearly $30?billion in damage before turning north.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Chris Tomlinson: Nuclear must bring down prices to help with climate change

Wyoming, the capital of coal country, will soon host a cutting-edge, zero-emission source of electricity that promises to replace mining jobs with better-paying jobs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If this pilot project works, it could speed the electrification of everything, a necessary energy transition to slow the planet’s warming. But that’s a big if, and one not without controversy. Bill Gates-backed TerraPower plans to construct a new nuclear reactor unlike any in use today. A reader writes almost every month asking about nuclear power’s potential to meet our carbon-free energy needs. The quick answer is light-water reactors are too expensive to compete with wind, solar and battery storage. A better question is why wealthy investors are betting new technologies will bring those costs down.

Like the South Texas Plant in Brazos County, today’s nuclear power plants were designed in the 1960s and built in the 1970s using slide rules and analog adding machines. They require a colossal construction budget, and decommissioning costs a fortune. A conventional nuclear plant takes six years to construct and costs $6,034 per kilowatt of generation capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A combined-cycle natural gas plant with equipment to capture 90 percent of carbon emissions would take three years to construct and cost $2,471 per kilowatt of capacity. By comparison, onshore wind power takes three years and costs $1,846. Solar photovoltaic arrays with battery storage built-in cost $1,612. Even a coal-fired powerplant with 90 percent carbon capture is cheaper at $5,861 per kilowatt of capacity. Electric companies are adding wind and solar at a far faster pace than other generation sources; not out of some do-gooder sentimentality, they are looking for the lowest price so they can be competitive. Low construction prices are critical in competitive electricity markets such as Texas’s ERCOT. Nuclear engineers have learned a lot in 60 years. They have designed small, modular reactors that are simpler. The reactors can be built in a factory and then delivered wherever needed. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still reviewing the designs for safety.

Texas Lawbook - November 29, 2021

Judge, known for expertise in complex litigation, has her work cut out in winter storm cases

Sylvia A. Matthews presided over more than 175 jury trials and 160 bench trials during her decade as a Harris County District Court judge. Lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants say she is smart, fair, well-prepared, hard-working, efficient and decisive. Matthews will need all those qualities over the next several months as she oversees more than 150 highly complex civil lawsuits filed by victims seeking billions of dollars in damages as the result of last February’s winter storm, which was one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in Texas history. The lawsuits filed across Texas include individuals suing for wrongful death, personal injury and property damages and companies complaining about breach of contracts, interruption of business and price-gouging. Some of the largest power companies, such as the Houston utility CenterPoint Energy, the Chicago company Exelon and Vistra Energy of Irving, one of the state’s biggest generators and retail electricity providers.

While the lawsuits have been filed in more than a dozen Texas courts, the Texas Supreme Court has consolidated them into one docket, called multidistrict litigation. The cases are consolidated for efficiency, allowing pretrial issues, such as production of evidence and admissibility of testimony, to be decided in a uniform matter. Once the pretrial issues are decided, the cases are usually sent back to the courts where the lawsuits were filed for trial. For example, lawyers predict that the 200 lawsuits already filed in the Astroworld tragedy will also be consolidated into a single proceeding for pre-trial purposes. The litigation involves some of the most experienced and high-profile lawyers in Texas and they overwhelmingly say that Judge Matthews is the perfect jurist to tackle such a massive undertaking. “She’s absolutely one of the most predictable judges I’ve been in front of - and that’s a compliment,” said John Zavitsanos, a Houston trial lawyer who tried numerous cases before Matthews. “I didn’t always like her rulings, but I could always understand why she made them.” Judge Matthews declined a request for an interview. “The judicial canons of ethics prevent me from communicating with you about this pending matter,” she said in an email.

The Bulwark - November 29, 2021

Meet the Texas Secessionist Movement: Brought to you by Russia

Acouple weeks ago Senator Ted Cruz was speaking at Texas A&M University when someone asked him his thoughts on the Texas secessionist movement. He replied that he wasn’t “there, yet.” It is important to understand that the modern secession movement is not a product of Lone Star pride. It’s an idea that has been force fed into the American conservative movement by Russia. Secession is one of the Kremlin’s “active measures” campaigns: Promote fringe wackos abroad and hope that, eventually, they break something. This may not sound like much of a plan, but it sometimes works. Putin has been openly building his portfolio of wackos for a while. And the wackos have begun breaking things. The shiny ball that caught Cruz’s attention was The Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM). TNM is Texas’s most prominent secessionist organization.

In 2015, TNM attended a St. Petersburg gathering of worldwide extremists organized by Rodina—that’s “Motherland” in Russian—the fascist-adjacent offshoot of Putin’s United Russia party. That gathering was a safe space where the likes of German Neo-Nazis, the KKK, Greece’s Golden Dawn, and Roberto Fiore (the Italian terrorist responsible for a 1980 bombing in Bologna that killed 85), could gather and praise Putin’s defense of Western (read: “white”) culture. There’s a nice symmetry there. Some day when when Hollywood comes calling the film can be titled, “From Victim to Dupe: The Ted Cruz Story.” Fortunately for us, secessionists aren’t killing people—they’re not “there, yet”—but Putin’s propaganda can be convincing. Casey Michel notes that the fake Russian secessionist “Heart of Texas” Facebook page, which had more likes than the GOP and Democrat Facebook pages combined, organized a rally of white nationalists and AR-15 enthusiasts in downtown Houston in 2017.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - November 30, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Dallas fans, mayor fuming as TCU hires SMU football coach

Whatever you think of TCU’s decision to hire away SMU football coach Sonny Dykes, it has already paid off handsomely in one way: Plenty of people in Dallas are ticked off. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson pouted on Twitter, declaring that SMU players “deserve better than the mess that’s been dumped in their lap.” A few fans greeted Dykes with “TCU Sucks” shirts as he walked on campus before Saturday’s game, and an enterprising vendor benefited from a run on the shirts. The frustration is understandable. SMU spent years in the football wilderness, and Dykes was the coach who finally managed sustained success. But winning at SMU is still a ways from competing at the highest levels of college football. It no doubt chaps hizzoner and plenty of others in the city where the East peters out that to take a step up, Dykes has to head west.

In all seriousness, the SMU-TCU rivalry is better than it has been in decades, thanks to SMU’s new strength. The Horned Frogs dominated for more than a decade, but the Mustangs have won two in a row. They agitated coach Gary Patterson by triumphantly planting a flag in the Amon Carter Stadium turf after a 42-34 win. Pride over the Iron Skillet aside, it’s good for the entire area if both programs are successful. And at least some of the schools’ mutual contempt is borne of their similarities — small, private colleges struggling to grab sports media attention in a huge market where there are far more Longhorns, Aggies and even Sooners than graduates of the local institutions. The renewed rivalry comes at a time when the battles between Dallas and Fort Worth have lost their intensity. Plenty of jokes are still made, but political and business leaders long ago realized that in most arenas, the region is better off presenting a united front. Turf wars for corporate relocations and the like continue, but Dallas-Fort Worth benefits from a shared vision and cooperation.

San Antonio Express-News - November 29, 2021

‘That isn’t enough’ — Sutherland Springs families, survivors bridle at government’s compensation offer

How much should the federal government have to pay survivors of the Sutherland Springs church massacre and the family members of the 26 people killed? Lawyers for the survivors and for bereaved relatives of the deceased are asking for some $418 million total. The U.S. Justice Department has proposed $31.8 million. The gulf between those two numbers was the source of sharp disagreement and intense emotion Monday during closing arguments in a civil trial in federal court in San Antonio. “We’ve used the words shocking, horrific, inhumane to describe what’s happened to these families,” Jamal Alsaffar, an attorney representing several of the Sutherland Springs plaintiffs, said during the court session. “But the same words can be used to describe what was filed by the government.”

Some other plaintiffs’ lawyers called the government’s proposed payment for pain, suffering and mental anguish “ridiculous,” unjust and unfair. The Sutherland Springs gunman, Devin P. Kelley, had a history of violence while in the Air Force and was convicted of domestic violence before being dishonorably discharged. The Air Force failed to report the conviction to a national firearms database, as required by law. The judge in the case has ruled that if the conviction had been reported, Kelley might not have been able to buy the assault-style rifle he used to carry out the massacre. Kelley committed suicide after fleeing the scene of the carnage. In a 185-page filing, the Justice Department said its proposed payments to the survivors and other claimants were based on evidence presented during a monthlong trial on damages and on previous court cases, federal and Texas state law, and disbursements from a fund for victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Dingivan said the proposed compensation was in line with trial verdicts in personal injury and wrongful death cases in Texas.

D Magazine - November 29, 2021

The New York Times tries to figure out why people are moving to North Texas

Farhad Manjoo, self-described “lefty New York Times columnist” and Californian, paid a recent visit to Dallas in an effort to find out why “everyone’s moving to Texas.” The resulting column is worth reading, if a little scattershot. (It’s packaged with a fun little “Where Should You Live?” project that invites you to input your city-living priorities and spits out a recommended place to live; I got Chapel Hill, N.C.) It contains a handful of pertinent observations, like Manjoo’s suspicion that the blue state vs. red state stuff is overblown. For the people moving here (or anywhere), politics matter much less than (relative) affordability, jobs, and housing. Manjoo is right that Texas’ badly underfunded public services look even more pitiful when compared to California’s welfare benefits. But while our state’s natural beauty can’t quite match the mountains and beaches and forests of California no matter how many lagoon communities developers here throw up, most of the scenery is really quite similar:

“Texas has barbecue and California has burritos, but the American urban landscape has grown stultifyingly homogeneous over the past few decades, and perhaps one reason so many Californians are comfortable moving to Texas is that, on the ground, in the drive-through line at Starbucks or the colossal parking lot at Target, daily life is more similar than it is different.” I think Manjoo overrates the extent to which fear of climate change is now pushing people along the California-to-Texas pipeline, although that’s obviously something we should all take more seriously before it’s too late. (And if things continue the way they’re heading, climate change should prove more of a factor in cross-country moves). And Manjoo’s coastal eliteness gets the better of him at times. He avoids gratuitous references to livestock and things being bigger in Texas, which I very much appreciated, but is nevertheless shocked that people with liberal politics live in the ninth biggest city in the country.

