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Newsclips - July 25, 2021

Lead Stories

Austin American-Statesman - July 24, 2021

Tighter rules for Texas power grid are a shift for Gov. Greg Abbott, GOP

When Gov. Greg Abbott issued a directive to the regulators of Texas' power grid earlier this month, he did something that that could be considered unthinkable for a state chief executive who might have his eyes on a higher office in Washington. Abbott called for more — not less — government regulation of the state's electricity market. His orders to the Public Utility Commission of Texas signaled a move away from Texas' wild west energy market and indicated that Abbott wants Texas' energy market to have more government-controlled levers. "It's really a very odd, strange dynamic where you have folks who have traditionally been very pro-free market deregulation really moving quite in the opposite direction," said Doug Lewin, an Austin-based energy consultant.

Abbott's mandate— along with the implementation of three GOP-led laws passed out of the Legislature this year — goes against the anti-regulation ethos that led to the creation of Texas' energy-only market. As the market currently operates, utilities generally buy electricity from power-generating companies at rates that are dictated by the push and pull of supply and demand. It's a system engineered by the state's political leadership that has been dominated by Republicans since the late 1990s. During a recent Senate hearing, Public Utility Commission Chairman Peter Lake called Texas' energy market a "crisis-based business model" — one that pushes utilities to keep the grid on the edge of its capacity. While designed to keep electric bills low, Texas' power market is more exposed to vulnerabilities created by extreme weather events or power plant failures. Miscalculations and unplanned outages can force the grid operator to shut wide swaths of Texas down, as it did during the February freeze, and neared during a mid-June power squeeze. Abbott, who did not respond to requests for comment on this story, has said he wants to encourage the construction of more natural gas-, coal- and nuclear-generated power in Texas. Because they do not rely on the whims of Mother Nature, they are considered more reliable.

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Dallas Morning News - July 23, 2021

Texas legislators choosing sides, assessing ‘monumental’ impact of potential UT move to SEC

News that Texas’ flagship university might soon join Oklahoma’s in bolting the Big 12 Conference eclipsed the Democrats’ walkout as Topic A in the Legislature on Friday. In the hallways and along the railing on the Texas House floor, lawmakers who are University of Texas alumni mostly were noncommittal or offered a quiet thumbs up on the apparent resolve of UT Austin and the University of Oklahoma to leap to the more lucrative Southeastern Conference. One Texas ex, Rep. Drew Darby, said he disapproves of a push by some colleagues to rush out legislation to stop the attempt by the two top Big 12 programs to bolt. “It’s clearly an item of discussion on the floor but I think this should be left to the folks that run these universities, rather than the Legislature,” said Darby, a San Angelo Republican who earlier this year helped pass a law to allow college athletes to earn money on their name, image and likeness. Several GOP House lawmakers who are alums of Texas A&M University, an SEC member that is upset with UT’s move, declined to comment.

But lawmakers loyal to Big 12 campuses that could have their athletic programs hurt by the exit of UT and OU — Texas Tech, Baylor and Texas Christian universities — fumed. “It’s extremely troubling,” said Rep. Justin Holland, a three-term Republican from Rockwall who’s a 2005 graduate of Texas Tech. “It will end up hurting these universities” such as Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State, Holland said. “It will hurt not only our ability to recruit athletes but hurt us academically,” he said. “People who are academically very serious like to go to schools that are successful in sports as well. They like to go to the games, they like that school pride.” Rep. Jeff Leach, a Plano Republican who’s a Baylor graduate, said that the potential exits by UT and OU “will have a monumental impact on the state.” Leach, who on Thursday tweeted his displeasure over news reports that UT has worked on the change of conferences for a year without informing lawmakers, said Friday that he’s especially irked over the steering of the flagship school’s blockbuster athletic move by a former colleague in the Legislature, former Tyler GOP Sen. Kevin Eltife. Eltife, a UT Austin alumnus, has been chairman of the UT System Board of Regents for the past 2 ½ years. Asked if he’s upset that Eltife reportedly has worked on the Big 12 exit plan for months without disclosing it to lawmakers, Leach replied:

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Washington Post - July 25, 2021

