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Newsclips - February 3, 2023

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Dallas Morning News - February 3, 2023

Ice storm leaves hundreds of thousands of Texans without power

Thousands of Texans are without power Thursday following a ferocious ice storm and three consecutive days of frigid temperatures. Statewide, nearly 380,000 households were without electricity as of late afternoon Thursday, according to PowerOutage.us, which tracks outages nationwide. Outages are largely clustered in East and Central Texas. As of Thursday evening, Oncor’s outage map showed that more than 29,000 of the electric provider’s customers were without power in Tyler in East Texas. Additionally, about 30,000 customers in areas just north and northeast of Austin, including Round Rock and Georgetown, did not have power as of 7:15 p.m., according to Oncor. Austin Energy’s outage map showed that about 145,000 — more than a quarter — of its customers were without electricity as of 7:15 p.m.

“Austin Energy is working to restore power as quickly and safely as possible, but challenging conditions may slow down these efforts,” the company said in a statement. “Crews are driving on icy roadways and working with frozen equipment.” It said it could not yet provide a timeline for when electricity would be restored. North Texas appeared to escape the worst of the power outages. At noon Thursday, about 12,000 customers in Dallas-Fort Worth were without power, Oncor spokeswoman Kerri Dunn said. Dangerous road conditions have slowed down repairs, but emergency crews are responding as quickly and safely as possible, Dunn said. Both state and energy officials said the outages were caused by falling tree limbs and downed power lines that buckled under ice, not a failure of the grid. This week’s storm comes almost exactly two years after a February 2021 winter storm crippled the state’s power system, killing more than 240 people and leaving millions without heat. “The power grid has maintained ample power supply for the entire state the entire time,” Gov. Greg Abbott said on Twitter.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times - February 3, 2023

Firm paid Texas $236M in 2019 to settle a fraud suit. In 2022, it won another state contract

A company that in 2019 settled a $2 billion Medicaid fraud lawsuit with the state of Texas for $236 million was less than three years later awarded a contract similar to the one that had sparked the previous litigation, according to records on file with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Conduent State Healthcare, a former Xerox subsidiary based in New Jersey, was selected by the commission in December for a $147.7 million contract to "provide both acute and long-term care fee-for-service claims-processing services" related to the state's Medicaid program that provides health coverage for qualifying Texans who cannot afford private insurance.

The contract, awarded without a news release being issued by the state agency or the company, followed the February 2019 settlement of a lawsuit filed several years earlier by the Texas Attorney General's Office that accused Conduent and Xerox, then its parent company, of approving billions of dollars for Medicaid-funded dental procedures that were deemed medically unnecessary. Many of the employees who approved the claims had little or no medical training and were pushed by the company to process claims as fast as possible, court records associated with the state's lawsuit showed. The settlement, announced simultaneously by Conduent and Attorney General Ken Paxton in February 2019, contained no admission of wrongdoing by the company and included a provision that the state would not initiate additional legal action in connection with the matter. In its 2019 statement, Conduent noted that the allegations stemmed from actions that had taken place between 2004 and 2014 before it was spun off by Xerox as an independent entity. In February 2022, a jury in Delaware rebuffed Conduent's effort to force three insurance companies to pay $37.5 million of the amount it owed in the Texas settlement. In a statement this week, Conduent spokesman Sean Collins said the now-reorganized company was selected by the Texas agency after a "a competitive and rigorous bidding process."

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Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

Houston largest city to report a drop in violent crime in 2022, data from police group shows

Houston experienced a nearly double-digit decrease in violent crime in 2022, and new data released Thursday showed the city was the largest major metropolitan area in the country to report a drop in the most serious offenses. By percentage, the decrease in homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults in Houston was among the largest dips in the country, mirroring a trend playing out in most other major U.S. cities in 2022, according to data by the Major Cities Chiefs Association.

The Houston Police Department reported 26,223 cases of four types of violent crimes in 2022, down from 28,825 cases the year before, according to the group. Overall, there was 9 percent year-over-year drop. Los Angeles, New York and Chicago all reported increases of between 0.7 and 14.7 percent, according to the data, which included crime information from 70 departments across the country. The chiefs association is a nonprofit organization made up of law enforcement leaders from the largest cities in the U.S. and Canada. The Salt Lake City-based group conducts research, crafts policy and serves as a lobbying organization. The association's data was in line with a report delivered to the Houston City Council by Police Chief Troy Finner earlier this month. Finner told City Council that violent crimes decreased in 2022 but that violent crime rates were still above levels reported before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nonviolent property crimes, such as car thefts, increased in 2022, Finner said. The chief said he was proud of the work done to decrease crime rates in 2022, especially after a rash of violent crimes occurred early in the year. "We still have work to do, and we're going to continue to move forward," Finner said.

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Washington Post - February 3, 2023

Russia tries to defy pariah image with diplomatic blitz

Russia has launched a broad diplomatic blitz to counter its image as a pariah state in the run-up to the anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, which severed Moscow’s ties with the West and even alarmed some of the Kremlin’s traditional allies. In the past week, President Vladimir Putin phoned Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to coordinate goals for Wednesday’s OPEC Plus meeting of oil producers, showing it’s still a player in oil markets. The government also said it was expecting a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this year, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met with counterparts from Egypt and Pakistan after returning from a diplomatic trip crisscrossing Africa. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which was driven in part by Russia’s desire to assert regional dominance in the old Soviet sphere and to counter what it considers America’s global dominance, has backfired on multiple levels, prompting even long-standing allies in Central Asia to rethink their dependence on Moscow. Russian officials, however, continuously brush off the suggestion that Moscow is isolated because of the unprecedented Western sanctions, export control and boycotts.

In announcing the expected visit of the Chinese president, which Beijing has yet to confirm, the Foreign Ministry said this week that Russia and China were working together to counter U.S. attempts at global domination by protecting the authority of the United Nations and promoting the Group of 20, the Tass news agency reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov’s prediction last year that the world was “too big for Europe and America to isolate any country, especially one as big as Russia,” have largely been borne out as much of the world still talks to Russia — and buys its oil and gas — even if Moscow is now generally shunned by the world’s wealthiest democracies. Russia had no presence, for instance, at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But for Putin, the lack of invitations to international events matters little as long as the Kremlin can create a perception of international support that he can sell domestically, said Fedor Krasheninnikov, an independent Russian political analyst living in Lithuania. “For Putin, it is very important to show to his electorate that he is a global leader,” he said. “We may laugh when we see Lavrov roaming around Africa, but what’s important for Putin is that the part of Russian society that believes everything they say on TV watches the news and says, ‘What a great Putin we have. There is no isolation.’”

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State Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

Houston Chronicle Editorial: UH has earned Texas' respect — and a $1 billion endowment

California has nine of America's top 50 public universities. Texas has two. That’s not just a blow to Texas' swashbuckling ego. It's a blow to our economy, people and our future. The problem isn’t just how much money the state devotes to public universities but how Texas divvies it up. The good news is that the Legislature finally appears ready to tackle the issue even as it sidesteps the 150-year-old history behind it. In 1876, a new state constitution set up a Permanent University Fund dedicated to higher education. It can be fairly said that the folks holding the purse strings had no idea how much money they were pumping into the professoriate, as it were, by endowing the fund with West Texas land. The dry brushlands, which ultimately came to 2.1 million acres, were so barren they could barely support cattle grazing and were considered close to worthless. That all changed, of course, when wildcatters found oil.

To this day, only the University of Texas and Texas A&M University have access to that oil and gas wealth. The UT system receives two-thirds of the annual distribution from Permanent University Fund — affectionally known as PUF. In 2022, UT appears to have taken the No. 1 spot from Harvard for the biggest university endowment in the world. The University of Houston — and its 45,000 students — got none of that payout. Unlike California, which has a single system of research universities, Texas has about 10 systems. Whenever UH, Texas Tech or other schools have asked for a share of the PUF, which would take an amendment to the state constitution, they’ve gotten nowhere. Will this year be the year that finally changes? We hope so. And every Houstonian should hope with us — and while you're at it, cajole your local senator and state rep, too. This session, as the Legislature is considering how to spend a $33 billion surplus, the preliminary budget includes the creation of a new endowment for UH and Texas Tech, setting aside an expected $1 billion for each. Call it PUF 2.0. The schools would have a steady yearly income from the endowments that would allow them to build research facilities, hire more faculty and provide the additional support needed to improve graduation rates for first-generation students. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave his support for the infusion in a press release. Tilman Fertitta, chairman of the UH Board of Regents, told us that he's expecting Gov. Greg Abbott's support as well. It probably doesn’t hurt that the chairs of the Senate and House finance committees — Sen. Joan Huffman and Rep. Greg Bonnen — represent Houston-area districts.

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Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

UH adopts new tenure policy as Texas Legislature braces for fight led by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick

University of Houston administrators have tightened the review process for tenured faculty members, just prior to the start of a legislative session expected to include a push by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to end tenure status for new hires at all Texas public universities. Some political scientists say that Patrick’s pledge amounts mostly to rhetoric designed to pressure universities into aligning their faculties’ ideologies with the state’s — particularly in attempts to block the teaching of critical race theory. But UH’s new policies, which address faculty productivity and not instructional content, could still give the administration a tool to fend off Patrick in the Capitol if the challenge becomes legitimate, they say. “Universities and their leaders would be wise to think about the kinds of process reforms that could well be made without damaging the goals … of the university,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political scientist at Southern Methodist University. “Universities should be doing that for their own good and for the good of their own faculty, and to have something to show Patrick in their conversations with him.”

UH crafted its new "post-tenure review" policy over almost three years and passed it through the UH System Board of Regents in December. The policy is meant to create consistency among all departments and mandate that tenured faculty be held to higher scrutiny when they fail their annual performance reviews. The rules could help some struggling faculty in the long run by accounting for long-term career goals that aren’t always reflected in the yearly reviews — but on the whole, they will be more strenuous for some faculty members and the administration. Every academic department at UH is required to hold annual performance reviews for its faculty members, regardless of tenure status. Tenured faculty have additional standards to meet, however, and must undergo a state-required "post-tenure review" every six years. But before the new policy's adoption, the frequency of those assessments differed across departments, Faculty Senate President Dave Shattuck said. That created a frustrating environment for productive faculty members who felt some of their co-workers weren’t being held accountable, he said. “It is both true that academic freedom is important and allows us as faculty to try to get to the truth … and at the same time that tenure can be misused,” Shattuck said. “It is not a good thing when a faculty member with tenure stops working. It’s bad for students, it’s bad for the taxpayers of the state of Texas, but it’s also bad for other faculty.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 3, 2023

Ex-TCU student made demands of chancellor before ‘terror’ arrest

The man accused of threatening to “blow up” TCU’s campus Thursday morning is a 25-year-old former student at the Fort Worth university who recently posted on social media a list of demands of the chancellor to address how minority students are treated. Jail records and an incident report identify the man as Ahmad Tyree Peterson-Adeyanju of Glenn Heights, south of Dallas. He faces charges of a terroristic threat and trespassing. Fort Worth police said they found a loaded gun in his vehicle just off West Berry Street but no explosives. On Facebook, Adeyanju posted a letter in December that appears to reference grievances against TCU Chancellor Victor Boschini.

The demands include that Boschini apologize to Adeyanju and his family in writing, that he create a full-ride scholarship for a low-income Black student to study abroad, and that he create a comprehensive policy “enabling all minority students at TCU to know their basic rights and privileges to the universities resources while academically enrolled.” The list also demands that Boschini either tour the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art with Adeyanju or take him to a performance by comedian Dave Chappelle “for diversity training.” Shortly before posting his letter, he posted a poem “based off my experience at Texas Christian University” and called it “If Larry Hoover went to school,” perhaps referencing the convicted Chicago gang leader. “Claim I’m a national security threat, But where is the proof? I never got caught selling drugs, I’m a smooth dude; They don’t like people like me, I can tell by their moves,” the poem says. “It’s rare if you see someone of my caliber, I come out every blue moon; Never sweet in these sour streets, You know I keep that tool; KKKarens watching my every step, You know I love TCU.” He ends it with, “I’m just poor kid named Ahmad Adeyanju.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 3, 2023

Isaac James: Texas lawmakers threaten LGBTQ youth with ‘don’t say gay’ bills

(Isaac James is a graduate of Arlington High School and the University of Texas at Austin. In the fall, he will study the intersection of politics and education policy at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.) As the Texas Legislature ramps up its 2023 work, two replicas of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law sit pending before the House. These bills seek to prohibit basic, common-sense curricula related to sexual orientation and gender identity in Texas schools. As an openly gay graduate of Arlington ISD and the University of Texas at Austin — and as someone who has suffered the consequences of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in our public schools — I see these bills as harmful and state Republican leaders’ push for them as misleading. Here’s the reality: For many queer and trans young people, the bills entertained by our state legislators could mean the difference between life and death. During the 2021 legislative session, the Trevor Project, the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention resource for LGBTQ youth, reported a 150% increase in crisis calls from youth in Texas — a result that can be directly tied to the record number of anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in 2021. As it is, LGBTQ youth are already more than four times as likely to attempt suicide.

This year’s session is poised to be even more brutal for queer and trans youth. As if censorship in our Texas public schools could get even more extreme, the two pending bills authored by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, go further than Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits education about sexual orientation and gender identity through third grade. The Texas measures would expanding these restrictions until fifth or eighth grade. These bills are addressing an issue that does not exist. The effort serves to bolster the ongoing campaign by our political leaders to target LGBTQ Texans. The state GOP platform approved last year labels homosexuality “an abnormal lifestyle choice” and “opposes all efforts to validate transgender identity.” Lawmakers have already introduced 10 bills this year to restrict or criminalize access to life-saving gender-affirming healthcare for trans youth. This campaign has had a tangible impact on queer and trans Texans. In 2022, Texas saw an increase in anti-LGBTQ protests and campaign messaging. In North Texas, the LGBTQ community suffered from an increase in hate crimes. As recently as 2019, Texas led the nation in the number of murders of trans people — a terrifying trend that disproportionately affects Black trans women. Experts agree that continued targeting of queer and trans people risks further galvanizing violent extremists by normalizing the expression of hateful content.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 3, 2023

Can a Texas company bring back the long-extinct dodo bird?

Going the "way of the dodo bird" could take on new meaning in just a few years, as a Texas company says it aims to bring back the long-extinct creature. Colossal Biosciences, which previously made headlines for its plans to to bring back the wooly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, says it is now turning its attention to the dodo. The bird, which is closely related to pigeons, went extinct in 1662 after being wiped out from its native ecosystem, Mauritius, because of human settlement and ecosystem competition. The dod is widely considered one of the best examples of human-induced extinction. The dodo will mark the third animal the company is working on. Colossal is most famous for its lofty goal of creating a wooly mammoth-elephant hybrid, but the company also announced plans last year to try and back another extinct animal, the Tasmanian tiger.

Colossal Biosciences, which this week announced a new $150 million funding round, is led by Austin-based entrepreneur Ben Lamm and geneticist George Church of Harvard Medical School, was formed in 2021 with the goal of advancing the field of de-extinction and combating climate change. The company has offices in Austin, Dallas and Boston and also works with a team at the University of Melbourne. Colossal plans to use breakthrough gene-editing technologies to restore extinct animals, and has been working to develop a range of innovative technologies. Colossal is establishing an Avian Genomics Group that will be focused on the dodo. Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist, will be leading the effort to bring back the bird. Shapiro, an evolutionary molecular biologist, has also been working on researching the dodo and reconstructing its DNA prior to joining Colossal. Like with the other animals, the Colossal team will not be creating an exact clone of the dodo bird, but a hybrid that selects the specific traits most commonly associated with the animal and its ability to live in its respective natural environment. The plan is to eventually reintroduce the animals into their environments, which will help restore ecosystem rebalance. "Being able to recreate something that is functionally similar to an extinct species that's as prevalent in people's minds as the dodo is hopefully going to create a little bit of enthusiasm for thinking about consequences of human cost extinctions," Shapiro said. "Today, we have technologies, including biotechnology.... We can develop tools that we can use to protect living species going away from becoming this next species."

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Austin American-Statesman - February 3, 2023

Austin American-Statesman Editorial: Austin Energy, Mayor Watson failed communications test

More than 170,000 Austin-area households were left in the dark twice this week: first by an ice storm that resulted in crippling, widespread electricity outages, and then by city and utility officials who underestimated the severity of the storm and were slow to inform the public about it. Austin residents deserve to know why. Mayor Kirk Watson, City Manager Spencer Cronk and Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent are among those who will be called to explain why they failed the communications test in this crisis. For a major city — the 11th-largest in the country with a $5 billion annual budget — the poor response will be difficult to explain. It was well known that a major storm was barreling down on Central Texas well before Monday. And city officials should have learned from experience; a winter storm in 2021 killed hundreds of Texans and left millions across the state without power for days.

The outages began Wednesday morning after thousands of tree limbs covered in heavy ice crashed onto power lines across Central Texas, causing lights and heat to go out in homes and businesses served by Austin Energy across a 437-mile radius, including the Hill Country. It was the most significant power outage in our city since the devastating freeze of February 2021. The Austin Energy employees who were still working Thursday to restore power deserve praise. The power outages began Wednesday morning, but Watson didn't call a news conference to inform the public about the status of the outages until Thursday morning. It was only then that most residents learned that they could be without power until 6 pm. Friday, or possibly even longer. On Wednesday morning, they had been told getting their power back on would take 10 to 12 hours. A crisis of this magnitude demands immediate attention to the physical and technical challenges at hand, including clearing branches and repairing power lines, and to keeping the public informed about developments as quickly as possible. Public transparency during a massive power outage allows residents to make potentially life-saving decisions about how best to keep themselves and their families safe. Understandably, public frustration with the lack of communication spilled onto Twitter and other social media platforms Wednesday afternoon and evening, and some Austin City Council members vented their displeasure Thursday morning.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 3, 2023

Experts say, burying Austin Energy's existing power lines would be costly, difficult

If more of Austin’s powers lines were buried — and as a result protected from falling tree limbs — instead of strung above ground on utility poles, there’s no doubt fewer Austin Energy customers would have been left in the cold and dark with no electricity during this week's ice storm. But that seemingly simple solution to prevent downed tree limbs from interfering with power distribution isn’t so simple, experts say — and it also would be extremely expensive. Peter Lake, chairperson of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, recently estimated the cost at $1 million per mile or more to retrofit neighborhoods currently served by traditional above-ground power lines with buried lines.

Austin Energy has more than 12,000 miles of transmission lines and 158,000 utility poles, according to the city-owned utility. While some of the lines are buried — particularly in newer developments, such as the Mueller neighborhood in East Austin — every 1,000 miles that are above ground would cost about $1 billion to retrofit, if Lake’s estimate of the per-mile cost is accurate. That’s in keeping with a ballpark calculation provided Thursday by Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent, who said during a news conference that the price tag to retrofit all the city's above-ground power lines would cost billions of dollars. It's not clear where that money would come from, if the city chose to attempt that process. It also would be no easy task to get the work done even if the money were available. While power lines are now routinely buried in newer developments and planned communities, retrofitting older areas is a major, and disruptive, task, industry experts say. “You’re pawing through people’s backyards (to dig trenches), you risk cutting other lines,” such as cable lines and water lines, said Dave Tuttle, a University of Texas Energy Institute research associate who also serves on Austin’s Electric Utility Commission.

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Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

Texas lawmaker was key to GOP stripping Rep. Ilhan Omar of committee seat

House Republicans on Thursday, at the urging of U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul of Austin, voted to remove Rep. Ilhan Omar from her spot on the Foreign Affairs Committee over past comments critical of Israel. The Minnesota Democrat and Somali-born Muslim lawmaker has apologized for the remarks, which she has said she now understands were viewed as antisemitic. Those included suggestions that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group, was buying political support, saying, "It’s all about the Benjamins, baby." But Republicans, including McCaul — who chairs the committee and made the case for removing her to GOP colleagues in a closed-door meeting — say the comments are disqualifying for a seat on the panel that oversees American diplomacy, including the country's relationship with Israel.

“The House Foreign Affairs Committee has a long history of working in a bipartisan fashion to promote diplomacy and protect U.S. national security," said McCaul, whose district stretches from Austin to Katy. "At a time when our adversaries are becoming more aggressive, it’s critical our committee work to advance and strengthen our alliances — not hurt them. Unfortunately, Rep. Omar has made some very divisive and incendiary comments about Israel and the Jewish community, upsetting many people.” Democrats slammed Republicans as hypocritical, pointing to past comments they deemed antisemitic by GOP members, including accusing Jewish Democratic donors such as George Soros of trying to "buy" elections. They also pointed to attacks on Omar by Republicans, such as Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who suggested Omar was a terrorist and referred to her as the "jihad squad." "This is just a bunch of racist gaslighting, we all know it," said Rep. Cori Bush, a New York Democrat. The House voted along party lines, 218-211, to remove Omar, who said in a speech on the floor before the vote that she would not be deterred.

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Bloomberg - February 3, 2023

FTX’s Sam Bankman-Fried wins crypto case brought by Texas

Embattled FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried has staved off a case alleging he broke Texas securities laws, after a judge ruled that the state regulator lacks jurisdiction to act against him. The ruling came in a case brought by the Texas State Securities Board alleging Bankman-Fried offered unregistered securities through FTX’s yield-bearing cryptocurrency accounts and that he now owes refunds to Texas investors. Administrative Law Judge Sarah Starnes has canceled a Thursday hearing at which Bankman-Fried had been ordered to testify and has given the securities agency until March 1 to file an amended complaint. Joe Rotunda, the agency’s director of enforcement, didn’t return messages seeking comment on the ruling, and it isn’t clear whether he will refile.

But the case reflects the early efforts some states are making to recover money from FTX and Bankman-Fried in the wake of the crypto exchange’s implosion in November. The obstacles: a criminal fraud prosecution of Bankman-Fried and a sprawling FTX bankruptcy case. “We’re not going to take actions that interfere with the criminal process,” Rotunda said in an interview last month, before the Jan. 19 ruling. “But at the same time, we have a job to do.” He added that he was “very happy to see the SEC move very, very quickly on FTX,” referring to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “But not knowing how that was going to play out, and knowing that Sam Bankman-Fried was not himself in bankruptcy, we brought our case.” Because of the twin federal cases, state securities regulators have largely delayed their own investigations of FTX, even though some states have taken a leading role in crypto enforcement over federal authorities in recent years. California’s Department of Financial Protection and Innovation, for example, initiated a probe in November but has yet to take any public enforcement actions. Alabama and New Jersey, two leading state regulators in the crypto space, also haven’t announced public actions against FTX. Alabama Securities Commission Director Joe Borg said that when it comes to state inquiries, “bankruptcy trumps almost everything.” His department is monitoring the proceedings, aiming to advocate for recoveries for individuals, but is holding off on taking action for now.

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Bloomberg - February 3, 2023

Dallas billionaire Steve Winn’s Hill Country resort meets opposition from conservationists

A Dallas billionaire seeking to build a resort with luxury homes in the Texas Hill Country is facing off against neighbors opposed to development on environmental grounds, highlighting the growing tensions as the region’s economic surge fuels a boom outside Austin. Steve Winn, who made his fortune as the founder of Richardson-based property-management software firm RealPage, says the 1,400 acres he’s dubbed Mirasol Springs will be a model for conscientious development. Sewage will be processed on-site for use in irrigation, and all buildings will have cisterns to catch rainwater. No fertilizers or pesticides will be allowed, and more than two-thirds of the land will be put into a conservation easement. That isn’t enough for the environmental groups seeking to preserve the area’s rugged landscape of rolling hills and clear-water streams in the face of encroaching development, automobile traffic and tourism.

Opponents of Mirasol Springs have gone as far as to lobby the federal government to declare a local species of salamander endangered in hopes of throwing a wrench into efforts to build on the site, near where Roy Creek flows into the Pedernales River about 35 miles west of downtown Austin. “If we preserve the spring flows and the river to save the listed threatened creatures, we are saving ourselves in the process,” said Bill Bunch, executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance, a nonprofit focused on water resources. “If we are going to pump our rivers or springs dry and extinguish these species, then we are going to follow soon thereafter.” The Hill Country sprawls across all or part of more than 20 counties in Central Texas, with booming Austin and San Antonio on the region’s eastern fringe driving a transformation from ranchland to suburbia. As technology companies like Oracle, Tesla and Samsung invested billions in the area, urban real estate prices surged along with the population, prompting some home buyers to look further afield for cheaper properties. It’s easy to see why the area around Mirasol Springs, which is in unincorporated parts of both Travis and Hays counties, holds particular appeal. Several wineries and wedding venues are within a few miles of the site, which is just down the road from Pedernales Falls State Park and an environmental conservation sanctuary called Westcave. Visitors seeking to take a dip with the enormous, semi-docile catfish that inhabit the nearby Hamilton Pool Preserve, a county-owned swimming hole, now need to make summer reservations months in advance. Surrounding all the natural beauty are several luxury subdivisions built in recent years that offer amenities like walking trails, lazy river pools and pickleball courts.

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Dallas Morning News - February 3, 2023

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Texas Republicans want their own Title 42

Texas Republicans want their own Title 42, a state version of the federal pandemic policy that President Donald Trump created and President Joe Biden has relied on to ship migrants out of the U.S. and into Mexico. We said it about the federal rule and we will say it about the proposed state law: Using COVID-19 as an immigration tool is the wrong approach. The federal policy should have expired when COVID was no longer a public health crisis. Texas shouldn’t be in the business of piggybacking on federal error. State Rep. Brian Harrison, R-Midlothian, has introduced House Bill 1491, which would create the Texas version of Title 42. The bill ties ongoing federal COVID vaccination requirements to the removal of migrants from Texas. Harrison, who was Health and Human Services chief of staff during the Trump administration, helped coordinate the application of Title 42. The federal policy is currently under U.S. Supreme Court review, and whether it will survive is anyone’s guess. It shouldn’t because COVID is no longer a public health threat.

Under the rule, immigration authorities can expel migrants attempting to cross the border illegally. But because claims aren’t actually processed, migrants just try and try again. According to a Texas Tribune analysis of the fiscal year 2022, a quarter of apprehensions at the border were repeat attempts. Meanwhile, there is a bottleneck of asylum seekers at the border. But there is no real movement to provide the resources to rapidly process claims. We think Harrison’s bill opens the door to a federal lawsuit because it cedes immigration enforcement to the state from the federal government. Harrison disagrees and told us that his bill is “absolutely constitutional” because it is not an immigration bill, but a health policy bill. If passed, the law would be in place as long as the federal public health emergency for COVID-19 persists, something the Biden administration is planning to end in May. This hasn’t stopped Gov. Greg Abbott from supporting this legislation, meaning it can get traction in the Legislature even if the health emergency is declared over. Harrison said H.B. 1491 will change nothing for asylum seekers who use a legal port of entry. But he also told Fox 4 News (KDFW-TV) that this law will use the “public health authority to shut down the border and immediately begin deporting illegal immigrants the minute they cross.”

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Dallas Morning News - February 3, 2023

Biden names Dallas prosecutor Damien Diggs first Black U.S. attorney for East Texas

President Joe Biden picked career Dallas prosecutor Damien Diggs as U.S. attorney in East Texas. If confirmed, he would become the first Black lawyer to lead the office responsible for federal law enforcement from Plano to Beaumont, including Jasper, where a notorious racial murder took place. The nomination, announced Wednesday night by the White House, ended months of inexplicable delay that persisted despite strong bipartisan support for Diggs. Both of Texas’ Republican senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, had lobbied for the nomination. So had Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, the state’s senior Democrat in Congress until she retired last month. When Biden named his picks to lead the other three U.S. attorney offices in Texas in mid-October, Cruz stepped up the pressure by openly accusing him of snubbing Diggs without explanation. Calling him a “stellar candidate” who faced “puzzling” resistance, Cruz wrote to White House counsel Stuart Delery at the time, the pick would be “particularly significant” in light of the 1998 murder in Jasper.

With the nomination secure, Cruz invoked that incident again. “Once confirmed, Damien will be the first African-American U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, a significant milestone given that James Byrd Jr. was murdered in the Eastern District in 1998 after being dragged to death, and that remnants of the Ku Klux Klan operated in the area as recently as the 1990s,” Cruz said. “Damien is a skilled prosecutor and community leader, and his nomination sends a strong, positive message of how far we have come as a nation. I look forward to his swift confirmation.” Halfway through his term, Biden has now named U.S. attorneys for 68 of the nation’s 93 districts. “I’m honored to be nominated and look forward to the confirmation process,” Diggs said by email Thursday, declining further comment. The Senate confirmed the other three Texas U.S. attorneys by voice vote on Dec. 6. In August 2021, the Department of Justice Association of Black Attorneys sent a letter to the White House and Attorney General Merrick Garland endorsing Diggs and 15 other Black prosecutors, to diversify the ranks of U.S. attorneys. There were two Black U.S. attorneys in the final year of the Trump administration. The Eastern District covers 43 of Texas’ 254 counties. Apart from Plano and Beaumont, it includes Sherman, Tyler, Marshall and Texarkana. Diggs has served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in the Dallas-based Northern District of Texas since 2018, working in the Criminal Division’s Violent Crimes Section. That came after a six-year stint as an assistant U.S. attorney in the nation’s capital, where he handled homicides and other criminal cases.

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Dallas Observer - February 3, 2023

From pay to parental leave: Texas education could get boost this session

Texas teachers’ pocketbooks could get a bit fatter — $15,000 fatter, to be exact — if certain state lawmakers get their way. Several Texas legislators are looking to pass laws this session aimed at attracting and retaining educators. Since even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some schoolhouses have struggled to fill staffing vacancies. But Texas Rep. James Talarico hopes that House Bill 1548 will help keep educators in the classroom. The Austin Democrat is proposing that teachers receive a pay increase of $15,000, which would be the largest raise in Texas history. Talarico said via video statement that around 40% of educators in the Lone Star State work a second job to cover their bills.

“It’s no wonder thousands of them are leaving the profession entirely,” he said. “So, I’m hopeful that this big bill to do a big pay increase for every teacher in Texas will help address that emergency in our classrooms.” Texas isn’t the only state to grapple with a teacher shortage. Last year, a National Education Association survey found that 55% of its members have considered ditching the profession, with 9 in 10 of them experiencing burnout. A $15,000 raise would go a long way toward fixing the state’s teacher shortage, said Clay Robison, spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association. It would help educators, to be sure, but it would also benefit students to have more seasoned instructors remain in the classroom. Robison noted that teacher pay in the state trails behind the national average by some $7,500. The more experienced the teacher, he said, the bigger the gap. Talarico’s proposal is popular among the state’s liberals. In a Twitter post touting the bill, the Texas Democratic Party urged Republicans to “get with the curriculum.” “Give teachers a raise instead of igniting culture wars against them,” the party added.

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Dallas Observer - February 3, 2023

Fort Worth lawmaker seeks to whittle Texas school entryways to one

For many politicians and school district officials, last May's shooting in Uvalde highlighted the need to improve campus safety. Now, a Fort Worth freshman lawmaker is pushing for a law he argues would do just that. Republican state Rep. Nate Schatzline filed a bill earlier this month that would mandate single-point entryways in schools. Under House Bill 1370, any additional external doors would be required to stay closed and locked, with violators risking a state jail felony. “This will make our schools safer by limiting the access points, increase the level of accountability for people who put children at risk by not acting in accordance with this statute, and give more rights back to parents,” Schatzline recently said in a statement posted to Twitter.

On May 24, an 18-year-old gunman entered Uvalde’s Robb Elementary School through a back door and killed 19 students and two teachers. Officials initially claimed the door had been propped open shortly before the slayings. Investigators later learned that it had been closed prior to the gunfire but didn’t lock. Following Uvalde, gun reform advocates decried firearms as the problem. Certain Second Amendment supporters, though, have instead pointed to societal issues ranging from unchecked mental illness to fatherless homes. The idea of requiring single-door schoolhouses has found support among prominent GOP politicians, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and even former President Donald Trump. Detractors, meanwhile, have cast doubt on the efficacy and practicality of such a move. Days after Uvalde, the Texas Tribune reported that for larger campuses, it could take hours for thousands of students and employees to enter and exit through a single entry. Some districts might also have schools with multiple buildings and portables, further complicating the process. Older district buildings may face renovations under a law like the one Schatzline proposed, costing local taxpayers, per the Tribune. And critics have pointed out that it’s important for more than one door to be available in the instance of an emergency, such as a fire. (Schatzline's bill states that responding to an emergency situation can be a "defense to prosecution" for some, including parents and certain personnel.)

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Dallas Morning News - February 3, 2023

Texas’ education board reverses course on rejecting school vouchers

The Texas State Board of Education appears to be reversing course on its rejection of school vouchers amid a push from newly-elected members who are moving the body further to the right. A few months ago, the 15-member board approved legislative priorities that included a repudiation of voucher-like initiatives, which can give parents public dollars to spend on private school tuition. On Thursday night, the board — with new members taking their positions — voted 8-5 to remove the language opposing vouchers. They will have to make the decision official during a Friday meeting. “If you want school choice, you’re not an enemy to public education,” said Republican LJ Francis, a new member representing Corpus Christi. “Parents want the ability to choose if they want to send their child to a different school.” Voucher-like programs are a cornerstone of Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s fervent push for “parental rights” and expanded school choice.

Voucher opponents – which included, as of November, the Republican-controlled State Board of Education – worry it will lead to funding cuts for already under-resourced public schools, which serve the majority of Texas children. The board’s initial set of legislative priorities called on state lawmakers to “reject all attempts to divert public dollars away from public schools in the form of vouchers,” along with other similar mechanisms “that have the effect of reducing funding to public schools.” But its decision to come out against vouchers took place before the new contingent of conservative board members took their positions this week. Thursday’s vote was an immediate sign of how the recently-elected members could influence the board’s direction. The new members – which gave Republicans a stronger majority on the board – ran on platforms that leaned into red-meat issues. The SBOE sets policies and standards for the state’s public schools, which educate more than 5 million students. It’s not entirely clear what school choice proposal will gain the most momentum in Texas. Democrat Aicha Davis, who represents Dallas, expressed frustration with the board for reopening the debate on its legislative priorities.

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

Houston PD: Everyone safe after Wisdom High School student fled shootout, entered school

A Houston police officer shot an 18-year-old suspect Thursday afternoon and then officers arrested a 17-year-old who ran into Wisdom High School and forced the school into a lockdown. Houston police said they were conducting surveillance on several people around 11:45 a.m. Thursday in the 6400 block of Westheimer Drive when an exchange of gunfire took place. One 18-year-old was shot in the knee and a 17-year-old was arrested, Chief Troy Finner said. He did not say why police were watching the group. Two of the people involved were students, but Finner did not say if the person who was shot in the knee was among them. A third suspect fled the shooting and hitched a ride with a good Samaritan to the high school, Finner said.

He entered an auditorium with about 100 other students. Police said they contacted HISD and the school went into lockdown almost immediately. Police were en route to the high school around 1:30 p.m., according to a post on Twitter. Finner said the student was taken into custody without incident. No students were hurt. During the lockdown, police cars blocked most of the school's entrances with some parents and media standing outside. Oscar Tax, who waited outside with several other parents, said he has three kids at the school, who sent him text messages to let him know they were OK. Dolores Ruiz, whose sister is a student at the school, was one of several family members who gathered outside to wait to hear their loved ones were OK. “I know a lot of parents just had that image of Uvalde in their brains, including me,” she said, referencing the 2022 Robb Elementary School shooting that left 22 dead. “So, I went immediately to the school.” Her sister texted her around 12:50 p.m. to let her know the school had gone into lockdown and that she was scared. She said she advised her sister to stay hidden and stay calm. While waiting outside the school, Ruiz finally heard police had captured a suspect around 2 or 2:30 p.m., she said. But many parents didn’t receive word that the school was on lockdown until 1:55 p.m. or so, she said.

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National Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 3, 2023

Big Oil is making billions, but don't expect lower gas prices

Exxon Mobil: $55.7 billion. Shell: $42.3 billion. Chevron: $35.5 billion. ConocoPhillips: $18.7 billion. As expected, oil companies are reporting blockbuster profits for 2022. But directing those profits in a way that shields consumers from chaotic price changes is unlikely, industry analysts said. Instead, consumers should brace for large fluctuations in energy prices for years to come. “You're going to get these wild swings over the next 15 years,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at the University of Houston. “Find ways to protect yourself – don't go buy an F-150 just because you see gas prices at $1 and then go buy a hybrid when it goes to $5.”

Already used to up and down cycles, the oil and gas industry has had a particularly volatile few years. As the industry was recovering from last decade's shale bust it got hit by the pandemic downturn – two downturns that acounted for hundreds of bankruptcies and billions of dollars in losses. As fuel demand recovered coming out of the depths of the pandemic and oil prices rose, companies remained cautious about spending to ramp up production. Increased oil supply brings down prices – good news for consumers, but havoc for a company’s earnings – and investors, burned by overspending in previous years, have demanded disciplined spending and higher returns. “(Companies) are not necessarily investing massively into oil and gas future exploration and production,” Krishnamoorti said. “This very sharp volatility – rapid rises, rapid falls of price – is going to be dependent on the fact that this is an undercapitalized market at this point, and the risk associated with capitalization is very high.”

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NBC News - February 3, 2023

Suspected Chinese spy balloon found over northern U.S.

The U.S. military has been monitoring a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon that has been hovering over the northern U.S. for the past few days, and military and defense leaders have discussed shooting it out of the sky, according to two U.S. officials and a senior defense official. “The United States government has detected and is tracking a high-altitude surveillance balloon that is over the continental United States right now,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told NBC News. “We continue to track and monitor it closely.” “Once the balloon was detected, the U.S. government acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information,” Ryder said.

The high-altitude balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday. It flew over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada, and into Montana. A senior defense official said the balloon is still over the U.S. but declined to say where it is now. On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defense leaders, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, NORTHCOM/NORAD Commander Gen. Glen VanHerck, and other combatant commanders. Austin was traveling in the Philippines at the time. The leaders reviewed the threat profile of the Chinese stratospheric balloon and possible response options, and ultimately decided not to recommend taking it out kinetically, because of the risk to safety and security of people on the ground from the possible debris field. Pentagon leaders presented the options to President Joe Biden on Wednesday. A senior administration official confirmed that Biden had been briefed and received a “strong recommendation” that the balloon not be shot down. “Instances of this activity have been observed over the past several years, including prior to this administration,” said the senior administration official. “We acted immediately to protect against the collection of sensitive information.” Biden did not respond to a question from reporters about the balloon on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

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Talking Points Memo - February 3, 2023

Leaked audio and staff dispute show chaos inside George Santos’ office

After a little over a week working with embattled Rep. George Santos (R-NY), Derek Myers was informed that he would not be getting a permanent job. During that tense conversation, Santos also offered some parting advice. “Stop going to Colombia for your diluted Botox,” Santos told Myers. The exchange was captured on an at times bizarre audio file Myers said he recorded in Santos’ office on Capitol Hill. During the conversation, Santos cited Myers’ recent legal troubles that stemmed from his work as a reporter. For Santos, this was potentially a reason to remove him from the team. Myers was stunned by the hypocrisy. Santos fabricated much of his biography en route to getting elected last year and is currently facing multiple investigations related to his finances. “I’m thinking to myself, I’m a threat and concern to this institution — George Santos, you’re George Santos!” Myers told TPM.