Houston Public Media - November 29, 2021

Masks, state takeovers and ‘critical race theory’ are on the ballot as 4 HISD board members face runoff challenges

Heather Golden is a parent in the Heights, part of HISD Trustee District 1. She’s the mother of two HISD high schoolers, both of whom have attended Title I schools for the majority of their education — schools in which children from low-income families make up at least 40% of enrollment. Top of mind for Golden is a worry about children in Houston’s underserved communities. “My kids have gone to school in Title I schools the majority of their education time in HISD, and they see their friends who are struggling and need more help,” Golden said. “They want their friends to receive the help they need." She’ll be casting her ballot in the District 1 runoff election, in which incumbent Elizabeth Santos will face a challenge from Janette Garza Lindner. In describing how she made up her mind before voting in the general election, Golden said she looked at the incumbent’s performance and voting record. She’s also looking at the pandemic, and how the candidates propose to make up for learning losses.

Monday marks the start of early voting for Texas runoff elections, and four of the five Houston ISD board members who ran for reelection earlier this month must face the voters again. The contests hinge on issues ranging from local concerns about the quality of education, to statewide issues about the survival of the board as an elective body, to national debates over mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory. Santos led the first round of voting in the District 1 general election, but fell short of 50%, prompting the runoff. Golden said she’ll be voting for Santos' challenger. But other Heights voters have concerns about Garza Lindner. Karina Quesada pointed to an interview Garza Lindner gave to The Leader newspaper that raised the issue of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath's threat to take over HISD and replace its elected board with an appointed one. That threat is the subject of a lawsuit now before the Texas Supreme Court. "She stated that if there wasn’t new members on the board that she is open to a state takeover, and for me that is that is really important," Quesada said. "That bothers me very much because as a constituent, as a citizen, as a taxpayer, as a homeowner, I don’t want anybody, that’s OK with taking my ability to elect a representative to represent us, my children, and our teachers in this community."

County Stories

Fort Worth Report - November 22, 2021

Local, state policies may contribute to higher cervical cancer death rate for Hispanic women in Tarrant County

Alma Zuniga kept her cancer a secret for as long as she could. She hid the evidence under wigs and makeup, and with eyebrow pencils she’d use to draw on facial hair every morning before work. “When people start talking about cancer, they’re going to say, ‘Well, what kind of cancer do you have?’” she said. Her answer — that she’d been diagnosed with human papillomavirus, and the HPV had turned to cervical cancer — felt too intimate to share. When she received her late-stage diagnosis in 2013, Zuniga was in her late 40s. She remembers her oncologist in Fort Worth saying her uterus was “very, very angry.” When she looks back, Zuniga blames her ignorance. Back then, she didn’t know much about cervical cancer, a disease that disproportionately affects Hispanic women in Tarrant County, Texas and the country.

The disparities deepen across county lines. Although their incidence rates are similar, Hispanic women in Tarrant County are more likely to die from cervical cancer than Hispanic women in Dallas County, according to a recent study funded by the American Cancer Society. The differences stem, in part, from a lack of education about cervical cancer and a lack of access to care, according to Marcela Nava, a health equity researcher and assistant professor at The University of Texas at Arlington. For some women, local and state policies make that access even harder. Cervical cancer is almost always caused by HPV, a virus that can pass from person to person through sex, and is typically preventable. “We can eliminate it in our lifetime,” said Erika Thompson, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the HPV vaccine in 2006. Texas almost mandated the vaccine when Rick Perry was governor. “A lot of our other cancers, it’s hard to pinpoint: What do you need to do to prevent this cancer? For cervical cancer, we know. It’s pretty straightforward,” Thompson said. Much of her research centers HPV prevention. But not everyone knows about or accesses vaccines or preventive screening like Pap smears and HPV tests. Disparities along the “spectrum of prevention” contribute to disparities in cervical cancer incidence or death rates, Thompson said.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Galveston Republicans gut precinct represented by county’s lone Black, Democratic county commissioner

During the last moments his political precinct was still intact, the lone Black member of the Galveston County Commissioners Court delivered a closing message to his all-Republican colleagues, as they prepared to approve a map that would effectively doom his re-election chances. “We are not going to go quietly in the night,” Commissioner Stephen Holmes said, half turning to address the other members at a Nov. 12 meeting. “We are going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done.” The new map, approved seconds later, dramatically reshapes Holmes’ Precinct 3, uprooting it from areas that he had represented since being appointed to the court in 1999. While the precinct had previously cut through the middle of Galveston County, covering an area where the majority of eligible voters were Black and Hispanic, it is now consolidated in the largely white and Republican northwest corner of the county, taking in Friendswood and League City.

Under the freshly drawn boundaries, Galveston County Republicans have laid the groundwork for winning a 5-0 majority on Commissioners Court in a county where 38 percent of voters cast their ballots for President Joe Biden last year. Holmes, the court’s only Democrat, is up for re-election in 2024. The dismantling of Holmes’ precinct mirrors the aggressive redistricting efforts seen across the country in recent months, with members of both parties using data from the 2020 Census to draw new political boundaries that expand or preserve their majorities — often at the expense of their fellow elected officials. No longer bound by strict federal supervision, Texas and other Republican-led southern states have crafted new maps in which minority voters are drawn into predominantly white districts. They’ve also enacted voting restrictions that critics say are aimed at suppressing turnout of minority communities. Holmes said he expects to be replaced by a white candidate, given that only about a quarter of the eligible voters in his new precinct are minorities.

City Stories

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Former Burleson educators arrested on charges of abuse of disabled individual

Two former Burleson educators accused of improperly restraining students were arrested last week. Teacher Jeanna Mangus and teacher’s aide Holly Monroe were arrested on three misdemeanor charges of assault against an elderly or disabled individual. They worked with students with disabilities at Burleson’s Norwood Environmental Science Academy, an elementary school south of Fort Worth. The two are now former employees, Principal Candice Cook wrote in a message to families. She detailed allegations that Monroe and Mangus used “improper restraints behind the closed doors of their classroom.” Cook said that when she became aware of the allegations in late September, the school removed the educators from the classroom and investigated.

Burleson school officials declined to share details of the investigation publicly, citing federal privacy laws. “Student safety and welfare remains a top priority, and Burleson ISD will always act swiftly to intervene and partner with parents to provide students with the best learning environment possible,” district spokeswoman Mikala Hill said. Monroe and Mangus weren’t using approved techniques to restrain children “even though they were trained to do so,” Cook wrote to families. Mangus declined to comment Monday, and Monroe did not respond to a request for comment. Monroe received her educational aide certification from the state in 2002, and Mangus has been certified as a teacher since 2009, according to the State Board for Educator Certification. Burleson police referred questions to a city spokeswoman, who declined to provide further details about the case.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - November 29, 2021

Pickup accessory factory considers Fort Worth location

RSI SmartCap, a South Africa-based truck bed canopy company, is considering plans to build a plant in south Fort Worth. The City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to sweeten the pot. The plant is expected to bring a minimum of 250 jobs paying at least $65,800. That is one of the conditions RSI is expected to meet if it wants to get a proposed tax break from the city. Construction will also bring opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses. The city will require that 15% of all construction costs go to businesses with at least 51% minority or women ownership.

RSI SmartCap makes modular truck bed canopies, meaning they can be more easily assembled than the standard single-body models. The caps are made with stainless steel instead of fiberglass. Each cap has five stainless steel pieces and ranges in price from $3,195 to $3,895. The plant would be at 1501 Joel East Road. RSI plans to invest at least $2.5 million to improve an existing manufacturing plant, which the city expects will generate $55 million in taxable value once the project is completed. To encourage the development, the city could extend RSI a five-year tax abatement that would knock 40% off its property tax bill if the company meets certain conditions. Half of that tax break would come from increasing the total appraised value of the property to $55 million, up from $23.5 million. The other half would come from the staffing and minority- and women-owned business requirements. If it meets those conditions, RSI would see a tax break starting in 2027. The benefit is capped at $737,508. The council will vote at its 10 a.m. meeting on Tuesday.

National Stories

Associated Press - November 29, 2021

CDC says ages 18 and up should get booster shot

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday broadened its recommendation for COVID-19 booster shots for all adults as the new omicron variant is identified in more countries. The agency had previously approved boosters for all adults, but only recommended them for those 50 years and older or if they live in a long-term care setting.

CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the new guidance reflects the emergence of the omicron variant, which has not yet been identified in the U.S. but that officials say will inevitably reach the country. “Everyone ages 18 and older should get a booster shot either when they are 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine,” she said in a statement. CDC says ages 18 and up should get booster shot Walensky also encouraged Americans feeling unwell to seek out a COVID-19 test, saying “Increased testing will help us identify Omicron quickly.”

Associated Press - November 29, 2021

Chris Cuomo's off-air role: Brother Andrew's strategist

CNN anchor Chris Cuomo had a bigger role than previously known in helping defend his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, from sexual harassment allegations that forced him out of office, newly released transcripts and text messages show. The TV journalist offered to reach out to "sources," including other reporters, to find out whether more women were going to come forward and relayed what he was hearing to his brother's advisers, according to the materials made public Monday. He also sparred with the former governor's aides over strategy, urging an apologetic tone and critiquing an early statement that he saw as downplaying the allegations. He accused a top aide of hiding information from his brother. At the same time, Chris Cuomo told investigators he spoke regularly with his brother, coaching him on his response and admonishing him for "bad judgment."