Surge of COVID delta variant poses new political threat to Biden and his agenda

The rapid increase in coronavirus infections driven by the delta variant over the past month is turning the country’s attention back to the pandemic and threatening to subsume President Biden’s agenda — just as the White House and its allies hoped to move on from the virus and focus on promoting the administration’s other accomplishments. Inside the White House, top officials are growing increasingly anxious about the state of the pandemic and are gravely concerned about the situation spiraling out of control in some areas of the country with low vaccination rates, according to two people who work in the administration and two others in close touch with the White House. Biden’s team had always expected to see additional coronavirus outbreaks, but the White House assumed the increases in infections would be “mounds” and not “peaks,” according to one top administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions.

Officials are now looking at models that predict anywhere from a few thousand new covid cases to more than 200,000 every day in the fall. One new forecast also estimates the United States could see three times the number of daily deaths from the coronavirus by October compared to now. The current seven-day average is about 250 deaths per day. Stock markets have already shown jitters over the variant, with the Dow slumping more than 700 points Monday before rallying later in the week. Globally, hospitals are filling up — including in the United Kingdom, which is experiencing an outbreak so severe that the United States warned against traveling there. “If you have hundreds of thousands of Americans getting sick, that’s problematic for any president,” said Cornell Belcher, who was one of former president Barack Obama’s pollsters. “It does become all consuming for the president — because he’s the president.” More focus on covid leaves the president fewer opportunities to sell the stimulus package that Congress approved earlier this year or travel the country pressuring lawmakers to back his infrastructure plan. Other priorities that risk being squeezed include shoring up voting rights, a policing overhaul, gun control and new immigration rules.

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The Hill - July 25, 2021

Trump hails Arizona Senate for audit at Phoenix rally, slams governor

Former President Trump on Saturday hailed the Arizona state Senate for its ongoing audit of the 2020 election in Maricopa County during a rally in Phoenix, while taking shots at Gov. Doug Ducey (R). Speaking to a crowd of supporters at the event dubbed the “Rally for Election Integrity,” Trump began by thanking the “brave and unyielding conservative warriors in the Arizona State Senate” for forging ahead with the audit. The former president recognized the appearance of several GOP state senators, particularly thanking Arizona Senate President Karen Fann (R), who has overseen the effort that began in December. Trump then acknowledged several GOP senators that were in the crowd. He then praised Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward as a “real fighter” before taking his first jab at Ducey.

“Republican Party Chairwoman — somebody that has tremendous courage,” Trump said of Ward. “She's really a fighter and she fights your governor who doesn't do a damn thing,” Trump said, referring to Ducey. Trump then attacked Ducey for not being “very popular” at rallies. “I introduce him and I wouldn't get much of an applause…and I kept saying you know this guy's not very popular. But now, you know what? He's not popular with me, either,” Trump said. The ongoing audit comes amid Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the 2020 presidential election was riddled with fraud. President Biden was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Grand Canyon state since 1996, besting Trump by less than a percentage point. The president also beat Trump in Maricopa County, the state's most populous region, by 2 percentage points in November.

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Barron's - July 22, 2021

Las Vegas Sands is falling amid concern over COVID and Asian operations

Las Vegas Sands continued its pandemic-related string of losses in the second quarter as the company prepares to exit from Las Vegas and focus even more on overseas markets. But sales improved markedly. Las Vegas Sands (ticker: LVS) reported an adjusted quarterly loss from continuing operations of 29 cents a share, an improvement from minus 86 cents in the corresponding quarter of 2020. Second-quarter net revenues improved sharply to nearly $1.2 billion, up from the pandemic-depressed $62 million a year ago. The stock was at $47.72 Thursday morning, down more than 3%. One concern: The company’s operations in Asia, notably Macau, face pandemic-related travel restrictions.