Myers — like others on Santos’ staff — has a fairly nontraditional background for a Hill staffer. His experience and the conversation he captured on tape underscores the unusual atmosphere in Santos’ office as he and his small team deal with the fallout from his cascade of controversies. A local news reporter from Ohio, Myers faced unusual criminal charges last year after he published surreptitiously recorded audio of courtroom testimony that he said he obtained from a source. The criminal case, which is in limbo, sparked a national outcry from press freedom organizations who rushed to his defense. The meeting with Santos that Myers recorded took place on Monday, Jan. 30. It was one week after he began working with Santos’ team on a volunteer basis. Myers suspected it would be a discussion about his past and potentially an end to his time on the team. Myers never became a full-fledged employee for Santos, as his offer was rescinded before he could be added to the representative’s staff. He contacted TPM to discuss his situation five days after we reached out to various members of Santos’ team in the wake of the uproar over Santos’ biography. Myers provided TPM with an audio file on Wednesday that he claims is a recording of his conversation on Jan. 30. Myers requested not to publish the audio until he had one last chance to go in and ask for his job back the following day. In the recorded conversation, as they discussed Myers’ future, Santos and Lovett didn’t stick to the topic at hand. The discussion began with Santos admiring Myers’ tie. “You can have it if you want,” Myers said, adding that he bought them at thrift stores for $2.

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Associated Press - February 3, 2023

Biden’s handwritten notes part of classified docs probe

President Joe Biden is a man who writes down his thoughts. And some of those handwritten musings over his decades of public service are now a part of a special counsel’s investigation into the handling of classified documents. It isn’t clear yet what the investigators are looking for by taking custody of notes from his time as vice president and his decades in the Senate that were found in his Delaware homes in Rehoboth Beach and Wilmington. Biden’s attorneys did not say whether the notes were considered to be classified, only that they were removed. But over his 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president, Biden had a front-row seat to a lot of highly sensitive moments in U.S. history, including the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden and unfolding political turmoil in Ukraine.

The special counsel is working to determine how classified information from Biden’s time as senator and vice president came to wind up in his home and former office — and whether any mishandling involved criminal intent or was unintentional. But they’ll also have to determine whether the notes they took are considered personal and therefore belong to Biden, and would then likely be returned to him. Some of the documents held by Trump also had handwritten notes, according to the FBI. In seeking permission to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in August, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit that some of the documents returned to the National Archives last January contained what appeared to be Trump’s handwriting. The affidavit does not say whether agents believed those notes to discuss classified material. Under the Presidential Records Act, records of a presidential administration generally belong with the National Archives, especially classified items. There are some exceptions, including when records are determined to be purely personal. But even a handwritten note can be considered classified if someone is recording observations related to a classified document or briefing. Such notes can be deemed classified even if not marked as such. Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House situation room and chief of staff to retired CIA Director Michael Hayden, said that when he took notes during secret or top-secret meetings, he would mark each page by specific levels of classification.

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Wall Street Journal - February 3, 2023

FBI to search Mike Pence’s home for additional classified materials

The FBI is expected to search former Vice President Mike Pence‘s Indiana home for classified material in the coming days, according to people familiar with the matter, as senior government officials come under increased law-enforcement scrutiny of their handling of such documents. The Justice Department is in talks with Mr. Pence’s legal team about scheduling the search, the people said. Last month, following similar revelations from President Biden’s legal team, Mr. Pence’s lawyers disclosed they had discovered several documents with classification markings at his home and turned them over to authorities. They said the documents had been inadvertently packed up and transported and that Mr. Pence was unaware of their existence.

Both disclosures came as the Justice Department has been investigating former President Donald Trump over the handling of classified material after he left the White House at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents collected documents from Mr. Pence’s Indiana home on Jan. 19 at the request of the Justice Department, according to a letter from Mr. Pence’s lawyer, Greg Jacob, sent to the National Archives dated Jan. 22. Mr. Pence agreed to the transfer, the letter said. Agents haven’t yet undertaken a search of their own there. A person close to Mr. Pence said his legal team considered their earlier search exhaustive and doesn’t believe additional classified documents exist there. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the FBI’s Indianapolis field office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department probes have effectively put on hold the Senate Intelligence Committee’s attempts to exercise oversight of the handling and mishandling of classified information. Committee Chairman Mark Warner (D., Va.) and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, on Thursday expressed new frustration with Attorney General Merrick Garland and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, saying they wanted “access to the relevant classified documents and an assessment of the risk to national security if the documents were to be exposed in public or to a foreign adversary.”

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Newsclips - February 2, 2023

Lead Stories

Austin American-Statesman - February 2, 2023

Austin Energy reports 150K+ customers still without power Thursday morning

Austin Energy reports thousands of power outages affecting over 150,000 customers Thursday morning. Outages began yesterday after the most significant round of ice during this winter storm hit, causing tree limbs to be weighed down and snap. While weather conditions are expected to improve Thursday, additional freezing rain could cause a light amount of ice to build up, resulting in more outages. Austin Energy tweeted that it was able to restore power to some overnight, but other outages continues to occur. While lightning and thunder concerns were making it difficult for crews to work. The utility company said that outages could last for 12 to 24 hours on Wednesday. As of 6 a.m., over 152,000 Austin Energy customers were without power, caused by 1,183 active outages affecting about 29% of customers.

Thousands of Pedernales Electric Cooperative customers in Central Texas and the Hill Country are also without power. Austin Energy spokesperson Matt Mitchell said on Wednesday crews are dispatched and working to restore power as quickly as possible. He added that each outage is unique, and some repairs will take longer than others, especially as treacherous road conditions make it harder to navigate the city. The utility company tweeted that outages are widespread and some customers could see outages for 12 to 24 hours.

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Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis headed for Greg Abbott’s Texas turf to headline GOP fundraisers

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a top 2024 presidential contender, is headed to Texas next month to headline two local Republican Party fundraising dinners. On March 4, DeSantis is scheduled to attend the annual Dallas County Republican Party’s Reagan Day Dinner. That’s after his planned appearance in Houston for the Harris County GOP’s Lincoln Reagan Dinner. “Ron DeSantis is popular across the county and he’s a great speaker. We’re excited about it,” said Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Stoddard-Hajdu. “Clearly there may be some Trump supporters who don’t like it, but most people are looking forward to it.” Former President Donald Trump has already announced his campaign for the White House and is considered the frontrunner.

But polls show DeSantis, who has always been popular with Trump’s Make America Great Again movement, is running close to the former president. Across the country, GOP donors are taking a wait-and-see approach to the presidential election, including big-money backers who once worked for Trump. DeSantis’ Texas visit is notable because it’s on the home turf of Gov. Greg Abbott, who is in his third term and also considered a GOP presidential contender. Abbott says he’s focused on the 2023 legislative session, which began in January. His political adviser, Dave Carney, said the Texas governor would weigh his options after the session ended in May. Until then Abbott won’t travel the country speaking at Republican Party dinners. Those events are usually populated with presidential hopefuls and other candidates looking to gather support for elected office. Last year the Dallas County GOP’s Reagan Day Dinner featured former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has also been mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate. Abbott is not the only Texan mentioned as a possible candidate in the 2024 presidential sweepstakes. Sen. Ted Cruz, the last Republican standing against Trump in 2016, is also considered a GOP presidential contender, though he says he plans to run next year for reelection to Senate. Stoddard-Hajdu said Abbott and DeSantis are two of the nation’s most popular and accomplished governors. “We like Abbott too,” she said, adding that he has an invitation to speak as well.

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CNBC - February 2, 2023

Biden-McCarthy meeting yields no debt ceiling deal, but speaker says markets should be encouraged

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he had a “very good discussion” with President Joe Biden at the White House on Wednesday about the looming debt ceiling and federal spending. “We have different perspectives. But we both laid out some of our vision of where we’d want to get to. And I believe, after laying them both out, I can see where we can find common ground,” McCarthy told reporters at the White House following the meeting. The Democratic president and the California Republican talked for over an hour, and while there were “no agreements” and “no promises,” McCarthy said they would continue their conversation. The White House readout of the meeting reflected McCarthy’s sentiments, stating the two had a “frank and straightforward dialogue” as part of an ongoing conversation.

The Biden administration repeated a familiar phrase that the president is “eager to continue working across the aisle in good faith,” but stressed that he does not intend to negotiate on lifting the debt ceiling. “It is their shared duty not to allow an unprecedented and economically catastrophic default,” the White House statement read. “The United States Constitution is explicit about this obligation, and the American people expect Congress to meet it in the same way all of his predecessors have. It is not negotiable or conditional.” The House speaker later said the meeting had gone better than he expected. McCarthy added that he believes investors should feel better about the prospect of an agreement to avoid a first-ever default on U.S. debt. “I would feel better, if I was the markets, based upon the meeting I had today,” he said, according to Punchbowl News. The Treasury Department has launched a series of extraordinary steps to keep paying the government’s bills, and it expects those measures will be enough to avoid default at least until early June. But if Congress doesn’t raise or suspend the debt limit by then, it could wreak economic havoc around the world. McCarthy has held the position that the two parties need to agree to cut back on spending before lifting the debt ceiling. The White House said the president agrees that addressing the national debt is a priority, but it should be a separate conversation.

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Texas Tribune - February 1, 2023

Potential 2024 GOP presidential hopefuls headed to Austin for retreat with donors

A host of big-name Republicans, including many potential 2024 presidential candidates, are set to visit Austin later this month for a private retreat for donors to a Texas voter registration effort. Speakers for the Feb. 24 conference include former Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. That is according to an email that went out last week from Karl Rove, the veteran GOP strategist who helps raise money for the registration initiative, known as the Texas Voter Engagement Project. The email teased “two more special guests we hope to announce soon.” One of them is U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, according to an updated invitation Wednesday.

Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn are helping to host the event at the Omni Barton Creek Resort and Spa. Cornyn is slated to give welcome remarks, and Abbott plans to attend depending on what’s happening in the legislative session that started last month. The event is not open to the public. Members of the Texas congressional delegation will also be there to interview the out-of-state speakers. So far, the event excludes the two biggest names related to the 2024 primary: Former President Donald Trump, who is already running, and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not declared yet but has emerged as Trump’s most formidable potential opponent. DeSantis is set to visit Texas in early March to headline fundraising dinners for the Republican parties in Harris and Dallas counties. There was a similar retreat in May 2021 in Austin, and DeSantis was in the lineup. The Voter Engagement Project started a few years ago as Texas Republicans were looking to reboot their core party functions after a tough 2018 election. The project says it has since registered almost 400,000 new Republican voters. The conference is meant to thank donors but also volunteers, including members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women who were among the most active helpers.

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State Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 2, 2023

Harris County Democratic Party chairman Odus Evbagharu announces departure

The chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party on Wednesday announced that he would step down at the end of February. Odus Evbagharu has led the party since 2021. The 30-year-old native of Katy is the youngest person and the first African American to serve as the party chairperson, according to a news release.

“I treasure the work we were able to accomplish during the last two years,” Evbagharu said in the release. During Evbagharu's tenure, the party raised more than $2.1 million and created programs dedicated to voter outreach and volunteer recruitment, according to the release. Party executive director Kylie McNaught credited Evbagharu's leadership for, among other things, creating the first Democratic supermajority on Harris County Commissioners Court, according to the release. In November, four Democrats were elected to commissioners court. The party said Evbagharu will leave his position on Feb. 28. An election for the next chair of the Harris County Democratic Party will take place on March 19.

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Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

DFW Airport, Love Field cancellations pile up on third day of treacherous winter storm

Southwest and American Airlines are hoping Thursday afternoon’s forecast calling for temperatures to briefly climb above freezing will help calm travel disruptions plaguing Dallas-Fort Worth this week. Three-fourths of Wednesday’s scheduled flights from DFW International Airport were canceled and two-thirds of planned departures from Dallas Love Field were called off, according to flight tracking site Flightaware.com. Over half of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport’s flights were axed. More flight cancellations are in the books already at both North Texas airports for Thursday. American and Southwest each had over 1,000 canceled or delayed flights Wednesday at airports across the country.

Lauren Rounds, external communications manager and marketing manager for Dallas’ aviation department, said Love Field’s operations team is working diligently to keep the airport functional. “During any extreme winter weather events, [Love Field’s] operations are responsible for pretreating and clearing the runways, taxiways, Herb Kelleher Way and pedestrian walkways,” Rounds said in an email. “Surface treatments began prior to the storm’s arrival and have continued daily. Our team also monitors surface temperatures and conducts friction tests on the runways.” Airport staff is meeting frequently to discuss updates and reassign resources, she said. “Our team is not observing a high volume of passengers in the terminal, which we believe indicates most passengers are receiving timely information from our partners with updated statuses and decreasing unnecessary roadway travel,” Rounds said on Wednesday.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 1, 2023

Asian American legislators hope to advance AAPI causes in Texas. Here's how.

State Reps. Gene Wu, Salman Bhojani, and Suleman Lalani announced Monday they intend to create an Asian American and Pacific Islander legislative caucus. The announcement coincided with the progressive organization Rise AAPI holding AAPI Legislative Day at the Capitol to discuss the obstacles and opportunities Asian American and Pacific Islander Texans have this legislative session. The committee will be co-chaired by Wu, D-Houston, and Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson. In addition to Bhojani, D-Euless, and Lalani, D-Sugar Land, Reps. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, and Jacey Jetton, R-Katy, will serve in the caucus. The legislators intend to register the caucus with the Texas Ethics Commission soon, according to Wu's office. "The formation of the AAPI caucus is a big stepping stone, a big milestone for our community," Wu said. The Legislature hit new diversity milestones this year with the election of Lalani and Bhojani, the first Muslim state representatives in Texas.

With six representatives now, elected officials and AAPI Legislative Day organizers noted that there are more Asian lawmakers serving in the Legislature this session than ever before. According to a recent Texas Tribune analysis, if the Legislature accurately reflected the state's population, it would have nine Asian lawmakers. "It is no secret that the AAPI population is on the rise. And we are excelling in a lot of fields, except government," Lalani said, addressing AAPI community organizers at the Capitol. "So I hope this is not your first visit, but the first of many to come." The legislators have identified public education and access to health care as top priorities for the caucus. "My education has made all the difference in my life, and every Texan deserves that opportunity," Bhojani said. "AAPIs have a rich history in this nation: one of resilience, one of ingenuity, and one of triumph. This history deserves to be taught in our schools, and by educators who have a deep understanding of our lived experiences."

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Austin American-Statesman - February 2, 2023

Texas lawmakers want to address the fentanyl overdose crisis. Here's what they propose.

Austin and Travis County first responders are all too familiar with calls for suspected drug overdoses, and, more recently, they've largely revolved around fentanyl, a synthetic drug often produced illicitly that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. And with the Legislature in session, officials are asking lawmakers for help in combating the growing public health crisis. "It's tragic to be called to an overdose where somebody has died because of fentanyl, and we're just seeing more and more of those," Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said. "I can tell you the impact on our Criminal Investigations Division, which is we hardly have a weekend go by that there's not somebody that is killed because of fentanyl, so it's tragic."

In the first six months of 2022, Travis County had 199 accidental drug overdose deaths, with 118 resulting from fentanyl, officials said at a recent Austin Public Health event announcing federal funding dedicated to address fentanyl-related deaths. Fentanyl accounted for 59% of overdose deaths in Travis County last year, a significant increase from the 36% of overdose deaths it was blamed for in 2021. Statewide, fentanyl was present in 97% of opioid overdose deaths in 2022, according to provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. In January, Hernandez said the sheriff's department had responded to six overdose deaths three weeks into the year, not including calls that resulted in a person being resuscitated with Narcan — a nasal spray used to treat opioid overdoses — which officers now carry. Outside of Narcan and public awareness campaigns, officials are hoping the Legislature will approve another tool to beef up the fight against fentanyl. "I definitely believe that fentanyl strips should be decriminalized," Hernandez said. "I mean, we need resources to help fight fentanyl." Fentanyl test strips — small paper strips, costing about a dollar each, that are used to help determine if pills, powders or other forms of drugs are laced with fentanyl — are classified as drug paraphernalia in the Texas Health and Safety Code.

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Texas Monthly - February 2, 2023

Health care for new mothers in Texas is abysmal. Will the Lege finally take action?

Moments after her second child was born, Nakeenya Wilson almost bled to death. The Austin mom had already spent that day in 2016 enduring one problem after another at the hospital, from a long wait for a scheduled induction—a simple and common procedure to start labor—to a nurse who kept getting her name wrong. “I felt like I was being punked,” Wilson recalled. “It was kooky from the beginning.” But things got serious when she started to hemorrhage. The bleeding was later chalked up to several risk factors Wilson had throughout her pregnancy, along with the unusual position of her son during delivery. But during her care, she said she received almost no communication about what was going on. “I didn’t even know that I was hemorrhaging,” Wilson said. Her nurse administered a drug to stop the bleeding without telling Wilson what she was doing, she said, and it ended up causing a dangerous spike to her blood pressure, which had already been high throughout her pregnancy. Wilson’s doctor subsequently told her she should never have been given the medication. “I was a near miss,” Wilson said. That experience inspired Wilson to apply to be a community advocate on Texas’s Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee.

The committee—whose seventeen members include maternal health-care experts, nurses, psychiatrists, and state-appointed physicians—studies cases of pregnancy-related death and illness and makes recommendations to the state for improving health outcomes for mothers. It’s also Texas law that needs changing in this year’s legislative session, say Wilson and her MMMRC colleagues—including the state’s limited Medicaid coverage for new moms. And with the state’s near-total ban on abortion in effect after last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, the need for more coverage has only become more urgent. As the Legislature meets for the first time since the abortion ban, two bills on the docket could minimize the potentially adverse impact of those restrictive laws on maternal health. House Bill 663 would speed up access to state data on maternal deaths and serious illnesses, giving the MMMRC a better opportunity to improve health outcomes for moms. Senate Bill 73 would expand Medicaid coverage for Texas women from eight weeks to twelve months after giving birth. That would be no small thing: Around half of all babies in Texas are born to mothers on Medicaid. Last session, the state House voted to increase Medicaid coverage for new mothers from eight weeks to a full year, as SB 73 calls for, but the Senate reduced that coverage period to six months. The law never went into effect, however: last August, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission revealed that the federal government had not granted approval, which is necessary because the bill focused on federally funded Medicaid. The legislation still remains under review by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (CMS did not respond to a question about why the review process was taking so long.)

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Texas Monthly - February 2, 2023

Florida politicians would love to see more drilling in Texas. Florida? Not so much.

Say this for Texas politicians in favor of the oil and gas industry: they aren’t hypocritical about it. Congressman Dan Crenshaw, for example, both believes in climate change and in expanding the use of fossil fuels, including via offshore energy exploration. He’s not alone in this; in 2021, some fellow House Republicans from Texas, including Lance Gooden, Ronny Jackson, and August Pfluger, coauthored legislation with Crenshaw to continue drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf in the Gulf of Mexico, right off the coast of their own home state. You can agree or disagree with their positions, but in either case, you gotta hand it to ’em—they’re consistent. In Florida, meanwhile, those in the pro-oil contingent have an, er, more nuanced view of energy exploration. Broadly speaking, they’re for it—they’d just prefer that it happen somewhere else, please. Last week, Congressman Matt Gaetz, who represents a district that includes portions of the Florida Gulf Coast, added an amendment to the House’s Strategic Production Response Act that would maintain a ban on offshore drilling in his home state.

That’s an issue the Florida Republican has been passionate about during much of his tenure in the House, having advocated successfully for bans on offshore exploration since he entered office in 2017—but only when it affects Florida. Gaetz has voted against similar bans in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Colorado’s White River National Forest, where none of his constituents own waterfront property. Gaetz has found a novel frame on which to hang his opposition to drilling in his own backyard, even as he supports drilling in other Americans’ backyards: it’s not that his constituents don’t want to risk a potential spill contaminating their pristine beaches (a subject that Gaetz, whose politically connected father served as chairman of an organization in charge of handing out tens of millions in federal dollars to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill, knows a bit about). His fellow Floridians may talk about it in those terms, but Gaetz has insisted throughout his congressional career that his position is free and clear of hypocrisy: he’s not just defending his own beaches because he thinks they’re too beautiful to risk (though in introducing the amendment, he did note that “offshore drilling is broadly opposed by coastal communities in these areas”). No, it’s because he’s a patriot who is following the guidance of the Pentagon.

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Dallas Morning News - February 2, 2023

Dallas biotech company, UT win $42 million patent case against Boston Scientific

A small Dallas biotech company and the University of Texas took on big pharma and won. A federal jury in Delaware found that Boston Scientific infringed on a patent related to coronary stents held by the University of Texas and exclusively licensed to TissueGen and must pay $42 million in damages to the two plaintiffs. The medical device giant infringed on the patent with its “Synergy” brand coronary stents, which are often used to treat narrowed coronary arteries. The company was the first to get FDA approval for a bioabsorbable polymer drug-eluting stent, which means it’s coated with a slow-release medication to help prevent blood clotting.

The jury determined that $42 million represents the royalties TissueGen should have collected from Synergy stents, according to a verdict form. Boston Scientific, through a spokeswoman, said it plans to appeal. “Boston Scientific respectfully disagrees with the jury’s verdict,” said spokeswoman Kate Haranis. The verdict comes in a long court battle that started in November 2017. The patent came about from research that Dr. Kevin Nelson and others did in the late 1990s at UT Arlington, according to court filings. Nelson is now chief scientific officer at TissueGen, which he founded in July 2000 to develop next-generation drug delivery technologies. TissueGen has 33 active patents, according to its website, and is considered a spin-out of the joint program of biomedical engineering at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas and UT Arlington. The patent in question was issued in July 2003, and, in 2008, Nelson met with Boston Scientific executives and introduced his biodegradable drug-eluting peripheral stent technology, according to the lawsuit. He also asked if Boston Scientific wanted to invest in the company. In 2015, Boston Scientific received FDA approval for its Synergy stents. In court filings, Boston Scientific denied the allegations, including that it knew of Nelson and his inventions before the suit was filed.

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Dallas Morning News - February 2, 2023

Lancaster church led Dallas police to home where zoo monkeys were found, family says

Members of a Lancaster church led authorities to the home where two monkeys taken from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday, the family who runs the church told The Dallas Morning News. Tonya Thomas, whose father is the pastor of the Family Center Church of God in Christ in Lancaster, said two emperor tamarin monkeys missing from the Dallas Zoo were found Tuesday evening inside their community house, next door to the church, after her family tipped off Dallas police. She said police also found other animals inside the home, including birds, cats and possibly chickens. The house, in the 2500 block of Gerry Way Street just south of Wintergreen Road, is about 20 minutes from the Dallas Zoo. “I was just shocked,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think somebody would go as far as to go to the Dallas Zoo and take monkeys and bring them to this location.”

Although police haven’t announced any arrests, the family’s tip was a major development in the mystery at the Dallas Zoo that has deepened over the last several weeks. It followed an unprecedented string of incidents, including other missing animals, torn enclosures and the unusual death of an endangered vulture. The first incident took place Jan. 13, when a 4-year-old clouded leopard named Nova escaped from her enclosure after the mesh surrounding it was cut. She was found hours later near her habitat, unharmed. The day after she escaped, officials revealed a similar cut was found on an enclosure of langur monkeys, but all of the langurs were in their habitat and accounted for. About a week later, a 35-year-old endangered vulture named Pin was found dead, and zoo staff quickly declared it “unusual.” After the zoo’s veterinary team conducted a necropsy — or an animal autopsy — they said the bird was found with a “wound,” but declined to expand on their findings because of the ongoing investigation. Zoo officials discovered the emperor tamarin monkeys, Bella and Finn, were unaccounted for in their habitat Monday morning, and said it was immediately “clear the habitat had been intentionally compromised.” Police said the habitat was cut.

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Dallas Morning News - February 2, 2023

H-E-B, Costco knock off Amazon as top U.S. grocers

H-E-B supplanted Amazon as the top U.S. grocers in an influential industry ranking. Amazon lost its lead to San Antonio-based H-E-B after the e-commerce leader held the top spot during the first two years of the pandemic, according to the new Dunnhumby retailer preference index released Tuesday. Costco ranked second. “H-E-B, Costco and Amazon are the three retailers with customer value propositions best built for long-term success,” the report said. Amazon was the Dunnhumby index winner in 2020 and 2021 with its e-commerce lead. H-E-B ranked second in the overall ranking.

H-E-B reclaimed the top spot last year with a combination of “better savings and better-quality experience/assortment,” according to Dunnhumby, which generates the only grocery ranking that combines financial results with customer perceptions.?The index includes the largest 63 retailers in the industry that sell food and non-food household items. “Digital has staying power but is no longer as key to driving short-term retailer momentum as it was from 2020 to 2021,” the report said. Amazon fell to third place in 2022 with Costco behind H-E-B. The rest of the new list includes another regional grocery powerhouse, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans, in fourth place and warehouse club stores moved up the list. Sam’s Club rounds out the top five grocers. The rest of the top 15 with the highest overall customer preference scores are: 5) Sam’s Club, 6) Market Basket, 7) Amazon Fresh, 8) Trader Joes, 9) WinCo Foods 10) BJ’s Wholesale Club, 11) Target, 12) Aldi, 13) Shoprite, 14) Walmart Neighborhood Market and 15) Walmart.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 2, 2023

Despite accuracy concerns, Texas Historical Commission approves permits for Alamo project

Over concerns about the accuracy of a Mission Gate and Lunette Exhibit at the Alamo, the Texas Historical Commission approved permits to move forward with the project as part of a nearly $400 million makeover. The exhibit, expected to measure about 50 feet wide and 60 feet long, attempts to give visitors a sense of what it was like to enter the historic footprint of the mission-fort. It’s a model of the main south gate, part of the Alamo’s south wall structure and a fortified earthworks structure known as the lunette. But members of the state historical commission urged Alamo officials to present the exhibit in a proper context because no one is certain what the historical features looked like. Under U.S. Secretary of the Interior standards, a reconstruction should only be attempted when historical evidence is available to produce a replication — with minimal conjecture.

“There are some reasons why that is not practical and simply not possible in this case,” said Elizabeth Brummett, architecture division director at the commission. Officials said they’ve identified within a 10-foot radius where they believe the gate once stood as the primary entry and exit point for the Mission San Antonio de Valero, which later became a Spanish military outpost and 1836 battle compound. But the actual size of the gate and the lunette built by Mexican troops in 1835 is believed to be too large to reproduce in the plaza today without overwhelming the site. A scaled-down version will give visitors a feel for the Alamo, with interpretive panels providing context. A series of bronze dioramas now located in the plaza by the Long Barrack will be moved close to the exhibit to help visitors understand the spatial relationships. Chairman John Nau said the exhibit is a huge step forward for the Alamo and could spur further research to depict the gate accurately. “I always think about young people coming to a site like this. It’s critical that they leave with some sense of structure. It doesn’t matter that it’s 100 percent accurate because there’s no way to make it 100 percent accurate,” Nau said. “This is a heck of a lot better than what’s been out there for decades.”

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Ex-IT engineer allegedly stole 58 iPhones from Clear Creek ISD, shipped them to Russia, Uzbekistan

A former network engineer at Clear Creek Independent School District has been accused of stealing 58 cellphones and shipping them to Russia and Uzbekistan. Eduardo Vasquez, 51, was charged with theft of property between $2,500 and $30,000 in connection with the theft, according to court records. His bond has been set at $60,000.

In October, the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office got a report about a theft of iPhones from the district’s network and technical services team, Sheriff Henry Trochesset said. Investigators searched through district email correspondence and interviewed employees before narrowing in on Vasquez. Trochesset said it is not yet clear why the phones were being sent to Russia and Uzbekistan. Deputies arrested Vasquez on Monday.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Texas in jeopardy of losing Fairfield Lake State Park, an irreplaceable gem

State parks are intended to be forever. It’s really the whole idea. State parks are supposed to be places of preservation and posterity. Places to be cherished by generation after generation of Texans and experienced by people from anywhere. Each of the 89 state parks across Texas represents a piece of the distinct ecosystems and vibrant communities that define our state, each a treasure in its own way. The state parks system showcases the very best of Texas. That system, and the simple but vital idea it embodies, turns 100 years old in 2023. And while the centennial year of Texas state parks is cause for joy and celebration, it is marred by the cruelest of ironies. Texas is at risk of losing a state park forever.

Fairfield Lake State Park, an 1,800-acre gem overlooking a beautiful 2,400-acre lake, nestled within the convergence of three Texas ecoregions – the Post Oak Savannah, Piney Woods and Blackland Prairies – and along the bustling I-45 corridor between Houston and DFW, could be lost to private development if a deal is not reached soon to continue the park’s existence. “We are absolutely, clearly in dire straits of losing our park,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman Arch “Beaver” Aplin III said during a recent briefing at a commission work session. Texas owns most of its state parks, but not Fairfield Lake. The lake was created in 1969 by Dallas Power and Light Company, Texas Electric Service Company and Texas Power and Light Company to cool the coal plant, Big Brown. Those three companies merged and eventually became TXU Energy, which eventually conveyed the property to Luminant, a sister company under Vistra Corp. The park property has been leased to the state since 1971, free of cost. In 2018, Big Brown shut down and Vistra Corp/Luminant gave TPWD a two-year notice that it was going to end the lease. Since then, the lease has been extended, allowing the park to continue operations after 2020. The park was put up publicly for sale in 2021, and the entire property, (the TPWD park, lake and additional land totaling more than 5,000 acres) is currently under contract with a private developer out of Dallas, Todd Interests. The lease with TPWD can be terminated with 120 days of notice and the park could close as early as this month. Public access to the lake would end, too.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Nearly 70,000 Cigna members back in-network at St. Luke's Health, after months of negotiations

Nearly 70,000 Cigna members are back in-network with St. Luke’s Health and its affiliate, Baylor College of Medicine, after the health system and the insurer agreed on a new contract following more than a year of negotiations, the health system announced Wednesday. Patients can begin making in-network appointments on or after March 1, when the agreement takes effect for St. Luke’s, officials said.

“The new contract is good news for thousands of families across Southeast Texas who are Cigna-insured and rely on St. Luke’s Health for their care,” St. Luke’s Health CEO T. Douglas Lawson said in a statement. “It allows us to continue to provide the essential high-value, high-quality care that our patients and their families expect from us.” The agreement marks the end of more than a year of negotiations over costs and pricing — an increasingly common sticking point between hospitals and insurers, analysts previously told the Chronicle. The previous contract expired at the end of October 2021. Cigna members had been forced to seek other doctors and services to receive lower, in-network rates, or pay significantly more to use St. Luke’s network. “Termination of our previous contract was a difficult decision,” said Lawson, “but it was necessary to address the financial sustainability of St. Luke’s Health. These are challenging economic times for everyone, and our new agreement ensures that our patients again have the option of choosing great healthcare at great value without significantly affecting their insurance rates.”

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KERA - February 1, 2023

Texas files motion to stop DACA immigration program

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked a federal judge to end an Obama-era program that’s allowed tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state without fear of deportation. Paxton argues the program, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, is unlawful under current law despite President Biden’s attempts to modify the program. DACA protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from immediate deportation and allows them to legally work in the United States with renewable, two-year work permits. The request by Paxton, who is joined by eight other states in the litigation, asks Brownsville-based judge Andew Hanen to grant a so-called summary judgement, arguing that such a decision “is warranted where there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and Plaintiffs are entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”

The move is the latest in a years-long effort to block DACA and, if successful, could affect nearly 100,000 Texans who are currently enrolled in the program. In July 2021, Hanen ruled the program was illegally implemented and said new applications could not be considered. In August 2022, the Biden administration reissued the DACA guidelines. Two months later, a federal appeals court sided with Hanen, although the three-judge panel left the program in place for renewals and sent the case back to the lower court for further consideration. In his filing, Paxton argues that the latest iteration of DACA is the same as the previous program. He is asking the judge to prevent federal immigration officials from approving new applications and to stop issuing renewals two years after a judgment issued in his favor. A timeline on when Hanen will rule is unclear. Paxton has had success in federal court on immigration-related lawsuits. His office successfully stopped a 2014 program that would have expanded deferred action eligibility to millions of undocumented immigrants under the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, program. Paxton last month filed a separate lawsuit to stop Biden from implementing a program that would allow tens of thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti to be paroled into the country under current immigration laws. Paxton said the proposal “unlawfully creates a de facto pathway to citizenship.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 1, 2023

Texas company hit with $34K penalty for hiring underaged employee

Federal authorities assessed more than $34,000 in penalties to a Texas landscape supply company for allowing a 17-year-old to work in a hazardous job that left him seriously injured in June 2021. The teen was injured in a forklift incident when he worked for Round Rock Landscape Supplies, which was operated by New Age Rocks Inc. in Austin. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division found New Age Rocks Inc., operating as Round Rock Landscape Supplies, permitted the minor to use a forklift and operate a skid steer loader in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections for young workers.

“New Age Rocks Inc. disregarded the law and a 17-year-old employee suffered injuries needlessly while doing work the law forbids them from doing,” said Wage and Hour Division District Director Nicole Sellers in Austin in a news release this week. The division also recovered $1,950 for two employees denied overtime by the employer who paid straight time for all hours worked including hours over 40 in a workweek. The employer also failed to keep accurate time records and dates of birth for minor-aged employees. These actions also violated the FLSA. “As this case shows, the U.S. Department of Labor will take action to hold employers who jeopardize the safety of young workers and deprive workers of their full wages accountable,” Sellers said. The employer cooperated fully with investigators, changed its practices to comply with the law and paid the $34,355 in civil money penalties, according to federal officials. New Age Rocks Inc. has been a landscape stone supplies retailer since 2012.

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Galveston families 'traumatized' by SWAT raid demand apology, money: 'They know they screwed up'

Two families affected by a Galveston SWAT team raid are demanding the city apologize by Friday and commit to paying them for the damage to personal property and their reputations. A SWAT team searching for a teen murder suspect raided a home of a family Jan. 22, only to find the teen wasn't at the home. The teen sought by police, who had been charged with murder, was ultimately exonerated. The city placed Police Chief Doug Balli on a 10-day administrative leave and announced they were launching multiple investigations into the raid. Family members have been scared to sleep at their island home ever since the raid, homeowner Erika Rios said at a Wednesday news conference. And the 17-year-old will forever be associated with a serious crime, even though he was quickly exonerated of it, said his mother, Terry Borrell.

"It was a horrible and traumatic experience for me to have my innocent son associated, not only with a crime, but the worst crime, which is murder," Borrell said. The families' attorney Tony Buzbee said the family understood it would take time to learn all of the miscues behind the raid, but that it shouldn't take long for city leaders to apologize to them personally. "The buck ultimately stops with the mayor and the city manager," Buzbee said. "They know they screwed up." Members of both families spoke out about the fear they faced both the night of the raid and in the days that have followed. "This has affected all of us," Rios said. "I was majorly confused," she said of the raid. "I had no idea why this was happening, and they wouldn't speak with me." Rios said she brought her children up to support law enforcement and turn to them if they were ever in trouble. But after the raid, she's not sure what to tell them anymore, she said. Buzbee said city leaders must compensate the family for damage done to the home, pay their medical bills and other costs associated with the raid.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 2, 2023

Lawsuit: San Antonio emergency plan leaves ‘residents with disabilities out in the cold’

Nearly two years after Winter Storm Uri, San Antonio is facing a federal lawsuit alleging its emergency preparedness plan is discriminatory and leaves “residents with disabilities out in the cold.” Filed Jan. 27 in San Antonio federal court, the civil lawsuit is the first of its kind against a Texas city and one of only a handful nationwide, said Stephanie Duke, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Texas and the nonprofit advocacy agency’s disaster resilience coordinator. Disability Rights Texas filed the suit along with two law firms, Winston & Strawn LLP and Daniel & Beshara, P.C., on behalf of nine San Antonio residents who say the city’s plan put their lives in jeopardy during the February 2021 storm and is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We spent a good amount of time trying to get San Antonio to come to the table pre-suit trying to resolve the problem,” Duke said. “Unfortunately, that did not happen.” “We didn’t want to end up in litigation because that takes time, it takes resources and it doesn’t solve the problem right away,” she added. The city did not make anyone available for an interview, citing the pending litigation. The city was issued a summons Monday, according to federal court records, and has 21 days to respond to the lawsuit. “Following Winter Storm Uri, the City engaged community stakeholders and an emergency management consultant with an expertise in disability rights,” the city said in a statement. “Through this effort we are evaluating and improving our plans and practices to better serve our community. The significant engagement and input from the disability rights community have resulted in changes that have been implemented and our work continues today.” The statement did not detail those changes. The lawsuit contends that San Antonio’s emergency shelters and its transportation and evacuation plans are inaccessible to residents with disabilities, as are its emergency communications, outreach program and water and food distribution sites.

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National Stories

Washington Post - February 2, 2023

Taking on drag shows, ‘Latinx’ and more, Ark. moves from rhetoric to action

Sarah Huckabee Sanders in May told a crowd outside a Dairy Queen in Little Rock that, if elected governor, she wanted “to make sure that the state my kids are growing up in and the state every kid is growing up in is the same one I got to grow up in.” Barely a month in office, Sanders has already issued an executive order that would prohibit critical race theory in Arkansas schools. Another bans the term “Latinx” in official documents. As soon as this week, she could also sign a separate bill that would impose restrictions on drag shows, which activists said could have far-reaching and harmful effects for the LGBTQ community. State legislators and Sanders, who was elected in November with 63 percent of the vote, feel “empowered” and that voters have given them a “mandate” to take a side in culture wars, said Heather Yates, a political science professor at the University of Central Arkansas.

Arkansas is among more than a dozen states where legislators have introduced initiatives or signed laws targeting transgender rights, drag shows and the way race is taught in school. Analysts say they are part of a larger conservative effort to push back against a “woke agenda” in an effort to galvanize their conservative base. The set of orders and bills in Arkansas is meant to send a message to far-right, evangelical, conservative districts and “tell voters that they are taking a stand against immorality and choosing a side in this culture war,” said Eric Reese, Arkansas state manager for the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group. Proponents of the bills argue that they are protecting social values and responding to legitimate concerns from their constituents. The drag show proposal, first introduced on Jan. 9, is not about “banning anything” but about “protecting kids” from accessing “sexually explicit drag shows,” Alexa Henning, spokeswoman for the Arkansas governor, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Only in the radical left’s woke dystopia is it not appropriate to protect kids,” Henning added.