Chris Cuomo previously acknowledged it was a “mistake” to act as his brother’s unofficial adviser, but the full extent of his involvement — including using journalistic contacts to scope out accusers — only became clear with Monday's release of his July interview with investigators and 169 pages of text messages, emails and other communications. “I was worried that this wasn’t being handled the right way, and it’s not my job to handle it, okay?” Chris Cuomo told investigators, according to the transcript. “I don’t work for the governor." Andrew Cuomo resigned in August to avoid a likely impeachment trial, after an investigation led by state Attorney General Letitia James found he sexually harassed at least 11 women. Chris Cuomo, the host of CNN's “Cuomo Prime Time,” said he never reported on his brother's situation for the network and never tried to influence coverage. On-air in August, he said: “I tried to do the right thing,” adding he “wasn’t in control of anything.” CNN issued a statement saying the transcripts and exhibits “deserve a thorough review and consideration. ”

Wall Street Journal - November 30, 2021

Twitter’s Jack Dorsey steps down as CEO

Twitter said Monday that Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey is stepping down, a departure driven in part by investors uncomfortable with his roles running two large, publicly traded companies, according to people familiar with the matter. The Twitter co-founder, one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent figures, is also CEO of digital payments company Square Inc. His split duties and outside hobbies have long drawn criticism, and last year activist investor Elliott Management Corp. pushed for changes at Twitter, including potentially adjusting Mr. Dorsey’s role, the people said. The company said in a securities filing in November that it had updated its CEO succession plan. The board, which included an Elliott representative, and Mr. Dorsey discussed plans at the time for him to step down relatively soon, the people said. He decided to resign now after Twitter launched a number of new products in recent months, the people said.

Twitter’s board of directors named Parag Agrawal CEO and a member of the board, effective immediately. Mr. Agrawal was previously Twitter’s chief technology officer. Bret Taylor, Salesforce.com Inc. president and chief operating officer, was named chairman of the board. “I’ve decided to leave Twitter because I believe the company is ready to move on from its founders,” Mr. Dorsey said in a statement. Elliott said Monday that it believes Messrs. Agrawal and Taylor are the right leaders for the company. Mr. Dorsey’s move doesn’t affect his position at Square, which he also co-founded. With a market capitalization of almost $100 billion, Square is more than twice as valuable as Twitter, which is valued at about $37 billion. With his long beard and nose ring, 45-year-old Mr. Dorsey is one of the business world’s most enigmatic figures. His management style involves delegating most major decisions to subordinates, in part to allow other executives to step up. It also allows him to pursue his personal passions.

The Hill - November 30, 2021

Omar, Boebert blast one another after tense call

Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) clashed in what both described as a tense phone call on Monday after video surfaced of the far-right lawmaker making Islamophobic remarks about her colleague. The two lawmakers issued separate statements after the phone call making clear that neither found the conversation to be helpful in settling their differences. "Today, I graciously accepted a call from Rep. Lauren Boebert in the hope of receiving a direct apology for falsely claiming she met me in an elevator, suggesting I was a terrorist, and for a history of anti-Muslim hate. Instead of apologizing for her Islamophobic comments and fabricated lies, Rep. Boebert refused to publicly acknowledge her hurtful and dangerous comments," Omar said in a statement.

"She instead doubled down on her rhetoric and I decided to end the unproductive call," Omar added. "I believe in engaging with those we disagree with respectfully, but not when that disagreement is rooted in outright bigotry and hate." Boebert, meanwhile, expressed frustration in a video posted to Instagram that Omar felt the initial public apology "wasn't good enough." "I wanted to let her know directly that I had reflected on my previous remarks. Now, as a strong Christian woman who values faith deeply, I never want anything I say to offend someone's religion. So I told her that. Even after I put out a public statement to that effect. She said that she still wanted a public apology because what I had done wasn't good enough," Boebert said. Boebert went on to attack Omar for her past criticisms of Israel and calls to dismantle the Minneapolis Police Department following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while he was under arrest.

McClatchy - November 30, 2021

Mayors pitch Buttigieg for infrastructure project money

With hundreds of billions of dollars in federal grants up for grabs under the infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed this month, mayors from Sacramento to Miami-Dade are anxiously seeking face time with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor who could green-light their pet projects. The competition started months before the infrastructure bill even passed, but now it’s kicked into high gear, with city leaders crafting ambitious plans in hopes of securing a windfall of federal funds. “I think you have a bit of a scramble right now among mayors and leaders around metro areas around the country to make sure that not just our priorities but our faces are in front of folks,” Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas told McClatchy. Lucas, a Biden ally,was among the 50 mayors at the White House when the president signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law, marking his second trip to Washington in two weeks.

Days before the House passed the legislation, Lucas met with senior officials at the Transportation Department pitching them on Kansas City’s priorities. Lucas said some constituents have complained about the frequency of his trips to Washington, but he argued the in-person interactions are essential for presenting the city’s agenda. “It is going to be a question of what city is putting its best foot forward to show that they’re doing something different, and they’re doing something special that’s worth attention and ultimately worth money,” Lucas said. The new infrastructure law steers $660 billion to the Transportation Department, including more than $200 billion in discretionary funding that will be doled out as competitive federal grants over the next five years. That funding includes money for the establishment of new grant programs and significant increases for existing grant programs, which presents a unique opportunity for local governments to pay for significant projects if they’re able to persuade Buttigieg’s department to fund them. Buttigieg, who served as mayor of South Bend, Ind., from 2012 to 2020, alluded to the opportunities for local officials last week at an event with Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott.

Courthouse News - November 29, 2021

Supreme Court refuses to block vaccine mandate for Massachusetts hospital workers

Justice Stephen Breyer on Monday afternoon refused to grant relief to workers at a Boston-based hospital in the latest challenge to Covid-19 vaccine mandates to come across the high court’s shadow docket. Without referring the case to his colleagues on the court, Breyer denied the request for an emergency injunction with no explanation for his ruling or call for a response from the hospital. Mass General Brigham started enforcing its Covid-19 vaccine mandate on Nov. 5 and has since terminated employees that refused to comply. Both a district court and the First Circuit have denied requests for a preliminary injunction in the case. The hospital workers sought an injunction from the Supreme Court while their appeal is pending at the Boston-based First Circuit.

The hospital workers allege Mass General is violating their Title VII rights and the Americans with Disabilities Act by enforcing the vaccine mandate without accommodation — something their Supreme Court petition claims has been offered to other employees. The workers claim the mandate violates their religious beliefs or places them in “significant physical or mental danger.” “After putting applicants under constant pressure to forsake their religious beliefs and physical wellbeing, respondent has enforced its deadline for applicants to violate their sincerely held religious beliefs or place themselves in physical danger by taking a vaccine, and relief cannot wait,” the application states. “By choosing not to violate their sincerely held beliefs or place themselves in physical danger, and losing their jobs as a result, applicants face the continuing inability to feed their children, the continuing loss of any practical ability to work in their professions, constant potential homelessness, and continuing significant emotional and psychological harm.” An attorney for the hospital workers declined the comment on the case. The appeal from Massachusetts hospital workers is not the first to cross the high court's so-called shadow docket, which refers to rulings and orders issued by justices on emergency petitions. Last month, the court rejected an appeal from Maine health care workers. In an opinion on the ruling, Justice Amy Coney Barrett focused on the nature of the emergency docket itself while three of her conservative colleagues — Justices Neil Gorsuch, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito — penned a dissent focused on the merits of the case. The justices have also previously rejected vaccine mandate challenges from New York public school teachers and Indiana University students and employees.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Health expert warns of next pandemic unless U.S. takes these important steps

Nearly two years since the first confirmed case in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic is still in full swing. National case numbers are rising. Only 59% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Doctors, scientists and public health experts are working to soften the coronavirus’ impact through new medications. Booster shots are available to all vaccinated adults. Two pharmaceutical companies are awaiting approval of their experimental pills to treat COVID-19. But until the U.S. addresses social, economic and racial inequities, the country won’t be ready to fight the next pandemic-inducing virus, warn experts like Dr. Sandro Galea, a physician, epidemiologist and dean of the Boston University School of Public Health.

“As the [next] pandemic hits, we are going to understandably be talking a lot about vaccines, about the need for therapeutics and about the need for stockpiling. But all of that is not going to be enough,” Galea said. “We also need to pay attention to the underlying social structures that determine our health.” Galea will speak at the Park City Club in Dallas on Thursday, Dec. 2, in an event hosted by the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Fort Worth. He will address the systemic public health issues exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ways they leave the U.S. vulnerable to future health crises. Galea has spent years studying the components that create healthy populations. His work in rural communities across the world helped inform his new book, The Contagion Next Time, which outlines ways to “increase pandemic resiliency.” The country has done well in treating illnesses and moving quickly to develop new medical technologies like the COVID-19 vaccines, Galea said. Where we’ve fallen short is in addressing the factors that determine health, he said. What builds and supports “health is whether you have a livable wage, whether you’re living in a safe house, whether you’re breathing clean air, have drinkable water, nutritious food, whether you have the opportunity to exercise,” he said. “All of that is created by the world around you, by the conditions of where you live, work and play.”

November 29, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Matthew McConaughey says he will not run for Texas governor

Actor Matthew McConaughey said Sunday evening that he has decided not to run for Texas governor after considering the idea for several months. In a three-minute video posted to his Twitter and Instagram accounts, the Oscar winner said that he was humbled to be regarded as a possible candidate but that it is a path he is “choosing not to take at this moment.” “As a simple kid born in the little town of Uvalde, Texas, it never occurred to me that I would one day be considered for political leadership,” he said. “It’s a humbling and inspiring path to ponder.” McConaughey, 52, said that as he was considering running for governor, he was learning about Texas and American politics and found that “we have some problems that we need to fix.” “We’ve gotta start shining a light on our shared values — the ones that cross party lines, the ones that build bridges instead of burning them,” he said. “I’ve learned that with freedom comes responsibility and that great leaders serve.”

McConaughey said he would continue to be of service in other ways, by supporting “entrepreneurs, businesses and foundations that I believe are leaders.” He signed off in the video with “Until next time, just keep livin’.” McConaughey, who first came to prominence for his role in the movie Dazed and Confused in 1993, won an Academy Award for his role in Dallas Buyers Club, a 2013 film about the early days of the AIDS epidemic. He was named People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” for 2005. His announcement came almost two weeks after Democrat Beto O’Rourke launched his campaign for governor. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott filed for a third term Tuesday. A campaign representative for O’Rourke declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Abbott’s campaign. Alice Stewart, the former communications director for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said on CNN Sunday evening that the actor had raised some important issues in his announcement. “He did talk about the political discourse in this country and lowering the temperature and the need for making sure that we have elected officials that serve people for all the right reasons,” she said.