In early March, Las Vegas Sands announced that it was selling its Las Vegas real estate and operations for $6.25 billion. That transaction, which is expected to close in the fourth quarter, was a major shift for a company whose late CEO, Sheldon Adelson, was a towering figure on the Las Vegas Strip. Adelson, who died in January at 87, was instrumental in moving the company into hosting conventions, a key niche that drove growth. Looking ahead, an upside of the Vegas real estate sale is that it will give the company a lot more capital to invest in other opportunities in Asia and elsewhere. The stock, however, has lagged behind the market this year, down about 20%. In a note following the second-quarter earnings release, analyst David Katz of Jefferies wrote that the stock has “become primarily a play on the very gradual recovery and investments in Asia and ramping capital returns over time rather than the value compounding of past periods.” The firm has a Buy rating on Las Vegas Sands. In a conference call with analysts Wednesday after the market’s close, CEO Robert Goldstein said the performance in Macau was better than it was in the first quarter. “But pandemic-related travel restrictions continued to impact our performance,” he said, adding that he was confident about the recovery in Macau and Singapore.

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State Stories

Houston Chronicle - July 24, 2021

After $250k in political support from Apache Corp., Texas Supreme Court does a rare double take

Last fall, it seemed that Apache Corp., the giant Houston oil company, had hit a dead end in a long-running legal battle. A paralegal named Cathryn Davis claimed the company fired her in 2013 for complaining about age and gender discrimination. A jury agreed, awarding $900,000 to her and her attorneys; an appeals court upheld the judgment. The company asked the Texas Supreme Court to review the case, but on Oct. 2 it declined. Litigants can ask the state’s highest civil court to reconsider such decisions, but it’s a long shot; nearly 98 percent of the time, it refuses, according to research by the Texas Bar. Nevertheless, Apache notified the Supreme Court it intended to ask for a so-called rehearing. After the company contributed $250,000 in political support to justices seeking re-election, the court changed its mind.

Texas is one of only four states with partisan Supreme Court elections, and Apache’s appeal occurred while two of the nine Republican justices were simultaneously campaigning and making decisions about the company’s case. (In all, four were up for election but two recused themselves from the case because they had worked on Apache v. Davis before it reached the high court.) Three weeks after the court’s denial of the appeal, Apache donated $250,000 to a newly formed political action committee, Judicial Fairness PAC. The Fortune 600 oil company has given money to political candidates before. But state records show the donation to the PAC dwarfed its previous gifts. The contribution appears to be just the second Apache has made in a judicial race; the other was for $2,500 and was made nearly a decade ago. Texas law limits how much PACs can contribute to judicial candidates. Yet there is a loophole: Unlike with direct contributions, there is no ceiling on how much money the groups can spend independently on behalf of candidates. Over the next several days, the Judicial Fairness PAC spent $750,000 on television and radio ads supporting the incumbent Texas Supreme Court justices, records show. Funded heavily by Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has contributed lavishly in its efforts to rein in large jury awards, among other aims, the PAC spent a total of $4.5 million supporting the four candidates. They were the only races on which the new organization spent money.

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Dallas Morning News - July 24, 2021

Beto O’Rourke won’t rule out running for governor, but is keeping focus on voting rights fight

Beto O’Rourke might very well become a candidate for governor, but he wants to keep his focus on his work with grassroots civic engagement organizations for now. “I’ve committed myself to this fight for the right to vote and preserving our democracy in America,” he said Friday. “We are in really the final hours of this fight, and there’s not much time left for us, and I want to make sure I’m giving this 100% of my focus and my effort.” While he hasn’t announced his candidacy for anything, he hasn’t ruled out a run for governor, a move that has left much of the Democratic field frozen in place.

“I want to see this through, and then afterwards I really do want to see how I can best serve Texas,” said the former El Paso congressman, who came closer than any Democrat since 1994 to winning a statewide contest when he held U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz below 51% in 2018. “That might very well be as a candidate for office, and it might be continuing the work I’m doing with Powered by People, which is registering Texans to vote all across the state.” While the Republican gubernatorial primary is getting crowded, Democrats have largely kept quiet. The party’s establishment is waiting to see if O’Rourke, a widely popular activist and organizer who came within 2.6 percentage points of Cruz, will pull the trigger. Abbott already faces primary challenges from conservative political commentator Chad Prather, wealthy real estate developer and former state Sen. Don Huffines, and former state GOP chair Allen West, a one-term Florida congressman. Another factor sure to play a role in who runs is redistricting. Potential candidates — including incumbents — are waiting for the Legislature to redraw boundaries for congressional and state House and Senate districts this fall to determine whether to run again, retire or jump to a different office.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