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Wall Street Journal - February 2, 2023

Many are skeptical as central bank says battle against inflation isn’t over

The market’s big comeback in January is indicative of one thing: Investors don’t believe the Federal Reserve is going to keep interest rates high for long. Stock and bond prices have jumped to start the year. Particularly risky assets have run up even faster. An index of nonprofitable technology companies compiled by Goldman Sachs is up 28% after sinking in 2022, while the bank’s index of the most-shorted stocks in the Russell 3000 Index has climbed 23% following its worst year on record. Even bitcoin has risen. The cryptocurrency has surged 43% this year despite industry layoffs, regulatory scrutiny and the bankruptcy of the lender Genesis Global Holdco LLC.

In comparison, the S&P 500 is up 7.3%, including a 1% jump Wednesday, when the central bank raised interest rates at a slower pace than it did in December but signaled its fight against inflation wasn’t done. Many investors are skeptical that the Fed will keep interest rates higher for longer, despite the central bank’s outlook that it is unlikely to cut rates at all this year. They think last year’s rate increases will sharply slow the economy and lead the Fed to cut rates as joblessness climbs. Others see economic nirvana, in which inflation falls rapidly without a serious downturn, allowing the Fed to ease. “The markets are calling their bluff,” said Johan Grahn, head of exchange-traded funds at Allianz Investment Management. Fed Chair Jerome Powell didn’t try to push back against market expectations of a shallower rate path during Wednesday’s press conference and instead chalked up the divergence to a “difference in perspective…on how fast inflation will come down.” He added, “I’m not going to try to persuade people to have a different forecast, but our forecast is that it will take some time and some patience, and that we’ll need to keep rates higher for longer.”

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CNN - February 2, 2023

Punxsutawney Phil left his burrow for his annual prediction. Here’s how much longer winter will last according to the legend

Punxsutawney Phil – the legendary groundhog weather watcher – woke up and saw his shadow Thursday morning, calling for six more weeks of winter. Each February 2, on Groundhog Day, the members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club make the pilgrimage to Gobbler’s Knob, Phil’s official home.

The group waits for Phil to leave his burrow and, legend has it, if he sees his shadow we’re in for six more weeks of winter. If he doesn’t see his shadow, we get to bask in an early spring. Phil and his friends have been predicting the seasons since 1887, according to his website. Phil’s prediction track record is not exactly perfect. “On average, Phil has gotten it right 40% of the time over the past 10 years,” the National Centers for Environmental Information noted in 2022. Despite his mixed record when it comes to actually forecasting the weather, there’s no doubt Phil’s fans still hold him in high regard. After all, his full title is Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary.

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NPR - February 1, 2023

College Board's revised AP African American studies course draws new criticism

The College Board released the official curriculum for a new Advanced Placement course in African American studies on Wednesday, the first day of Black History Month. But people are divided on some of the changes announced in the curriculum weeks after the state of Florida banned the course. In the announcement, College Board CEO David Coleman called the newly revised course, which high schoolers can take for college credit, "an unflinching encounter with the facts and evidence of African American history and culture." But critics point out that the newest iteration of the course is now missing several themes and voices from Black scholars that were originally presented in a pilot program already being taught at dozens of schools this year across the country. Others are saying that changes to the curriculum were made to appease Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after his administration rejected the original iteration of the course last month.

The state's Department of Education did not immediately respond to requests for comment by NPR. The College Board refuted claims from a New York Times article that it removed all mentions of Black feminism or the "gay experience" from its curriculum, or that some of the revisions were made to appease the DeSantis administration. The College Board also said that the revisions were "substantially complete ... weeks before Florida's objections were shared." Duke University professor Kerry Haynie, who helped develop the AP course, also called Times' claims "wildly misleading, at best." "We reject any claim that our work either indoctrinates students or, on the other hand, has bowed to political pressure," Haynie said in a statement issued by the College Board on Wednesday.

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Associated Press - February 1, 2023

Impassioned calls for police reform at Tyre Nichols’ funeral

Tyre Nichols ' family and friends remembered him with songs of faith and emotional tributes Wednesday, blending a celebration of his life with outraged calls for police reform after the brutal beating he endured at the hands of Memphis police. Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, fought back tears as she spoke lovingly of her son. “The only thing that’s keeping me going is that I truly believe that my son was sent here on assignment from God. And I guess now his assignment is done. He’s gone home,” she said, urging Congress to pass police reform. The Rev. Al Sharpton and Vice President Kamala Harris both delivered impassioned speeches calling on Congress to approve the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a broad package of police reforms that includes a national registry for police officers disciplined for misconduct, a ban on no-knock warrants and other measures.

Harris said the beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, by five Black police officers was a violent act that went against the stated mission of police to ensure public safety. “It was not in the interest of keeping the public safe, because one must ask, was not it in the interest of keeping the public safe that Tyre Nichols would be with us today? Was he not also entitled to the right to be safe? So when we talk about public safety, let us understand what it means in its truest form. Tyre Nichols should have been safe,” she said. Sharpton said the officers who beat Nichols might have acted differently if there was real accountability for their actions. He also said he believes that if Nichols had been white, “you wouldn’t have beat him like that.” “We understand that there are concerns about public safety. We understand that there are needs that deal with crime,” Sharpton said. “But you don’t fight crime by becoming criminals yourself. You don’t stand up to thugs in the street becoming thugs yourself. You don’t fight gangs by becoming five armed men against an unarmed man. That ain’t the police. That’s punks,” he said, to rousing applause from the crowd.

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New York Times - February 1, 2023

The shift to renewable energy is speeding up. Here’s how.

Wars have unintended consequences. Russia’s war in Ukraine seems to have sped up the global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables. This is a big deal. Most of us take for granted that we will enter a dark room and flick on the lights, that our homes will be warm in winter, that we will look out the window of a car and watch the world go by. But what powers our lives is undergoing a huge change. Consider three recent developments. First, according to the International Energy Agency, an estimated $1.4 trillion poured into “clean energy” projects in 2022, a category that includes solar farms, batteries and electric vehicle charging stations. That’s more than ever before, and more than the money that poured into new oil and gas projects. Fatih Birol, the head of the agency, described the energy crisis spurred by the Russian invasion as “an accelerator for clean energy transitions.”

Second, BloombergNEF, a research firm, described this direction of change in a report published last week. Investments in low-carbon energy “reached parity” with capital aimed at expanding fossil fuels, it said. And finally, the oil giant BP said this week that it expected the war in Ukraine would push countries to ramp up renewable energy projects for the sake of energy security, and that oil and gas demand could peak sooner than the company had anticipated just a year ago. Spoiler alert: The shift away from fossil fuels isn’t happening fast enough to stay within relatively safe boundaries of climate change. For that to happen, a handful of big emerging economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America will need more renewable energy projects. Financing those projects is more expensive in the countries of the global south than it would be in Europe and North America. You’re going to hear a lot more going forward about the energy transition. It’s worth pausing for a minute today and looking at how big these changes are.

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Houston Chronicle - February 2, 2023

Red state governors decry Biden energy strategy

The Republican governors of Wyoming and Oklahoma called for more common-sense energy policy at the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston Wednesday, where hundreds gathered for an oil and gas conference. Gov. Mark Gordon of Wyoming and Gov. J. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma addressed the North American Prospect Expo, a gathering known for facilitating the buying and selling oil and gas land, which this week is marking its 30th year. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott had planned to participate in the governors' panel but was waylaid by a winter storm affecting much of the state. Stitt and Gordon took turns decrying the Biden administration’s withdrawals from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, its reluctance to hold lease sales needed to produce oil on federal land and blue state policies such as California’s impending ban on gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. They also took aim at shifting policies surrounding air and water pollution.

There's a reason more people are moving to Republican-led states, Stitt said — they are places where governments let the free market rule and where "the American dream is alive." He said he is trying to convince Biden to taking a more "all-of-the-above" approach to the energy transition. During a recent winter storm, he said wind turbines in his state began to fail and coal power plants had to step up to shoulder more of the load. "I was telling President Biden this, and I tell young people ... if we wouldn't have had coal in Oklahoma, you wouldn't have been able to watch TikTok for two solid weeks." A more business-minded approach needs to take hold, he said, or inflation will not improve. "What is very simple for most of us," he said, "is that when you choke off supply but demand is the same, prices are gonna go up." Biden had taken steps last year to mitigate rising prices by releasing oil from federal reserves — a move Gordon said was "really dumb," given the threat posed by foreign dictators such as Vladmir Putin. Another way to ease prices would be to encourage supply, but the governors said that is not happening in their states. That weighs not just on oil companies but on coffers in their key oil-producing states.

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Associated Press - February 2, 2023

FBI searches Biden’s vacation home; no classified documents

The FBI searched President Joe Biden’s vacation home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, on Wednesday without turning up any classified documents, the latest turn in an extraordinary series of searches of his and his predecessor’s properties. Agents did take some handwritten notes and other materials relating to Biden’s time as vice president for review, just as they had when they searched his Wilmington home last month where they also found classified items. Investigators searched his former office at a Washington think tank that bears his name in November, but it isn’t clear whether they took anything. The Biden searches, conducted with his blessing, have come as investigators work to determine how classified information from his time as a senator and vice president came to wind up in his home and former office — and whether any mishandling involved criminal intent or was merely a mistake in a city where unauthorized treatment of classified documents is not unheard-of.

Law enforcement searches of property are a routine part of criminal probes, but there is nothing ordinary about the FBI scouring a sitting president’s home, even as Biden and his aides have sought to contrast his actions with those of his predecessor. Former President Donald Trump is facing a special counsel criminal investigation into his retention of several hundred classified documents and other government records at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida — and his resistance to giving them up, which led to an FBI warrant and search to seize them last August. On Wednesday, Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer said FBI agents authorized by the Department of Justice spent three and a half hours searching the president’s beach home and that “no documents with classified markings were found.” In a statement disclosing the search, Bauer sought to portray Biden and his team as fully transparent and cooperative. He described the search as “planned” and “a further step in a thorough and timely DOJ process we will continue to fully support and facilitate.” He did not mention Trump by name, but the statement seemed aimed at juxtaposing the Biden investigation with the Trump case, where months of fruitless Justice Department efforts to recover all the classified records taken to the former president’s Florida estate culminated in the August search warrant and removal of nearly three dozen boxes of documents and other items.

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Newsclips - February 1, 2023

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

Gov. Abbott heats up school voucher debate, calling for ESAs ‘for every child’ in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott said “every child in the state of Texas” needs access to a voucher-like program that gives parents public dollars to spend on private school tuition or other educational expenses. Speaking at Annapolis Christian Academy in Corpus Christi on Tuesday night, Abbott said education savings accounts are what Texas needs to give families options. His remarks come as lawmakers push voucher-like bills this legislative session. “When a school does fall short of excellence, when it strays too far from the fundamentals or simply cannot meet the unique needs of a particular child, parents should not be helpless,” he said. “They should be able to choose the education option that is best for their child.” The state piloted a form of such savings accounts through microgrants made available to select students with disabilities in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. “It’s been so successful,” Abbott said of the program. The state awarded $1,500 grants to more than 65,000 students, according to the Texas Education Agency. “But that program shouldn’t be limited.”

Efforts to expand small, limited voucher-like programs for students with disabilities or students who attend poor-performing schools are already underway in states across the country, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also calling for universal school vouchers this month. Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick both made parental rights pillars of their reelection campaigns and the debate is expected to be contentious this legislative session. The governor cited ongoing parent concerns over the lasting impacts of schools’ COVID-19 policies, students underperforming in some public schools and what content, especially around race and sexuality, is being taught in the classroom, during his appearance Tuesday night. “No one knows what is better for a child’s education than their parents. Parents deserve the freedom to choose the education that is best for their child,” he said. “Parents must be restored to being the primary decision-makers in their education.” How the state could funnel public dollars to parents to use for their child’s education varies. Traditional vouchers often send the funds straight to the private school or educational institution where the student enrolls. Education savings accounts give the money directly to families, sometimes in the form of a preloaded debit card. Tax credit scholarships are another choice option, which gives tax breaks to individuals who donate to nonprofits that provide private school scholarships.

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Wall Street Journal - February 1, 2023

Worker pay gains cooled modestly late last year as Fed weighs inflation

Worker pay and benefit gains cooled modestly at the end of last year, leaving the Federal Reserve on course to slow interest-rate increases again Wednesday and to discuss how much more to lift them this year to combat inflation. Employers spent 1% more on wages and benefits last quarter versus the prior three months, a slowdown from a 1.2% increase in the third quarter, the Labor Department said Tuesday. From a year earlier the employment-cost index advanced 5.1%, in line with the 5% annual gain in the third quarter. The compensation report confirms other recent signs that wage growth has slowed, and comes as Fed officials start a two-day policy meeting. They are likely on Wednesday to approve raising their benchmark federal-funds rate by a quarter percentage point, down from their half-point increase in December, which followed four straight increases of 0.75 point.

Tuesday’s report could influence Fed officials’ debate this week over whether to hold rates steady this spring—possibly after another anticipated increase at their policy meeting on March 21-22. “We expect a further slowdown in wage growth over the coming months to convince officials to pause the tightening cycle after the March meeting,” said Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist at Capital Economics. Still, risk factors like China’s reopening from the pandemic could put renewed upward pressure on global inflation and cause the Fed to recalibrate, said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM US. “Even when the Fed does engage in a strategic pause, there’s no guarantee that’s the top of the rate cycle,” he said. Compensation growth is an important factor in the inflation puzzle because it both represents a cost employers factor in when setting prices and reflects workers’ ability to pay for more expensive goods and services. Average hourly earnings for private-sector workers rose 4.6% in December from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department’s latest jobs report. That was down from a recent high annual gain of 5.6% in March 2022. Consumer prices advanced 6.5% in December from a year earlier. Worker compensation cooled in many of the most in-demand industries compared with the prior quarter, Tuesday’s report showed. Compensation grew at a slower rate in the fourth quarter for nursing and residential home healthcare workers, transportation and trucking, and retail.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Harris County boosts sheriff, district attorney funding to maintain staffing levels

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved nearly $10 million in additional funding for the sheriff and district attorney, three months after the Democratic majority said the unplanned adoption of a lower tax rate would force county departments to tighten their budgets. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez's office will receive an additional $5.6 million, covering the cost of a $1.5 million deficit plus another $4.1 million to fill 120 patrol positions to maintain last year's staffing levels. District Attorney Kim Ogg's office will get $4.3 million to plug a $1.8 million deficit and restore funding for 30 assistant district attorney positions.

The sheriff's office shortfall stems from rising health care costs. While the district attorney's office also is contending with higher health care costs, the majority of the department's shortfall was caused by $2.5 million in unbudgeted raises, according to the county's Office of Management and Budget. "(The raises) were done over my objection," Budget Director Daniel Ramos told the court. Ramos said that while approving the additional funding after the department gave out unbudgeted raises would set up "a moral hazard," he recommended the court authorize the appropriation rather than risk that understaffing would worsen overcrowding at the jail. Unlike a department headed by an appointed official, the district attorney's office is run by an elected official with independent oversight of her office. "It's very difficult to have true controls over how money is spent in an elected official's office," County Administrator Dave Berry said.

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The Hill - February 1, 2023

Biden, McCarthy meet for high stakes debt showdown

President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will sit down Wednesday for a high-stakes meeting amid tensions over what each man characterizes as playing politics with a potential economic disaster. They will have to come up with a deal to avoid the country defaulting on its debt as some Republicans threaten to not be on board without the promise of spending cuts and the White House asserting it would take no “hostages” or negotiate terms of the matter. Biden and McCarthy have had few in-person interactions so far at the White House. Since McCarthy became Speaker in January — a 15-vote process Biden at one point called “embarrassing” — the White House has issued frequent statements criticizing him and GOP House members, while McCarthy’s conference has moved ahead with congressional investigations into Biden and his family.

But Wednesday’s meeting will serve as a starting point to Biden and McCarthy’s one-on-one working relationship since the GOP took over the House and may signal whether the two can form any sort of partnership for the next two years. “One of the problems I see is there’s no established relationship yet between the president and the Speaker. But probably more importantly, I think that it’s going to take a while for House Republicans to agree on strategy,” said Jim Manley, a former aide to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “Both men are obviously demanding that the other make the first move, so we’ll see how it plays out,” Manley said, adding he expects “very little of substance to come out of this meeting.” Speaking to reporters Monday, Biden said his message to McCarthy at the meeting would be: “Show me your budget and I’ll show you mine.” The next day, the White House said in a memo that it would press McCarthy for a firm commitment to avoid a default — a notion the California Republican told CBS on Sunday he was dedicated to. Biden said he would urge Republicans to release a budget proposal on March 9, the same day the president plans to release his fiscal 2024 plan. “Mr. President: I received your staff’s memo. I’m not interested in political games. I’m coming to negotiate for the American people,” McCarthy said in response to the memo.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

Texas AG Ken Paxton enters into settlement talks with whistleblowers over retaliation suit

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is in settlement negotiations with a group of whistleblowers who sued the state’s top lawyer for allegedly retaliating against them after they accused him of serious crimes. In a joint filing last week, Paxton’s lawyers and three of four whistleblowers asked the Texas Supreme Court to put the high-profile case on hold as they hash out details. According to the filing, they “are actively engaged in settlement discussions, with mediation tentatively planned for February 1, 2023.” A fourth whistleblower, James “Blake” Brickman, opposed the motion and is not engaged in settlement negotiations or mediation, according to a separate court filing. Any agreed sum would be paid with taxpayer funds.

Already, the agency has paid private lawyers more than $463,000 to work on the case, in addition to state attorneys. The lawsuit is more than two years old. It was filed by four of Paxton’s former top aides who were fired after going to law enforcement with allegations that their boss committed bribery and abuse of office to help a campaign donor. The FBI opened an investigation in late 2020. Paxton has denied wrongdoing. No federal charges have been filed. The question before the Texas Supreme Court is whether Paxton can face the lawsuit at all. His legal team has argued the state’s whistleblower laws do not apply to the attorney general or any other elected official in Texas. A lower appeals court rejected the argument in October 2021, and cleared the way for the lawsuit to proceed. The joint filing on Jan. 26 asked the Texas Supreme Court “defer consideration of the petition for review pending the outcome of their ongoing settlement negotiations.” The whistleblowers who signed on are David Maxwell, J. Mark Penley and Ryan Vassar. Brickman’s attorney wrote the move “imposes further needless delay.” The court has not yet weighed in. Paxton’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Paxton, a Republican, easily won re-election to his third term as attorney general last year.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 1, 2023

Michael Taylor: Shame continues for Texas members of Congress engaged in stock trading

I’m continuing to name and shame members of Congress from Texas who trade individual stocks — mostly because it’s such an obvious avenue for insider-type trading, either because of special access to information or through special regulatory duties, subpoena power or committee assignments. It’s gross and it should be banned. Almost all white-collar professionals subject themselves to conflict-of-interest rules that limit their investment behavior — lawyers, researchers, consultants, bankers, brokers, professors, and nonprofit board members and executives. Not only do they want to ensure their professional decisions are not self-dealing, they also want to remove the possible perception that they are. Two regional presidents and one vice chairman of the Federal Reserve resigned from their jobs early last year after trading individual stocks, as they should have.

Perception matters as much as reality. We would expect the same or a higher standard from members of Congress, but in fact, there is no such standard. No law forbids a member of the Financial Services Committee from trading individual bank stocks, for example, which is absurd. If you want to follow along congressional stock trading from home, I recommend the searchable database on capitoltrades.com. In January 2022 it looked like we had momentum toward banning individual stock trading by members of Congress, as longtime holdout and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally agreed to bring a bill to that effect. Alas, the clock ran out on her speakership. Newly elected House Speaker Kevin McCarthy previously promised to ban congressional stock trading, so with hope eternal and a burst of optimism, I will continue to raise the issue. Side note: I’ll bet that McCarthy is gone as House Speaker before he passes a bill to ban congressional trading of individual stocks. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is by far the most active stock-trading member of Congress in Texas, as well as the most active stock trader in the United States in 2022, according to financial site Unusual Whales. Throughout 2022, McCaul reported about 100 stock transactions per month, totaling millions of dollars, for an estimated annual total of $176 million in share value. His family’s fortune — derived from his marriage to the daughter of the founder of Clear Channel Communications — was estimated

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Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

Dallas officials urge people to stay off roads amid icy weather

Dallas officials are urging people to stay home and off roads, if possible, as ice and sleet have taken over many city streets Tuesday and hazardous conditions are expected to continue Wednesday. City work crews continue to put down a mixture of sand and salt on major roads and intersections, but residential streets will likely stay iced over until the weather warms, according to Dallas public works director Ali Hatefi. The downtown library will open Tuesday as a temporary homeless shelter with up to 250 beds, but the rest of the libraries are among a slew of city facilities shut down due to wintry weather. The Dallas Municipal Court and all recreation centers closed on Tuesday. All libraries were initially scheduled to open to the public at noon, but conditions forced the city to about face.

In addition, garbage and recycling collections have been canceled due to poor road conditions. Dallas sanitation department director Jay Council said it’s not immediately clear if pickups will resume Wednesday or later in the week. “If you can, avoid traveling. The roads are very treacherous,” said Travis Houston, the city’s assistant emergency management coordinator. “We’re seeing a lot of accidents of those who are out on the roads and so we just encourage everyone, if you’re able to and it’s feasible, please stay home and stay safe.” Dallas fire crews responded to nearly 300 calls of motor vehicle crashes between 7 a.m. Monday and 7 a.m. Tuesday, according to fire deputy chief James Russ. Crews also responded to three cases of people outside in frigid temperatures seeking help, and two people were driven to homeless shelters, Russ said. City facilities, such as City Hall, recreation centers and the municipal court, are planned to remain closed Wednesday, officials said. City events and the City Council meeting have also been canceled. Wintry weather has been hitting North Texas since Monday and is expected to carry on through Thursday morning with periods of freezing rain and sleet causing temperatures to dip and roadways to be slick.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 1, 2023

Texas power grid working, problems not expected: governor

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday assured Texans that the state’s power grid is working as a winter storm covers much of the state. The Public Utility Commission expects to see some outages as a result of icing on electric infrastructure and power lines, but local outages do not mean there’s a problem with the grid, Abbott said from the State Operations Center in Austin. “The power grid itself is functioning very efficiently as we speak right now, and there’s not anticipated to be any challenge to the power grid in the state of Texas,” he said. Abbott instructed those who may experience an outage to check with their electricity provider for updates. Oncor delivers electricity to much of the Fort Worth-area. As of 4:24 p.m., the grid was operating under normal conditions with enough power to meet demand. There were 30,450 electricity customers experiencing power outages across the state as of 4:15 p.m., including 68 in Tarrant County, according to poweroutage.us.

In February 2021, the state experienced widespread outages and at least 246 people died when a freeze swept Texas. Public Utility Commission Chairman Peter Lake said reforms put into place in the time since have been working for Texas. The state agency regulates Texas utilities, and has oversight of Texas’ power grid manager, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. ERCOT is not expecting to ask Texans to conserve power, said President and CEO Pablo Vegas. “We have plenty of reserves to make sure that the ERCOT grid is stable and powered throughout this weather event,” Lake said. “As the governor said, the primary concern this week is icing at the local level. Accumulating on tree branches and power lines can lead to down lines and local outages.” Texas Division of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd said power lines could be knocked out if people have wrecks and hit power lines, causing outages. He and other officials urged Texans to avoid driving if possible. The National Weather Service warned that dangerous travel conditions are expected through Wednesday in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. An ice storm warning is in effect through 6 a.m. Thursday for Tarrant and 13 other North Texas counties.

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Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

Lance Barasch: I am not a stand-in for the culture wars in Texas. I teach algebra.

(Lance Barasch is a high school statistics and calculus teacher at the Townview School of Science and Engineering in Dallas ISD. He is a Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.) “What do you think?” I asked. Dylan is one of the many typically curious students in my Honors Algebra II class, and today he wanted to know about the abbreviation for natural logarithm - ln. “Why not nl?” he asked. For the next five minutes, we went down the rabbit hole, touching on language, communication and the role of history in mathematical notation. In fact, ln derives from the Latin logarithmus naturali; in Latin, the foundational language of mathematics, the modifier comes after the noun, just like in Spanish and other Romance languages. It was a glorious classroom conversation, demonstrating how students asking great questions can lead to great learning even outside the main topic. “What do you think?” Over my 14 years in the classroom teaching high school math, these four words have become my class motto, most frequently used as a gateway to get my students wondering: “How can we find out?”

On the face of it, math does not seem dangerous. However, over the past few years I’ve felt a previously foreign emotion in my Texas classroom during group discussions: Fear. I am fearful of reprisal when those wonderful moments of deeper learning occur, like with Dylan and his classmates. What if the answer to the question (“What do you think?”) leads us to a conversation about the more controversial parts inherent in the history of the sciences, like when Galileo was convicted of heresy by Pope Urban VIII for stating that the Earth revolves around the sun. Might these discussions get me in trouble with his parents, the principal, or worse? I’m not the only teacher to struggle with such fear. If I am afraid of my place of work, why would I want to stay at this job? In 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott created a task force to examine the statewide teacher shortage problem, hoping to investigate why it exists and what policy changes might fill the gaps. Here’s a good starting point: In a Charles Butt Foundation poll conducted among nearly 1,000 Texas teachers in 2021, 68% said they have seriously considered leaving the profession in the past year, and the majority, 84%, reported feeling undervalued in a profession into which we pour our passion. Similarly, a Texas American Federation of Teachers survey of 3,800 of its members found that 66% of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their job. What would help? I believe that a necessary first step is an emphatic statement of support for public education from our state’s leaders.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 1, 2023

Greater San Marcos Partnership boss pushing for job growth to match population rise

Anchored by two booming cities in the middle of a booming state, the Interstate 35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin is growing faster than nearly anywhere in the U.S. The people are coming, and Jason Giulietti’s job is to make sure the jobs come too. As president and CEO of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, an economic development organization, he’s helped attract projects such as Hill Country Studios, an 820,000-square-foot film studio breaking ground in San Marcos this spring. “That was our project, soup to nuts,” he said, alluding to how the studio would be outfitted with state-of-the-art technology. “I can’t give away anything specific, but all the major movie houses are looking at coming here — some franchises that everybody would recognize. It’s going to be exciting for Texas.”

The partnership’s territory includes Hays and Caldwell counties. From 2010 to 2020, Hays was the fastest-growing county in the U.S. among those with a population of more than 100,000, according to the Texas Association of Counties. During that decade, San Marcos’ population surged by just over half. Amazon is the territory’s largest employer, with roughly 5,000 workers at fulfillment centers it has built to serve the corridor’s booming population. The partnership is working to diversify the economy by attracting investment in sectors such as manufacturing, aerospace and biotechnology. It’s getting a massive amount of interest, Giulietti said: In the first three months of this fiscal year, it received inquiries from companies for projects that would bring $85 billion in investment if they pan out, he said. “Things have not slowed down. As much as the economy looks like nationally it might be doing something, here in Central Texas, that’s not the case,” he said. “You’re seeing massive projects, a lot with B’s in the number of what they want to spend to do business here, looking at our region.” The partnership plans to do a rebranding this year, taking on a new name that has yet to be determined, he said. It’s in talks with other communities to spread its footprint. “We’re in the process now of expanding ourselves into a much larger organization,” he said. “We have interest from communities up almost as far as Waco, and almost to the border. Obviously, we’re not going to go that big that fast.”

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

How reforms took Houston's pension systems from an $8.2 billion crisis to a more stable footing

For nearly two decades, Houston's pension systems served as a drag on the city budget and an even grimmer stain on its financial health. Ill-advised increases to benefits between 1997 and 2001 sent costs skyrocketing. To alleviate the budget pressure, the city started paying what it thought it thought it could afford, rather than what was needed to fully fund the pensions. That meant the city was dumping hundreds of millions dollars toward pensions in its annual budget, but its debt was steadily increasing anyway. It was throwing money at an ever-expanding financial hole. By 2017, that hole had grown to an estimated $8.2 billion. Rating agencies downgraded the city's credit, citing the massive pension debt and costs as a key factor. A study found only three cities devoted more of their revenues to pensions than Houston.

The Greater Houston Partnership made reforming the city's pension system its top priority, and the financial crisis dominated local politics and budget discourse. Now, nearly six years after Mayor Sylvester Turner shepherded a package of reforms through the Texas Legislature and the ballot box, the city's pension systems face a far brighter future, according to business leaders, financial analysts and City Hall officials. The city's pension liability has shrunk to $2.2 billion, a quarter of what it was in 2017, according to City Hall figures. The city's net financial position increased last fiscal year from $3.7 to $5.9 billion, an achievement Controller Chris Brown, the city's independently elected financial watchdog, attributed to the reforms. And the city's three pension systems have healthier funding levels, all while the city is on track to eliminate its debt in 30 years. "My administration promised fiscal responsibility, and that is what we have delivered," Turner said. The results are not necessarily set in stone. Houston's pension costs remain relatively high, and a market crash could test the reforms. The city faces other financial challenges, as well, from a structurally unbalanced budget to a pay dispute with firefighters. Still, the city's pension picture unquestionably has improved from the crisis Turner inherited when he took office.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Gov. Abbott says widespread road closures across north, central Texas could last 48 hours

Icy conditions in much of north and central Texas led to widespread school closures, hundreds of traffic accidents and warnings from Gov. Greg Abbott and emergency personnel on Tuesday for people in affected areas to stay home to allow crews to work on roadways. “Texans should use extra caution on the roadways,” Abbott said at an emergency briefing in Austin. The governor said 1,600 roads in Texas have been impacted by the conditions with road crews trying to apply more than 1.3 million gallons of de-icing fluids around the state. “Because of icing, many roads in Texas will remain very dangerous for the next 24 to 48 hours,” Abbott said.

Most school districts from Austin to Dallas closed on Tuesday. In addition, the University of Texas at Austin and much of the Texas Capitol Building complex were closed, prompting the cancellation of a Texas Senate hearing on the state budget that had been scheduled for Tuesday. Despite the conditions, the state’s electricity grid was reporting more than enough power generation to handle the expected demand over the next 24 hours. ERCOT, the state’s grid manager, projected it would have more than 75,000 megawatts of power ready to handle a peak demand of about 64,000 megawatts Tuesday. “We have all the resources that we need to ensure reliable operations during this event,” ERCOT President and CEO Pablo Vegas said. As of noon, there were about 7,000 power outages in Texas, but Abbott said those were localized and not because of any issues with the grid. More than 600 flights in and out of the Dallas area had been canceled or delayed Tuesday, according to FlightAware. In Austin, that number was over 200 flights. The icy conditions in much of the state are expected to continue through Wednesday.

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KXAN - February 1, 2023

Where former Texas attorney general candidate will work next

The candidate who sought to unseat the Texas attorney general will now take on a new job that could pit the two against each other in future legal fights. Rochelle Garza, the Democratic candidate for attorney general last year, announced she would become the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a legal advocacy organization in the state. The group shared the hiring news Thursday in a news release, noting Garza will begin her new post on Feb. 1. In a statement Thursday, Garza said, “Texans’ civil rights and basic freedoms are under assault, and those in power must be held accountable. This fight is not new to TCRP, and I’m honored and humbled to be the next President. I look forward to working with a team fiercely dedicated to empowering Texans through community lawyering and organizing directly with impacted communities. Together we will build a Texas big enough for all of us.”

She lost the general election in November last year to Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, who won a third term as the state’s top attorney by approximately 10 percentage points. Before running for office, Garza worked as a civil rights attorney. She often highlighted on the campaign trail a case she won before the U.S. Supreme Court as evidence that she could have success in major legal battles. In Azar v. Garza, she represented a teenage, undocumented immigrant in U.S. custody who was denied access to abortion. The Texas Civil Rights Project mentioned that legal work in the announcement Thursday about Garza’s hiring. “More than ever, I am confident that TCRP has a bright future ahead,” Raven Hollins, the organization’s interim president who will soon serve as Garza’s chief of staff, said in a statement. “We have a long track record of success at both the state and national level under our innovative community lawyering model. We will continue to build on this foundation, under Rochelle’s leadership, along with the impeccable talent of our staff.” One of Paxton’s other challengers, former Texas land commissioner George P. Bush, shared he’s now going to work for a law firm based in Wisconsin. Bush advanced to a runoff against Paxton but ultimately lost his bid to become the Republican nominee.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

Judge dismisses doctor's $25M case against Houston Methodist after COVID misinformation accusations

A state district judge has dismissed Dr. Mary Talley Bowden’s defamation lawsuit against Houston Methodist Hospital, ending, at least for now, a months-long legal feud over whether the hospital damaged her reputation by publicly denouncing her social media comments about COVID-19 as misinformation. Judge Mike Engelhart, of Harris County's 151st District Civil Court, heard arguments Monday afternoon after the hospital asked to dismiss the case and strike certain evidence from the record. The judge sided with the hospital on both requests and ordered Bowden to pay its attorney fees. Bowden, an ear, nose and throat specialist who practices in the Upper Kirby area, had asked for $25 million in damages. She responded shortly after the decision on Twitter: "We will appeal."

Her attorneys, Steven Biss and Madhu Sekharan, did not respond to an emailed request for comment. Methodist originally suspended the doctor's privileges to practice at the hospital in November 2021, citing her spreading of misinformation and use of vulgar language on social media. She had been granted "provisional privileges" within a year of the hospital taking action and had never admitted a patient, Methodist said at the time. Bowden later resigned her privileges. Both the health system and its CEO, Dr. Marc Boom, had issued statements pushing back against a number of Bowden's comments on social media, including assertion that the antiparasitic drug ivermectin helps treat COVID. In an email to patients, she suggested that Methodist is not treating unvaccinated patients — a claim she later walked back — and spoke out against vaccine mandates, after Methodist became the first major health system in the nation to implement such a requirement for its workforce. In a statement on Tuesday's ruling, the hospital reiterated its stance that Bowden had her privileges suspended "for spreading false information that was dangerous to the public and other inappropriate behavior."

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Associated Press - February 1, 2023

Exxon profits at record high in 2022 as energy prices soared

Exxon Mobil posted record annual profits in 2022 as Americans struggled with high prices for gasoline, home heating and consumer goods. The oil giant brought in $12.75 billion in profits in the fourth quarter, bringing annual profits to $55.7 billion. That exceeded Exxon's previous annual record of $45.22 billion in annual profits Exxon set in 2008, when a barrel of oil soared close to $150. The Irving, Texas, company brought in $95.43 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter. Exxon said it achieved its best-ever annual refining throughput in North America and the highest globally since 2012. Exxon earned $3.09 per share in the quarter.

The price of oil ranged between $70 to $90 for a barrel of U.S. benchmark crude during the quarter. Domestic natural gas prices, which affect the cost of home energy and electricity, ranged from $6 to $7 per million British thermal units during the quarter, according to FactSet, which was higher than in recent years. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Russia’s decreased its supply of natural gas to Europe, which resulted in higher prices of natural gas and its liquid counterpart, LNG, on the global market. President Joe Biden has accused oil companies of profiting from the war Russia waged on Ukraine, and has previously raised the possibility of a war profit tax on oil companies.

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

EPA investigates complaints that Texas Commission on Environmental Quality fails to do its job

Federal environmental regulators are probing wide-ranging complaints that Texas is not doing enough to safeguard against water and air pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a letter this month that it is looking into a slew of allegations that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality allows developers to skirt environmental rules, cuts the public out of permitting processes, and more. The inquiry comes after dozens of environmental groups have filed two separate petitions asking the agency to step in and take over permitting in the state. "If proven to be true, the allegations outlined in the petition are concerning," Charles Maguire, the EPA's acting deputy regional administrator, wrote in the letter. The inquiry comes as the state's environmental agency has been under increased scrutiny.

A review of the agency by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission last year deemed TCEQ to be "reluctant regulators" and recommended lawmakers increase fines on polluters, add time for the public to weigh in on proposed permits and improve online transparency, among other things. The TCEQ declined to comment on the EPA letter, but said the federal agency reviewed the state permitting process in 2020 and found it to meet all federal requirements. Environmental advocates cheered the federal inquiry, saying it is a significant step. "For EPA to say our claims are valid and that they’re investigating further is a pretty big deal," said Luke Metzger, director of the Austin-based Environment Texas, one of 21 groups that filed the complaint alleging problems with water quality regulation in the state. The groups allege the state agency, which runs the federal permitting program that sets limits for polluters, allows developers to claim projects will have only minor effects on waterways and puts the burden on the public to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, the groups say the agency cuts out most of the public from contesting permits by barring court challenges from people who use waterways for recreational purposes, such as fishing or kayaking, but do not own land nearby.

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County Stories

San Antonio Express-News - February 1, 2023

Lawsuit claims Bexar County keeps inmates jailed for days, even months longer than allowed

A former inmate has hit Bexar County with a class-action lawsuit claiming the sheriff's office is wrongfully keeping people in jail longer than allowed. The plaintiff, Michael A. Miller, says he was kept in Bexar County jail for 72 hours after he posted bail. The suit knocks the sheriff’s office — which runs the jail — for not fixing the longstanding problem, saying it is a violating the civil rights of any person who has been kept in jail longer than necessary. The suit accuses the county of false imprisonment. “Every day, friends, family members, and bail bondsmen post bonds for presumptively innocent persons who are in the Bexar County jail,” Miller’s lawyer, Abasi Major, said in the lawsuit. “And every day, those defendants wait hours — sometimes days — before they are actually released from custody despite having their bail posted and no justification for their prolonged detention existing.”

Filed in San Antonio federal court, the suit seeks unspecified damages. A judge will eventually decide whether to certify it as a class-action lawsuit. “Once the sheriff’s office accepts bail, the defendant should be released within a few hours, as soon as the criminal defendant can be checked for outstanding holds and warrants,” the suit said. Part of the problem, the lawsuit states, is that the sheriff’s office uses a “batch system” in which a group of detainees is released, followed later by another group and so on. A captain or lieutenant in the jail’s booking operations must sign off on each detainee’s release. However, jailers wait until there is a “batch” of bailed-out detainees; once the group is deemed large enough, a captain then approves the entire group for release. “This can force a detainee who has already posted bail to wait hours until there are enough other detainees who have posted bails to be released at once,” the lawsuit said. “While awaiting release, detainees who have been bailed out are moved from holding cells and held in a special cell or holding area designated specially for inmates whose bails have been posted,” the suit said. “Only when this area fills up are all of the detainees present processed for release at once.”