Axios - November 29, 2021

GOP courts anti-vaxxers with jobless aid

Republican officials around the country are testing a creative mechanism to build loyalty with unvaccinated Americans while undermining Biden administration mandates: unemployment benefits. Driving the news: Florida, Iowa, Kansas and Tennessee have changed their unemployment insurance rules to allow workers who are fired or quit over vaccine mandates to receive benefits. The big picture: Extending unemployment benefits to the unvaccinated is just the latest in a series of proposals aligning the GOP with people who won't get a COVID shot. Republicans see a prime opportunity to rally their base ahead of the midterms. No matter how successful their individual efforts, the campaign is a powerful messaging weapon.

Details: Nine GOP-controlled states have passed laws requiring exemptions for the Biden administration's vaccine mandate, or banning private companies from requiring vaccination altogether, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy. Several states have made it as easy as possible for workers to claim exemptions, allowing them to opt-out on philosophical grounds or requiring businesses to accept all requests for religious or medical exemptions without proof. Legal uncertainty created by a wide variety of new vaccine exemptions in Florida – including for past COVID-19 infections and "anticipated future pregnancy" – prompted Disney World to suspend its vaccine mandate on Tuesday. In Congress, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) is leading a formal challenge against the federal vaccine mandate using the Congressional Review Act, the official process for Congress to eliminate an executive branch rule. The resolution is "guaranteed a vote on the Senate floor," according to Braun's office, which could come as early as December. At least 20 bills have been introduced to chip away at Biden's mandates. The backdrop: On Sept. 8, President Biden announced a new rule requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to implement vaccine mandates, affecting roughly 80 million private sector workers, as well as millions of federal workers and contractors.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Why cryptocurrency miners pose the next big threat to the Texas’ electric grid

Texas, already home to the most vulnerable power grid in the U.S., is about to be hit by a surge in demand for electricity that’s twice the size of Austin’s. An army of cryptocurrency miners heading to the state for its cheap power and laissez-faire regulation is forecast to send demand soaring by as much as 5,000 megawatts over the next two years. The crypto migration to Texas has been building for months, but the sheer volume of power those miners will need — two times more than the capital city of almost 1 million people consumed in all of 2020 — is only now becoming clear. The boom comes as the electrical system is already under strain from an expanding population and robust economy. Even before the new demand comes online, the state’s grid has proven to be lethally unreliable. Catastrophic blackouts in February plunged millions into darkness for days, and, ultimately, led to at least 210 deaths.

Proponents like Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, both Republicans, say crypto miners are ultimately good for the grid, since they say the miners can soak up excess clean power and, when needed, can voluntarily throttle back in seconds to help avert blackouts. But it raises the question of what these miners will do when the state’s electricity demand inevitably outstrips supply: Will they adhere to an honor system of curtailing their power use, especially when the Bitcoin price is itself so high, or will it mean even more pressure on an overwhelmed grid? “There’s nobody looking at the scale of potential investment in crypto and its energy demand over the next couple of years and trying to account for that in some sort of strategic plan,” said Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of the consumer advocacy and lobbying group Public Citizen, which has sharply criticized the vulnerabilities of the state’s unregulated power market. Texas is rolling out the red carpet for crypto miners as onetime leader China has banned the industry. Mining for crypto requires massive amounts of power, complicating Beijing’s efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions and shore up energy supplies ahead of the winter.

Associated Press - November 29, 2021

Supreme Court set to take up all-or-nothing abortion fight

Both sides are telling the Supreme Court there's no middle ground in Wednesday's showdown over abortion. The justices can either reaffirm the constitutional right to an abortion or wipe it away altogether. Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that declared a nationwide right to abortion, is facing its most serious challenge in 30 years in front of a court with a 6-3 conservative majority that has been remade by three appointees of President Donald Trump. “There are no half measures here,” said Sherif Girgis, a Notre Dame law professor who once served as a law clerk for Justice Samuel Alito. A ruling that overturned Roe and the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey would lead to outright bans or severe restrictions on abortion in 26 states, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.

The case being argued Wednesday comes from Mississippi, where a 2018 law would ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, well before viability. The Supreme Court has never allowed states to ban abortion before the point at roughly 24 weeks when a fetus can survive outside the womb. The justices are separately weighing disputes over Texas' much earlier abortion ban, at roughly six weeks, though those cases turn on the unique structure of the law and how it can be challenged in court, not the abortion right. Still, abortion rights advocates were troubled by the court's 5-4 vote in September to allow the Texas law, which relies on citizen lawsuits to enforce it, to take effect in the first place. “This is the most worried I’ve ever been,” said Shannon Brewer, who runs the only abortion clinic in Mississippi, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The clinic offers abortions up to 16 weeks of pregnancy and about 10% of abortions it performs take place after the 15th week, Brewer said. She also noted that since the Texas law took effect, the clinic has seen a substantial increase in patients, operating five days or six days a week instead of two or three.

State Stories

Texas Observer - November 28, 2021

As Texas’ $10 billion corporate tax break program comes to close, state comptroller wants to cover up its costs

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar is pursuing new rules that opponents warn would weaken transparency and accountability for the state’s biggest corporate tax break program, Chapter 313, just as it is set to expire at the end of 2022. The comptroller’s proposals, which were published last Friday, would effectively cover the program in a cloak of opacity, obscuring the billions of dollars that the state will still be on the hook for even after the program shuts its doors. Hundreds of these lucrative school property tax deals are still in their early years—or still awaiting approval—and will remain active for decades to come, as far out as 2049. The hulking property tax abatement program met its unexpected demise this year when state lawmakers chose not to renew it. For years, Chapter 313 has allowed local school districts to grant corporations steep discounts on property tax bills for 10 years in exchange for building large-scale projects. The program was a coup for major manufacturing firms, oil and gas giants, and other large corporations that have saved billions of dollars on school property taxes since the Chapter 313’s inception 20 years ago.

But support for the once-popular program flagged amid concerns about its rapidly ballooning size, at last count, of 600 active projects and an estimated total lifetime cost of roughly $11 billion in foregone tax revenue. Chapter 313 also drew scrutiny over its biggest selling points: that these projects—which technically would only happen because of these deals—create lots of high-paying quality jobs and that the value these facilities bring to school tax rolls over the long-term easily outweigh the cost of a decades worth of tax breaks. The data and reports that the comptroller is proposing to get rid of or make less accessible have allowed for several exposés uncovering the program’s many flaws. A recent Texas Observer investigation into the Chapter 313 deals that have now come to an end found that companies often drastically overestimated how much value the projects will bring back to the tax rolls. A Houston Chronicle investigation also found that corporations routinely failed to create the required job and wage requirements once they secured the tax incentives. The Comptroller’s Office, which administers Chapter 313, has decided the best response to these findings is to simply do away with the pesky data collection and value projections and weaken job reporting requirements. First, the comptroller wants to do away with the biennial reports that require companies to provide actual and estimated figures for a project’s market value, taxable value, and annual gross tax benefits for the entire lifespan of their Chapter 313 agreements—including for a number of years after the tax breaks end. This data provides critical information on the projected long-term costs and benefits of the program. For instance, the comptroller uses that data to forecast the total amount of tax revenue that is foregone because of the program each year. (The annual cost of the tax breaks is currently projected to surpass $1 billion a year in 2023.) That dataset is a powerful tool for analysis and accountability. That data revealed that companies applying for 313 deals routinely make wildly optimistic projections about how much their projects will generate once they return to tax rolls.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

The $400 million federal push to steer Texas drivers toward an electric future

The U.S. has never been more serious about transitioning to clean energy on roadways. But is Texas serious about it? A Biden administration plan aims to shift 50% of passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. to electric vehicles by 2030, rather than cars and trucks running on fossil fuels. To accomplish this, the administration has pushed legislation providing a slew of tax credits for EV purchases as well as funding for infrastructure. It’s an ambitious plan — the success of which will depend partly upon the buildout of a $7.5 billion nationwide network of charging stations with funding from the recent infrastructure bill passed by Congress. Texas will receive $408 million of that funding for charging stations, and could apply for additional grants from a $2.5 billion pool. Experts see additional, faster-charging stations placed strategically around the state as a way to persuade more consumers to buy electric. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about 80% of electric vehicle charging happens when the car is parked at home and plugged in at night.

Still, one of the biggest perceived roadblocks for consumers considering the shift is something called “range anxiety.” It’s a term used to describe the fear of setting off on a trip only to be stranded with a dead vehicle and nowhere to charge it. In Texas, reaching U.S. goals will mean overcoming anxieties and getting millions more electric vehicles on the road. California leads the nation in EV adoption, followed by Florida and Texas. The states with the most EVs on the road also happen to be the country’s most populous. Texas had 52,190 electric vehicles registered by the end of June 2021, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s fewer than 1% of the 22 million total vehicles registered in the state, according to data from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The state needs more than 14,000 charging stations to support the number of electric vehicles projected to be on roads by 2030, according to a 2018 report from environmental research nonprofit Environment Texas. Whether that estimate holds true for Texas in coming years is dependent on how fast adoption grows — especially considering the switchover to electric is happening faster than previously anticipated, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director of the Texas Electric Transportation Resource Alliance.

San Antonio Express-News - November 29, 2021

Gilbert Garcia: In Texas politics, moral victories can be meaningful

When people talk about elections having consequences, they usually mean that winners get to exert their will over the lawmaking process. But election consequences are often more subtle than that. Consider the case of state Rep. Ina Minjarez, the San Antonio Democrat who has devoted much of her time in the Legislature to finding common ground on issues that cut across the partisan divide, such as foster care reform and cyberbullying. This year, however, Minjarez grew frustrated with a relentless GOP culture-war agenda that ignored urgent problems (the state’s fragile power grid; the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic) in favor of targeting transgender kids and critical race theory, allowing permitless carry of handguns, restricting voting access and weaponizing private citizens to enforce a near-total abortion ban. So she decided to walk away.