'We have to keep pushing': Texas Dreamer meets VP Harris as ruling puts her back in limbo

Susie Lujano, a 28-year-old Dreamer from Houston, left a meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday feeling confident Democrats are serious about creating a permanent solution for the hundreds of thousands of young people brought to the country illegally as children, whose lives are again in limbo after a federal judge in Texas ruled the Obama-era program protecting them from deportation is unlawful. But Lujano also knows well that such a solution has eluded Congress for years as some 600,000 of those protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — including 102,000 in Texas — have waited, even as politicians on both sides of the aisle say they are committed to making DACA law.

“I’m optimistic but also realistic,” Lujano said. “We have to keep pushing, and that’s why we came here today: We want them to know our faces and our stories and realize we’re human beings, not numbers. We’re not an application or 1, 2, 3, 4. We’re human beings with lives and with children who rely on us to take care of them.” Friday’s ruling by Andrew Hanen, a federal district judge in Houston, stopped the Biden administration from processing some 55,000 new DACA applications. Hanen ruled the Obama administration did not have the authority to create the program in 2012. It was the latest ruling on a lawsuit filed in May 2018 by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. Texas led a coalition of states against DACA. The decision came just a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended former President Donald Trump’s drive to end the program. “I’m upset because I know what they’re living,” Lujano said of those with pending applications. Lujano graduated from high school the year before DACA went into effect. “I had no direction, no status and it was like, what was all of this for?” she said. “In a way it feels like you’re failing your parents’ dreams. They wanted to bring you here for a better future and somehow you aren’t going to be able to fulfill those dreams for them.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 24, 2021

Biden administration axes border wall contracts for Laredo area

The Biden administration on Friday officially canceled 31 miles of border wall projects planned for Laredo by Donald Trump’s administration, provoking celebration among groups fighting its construction. “The people of Laredo stood their ground and we won,” said Tricia Cortez, executive director of Rio Grande International Study Center, which advocates for environmental protection of the Rio Grande River. “The cancellation of these two contracts is a huge nail in the coffin for this entire misguided project.” The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced earlier Friday that it was ending two contracts in Laredo where construction had not yet begun. No land acquisitions had begun in that section.

The move comes less than a month after Trump visited part of the border downstream from Laredo in Hidalgo County and blasted the Biden administration for not continuing to build sections of border wall there. Standing in front of a section of “rotting and rusting” wall built a mile from the border, Trump, a Republican who was turned out by voters last fall but has hinted that he may run again in 2024, said President Joe Biden, a Democrat, needed to finish what Trump started. The Biden administration had already halted all construction of the barriers started by Trump and was evaluating which projects could be ended entirely. More contracts could still be canceled like the Laredo section. “DHS continues to review all other paused border barrier projects and is in the process of determining which projects may be necessary to address life, safety, environmental, or other remediation requirements and where to conduct environmental planning,” DHS said in a statement. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, about 738 miles of barriers were planned — that includes refurbishing or rebuilding existing walls and fences along the length of the entire 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Luby's diners are returning, boosting the ailing Texas icon

Luby’s restaurant sales are rising with the tide of vaccinations and it’s showing in its balance sheet, interim CEO John Garilli said Tuesday. The storied Houston restaurant company is in the process of liquidating, selling off properties and brands to satisfy creditors and shareholders, and those assets increased in value by $2.6 million since they were first evaluated in November, Garilli said — an increase largely attributable to the recent influx in diners. Last month Luby's announced it would sell 32 cafeteria locations in Texas for $28.7 million, signaling an afterlife for the iconic chain. Now, as sales increase across more of the chain’s restaurants, Garilli said it’s possible more Luby’s locations will appeal to its buyer, a business formed by Calvin Gin, a member of the family that founded Chicago-based catering business Flying Food Group.