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Houston Chronicle - February 1, 2023

New $26.2M child care program would add 1,000 free seats for low-income Harris County children

Harris County is moving forward with a plan to improve and expand access to child care as the industry struggles to bounce back from the pandemic. Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to approve a $26.2 million program that will open new seats at high-quality child care centers for an additional 800 to 1,000 children in low-income families residing in child care deserts, according to officials. Child care will be free for families participating in the program, which is funded under the American Rescue Plan Act. The program will also increase compensation for child care workers and providers to reduce turnover and improve quality of care.

“That is really what we need to recover from the pandemic, is to build back capacity within the child care sector,” said Sara Mickelson, director for early childhood initiatives at the county's administration office. "This is about contracting with child care centers who can open brand new child care supply." The county awarded a two-year contract to BakerRipley, a Houston nonprofit, to implement the program with help from the United Way of Greater Houston. The measure passed unanimously with no discussion. Claudia Aguirre, BakerRipley president and CEO, said in a statement that the program is a step toward financial stability and self-sufficiency for hard-working families. She commended the Commissioners Court for "continuing to recognize that high-quality child care is a vital component for the economy, workforce development and socioeconomic mobility." The program, called Early REACH, will pilot a new funding strategy known as the contracted slots model, which has seen some success in other jurisdictions across the country, including Georgia. This model allows the program administrator, in this case BakerRipley, to contract directly with child care providers to open new slots for low-income children. Providers will be paid in advance for a set number of spaces at a rate that supports high-quality care and living wages for staff. This set-up will give these business owners more financial stability, Mickelson said.

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City Stories

San Antonio Express-News - February 1, 2023

CPS past-due bills decline as utility expects to ramp up disconnections

The balance of unpaid bills owed by CPS Energy customers declined for a second straight month in January, a sign the utility’s persistent cash shortage that’s been blamed on hundreds of millions of dollars in past-due bills may be easing. But even as the past-due total declines, executives say the City Council’s willingness to approve coming rate increases — and not ratepayers getting caught up on bills — is the key to the future financial health of CPS. Through January, about one of every five customers — 213,000 accounts — were at least 30 days late on their electric and gas bills and collectively owed the utility $200 million. That was down from a peak of $208 million owed in November as more customers set up payments plans in the past couple of months, said DeAnna Hardwick, executive vice president of customer strategy.

Hardwick said nearly 78,000 customer accounts — which collectively owe CPS $100 million — are on plans to pay their bills over periods as long as two years. That was up from November, when accounts that owed a total of $77 million were on installment plans. “That shows customers are working with us,” Hardwick said. “They just can’t (pay) the full amount that’s past due.” CPS considers about 38,000 past-due accounts inactive — people who have moved away or businesses that have closed. The utility will write off those accounts’ $39 million debt. Another 52,000 customer accounts that owe a total of $50 million in late bills are on the verge of having their electricity shut off for nonpayment, Hardwick said. CPS disconnected 23,000 customers last year as it sought to collect late bills. The utility urged customers with past-due accounts to set up a payment plan or face disconnection. “It sounds harsh, but it’s a reality of where we are: We’re going to keep ramping up disconnects,” Garza said, suggesting the utility could shut off power to as many as 10,000 customers per week in the months ahead. “In some cases, that is the only way we’re going to start to knock down” the delinquent bill balance.

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Dallas Morning News - February 1, 2023

2 monkeys taken from Dallas Zoo found alive in Lancaster, officials say

The Dallas Zoo confirmed to The Dallas Morning News the two monkeys taken from their enclosure were found alive in Lancaster on Tuesday. Zoo spokeswoman Kari Streiber said Dallas police called the zoo to come secure and transport the monkeys back to the grounds, where they will be evaluated by veterinarians. The zoo will provide an update Wednesday on social media, Streiber said. The announcement came hours after police asked for the public’s help identifying a man believed to have information about the monkeys. The department shared surveillance images of a man and said detectives were looking to speak with him, but added that “he is not a person of interest currently.” Police said Tuesday evening they received a tip the monkeys might be in an abandoned home in Lancaster, and they found the monkeys in a closet at that location. No arrests have been made; police said they were continuing to investigate.

Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, a group that accredits zoos, said the organization “continues to maintain utmost confidence” in the Dallas Zoo’s staff and the zoo’s accreditation was not at risk. “Dallas Zoo and its animals are victims of acts, presumably intended to take animals for personal reasons, or worse, to be trafficked,” Ashe said in a written statement. “AZA and its entire member community stand squarely with Dallas Zoo and condemn these acts of violence against the zoo, its animals, and the entire Dallas community.” Two emperor tamarin monkeys were unaccounted for in their habitat Monday morning, and Streiber said it was immediately “clear the habitat had been intentionally compromised.” According to police, the habitat had been cut. “We looked as much as we could out in the cold and we were hoping that maybe we’d find them, but it became pretty apparent to us just by looking at what they’d done that this was motivated to try to steal the animals,” Dallas Zoo president and CEO Gregg Hudson said. Harrison Edell, the zoo’s executive vice president for animal care and conservation, said the incident was “offensive to the core.” “It feels like a personal attack because it is your extended family and someone just took them away,” he said.

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National Stories

Washington Post - February 1, 2023

For GOP base, battles over coronavirus vaccines, closures are still fiery

For many Americans, the relentless focus on covid seems largely a thing of the past: Far fewer are wearing masks, businesses and schools are mostly open, and many people have learned to live with the occasional threat of contracting the virus. But among activist Republicans, immense anger and resentment persists at government policies aimed at curbing the pandemic, such as vaccine mandates, school closures and mask requirements. And as that anger bubbles up in the newly Republican-controlled House and among potential GOP presidential contenders, it is shaping up as a significant part of the party’s message. Former president Donald Trump, who has announced he is seeking the presidency in 2024, and a potential leading rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), have begun fiercely sparring over who did a better job of rejecting public health measures they viewed as overreach. In remarks to reporters on Saturday, Trump accused DeSantis of “trying to rewrite history” on his response to the pandemic, saying that “Florida was closed for a long period of time.”

DeSantis has lately styled himself a public health dove who presided over the “free state of Florida,” and he has become increasingly hostile toward the coronavirus vaccines. He hit back on the former president Tuesday, noting that he was resoundingly reelected while Trump was not in 2020. “If you take a crisis situation like covid … the good thing is that the people are able to render a judgment on that, whether they reelect you or not,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “I’m happy to say in my case … we won.” On Capitol Hill, House Republicans are focused this week on delivering a political message to their base: The pandemic has long been over and the Biden administration doesn’t realize it. House GOP leaders lined up four pandemic-related votes that aim to end two coronavirus emergency declarations, lift the vaccine mandate for many health workers, and require federal agencies to reinstate their pre-pandemic telework policies. “House Republicans are voting on legislation to restore our constitutional rights and freedoms after two long years of Democrats’ covid-19 power grab policies,” Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), the No. 3 House Republican, said Tuesday, blasting “extended covid lockdowns” and “unconstitutional vaccine mandates.”

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Washington Post - February 1, 2023

GOP report shows plan to ramp up focus on disproven election fraud claims

A new internal report prepared by the Republican National Committee proposes creating a permanent infrastructure in every state to ramp up “election integrity” activities in response to perceptions within GOP ranks of widespread fraud and abuse in the way the country selects its leaders. The report, prepared by the RNC’s “National Election Integrity Team” and obtained by The Washington Post, reveals the degree to which Republicans continue to trade on former president Donald Trump’s false claims that Democrats and their allies rigged his defeat in 2020. The report suggests building a massive new party organization involving state-level “election integrity officers” and intensive new training models for poll workers and observers — all based on unsubstantiated claims that Democrats have implemented election procedures that allow for rigged votes.

Yet the report also acknowledges that the GOP’s obsession with election fraud has cost the party, most notably in 2021, when mistrust in elections contributed to a drop in Republican turnout in two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, costing the party its Senate majority. The report concludes that the party must continue building on efforts begun after that electoral disaster to restore Republican faith in their elections. But instead of combating misinformation about fraud, the report encourages the recruitment of staff and volunteers to monitor elections and the development of more aggressive legal strategies to “hold election officials accountable for violating the law.” “If there is corruption in the election infrastructure, then having Republicans in the system will expose many issues,” the report states. “Second, if Republicans see how the election process works up close, then they will be able to identify and fix problems, instead of boycotting elections entirely.” In the report, the RNC takes credit for “restoring Republican confidence in the electoral process” in 2022 “by building the largest, most well-trained election integrity organization in the history of the Republican Party.”

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Associated Press - February 1, 2023

Embattled Rep. George Santos stepping down from U.S. House committees amid ethics issues

Republican Rep. George Santos of New York told GOP colleagues Tuesday he is temporarily stepping down from his two congressional committees, a move that comes amid a host of ethics issues and a day after he met with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Santos has faced numerous calls for his resignation and is facing multiple investigations by prosecutors over his personal and campaign finances and lies about his resume and family background. Santos was assigned to two fairly low-profile panels, the House Committee on Small Business, chaired by Texas Republican Rep. Roger Williams, and to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Williams, of Willow Park east of Fort Worth, said he was surprised. “The bottom line is that he’s chosen to be off committees until his situation gets handled at a level that he’s comfortable with,” Williams said. Williams also told CNN that he thinks Santos “probably made the right decision.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., says Santos “referenced the drama and everything surrounding the situation and he just felt like it was the appropriate thing to do.” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Olka., said the decision was well-received from the GOP conference, saying “I think it was the appropriate thing to do and I was proud of him for getting up and doing this.” McCarthy met with Santos on Monday night, but did not disclose their conversation. “You'll see,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol. Santos, meanwhile, said he would issue a statement later in the day. The questions surrounding Santos go beyond his misrepresentations to voters, but also whether his congressional campaign followed the law in its reporting to the Federal Election Commission. There have been lingering questions about irregularities in his campaign committee’s financial reports and the source of Santos’ wealth.

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Associated Press - February 1, 2023

Trump copyright lawsuit says Woodward had no permission to use tapes in audiobook

Former President Donald Trump filed a lawsuit Monday against journalist Bob Woodward, claiming he never had permission to publicly release interview recordings made for the book “Rage.” The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Pensacola, Florida, against Woodward, his publisher Simon & Schuster Inc., and the publisher’s parent company Paramount Global. Trump’s attorneys are seeking nearly $50 million in damages. Simon & Schuster and Woodward released a joint response saying Trump’s lawsuit is without merit, and they will aggressively defend against it. “All these interviews were on the record and recorded with President Trump’s knowledge and agreement,” the statement said. “Moreover, it is in the public interest to have this historical record in Trump’s own words. We are confident that the facts and the law are in our favor.”

The lawsuit claims that Trump consented to being recorded for a series of interviews between December 2019 and August 2020, but only for a book Woodward was working on. “Rage” was published in September 2021. Trump claims Woodward and Simon & Schuster Inc. violated his copyright by releasing the audio recordings in November 2022 as “The Trump Tapes: Bob Woodward’s Twenty Interviews with President Donald Trump.” The copyright lawsuit comes just weeks after a federal judge in West Palm Beach sanctioned Trump and one of his attorneys, ordering them to pay nearly $1 million for filing what the judge said was a bogus lawsuit against Trump's 2016 rival Hillary Clinton and others. U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks accused Trump in a Jan. 19 filing of a “pattern of abuse of the courts” for filing frivolous lawsuits for political purposes, which he said “undermines the rule of law” and “amounts to obstruction of justice.”

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Politico - February 1, 2023

Arizona Republicans fear they may blow it again

Kyrsten Sinema’s defection from Democrats should be a golden opportunity for the GOP. But two high-profile 2022 election losers in Arizona are eyeing Senate runs in 2024, sparking angst among Republicans that they will blow an increasingly winnable race. Republican Blake Masters, who lost his Senate bid last year by 5 percentage points, is setting himself up for another potential run, talking to consultants and making calls about the contest. Some Arizona GOP strategists are treating it as a foregone conclusion that he’ll jump in, although a person familiar with his moves said he is truly undecided at this point and just testing the waters. Kari Lake, the unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate, is also considering a Senate campaign, but any decision is expected to come after her legal challenge alleging false claims that her 2022 election was stolen is completed, according to a person close to her.

The possibility of Lake and Masters entering the political waters once more is complicating the newfound optimism GOP officials felt about capitalizing on Sinema’s recent party switch to independent. With Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego already in the race, Republicans see a prime opportunity to win the election with a plurality of the vote. Now there are new fears that they’d fumble the opportunity by putting forth a candidate who remains aligned with former President Donald Trump or fixated on election denialism. Lake’s protests about her gubernatorial loss have particularly raised eyebrows in the party after she was narrowly defeated by Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. “Any candidate in ’24 that has, as their principal campaign theme, a stolen election, is probably going to have the same issues that some of the ’22 candidates had,” said Sen. John Thune, the Senate GOP’s No. 2 leader. “I just don’t think that’s where the American public is. It’s a swing state — we need to have a good Republican nominee, obviously. You know, whoever gets in, I hope they focus on the future, not the past.” Far from being bowed by what happened in 2022, the MAGA set in Arizona appear further emboldened to try for office. Caroline Wren, a senior adviser to Lake, shot back that Thune is “everything wrong with the Republican establishment” and that the “Washington cartel” is “signaling that they’re willing to hand an Arizona Senate seat to the radical left.”

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Newsclips - January 31, 2023

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Winter weather storm warning extended to Thursday morning

The cold weather and icy conditions coating Texas are likely to continue through Thursday morning as the National Weather Service extends its winter weather storm warning. The warning, originally set to last Monday through Wednesday, is now set to expire at 6 a.m. Thursday. The storm — which brought freezing rain, sleet, and iced over roadways, to the region Monday — caused schools and businesses to close through at least Tuesday, cancelled flights out of DFW and Love Field airports, and sent cars sliding on the highways. “Widespread icing on bridges and overpasses as well as surface streets is expected with travel significantly impacted,” the weather service said. “There is a low chance of some downed powerlines and tree damage due to ice.”

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San Antonio Express-News - January 31, 2023

Former Rep. Will Hurd is first Texan to New Hampshire as 2024 presidential primary begins

Former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd was the first Texas Republican to visit the early GOP primary state of New Hampshire, where the potential presidential candidate tried to create a contrast with the elephant in the room: former President Donald Trump, who kicked off the Republican primary season with a keynote to the state party on Saturday. Hurd struck a unifying tone according to excerpts of his speech — far from that of Trump, who told the crowd in a lengthy address that “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was” to retaking the White House. "We’re going Marxist," Trump declared before disparaging transgender athletes, Black Lives Matter activists, and migrants who cross the border illegally. Hurd, on the other hand, stressed that "so much more unites us as a country than divides us."

"I’m tired of being told to hate my neighbors because we disagree. They’re not our enemies," Hurd said. "They’re our fellow Americans, and we’re going to need every last one of them to help take on the challenges our country faces, challenges to our way of life." Hurd — a vocal critic of Trump — is one of a handful of Texas Republicans weighing whether to enter a GOP primary field that has so far been frozen by the former president. Hurd told Fox News that his message to New Hampshire Republicans, who cast ballots in the first GOP primary in the nation, that "they're not just making a decision for themselves, but they're making a decision for the rest of the country." Asked whether he plans to run, he said: "I always have an open mind about how to serve my country." The Helotes native and former CIA operative has been open about considering a White House run as a moderate who can appeal to "normal people," as he put it in an interview with the Atlantic last year.

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Washington Post - January 31, 2023

Biden to end covid national emergencies in May

President Biden told Congress on Monday that he will end the national emergencies to combat the coronavirus outbreak on May 11, a move that will restructure the federal government’s response to the pandemic nearly three years after the virus first arrived in the United States. The declaration came as Biden announced his opposition to House Republicans’ efforts to end the emergency declarations immediately, a move the White House argued would cause chaos and disrupt efforts at an orderly winding down of the emergency status. The expiration of the orders marks a new phase of the pandemic response, as U.S. officials prepare to remove some of the flexibilities that were instituted during the earliest and most dire days of the pandemic. Since then, most Americans have been fully vaccinated against the virus and life has largely returned to normal. Still, an average of more than 500 Americans are dying every day from the virus.

In 2020, the Trump administration declared both a national emergency and a public health emergency, which are set to expire on March 1 and April 11, respectively. In a notice to Congress on Monday, the White House said it wants to briefly extend both emergency declarations before terminating them May 11. The federal government has renewed the public health emergency every 90 days since it was first declared, and administration officials had previously said they would give 60 days’ notice before ending the public health emergency. “An abrupt end to the emergency declarations would create wide-ranging chaos and uncertainty throughout the health care system — for states, for hospitals and doctors’ offices, and, most importantly, for tens of millions of Americans,” the White House said in a statement Monday. Among the most notable effects of ending the state of emergency, according to the White House, would be the termination of Title 42, a public health measure that has limited the inflow of migrants at the border. The Biden administration has attempted to end Title 42, but that action has been held up in court. An administration official said because Title 42 is a public health order, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined there would no longer be a need for the measure once the coronavirus no longer presented a public health emergency.

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott taps former Border Patrol agent as state’s new border czar

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday named a new border czar, whose top priority is making Texas the “least desirable place” for migrant crossings. Mike Banks, a former Border Patrol agent, will help oversee Abbott’s controversial border security push that has deployed thousands of soldiers and state police and begun construction on new barriers. In a press conference Monday, Banks said his number one priority “is to make the state of Texas the least desirable place for illegal immigration to cross,” but he gave few specifics. “I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult,” he said. “I’m going to apply the applicable laws that are out there that should be applied within my ability.” The creation of the new post comes as the legislative session is getting underway and Abbott, a third term Republican, is expected to ask for more money to keep the border mission afloat. Unprecedented in size and scope, Operation Lone Star has already cost taxpayers more than $4 billion since its launch in March 2021.

Abbott announced the new hire in front of a stretch of state-constructed border wall in the small South Texas city of San Benito that he said costs about $25 million per mile to build. At the end of the event, Abbott called a construction crew from a radio who, at his command, used a crane to hoist into place another panel of metal wall barrier. The number of migrants encountered by the Border Patrol at the U.S.-Mexico border rose steadily in recent months, but daily encounters dropped by more than half from December to January, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The Biden administration has claimed credit for the drop, saying new policies are working to cut down on the number of Cubans, Haitians and Nicaraguans crossing at the southern border. The administration is allowing entry to 30,000 asylum seekers per month from those countries and Venezuela so long as they apply in advance, while penalizing those who come without permission. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued to block the new asylum policy, deeming it an abuse of executive authority. Abbott praised the lawsuit on Monday and accused Biden of misleading the country with the data. “Every January is kind of the lowest month for border crossings, and so if you look at cycles, because of the Biden administration’s actions we can expect those numbers to increase dramatically in the spring and in the summer,” Abbott said. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Southwest, American canceling or delaying thousands of flights through noon Tuesday

Dallas’ two major airports and their hometown airlines are preemptively canceling or delaying thousands of flights through noon Tuesday as a winter storm brought freezing temperatures and drizzle across North Texas. By 6:30 p.m. Monday, Southwest Airlines had called off or delayed over 1,300 flights nationwide, according to flight tracking site Flightaware.com. It also proactively halted or delayed another 350 flights scheduled for Tuesday morning. Nationally, more than 6,500 flights were canceled or delayed Monday. About half of Southwest’s canceled flights on Monday and Tuesday were into or out of its home base airport, Dallas Love Field. The airline is still coping with the fallout of the holiday meltdown that left millions of travelers stranded at airports around the nation.

Southwest spokesman Chris Perry said travelers should confirm their flight status on Southwest.com or the company’s app before heading to the airport. “As we commonly do, our teams made proactive schedule reductions in advance of [the storm’s] potential effects on our operation,” Perry said in an email. “To provide flexible rebooking options, a travel advisory is active for customers traveling to/from/through a number of airports where we operate in Texas and Oklahoma.” At DFW International Airport, more than 350 inbound or outbound flights were canceled Monday and nearly 530 others were delayed. Fort Worth-based American Airlines already cut its flight schedule by almost 300 routes for Tuesday. American Airlines, which canceled or delayed more than 750 flights on Monday, issued a travel alert for passengers traveling to, from or through DFW International Airport. American spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said the storm disproportionately disrupted its D-FW operations. “The vast majority of affected flights were canceled in advance so we could proactively notify and accommodate our customers and avoid last-minute disruptions at the airport,” Urgo said in an email. American is waiving change fees for passengers booked in any fare class for tickets bought for flights scheduled between Jan. 29 and Feb. 2. Other conditions apply as well, such as flying from the same originating and destination airports and rebooking in the same cabin or agreeing to pay the difference.

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Austin American-Statesman - January 31, 2023

Stephanie Rubin: Six questions the Legislature will answer this session

As the 2023 Texas legislative session ramps up, our state lawmakers have a golden opportunity to ensure more kids are on a path to a bright future. The Legislature has more revenue available to invest than ever before — and a strong set of bold ideas for kids has bipartisan momentum. As Texas kids and families confront challenges on child care, mental health, health care, the rising costs of raising a family, and more, they urgently need legislators to seize this opportunity.

Between now and the end of the session, lawmakers will have to answer the following six questions — not with their word, but with their actions. The answers will go a long way toward showing whether the Legislature seized or squandered this golden opportunity. Will the Legislature ensure moms have access to health coverage during the critical first year after pregnancy? House Speaker Dade Phelan has vowed to pass this bill, which has the backing of the Texas Maternal Mortality and Morbidity Review Committee and numerous health care groups. Will state leaders make sure kids who are already eligible for Medicaid health insurance can sign up for it? Texas has the highest children’s uninsured rate in the nation, but legislators could turn this around by helping eligible kids enroll in coverage. Will lawmakers ensure more children can be with safe, loving families? When it’s possible, the state should keep more kids safe with their families rather than putting them in the overwhelmed —?and often traumatizing —?foster care system. Will the Legislature provide dedicated student mental health funding to school districts? Will they ensure affordable, high-quality child care is accessible to working parents?

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Leo Lopez and Ben Melson: How can surplus dollars benefit Texas schools?

The 88th Texas Legislature is dealing with an unprecedented budget surplus, and the number of people fighting for a piece of the $12.5 billion approved spending budget is quickly increasing. However, billions of dollars worth of that surplus is money from within the Foundation School Program that was appropriated but never spent. We believe that money, which was designated for education, should stay in education. And some simple budgetary changes within the FSP could have lasting benefits for Texas school children. The program is the primary source of state funding for schools and includes two programs to fund school facilities: the instructional facilities allotment (IFA) and the existing debt allotment (EDA). Unlike the basic allotment, which funds maintenance and operations for school districts, the instructional facilities and debt allotments provide state support toward voter-approved bonds, which primarily go towards funding facilities. Increasing the per-student amounts under those two allotments could help solve many ongoing issues that Texas public schools are struggling with.

The IFA provides assistance to school districts in making payments on qualifying bond or lease-purchase agreements used for the construction or renovation of instructional facilities. The per-student amount of $35 has not been adjusted since the Legislature created it in 1997. The EDA program provides tax rate equalization for local debt service taxes. Besides a small bump to $40 in 2017, it has largely gone unchanged. Meanwhile, inflation in the United States between 1997 and today has pushed up prices 85.6%, and enrollment in Texas schools has increased by more than 1.1 million students. The impact of this can be summarized as follows: In 1999, 91% of Texas students attended schools in districts that were eligible for IFA and EDA state support. According to data from the 2021-22 school year, that number has declined to under 16%. The state has been critical of high tax rates on bonds and the cost of districts putting up bonds that are voted down, yet by not adjusting the IFA for nearly 25 years, the state hasn’t kept up its contribution. That lack of IFA adjustments to increase the state contribution has forced districts to carry more burden locally. As public school finance experts, we encourage the Legislature to consider increasing funding for IFA and EDA programs so districts can build and equip new campuses in an affordable manner for local taxpayers.

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Renters, half of all Dallas households, would get no relief from $3B Texas tax debate

For the last month, Kathy Mosley has been living in an East Dallas apartment with crumbling ceilings and walls after a water pipe burst during the recent Christmas freeze. Mosley, 62, has called her now-dilapidated two-bedroom apartment home for the last nine years. It’s where she helped care for a grandson, and it’s offered her an affordable slice of East Dallas as she’s scraped by on a $1,200 monthly Social Security check. But this summer, Mosley will be forced to move. The building’s new owners, Dallas real estate investment firm Lurin, want $1,800 a month — double Mosley’s rent. “It’s just a nightmare,” Mosley said. “I know that come June, I won’t be able to afford it.” Mosley’s story is a common one in Dallas and across the nation, as a cooling real estate market has done little to temper rent increases that have soared an average of 10.5% in the last year.

While Mosley is in the final months of her lease, state lawmakers in Austin will be working to soften the impact of the last several years of surging property values by making property tax relief a top priority. The most specific proposal so far from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is to increase the school district property homestead exemption by $30,000. It would give an estimated $3 billion in relief to property owners. But renters like Mosley, who make up nearly 40% of Texas households and half in Dallas County, would see no relief from a tax break they helped fund that, in almost every metric, favors the wealthy over the less fortunate. The homestead exemption, a property tax relief program that enjoys enthusiastic bipartisan support, leaves out a renting class that is more likely to be lower income and non-white than their home-owning counterparts, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of tax, census and property data. Any increase in the homestead exemption would lower the amount of local property taxes for schools leaving the state to offset the costs with state sales and use taxes that impact lower-income families far more than the upper class. The tax break is more often and effectively utilized by the well off. A 2020 comptroller’s report indicated the top 20% of income earners took advantage of the tax break nearly twice as much as the bottom 20%.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 31, 2023

Sister of Atatiana Jefferson dies after hospitalization

Amber Carr, the 33-year-old sister of Atatiana Jefferson, died Monday, according to the Carr family’s attorney. Carr was hospitalized in early January and diagnosed with congestive heart failure and told she had days to live, according to attorney Lee Merritt. On Monday, Merritt wrote on Twitter that Carr had “passed away peacefully this morning.” “She was surrounded by family and loved ones,” the tweet said. “We are asking for your continued prayers and support as her two young sons deal with her transition.” Carr’s death comes about one month after Aaron Dean, the man who killed Carr’s sister, was sentenced after a jury trial. In December a jury found Dean guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to about 11 years and 10 months in prison.

But Carr had to wait three years to see some semblance of justice for her sister, and the waiting took a toll. In a victim impact statement read at Dean’s trial, Carr wrote the long wait for Dean’s trial was not easy, and she was hospitalized for panic attacks and flat-lined four times in those years. In Instagram post, Merritt posted about Carr’s death with the caption, “Police violence is a community killer. Thank you for everyone who has poured their support out on this family.” Carr’s mother also died of congestive heart failure. Yolanda Carr died three months after Dean shot and killed her daughter, Jefferson, inside the family’s Fort Worth home in October 2019. In 2020, Amber’s sister Ashley Carr told the Star-Telegram she had no doubt Yolanda Carr died because of the heartbreak and stress that Jefferson’s death caused. After Dean’s sentence was announced Dec. 20, Ashley Carr took the stand to read a statement from Amber Carr, who was not able to be in the courtroom because of her illness. “No amount of sentencing would make me feel as though we received some type of justice,” Amber wrote. “Atatiana should still be here. She had big dreams and goals.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 31, 2023

Texas parents ask for ban on dangerous restraints in schools

Lawmakers, advocates and parents of students with disabilities gathered at the Texas State Capitol Monday morning to call for tighter restrictions on the use of dangerous physical restraints in schools and more training for teachers who work with disabled students. Among other proposals, advocates called for an end to the use of prone and supine restraints, which place students either face-up or face-down on the floor. Experts say those techniques are especially dangerous because they can restrict breathing. In 2021, a student in the Fort Worth Independent School District died after school staff members performed a prone restraint on him. Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, said lawmakers have a responsibility to close gaps in state law and public policy that leave families no recourse when vulnerable students are harmed. Gonzalez authored a bill that would ban the use of prone and supine restraints in schools. “We can’t hear story after story and say that we don’t have a responsibility to do something,” she said.

Xavier Hernandez, 21, was a student at Boulevard Heights, a school in the Fort Worth school district for students with disabilities. Hernandez had autism and schizophrenia. On March 1, 2021, staff members at the school restrained Hernandez after he tried to run out of his classroom. A teacher’s assistant, Toras Hill, told detectives that he and teacher Brad Webb took Hernandez to the floor and held him on his stomach, according to police investigative documents obtained by the Star-Telegram through an open records request. Hill told police that school staff members pinned Hernandez’s arms to the floor because he sometimes bit his hands during restraints. At some point during the restraint, Hernandez made a gurgling sound. Hill and Webb turned him onto his side, at which point they noticed his lips were turning blue. School staff members called an ambulance, which took Hernandez to John Peter Smith Hospital, where he died later that day. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled that he died of the combined effects of physical restraint and chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic medication that’s sometimes used as a sedative for aggressive behaviors in children and teenagers. Hill told the Star-Telegram in November that teachers at Boulevard Heights had an understanding that they would need to restrain Hernandez anytime he got up to run out of the classroom, because no one knew where he would go. School staff members restrained Hernandez about two to three times a week, Hill said, usually on his stomach. Hill said he was unaware the maneuver was illegal.

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Houston Chronicle - January 31, 2023

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Can Texas Republicans get immigration reform rolling?

Getting anything done on border security and immigration reform is a bit like riding Amtrak’s venerable Sunset Limited from Houston to El Paso. Boarding the train at the little station near the foot of Washington Street, you roll westward into the sunset itself. Five hours later, you pull into San Antonio’s darkened Sunset Station, and there you sit. For three hours you sit. When it comes to getting something done about border security and immigration reform, we’re in San Antonio, so to speak. And we’re going to be in the Alamo City a lot longer than three hours. As long as the immigration-phobic House Freedom Caucus controls newly elected Speaker Kevin McCarthy and whatever agenda he may have had before whatever secret deals he may have made with the group and as long as Democrats control the Senate, we’ll be sitting.

Despite the campaign bloviations and photo-op border visits, despite the periodic crises such as the one now testing the resources of El Paso and other border communities, despite the infuriating inadequacies, dysfunction and other bothersome blockades that have built up over the years in our immigration system, we’re going nowhere. Nevertheless, at least a handful of elected officials in Washington, Republican and Democratic, are discussing in good faith what might be done when — and if — the immigration reform train starts rolling again. Think tanks and nongovernmental agencies are on board, as well as one red state in particular whose innovative program to welcome immigrants has, for the last decade, helped them find their place as “New Americans.” (Hint: It’s not Texas.) Our own senior senator, John Cornyn, is one of the elected officials who seem to be seeking solutions, even though the veteran Republican officeholder is well aware that the House will pretty much stymie anything beyond appropriating billions to finish out a border wall and beef up a border security police presence. Rep. Chip Roy, a Texas Hill Country Republican, is typical. Roy, a former chief of staff for Sen. Ted Cruz, is not all that interested in immigration reform. He introduced a bill that would have all asylum-seekers detained until they can be processed, an approach even some Republicans have criticized as a back door to shutting down paths for legitimate asylum-seekers.

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Houston Chronicle - January 31, 2023

When her parents went viral, people thought she was dead. A Houston HOA duck feud's latest twist.

Alicia Rowe, an Austin therapist, first came across news of her death in a British tabloid. The Daily Mail had run a story online about how her parents, Kathleen and George Rowe, had been sued for feeding the neighborhood ducks after feuding with their homeowners’ association in Cypress. The article offered zero ambiguity about her demise: “Texas couple who began feeding neighborhood ducks to cope with loss of only daughter are sued for (up to) $250,000 by HOA for causing a nuisance and are forced to sell home to cover costs,” read the article’s headline. Alicia, who is in her 30s, was the Rowes’ only child. She stared at the article in shock. Then she wondered how she had died. She had her suspicions.

When she texted friends about the surreal development, they quickly found that versions of the story, which first ran in the Houston Chronicle in July, were everywhere: Alicia had also died in the Washington Post and in Business Insider India and in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The rash of stories had all come out roughly five months earlier, and thoughts about what people who knew her parents imagined had happened to her – what they were still thinking – niggled at the corner of her mind. So she called the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the story, and the reporter called Kathleen and George Rowe's lawyer, who called Kathleen. “She wanted me to communicate her apologies,” the lawyer, Richard Weaver, told the Chronicle shortly afterward. “She reiterated her words to me. And it was that she had lost her daughter. When she told me she’d lost her daughter, I thought she’d passed away.” Five months had passed, Kathleen and her lawyer had spoken to additional outlets and no one had asked for a correction. Alicia had cut off contact with her mother years ago; she was estranged, not dead. The misunderstanding, by multiple parties (for the original story, the Chronicle had also spoken with Kathleen about the “loss” of her daughter), had landed everyone involved in a predicament. Newspapers, as a rule, don't use euphemisms to talk about death.

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Austin American-Statesman - January 31, 2023

Austin American-Statesman Editorial: Much work left to fix Texas' foster care failures

A new federal report on Texas’ failing foster care system makes clear the state has a long way to go before Texans can be confident the agency is adequately protecting more than 10,000 children in its care. Texas continues to expose children without permanent foster home placements to “risk of serious harm in unregulated sites" without sufficiently trained caregivers, monitors appointed by a federal judge found. Wait times for those reporting abuse of children in the foster care system grew longer, and some children in foster homes still are not being adequately protected from trafficking, among other long-running systemic deficiencies. Texas has long failed these most vulnerable children who deserve so much better from the system that is supposed to protect them. We urge the 88th Texas Legislature to do everything it can to address and correct systemic flaws in the state's foster care program.

The federal report does contain welcome news: The court monitors reported progress by foster care system managers, including better caseload management and training for caseworkers, and fewer children languishing in foster care without these advocates. Investigations of abuse, neglect and exploitation of children in foster homes are becoming more thorough, the report also found. In 2021, Texas lawmakers appropriated $90 million for improvements, including additional foster care facilities to accommodate children removed from their homes and expanded mental health services for children with the greatest emotional needs. That money is helping to rectify an appalling record of failure by the state's Department of Family and Protective Services, but it's only a start. Armed with a $33 billion state budget surplus, the legislature should invest in foster care facility upgrades and improved technology to help workers better track children and monitor their progress. The state also needs to pay more to extended family members who assume responsibility for these unfortunate kids. Studies show children removed from their parents' homes do better with extended family members than strangers, but relatives who take in children in Texas are paid barely half the amount that non-related caregivers receive.

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Five ways Texas lobbying laws keep the public in the dark

Texas lawmakers haven’t enacted major new lobbying restrictions in years. This allows millions of dollars to flow into and out of the state Capitol building with nearly no public oversight. Lobbyists have spent more than $51 million dollars on freebies for elected officials, their staffers, families and friends since 2005. But they rarely disclose the recipient of that largesse. In 2021, lobbyists doled out nearly $2 million on meals alone but reported who was across the table less than 2% of the time, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis of lobbying data. This year, nearly 1,400 lobbyists have registered on behalf of almost twice as many clients. These lobbyists could get paid up to $400 million total for this work. Here are five ways the state ethics laws keep Texans in the dark.

Spending limits — There are no limits on how much a lobbyist can spend wining and dining elected officials, state employees and their immediate families or guests if the recipient is present. Cash gifts that aren’t political donations are banned; non-cash gifts and most entertainment spending is capped at $500 in each category per recipient per year. Lobbyists can cover flights, cars and hotels for trips related to an educational conference or an event connected to the recipient’s official duties. Spending disclosures — Lobbyists also aren’t required to give many details on whom and what they’re spending. They only need to name names if they spend more than $122.40 on that person in a single day on freebies like food and drinks, transportation, lodging, or entertainment. Tax and tip don’t count toward the total, and there’s nothing that bars multiple lobbyists from splitting a bill to keep the total amount under that threshold. Lobbyist salaries — In addition to not knowing much about lobbyist spending, the public also doesn’t know much about their exact pay. Lobbyists only need to report their salary in a broad range when they secure their contract, which often happens at the beginning of the year. They don’t need to update this report if their salary changes to an amount within the same range. Revolving door — Texas does not prohibit former elected officials from becoming lobbyists. In 2019, the state passed a law putting a two-year lobbying moratorium on elected officials who give other politicians funds from their campaign accounts. But one recently-retired lawmaker is already testing that law and one member of the Texas Ethics Commission has questioned its legality. Enforcement — The Texas Ethics Commission, the state agency tasked with implementing these statutes, often only acts when they receive a complaint a lobbying law is being broken. This doesn’t happen often. Between 1992 and 2021, the commission received only 31 complaints against lobbyists. Complaints, including their outcome, are private if a violation is technical or minor.

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Fox San Antonio - January 31, 2023

Uvalde victims' parents react to new documentary 'Robb-ed'

Monday, the documentary detailing the Robb Elementary School massacre was screened for the first time, but family members of some of the victims are now saying they want to back out.

Monday afternoon, Forum 6 Theatre in Uvalde held a private screening for family members and then a public screening again this evening. Parents of the victims released a letter that they've sent to the film's director Charlie Minn. They are asking to terminate the contract that allows the film to use photos and video of the victims. It is unclear if this letter will have any legal holding.

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KXAN - January 31, 2023

Mother of Parkland school shooting victim pushes for panic alert legislation in Texas

As Texas lawmakers prepare to tackle school safety-related bills in the aftermath of the Uvalde mass school shooting, the mother of a Parkland school shooting victim hopes legislators in all states will remember her daughter’s name in a push for silent panic alert systems in schools. Lori Alhadeff lost her 14-year-old daughter Alyssa Alhadeff, who was killed during 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Since then, she has been the catalyst for three states to pass Alyssa’s Law — named in memory of her daughter.

Florida, New Jersey and New York all have laws that require school districts to have panic alert technology throughout their buildings. The systems are designed to immediately notify EMS, law enforcement, and other first responders in the case of an emergency with the push of a button. Alhadeff was in Austin Monday, advocating for Alyssa’s law in the Lone Star State at a conference for the Texas Association of School Administrators. “I’m Alyssa’s voice,” she said. “I know that in order for me to make a difference, make an impact… I need to be here, going around the country, having a voice to see all this as law… pass[ing] a standard level school safety protection.” Alhadeff said Alyssa likely would have survived if first responders could have gotten to her quicker, but help did not come soon enough that day. “If you know there’s a medical emergency or an active shooter situation, there can be mass notification within seconds so that law enforcement can get on the scene as quickly as possible,” she said.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 31, 2023

Many Texans don’t want their kids to grow up to be teachers

Texans are happy with teachers’ performance and think they should be paid more -- but fewer parents want their children to one day become teachers, this year’s Texas Education Poll found. The annual survey by the Charles Butt Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the family that owns the grocery giant H-E-B, found a large majority of respondents, 89 percent, support increased state funding for public schools to boost teacher pay. The results in recent years show a steady decrease in the percentage of parents who want their kids to become educators. More than half of the respondents in the latest survey worry about local school shootings, and two-thirds of parents believe their child is at risk of bullying or discrimination.