Last week, Minjarez, one of the most dedicated and effective members of the Texas House, announced that she will run for Bexar County judge rather than seek another term in the Legislature. The way Minjarez sees it, the Texas Legislature will continue to be a dysfunctional body until/unless voters send a message to this state’s leaders. “It’s all determined on what the election results are going to be,” she said on the Express-News’ Puro Politics podcast. “The session before (in 2019), the Republicans got the scare of their life when it looked like the AG (Ken Paxton) barely held on to his seat, (Lt. Gov.) Dan Patrick as well. Because of that, we had such a great session. “That was the whole focus on public education funding. We lovingly referred to it as the ‘Kumbaya Legislative Session,’ because we were are all in sync together.” In the 2014 midterms, every single statewide Republican candidate won by a margin of at least 19 percentage points. In 2018, four statewide Republican incumbents (including Paxton and Patrick) won re-election by less than five points. Democrats gained 12 seats in the Texas House and two seats in the U.S. House.

San Antonio Express-News - November 29, 2021

Trey Martinez Fischer: Once again, San Antonio cut out of redistricting

In 1968, San Antonio celebrated its 250th birthday on the global stage with the World’s Fair. Among the many local leaders who contributed to the success of HemisFair ’68 was the late U.S. Rep. Henry B. González, who represented downtown San Antonio. Today, that park is no longer represented by a San Antonian. Like many other downtown assets, it has been drawn into a congressional district anchored in Austin. For many, the specifics of redistricting are foreign concepts. Some don’t know what it is, and some believe it is primarily political gamesmanship played by elected officials seeking to preserve their power. That’s part of the story for some lawmakers, but it fails to capture how this process can drastically change communities. This process, done carelessly or with ill intent, can lead to bad outcomes for all of us. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided.

This year, with a new round of redistricting, San Antonio lost, and we will feel that loss for a decade without intervention. Perhaps the courts will step in and find a Section 2 violation of the Voting Rights Act, meaning lawmakers denied Latinos the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. Or perhaps Congress will provide relief by passing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require federal oversight of state redistricting and voting rights laws in states such as Texas with a history of targeted voter suppression. Until then, Texas is stuck with the discriminatory maps signed into law last month. Politics aside, this loss for San Antonio will be felt personally by many of our neighbors. Being represented in Congress by someone who lives in our community, who knows its concerns and who shares in its burdens is important. For many San Antonians, this will not be the case over the next 10 years. Our region’s priorities may not be addressed as swiftly, and we will lack an advocate that places our needs first. Under the new maps, our central business district, downtown university and the River Walk have been drawn into a district anchored by a majority of its population in Austin. Our beloved Alamo, a famed historical landmark and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state, has been drawn into a district anchored in Laredo.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Houston has two of the top 3 best value colleges in Texas; one beats UT Austin

Houston is the best city in Texas for students seeking a cost-effective higher education, according to a 2021 list of best value colleges compiled by financial technology company SmartAsset. Rice University and the University of Houston ranked first and third in the company's list, which considered the base tuition, the average scholarship size, and the average starting salary, along with student retention rate and local living costs. Prairie View A&M University, about 50 miles northwest of Houston, ranked seventh, the top value historically Black university in Texas. No other city in Texas had more than one college in the top ten. The University of Texas at Austin took a distant second place, with the Rice Owls trouncing the Longhorns for the best overall value despite the far higher tuition at the private university.

While the state's top public university charges only $10,600 per year for in-state students compared to Rice's $47,300 price tag, the latter brings down its sticker price with $38,000 in scholarships on average. Rice graduates also obtain an average starting salary of $72,000, about $10,000 more than the average UT graduate. The University of Houston, at third, is the best value local university in Texas, offering tuition and an average scholarship comparable to UT Austin and an average starting salary of $57,000. The school shot up from 7th place in the 2020 rankings and Houston's Cougars edged out the Aggies of Texas A&M University, which sank to fourth with a slightly higher tuition and lower average scholarship than their rival in Austin. The Aggies were followed by UT Dallas, Texas Tech, Prairie View A&M, LeTourneau University, Midwestern State, and Texas State in the Lone Star top ten. UT Arlington and Trinity University in San Antonio no longer made the list this year. But in a U.S. list dominated by technical universities and institutions, Texas schools fell short of cracking the top ten best value colleges nationally. Rice University ranked 16th, behind the Virginia Military Institute but ahead of Duke University, while the University of Houston ranked 35th, behind the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Texas overall ranked in the bottom half of states at 28th nationally.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Thousands of children in Texas lost a parent to COVID, and families are left to pick up the pieces

More than 140,000 children — including 14,000 in Texas — lost at least one parent or caregiver to COVID-19 through the first 14 months of the pandemic, according to study by American Academy of Pediatrics, and the impact will be felt beyond the families who suddenly lost heads of households, wage earners, caregivers and the love of parents and spouses. Study after study has shown that single-parent households are likely to do worse than those with two parents and more likely to slip into poverty and all that entails, including increased risks of unstable housing, low educational attainment and mental health problems. The academy’s study, published in October, also underscored how the pandemic has disproportionately affected minorities. In Texas, for example, about 58 percent of the children who lost parents were Hispanic and another 16 percent were Black. These heart-rending statistics can be explained in part by some minority groups having larger families, which means the loss of a parent affects more children. But other factors were at work, too.

More than 70 percent of Black and Hispanic men worked work in frontline jobs in industries such as retail, warehousing, meat packing and health care, increasing the risk of exposure to COVID-19, according to the National Institutes of Health. Hispanics were nearly twice as likely to contract COVID-19 as non-Hispanic whites, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In addition, deeply rooted inequities in the health care system have put some racial and ethnic groups at higher risk of conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease, which would make them more vulnerable to COVID and likely experience worse outcomes if they caught it. “The entire pandemic has thrown into sharp contrast these health disparities among racial and ethnic groups,” said Susan Hillis, the author of the report. Other epidemics, such as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ‘90s, have increased the number of children losing one or both parents, Hillis said. What sets COVID-19 apart is how quickly the disease can progress, leaving families with little time to ready themselves for the loss. “With COVID, often someone is dead within like several days or two weeks,” Hillis said. “And so suddenly, there's this anticipated shock without adequate time to prepare families.”

Houston Chronicle - November 23, 2021

Coral in the Gulf of Mexico are facing an extreme threat. Here's how Moody Gardens is trying to help.

Brooke Carlson checks in at least once each shift on the nearly 100 refugee coral at Moody Gardens. Scientists rescued them in recent years from Florida, where a disease is swiftly killing colonies. Zoos and aquariums nationwide took them in. The coral are the hope for one day building back the reef. The Florida coral in Galveston now live in three large, blue tanks. Carlson and the team make saltwater for them to live in, stir together refrigerated and frozen food to eat, and monitor how they respond to LED lights that mimic the sun. The process involves both caring for and learning about them; at least one species has never been in captivity before. “These animals didn’t choose to be here,” said Carlson, squeezing their liquid lunch into the tank with a turkey baster. “As a keeper, my job is to give them what the ocean would, which is a very big task.”

That so many coral were saved and so many facilities offered to look after them shows how important scientists felt the effort was. Coral worldwide already suffer from climate change. The disease in Florida, called stony coral tissue loss disease, affected almost half the stony coral species there, according to the state. More than 80 percent that got it died. But the success story in saving some also gave way to further concern. Galveston researchers realized the disease might come closer to home. The Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary near Texas has some of the healthier coral that remain. The coral are deep in the Gulf of Mexico and roughly 100 miles off the coast, which might protect them, though it also makes them harder to help. Stony coral tissue loss disease spread quickly. People first identified it in 2014 in Florida. It went on to infect coral along the entire 360-mile Florida Coral Reef, which curls along the bottom tip of that state. Scientists hoped the disease wouldn’t reach Dry Tortugas National Park at the westernmost end. It did. That sounded alarm bells at Flower Garden.

Houston Chronicle - November 29, 2021

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Resign, Craddick and Christian. Regulators misled about winter storm and failed to prevent another

Nine months ago, Wayne Christian was standing in his dark house, wearing three layers of coats to keep warm, one of millions of Texans who lost power from a ferocious winter storm. On the morning of Feb. 17, Christian, the chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the state’s natural gas industry, phoned into the agency’s emergency Zoom meeting to test drive a statement that could spin the crisis in favor of oil and gas. “The takeaway from this storm should not be the future of fossil fuels, but the dangers of subsidizing and mandating intermittent, unreliable forms of energy at the expense of using our resources to make the grid more resilient to extreme weather events,” Christian said. It took less than 24 hours for the statement to become gospel — and for wind and solar, which played bit parts in the winter storm tragedy, to be cast as arch villains.

Long before public officials could take inventory of the storm’s damage — as many as 700 people dead, more than 4.5 million Texas homes and businesses, including 1.4 million in the Houston area, were without power for days — Christian’s chief goal seemed to have nothing to do with protecting Texans and everything to do with protecting industry, and his political career. In email responses, he doubled down on absolving the natural gas industry, according to the Texas Tribune, even including his statement in a newsletter to his political supporters. Meanwhile, Christian’s fellow commissioner and the agency’s former chairwoman, Christi Craddick, declared that the industry did not need to uniformly weatherize — “one-size-fits-all is always a challenge for us,” she told the Legislature. She told a U.S. House committee in March that the oil and gas industry were not the problem, but rather “the solution.” “Any issues of frozen (natural gas) equipment could have been avoided had the production facilities not been shut down by power outages,” Craddick said. (The RRC’s third commissioner, Jim Wright, was elected last November, and had only been in office a short time when the storm struck.)

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

GOP-drawn congressional map splits up Hispanic communities in D-FW, diluting their voting power

Texas’ new, Republican-drawn congressional map carves up Hispanic communities in the Dallas and Fort Worth suburbs, placing some of them in an enlarged district that’s controlled by white voters. Those shifts boost the GOP’s grip on Congressional District 6 while weakening Hispanic clout in Congressional District 33, a majority-minority seat in which Hispanics previously made up nearly half of eligible voters. Mapmakers this year stretched District 6 from a fairly compact seat in southern Tarrant County and Ellis and Navarro counties into a sprawling district that includes Cherokee County in East Texas and the more rural Hill, Freestone and Anderson counties. Snaking through southeast Tarrant County, the redesign pulled in some heavily Hispanic areas of the old Congressional District 33, including a large part of Irving in Dallas County. Democrats and voting rights advocates say the contorted lines whitewash the booming Hispanic community, which made up nearly half of Texas’ population gain since 2020.