“Support for teachers is strong, and the vast majority of Texans say their life has been positively impacted by a teacher,” but the teaching profession “is under duress,” a summary of the report states. “Just 39 percent of Texans now say they would like to have their child take up teaching in the public schools, down 10 points in one year.” The poll was conducted in September in both English and Spanish with a random statewide sample of 1,211 Texans. A large majority of public-school parents, 89 percent, said they were satisfied with the quality of their children’s education. Seventy-six percent of them also rated their public-school teachers with an A or B, while 60 percent of non-parent respondents gave public school teachers the same rating. The majority of public school parents who participated in the survey also voiced concerns over the teacher pay, especially those with at least 10 years of experience, who earn an average of $57,676 annually. Eighty percent of parents said this was too low, 16 percent said it is just right, and 1 percent said it was too high.

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City Stories

KXAN - January 31, 2023

Records: Pflugerville superintendent told staff he was ‘disgusted’ by former teacher’s comment

School personnel records reveal it was a former Texas pastor and eighth-grade teacher who was caught on cell phone video telling Black middle school students “deep down in my heart, I am ethnocentric, which means I think my race is the superior one.” The incident happened in November. The language arts teacher, who is white, resigned from Bohls Middle School in Pflugerville days after a video of the conversation was posted to social media. In his resignation letter and statement to the district, the teacher said his words were “inappropriate” and had become “a lightning rod for ongoing division.”

“I did say that I no longer believed it to be true that my group is central,” the educator wrote in his statement to the Pflugerville Independent School District. In a letter to district employees, PfISD Superintendent Douglas Killian said he was “disgusted” when he watched the video and “appalled at the interaction and statements.” “The teacher, brand new to the campus and district this year, acted in a manner that harmed relationships with our kids in what should be a nurturing and supportive environment,” Dr. Killian wrote on Nov. 15. “Our staff members are neither ignorant or racist.” One of the students in the classroom at the time told KXAN in November it was his “first time seeing, hearing someone say they are racist and admitting to it.” Records show the district placed the former teacher on administrative leave before resigning and reported him to the Texas Education Agency for misconduct. The district reported to TEA the English teacher made “comments that have been interpreted as being racially discriminatory” adding he “stated to students inappropriate comments similar to his race ‘white people’ being ‘superior.’” According to state records, the teacher is still under investigation by the TEA Educator Investigations Division, but his certification still appears to be valid. The former language arts teacher and the district did not return emails and messages Friday asking for comment. KXAN is not naming the teacher because he has not been charged with a crime. In November, the district apologized to parents for the stress and concern the incident caused, and said the discussion did not align with its core beliefs.

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KXAN - January 31, 2023

‘Horrific’: Jarrell students among 1 dead, 4 injured at northwest Austin hookah lounge shooting

Four people were injured and one person died in a northwest Austin shooting Saturday night, the Austin Police Department confirmed. Some of them were Jarrell High School students, Jarrell police confirmed Sunday. At 10:19 p.m., 911 received multiple reports about a shooting at a hookah lounge at 12636 Research Blvd. Austin police arrived at 10:21 p.m. and found several victims with gunshot wounds. Police said they began life-saving measures until Austin-Travis County EMS arrived.

ATCEMS said five patients were involved in the shooting. One person was pronounced dead at the scene at 10:42 p.m. Two patients were taken to local trauma facilities with critical, life-threatening injuries. APD identified the person who died as 17-year-old Brayden Bolyard. Police said there is a person of interest connected with the shooting. Investigators believe the shooter knew one of the victims, APD said in a release. The suspect shot him and four other victims before leaving the scene. Jarrell ISD said in a statement “it was saddened by the loss” of one of its students. Another student is still in the hospital. “We are profoundly saddened by the loss of one of our students. He was a gifted student and athlete who made a lasting impression on our district. The loss of this young life will have a significant impact on our school community. A team of counselors, including grief counselors and mental health providers from Bluebonnet Trails and Impact Services, are providing support services to our students and staff. Our hearts and prayers are with the family and the family of the student still in the hospital. We ask you to join us in keeping these families and our community in your thoughts during this time,” the district wrote in a statement

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Dallas Zoo alerts police after 2 monkeys declared missing, believed to be ‘taken’

Police believe two monkeys were taken from their enclosure at the Dallas Zoo on Monday morning. Zoo spokeswoman Kari Streiber said when staff discovered two emperor tamarin monkeys were missing, it was immediately “clear the habitat had been intentionally compromised.” According to police, the habitat had been cut. Streiber said since the monkeys — which would be expected to “stay close to home” in untampered circumstances — were still unaccounted for as of 3:50 p.m., police “have reason to believe the tamarins were taken.” The zoo was closed Monday due to inclement weather, and isn’t expected to reopen until Thursday. No additional information was immediately available.

The investigation comes after an unprecedented string of events at the Dallas Zoo, including another missing animal, additional torn enclosures and an unusual death. On Jan. 13, a 4-year-old clouded leopard named Nova had a day of social media fame when the zoo announced she had escaped from her enclosure. After search involving infrared drones, a “code blue” and Dallas police’s SWAT team, she was found on-site and unharmed. The day after Nova escaped, officials revealed a similar cut was found on an enclosure of langur monkeys, but they said all of the langurs were in their habitat and accounted for. About a week after the habitat vandalisms, a 35-year-old endangered vulture was found dead, and zoo staff quickly deemed the cause “unusual.” The bird, named Pin, was one of four lappet-faced vultures at the zoo. He had been at the Dallas Zoo for 33 years. At first, officials only said that Pin’s death did not appear to be from natural causes. But after the zoo’s veterinary team conducted a necropsy — or an animal autopsy — they said the bird was found with a “wound.”

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Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Sharon Grigsby: Vulnerable animals lose amid City Hall drama over Dallas police-SPCA impasse

Exposing problems doesn’t count for much on my personal scorecard unless actual solutions ensue. I had hoped for just that after I revealed in my latest column that the SPCA of Texas opted out of its agreement with the Dallas Police Department to provide forensics help and shelter for abused animals at the center of cruelty-unit investigations. SPCA’s Sept. 1 decision left the detectives, according to an internal DPD memo, without the necessary support and expertise to bring justice for abused and neglected dogs and cats. The SPCA stepped away from the work — which it had done for free since 2018 — after failing to reach a deal with DPD over financial reimbursement for future forensics exams, testimony, animal care and myriad other jobs. So far the only response, via police spokeswoman Kristin Lowman, is that the department will schedule meetings with the SPCA and with the animal welfare group Operation Kindness “to help us on short-term support for the services the animal cruelty unit needs to operate effectively.”

Details of just a few of the animal cruelty unit’s recent cases — especially of dogs and cats shot repeatedly — are the reason for my deep frustration about this impasse. Detectives will continue, as they have for months, to make do with piecemeal help. Most likely any immediate help will come from the already-challenged Dallas Animal Services, the city field and shelter operation that has its hands full right now with the canine influenza virus and more abandoned dogs and cats than it can safely make room for. The whole sorry mess does nothing but make life harder for the innocent furballs who need our help the most. My reporting last week on the breakdown of the SPCA-DPD partnership also turned up another development not previously made public. On Jan. 13, the SPCA closed its Mary Spencer Spay/Neuter & Wellness Clinic, which for 17 years provided southern Dallas residents free and low-cost animal care, including spay-neuter surgeries and vaccinations for pets. The 4830 Village Fair Dr. location, in a city-owned building just off I-35E and West Ledbetter Drive, is in a part of Dallas that is otherwise a veterinary desert. Karen Froehlich, SPCA president and CEO, told me last week her organization is moving the operation into its Myron K. Martin Spay/Neuter & Wellness Clinic at 2400 Lone Star Drive. The Martin clinic is part of the main SPCA campus, on Interstate 30 and west of downtown. A Dec. 22, 2022, memo to the City Council from Assistant City Manager Carl Simpson says the SPCA’s five-year lease expired last January. The nonprofit has since operated on a month-to-month lease.

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National Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 31, 2023

Medication abortion disputes intensify in post-Roe America as legal challenges escalate

Seven months after the reversal of Roe vs. Wade, access to medication abortion is taking an even bigger role in the battle on reproductive health care as Texas and other states strongly restricting abortion test federal regulations on the pill. The use of medication abortion has increased over time in Texas and nationwide, a study by Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization, found. In 2020, medication abortions accounted for 53% of all facility-based abortions performed in the United States. However, a Texas judge is expected to soon decide if the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the pill mifepristone, the first pill in a two-step regimen, should be suspended. Following the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that reversed nearly 50 years of abortion protection, states have quickly moved to restrict or protect access to abortions. In Texas, performing an abortion is now a felony punishable up to 99 years in prison.

Doctors were already banned under a Texas law from prescribing medication abortion pills starting at seven-weeks, or offering medication abortion through the mail or telehealth. Still, after the Dobbs decision requests for online abortion pills through international group AidAccess surged in states like Texas. Studies have found over half of Texans seeking abortions have an interest in using medication abortion, and that it is a preferred method in some cases. Kari White, lead investigator of Texas Policy Evaluation Project at UT Austin, said there’s been an increase in Texans traveling out of the state to Kansas, New Mexico and Colorado for surgical or medical abortions. She said there are also signs that some Texans are traveling to Mexico to only take misoprostol, the second drug, which is also used to treat stomach ulcers. “I think there are a lot of different ways that people are using medications to end their pregnancies, but they’re also clear challenges in being able to obtain a medication, either just logistically or because it kind of falls into a legal gray area,” White said. Some states and anti-abortion groups across the country are taking steps to crack down on specifically medication abortions. Bills have been introduced in Arkansas and Oklahoma state houses that allow pregnant people who self manage their abortions to be prosecuted.

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Associated Press - January 31, 2023

Trump faces new potential problem as NY grand jury opens probe of porn star hush money

Donald Trump faces new legal jeopardy after Manhattan prosecutors convened a state grand jury to investigate any role he may have played in making hush-money payments to a porn star on the eve of the 2016 election. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office was to begin presenting evidence to the grand jury Monday, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because it isn’t public. Bragg has been investigating whether Trump and his company falsified records to conceal the payments to pornographic film actor Stormy Daniels, intended to keep her from going public about her alleged affair with Trump.

Trump has denied the affair. The empaneling of a grand jury is a major escalation of Bragg’s probe of Trump’s activities, reviving a line of inquiry that appeared to take a back seat as the DA focused instead on tax violations at the Trump Organization. That investigation resulted in a guilty plea from the company’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and the conviction of two Trump business units. The empaneling was reported earlier by The New York Times. In a post on his Truth Social platform, Trump said the new probe was the work of a “Radical Left Manhattan D.A.” who is still going after the Daniels “Bull ... !” Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for Bragg, declined to comment on the investigation. The probe comes shortly after Georgia’s special grand jury investigating Trump’s effort to overturn that state’s 2020 election results wrapped up its work, with the results imminent. Meanwhile, Trump faces a criminal investigation of his handling of classified documents and a $250 million civil suit against the Trump Organization by New York Attorney General Letitia James, like Bragg a Democrat. The AG claims Trump and three of his children inflated the value of the family firm’s assets and is seeking penalties including a permanent ban on the four running companies in the state. The new grand jury inquiry also comes almost a year after two veteran prosecutors hired to investigate Trump by Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., quit after Bragg concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him at the time.

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National Desk - January 31, 2023

Uncertainty over US strategy in Ukraine grows following decision to send tanks

It’s been nearly one year since Russia's attack on Ukraine. There is now a strategy shift with the U.S. and Germany sending tanks to the region. The quiet farming down of Dovhen’ke has largely been reduced to rubble. It’s one of many as Russia continues its assault in eastern Ukraine, beefing up its forces and hitting multiple regions with artillery strikes. It’s a sign that despite multiple surprising battlefield losses over the last several months, Russia’s war effort carries on — part of the reason why Ukraine saw an about-face from Germany and the U.S., which are both now sending advanced military weaponry and tanks to assist.

The new commitment is raising new questions about just how far the U.S. will go. There was speculation that F-16s, which President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked for, would be headed to the country next but President Joe Biden said Monday that the administration will not provide the jets. However, as the war that has contributed to global economic uncertainty and devastating supply chain disruptions goes on, it appears that very little is off the table. The support is fueling a narrative from Vladimir Putin that NATO is more involved in the war now. A new NBC News poll shows that Americans are divided on whether Congress should consider providing more funding and weapons to Ukraine — 49% say yes and 47% say no.

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Roll Call - January 31, 2023

Redistricting lawsuits could shape the 2024 battle for House control

The reconfiguration of political districts after the 2020 census resulted in a flood of legal challenges, some of which remain unresolved and could have big implications for the 2024 congressional elections. The Democracy Docket, a progressive voting rights site founded by Democratic elections lawyer Marc Elias, counted 46 lawsuits filed in 22 states seeking to overturn congressional maps crafted in 2021 and 2022. Some 32 of those lawsuits remain active as of the end of last year. The 15 states with ongoing litigation include New York and Texas — home to 64 seats combined — along with the battleground state of Georgia. After Republicans flipped nine seats in November, Democrats need to win five back to retake the majority, so redrawn maps could be a factor in shaping party control in the 2024 elections.

"Although redistricting is often described as a 'once every decade' process, that phrasing fails to capture the ongoing litigation that occurs after maps are enacted," the group states in a report issued this morning. "The release of census data and reapportionment may happen once a decade, but the process of drawing and redrawing lines will continue throughout the following 10 years." Looking at challenges to both congressional and state legislative maps, the group found that 52 percent of lawsuits — 45 in all — were brought by plaintiffs who cited racial unfairness in the new lines. Almost all of that litigation was brought in the South: Texas led with eight lawsuits alleging state political district maps are racially discriminatory, followed by five in Georgia, four in Alabama and three each in Arkansas, Illinois and Louisiana. Illinois was a bright spot for Democrats in November. The state lost one seat through reapportionment, but Republicans lost two in November, changing the state's partisan split from a 13-5 Democratic edge last year to a 14-3 advantage in the Congress sworn in this month. Texas gained two seats, and each party picked up one of them. Republicans picked up one seat in Georgia, while there was no change in the partisan makeup of the delegations in Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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Politico - January 31, 2023

Trump’s slow-rolling 2024 bid cobbles together new Senate support

Donald Trump’s endorsement helped push J.D. Vance and Eric Schmitt into the Senate. Now they’re nearly ready to return the favor. Vance has told allies over the last few months that he anticipates endorsing Trump in the Republican primary, according to two people briefed on the Ohio Republican’s plans. And Schmitt, whom Trump technically endorsed when he backed “Eric” in the Missouri GOP primary last year, said on Monday that he’s supporting the former president. “He’s very popular in Missouri,” Schmitt said of Trump in an interview. “He’s been somebody that’s gotten the support of Missourians by big margins a couple times. He has my support.” The freshman duo’s moves come after just two other upper-chamber Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), have backed Trump since the 2022 midterms. And though four Senate GOP endorsements is an early indicator that Trump is the frontrunner in the 2024 primary, it’s still a far cry from the show of support on the Hill that Trump enjoyed four years ago as an incumbent president.

But much has changed since then: two impeachments, the violent Capitol riot and a presidential campaign that’s only inched along in the two-plus months after launching. Not to mention the intra-party ground Trump lost with primary endorsements of Republican Senate candidates who went on to lose races in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania. What’s more, Trump has a legitimate potential primary rival in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, on top of several other contenders eyeing a run. Given that significantly altered landscape, Tuberville described the slow buildup of Trump’s effort as intentional. He said he spoke to Trump recently, and that the former president told him “we’re gonna do small ones early and kind of build our momentum, build our teams in each state.” “I’m gonna be disappointed in the summertime if we don’t have more [endorsements]. I’ll put it that way. Right now, it’s no big concern,” Tuberville said. Trump kicked off his campaign this weekend in New Hampshire and South Carolina, taking preemptive shots at DeSantis. Back on Capitol Hill on Monday, the foray got a mixed reception, particularly in the Senate. House Republicans have been far quicker to endorse Trump during his third bid for the White House.

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Newsclips - January 30, 2023

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 30, 2023

Greg Abbott: We are building the Texas of tomorrow

Ever since the first pioneers settled our extraordinary land, Texas has been the frontier of a brighter tomorrow, a state filled with opportunity as vast as our horizon. As lawmakers gather in the Texas Capitol for the start of the 88th Legislature, we are blessed with the opportunity to work toward building an even brighter future. The Texas economy has shattered another record. We now have the largest budget surplus in the history of our state. But that money belongs to the taxpayers. We will use that budget surplus this session to provide the largest property tax cut in Texas history. Building tomorrow’s workforce begins with our students. Per-student funding is now at an all-time high because of Texas’ recent educational reforms. We lead the nation in the number of National Blue Ribbon Schools, as well as Tier 1 Research Universities. To safeguard the highest potential of our students, this session we must ensure school lessons focus on the fundamentals of learning. Parents will be further empowered to challenge curriculum when it falls short, and to decide what is best for their child’s education. As Texas builds off historic public school investments, parents deserve a choice in educational opportunities for their children that aligns with their expectations and core values.

Protecting our students is of the utmost importance. We will not end this session without enacting meaningful legislation to keep our students and staff safe, including ensuring mental health services are available to students who need it. Parents must know their children are safe when they drop them off every morning. The safety of our communities also relies on law and order made possible by the brave men and women who wear the badge. Last session, I signed a law that defunds any city that defunds police. This session, we must end easy bail policies that allow dangerous criminals back onto the streets. We must also impose mandatory sentences on criminals caught with guns, and anyone caught smuggling immigrants who are in the country illegally. While President Joe Biden refuses to enforce federal immigration laws to secure our southern border, Texas is using every tool to keep Texans — and Americans — safe from a record flood of illegal immigration and cross-border criminal activity. Texas is building a border wall, deploying Texas National Guard soldiers and Department of Public Safety troopers to stop the chaos created by the Biden administration, and targeting Mexican drug cartels that smuggle deadly drugs like fentanyl into our state. Texas law enforcement has seized enough deadly fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in America. But too many families have lost a loved one to this clandestine killer. Our job this session will be to deliver solutions and prevent more tragic loss of life to fentanyl. Texas now stands at the threshold of a more resilient future. The 14 bipartisan laws I signed last session fixed the flaws in our power grid, preventing any disruptions despite 11 all-time power generation records this past summer, and last month’s deep freeze. With a booming population of 30 million Texans, we will build a grid ready to meet demand throughout the coming decades. Texas’ critical infrastructure will receive the resources needed to serve a growing Texas, from transformational roadway improvements to funding water supply projects to delivering broadband access to communities statewide. We now gather for a new legislative session that will carry our great state into the next century. Together, we will build the Texas of tomorrow.

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CNN - January 30, 2023

More than 40 million people are under winter weather alerts from Texas to West Virginia, with significant icing likely

More than 40 million people from Texas to West Virginia are under winter weather alerts Monday as a system threatens heavy precipitation, significant icing and bitter cold, with roads due to be treacherous and quick frostbite possible in places. Ice accumulation is expected across at least 15 states, the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center said. “Total freezing rain amounts could become significant across parts of central Texas, southwest Oklahoma, central Arkansas, and western Tennessee, where over a quarter inch of ice accrual is forecast. Additionally, low to moderate chances for three-day ice accretion over a half inch exists over parts of central Texas and Arkansas,” the center said. Wintry precipitation will come in several waves across the region through Wednesday, and while there may be breaks in the active weather, roads will remain slick throughout the event as temperatures stay cold.

Dangerously bitter cold air also settled in behind the arctic front as it slowly moved through the West over the weekend, with more than 15 million people under wind chill warnings Monday morning. Wind chills as low as 45 degrees below zero are possible. The coldest wind chills can cause frostbite in a little as 10 minutes. Here’s what to expect in the coming days: Monday: Freezing rain and sleet is likely to begin Monday morning from parts of Texas to the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, while a mass of cold air delivers temperatures up to 30 degrees below average from the central High Plains to the Upper Midwest. Meanwhile, snow is expected in parts of the Central Appalachians and showers are forecast for parts of the Lower Mississippi, Tennessee and Ohio Valleys, as well as parts of the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. Monday night: An ice storm warning goes into effect Monday evening for Memphis and surrounding areas in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi. The warning is expected to last through Wednesday afternoon and travel could be “nearly impossible,” the warning states. Tuesday and beyond: The freezing precipitation will continue into Tuesday with parts of Texas and Oklahoma, including Austin, Dallas and Oklahoma City, under winter weather alerts through Wednesday. Heavy rain and flash flooding concerns rise in eastern Texas by Tuesday, with a slight risk of excessive rainfall in place from eastern Texas to northwest Louisiana Wednesday. In Austin, freezing rain could begin as early as Monday morning. Icing will be possible mainly late at night through mid-morning, when temperatures will be coldest. Dallas is also expected to see significant icing from one-tenth to a quarter of an inch.

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NBC News - January 30, 2023

How a 'lesson of 2011' shaped Biden's no-negotiation stance on debt limit

In 2011, after faltering debt limit negotiations with House Republicans brought the U.S. to the brink of economic calamity, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden sat by the fireplace in the Oval Office, with their top aides on the couch. While relieved at having narrowly averted disaster, they were stunned by what had transpired. Obama and Biden made a vow: Never again. They agreed that going forward, “Nobody can use the threat of default or not increasing the debt limit as a negotiating tool,” said a former Obama official involved in the fiscal discussions, who recounted the Oval Office meeting and the “lesson of 2011” they all discussed. “It made you hold your stomach. You couldn’t believe you were at this situation," the official said.

The U.S. had just suffered its first credit downgrade. Markets were rattled. Consumer and business confidence was shaken. Stocks took a hit. And the recovery from the Great Recession was in question. Democrats averted the cliff — by acceding to $2 trillion in spending cuts the GOP had demanded after negotiations on a “grand bargain” broke down — but Obama and Biden agreed that the mere threat of default had taken a serious toll. “They said: This is the sad lesson we’ve learned,” the Obama official said, describing the mood in the room. “It was an unimaginable self-inflicted wound in 2011.” Twelve years later, Biden is executing on that lesson as he faces down a new Republican-controlled House that is similarly demanding spending cuts as a concession for extending the debt ceiling. He says there won’t be any negotiations, and Congress must allow the government to pay its bills. “I will not let anyone use the full faith and credit of the United States as a bargaining chip,” Biden said Thursday in Virginia. His stance has drawn a rebuke from House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who said he’s “disappointed” but has remained steadfast in his call for spending cuts. As in 2011, the GOP speaker runs a House majority full of ideologically driven conservatives who want to use the debt limit as leverage to force budget changes on a Democratic-led Senate and White House.

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Washington Post - January 30, 2023

McCarthy thinks he can find ‘responsible’ way to raise debt ceiling

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said that he will meet with President Biden on Wednesday and is looking for a deal to raise the debt ceiling in exchange for unspecified cuts to the federal budget. “I want to find a reasonable and responsible way that we can lift the debt ceiling but take control of this runaway spending,” McCarthy said during an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” McCarthy said cuts to Social Security and Medicare were “off the table” but did not rule out cuts to defense spending, which some Republicans in his caucus have resisted. The comment comes amid a protracted and increasingly public fight between the newly elevated Republican House speaker, the White House and Democrats in the Senate over raising the country’s $31.4 trillion debt limit, which is expected to be reached sometime in June.

The meeting Wednesday at the White House was confirmed in a statement released Sunday by Michael A. Kikukawa, a White House spokesman. Biden will meet McCarthy “for a discussion on a range of issues,” it said. But the White House statement signaled that the two men were not close to reaching a deal. Biden “will ask what the Speaker’s plan is,” according to the statement, which added that the first bill passed by the Republican House, to eliminate funding for hiring new employees at the Internal Revenue Service, would add to the nation’s deficit. Biden will also ask McCarthy “if he intends to meet his Constitutional obligation to prevent a national default,” according to the statement. Biden said on Thursday in Virginia that the country’s recent economic gains would be at risk because of Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling. “What in God’s name would the Americans give up the progress we’ve made for the chaos they’re suggesting?” Biden asked. Moments later, he added, “I will veto everything they send me. Not after all the progress we’ve made and how far we’ve come.” “In the United States of America, we pay our debts,” he said. Also this month, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen wrote a letter to McCarthy saying that a default could cause “irreparable harm to the U.S. economy.”

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State Stories

Laredo Morning Times - January 30, 2023

Webb County's state leaders share top priorities for Texas Legislative session

The Texas Legislature is in full session, as it began Jan. 10 after all newly-reelected and elected statewide leaders were sworn in. It will last until its final day on May 29, 2023. Local representatives of the Webb County area, which include one state senator and two state representatives, all shared their top priorities going forward into the state's legislative session. District 21 State Sen. Judith Zaffirini said her main priorities for this legislative session are to improve the state’s grid capacity to avoid another Winter Storm Uri scenario while ensuring that taxpayers are not overburdened.

As for the Texas House, District 42 State Rep. Richard Raymond said his main priorities are focused on property tax relief and increasing pay for teachers, while District 80 Rep. Tracy O. King said he will make sure water is a major priority. “I am committed to providing meaningful property tax relief while also adequately funding health care including mental health, education -- particularly early and higher education, teacher pay raises and retired teachers’ pensions -- and infrastructure, especially regarding water, energy and broadband,” Zaffirini said. “These priorities are critical to improving the lives of all Texans and ensuring that our state can grow and thrive.” For the state senator, however, improving the electrical grid is at the forefront of her legislative goals. Zaffirini said fixing the grid is the most pressing issue that the Texas Legislature must work on during the term, followed closely by using the budget surplus to provide property tax relief to better fund education at all levels and in all arenas, to develop access to affordable health care and to repair and replace failing infrastructure. “As a member of the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce, I look forward to representing constituents' best interests regarding electricity reliability and resiliency,” Zaffirini said. “I consider carefully all proposals for grid reform from a public safety and cost-effective perspective, especially because given inflation, many Texans are struggling to pay for basic necessities including food, transportation, medication and utilities. “I will feel accomplished this legislative session if we pass meaningful legislation to fix the grid, enhance access to health care increase funding for higher and public education, including for teacher pay raises and retired teachers’ pensions, and pass legislation and secure funding and resources for initiatives that benefit our district,” Zaffirini said.

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El Paso Matters - January 25, 2023

Walmart shooting trial could be in ‘2024, maybe 2025,’ District Attorney Bill Hicks says

A state trial for the accused gunman in the 2019 El Paso mass killing may still be two or more years away, District Attorney Bill Hicks said after a closed-door meeting Wednesday with defense lawyers and the judge in the case. “I’m not sure — 2024, maybe 2025, I’m just not sure,” Hicks said in a brief conversation with journalists following the meeting. “That’s completely up to the judge, and we’d have to meet again in order to discuss that.” Defense attorneys Joe Spencer and Mark Stevens left the hearing without comment to a group of journalists.

Sam Medrano Jr., the 409th District Court judge, scheduled a status hearing for the shooting case Wednesday afternoon. Although the public had been allowed to attend previous status hearings in the case, Medrano barred the public from Wednesday’s hearing, without explanation. The status hearing came four days after defense lawyers for Patrick Crusius, 24, said he would plead guilty to federal hate crimes charges in the Walmart shooting. That filing followed the Jan. 17 announcement by the Justice Department that it would not seek the death penalty for Crusius on the federal charges filed after the Aug. 3, 2019, attack at the Cielo Vista Walmart that killed 23 and injured 22. Crusius could face the death penalty if convicted of the state capital murder charges in Medrano’s court. State prosecutors, including Hicks, have repeatedly said they will seek the death penalty. Shortly before the mass shooting, Crusius allegedly posted a screed on a website used by white supremacists that the attack was done “to stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” A trial on the federal hate crimes charges had been scheduled for next year, but Crusius’ attorneys have said he will plead guilty at a Feb. 8 re-arraignment before U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 30, 2023

Texas Senate tax plan could save Tarrant homeowners $400

A plan to increase the Texas’ homestead exemption could save homeowners roughly $400 dollars a year. It’s a starting point in the Senate as lawmakers begin to craft bills aimed at cutting property taxes. Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to deliver the “largest property tax cut in the history of the state of Texas.” Earlier this month Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick promised to increase the homestead exemption on school property taxes by $30,000. This would likely be combined with other plans to cut taxes. As the law stands, Texas home owners can generally have $40,000 subtracted from the appraised value of their primary residence for property tax purposes. For example, the owner of a home appraised at $340,000 would pay school property taxes on $300,000 of the home’s value. Patrick, during his Jan. 17 inaugural address, said the $70,000 exemption would save Texans “thousands of dollars” over the lifetime of a home.

“Enough to make a difference,” he said from a podium outside the Texas Capitol. Early draft budgets in the House and Senate allocate $15 billion for property tax relief. The Senate proposes spending $3 billion on the homestead exemption increase, leaving about $6.7 billion for other cut-costing measures like driving down tax rates. The Legislature may also look at further limiting the year-to-year increase in appraisals for tax purposes, said Dale Craymer, president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. Lawmakers entered the session with a nearly $33 billion dollar budget surplus. Property taxes are set locally but lawmakers can lower them by sending more money to school districts “The governor and the speaker and the members will come together, and we’ll find a way that’s long term property tax relief with billions of dollars from this surplus, because you come first,” said Patrick, a Republican. “It’s your money.” North Texas residents welcomed the idea of an extra few hundred dollars each year. Laura Wells of Fort Worth compared the $400 savings to a car payment. “That would be helpful,” she said. But some, while receptive to any property tax break, questioned whether the increase in the exemption would make a big difference.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 30, 2023

‘Life is precious’: Bexar County medical examiner struggles to keep up with increasing deaths

Mass casualties put a strain on an already overburdened Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But deaths were increasing even before two of San Antonio’s biggest tragedies — the mass shooting in Uvalde and the 53 undocumented immigrants who died after being abandoned in a tractor-trailer — occurred. In 2021, the medical examiner’s office certified 3,618 Bexar County deaths, compared with 3,158 the year before and 2,959 in 2019. The annual report was released at the end of 2022 because the office prioritized ongoing cases from the mass tragedies earlier in the year. The big concern now? “Is everything going to go back to the way it was in 2019? Or is this the new world that we’re going to live in? Is this the new normal?” Chief Medical Examiner Kimberly Molina said.

They’re difficult questions to answer. Molina said conditions for the medical examiner’s office remain closer to how they were at the height of the pandemic in 2021 than in 2019. But, Molina said, “We can hope.” Bodies are only handled by the medical examiner’s office in certain circumstances, such as when foul play is suspected or the cause of death is unknown. Molina said, on average, the caseload increases only three to five percent each year, which is in line with the county’s population growth. “In the last three years, we’ve seen 15 years’ worth of growth in the office caseload, which is very, very difficult for us to cope with,” Molina said. When the pandemic began, everyone who could retire did so. Molina said the main issue is recruiting and retaining forensic pathologists. It takes at least 13 years to train to be one fully. “The issue for us is, because we’re so incredibly specialized, that there aren’t people out there to just be forensic pathologists,” Molina explained. “You have to go to college. You have to go to medical school. You have to train in pathology. Then you have to train in forensic pathology. All of this takes time, right?” She estimates it could take at least 10 years to replace retired personnel and recruit enough to keep up with growth.

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Inside Climate News - January 30, 2023

In East Texas, a town fights to keep an oilfield waste dump from opening near wetlands and water wells

Deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, a landfill developer wants to build an oil sector dump site some 500 yards from this small town’s wells. In Paxton, water lies just a few feet below ground. Ponds and wetlands dot the boggy forests. The town, population 850, has plenty to drink. But residents fear it could all be at stake with Texas regulators poised to permit plans to permanently bury hundreds of millions of tons of oilfield waste here. “It’s just common sense. You don’t go dumping that kind of stuff right next to a local water supply,” said Eric Garrett, president of the nonprofit Paxton Water Supply Corporation and pastor of a local Pentecostal church. “That’s not even up for discussion.” This discussion, however, doesn’t seem to end. The community has spent four years and a small fortune fighting the proposal. No matter what they do, residents say, they can’t convince Texas regulators that this is a bad idea.

“As hard as they have fought, as protracted a battle they’ve put up, there must be quite some stack of money involved,” said Garrett, 61 with slicked-back hair, wearing a suit and tie in his church. In Texas, the nation’s top petroleum producer, regulation of the oil and gas business falls to the Texas Railroad Commission. Headed by three elected commissioners, all Republicans, the commission issues permits for every oil well and dump site in Texas. Permit applications are typically approved unless challenged by a third party, such as the residents of Paxton, who have found that threats to public health must reach a high bar to compete against economic interests for the commission’s sympathies. When the commission met last December, its technical permitting division rejected the Paxton project’s permit for the second time in four years over concerns about groundwater contamination. But Commissioner Jim Wright, a former rodeo cowboy and landfill developer, wasn’t ready to let the project die. “I myself have constructed safe landfills in similar conditions,” Wright told the meeting in the Texas Capitol. “It can be done.” Instead of issuing a final rejection, Wright suggested the commission provide the developer, McBride Operating LLC, with a list of edits and additions to the application and invite them to resubmit. The commission had already asked the firm to amend its application at least four times since 2019. “The cost for oil and gas waste disposal in East Texas is high, and I don’t want to negatively affect production in the area,” Wright said.

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WFAA - January 30, 2023

State senator expects lawmakers to raise homestead exemption for Texas homeowners

Will they or won’t they? The Houston Independent School District remains in limbo as the Texas Education Agency decides whether to take over the district. A recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for the possible move, which was initially brought up in 2019 after board dysfunction, alleged trustee misconduct and a repeatedly failing high school. Since then, Wheatley High School’s ratings have improved, the district has taken significant steps to improve accountability and most of the board has been replaced. But State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston whose own legislation defined what can trigger a district takeover, says the decision is entirely up to TEA Commissioner Mike Morath. “The problem is simply this: You can’t let the state’s largest school district continue to fail,” Bettencourt said on Inside Texas Politics.

Bettencourt was also recently renamed chair of the Senate Committee on Local Government, which means he’ll continue to have major influence on property taxes in Texas. He thinks the effort the raise the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $70,000 will pass this session. The homestead exemption reduces the taxable value of a Texan’s primary residence. And if you’re doing the savings math for yourself, you pay around $3,000 for every $100,000 value of your home. “I expect this bill from going from $40,000 to $70,000 to also pass with overwhelming majorities,” said the Republican. “And these are huge savings. For an average Dallas ISD home, wherever it is in Dallas ISD, for the rest of your life, you’ll save $826 per year.”

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Spectrum News - January 30, 2023

New bill in Texas Legislature could help fund electric buses for school districts

Texas school districts might be getting some major help in going green. A bill in the Texas Legislature is looking to ramp up resources to provide electric school buses. Austin ISD is the first school district in Texas to go completely electric with its school buses by 2035, but it's already set to add three electric buses come September. This move is to better the planet and people. Rubi Campuzano can spend up to 14 hours a day behind the wheel. She has been a bus driver for Austin ISD for eight years. Her kids also take the bus to school every day, so she’s looking forward to having a cleaner commute. Data shows diesel school buses affect the health of students and drivers who are breathing in fumes over long periods of time. “It gives you a headache, so if it can give you a headache, what else can it give you?” Campuzano said.

According to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “exposure to diesel pollution from transportation contributes to 3,700 heart attacks, 8,800 deaths, and $100 billion in health damages each year.” “It will help our lungs, maybe survive a little longer, last a little longer,” Campuzano said. Kris Hafezizadeh, Austin ISD's executive director of transportation, says a diesel bus costs around $100,000. An electric school bus is $380,000. “It is four times higher,” Hafezizadeh said. “Plus you have to build your charging stations and other logistics.” He says while the cost is a huge obstacle, so is having the time and resources to apply for funding. The district has also struggled to secure and apply for grants. “Any help from any entity, we welcome that, he said. That’s where Senate Bill 238 comes in. Luke Metzger is the executive director for Environment Texas, which supports the bill. The nonprofit also partnered with Austin ISD to implement its electric bus system. “This legislation would help make Texas school districts as competitive as possible,” he said. Metzger says this bill will set up resources to help school districts apply state and federal dollars, like the EPA’s new Clean School Bus Program which will provide $5 billion over the next five years. “It can be complicated to fill out a grant application for federal funding,” he said. “A lot of school districts might not even know this funding is available.” An EPA report found one electric bus can eliminate 1,690 tons of carbon dioxide over its 12-year lifespan, the equivalent of taking 27 cars off the road. “There’s also a lot of exciting opportunities to use these buses to help reinforce our electric grid, because these are moving batteries,” Metzger said.

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San Antonio Report - January 30, 2023

City moves to use eminent domain to acquire bar property for Alamo Museum

After impassioned pleas on both sides of the issue, City Council approved an ordinance Thursday that allows for the seizure of a bar owner’s property to make way for the planned Alamo Museum and Visitor Center. Nine of 11 council members voted in favor of acquiring the property — Moses Rose’s Hideout — at the corner of Alamo and East Houston streets owned by Vince Cantu through the condemnation process. The city acted on behalf of its partners in redeveloping Alamo Plaza — the Alamo Trust and the Texas General Land Office — after six years of negotiations failed. By law, the city can take property for public use, giving the owner adequate compensation for it. Stating that the Alamo Trust had reached a “critical impasse,” with Cantu and the trust unable to agree on a price for the property, the Alamo Trust board asked the city to use eminent domain to acquire the bar. “Without the acquisition of 516 E. Houston Street, designs for the civil rights exhibit, the Woolworth Lunch Counter recreation, and a 4-D theater would have to be abandoned, and a decade of planning and community collaboration would be lost,” the Alamo Trust board said in a statement.

The council’s decision launches a condemnation process in which the parties are forced to appear in probate court to present their case. “The hope is that council taking this action will prompt, accelerate, encourage all parties to come to a resolution sooner rather than later,” said City Attorney Andy Segovia. Cantu, who purchased the property 12 years ago, appeared before City Council to request a two-week delay to negotiate further with the Alamo Trust. Officials with the Alamo Trust have said Cantu, initially offered $1 million for his property, has rejected three separate offers and “refused to negotiate.” He rejected the most recent offer of $3.5 million, they said, a price it said exceeds the appraised, 10-year future value of the property. Cantu said he never refused to sell his property and earlier countered with a price of $17 million, but acknowledged that he knew it was unlikely he would get that price. He has not been invited to a face-to-face negotiation, he said, and he hired an eminent domain attorney only after learning trust officials were pursuing the move. On Thursday, Cantu called any action to take his property an injustice that had overtones of racial bias.

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San Antonio Report - January 30, 2023

Report: Texas parents worry about school violence, COVID

School safety and bullying are front of mind for parents across the state of Texas, along with lingering concerns about the COVID-19 virus, according to an education survey released this week by the Charles Butt Foundation. But the 2023 Texas Education Poll given annually to 1,000 respondents , including public school parents — also found that Texans are overall more satisfied with their children’s education than the national average, and are supportive of increasing teacher salaries. The report is published by the foundation with polling conducted by New York-based Langer Research Associates, according to a release. “Our hope is that our Texas Education Poll data will be used by state leaders, policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to listen to the perspectives of Texans and public school parents, take that information, and act on behalf of our 5.5 million Texas students and their families,” Audrey Boklage, vice president of learning and impact at the Charles Butt Foundation, said in a statement.

With a state budget surplus of more than $33 billion, advocacy groups and school leaders are hoping for increased state investments in security, teachers and schools overall. For the first time since the survey was given four years ago, school safety, including the risk of gun violence, was listed as the number one issue for parents, according to Shari Albright, president of the Charles Butt Foundation. In the poll, 53% of Texans perceive at least a moderate risk that public school students in their communities might experience a school shooting, while 41% of parents see at least a moderate risk of such a shooting affecting their own child. “It is clear Texans remain concerned about school safety and the risk of gun violence in schools after the tragedy at Robb Elementary in Uvalde last May,” Albright said. “When we look just at Texas parents, 82% say their child has a foundational sense of belonging at school, yet more than half worry about local school shootings, and two-thirds think their child is at risk of bullying or discrimination at school.” Survey results were not monolithic, however. Hispanic Texans, for example, were especially inclined to call mass shootings a risk, according to survey results; with 67% saying so compared with 43% of white Texans and 56% of Black Texans.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 30, 2023

Should Texas school districts ban ChatGPT artificial intelligence?

A large and growing number of school districts nationwide are blocking access to ChatGPT, a new artificial intelligence-based writing program that can write nearly anything in seconds, including poetry, computer code — or homework assignments. But English teachers in the Fort Worth Independent School District say that while they’re concerned about how students could use ChatGPT, they aren’t sure that banning the program outright is the right move. Meanwhile, an expert on writing instruction says the program could present an opportunity for schools to rethink how they teach students to write. “If a computer is able to produce a pretty good essay based on a single prompt, is that a good intellectual product to strive for?” said Debra McKeown, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University in College Station.

ChatGPT was unveiled last November by the San Francisco-based tech firm OpenAI. The chatbot can generate texts in any number of genres in response to a prompt from the user. It can write a Shakespearean sonnet about fresh peaches, instructions for putting together Ikea furniture or a five-paragraph essay on the use of imagery in the Ernest Hemingway novel “The Old Man and the Sea.” Students can also use the program to help them come up with ideas for their own writing. When asked to generate a list of essay ideas on poet Langston Hughes, ChatGPT produced 10 ideas that could easily serve as a jumping-off point for a homework assignment, including an analysis of Hughes’ use of jazz and blues in his poetry and how it reflected the African-American experience of his era, as well as an examination of Hughes’ role in the Harlem Renaissance and his impact on African-American literature. Last week, researchers at the University of Minnesota Law School released a study in which they asked the chatbot to produce answers for tests in four graduate-level courses. Although the program’s performance was “uneven at best,” they concluded that the chatbot passed the courses, with a C+ average across all four classes — an outcome that would earn a student credit toward a law degree, but likely place them on academic probation, researchers said. But they noted that a student who consistently performed at that level would likely end up graduating with a degree.

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Houston Chronicle - January 30, 2023

Chris Tomlinson: Texas has limitless supplies of this clean energy source but oil well fracking tech is the key

A few thousand feet below Texas’s sunbaked surface, sedimentary rock and gravel are superheated to hundreds of degrees by the earth’s magma. Geothermal energy flows every minute of every day, and for decades scientists have searched for a way to harness it economically. A group of scientists from Texas’s top universities and corporations says geothermal generation of electricity is finally feasible, in a new report published by the University of Texas. Texas is uniquely positioned, with relatively shallow hotspots dotted around the state and an industry experienced with drilling, the report concludes. But will our leaders nurture the nascent industry, or will they see a threat to the fossil fuel industry? The report’s authors and the Texas Geothermal Energy Alliance try to position the industry as an oil and gas ally. To be sure, the companies that extract fossil fuels possess the skills and technology to harness geothermal resources in many of the same places.

Oil and gas operators, though, make money by selling hydrocarbon molecules, whereas this new industry sells heat. Geothermal energy producers pipe water around the earth’s subterranean furnace to produce steam that can provide heat or spin electric turbines. The energy released does not contribute to climate change. So far, geothermal’s biggest problem is cost. Only a few parts of the world have shallow geothermal resources that are easy to access. Going deeper is expensive, and higher temperatures create complications. Oil field service companies hold the answers. For the past 20 years, drillers have perfected drill bits and pipes that can endure high temperatures. Horizontal wells can cut through geothermal zones, and hydraulic fracturing can help water pass through hot rock and return steam to the surface. “Both industries strive to characterize and predict fluid flows from the subsurface, use wells to access resources, handle facility and fluid production at the surface and execute large-scale projects,” the report concludes. “Value could be quickly gained by the geothermal industry in application of some of the processes, technologies and assets from the oil and gas industry.”

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Dallas Morning News - January 30, 2023

More Texas districts debate 4-day school weeks. Is it worth it?

Educators pushed for flexibility while parents worried about how changing to a four-day school week would impact their kids during a heated Little Elm school board meeting this month. The growing Denton County district was among the latest in Texas to consider such calendars as schools balance staffing challenges with student needs. Teacher Addison Maxwell urged the trustees to shorten the week, saying teacher shortages meant he had to suddenly leave his kindergartners just weeks into the start of the school year to help fill gaps in another grade. The district wouldn’t struggle so much with attracting more educators if it offered a better work-life balance, he added. “I was their first teacher,” he said during Tuesday’s board meeting. “That was traumatic.” Little Elm trustees backed away from the idea for now, but more districts — mostly small and rural ones — are moving to four-day weeks. Just this month, Anna and Terrell adopted the switch for next school year.

About 40 Texas districts are on a four-day week, with more than a dozen launching the schedule this school year, according to estimates from the Texas Classroom Teachers Association. Smaller rural school districts tend to make the move because they struggle more with recruiting teachers and their families often face long commutes to campus, said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators. “It’s definitely a local decision,” he said. “A community has to figure out what works best for them.” Georgeanne Warnock stepped into the Terrell schools superintendent role just before the pandemic hit, and even then she noticed the increased demand placed on teachers. By January 2021, the district had community support to pivot to four and a half days a week. But the move didn’t provide educators with as much time as they really needed, so Terrell went back to a five-day week this year. Still, leaders of the 5,220-student district about 30 miles east of Dallas needed a fix to recruit and retain teachers. This month, Terrell trustees approved the new instructional week, which will run Monday through Thursday starting in August. “We have to compete with some of the larger districts that are our neighbors,” Warnock said. Major suburban districts have average salaries nearly $10,000 more than rural districts, according to state data.

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Dallas Morning News - January 30, 2023

NexPoint envisions a $3 billion life sciences campus in Plano, with the city’s help

An empty office building and land along Parkwood Boulevard in Plano could one day become a hub for companies creating life-saving technology. That’s the vision of Dallas-based NexPoint, which says it’s ready to invest over $3.6 billion in an ambitious plan to turn the existing 1.6 million square feet of office space into a life sciences complex. And it wants the city to partner with it, possibly by tapping into Plano’s economic development incentive programs supplying tax breaks and cash grants to assist in readying the campus for a new use. NexPoint, an alternative investment firm with $14 billion in assets under management, calls its plan the TxS District – “Technology x Science.”

The concept is to create lab and manufacturing spaces that attract leading researchers in gene and cell therapy, providing facilities and amenities for biotech and pharmaceutical firms at all stages of development. Land and additional properties totaling about 4 million square feet would be developed in phases to create a life sciences district covering 135 total acres. Early conversations with the city show promise. Plano city manager Mark Israelson said city leaders are excited about the project because it would reimagine and repurpose the heart of Plano’s Legacy Business Park. They’ve been talking with NexPoint about the idea for a year. “Their vision for the project will provide Plano with an opportunity to compete with New England and Southern California for industry-leading jobs and programs,” Israelson said. Frank Zaccanelli, a partner in the project, said it can’t happen without the right public-private partnership. “But if any city can figure out how to make this work, it’s Plano,” he said. Zaccanelli is president of NexPoint Development Co., the development arm of NexPoint’s real estate platform. James Dondero, NexPoint’s founder and principal, brought Zaccanelli on last year to oversee major development projects, including the TxS District in Plano and Cityplace Tower in Dallas.

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City Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 30, 2023

Chinese Americans gather in downtown Dallas to oppose ‘hateful’ state Senate bills

Hundreds of people from North Texas gathered in downtown Dallas Sunday to voice their opposition toward two Texas senate bills that they say are unjustly targeting Chinese Americans. Texas Senate bills 147 and 552, both of which have been authored by Republican lawmakers, aim to add regulations that would ban people with ties to four countries (China, Iran, North Korea and Russia) from purchasing real estate or property in the state. The latter relates to the purchase of agricultural land by companies with ties to the four countries. Multiple organizations with ties to the Chinese American community have planned rallies in major Texas cities to protest the proposed legislation after Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his support for Senate Bill 147 on Twitter. Democrats in the state held a news conference last week to denounce Senate Bill 147, and described it as racist and unconstitutional. The Senate bills have elicited outrage from Chinese Americans in North Texas, who have large enclaves in multiple cities, including Plano, Richardson, Irving and Allen. More than 250 people showed up to the Sunday afternoon rally, which was held at John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza.

Hailong Jin, board director of the DFW Chinese Alliance, which hosted the rally, said the bills are a painful reminder for the Chinese American community of the country’s past anti-Chinese legislation, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and California’s “Alien Land Law.” “You pass this law, other states will follow and anti-Asian hate will increase in this country — definitely,” Jin said. Video: Hundreds protest two Senate bills that would ban people and businesses with ties to China, and three other countries, from buying property in Texas. Allen resident Jerry Pi has lived in North Texas for 20 years and is the president of a software startup. Pi, who is a U.S. citizen, said he thinks SB 147 is unconstitutional and bad for the state’s economy. Pi said he was disappointed to learn that Abbott supports the Senate bill. “I always viewed [Abbott] as a conservative leader with strong principles,” Pi said. “This is not something that a conservative should do.” Plano City Council member Maria Tu, who spoke to attendees of the rally, called on Austin lawmakers to do right by their Chinese American constituents and to fight against the Senate bills. “I’m here today, not to represent any political position or stance,” Tu said. “I am here because I am Chinese, American, and I’m Texan.”

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Dallas Morning News - January 30, 2023

Cost estimates increase to $2.8 billion for new downtown convention center

Dallas estimates it’ll spend at least $3.5 billion on the development of a new downtown convention center and revamping related sites such as the attached arena and nearby cemetery by 2030. The latest financial breakdown to replace the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center released by the city includes a $2.8 billion estimate to build the new convention center with a park over Interstate 30, up from the previous proposed quote of $2 billion. The city plans to use bond money to cover the costs of construction and pay off those bonds through revenue generated from two new sources, including a recent voter-approved increase in taxes collected from Dallas room rentals. That money is also planned to go toward $26 million to demolish the current convention center, $91.8 million toward the architecture and engineer design work for the new building and $35.8 million to pay for part of the project management.

The city plans to use other funds for almost $498 million in expected future spending, such as $4 million to redesign the Pioneer Cemetery and $386 million for renovations of the Memorial Auditorium and The Black Academy of Arts and Letters, which are both attached to the convention center but will remain where they are when the rest of the building is demolished. City staff will present the update on the master plan for the new convention center to council members during a committee meeting on Tuesday. City Council has already approved committing at least $23 million in planning for the project since 2021, including $22.3 million to engineering and design firm WSP Inc. The rest is planned to reimburse Union Pacific Railroad for engineering work related to possibly building over its tracks near the convention center. Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitDallas, said he didn’t believe the rising construction costs were a concern because current projections show the city could receive higher than anticipated funds to pay for it. “We’ll still be well within budget,” he said. Davis said 24 groups have booked events at the convention center for 2030 and later based on the promise that the expanded venue would be open by then. He said they conducted focus groups involving members of industry groups showing them initial plans of the new convention center, and they’re more excited about the prospect of redevelopment that could happen around the building, like more restaurants, hotels and other activities.

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KUT - January 30, 2023

City of Taylor bans camping in public places, adopts policy for trespass warnings on city property

The Taylor City Council approved an ordinance Thursday night that regulates camping in public areas and establishes a policy for issuing trespass warnings on city property. The vote was 4-1, with District 2 Council Member Mitchell Drummond voting against. City officials said the purpose of the ordinance is to "address a noticeable increase in encampments and loitering on public properties or within public facilities causing vandalism or destruction of public property." The city said it didn't currently have a policy to address those issues. Many Taylor residents, including Drummond, voiced concerns about how the policy will affect the city's homeless population. "I have no issues with the criminal trespass warning. I think that's valid and we need that," he told the council Thursday. "And as far as camping, I don't like seeing homeless people camping on the side of the road and in our parks ... but they have to be somewhere."

"I mean, we've got an animal shelter down here. We spend $280,000 a year maintaining the animal shelter for homeless dogs and cats," Drummond said. "And yet we let our brothers and sisters live out in the street." Resident Tammy Cheatum got emotional during the meeting. "My mother was homeless for a lot of years," she told KUT. "So it was very frustrating for me ... very personal." Cheatum told council members during public comments not to "pass the buck." "I understand the take that it's not criminalizing it [homelessness], but it can end that way. We're not giving them much opportunities," she said, noting that there are no shelters dedicated solely to the homeless in Williamson County. "So please take the time to research this. Reach out to the community. Let's work together on a solution," Cheatum said. Taylor's police chief, Henry Fluck, acknowledged the ordinance will likely impact the city's homeless population, but he said the policy itself does not criminalize homelessness. "The majority of the homeless in Taylor cause no problems at all. In fact, most of them are invisible," Fluck told council members. "But there are the chronic homeless, who live the life they choose.

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National Stories

The Hill - January 30, 2023

What three hard-line conservatives plan to do with their seats on the Rules Committee

The addition of Republican Reps. Chip Roy (Texas), Ralph Norman (S.C.), and Thomas Massie (Ky.) to the House Rules Committee — one of the concessions from Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that helped him secure the gavel — means that the frequent antagonists of leadership have the opportunity to create significant barriers to getting legislation to the House floor. But the three say that if they use their leverage, it will be to enforce the kind of open-process demands that fueled resistance to McCarthy in the drawn-out Speakership battle. “We just need to make sure that we’re applying the rules, the germaneness rules, the, you know, single-subject rules, and then figure out how that’s all gonna get down to the floor under the right rules. Is it going to be a structured rule, an open rule?” Roy said.

Lawmakers got their first taste of a more open rules process last week with a modified open rule on a bill to limit the president’s ability to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Any member could submit an amendment for the first time in seven years. More than 140 amendments were submitted, and 56 of them got votes in fast-moving marathon floor sessions over two days. “We’re actually being the people’s house,” Roy said. The House Rules Committee gets final say over legislation before it heads to a final vote, crafting the process that governs consideration of each bill and how much input members can have on the floor. It was central to the group 20 hard-line conservatives who pushed the Speakership election into a historic four-day saga over demands for rules change demands and policy priorities. One of the concessions from McCarthy, according to a person familiar with the deal, was to name three House Freedom Caucus or “Freedom Caucus-adjacent” members to the Rules Committee. Massie is not a member of the confrontational conservative group like Roy and Norman, but frequently votes with them. Roy said repeatedly during the Speakership fight that he was not necessarily pining to be on the Rules Committee, which will require more time in Washington and away from his family, but was willing to do so if it meant ensuring the panel did not waive process agreements — like single-subject bills and a rule requiring 72 hours from release of final bill text to a floor vote — as had become commonplace.

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New York Times - January 30, 2023

Do abortion rights hang on state constitutions?

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the constitutional right to abortion in June, it declared that it was sending the issue back to the “people and their elected representatives.” But the fight has largely moved to a different set of supreme courts and constitutions: those in the states. On a single day this month, South Carolina’s highest court handed down its ruling that the right to privacy in the State Constitution includes a right to abortion, a decision that overturned the state’s six-week abortion ban. Within hours, Idaho’s highest court ruled in the opposite direction, saying that state’s Constitution did not protect abortion rights; the ban there would stand. Those divergent decisions displayed how volatile and patchwork the fight over abortion rights will be over the next months, as abortion rights advocates and opponents push and pull over state constitutions. For abortion rights groups, state constitutions are a critical part of a strategy to overturn bans that have cut off access to abortion in a wide swath of the country.

Those documents provide much longer and more generous enumerations of rights than the United States Constitution, and history is full of examples of state courts using them to lead the way to establish broad rights — as well as to strike down restrictions on abortion. They offer a way around gerrymandered state legislatures that are pushing stricter laws. The Supreme Court’s decision has left abortion rights groups with few other options. In their most hopeful scenario, state courts and ballot initiatives to establish constitutional protections would establish a firmer guarantee for abortion rights than the one in Roe, which rested on a protection of privacy that was not explicit in the U.S. Constitution. But just as abortion rights groups are trying to identify protections in state constitutions, anti-abortion groups are trying to amend those same documents to say they provide no guarantee of abortion rights. And while the courts may appear to be the last word because their decisions are not subject to appeal, judges in 38 states have to face the voters. A change on the bench has sometimes meant that the same document found to include a right to abortion suddenly is declared not to include that right, in the space of a few years.

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New York Times - January 30, 2023

Matt Gaetz, political arsonist, has new powers. What will he do with them?

The night before the start of a humiliating and historic five-day floor fight in Representative Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become speaker, Representative Matt Gaetz, Mr. McCarthy’s chief tormentor, handed him a list of demands from a hard-right faction ensuring that if Mr. McCarthy’s victory did occur, it would only be a pyrrhic one. It was Monday, Jan. 2, and Mr. McCarthy, soon to move into his new suite of offices, rejected the list outright. “You just want to be speaker,” he told Mr. Gaetz, according to two Republican lawmakers with knowledge of the encounter. Not so, Mr. Gaetz replied. Then he breezily added, according to the lawmakers: “You can have the portrait.” It was a reference to the ceremonial paintings spanning two centuries of 54 House speakers on the walls of the Capitol, and the implication was obvious. Mr. McCarthy of California would be the 55th speaker but in title only, and a political hostage to Mr. Gaetz and his fellow rebels on the right.

In the three weeks since Mr. McCarthy ultimately agreed to the price of the portrait, Mr. Gaetz’s role in the melodrama has only entrenched his stature as an attention-craving political arsonist adored by the Trump wing of the G.O.P. — but also, House Republican leaders begrudgingly say, as a lawmaker with new powers. Mr. Gaetz and his fellow antagonists demanded and got a deal allowing a single lawmaker to force a snap vote to oust the speaker, a commitment for a third of the seats on the powerful Rules Committee and an agreement that any lawmaker could force votes on changes to government spending bills. Taken together, the concessions drastically hamstring Mr. McCarthy’s ability to shape a legislative agenda. Mr. Gaetz “had to be dealt with, even if he was not ever going to vote for Kevin,” said Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, one of Mr. McCarthy’s closest allies. “And coming out of the speaker fight, that’s still going to be the case. It may not be the outcome some of us would have preferred. But, for now at least, his stature has been elevated.” The far right is exultant. “He handed McCarthy a blunt knife and forced him to castrate himself on national television,” Raheem Kassam, a British political activist and the editor of the far-right online journal The National Pulse, said in an interview.

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NBC News - January 30, 2023

Billions of political text messages were sent last year — and there’s little to stop more from coming

Americans were bombarded with political text messages in the months leading up to the midterm elections last year, even more than they were during the 2020 presidential race, something experts attribute to a Supreme Court decision that eliminated the requirement to obtain consent when sending mass texts. More than 15 billion political texts were sent in 2022 according to call-blocking service Robokiller — about 50 messages for every phone in the country. Few states have taken action that would curtail this, and congressional efforts have been unsuccessful. “We are seeing a lot more brazenness in these marketing, SMS and political messages that are not necessarily illegal, but are approaching the volumes that people are getting completely overwhelmed by,” said Giulia Porter, Robokiller’s vice president. Political texts — messages asking for donations, voting reminders and volunteer opportunities — are an increasingly important part of outreach strategy for campaigns, so much so that Americans received approximately 39 texts for every political call in 2022.

Political texts spiked last fall during the run-up to November’s midterm election. But instead of falling in December, after most races were settled outside of Georgia’s Senate runoff, the number of texts actually increased, peaking at 3.7 billion messages. Republican campaigns and groups sent the bulk of political texts sent in 2022, Robokiller’s data shows. GOP campaigns sent nearly 12 billion texts, compared to 3 billion texts for Democratic campaigns and groups. Most voters don’t have to do anything to wind up on political text lists. Contact information for millions of voters has already been collected into vast databases known as data exchanges, which are managed by brokers that sell access to campaigns. The data itself, according to the brokers, is collected from public records and other sources. Political parties have long used public records as the foundation of their voter outreach efforts. But as the search for highly refined political data has escalated, campaigns have increasingly relied on national voter databases created by these brokers. America’s major political parties have an affiliated political data broker operating outside of the regulated campaign funding environment — Democratic Data Exchange for the Democratic party and Data Trust for the GOP — that collects data from state and local parties. Both Data Trust and Democratic Data Exchange declined requests for comment.

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NBC News - January 30, 2023

‘Culture of policing’ and ‘ancient’ procedures were on display in Tyre Nichols videos, ex-officers say

It was a series of mistakes and aggressive tactics that culminated in officers captured on video punching, kicking and striking Tyre Nichols with a baton after a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, this month, three retired police officers said. Ed Davis, Boston’s police commissioner from 2006 to 2013, told NBC News on Saturday that videos of Nichols’ beating at the hands of Memphis police on Jan. 7 “sickened” him. “It’s not logical to me anymore that any police department in this country could do that type of punishment that we saw ?— street justice,” Davis said. “Was it a problem in the United States? Yes, it was. Is it still a problem in places? Obviously, we see this in Memphis.”

He continued: “When you see something like this, it’s just such a throwback to ancient police procedures.” Davis said videos captured Memphis police acting like criminals. “This whole incident should not be looked at as a police operation. It was more a street crime that occurred among people in uniform.” Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was an amateur photographer and skateboarder, was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days after the traffic stop. Memphis authorities on Friday released videos from multiple vantage points showing the aftermath of the traffic stop. The videos, three from police body cameras and one from a police surveillance camera mounted on a pole, depict Nichols being punched, struck with a baton, kicked in the face and sprayed with an irritant. They also captured him crying out for his mother and saying he was trying to go home. His mother said he was only about 80 yards from her house when her son was yelling for help. Five Memphis police officers were fired and charged with second-degree murder, and other crimes, including aggravated assault and kidnapping.

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NBC News - January 30, 2023

RNC promises to be independent from Trump in 2024. Can it succeed?

Driving debate at last week’s Republican National Committee meeting was one big question: Can the official party apparatus truly be neutral in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries? For years, the RNC has been closely tied to former President Donald Trump’s political operation, but in the coming cycle, a number of serious candidates beyond Trump are expected to enter the field. Neutrality was front and center in the contested race for chair, in which, on Friday, Ronna McDaniel — originally handpicked by Trump for the role — was able to cruise to re-election for a fourth term heading the RNC, much of which has been remade under the former president. Trump’s third bid for the White House places the RNC at the center of a situation unprecedented in modern times: a former president running in a contested major-party primary campaign.

Members here at the RNC’s winter meeting were cautious about offering Trump outward support, and McDaniel and her lead challenger, Harmeet Dhillon — an RNC committeewoman from California and an attorney whose law firm has represented Trump in recent years — pledged to lead the party in a neutral manner, in accordance with RNC bylaws, as the primary season begins to heat up. But some weren’t so certain that would be the case, particularly with McDaniel’s re-election. “If you look at our rules, we can individually support who we want to,” said Jonathan Barnett, an RNC committeeman from Arkansas who backed Dhillon. “The chair is not supposed to, but, I mean, that’s a joke. Because she has her job because of him. She may act like she’s saying she’s neutral, but look at the appearance.” Needless to say, how the RNC handles itself in 2024 could affect the primaries. The party plays a key role in creating the primary framework, fundraising and debates. As Dhillon told reporters last week, potential candidates have expressed concerns to her about how the party may function in 2024 with Trump on the ticket. Calling Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis “a likely presidential candidate,” Dhillon said Friday that she spoke “not to him but a few others, and several of them echoed concerns about the independence of the party and the primary process.” “I think just about everybody in this room, in the front of the room, in front of the velvet ropes, voted for President Trump twice,” she said. “But if the party is not perceived as a neutral body and a level playing field for all presidential candidates, that further disengages our voters.”

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CNN - January 30, 2023

‘We are the table’: Meet the history-making women controlling the most powerful levers of government

When Susan Collins first arrived in the Senate in 1997, a male colleague approached her about committee assignments and assumed that the Maine Republican would want to serve on education and child care panels. “I said, ‘Yes, those are really important,’” Collins recalled. Then she told her colleague: “And I want to be on the Armed Services Committee.” It was seen as a bold ask at a time when there were only a handful of women serving in Congress, and they didn’t even have their own bathroom yet, let alone coveted committee seats or powerful gavels. But more than 25 years later, Collins – along with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state, Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas and Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut – will hold the top spots on the Senate and House Appropriations committees, an influential crew on Capitol Hill commonly known as the “Four Corners.”

That, combined with Shalanda Young heading up the Office of Management and Budget, means women will hold the purse strings in Washington for the first time in history. The powerful spending panels in Congress oversee an annual federal budget of roughly $1.7 trillion and are responsible for crafting policies that affect nearly every corner of American life. “People would say, ‘We have to give you a seat at the table.’ Hell, we are the table,” said DeLauro. “It’s four of us here – five with Shalanda Young – who are controlling, really, the most powerful levers of government.” And with deadlines to fund the government and raise the nation’s borrowing limit looming later this year, it will be up to these four women to pull the country back from the brink of fiscal calamity – no easy task in a divided and hyper-polarized government, and with razor-thin majorities in both chambers. “There’s going to be hurdles thrown at us every single day, and we all recognize that. There’s going to be people who try and keep us from being successful every single day,” Murray said. “I have no doubt this is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done since I’ve been here. What I feel good about is I have great partners on both sides of the Capitol and both sides of our caucuses.”

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Newsclips - January 29, 2023

Lead Stories

San Antonio Express-News - January 29, 2023

Texas Republicans are weighing 2024 White House bids. Can they first get out of Trump's shadow?

Will Hurd thought he would have the stage to himself when he rolls into New Hampshire on Saturday to address fellow Republicans amid speculation that he is preparing for a presidential bid. But this week, the former San Antonio congressman learned another 2024 contender had decided to join him, last-minute, in the home of the nation's first GOP presidential primary: former President Donald Trump. The visit, the first stop of Trump's 2024 campaign in the early primary state, is exactly the sort of oxygen-stealing move that GOP operatives say has helped stymie a primary field that at least some Texas Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott, are thought to be considering joining. While there are still several months before the official start of the campaign season, it is looking increasingly unlikely that new GOP challengers will jump into the race anytime soon.

Republican strategists say entering any head-to-head matchup with the former president, who is known for his unyielding attacks on political challengers, could quickly tank a fledgling candidacy. “The field is frozen as long as Trump is kind of out there” with his ultimate intentions unknown, said one GOP strategist who has worked for Cruz and other candidates looking at possible 2024 presidential runs. “Even though his ownership of the party is less today than in 2015, it is still substantial enough that it marginalizes you to the point you become irrelevant.” Complicating matters is Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has quickly emerged as a potentially popular alternative to Trump, leaving little room for other Republicans who have struggled to gain traction in early polling. Cruz — who came in second to Trump in the 2016 GOP primary and has been open about wanting to make another run for the White House — is now focusing on re-election, according to sources close to the senator. "To make a run for president, which he obviously has a long-standing desire to be, you have to make sure there’s the right lane and the right time," said one strategist close to the Cruz camp, who like other sources in this story, asked to remain unnamed to openly discuss campaign strategy. "He’s made the judgment he should focus on the Senate and not close the door on the potential that an environment is created that is a good environment for his candidacy.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 29, 2023

The rise and fall — and rise again? — of bitcoin mining in Texas

Cryptocurrency miners began flocking to Texas in the past five years, drawn by the state’s low energy costs and relaxed regulations. As they began setting up shop, lawmakers and local officials were touting the boom as an economic lifeline for the state’s struggling rural communities where many landed. Nearly 30 crypto mines set up shop in Texas, big data centers that consume tremendous amounts of energy to run banks of computers humming away to mine new bitcoins. But now, many — if not most — are struggling to stay afloat amid the plummeting value of the commodity they create and soaring electricity costs.

“Bitcoin miners are operating under the very slimmest of margins right now,” said Lee Bratcher — president of the nonprofit Texas Blockchain Council. “There are not many bitcoin miners that are making profits similar to what we would have seen. The bitcoin mining industry, as a whole, is tightening the belt.” That’s a big turnaround from 2021, when bitcoin’s value peaked at $68,000 and miners collectively earned more than $60 million a day, according to data from Blockchain.com. By the end of 2022, the value had plummeted to less than $17,000 — and miners’ take was $10 million a day. As a result, mining companies that borrowed millions to set up during the bull run now are facing uncertain futures. Several have gone bankrupt. Others are trying to sell off assets. Some have started returning equipment to bankers who financed it. Shares in Riot Platforms Inc., which operates the state’s largest bitcoin mine northeast of Austin, are down about 60 percent from this time last year. They closed Thursday at $6.13. Still, many in the crypto mining industry and those who support it remain optimistic it can weather the downturn, saying that it provides a side benefit for Texas as a means of managing the state’s electrical grid, which can also be an occasional source of substantial revenue for the mining companies.

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Politico - January 29, 2023

GOP national sales tax talk backfires, as Dems see political gold

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has backed his fellow Republicans into a corner with one of the promises he made to his far-right flank to land his job: opening the door to considering fringe legislation that would replace the income tax with a federal sales tax and abolish the IRS. Most GOP members appear determined to distance themselves as much as possible from the idea and McCarthy himself said this week he doesn’t support the legislation. But Democrats aren’t going to let the issue die quietly. They’ve been more than happy to use it as a cudgel to portray Republicans as dangerous radicals.. “You gotta be kidding me. What in God’s name is this all about?” President Joe Biden said Thursday about the plan, saying it would slap a 30 percent national sales tax on “every item from groceries, gasoline, clothing, supplies, [and] medicine.”

Various forms of the legislation, dubbed the “FairTax Act,” have been around for decades and attracted little serious attention from Republican leaders. But a spokesperson for Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia, one of the 21 GOP holdouts who initially blocked McCarthy’s speakership bid and is a co-sponsor of the legislation, said McCarthy promised that the legislation would go through the committee process. Forcing the discussion of the unpopular tax puts the GOP in a political bind that seems doomed to repeat itself for the House’s slim majority. McCarthy must walk a tightrope between appeasing the renegade factions of his caucus and disassociating the party from policy proposals that could hurt Republicans at the ballot box. The newly anointed chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), said he’s committed to having a committee hearing on the legislation in which members can have an open and transparent debate. Supporters of the legislation argue that it would create a fairer, more transparent tax system. It would eliminate federal income, payroll and estate taxes and replace them with a 23 percent — or depending on the way you calculate it, 30 percent — national sales tax. But many Republican members of Ways and Means are so far treating the legislation like it’s radioactive. “I have no opinion yet,” said Rep. Carol Miller (R-W.Va.) when asked about the bill.

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NBC News - January 29, 2023

Trump kicks off his 2024 campaign: 'We are at the brink of World War III'

Donald Trump took aim at President Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, U.S. foreign policy and undocumented immigrants Saturday as he kicked off his bid for a return to the White House with campaign stops in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Trump, who is attempting to become the first president elected to non-consecutive terms since Grover Cleveland, cast himself as the Republican best positioned to win the nomination and defeat Biden. "The 2024 election is our one shot to save our country, and we need a leader who is ready to do that on day one," Trump told an audience at the South Carolina state House. "We need a president who can take on the whole system and a president who can win."

In a series of recent polls, Trump has led Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — the clear No. 2 choice of GOP voters at this early stage — by 19 points or more. But there are signs that Trump's support is diminished in parts of the country: A University of New Hampshire survey released this week showed DeSantis leading Trump 42 percent to 30 percent. New Hampshire traditionally holds the country's first primary, following the Iowa caucuses. In South Carolina, Trump was surrounded by Republican officials, including Gov. Henry McMaster, Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Joe Wilson. In the twin speeches Saturday, which largely mirrored each other, Trump painted a bleak picture of America under Biden and vowed to reverse inflation, secure the U.S. border with Mexico and fortify America's position as a global power. "Through weakness and incompetence, Joe Biden has brought us to the brink of World War III," Trump said. "We’re at the brink of World War III, just in case anybody doesn’t know it. As president, I will bring back peace through strength."

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State Stories

Texas Newsroom - January 29, 2023

New poll shows Texans' faith in democracy and public education is declining

More than two years since a mob attacked the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, a new survey released Friday found that fewer Texans are certain democracy is the best form of government. The survey, conducted by the nonprofit Texas Lyceum, found that — of the 1,200 Texas adults asked — only 40% “strongly agree” that democracy is the best form of government. That’s a 13% drop from the group’s 2019 poll. Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Lyceum, told The Texas Newsroom it’s unusual to see such large attitude shifts happen over just a few years. “It’s not like the majority of Texans don’t agree that democracy is the best form of government, but it’s not moving in the right direction,” Blank said. “No one would deny it’s moving in the wrong direction.”

According to the poll, 14% of the respondents said they didn’t know or had no opinion on whether democracy is the best form of government. In 2019, no one said they didn’t know. “The last few years of politics, democracy, government— including a non-peaceful transfer of power — has unsurprisingly led a lot of people to question whether or not democracy works in the 21st century,” Blank said. The latest results show a real erosion in trust in some of the main institutions of America, including the education system. The poll, conducted from Jan. 6 to Jan. 12, also found what Blank called an “astronomical” change in Texans’ opinion on public education. In 2022, 63% of Texas adults rated the quality of K-12 education as excellent or good. Meanwhile, 23% rated it as either poor or terrible. But in 2023, the percentage of Texas adults who rated the quality of K-12 as excellent or good dropped to 55%. The percentage of those who rated it as poor or terrible increased to 39%.

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Houston Chronicle - January 29, 2023

Greg Abbott at Texas Rally for Life: Our work is 'not even close to being done.'

Thousands celebrated last year’s demise of Roe v Wade — and with it, the banning of abortion in Texas — in a rally on the south steps of the Texas Capitol on Saturday afternoon. But given last summer’s court decision, with abortions down 99 percent in the state, the question becomes: What happens now for Texas’ “pro-life” movement? Democrats and even some Republicans have called for a new bill amending the abortion ban passed in 2021 to add exceptions for rape or incest, although the way forward for such a bill is murky. Meanwhile, there’s a bill to force sometimes unwilling local prosecutors to enforce the abortion ban, as well as other statues. Other states are making it harder to travel to seek an abortion in a state where the procedure is still legal.

“We believe being pro-life, and our work as people who support life, is not even close to being done,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Saturday at the rally. “We must now live up to the fullness of being pro-life. We must protect babies after they are born. We must protect the lives of the mothers who give birth to those babies.” He called for increased funding for the state’s “alternatives to abortion” program, as well as for “the needs of women before birth and for up to three years after birth.” The “Texas Rally for Life 2023” was organized by dozens of political, religious and civic organizations, and 23 buses shuttled people from around the state to Austin. Danielle Raab, an accountant in her mid-30s who lives north of Austin, said she went to the rally not to advocate for specific policies, but to communicate her belief that protecting life should be at the center of all laws pursued in Texas or by any other government. Even though Texas banned abortion last year, she said, that doesn’t mean the work is done. “Just because laws are passed it doesn’t mean they’re safe,” Raab said. “It continues on to infinity. I mean, look at Roe v Wade.”

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Canary Media - January 28, 2023

Texans can now sign up for virtual power plant to help grid, make money

Texans can sign up to use solar-powered batteries and other energy devices to make money in the state’s power markets, under a pathbreaking new grid program. So-called virtual power plants (VPPs) perform grid roles previously reserved for large-scale power plants, but they do it by aggregating hundreds or thousands of buildings with controllable energy equipment, like batteries charged by rooftop solar. VPPs often get mired in laborious regulatory proceedings before they ever become reality, but cleantech advocates in Texas worked with state regulators to push through a VPP pilot program last year with surprising speed. State regulators approved the Aggregated Distributed Energy Resources (ADER) Pilot Program in October, and now the onboarding has begun.

Households and businesses can sign up with participating electricity retailers if they live in parts of the state that feature competitive electricity providers, such as the areas around Houston or Dallas. They can also enroll with their municipal or cooperative utility if that entity chooses to participate. The pilot allows up to 80 megawatts of capacity from assets in homes and businesses to bid into the state’s competitive wholesale markets, run by grid operator ERCOT. The devices have to be able to export power back to the grid, but they can’t be bigger than 1 megawatt. That means fossil-fueled generators technically could participate, but the key technology is likely to be solar-powered batteries, which can be programmed to respond automatically to market signals and don’t require paying for fuel to burn. Companies looking to take advantage of the new program need to be licensed Texas electricity providers; they also need access to batteries or other controllable devices in customers’ homes or businesses. No one company is allowed to control more than 20 percent of the VPP capacity, but the overall program is expected to be expanded, pending positive performance. So far, the entities jumping on the opportunity are forward-looking clean energy companies that helped design the policy.

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Inside Climate News - January 29, 2023

Exxon’s Baytown and Valero’s Corpus Christi refineries top list of U.S. water polluters in 2021

Neighbors of refineries can see the glowing flares and visible plumes of air pollution rising into the sky. But water pollution often happens at ground level or below, out of sight of both local residents and environmental regulators. In a new report, the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project tallied toxic discharges of unregulated pollutants self-reported by refineries and found that seven of the nation’s 10 worst polluters of total dissolved solids operated along the Texas coast. Exxon Mobil’s refinery in Baytown was the top polluter in 2021, followed by a Valero Energy refinery in Corpus Christi. “Oil refineries are major sources of water pollution that have largely escaped public notice and accountability,” said Eric Schaeffer, the nonprofit’s executive director. “Texas is an industry state. I’m not surprised to see such big discharges.”