People of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth over the last decade, with much of the increase concentrated in cities and suburban areas, census data show. “It’s a power grab at the expense of the Hispanic vote,” said Sal Carrillo, director of a North Texas district of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “It’s not just [Republicans] maintaining power. It’s taking away power from the Hispanic population,” said Carrillo, of LULAC District 21, who lives in Fort Worth. Similar efforts to engineer solidly red seats were evident throughout North Texas, as GOP lawmakers melded fast-changing suburban communities with larger, whiter and more rural districts. The maneuvering comes as Tarrant County has emerged as one of the state’s biggest political wildest cards. Demographic changes have made Democratic Party candidates more competitive in the historically Republican area. In 2020, former President Donald Trump won District 6 by about three percentage points. Under the new plan, Trump would have carried the district by about 24 points. The redraw protects first-term GOP Rep. Jake Ellzey.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Reports detail Texas Railroad Commissioners’ ties to oil and gas industry

A series of reports from an advocacy group has made broad allegations that all three elected members of the Texas Railroad Commission are too closely tied to the oil and gas industry that they regulate. The nonprofit group Commission Shift in a series of reports undertaken with Texans for Public Justice alleges that the Railroad Commission is a “captured” agency — one that has become so entwined with the industry it regulates that it can no longer effectively oversee it. Among its many findings, Commission Shift found that all three commissioners received more than 60% of their campaign donations from companies or individuals with direct or indirect ties to the oil and gas industry. It also found that some members did not recuse themselves from votes involving companies they had personal or indirect connections with through their business or investment holdings.

Commission Shift is calling for stricter rules on commissioners recusing themselves from votes, more specific financial disclosures and campaign contribution rules barring companies with pending matters before the board from donating to candidates or commissioners. It also proposed Texas adopt similar rules to Oklahoma, which requires members of its oil and gas regulatory board to divest from the industry. “Bottom line, I think it is time to reform conflict of interest policies at the Railroad Commission,” said Virginia Palacios, Commission Shift’s executive director. The series of three reports highlights that all three commissioners have ties to the oil and gas industry. The oddly named Railroad Commission has little to do with trains and is Texas’ chief regulator of the state’s massive oil and natural gas industry. Unlike many of Texas’ other regulatory boards, its members are elected in statewide elections. Many view the Railroad Commission as a stepping stone to higher office. In a series of three reports released in recent months, Commission Shift detailed the personal finances of each railroad commissioner, examining their personal finance reports that elected officials are required to file with the Texas Ethics Commission. All three commissioners responded to questions from The Dallas Morning News about Commission Shift’s findings and their ties to the oil and gas industry. All three either did not respond to Commission Shift’s criticism of their ability to regulate an industry they have stake in or said it did not make a difference in their judgment.

Dallas Morning News - November 29, 2021

Finally, here comes infrastructure: ‘A big prize for every person in Texas,’ says expert

“Infrastructure week” became a punchline in American politics because elected leaders spent years talking about repairing roads, bridges, dams, rail lines, airports, water supplies and more — yet never could manage to pony up the money. All that changed this month after Congress approved $548 billion in new spending on infrastructure. President Joe Biden said this would be the biggest such investment since the U.S. built the interstate highway system and launched the space program decades ago. Texas stands to be among the major beneficiaries because it’s the second-most-populous state and the fastest-growing one. Since 2010, Texas has added 4.1 million people — over 1 million more than Florida and nearly 2 million more than California, its closest rivals in population growth. Dallas-Fort Worth added 1.27 million people in the past decade, surpassing the growth of larger metros like New York and Los Angeles.

“There’s a lot of people and a lot of need,” said Mark Boyd, principal engineer for LCA Environmental Inc. in the Dallas area. “So many are moving here every day, and they’re not bringing their water supply with them — or their roads.” Texas is in line to get over $35 billion in infrastructure improvements over the next five years, according to White House estimates. That includes $26.9 billion for highways and roads in Texas, along with $3.3 billion for public transportation and $2.9 billion for improving water infrastructure. Texas’ highways and roads were graded a “D+” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in its 2021 report card on Texas infrastructure. That means highways and roads are poor and at risk. “Many Texas motorists are seeing increased delays, limited roadway capacities and deteriorating conditions,” the report card said. “Auto commuters in Austin, D-FW and Houston face significantly more congestion than the national average. The average Texan spends 54 hours in traffic at a cost of $1,080 annually.” Implementing the buildup will be a challenge, in part because engineering firms and construction companies already have labor shortages. The infrastructure bill is projected to support over 175,000 new construction jobs annually, along with almost 46,000 jobs in professional, scientific and technical services, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Beaumont Enterprise - November 28, 2021

Beaumont’s Battleship Texas dreams are still afloat

Bringing the only remaining American vessel to serve in both World War I and World War II, The Battleship Texas, to dock in Beaumont’s waters is not off the table. And Chief Operating Officer and Executive Director of The Battleship Texas Foundation Bruce Bramlett came to a Beaumont City Council workshop last week to share financial information and again pitch the ship as an asset to the city. The ship currently is moving to a shipyard in Galveston where repairs will be completed. “There's only one piece of this puzzle left and it is the one (that) has been most present on my mind since this all started,” Bramlett said. “Where will the new home of the Battleship Texas be? It is the most critical question I believe we face as an organization because if we get this wrong, there will be no turning back.”

The foundation is looking at multiple locations, including Beaumont, to be a home for the ship, but so far no city officially has submitted a proposal. The ship’s repairs will happen in Galveston and are estimated to take about a year. At that point, it will be ready to move to its new home. The foundation is unable to say how much Beaumont could have to spend to take on the ship. The city would have to consider not just docking the ship but also shoreline facilities. But Bramlett was very clear about one thing: “Every spot that we have visited with somebody inevitably says, ‘Oh, we don't want to get involved with The Battleship Texas because if it's in our city then we are responsible to maintain it.’” he said. “I have no idea where that came from. It is totally false.” The State of Texas owns the ship and is expected to pay maintenance fees, according to a letter from Texas Parks and Wildlife. According to Beaumont City Manager Kyle Hayes, the rough estimate for docking the ship is $7 million dollars. In order to find a hard number, the council would need to have a full investigation done.

KUT - November 23, 2021

Small towns around Austin struggle with big-city housing costs

To get to Taylor from downtown Austin, you’ll likely take U.S. Highway 79 east through the booming suburbs of Round Rock and Hutto. Continue on and that development begins to thin out and the surroundings return to a semblance of what most of this area looked like 20 years ago, rolling farmland in Texas' Blackland Prairie. Driving into Taylor, the vibe is rural but not the usual trope of a dying, small town. The city has seen a gradual increase in its population in the past 10 years, and with that has come a renaissance of sorts. Taylor will soon be home to a $17 billion Samsung microchip-making plant, which is also expected to bring a lot of newcomers. Downtown Taylor features the classic Louie Mueller barbecue joint, as it has for decades. But it’s now accompanied by new businesses that have made downtown their home. A brewery, coffee shop, some bars, restaurants and small boutiques are scattered among other various abandoned, historic buildings.

“All we had was basically fast-food restaurants,” said Gerald Anderson, a native of Taylor who serves on the city council. “And now you see a lot more mom and pop restaurants popping up, a lot of bars and just things for people to do. So, over the last 10 years, it's changed dramatically for the better.” But Anderson is concerned that as Austin's population continues to grow outwards, Taylor’s growth will accelerate at a rapid pace. And with the surge in housing prices during the pandemic, he says his rural community is grappling with urban issues like affordability and gentrification. The real estate mortgage company Redfin estimates the median home price in Taylor was $188,000 in October 2019. Two years later, that median home price jumped to $300,000. According to U.S. census data, the median household income in Taylor is $52,672, and only one-third of households earn more than $75,000. “The new subdivisions that start at $270,000, most people can't afford,” Anderson said, “especially people directly out of college or just getting started on their own or young families. They're being priced out, and they're priced out of Austin and priced out of Round Rock. So, what we don't want to do is price them out of Taylor.”

Austin American-Statesman - November 29, 2021

Move to ban 'pornographic' books in TX schools targets LGBTQ+ memoirs, novels on race

In their award-winning memoirs, Maia Kobabe and Carmen Maria Machado write about sexual experiences. In "Gender Queer: a Memoir," Kobabe, who identifies as nonbinary and goes by the pronoun eir, shares the experience coming to terms with eir gender identity and sexuality. Machado focuses on an abusive same-sex relationship in her book, "In the Dream House." The autobiographies — considered by many librarians to be beneficial for teens grappling with similar questions about their gender, sexuality or experiences in relationships — have become the target of a new movement to ban books in schools. Gov. Greg Abbott called this month for authorities to investigate "any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography,” having previously pointed out school districts that had removed books from libraries or reading lists.

But can nonfictional memoirs be considered pornography and legally censored? Several legal and library experts interviewed by the American-Statesman said probably not. But calls to have some pulled from library and school district shelves are growing, even as the First Amendment is supposed to protect the "right to receive ideas" and places a high bar for public entities to remove access to books. Although Abbott directed the Texas Education Agency to investigate criminal activity related to obscenity in schools, law enforcement officers usually carry out criminal investigations and share them with prosecutors who decide whether to file charges. A jury would then determine whether the material is obscene and in violation of state law. Because of First Amendment protections, such prosecutions don't occur very often, said Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Pornography is not usually mentioned in the legal system, unless it is in reference to the crime of child pornography. “The terms can get thrown around, but legally speaking, (books, pictures, films or videos) have to meet these different standards under the First Amendment or under these criminal statutes,” said Rebecca Pirius, legal editor of the online resource Nolo. More often, such cases hinge on whether sexual content is obscene or is protected by the First Amendment.

FOX 7 Austin - November 29, 2021

Texas Gov. Abbott promises power will stay on this winter

The cooler air that blew into Texas Friday was a reminder winter is not far away, and a reminder of how the electrical power grid almost collapsed back in February. FOX 7 Austin asked Gov. Greg Abbott about his expectations for the grid and if he was confident it’s going to stay up. "Listen very confident about the grid and I can tell you why, for one I signed almost a dozen laws that make the power grid more effective," said Abbott.

A big part of protecting the grid is set to happen Dec. 1 when power generators across Texas must notify the Public Utility Commission winter weatherization plans are in place. Inspections will begin in January - and with power companies reporting 15% more power generating capacity than last winter- Abbott doubled down on his confidence in the grid. "I can guarantee the lights will stay on," said Abbott. That promise may have strings attached to it. Dr. Ed Hirs, an energy expert with the University of Houston, offered his assessment on what may best be described as a "conditional" promise. "Well the governor is betting the weather stays mild, and if it gets cold that the electric utilities are ready to go. There is no evidence that they are," said Hirs. Hirs warned the power generation stated by the governor falls short of what would be needed to address another February crisis. He is also worried some natural gas pipe lines, that froze up as temperatures fell, will not be winterized. That concern is fueled by a loophole created by the agency regulating that industry. "The Railroad Commission has given critical gas infrastructure an out, all they have to do is send in an application for exemption from the rules, $159 fee, there's still investigations going on as to whether or not the market had been purposely manipulated. FERC in its report of two weeks ago said that investigation is ongoing with other FERC offices and probably with other law enforcement agencies," said Hirs.

Associated Press - November 28, 2021

Dr. Anthony Fauci fires back at Sen. Ted Cruz over COVID claims about Chinese lab

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious diseases expert, blasted Sen. Ted Cruz for suggesting that Fauci be investigated for statements he made about COVID-19 and said the criticism by the Texas Republican was an attack on science. “I should be prosecuted? What happened on Jan. 6, senator?” Fauci, who is President Joe Biden's chief medical adviser, said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation." It was a reference to the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump that was stoked as Cruz helped lead GOP objections to Congress' certifying the 2020 election results. “I’m just going to do my job and I’m going to be saving lives, and they’re going to be lying,” Fauci said.

Some Republicans, including Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., have accused Fauci of lying to Congress when he denied in May that the National Institutes of Health funded “gain of function” research — the practice of enhancing a virus in a lab to study its potential impact in the real world — at a virology lab in Wuhan, China. Cruz has urged Attorney General Merrick Garland to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Fauci’s statements. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the GOP criticism nonsense. “Anybody who’s looking at this carefully realizes that there’s a distinct anti-science flavor to this,” he said. Cruz and Paul say an October letter from NIH to Congress contradicts Fauci. But no clear evidence or scientific consensus exists that “gain of function” research was funded by NIH, and there is no link of U.S.-funded research to the emergence of COVID-19. NIH has repeatedly maintained that its funding did not go to such research involving boosting the infectivity and lethality of a pathogen. When asked in the CBS interview whether Republicans might be raising the claims to make him a scapegoat and deflect criticism of Trump, Fauci said, “of course, you have to be asleep not to figure that one out.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - November 28, 2021

North Texans facing eviction even after pandemic rent relief

The Texas Rent Relief program, a federally funded rental assistance program, has multiple aims: It intends to help keep tenants in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prevent “financial hardships” for both tenants and property owners, according to the program’s website. But gaps in the rules and inconsistent enforcement have meant that some tenants face eviction hearings or displacement even after paying their landlords with rent relief funds — or while waiting for their applications to be approved. Luck of the draw plays a significant role, too, housing advocates and attorneys say. A more sympathetic landlord or judge, or access to legal representation, could be the difference between a tenant losing or keeping their home. A spokesperson for Texas Rent Relief sent some program information over email, but declined repeated requests for interviews for this story.

Although the program stopped accepting new applicants in early November, thousands of tenants are still in the system, which will continue to operate until it runs through all of its $1.9 billion in funding. In general, landlords and those who back them say that evictions are a last resort. “Evictions are bad for business,” said Perry Pillow, the CEO of the Apartment Association of Tarrant County, the local chapter of a property owners’ lobby. “It costs time, it’s money. You want to keep a good resident there, somebody that’s going to pay. Evictions are typically a last resort because they are bad for business.” But tenant protection measures such as the federal eviction moratorium helped to drop eviction rates, according to The Eviction Lab at Princeton University. Meanwhile, Texas’ protections, as the Star-Telegram has reported extensively, have been particularly weak — leading in some cases to landlords losing their income and tenants losing their homes. Christina Rosales, the former deputy director of Texas Housers who now works on housing issues nationally, said the rent relief program and its “pitfalls” point to a central confusion about the role housing plays in society. “What is housing? Is it a right, is it something that we need to keep people safe and the foundation for everything in our communities?” Rosales said. “Or is it a business?” Twenty months into the pandemic, and nine months into Texas’ statewide effort to keep tenants housed, some North Texas residents are still facing down evictions that advocates say could have been avoided.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - November 28, 2021

TCU to introduce Sonny Dykes as next football coach Tuesday

TCU plans to formally introduce SMU coach Sonny Dykes as its next football coach on Tuesday, sources told the Star-Telegram. Dykes emerged as the top target for the Frogs following a national search as the Star-Telegram reported last week. The sides didn’t want to make it “official” until after the regular season but news leaked Friday that Dykes would be leaving SMU for rival TCU. Dykes and TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati have yet to publicly confirm the move. Dykes declined to answer a question on the subject from The Dallas Morning News following SMU’s regular-season finale on Saturday. Donati declined comment when asked by the Star-Telegram during TCU’s season finale at Iowa State on Friday.

Dykes coached SMU’s regular-season finale against Tulsa on Saturday in Dallas, and was heckled by Mustangs faithful as he entered the stadium. The Dallas Morning News reported one fan yelled, “Put your purple on, Dykes.” A couple of fans wore “TCU Sucks” shirts as he walked by. The Mustangs fell 34-31 to the Golden Hurricane on Saturday. SMU lost four of its last five games under Dykes. Dykes did not answer a question when asked if he’d be heading to TCU in his postgame news conference. “I hate the way this thing ended,” Dykes said, according to The Dallas Morning News. “I hate the way this whole season ended.” Regardless of SMU’s late season struggles, Dykes has long been considered a front-runner for TCU after the school parted ways with longtime coach Gary Patterson on Oct. 31. Dykes emerged as the top choice out of a group of finalists that included Louisiana’s Billy Napier, Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Jackson State’s Deion Sanders and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. TCU also had interest in NFL-level coaches, including Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and Denver Broncos running backs coach Curtis Modkins.

Fort Worth Business Press - November 28, 2021

Fruitcake & crime spice up a small Texas town in documentary with local ties

It is holiday time, and what is better than a tale that includes fruitcake? The story is of a crime – spanning years in the making and perhaps long forgotten by many – telling the saga of an unremarkable little man who once held a humdrum job in a small Texas town. Beginning Wednesday, December 1, Fruitcake Fraud, a 90-minute documentary will be available on discovery+ streaming. The film chronicles the life of Sandy Jenkins, the accountant for Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, about an hour’s drive south of Dallas. Collin Street Bakery, esteemed far and wide as the artisan in fruitcake production, crafts each cake to perfection. “When I first heard about what happened here, it seemed too nutty to believe,” says Celia Aniskovich, Director and Executive Producer. “But it’s all true, and our film is filled with those jaw-dropping moments. The people of Corsicana and the employees of the bakery opened their doors and welcomed us into their lives to share this remarkable story.”

Bob McNutt, President and CEO, is the third generation to carry on the family enterprise, having inherited it from his father. His grandfather and great uncle were two of a group of investors who bought the company in 1946, the business already a half-century old, the original owners having begun baking in 1896. Early on the bakery produced mainly bread, but later the owners decided to gamble on a specialty product – fruitcake. The bakery flourished and has maintained that success under Bob McNutt. “During the holidays, it is not uncommon for daily cake sales to be in the tens of thousands,” says Hayden Crawford, VP Customer Service. “We ship to all 50 states, and 196 foreign countries. During what we call ‘fruitcake season’, we employ up to 500 employees and expect to ship nearly two million pounds this season.” It was 1998 when Sandy Jenkins began working for the bakery. Hired as an accountant, Sandy was good at his job – he was reliable, he maintained the books, and he was never late meeting payroll or paying corporate taxes. By the year 2000, he had worked his way up to corporate controller and a $50,000 annual salary.

National Stories

Associated Press - November 27, 2021

Some states dropping ‘dehumanizing’ terms for immigrants

Luz Rivas remembers seeing the word on her mother’s residency card as a child: “alien.” In the stark terms of the government, it signaled her mother was not yet a citizen of the U.S. But to her young daughter, the word had a more personal meaning. Even though they were going through the naturalization process, it meant the family did not belong. “I want other children of immigrants, like me, to not feel the same way I did, that my family did, when we saw the word ‘alien’,” said Rivas, now an assemblywoman in the California Legislature. The Democratic lawmaker sought to retire the term and this year authored a bill — since signed into law — that replaces the use of “alien” in state statutes with other terms such as “noncitizen” or “immigrant.” Her effort was inspired by a similar shift earlier this year by the Biden administration. Immigrants and immigrant-rights groups say the term, especially when combined with “illegal,” is dehumanizing and can have a harmful effect on immigration policy.

The word became a focal point of debate in several states earlier this year as the number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border swelled and led to fierce backlash against Biden administration policies by Republican governors and lawmakers. Lawmakers in at least seven states considered eliminating use of “alien” and “illegal” in state statutes this year and replacing them with descriptions such as “undocumented” and “noncitizen,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Only two states, California and Colorado, actually made the change. “I want all Californians that are contributing to our society, that are small business owners, that work hard, to feel that they are part of California communities,” Rivas said of the reason behind her legislation. State Sen. Julie Gonzales, who co-sponsored the new Colorado law, said during a legislative committee hearing that words such as “illegal” were “dehumanizing and derogatory” when applied to immigrants. Gonzales said the legislation aimed to remove the only place in Colorado statute where “illegal alien” was used to describe people living in the U.S. illegally. “That language has been offensive for many people,” she said. “And some of the rationale behind that is really rooted in this idea that a person can certainly commit an illegal act, but no human being themselves is illegal.”