Schaeffer, a former enforcement director at the Environmental Protection Agency, said federal pollution standards dating to the 1980s allow refineries to dump liquid waste into public waterways. The organization analyzed unregulated discharges that the EPA does not address in its rules for refineries. According to the EIP report, federal law regulates just 10 pollutants from refineries’ liquid discharge through standards last updated in 1985. EIP called on the EPA to update its rules and reduce water contamination from the refinery sector. “EPA’s failure to act has exposed public waterways to a witches’ brew of refinery contaminants,” the EIP report said. The report named Exxon’s Baytown refinery as the nation’s highest-volume water polluter of total dissolved solids, which include chloride and sulfates. Schaeffer said dissolved solids are highly saline, harmful to aquatic life and taxing on water treatment plants. Because dissolved solid discharges are not regulated for refineries, none of the pollution broke the law. Data from the EPA shows that Exxon — which posted a record $58 billion profit last year — also discharges toxins including oil and grease, hexavalent chromium, benzene, chlorine, copper, zinc, sulfide, ammonia and more into Galveston Bay. Exxon did not respond to a request for comment. The oil giant’s Baytown plant is part of the nation’s largest petrochemical complex, which rings the waterways southeast of Houston, the so-called Bayou City, where more than 2 million people live. Refineries turn oil and petroleum gas into fuels, chemicals and plastics.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 29, 2023

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg files for fourth — and final — term

Mayor Ron Nirenberg has filed to campaign for a fourth — and final — term. “We’re going to protect our families, keep more money in your pockets, and get our neighbors into great jobs through Ready to Work,” he posted on Twitter Thursday evening. Though the race for mayor already has drawn challengers — Christopher Longoria, Ray Adam Basaldua and Diana Flores Uriegas — none appear to be a serious threat to Nirenberg, who has over $330,000 headed into the campaign season. The mayor’s office and all 10 city council seats are up for grabs every two years in San Antonio. The council is limited to four terms. Candidate filing for the May 6 election ends Feb. 17.

The last few months on council have been marked by upheaval, with council taking the rare vote of no confidence for two of their members in a one-week span in November: District 1 Councilman Mario Bravo for violating city anti-harassment and anti-violence standards when he berated District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval in September, and District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry for his alleged involvement in an alleged drunken driving incident. The Northeast Side councilman is facing charges of driving while intoxicated and fleeing the scene of an accident, both Class B misdemeanors. Sandoval announced her resignation Jan. 17, effective Sunday, leaving an open seat on the dais until early March, when council will appoint an interim replacement for the remainder of her term. Unlike previous elections, the race for mayor will likely be an afterthought for most voters who will be focused on the more competitive district seats.

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Dallas Morning News - January 29, 2023

Bob Simpson’s TXO Energy goes public, soars 10% on first trading day

Veteran oilman Bob Simpson ushered a new venture to the New York Stock Exchange on Friday when Fort Worth-based TXO Energy Partners made its stock market debut. Simpson, who founded XTO Energy and led it until the company merged with ExxonMobil in 2010 in a deal valued at $41 billion, rang the opening bell along with other company executives. The company planned to sell 5 million shares at $20 each, netting an estimated $88 million in

Its shares rose 10% to close Friday at $22. They trade under the ticker TXO. TXO is a renamed version of Simpson’s MorningStar Partners oil and gas company, which he founded in 2012. A 45-year oil veteran, Simpson started Cross Timbers Oil Co. in 1986 and that company later became XTO Energy, the nation’s largest natural gas producer. Simpson and fellow oil magnate Ray Davis also became major league baseball owners in 2010 as lead investors in a $593 million winning bid to take the Texas Rangers out of bankruptcy. They serve as co-chairs of the team’s board of directors. The Rangers’ value is now estimated to be $2.05 billion.

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KJAS - January 29, 2023

Dade Phelan: On the Texas House’s proposed state budget

Happy New Year! It has been a whirlwind of a month after the Texas Legislature convened in Austin for its 88th session. On January 10, state lawmakers and their families descended upon the State Capitol for the official start to the legislative session. Following the oath of office ceremony and other “opening day” business, I was honored to receive the vote of my colleagues to serve a second term as speaker of the Texas House — a privilege I do not take lightly, especially as the first speaker to hail from Southeast Texas. The work of the Texas House during this 140-day stretch is already well underway. Earlier this month, our chamber introduced a proposed state budget for the next two years, and I believe it serves as a great starting point for deliberations not just among House members, but with our counterparts in the Texas Senate.

House Bill 1, the budget’s official moniker, puts the needs of Texans first by both capitalizing on our state’s once-in-a-generation revenue availability while also controlling spending in a conservative, constitutional way. It proposes $130.1 billion in general revenue spending over the next two fiscal years and prioritizes a number of issues in need of the state’s attention, from improving our infrastructure to beefing up our workforce development pipeline. For starters, the House proposed $15 billion be set aside for property tax relief — an issue I know is high on Texans’ radars these days. Those funds, coupled with legislation aimed at reforming our home appraisal process, will start the conversation over how best to deliver relief to the taxpayer, a priority for the Texas House this session. The spending plan also proposes $4.6 billion for border security, which is more important than ever as opioid smuggling and human trafficking pour over our border while the federal government repeatedly fails to take ownership over doing its job. Our budget proposal also includes a number of appropriations that are important to us folks in Texas House District 21, such as $400 million for flood mitigation efforts at the Texas Water Development Board and $24.5 million for upgrading the infrastructure at Lamar University and the two-year Lamar institutions to better prevent flooding or wind damage during future weather events. The spending plan also provides increased funding to those two-year Lamar campuses to continue providing reduced tuition and fees, while also putting forth $6 million to assist Southeast Baptist Hospital with construction of an outpatient mental health clinic.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 29, 2023

Cynthia Allen: Texan’s case tests free speech right to question government

At first glance, Priscilla Villarreal is not a particularly empathetic figure. Not to most conservatives, anyway. The tattooed, foul-mouthed, progressive citizen journalist has made a name and a career out of criticizing and, frankly, trying to embarrass local authorities in Laredo. Her Facebook page, Lagordiloca News LaredoTx, which has more than 200,000 followers, is a running, profanity-laced and often scathing commentary of the happenings in her community. That is perhaps why it is so striking — and extremely important — that a coalition of conservative groups has come to her defense in the case regarding her right to do her work. This week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held a hearing on Villarreal’s 2019 lawsuit against the city of Laredo, its police department and others in authority who she said violated her First Amendment rights for doing what journalists do: asking questions.

Thankfully, an impressive collection of nonprofits, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, Americans for Prosperity, Young America’s Foundation and Project Veritas, have filed briefs on her behalf, adding to the credibility of her case and amplifying what it means for the future of free speech in the U.S. It all began in 2017, when Villarreal’s reporting landed her in jail. Local authorities, already no fans of her work, used an obscure Texas statute to claim that Villarreal had obtained “nonpublic information” from the government with “intent to benefit” herself. The information was verification of the identities that she had already sourced elsewhere. One was a Border Patrol agent who died by suicide and the others were a family involved in a deadly vehicle accident. The alleged benefit was gaining more Facebook followers. While Villarreal is no conventional journalist and Facebook is no conventional reporting mechanism, asking a government official to verify the details of a story already sourced elsewhere before publishing is actually what good journalism looks like.

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Houston Chronicle - January 29, 2023

Brenda Mallory: Working towards environmental justice in Houston

(Brenda Mallory is the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, which coordinates federal efforts to improve, preserve, and protect America’s public health and environment.) For more than a century, Houston’s energy industry has helped fuel America’s growth and power our economy. At the same time, local communities like Manchester and Baytown, which I visited last month, have been disproportionately affected by pollution near those facilities. Like marginalized, underserved, and overburdened neighborhoods across the country – often low-income communities or communities of color – many Texas families are dealing with a legacy of environmental injustice. As we stood on a playground at Hartman Park, surrounded by industrial facilities that have leaked benzene and other toxic chemicals for decades, we were warned that some people feel sick after breathing the air for only a few minutes. The nearby community, predominantly Latino, struggles with health challenges as a result. Though the challenges communities such as Manchester and Baytown face can be daunting, there is reason for hope: President Biden has championed the most aggressive environmental justice agenda in U.S. history, launching a whole-of-government effort to address the injustices of our past and help communities that previously were left behind.

With the support of advocates who have fought pollution for decades, we have secured historic funding to advance equity and justice for all and are refocusing hundreds of federal programs to help disadvantaged communities. President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative commits 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate, clean energy, workforce development, and more to communities that are overburdened by pollution and underinvestment. People who were historically the last to benefit from federal programs are now some of the first in line. That means good-paying jobs, cleaner air and water, and better health. Every community’s needs are different. In Houston, WE ACT for Environmental Justice connected us with local leaders trying to address and reverse the harmful effects of the industry in their own backyard. Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.) and others are doing incredible work pushing for better pollution monitoring, corporate accountability, and economic opportunity at all levels of government. We met passionate, resilient people who love their communities and are working towards meaningful solutions. The programs the President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative programs are multiplying community resources and supporting positive change on the ground. Thanks to funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and the American Rescue Plan, organizations and local governments in Texas will receive over $3 million for air pollution monitoring. These grants will arm communities with data about the air they breathe and show officials where we need to prioritize pollution reduction.

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Austin American-Statesman - January 29, 2023

Why Texas gets failing grade when it comes to smoking prevention

Texas is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to cigarette smoking, according to the American Lung Association. In its new "State of Tobacco Control Report," the advocacy group gives Texas — along with Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina — failing grades on every category the report tracks. Those are: Funding for tobacco prevention programs, Strength of smoke-free workplace laws, Level of state tobacco taxes, Coverage and access to services to quit tobacco, Ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products.

Texas "refuses to do most of what's recommended" by the group, said Charlie Gagen, the American Lung Association director of advocacy for Texas and Oklahoma. Currently in Texas, 13% of adults smoke (slightly above national rates), 4.9% of high school students smoke (more than twice the national rate), and 18.7% of high-schoolers use e-cigarettes (4 percentage points above the national rate), according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. That advocacy group estimates 27.1% of cancer deaths in Texas can be attributed to smoking, and that almost half a million kids alive today in Texas will die prematurely from smoking. Texas spends only 2.6% of what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for smoking cessation programs and prevention education. The state allocates about $3.5 million a year, which in addition to $3.3 million in federal funding, creates a program budget of about $6.8 million a year. The Texas Department of State Health Services has requested an additional $3 million annually this legislative session. The CDC recommends Texas spend $264.1 million.

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Texas Monthly - January 29, 2023

An author believed Elon Musk would benefit Brownsville. Not anymore.

Robert Daemmrich/Getty Editors’ note: As we approach our fiftieth anniversary, in February 2023, we will, every week, highlight an important story from our past and offer some perspective on it. When I visited Brownsville on a breezy day back in February 2022, I drove to the SpaceX launchpad site, just meters from the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica, a beach on the city’s outskirts. I was shocked by how close I could get to the rockets. The only thing that stopped me from touching the towering metal cylinders was a sense that something was off. “It feels like you’re being monitored,” says Brownsville native Domingo Martinez, author of The Boy Kings of Texas, a 2012 National Book Award finalist for nonfiction. “The back of your neck is tingling.” I had mentioned the incident while Martinez and I were discussing his August 2016 Texas Monthly article “Countdown to Liftoff.” The story braids a personal account of Martinez’s youth spent on the free and open beaches, where he and his family and later teenage friends would dig fire pits in the sand to cook freshly caught fish, with a report on SpaceX’s plans to establish operations near Martinez’s erstwhile paradise. “When I heard that SpaceX was considering Brownsville versus Florida, I was rooting for Brownsville,” Martinez says. At the time, SpaceX was promising to revolutionize extraterrestrial science. Its CEO, Elon Musk, was on a charm offensive. “And we all fell for it,” Martinez says.

The true cost of SpaceX’s move to Brownsville wasn’t yet known. Martinez read the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental impact statement while writing “Countdown to Liftoff,” but he says that despite the document’s hundreds of pages of research, appendices, and comments, it fell short of predicting the full effect launch failures would have on the area. There has been noise pollution that scares away the migratory birds that attract bird-watching winter tourists from all over Texas and beyond; the scattering of debris from equipment explosions; and fuel drops in the Gulf of Mexico. Martinez says that Brownsville residents expected there to be some environmental impacts, but few expected it to be so immediate. Looking back at “Countdown to Liftoff,” Martinez says he regrets giving SpaceX the benefit of the doubt back then: “It feels like we sold our souls.” He especially laments the loss of his once pristine patch of paradise. Future generations aren’t going to experience the freedom of being alone on Boca Chica. Gone, perhaps, are the days of driving to the beach in a pickup truck full of beer, wood, and meat. “That was a great weekend,” Martinez says. “I’m afraid that with the introduction of SpaceX, that’s not going to be possible for very much longer.”

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San Antonio Express-News - January 29, 2023

Veteran KSAT sports anchor Greg Simmons arrested on DWI charges, records show

Veteran San Antonio broadcaster Greg Simmons was arrested early Friday and charged with driving while intoxicated, jail records show. Simmons, 67, is the sports director for KSAT 12 and has been with the TV station since 1980. Records show Simmons was arrested about 2:35 a.m., after Bexar County sheriff's deputies responded to a report of a reckless driver near the area of Evans Road and TPC Parkway near the Stone Oak area. Officials said they received reports of Simmons driving his maroon Chevrolet Tahoe at about 20 mph and drifting side to side before stopping in the middle of the road.

According to a BCSO report, Simmons took about five minutes to pull over after a deputy signaled for a traffic stop. The deputy said Simmons had trouble maintaining focus, and when asked where he was coming from, the journalist replied, “yes,” the report said. Simmons eventually told the deputy he was driving home from the Green Lantern, a speakeasy-like bar on the North Side, but believed he was driving on U.S. 281, according to the report. When asked for his driver's license, Simmons handed the deputy a gold American Express card, the report said. The deputy said Simmons had trouble getting his license out of his wallet and handed the wallet to the deputy to retrieve it, according to the report. Simmons agreed to take a standardized field sobriety test but struggled and was unable to recite the alphabet, the report said. The sheriff's office said it could not obtain a breath sample to determine Simmons' blood alcohol level, but drew vials of blood to test. Jail records show Simmons was magistrate Friday morning and was released on a personal recognizance bond of $1,000.

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Texas Standard - January 28, 2023

Changing winds? These are the marijuana bills we’re watching in this year’s legislative session

November’s election saw a handful of Texas cities voting to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. But statewide, lawmakers have been less enthusiastic about passing cannabis-related laws, with the most recent one being 2019’s industrial hemp law. As attitudes around marijuana become more favorable among voters in Texas, reform advocates say it’s high time for lawmakers to revisit cannabis laws in the legislative session. Texas NORML executive director Jax James spoke with the Texas Standard about what cannabis bills have been proposed so far, and how “state vs. local” attitudes on marijuana laws can complicate things. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

Texas Standard: You know, it wasn’t that long ago that a lot of mainstream news outlets didn’t even want to touch the issue of marijuana, much less speak with someone from NORML. I mean, that’s how much the Overton Window, as they say, has changed in the past decade or so, do you think? Jax James: Absolutely. I’ve been doing this since 2005 in Texas. And in my tenure, I’ve done hundreds upon hundreds of interviews. And I have seen the climate change from legislators not wanting to talk to patients and advocates at the Capitol to this being a very important issue – with dozens of bills being filed regarding changing and improving the laws we have here." TS: Do you think Texas is warming up to cannabis reform and how much? I mean, when I say “Texas,” I’m really talking about the politicians – the folks at the Capitol in particular – who will be voting on some of these laws. "Well, we’ve seen the House of Representatives pass multiple bills with supermajorities out of their chamber and send it to the Senate. We’ve seen less movement in the Senate, but we have seen appetite, especially for medical cannabis and hemp legislation. And so really, I think that the legislators and the governor, they all want to advance this issue. The pinch point has been truly the lieutenant governor. And so we have to make sure that we address the concerns that he has so that we can ensure that common sense policy can be enacted this session."

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County Stories

Houston Chronicle - January 29, 2023

Harris County report highlights struggles, language barriers for home-based child care providers

As families struggle to access affordable child care, a recent report commissioned by Harris County officials found that many home-based child care providers are foregoing state support even as they struggle to meet basic needs. The report, introduced earlier this month at a commissioner's court meeting, found that many home providers are missing out on state subsidy and quality rating programs because of language barriers, burdensome enrollment processes and lack of awareness surrounding the programs. Only a quarter of home-based child care providers in Harris County participate in the Texas Workforce Commission child care subsidy program, according to the report. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of child care centers participate in the program, which allows them to serve families receiving financial aid from the state.

"We see home based providers participate at a lower level," said Sara Mickelson, director of early childhood initiatives at Harris County's administration office. "It's not because the need is less, it's because the supports are less tailored and less accessible to home-based providers." By and large, children in the state's subsidized child care program are enrolled in child care centers that serve larger numbers of children in more formal settings, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. Their parents can choose from participating home-based or center-based child care options, although there are far fewer home-based providers who accept children on subsidy, according to the agency. Across the state, the number of registered child care homes participating in the state subsidy program has dropped 45% since 2015, according to the state agency. The drop correlates with an overall decline in the number of home-based providers in Texas.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 29, 2023

Brandon Lingle: It’s a new day in Bexar’s veterans court

Judge Erica Dominguez has no time for excuses in her courtroom. The new leader of County Court-at-Law No. 6, and the misdemeanor Veterans Treatment Court, expects those who stand before her to comply with its standards. For years, Wayne Christian presided over this court, but he did not seek re-election. That opened the door for Dominguez, who won election in the fall. She presided over the specialty court’s docket for the first time Monday afternoon, and her message of tough love reverberated among the 84 veterans. Before taking the bench, Dominguez spent five years as a public defender in the county’s Mental Health, Adult Drug and DWI courts.

“I have a lot of the specialty court background. I know about treatment,” she told the group before listing reasons people often cite for not calling in, failing urinalysis or missing appointments. “All those excuses will not work with me.” The vets ranged in age from their early 20s to 80 and reflected a cross-section of America, the armed forces and Military City, USA. They also offered a reminder that addiction does not discriminate. From the Korean War-era to the present, they carried stories, and maybe trauma, from around the globe. Some served for months, others for decades. Many endured war zones. Some are disabled. Some can’t pay their bills. Some wore coats and ties, and others arrived in work uniforms. Most are in the year-long program due to drunken or impaired driving. All served, or are serving, the nation. And all are reckoning with some form of addiction or mental illness. “We’ve all served in the military,” said Dominguez, a San Antonio native and Air Force vet. “You’re held to a higher standard.”

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City Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 29, 2023

NorthPark Center’s store roster is adding a dozen new names

Avid shoppers were bemoaning that barricades seemed to be growing at NorthPark Center in recent months. Not to worry. The Dallas mall has been busy leasing spaces that it can now talk about. A big one is Joey, a Vancouver, Canada-based restaurant that’s going into the large former Seasons 52 restaurant that closed earlier this month. The 12,000-square-foot space is being gutted and renovated to the tune of $8.5 million, according to state documents, to add dining amenities such as a temperature-controlled patio and a bar. It will be only the second Joey restaurant in Texas when it opens later this year. Houston has a Joey on Westheimer Road and the only other U.S. locations are in Washington state and California.

Timing of new openings are hard to pin down these days, said Kristen Gibbins, NorthPark’s marketing strategy manager. “It’s become normal across the industry that delays are happening.” Some stores that tried to open before Christmas didn’t make it. The Gucci barricade has been up for a while and there’s construction on the park side of the shopping center, indicating Gucci, like Louis Vuitton, is going to take advantage of sunlight on the back of the store for its new larger location. The store near Neiman Marcus on the way to Dillard’s is now scheduled to move around the corner into its new space later this year. Austin-based boot brand Tecovas is opening its first enclosed mall store at NorthPark. Tecovas will fill 5,609 square feet on level one next to California-based Vuori, an active apparel brand that opened before Christmas. Together, the two stores will occupy the former large space left vacant during the pandemic when Microsoft decided to permanently close all its stores.

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Smart Cities Dive - January 29, 2023

El Paso to reconnect neighborhoods divided by highway with deck plaza

El Paso, Texas, is taking steps to advance a proposed deck plaza over Interstate 10 in the city’s downtown. The city has selected the design and engineering firm that will lead the planning and design, but the development could be paired with widening the highway. The Texas Department of Transportation began work on the Downtown 10 project in 2019 and is currently preparing an environmental impact statement. Construction could start in 2025, according to documents published by the state DOT in November. The agency cites traffic congestion, incident management issues and failure of the existing highway to meet current design standards as reasons to improve and widen the roadway. When work began in 1969 on I-10 through El Paso, the below-grade highway disrupted the community

The 2,300-foot-long deck would reconnect those communities, creating a new public space. According to illustrations published by the Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation, the deck could include green space, athletic fields, pedestrian paths and other amenities. “The City of El Paso will work closely with the Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation, an early advocate for a deck plaza over IH-10 in downtown, to engage stakeholders and the broader community in the planning and design of this transformative project,” said Yvette Hernandez, city engineer for the city of El Paso in a press release issued Tuesday by Stantec, the design and engineering firm selected to lead planning on the project. The project has the support of the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, the Paso del Norte Health Foundation and the El Paso Chamber of Commerce. But according to the El Paso Times, some neighborhood groups question whether the deck plaza will truly benefit the low-income communities in the area and have voiced environmental concerns about widening the highway.

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KUT - January 29, 2023

CapMetro set to choose Dottie Watkins as new president and CEO

A bus driver who rose through the ranks of Capital Metro over three decades is now poised to take the top job at the transit agency. Dorothy "Dottie" Watkins started driving buses in 1994 when she was 19 years old. Now 48, Watkins has served as interim president and CEO of CapMetro since May. On Monday, the agency's board of directors is scheduled to vote on making the appointment permanent. Watkins — an Austin native and University of Texas graduate — earned praise from the president of the union representing some 1,600 front-line transit employees who work for CapMetro contractors MV Transportation, BMR Transport and MTM Transit.

"She's homegrown, somebody who started out as a [bus] operator," said Brent Payne, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091. "I think she's the most experienced person dealing with our situations." Watkins' selection as the top pick follows a search by the executive recruiting firm Krauthamer and Associates. The Maryland-based company was hired by CapMetro in July for a two-year $400,000 contract to provide ongoing headhunting services. Some community activists were critical of the search process. "It didn't give advocates an opportunity to help shape the criteria and the characteristics that we were looking for in a new director. It wasn't shared out broadly with the community in a meaningful way," said João Paulo M. Connolly, who advocates on transit issues for the Austin Justice Coalition. "My impression is that it was a very rushed process." Despite his criticism of the search process, Connolly said he was "happy with the result" of Watkins as CEO.

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National Stories

E&E News - January 28, 2023

Top 10 lobbying spenders on energy, the environment

The biggest climate bill in U.S. history helped fuel heavy lobbying from chemical, oil and electric utility companies. Records disclosed to Congress in recent days showed that the American Chemistry Council came out on top, spending $19.8 million. That’s a 19 percent increase over 2021. The combined spending of three petroleum interests far outpaced that figure, however. Occidental Petroleum Corp., ConocoPhillips Co. and Exxon Mobil Corp. combined for a whopping $27.2 million in spending in 2022, a 23 percent increase over 2021. It was a busy year for many industries, headlined by the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes $369 billion in climate change and energy spending. The chemical industry stands to benefit from the climate and energy provisions in the law, since its companies can take advantage of technologies like carbon capture, weatherization, low-carbon fuels and electric vehicles. But it also fought policies, including one to reduce methane emissions and another that reinstates a tax on petroleum products to pay for toxic site cleanup.

“In 2022 we advocated for our members to meet several challenges and opportunities across a number of important issue areas,” ACC spokesperson Scott Openshaw said in an email. He then rattled off a number of areas his group lobbied Congress on: Support for the Kigali Amendment, which phases out hydrofluorocarbons. Implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act and the new chemicals program. Permitting reform. Investing in lower-emissions technologies. Working to prevent a rail strike. Infrastructure development. Improving energy efficiency. American Electric Power Co. Inc., with $8.8 million in spending, ranked No. 6 for the year among energy companies or associations, an E&E News analysis of the lobbying records show. It was a 27 percent increase from 2021. “In 2022, there were significant infrastructure and energy-related bills being debated by Congress or implemented through federal agencies,” said Scott Blake, a spokesperson for the electric utility. “We engaged with lawmakers on the Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, as well as a host of other energy issues to ensure our customers can realize the benefits of these laws,” he said. The other organizations on the list either declined to comment on their lobbying or did not return requests for comment. Occidental, which spent the most lobbying among oil and natural gas companies, had $10.7 million in expenditures, slightly below its 2021 level, records show. The oil and chemical giant said in its disclosures that it focused on issues such as carbon capture, federal lands, methane emissions, toxic chemical regulation and permitting standards.

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Associated Press - January 29, 2023

Trump says beating of Tyre Nichols ‘horrible’ after kicking off 2024 presidential campaign

Former President Donald Trump kicked off his 2024 White House bid with stops Saturday in New Hampshire and South Carolina, events in early-voting states marking the first campaign appearances since announcing his latest run more than two months ago. “Together we will complete the unfinished business of making America great again," Trump said at an evening event in Columbia to introduce his South Carolina leadership team. Later, in an interview, Trump said the footage of the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers is “horrible” and that the attack “never should have happened.” “I thought it was terrible. He was in such trouble. He was just being pummeled. Now that should never have happened,” Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday, a day after authorities released footage of the attack on the 29-year-old Black man after a traffic stop. Nichols died three days later.

The comments were notable for Trump, who is running for the White House again and has a history of encouraging rough treatment of people in police custody. He was president during the racial justice protests that emerged in the summer of 2020 following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. At the time, he signed an executive order encouraging better police practices but failed to acknowledge systemic racial bias. Trump and his allies hope the events in states with enormous power in selecting the nominee will offer a show of force behind the former president after a sluggish start to his campaign that left many questioning his commitment to running again. “They said, ‘He’s not doing rallies, he’s not campaigning. Maybe he’s lost that step,’" Trump said at the New Hampshire GOP’s annual meeting in Salem, his first event. But, he told the audience of party leaders, “I’m more angry now and I’m more committed now than I ever was.” In South Carolina, he further dismissed the speculation by saying that ”we have huge rallies planned, bigger than ever before." While Trump has spent the months since he announced largely ensconced in his Florida club and at his nearby golf course, his aides insist they have been busy behind the scenes. His campaign opened a headquarters in Palm Beach, Florida, and has been hiring staff. And in recent weeks, backers have been reaching out to political operatives and elected officials to secure support for Trump at a critical point when other Republicans are preparing their own expected challenges.

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Associated Press - January 29, 2023

Pence: ‘Mistakes were made’ in handling classified records found at his Indiana home

Former Vice President Mike Pence said Friday that he takes “full responsibility” after classified documents were found at his Indiana home. In his first public comments since the discovery, Pence said he hadn't been aware that the documents were in his residence but acknowledged his lack of awareness wasn't an excuse. “Let me be clear: Those classified documents should not have been in my personal residence,” Pence said at Florida International University, where he was talking about the economy and promoting his new book, “So Help Me God.” “Mistakes were made, and I take full responsibility.” The discovery made public by Pence’s team earlier this week marked the latest in a string of recoveries of sensitive papers from the homes of current and former top U.S. officials. The Department of Justice was already investigating the discovery of classified documents in former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and at President Joe Biden’s home in Delaware and his former Washington office.

Pence's public acceptance of responsibility over his handling of the documents marks a departure from the reactions of both Trump, his former boss, and Biden in their own cases. Trump denounced the search of Mar-a-Lago as “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history” and suggested without evidence that investigators may have planted the documents. Biden has said he was surprised to learn the documents had been found but had “no regrets” about how the public was informed. The discovery of documents at Pence's home came five months after he told The Associated Press that he did not take classified records with him when he left the vice presidency. "No, not to my knowledge," he said when asked if he had retained any such information. The comment — which would typically be unremarkable for a former vice president — was notable at the time given that FBI agents had seized classified and top secret information from Trump's Florida estate on Aug. 8 while investigating potential violations of three different federal laws. Trump claimed that the documents seized by agents were "all declassified." Pence said he decided to undertake the search of his home “out of an abundance of caution” after recent disclosures by Biden's team that documents were found at his former office and in his Delaware home.

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Associated Press - January 29, 2023

Memphis police disband unit that beat Tyre Nichols

The Memphis police chief on Saturday disbanded the unit whose officers beat to death Tyre Nichols as the nation and the city struggled to come to grips with video showing police pummeling the Black motorist. Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said she listened to Nichols’ relatives, community leaders and uninvolved officers in making the decision. “It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” she said in a statement. She said the officers currently assigned to the unit “agree unreservedly” with the step. The footage released Friday left many unanswered questions about the traffic stop involving the Black motorist and about other law enforcement officers who stood by as he lay motionless on the pavement.

The five disgraced former Memphis Police Department officers, who are also Black, have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Nichols’ death three days after the arrest. The recording shows police savagely beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes while screaming profanities at him in an assault that the Nichols family legal team has likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Nichols calls out for his mother before his limp body is propped against a squad car and the officers exchange fist-bumps. The five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. Davis has said other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies have been relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated. Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said the family would “continue to seek justice” and noted that several other officers failed to render aid, making them “just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.” A Memphis police spokeswoman declined to comment on the role played by other officers who showed up at the scene. Cities nationwide had braced for demonstrations, but the protests were scattered and nonviolent. Several dozen demonstrators in Memphis blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River toward Arkansas. Protesters also blocked traffic in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.

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The Hill - January 29, 2023

Alleged Pelosi attacker DePape calls news outlet from jail, makes ‘chilling and bizarre’ remarks

In a call described as “chilling and bizarre,” David DePape, the man accused of the hammer attack on Paul Pelosi from last year, phoned into a television station’s newsroom on Friday to say “you’re welcome.” DePape, 42, called KTVU reporter Amber Lee from San Francisco County jail in California, where he is being held on charges of attempted murder and elder abuse. He has pleaded not guilty. DePape’s call to Lee, the news outlet said, was unexpected. He did not allow Lee to challenge his statements, or ask follow-up questions. During the call, DePape said he wanted to “apologize” for not going further in the attack. “I’m so sorry I didn’t get more of them. It’s my own fault. No one else is to blame. I should have come better prepared,” he said, according to KTVU.

The attack happened on Oct. 28, while Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was asleep in the couple’s home. DePape allegedly broke into a glass door near the back of the home. Authorities say DePape forced Paul Pelosi out of bed. He tried to reach an elevator that contained a phone but was blocked by DePape. Paul Pelosi then managed to make his way into a bathroom and call 911. Realizing that Paul Pelosi had alerted authorities, DePape took him downstairs near the entry of the home, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said. When police arrived, they found the two men struggling for control of a hammer. Police say that’s when DePape pulled the hammer away and struck Paul Pelosi with it. Body camera footage of the incident was released Friday after San Francisco Superior Court Judge Stephen M. Murphy denied prosecutors’ request to keep it secret. Jenkins has said the attack was “politically motivated,” and said the Pelosi family was “specifically targeted” by DePape.

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NPR - January 29, 2023

Police experts say Tyre Nichols' arrest was filled with procedural violations

Many across the country have been reeling from the newly released footage of Tyre Nichols' arrest. Among those most shocked are former police officers and criminal justice experts who say that very little of the arrest went by protocol. "All the actions here, from the very first interaction, really, run counter to how we expect officers, how we train officers to behave," said Ian Adams, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina. "It's hard to find reason in what seems incredibly unreasonable," Adams told NPR. On Jan. 7, Nichols, a 29-year-old Black motorist, was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving in Memphis, Tenn., and aggressively beaten by police. He died in a hospital three days later.

Videos released Friday evening by the city of Memphis showed that officers dragged Nichols from his car on the night of the traffic stop. They also shouted profanities throughout the confrontation. At one point, an officer tried to deploy a Taser at Nichols and then began chasing him on foot. "I'm just trying to go home," Nichols could be heard saying on the videos. Officers repeatedly kicked, punched and used a baton to strike Nichols as he lay on the ground. Five officers involved that night have been fired, arrested and charged with murder. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the five officers violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid. The traffic stop was unusual Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, described the initial traffic stop as "highly unusual" for a variety of reasons. "It was not a normal traffic stop," he told NPR. "They were not in marked vehicles, they were not wearing normal police uniforms, and they pulled him out of the car, got him down on the ground and pepper-sprayed him."

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Newsclips - January 27, 2023

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - January 26, 2023

Amid protests, senator promises changes to bill banning Chinese land buys in Texas

After days of protests, the author of a bill to bar citizens from China and three other countries from buying land in Texas is promising changes to alleviate concerns that the legislation is too broad and could have unintended consequences. But State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said she’s still pressing ahead with the legislation because she worries about Texas selling large plots of land to businesses or people acting as agents for unfriendly nations.

“We are really trying to do something to protect Texans and our national security,” Kolkhorst said Wednesday. Kolkhorst’s SB 147 would bar government entities, businesses and citizens from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran from buying land in Texas. She said the legislation builds off of a law she passed in 2021 that already bars businesses from those countries from buying critical infrastructure, like power and telecommunications facilities. But after days of protests in Houston and Austin, Kolkhorst said she’s prepared to improve the bill by making sure legal permanent residents — green card holders — and maybe those in the pipeline to become citizens aren’t blocked from buying land. There are about 100,000 legal green card holders in the United States from those four nations, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “We are going to make a few changes to the bill,” said Kolkhorst, whose newly redrawn district includes parts of northwest Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery and Waller counties. Thirteen percent of her district's residents are Asian, according to the Legislature, one of the highest percentages of any state senate district. Still, it may not be enough to win the support of Democrats who have slammed the bill as racist and xenophobic. State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said he’s still opposed to targeting people of specific backgrounds from owning land, noting that there are already other bills in the Legislature that would more narrowly prevent Chinese companies from buying agricultural land.

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Washington Post - January 27, 2023

RNC chair seeks to quell revolt, divisions ahead of tense Friday election

A contentious battle over the future of the GOP will be decided Friday when Republican National Committee members vote on whether to keep Ronna McDaniel as chair for two more years or replace her after a disappointing election that many have blamed on former president Donald Trump, who first elevated her to the position. McDaniel is facing a challenge from Harmeet Dhillon, a California lawyer who has represented Trump and the unsuccessful Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, seizing on grass-roots furor demanding new leadership after a string of electoral failures. McDaniel has positioned herself as a steady hand and honest broker who can hold together the party’s factions and continue building out the RNC’s financial and field resources.

Interviews with RNC members gathered at a luxury resort here suggested that Dhillon’s appearances on conservative media and her alliance with right-wing influencers failed to sway, and in some cases even backfired with many of the 168 committee members whose votes will decide the outcome. Still, a nod of support Thursday morning from potential presidential candidate Ron DeSantis underscored the fluidity of the race, with a person close to Dhillon’s campaign saying she picked up 11 votes since the Florida governor’s endorsement. “Only 168 people can vote,” said Benjamin Proto, a committee member from Connecticut who is supporting McDaniel. “I don’t care what Tucker Carlson thinks the next chairman should do, or what Charlie Kirk does,” he said, referring to the Fox News host and Turning Point USA founder respectively. “So I think that was a mistake on Harmeet’s part, it was just a strategic error.” Win or lose, Dhillon made the race competitive — a notable feat against an incumbent — by tapping into real anger among party activists clamoring for some accountability after Republicans underperformed in the 2022 midterms. Dhillon’s supporters have dispatched thousands of emails and phone calls to pressure members to turn away from McDaniel.

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Houston Chronicle - January 27, 2023

Robust GDP growth in fourth quarter allays concerns of recession, for now

The Houston region's economy may be heading for a slowdown in 2023, but isn't exactly hurtling in that direction, according according to data released by the Commerce Department Thursday. The United States economy grew at an annualized rate of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter, the department said in an advance estimate of national economic growth in the gross domestic product, the total value of goods and services produced in the nation. That's a slightly higher reading than economists had expected, although a bit lower than the 3.2 percent growth seen in the third quarter. The upshot is that the nation is not in recession, a significant, widespread and prolonged contraction in economic activity commonly defined as two consecutive quarters of declining economic growth. A revised fourth quarter estimate, based on more complete data, will be released in February.

While official 2022 GDP data for the Houston area won't be released until later this year, the national reading suggests the region hasn't fallen into recession either. Through last year, the region posted strong job gains, and an annual forecast from the Greater Houston Partnership, released in December, projects a short recession for the region in 2023. A September briefing from Oxford Economics, similarly, forecasts GDP growth of 0.3 percent for the Houston region in 2023, which would be relatively healthy compared to other major U.S. metropolitan areas. Markets cheered Thursday's news, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average, S&P 500, and Nasdaq Composite Index all seeing gains after the GDP national reading was released. Pundits did the same, noting that newspaper headlines were full of doom and gloom in 2022 as inflation burdened consumers and businesses and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates seven times over the course of the year in a bid to temper a recovery from theb pandemic. "Worst. Recession. Ever." quipped Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan, on Twitter.

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Houston Chronicle - January 26, 2023

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn looks to GOP House for spark on immigration reform

Despite optimism among some of his Senate colleagues for a bipartisan deal on immigration, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Thursday that the "most logical and realistic" path is through the GOP-controlled House. The comments by the Texas Republican — who has been a key dealmaker in the upper chamber on gun law and other sticky issues — highlight the difficulty of a divided Congress making progress on immigration reform that has eluded lawmakers for decades at a time when border crossings are at an all-time high. House Republicans have been at an impasse over how to move forward on immigration legislation led by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin that they had planned to fast-track after moderates, including U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, said the bill goes too far in restricting asylum. It's now unclear when the bill might get a vote.

And any bill that passes the GOP-controlled House would have to earn the support of at least 60 members in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The legislation that Republicans are eyeing does not include provisions Democrats would likely demand in an immigration bill, such as a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, who were brought to the country as children. Provisions pushed by Roy that would require asylum seekers to be detained while they have their cases adjudicated would draw strong opposition from Democrats. President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has accused Republicans of being "unserious" about immigration reform as he's called on Congress to act. Cornyn, who led a bipartisan group of senators on a trip to El Paso earlier this month, said he has not given up hope all together. He said the trip "represented some progress, in that you have a number of serious-minded senators … who have a little history of tackling tough issues." Members of the group were involved in negotiations on the bipartisan gun law that Congress passed last year, in the wake of the mass shooting in Uvalde. "I do think there is a narrow path toward passing a border security bill with perhaps some other measures attached, but until Texans believe that we’ve made a serious attempt — and that attempt has actually borne fruit in terms of reduced numbers of people crossing the border — I don’t think they’ll tolerate Congress passing strictly immigration provisions," Cornyn said.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - January 27, 2023

Ex-legislator tests lobbying revolving door law by repping big energy companies

A former Texas representative is testing a state law meant to crack down on the revolving door between the Legislature and lobbying firms. Chris Paddie, a Republican who represented parts of far East Texas for a decade, chaired one of a House’s powerful committee that held hearings to demand answers from energy firms after 2021?s deadly winter storm. Now, he has registered to lobby for a handful of the same power companies he was previously tasked with scrutinizing. Paddie has 11 clients, including Irving-based firms Vistra Corp. and TXU Energy, which have pledged to pay him up to $622,000 to advance their interests this session. Last month, he filed his first spending report, confirming he is now officially lobbying on behalf of his clients. His activities come despite a law that bans state legislators from becoming lobbyists within two years of using their own campaign cash to donate to other politicians.

Paddie declined to be interviewed by The Dallas Morning News, instead choosing to reissue a statement from last year defending his lobbying. His last expenditure from his campaign account was less than a year ago but, after an accounting maneuver, says he’s in the clear to start lobbying immediately. Questions about the law’s constitutionality were raised last year at the Texas Ethics Commission, the agency charged with enforcing it. How Paddie fares this session could test the strength of what’s arguably the toughest lobbying restriction enacted here in the last decade, and will either inspire or discourage similar behavior. But Paddie also increasingly finds himself in the crosshairs of one of the state’s most powerful men. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who criticized Paddie’s stewardship of energy legislation last session, has banned the former legislator from his office after he took on big energy companies like Vistra as his clients. He did not answer questions about whether he thinks Paddie is violating lobbying laws. “His actions last session on ERCOT grid failures were disingenuous & unprofessional, some say underhanded,” Patrick tweeted in December. “Vistra leadership & shareholders should know he’s lost his credibility & not welcome in my office.”

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Houston Chronicle - January 27, 2023

Rittenhouse rallies the faithful at Conroe 'Rally Against Censorship'

Kyle Rittenhouse renewed his self-defense claim in his first major public appearance in Texas on Thursday after his acquittal on charges relating to the fatal shooting of two men during protests in Kenosha, Wis., in 2020. "I was not a mass murderer. It was self-defense," Rittenhouse, 20, told the crowd of more than 100 who gathered at the “Rally Against Censorship” in Conroe. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shootings, said he worried about how he was portrayed in the media, with some pundits and commenters calling him “a murderer,” even after he was acquitted of all charges. Rittenhouse served as the featured speaker at the three-hour rally, which included several conservative speakers and a leader of the “Texit” movement that is pushing for Texas to secede from the union.

Rittenhouse and other speakers took turns airing their grievances about the local and national media for their coverage of the trial, criticism met with boos from the crowd. Rittenhouse was acquitted on charges related to fatally shooting two men and wounding another at a rally to protest the police shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse, who traveled to the protest from Illinois, claimed he was acting in self-defense while helping defend local businesses. The verdict touched off a new round of debate on gun rights, vigilantism and violence at racial justice protests. Supporters of Rittenhouse saw the verdict as vindication, saying he took a stand against lawlessness and exercised his Second Amendment right to carry a gun and to defend himself. Organizers held rally in one of the of the most reliable Republican strongholds in Texas, where Montgomery County voters chose former President Donald Trump by more than 70 percent in the last two elections. Before the event, Ashton Woods, founder of the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter, said Rittenhouse’s appearance at rally was not appropriate. He said it is impossible to ignore the racial implications of Rittenhouse’s case. “He killed two people at a protest for Black lives,” Woods said. “That speaks volumes to no matter where you live, racism is close to home.” Attendees included about a half dozen self-described Proud Boys, an all-male, far-right group known to engage in political violence. Several attendees carried firearms.

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Houston Chronicle - January 27, 2023

Jerome Solomon: With 33 years in baseball, Dana Brown has earned Astros' GM job

At the beginning of his introductory news conference, Dana Brown appeared to be a bit tense. No smiles. Measured breathing. Feeling out the room. This moment had been a long time coming. A lifer who has worked his way up in Major League Baseball the old-fashioned way — He earned it (John Houseman voice) — Brown was named general manager of the Astros on Thursday. Don’t let the first look fool you. Brown was built for this. By the end of the 30-minute meeting with media, after he had shared some of his philosophy on building and maintaining a winning organization, Brown was comfortably laughing about the early self-assurance he displayed in telling his wife he was going to marry her. That happened at an amusement park ride when they were in the sixth grade. He was right.

Dana and Casandra will celebrate their 31st wedding anniversary in February. Sporting a slick orange necktie chosen by his better half, Brown was introduced by Astros owner Jim Crane as the candidate who was clearly the right choice for the position after a “pretty vigorous” search. “His résumé is unbelievable,” Crane said. “He’s done every job. “He just stood out, and we had some really qualified people we were looking at for the job.” The Astros were in the market for a new GM because the team and James Click parted ways despite his having helped the team to an American League Championship Series in 2020 and the World Series in 2021 and '22. He and Crane simply didn’t click. Crane bristles at the idea that he is difficult to work for or with. “I don’t ever ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do, and I work hard,” Crane said. “So I expect (everyone that works for me) to do the same, and I expect results.

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Houston Chronicle - January 26, 2023

Houston will not host Democrats' 2024 convention, leaving New York, Atlanta, Chicago as finalists

The Democratic National Convention told Houston officials this week the city will not host Democrats' national convention in 2024. Mayor Sylvester Turner's office confirmed Thursday that Houston no longer is in the running. The snub leaves New York City, Chicago and Atlanta vying to host the convention, which Democrats have estimated could bring more than $230 million in economic activity.

Houston did not publicize its bid, but the convention would have been split between the Toyota Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, according to officials at Houston First Corp., the city's convention arm. The city separately is vying to host the 2028 Republican National Convention. It could not bid for that party's 2024 gathering because it conflicted with other events at the two facilities. Houston has not hosted a convention since 1992, when former President George H.W. Bush accepted the nomination for re-election at the Astrodome. It has not hosted Democrats since 1928.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 27, 2023

Kate Olse: Texas foster care crisis improving, but Legislature must do more

(Katie Olse is CEO of the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, a statewide network of community organizations serving children, youth and families.) When state legislators last met in 2021, children were sleeping in state offices in record numbers — many with serious, complex needs — because there were not enough appropriate foster care placements for them. Legislators recognized this crisis, allocating $124 million to help stabilize the foster-care system and create more capacity for children. Community-based nonprofits — organizations charged by the state to care for foster children — focused on putting that money to their best possible use. More than a year later, Texas and its children are in a better place. The number of children who lack appropriate placements has declined. In addition, networks of child-serving organizations are working together to find homes and treatment for those who have suffered unimaginable trauma and striving to keep siblings together and increase the number of kids who receive foster care from members of their extended families. Other community organizations are improving and expanding services, including mental health and parenting support services, for children and families who need help.

Despite this progress, much more work is needed to ensure that every child in the system is safe and receiving the full range of quality services they need. Legislators in Austin have the opportunity this year to build on the organizations’ work and on the state’s past investments to improve the care and services provided to our state’s most vulnerable children and youth. With the right investments by the Legislature in 2023, even more lasting improvements are within sight. Intensive services for youth in foster care are expensive. Texas needs to continue the progress made updating the foster care funding system so that it reflects the true cost of effective services, helps maintain an experienced and dedicated workforce and prioritizes better outcomes. This work will also support the ongoing implementation of a newer approach to foster care that our leaders have prioritized: community-based care, which pulls agencies and resources in a region together to meet a child’s full needs. Continued investment in prevention and family preservation services will keep families together and safe, while prioritizing mental health services for youth and adolescents is critical to their stability and well-being. The highest priority of child- and family- serving organizations is to provide a safe and supportive environment for each child. Our work, however, is about more than putting a roof over kids’ heads. Our members are increasingly focused on providing the unique care that these young Texans need — the range of services that help them heal from past trauma, such as mental-health support.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 27, 2023

Texas A&M-Fort Worth’s impact on the larger local economy

Business leaders and politicians have no shortage of superlatives when describing the future Texas A&M-Fort Worth campus on the south end of downtown . Developer John Goff calls the project “the most significant thing for the city in the last 100 years.” Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker predicts it is “an opportunity that will pay dividends for generations.” To a casual observer, looking at the site’s current parking lots and plain concrete law school, those assessments might seem like exaggerations. But with construction starting this summer on the first of three planned buildings, experts say the new campus will indeed be transformative, well beyond just educating college students. What was once Hell’s Half Acre, wild west red-light district in the late 1800s, will become a shiny new jewel in downtown’s crown and an economic engine for the entire city — attracting major high-tech industries, creating new and higher-paying jobs, and elevating Fort Worth’s ability to compete on a national level.

Goff is confident that will happen. “A&M is going to bring, through their expertise and sheer inertia, a lot of corporate relocations,” said Goff, who owns Crescent Real Estate LLC. Goff was a driving force behind the campus project, after former Mayor Betsy Price approached him for ways to help Fort Worth recover from the pandemic. He said he is already working with two companies that want to move their entire businesses to downtown adjacent to the future campus. “The university creates software engineers that (the company) needs, and they have a tough time accessing that talent,” Goff said. “This is going to happen. There’s going to be many more of those.” The project — estimated at $255 million — involves three new buildings along Commerce Street across from the Water Gardens. The complex will have an education extension building and a research and innovation center, where students will learn alongside private industry partners. Construction is slated to begin this summer on the Law & Education Building with a 2025 target for completion. No dates are set for construction on the other two buildings. Robert Sturns, the Fort Worth economic development director, said companies want to be in a place where they can hire skilled employees, build on existing strengths and leverage with local partners.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - January 27, 2023

Sara Stevenson: Texas lawmakers meddling with school librarians over kids’ books

(Sara Stevenson is a former middle school librarian in Austin and a member of the Texas Library Association and the American Library Association.) When schools went remote at the beginning of the coronavirus era, parents were briefly in awe at teachers’ patience and skills. As schools remained closed and parents grew angry, educators quickly fell from grace, and 370,000 have left the profession since the beginning of the pandemic. Even at that, school librarians experienced the steepest fall. During my 15 years as a public middle-school librarian, I frequently received affirmation for my vocation to encourage young people to read. But ever since then-Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth published a list of 750 questionable books in fall 2021, Texas librarians have been put on the defensive. School librarians fully support parents’ rights to monitor their children’s reading choices. In fact, some parents use the selection of library books as a way to facilitate conversations and even read books together. Problems arise when particular parents try to usurp this role from the professionally trained librarians and decide which books belong or don’t belong in the library — not just for their kids but for all children.

School librarians in Texas are required to hold master’s degrees (or be working towards them) as well as teaching certificates and are charged with curating their library collections. Each school population has different age levels, interests, needs and community standards, and the librarian’s duty is to choose suitable titles while making sure many points of view are represented. A book’s inclusion in a library is not a librarian’s endorsement of the content. The book is there to provide access and choice. Now, several Texas House members have introduced bills that would directly affect school libraries. House Bill 338, filed by Republican Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, would skip the role of the librarian altogether by putting the onus directly on the book publishers. Under this measure, publishers would have to rate every book for age appropriateness and display these ratings on their covers. The labels wouldn’t just rate for sexual content; they would even warn if a book might be too scary for a child younger than 7. How can anyone possibly decide this for all children? How would Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” be rated? It has monsters, yes, but it’s also adorable. The consequence for a publisher’s failure to include the rating would be that its books will not be available for school libraries to purchase.

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Dallas Morning News - January 27, 2023

Southwest Airlines leaders defend tech, schedules and staffing after holiday meltdown

Southwest Airlines’ top executives say the company’s technology, staffing and scheduling plans didn’t fail in late December, even after a holiday meltdown in which 16,700 flights were canceled and the carrier forced the shutdown of two-thirds of its operations. Facing a Department of Transportation inquiry for “unrealistic scheduling of flights” and a slowdown in bookings to start the year, Southwest CEO Bob Jordan defended the company’s maligned technology systems and operating plans. He also tried to assure travelers that a breakdown of the magnitude that happened in December won’t “ever happen again.” “Based on what we know at this point, our processes and technology generally worked as designed,” Jordan said during the company’s year-end financial results call Thursday in which Dallas-based Southwest announced a $220 million loss for the last three months of 2022.

That includes an $800 million hit from the operational meltdown and another $300 million to $350 million revenue loss from fewer bookings in January and February “associated with the operational disruptions in December 2022.” Southwest also refused to back down on calls to reduce the number of flights to start 2023 while it steadies its operational issues, saying it will hold with plans to fly about 10% more in the first quarter than it did a year ago. While Southwest’s cancellation problems have settled since December, Southwest is still outpacing other carriers, said Cowen analyst Helane Becker. “We are surprised to see that capacity growth expectations have not changed significantly for FY23 or the March quarter,” Becker wrote in a note to investors. “This could be a cause for future concern given the severe operational issues previously experienced in their network over the holiday season and in the months prior.” Southwest has been under pressure to deliver solutions to the problems behind December’s cancellation event in which its crew rescheduling software was unable to keep up with a large number of flight cancellations caused by a winter storm that hit important airports in Denver and Chicago.

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Dallas Morning News - January 27, 2023

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Dan Patrick’s tradition busting could turn sour for Texas GOP

In expected hyperpartisan form, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has decided to do away with Democratic Senate committee chairs, leaving just one, the longtime moderate Houston Democrat John Whitmire, a lion of the Legislature whose removal would have been too much tradition busting even for Patrick. It’s a sad but predictable play from Patrick, a man for whom party means more than tradition and who sees power in partisanship, even if it upends the way our state has been governed. The worry these days for people in positions like Patrick’s is that someone will manage to get to their right in a primary. (Patrick spent part of his week in a weird news release battle with ultraconservative state Rep. Steve Toth to prove something, it was hard to tell what, about who is more conservative.) Thankfully, not every Republican in power in this state is burying tradition in the name of power, a practice that has a way of turning around on you. Last week, House Speaker Dade Phelan refused to give into the pressure to solely appoint Republican chairs. After being reelected as speaker, Phelan told House members to not “confuse” the Texas Legislature with Washington, D.C.

As a result, his own party went after him in political ads and news releases so breathless they read as parody. James Wesolek, a spokesman for the Texas GOP, told us that the party spent $15,000 on ads against Phelan for refusing to ban Democratic chairs. Wesolek said the ads were purchased for a two-week stint in Phelan’s district. Such is party loyalty and cohesion in the state GOP these days. Phelan has not announced any appointments yet, but he has already signaled to voters that he wants to keep partisanship and extremism at bay this session. We wish him luck. Patrick’s actions thus far, first banning media from the chamber floor and now eliminating Democratic chairs, exacerbate the Senate’s extreme tilt and weaken the trust between the Legislature and voters in a time when bipartisanship is desperately needed. Texas has serious business to get done to keep us moving forward as a state. Chances are the Senate will be hog-tied with business it shouldn’t be worrying about. That’s bad for Texans. But it could be even worse for Republicans. If the tide ever turns on conservatives in this state, they won’t have tradition to stand on now.

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Dallas Observer - January 26, 2023

Texas DMV rejects 'vulgar' PETA license plate

Well. See. Let's do it this way: Imagine driving along the highway at a smooth 82 mph on a sunny afternoon with the kids when you roll up to another car and your adorable fifth grader says, "Love to ... " and their eighth-grade sibling chimes in "f*ck you." And, that PETA, is why your "LVTOFU" license plate was rejected by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles. The letters were supposed to be an affirmation of the soybean-based protein, tofu, PETA explained in a press release. Genius touch of marketing, PETA. Tip o' our vegan hat.

A spokesperson at the DMV says the request was rejected because it contains a common acronym for a vulgar term. There are codes, after all, for traversing our state roads and highways. Texas Administrative Code title 43, part 10, chapter 217, subchapter B stipulates the department will not issue any license plate containing a personalized alphanumeric pattern that is "vulgar, directly or indirectly (defined as profane, swear or curse words)." Catie Cryar, the media relations manager for PETA, applied for the soybean-loving plates. PETA says a similar license plate was approved in Maine, but Colorado, Florida, Tennessee and Virginia have all turned down requests. “The Texas DMV has the opportunity here to start driving positive change for animals who suffer daily for nothing more than a fleeting taste of their flesh,” PETA president Ingrid Newkirk says in a statement. See what they did there? "Driving" positive change for animals. PETA points out that tofu is not only cheaper than meat but is also packed with protein and contains no cholesterol and has many other health benefits. Adding in the release that "every person who might have been inspired to go vegan by the “LVTOFU” message on Cryar’s license plate would have saved nearly 200 animals every year and dramatically shrunk their own carbon footprint." How about H8STK? Cryar has submitted an appeal to the Texas DMV.

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Houston Chronicle - January 26, 2023

For the birds! Texas Capitol getting new roof to fix leaks, seal openings from birds

The Texas Legislature has been dealing with a lot of poop. About 200 pounds of it to be exact. That is how much bird poop and trash construction workers at the Texas Capitol Building have cleared out near the iconic dome in the heart of Austin. Since August, the 134-year-old building has been under repairs again, this time for a $25 million roof replacement. While the dome itself isn’t under construction, workers are trying to close off areas that birds have been able to penetrate for years.

“Openings in the dome will be sealed to prevent pigeon infiltration, they are finding their way in through remarkably small openings,” according to an update on the construction work provided by the State Preservation Board, which manages the building. It is the first full roof replacement in 75 years. And it’s badly needed. During every rain, workers position buckets and trash cans all around the building to collect rainwater from the leaky roof. During construction, the building remains open to the public and state officials. But the exterior has scaffolding that’s going to be around for some time to come. It’s mostly a safety precaution for workers as they are working on gutters and are close to the edges of the historic building. The scaffolding is nothing like in 2010 when the whole dome was covered for repainting and weatherproofing work. The Texas Capitol Building, originally completed in 1888, houses the Texas Legislature and the governor’s office.

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KTRE - January 26, 2023

Texas African American Museum board says Camacho-Ali won’t fulfill $1M donation

A donation promise made to a Tyler museum will go unfulfilled, they have announced. Dr. Khalilah Camacho Ali, the ex-wife of the late boxing legend Muhammad Ali, announced in February 2022 at a fundraising gala for the Texas African American Museum in Tyler that she planned to donate $1 million to the museum. “And all I can say is before I make my speech, I am actually going to donate $1 million to the Texas African-American Museum,” she said during her comments at the event. “That was February last year,” said Gloria Washington, TAAM executive director. “We have made some contact with Mrs. Ali but she still has not come through with her promise of one million dollars.” Washington said there’s no ill will toward Ali but they want the public to know a year later, there is still no money.

“She did not leave us one million dollars and she has not given us one million dollars,” Washington said. The purpose of the Texas African American Museum is to educate and empower the community. They had completed renovations on one half of the building and had one more side to go. “We need to put on a new roof, we need to purchase new artifacts, there’s a lot of things we could do with that money,” Washington said. She is sad, still remains hopeful. “This is like heaven away from home for me because I’m in here with all of our ancestors and when I’m here I feel like my ancestors are just telling me, ‘Keep going Gloria, keep going Gloria, it’s going to get better,” Washington said. The museum is now relaunching their capital campaign to raise funds for renovations.

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Texas Observer - January 26, 2023

Former Star-Telegram conservative columnist spews hate in student chatroom

On January 25, 2022, the Star-Telegram announced a handful of new conservative columnists who they hoped would fill what they described at the time as a “dearth of content” in the area of “conservative commentary on local and state issues.” Nevermind the right-center rating the Star-Telegram has received from two media bias websites. According to the Star-Telegram, what Fort Worth needed at that particular juncture—amid a national panic over critical race theory—was more conservative commentary. Among them was Carlos Turcios, described as a student at University of Texas at Arlington and a Republican Party precinct chairman who has “gained attention for his activism on education issues in the Fort Worth school district.” Indeed, Turcios has gained attention for organizing protests and events relating to issues that he writes about. Turcios has also gained the attention of the Texas Observer for the hateful posts he’s apparently made in a Discord chatroom for the UTA chapter of Turning Points USA (TPUSA), a nonprofit organization founded by right-wing activist Charlie Kirk focused on recruiting college students via chapters across the country that regularly promotes far-right talking points and has flirted with the “alt-right.”

(After the Texas Observer reached out to Turcios for comment, he changed his Twitter bio to reflect that he’s now a former, rather than a current columnist for the paper. His last column appeared on December 16). The following quotes, culled from various Discord chats that occured between November 2022 and January 2023, include a variety of hateful rhetoric. Consider this a trigger warning. “Radical leftists are flooding the petition against the sex Ed curriculum,” a user under the name Los Pollos Hermanos wrote in the UTA TPUSA Discord chatroom. (Los Pollos Hermanos is a reference to a fictional restaurant—with ties to the criminal underworld—in the TV show Breaking Bad). That user also posted a link to a Star-Telegram piece by Turcios, calling it “my article,” and was addressed as Carlos by other users—apparently confirming that Turcios was in fact writing under that username. “All because we are against a sex Ed curriculum that removes male and female. These people are pedos and groomers,” Los Pollos Hermanos continued. In response to a Tik Tok post by a trans person, the user that is apparently Turcios—whose Facebook says he is the son of immigrant parents from Mexico and El Salvador—wrote “People like that need to lose their citizenship and be sent to Central America doing countryside labor.”

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Associated Press - January 26, 2023

Texas death row inmates sue over solitary confinement

A group of death row inmates filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against the Texas prison system over its policy of mandatory and indefinite solitary confinement for all prisoners who are awaiting execution, saying it causes severe physical and psychological harm. The suit alleges that the policy severely restricts their access to human interaction, medical care and legal representation as they are confined to their 8-by-12-foot (2.4-by-3.7-meter) cells for all but two hours a day. “The conditions on death row in Texas have been characterized as some of the most brutal death row conditions in the country. The plaintiffs in this case are seeking relief from conditions that have been described as torture,” said Pieter Van Tol, one of the attorneys for the inmates.

The class action lawsuit, which was filed in Houston federal court on behalf of the 182 male inmates on death row, alleges the solitary confinement policy “addresses no legitimate security or penological need, and serves no purpose but to heighten the mental anguish” of inmates. One of the four inmates who filed the lawsuit, Mark Robertson, 54, has spent the past 31 years on death row, with 21 of those in solitary confinement. The lawsuit says that since Robertson was put in solitary, his cardiac health has declined, he has developed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and his mental health issues have been exacerbated. Amanda Hernandez, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. All male death row inmates in Texas are housed at the Polunsky Unit, located outside Livingston, which is about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northeast of Houston. The state’s seven female death row inmates, who are not part of the lawsuit, are housed at a separate prison. The lawsuit comes as a group of Texas prisoners have been on hunger strike since Jan. 10 to protest the state’s solitary confinement policy. It’s unclear how many have taken part, with activists estimating the number at several hundred at the start of the strike and TDCJ saying it was about 70.

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County Stories

Houston Chronicle - January 26, 2023

Harris County clerk employee accused of accessing financial info, using stolen funds to buy cookies

A former Harris County Clerk’s Office mail room employee has been accused of buying cookies with someone else's dough. Prosecutors believe Sharika Prejean, 30, would use her position as a public employee to access financial records and make several Tiff’s Treats purchases for freshly baked cookies, officials said Thursday in court. One charge of credit or debit card abuse alleges that Prejean used a woman’s Mastercard last September to make one of the orders. Deputies with Harris County Constable’s Office, Precinct 1, became aware of the theft and investigated. She had stolen mail on her at the time of her arrest Tuesday, Harris County District Attorney’s Office prosecutor Hector Garza said.

The clerk's office handles records pertaining to marriages, property and probate court. Officials at the agency said Prejean was hired as a mailroom clerk in July 2022 and terminated from her position Tuesday. Prejean is also charged with one count of fraudulent use of identifying information in connection with stealing an elderly man’s financial information during a previous stint working at a Heights post office in 2021. In that case, Prejean swiped several envelopes — including an item containing a tracking device — and left the post office with the mail. She drove to the Galleria-area and was stopped by authorities. She purportedly confessed to having stolen mail for months, Garza said in court. Prejean appeared in court Thursday after having made bond. Her defense attorney, Stephen Touchstone, asked Judge Ramona Franklin in the 338th District Court to consider keeping her bail low because she is accused of a non-violent offense.

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Houston Chronicle - January 27, 2023

This neighborhood has the lowest life expectancy in Harris County. A grant is trying to change that.

In the northeast Houston neighborhood of Settegast, the average person can expect to live for 66 years, according to federal estimates — giving the neighborhood an unwanted distinction: It has the shortest life expectancy in Harris County. The average person residing in the quiet community just beyond the Loop, where dogs sleep in the streets and horses flick their tails in grassy yards, can expect to live at least 20 years less than the average person does in areas including Clear Lake City, Upper Kirby and parts of the Energy Corridor. Carolyn Rivera, who has lived in her Settegast home for 43 years, can tick off the maladies facing her neighbors: high blood pressure, a brain tumor, epilepsy. Two teenagers she knows suffer from kidney disease. In the neighborhood, bounded by a Union Pacific railroad terminal on one side and two landfills to the other, it is hard to get fresh food. The city doesn't provide the same type of drainage other neighborhoods in Houston enjoy. And some homes never fully recovered from damage wrought by floodwaters during Hurricane Harvey. Rivera is turning 80 this year, and she said she plans to spend the entire year celebrating.

The poor life expectancy in Rivera's neighborhood has drawn the attention of group of organizations, including Urban Land Institute Houston, Harris County Public Health, the Houston Land Bank and the Kinder Institute. Using a $27,000 grant from ULI Houston's parent organization, the nonprofits and government staff are drawing up an action plan for Settegast. Rather than trying to pinpoint the causes of the neighborhood's short life expectancy — which can be very difficult to do — the group is turning to residents to understand their most pressing concerns. The strategy involves hiring residents such as Rivera to go door to door and organize workshops to gather information on what issues people living in Settegast are struggling with, based on the notion that addressing such concerns will likely impact health outcomes. So far, pollution and the lack of resources, such as grocery stores or doctors, have ranked among the top problems cited by residents. "We're trying to look at how historical and current discrimination in different planning and development practices are impacting the health and well-being of residents today," said Elizabeth Van Horn, an urban planner and public health analyst at Harris County Public Health who is the project manager for the effort.

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City Stories

San Antonio Express-News - January 26, 2023

Email threat leads Kerrville City Hall to bar weapons, increase law enforcement at open meetings

An emailed threat against Kerrville City Council members led to heightened security and a ban on firearms at council meetings, according to news reports. Meetings will also have “increased law enforcement presence,” a city spokesperson told the Express-News. Additional security measures like a walk-through metal detector and a handheld metal detector wand for more “pressing searches” will also be implemented before visitors enter the building to attend open meetings. Recent city council meetings could be described as heated, according to a Kerrville city spokesperson.

“The City is urging voluntary compliance and cooperation from such visitors and patience as its works to ensure the public’s safety,” the city said in a statement. The email in question said the sender wouldn’t mind seeing an assault rifle used against the council, according to the Kerr County Lead. Kerrville police arrested the sender, and he reportedly bonded out the same day, according to the Kerrville Daily Times. Firearms are prohibited in open meetings at San Antonio and Boerne city halls. A Monday news release from the city announced a prohibition on “both firearms and other weapons at City Hall during any meeting open to the public.” The Kerr County Lead reported City Council voted 4-1 to ban firearms from their chambers on Jan. 17. This was to “ensure public safety,” the city said in a statement.

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San Antonio Express-News - January 26, 2023

McCombs family buys prime real estate near Pearl, next to San Antonio Museum of Art, from CPS Energy

The McCombs family has acquired a chunk of prime real estate abutting the River Walk and near Pearl — a parcel once eyed as a potential location for a baseball stadium — from CPS Energy. McCombs Family Partners this week purchased 5.9 acres next to the San Antonio Museum of Art from the city-owned utility for $29.5 million. It’s a “special piece of land” and “an asset that really could be developed into something meaningful for the city,” said Harry Adams IV, managing executive at McCombs Properties.

It’s unclear how the property might be redeveloped, however. The family is not ready to disclose its plans but said previously that it wants to increase the connection between the museum and Pearl, the popular entertainment district that’s beginning to expand outside its original footprint. The site was among multiple locations under consideration for a ballpark in 2017. But a baseball stadium doesn’t appear to be in the works now. “It’s not something we’re looking at,” Adams said. “We’re not going to rule anything out, but it’s not currently part of our plans.” B.J. “Red” McCombs, 95, started building his real estate dealings as a young man in Corpus Christi before coming to San Antonio, Adams said. Here, he was involved in efforts to build the Tower of the Americas, the Shops at Rivercenter and the Alamodome, among other projects. McCombs Enterprises has multiple arms. Marsha Shields, one of McCombs’ daughters, leads it.

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Dallas Observer - January 26, 2023

Can Alex Stein troll his way onto the Highland Park ISD School Board?

Alex Stein marched into the Highland Park ISD annex building on a mission. Dressed in a suit and tie, he introduced himself to an unsuspecting employee as “Alex Stein, pimp on a blimp.” The 30-something-year-old comedian-turned-viral-internet-sensation, you see, had set his sights on an upcoming local election. Stein filmed himself as he picked up the application to run as a candidate for Place 7 on the Highland Park ISD Board of Trustees. “Are you nervous?” he asked the employee after they had stepped into an office. “Um, no. Not at all,” the woman replied. “You guys should be,” Stein shot back.

To hear Stein tell it, he’s running for the school board to fix grave issues. Critics, though, are far more skeptical of his true intentions. For several months, Stein has steadily built up a robust online presence. He’s infamous for appearing at city council meetings, both in person in North Texas and virtually in other states, to comment on hot-button topics ranging from COVID-19 vaccines to abortion rights. Detractors have slammed him as bigoted and transphobic, along with a number of other less-than-favorable descriptors. Supporters have lauded him as a renegade reformer cleverly working to expose the lunacy of the left. Stein’s upcoming election is emblematic of a broader GOP push to pack local school boards with conservatives. Steve Bannon, a right-wing podcaster who once served as an adviser to former President Donald Trump, has previously promoted such races as “the path to save the nation.” Stein isn’t afraid to broadcast his own controversial take on gender issues. He once appeared at a Plano City Council meeting claiming to be a transgender swimmer. He also recently protested against a drag queen story hour at a New York City public library.

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National Stories

NBC News - January 27, 2023

Selfies, karaoke and Chick-fil-A: Rep. George Santos is reveling in the spotlight despite investigations

Embattled Rep. George Santos is refusing to face the music, but he appears to be relishing his moment in the spotlight. Santos, the New York Republican, freshman fabulist and subject of federal, state, local and international investigations, was spotted Wednesday night by NBC News smiling, laughing and taking dozens of selfies with patrons during karaoke night at a popular Washington barbecue joint. “Many people are asking why I’d want a selfie with George Santos, to which I say who *wouldn’t* want a picture with the lead singer of Queen, father of Texas BBQ, Purple Heart Iraq war hero, and three-time Super Bowl champion?” tweeted Natalie Johnson, a former GOP Hill staffer who snapped a selfie with Santos. While he didn’t grab the microphone and sing when an emcee called out his name — “George, you’re on deck!” — Santos hung with a group of his staffers, reporters, lobbyists and a former lawmaker and had the entire basement of Hill Country Barbecue buzzing, according to people who were there.

The group, which included former Rep. Kevin Yoder, R-Kan., tried to get him to sing karaoke, and he seemed to consider getting up onstage with the band but ultimately declined, according to Politico Playbook and witnesses. His song of choice, Santos told friends: “I Will Survive.” “Everybody’s got to relieve stress somehow, and he’s got a lot to release,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who heard about Santos’ karaoke outing but was not there. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, said: “Any outside observer can tell you that this is someone who is absolutely, thoroughly, completely loving the attention he’s getting. It’s bizarre.” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., whose office is just down the hall from Santos’, suggested all the attention could benefit Santos. "The constant coverage could turn him into a martyr," Burchett said. George Anthony Devolder Santos has spent weeks running and dodging questions from the media. But his big karaoke night in Washington was just the latest sign of how the serial sensationalist has switched up his strategy for dealing with a stack of controversies that keeps piling higher with each day: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. In addition to hitting the town, Santos has left out treats this week for the pack of reporters and camera operators who have been diligently staking out his office in the Longworth House Office Building since his scandal broke. On Tuesday, it was Dunkin' donuts, Wednesday was Chick-fil-A sandwiches and on Thursday it was rainbow-frosted cupcakes.

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Houston Chronicle - January 27, 2023

With GOP in control, House moves to loosen restraints on oil and gas

Three weeks after taking control of the House for the first time in four years, Republicans are pushing ahead on a less aggressive approach to decarbonizing the U.S. energy sector that allows for a continued role for oil and natural gas. With expanded tax credits for wind, solar power and electric vehicles locked in by the Biden administration, the GOP is attempting to pass legislation increasing domestic oil and gas production and speeding the development of next-generation nuclear power plants and carbon-capture technology. “You have to look at global emissions, not just (U.S.) emissions. And what we can truly do for the environment is export better technology and good reliable clean energy, which means natural gas and nuclear,” said Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, who sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “Getting rid of that is the opposite we want to do.” After two years of Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress, the GOP is moving to reverse course on American energy policy that over the past decade has come to increasingly favor wind and solar power over fossil fuels.

Republicans already have introduced legislation that would require future administrations to hold federal lease sales for oil and gas drilling to replace any oil released oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve without a declaration of emergency. At the same time, they are looking to require future administrations to hold regular lease sales for oil drilling on federal lands, the Gulf of Mexico and offshore Alaska, following Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s comment last year the administration might include no lease sales in its five-year offshore drilling plan. Such legislation is unlikely to get past the Democrat-controlled Senate or President Joe Biden, but that has done little to dissuade Republicans from talking about them. Rep. Randy Webber, R-Beaumont, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said Biden’s decision to request more oil from OPEC last summer to offset high gasoline prices — at the same he called for a reduction in U.S. oil production — incensed many in the GOP. “The president could have come to Texas and begged us to produce more oil,” he said. “He didn’t have to go to the Saudis.” Republicans’ retaking of the House comes as the party has relaxed its skepticism towards climate change, questioning not so much that humans are causing climate change but the significance of that fact and Democrats' approach to reducing emissions.

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NBC News - January 27, 2023

Arizona’s GOP legislators vote to shield themselves from public records laws

Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved a measure this week exempting itself from the state’s public records law and authorizing the destruction of all emails sent or received by legislators and their staffs after 90 days. The new rules adopted by both GOP-led chambers effectively shield members and their staff from public records requests, making investigations into any potential wrongdoing far more difficult. The exemptions from public records laws and the ability to destroy emails after 90 days apply to both chambers. The state House, however, also adopted new rules allowing its members and their staff to immediately delete all texts sent and received, as well as calendars and “communications on online platforms.” The new Senate rules shields texts related to official government business from public records laws if they have been sent or received on nongovernment devices.

The state’s public records law requires that “all officers and public bodies” officials retain records and correspondences “reasonably necessary or appropriate to maintain an accurate knowledge of their official activities and of any of their activities that are supported by monies from this state” indefinitely and to comply, with some exceptions, with public records requests promptly after they are submitted. Democrats and government watchdog groups slammed the new rules as an abuse of power, while the Republicans who voted for the changes say they aim to protect the legislators' privacy. Other rule changes adopted by the Republican majority in the state House this week include new limits to debating proposed legislation — capping such discussions at just 30 minutes — a move state House Democrats said eliminated one of the few tools the minority party possesses to examine or delay bills the majority is pushing. Because the chambers adopted the changes via rule changes, not legislation, Republicans were able to bypass the need for Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs' signature for them to go into effect. All of the rule changes were adopted in both chambers along party lines.

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Associated Press - January 27, 2023

House Republicans push for info on Hunter Biden’s art sales

House Republicans renewed their investigation this week into the art dealings of Hunter Biden, pushing for details on who is purchasing his work as part of the party’s long-promised probe into President Joe Biden and his family. Rep. James Comer, new chairman of the House Oversight Committee, asked for a transcribed interview with Georges Bergès, the art dealer who has been showcasing Hunter Biden's work in New York and Los Angeles galleries since 2021. He requested communications between the gallery and the White House, citing Republican concerns the younger Biden is trading in on his father's name. “Despite being a novice artist, Hunter Biden received exorbitant amounts of money selling his artwork, the buyers’ identities remain unknown, and you appear to be the sole record keeper of these lucrative transactions,” Comer, a Kentucky Republican, said in a letter to Bergès on Wednesday. The White House counsel's office and a representative for Hunter Biden did not immediately return requests for comment.

The Oversight request comes as Comer and Republicans ramp up their investigation into members of the Biden family and their business dealings. The Republicans have requested information from Bergès before, but those requests were ignored when the GOP was in the minority. Biden aides have derided Republicans’ focus on Hunter Biden, who has never held a position in the White House or presidential campaign, as hypocritical. They point to the president’s predecessor, Donald Trump, who had a daughter and son-in-law working for him in the White House and often spent taxpayer dollars at his own properties. The Biden White House said it established an arrangement in the early days of the presidency that allows Hunter Biden to sell his artwork without knowing the identity of the purchaser. Officials said it would avoid any potential ethical entanglements with the sales. Under the arrangement, a private art gallery owner sets prices for Hunter Biden's work and handles all bidding and sales, but does not share any information about buyers or prospective buyers with Hunter or anyone in the administration. Bergès also agreed to reject any offer that he deemed suspicious or that came in over the asking price.

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Bloomberg - January 27, 2023

Putin plans new Ukraine push despite losses as he prepares for years of war

Nearly a year into an invasion that was supposed to take weeks, Vladimir Putin is preparing a new offensive in Ukraine, at the same time steeling his country for a conflict with the US and its allies that he expects to last for years. The Kremlin aims to demonstrate that its forces can regain the initiative after months of losing ground, putting pressure on Kyiv and its backers to agree to some kind of truce that leaves Russia in control of the territory it now occupies, according to officials, advisers and others familiar with the situation. Even Putin can’t deny the weaknesses of the military that he’s spent decades building up after his troops lost more than half their initial gains in Ukraine, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public. The persistent setbacks have led many in the Kremlin to be more realistic about their immediate ambitions, recognizing that even holding the current front line would be an achievement.

But Putin remains convinced that Russia’s larger forces and willingness to accept casualties – which already number in the tens of thousands, more than in any conflict since World War II, according to US and European estimates – will allow it to prevail despite the failings so far. The renewed offensive may start as soon as February or March, the people close to the Kremlin said. Their comments confirm warnings from Ukraine and it allies that a new Russian offensive is coming and suggest it may begin before Kyiv gets newly promised supplies of US and and European battle tanks. Putin’s determination presages another deadly escalation in his war as Kyiv prepares a new push of its own to eject his forces, dismissing any cease-fire that leaves Russia occupying its land. The Russian leader believes he has no alternative but to prevail in a conflict he sees as an existential one with the US and its allies, the people said. A new round of mobilization is possible as soon as this spring, they said, as the economy and society are increasingly subordinated to the needs of the war. “Putin is disappointed at how things are going but he isn’t ready to abandon his goals,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of R.Politik, a political consultancy. “It just means that the route will be longer, more bloody and worse for everyone.” US and European intelligence officials question whether Russia has the resources for a major new offensive, even after mobilizing 300,000 additional troops last fall. Ukraine’s allies, meanwhile, are stepping up weapons supplies, preparing to deliver armored vehicles and main battle tanks for the first time that could help Ukrainian troops break through Russian lines.

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