Washington Post - November 29, 2021

Youngkin tests activists' patience as he pushes abortion and guns aside

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin says he would "entertain" certain antiabortion legislation next year, but it is not part of his "day one" agenda. Gun rights appear to be on the back burner, too. The Republican who launched his bid for Virginia's highest office promising to "protect life before birth and after birth" and to roll back a slew of gun-control laws is focused on other matters as he prepares to assume the governorship on Jan. 15. Youngkin was vocal about abortion and guns early in his campaign, when he was seeking the Republican nomination, then downplayed those polarizing issues after he'd won the nod and begun courting moderate suburbanites. But some conservative activists hoped - if not expected - that he would put those causes front and center again once elected.

Youngkin himself indicated that was the plan over the summer, when he was caught on video saying he couldn't speak publicly about abortion ahead of the election for fear of alienating independents. But if he won, and Republicans took control of the House of Delegates, he said, he'd go "on offense." "I'm not going to go squishy on you," he promised then. Asked how he plans to go "on offense" on abortion now that the Executive Mansion and House have flipped red, Youngkin said last week he would consider a "pain threshold bill." That would ban most abortions after 20 weeks, something he voiced support for in September, in two gubernatorial debates. "I'm pro-life," Youngkin said at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Phoenix. "I believe in exceptions in the case of rape, incest and when the mother's life is in jeopardy. I've also been very clear that a pain threshold bill was something that I would entertain." But he also said he would tackle other issues before abortion, such as lowering taxes, creating a "great curriculum" for public schools, expanding charter schools, "funding law enforcement" and cutting back business regulations.

CNN - November 29, 2021

DOJ prosecutors push back against Bannon for wanting to publicize evidence against him

Prosecutors in the case against former President Donald Trump's ex-adviser Steve Bannon have accused him of attempting to try his criminal case through the media instead of in court, saying his tactics could affect witnesses against him, according to a new filing in DC District Court. Bannon is trying to convince a judge not to bar him and his lawyers from sharing documents he receives from the Justice Department with the public before his trial. The DOJ prosecutors said in the filing Sunday some of those records must stay private while the case is pending, because they include internal communications between congressional staffers and notes of FBI interviews with witnesses who could testify against Bannon at trial.

"Allowing the defendant to publicly disseminate reports of witness statements will have the collateral effect of witness tampering because it will expose witnesses to public commentary on their potential testimony before trial and allow a witness to review summaries of other witnesses' statements recounting the same event or events," the prosecutors wrote on Sunday. Bannon is charged with two counts of contempt of Congress, for failing to testify and turn over documents in response to a subpoena from the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack at the US Capitol. He has pleaded not guilty. The defense team and prosecutors are set to be back in court on December 7, when they'll talk about a trial date and potentially discuss confidentiality issues in the case again. It's not publicly known what witnesses the FBI interviewed about Bannon.

NBC News - November 29, 2021

Congress faces jampacked end to 2021

Congress will confront a packed agenda when it returns from Thanksgiving recess, from facing hard deadlines to keep the federal government running to passing President Joe Biden's $1.7 trillion safety net and climate legislation. "When I look at this drama in the next month, I break it down into a miniseries. And the first part is the defense bill and a bridge to the budget. Vast majority of senators support that. We’ll get that done," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "Second thing, the debt ceiling. If the Republicans want to scrooge out on us and increase people’s interest rates and make it hard to make car payments — go ahead, make that case. We're going to stop them from doing that," she said before mentioning voting rights and Biden's social spending bill. "And, finally, what we just talked about, the Build Back Better bill. We can get this done." The newly discovered omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has caused alarm and led to some new travel restrictions to the U.S., is also likely to be a hot topic.

Government funding runs out Friday, and it remains uncertain whether the parties can agree to a yearlong appropriations bill in time. But neither side wants a shutdown, so Congress could fall back on another stopgap measure to preserve funding at current levels. The federal government is already functioning at levels agreed to during the Trump administration after Congress passed a stopgap bill in September. Democrats are eager for a new budget, but they need Republican support, because the legislation is subject to the 60-vote filibuster rule in the Senate. "I am guessing what we may end up doing is a short-term extension. I’m not sure what that end date will be," Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., said Thursday on MSNBC. "I’ve heard some in the Senate say February, which would be a gift but, I suspect, unlikely to be able to happen." Congress plans to expand the military budget. The House voted 316-113 in September on a bipartisan basis to pass a massive $778 billion Pentagon policy bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The Senate plans to pass the legislation by the end of the year. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., said on "Fox News Sunday" that the measure "should have been passed months ago, but it's been on the back burner," for which he blamed Democrats.

Politico - November 28, 2021

No one seems to like the Lincoln Project anymore

It was the darling of the resistance for savagely attacking Donald Trump. But now, everyone keeps rolling their eyes at the Lincoln Project and fears they may be clearing a path for the former president’s reemergence. The outside political organization headed by disaffected Republicans and other top Democratic operatives has experienced caustic blowups, internal disputes over beach house-level paydays, and disturbing allegations involving a disgraced co-founder. A recent campaign stunt evoking the march on Charlottesville to close the Virginia governor’s race earned them near universal scorn. And one of the organization's most recognized members is facing blowback for rooting for another Trump nomination on grounds that he’d be the easiest Republican to beat in the general election. “Read the room,” said Zac Petkanas, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Hillary Clinton. “They sound like me in 2016.”

“It is incredibly important that we all head into the upcoming elections with a level of humility and fresh eyes about what the political landscape is going to look like,” Petkanas added. “It would be a mistake to know for certain who is easier to beat than somebody else. We’ve all seen this movie before and they occasionally have a twist ending.” Officials working for the Lincoln Project contend they’re simply being practical — even shrewd — about the new political climate, in which Trump is likely to be the GOP nominee anyway and brass-knuckle tactics are now the norm. President Joe Biden even called one of the Lincoln Project co-founders Steve Schmidt after the 2020 election to say thank you for the group’s work helping him get elected, according to a person familiar. The White House did not comment. But a year after delighting liberals with their insistence on bringing guns to a gunfight, operatives across the spectrum now say the group is, at best, ineffective and prodigal, at worst, counterproductive. In particular, fellow never-Trumpers and moderate Republicans have recoiled at Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson’s recent encouragement of a Trump presidential run in 2024.

Associated Press - November 27, 2021

Chris Christie aims to shape future for GOP and for himself

Chris Christie is everywhere. The former New Jersey governor and onetime Republican presidential candidate denounced “conspiracy theorists” during a September appearance at the Ronald Reagan Library in California. He followed up with a speech this month to influential Republicans in Las Vegas, warning that the party will only succeed if it offers a “plan for tomorrow, not a grievance about yesterday.” In between, he’s been interviewed by everyone from Laura Ingraham on Fox News to David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, on CNN. On its face, Christie’s publicity campaign is in service of “Republican Rescue,” his new book that offers a simple prescription for his party: stop talking nonsense about 2020 and focus on the future — or keep losing elections. But the frenzied pace of his appearances and the increasingly obvious jabs at Donald Trump suggest Christie is plotting a political comeback with the 2024 campaign in mind. In a recent interview, Christie said he hadn’t made a decision yet about his political future and wouldn’t until after next year’s elections. But he was blunt in saying he would run if he believes he can be elected.

“If I see a pathway to winning, I’ll run,” he said. “And I feel like I have the skills and the talent and the ability to be able to make a difference in our party and in the country. And I’m certainly, at 59 years old, not ready to retire. But I’m not going to do it if I don’t see a pathway to winning. So that’s why I’m not making any decision now.” One of the biggest questions that hangs over the 2024 campaign is whether Trump will run again. If the former president does, polls suggest he would easily clinch the nomination. But until that’s decided, Christie is testing the openness of GOP voters to someone who largely supports Trump’s record but dismisses Trump’s lies that the last election was stolen. It’s an approach that pits him against other Republicans who may run in 2024, including Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who have taken high-profile stands against Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s former secretary of state, have pitched themselves as fierce Trump loyalists. Former Vice President Mike Pence has tried to find something of a middle ground, highlighting his work alongside Trump but noting the two hold different views about the circumstances surrounding the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Politifact - November 27, 2021

PolitiFact fact-check: Would Build Back Better 'parole' immigrants who committed crimes?

Viral Image on Facebook: "Build Back Illegal: 'Parole' amnesty for millions of criminal illegal aliens." PolitiFact's Ruling: Mostly False Here's Why: An image showing a bare-chested, heavily tattooed man attacks the Build Back Better bill by claiming: "Build Back Illegal: 'Parole' amnesty for millions of criminal illegal aliens." The image, shared on Facebook, was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. The claim gives the misleading impression that people who entered the U.S. illegally and were convicted of crimes would be paroled and allowed to stay. But parole has a different meaning in immigration law, and the parole provisions of the bill as they’re currently written would not be available to people convicted of crimes in the U.S.

The viral image alludes to members of criminal gangs. The photo of the man in the image appears to be cropped from a photo of three men that appears with articles about the MS-13 gang, which grew out of poor Los Angeles neighborhoods that housed many refugees from civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the 1980s. In the United States, law enforcement officials have indicted MS-13 members for a wide range of crimes, including racketeering, murders, attempted murders, assaults, obstruction of justice, arson and conspiracy to distribute marijuana. The image was shared by the Great American Movement in a post that urges people to tell their congressional representatives to oppose the Democratic-supported Build Back Better bill. The slogan of the group, which has 135,000 Facebook followers, is: "'America First' should not just be a political slogan. It should be a way of life for all Americans." Great American Movement’s Facebook page lists GreatAmericanMovement.com as its contact information, but that link did not lead to a working website when we checked it on Nov. 23. We’re fact-checking the claim, made Nov. 15, based on the version of the Build Back Better Act that passed the House on Nov. 19. The bill could be changed in the Senate.