He might add to that list,” he said. “In the meantime, we’ll continue to operate. The better they do, the more likely it is that they stay open.” Gin did not respond to a request for comment. Luby’s shareholders voted overwhelmingly in November to dissolve the company, a process that is now picking up steam. The same week Luby’s announced its deal with Gin, it also announced a separate one with franchisee Nicholas Perkins, who agreed to buy the Fuddruckers brand for $18.5 million. Luby’s plans to sell most of its assets by the end of the year, it said in the latest financial with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The estimated liquidation proceeds increased by 15 cents to $4.13 a share over the quarter ended June 2, according its most recent filing. Shareholders can expect their yield to increase by at least another 32 cents per share in the next quarterly filing after the Small Business Administration forgave its $10 million PPP loan last month, it said. Luby’s also sold four pieces of real estate last month for $9.1 million, it said, bringing its real estate sales total to $16.9 million for the fiscal year for a total of seven properties. Luby’s operated 68 restaurants, including 10 Fuddruckers, as of June 2, down from the 118 it operated before the pandemic began.

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Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle - July 23, 2021

Texas veterans homes overseen by George P. Bush were often the deadliest places to be during COVID-19 pandemic

Nursing homes, which care for people who are already medically vulnerable, were ravaged by the pandemic. But Texas’ state-run veterans homes were often the deadliest places to be. The nine state homes had more than double the death rate among COVID-19-infected residents compared with other nursing homes in the state, according to a Texas Tribune-Houston Chronicle analysis of state data from the pandemic’s start until June 2021. The Houston Chronicle and The Texas Tribune spent months investigating how Texas cared for veterans and their spouses at the height of the coronavirus pandemic at the nine state-run veterans homes in Amarillo, Big Spring, Bonham, El Paso, Floresville, Houston, McAllen, Temple and Tyler. After reviewing hundreds of pages of inspection reports and internal emails, and interviewing more than a dozen experts, resident advocates and families, the Chronicle and the Tribune found:

Texas’ state-run veterans homes had more than double the death rate among COVID-19- infected residents compared with other nursing homes in the state. Seven of the homes had a fatality rate of 25% or more — far higher than the statewide average — 11% — among Texas nursing homes. Approximately 23% of the state veterans homes nationwide are overseen by outside management companies, but in Texas all nine of them are, and they account for a quarter of the privately run homes in the United States. Resident advocates say for-profit nursing homes tend to have lower staffing levels and perform worse than nonprofit and government-run facilities. Average staffing levels in Texas nursing homes are among the lowest nationwide. Five of Texas’ veterans homes fell beneath the state average. On July 8, one day after the Tribune and the Chronicle shared their analysis with the agency, Land Commissioner George P. Bush decided to end the relationship with the two for-profit operators of the homes and asked his staff to conduct a nationwide search to find replacements.

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Houston Chronicle - July 25, 2021

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Who's counting all Texas' explosions? Not the Chemical Safety Board.

In Houston, living in close proximity to chemical breakdowns is a way of life. Odd, sulfuric aromas linger in the summer humidity. Flaring from petrochemical facilities light up the night sky. Purple smoke plumes lend a dystopian allure to the industrial landscape. Of course, none of this is supposed to be normal. The Houston Chronicle reported several years ago that the region has a chemical fire or explosion every six weeks on average. Yet in just the past eight days, Houstonians were reminded three times of our precarious relationship with deadly chemicals. On Saturday, 65 people came down with “respiratory distress” at a water park in Spring after they were exposed to bleach and sulfuric acid. In Galena Park on Tuesday, the roof of a chemical tank at a refinery collapsed, releasing a “garlic-like smell,” sickening nearby residents.

In La Porte on Wednesday, a hazardous compound leaked from an over-pressurized tank truck, sparking fears of an explosion at a nearby Dow Chemical plant and prompting evacuation and shelter-in-place orders. Houston’s chemical releases and poor air quality affect us all. But it’s the fence-line communities in and around petrochemical plants that are most at-risk when disaster strikes — and the most dependent on government experts to investigate such incidents and to try to prevent them from happening again. That’s why the current state of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is almost as alarming as the incidents they’re supposed to be probing. Not too long ago, the board was a no-nonsense, fact-finding agency whose reports and recommendations were widely respected within the petrochemical industry. Its report on the Arkema plant disaster during Hurricane Harvey brought to light harrowing details of volatile organic peroxides decomposing and catching fire. When the ITC facility in Deer Park caught fire in 2019, sending a black plume of smoke across Harris County, the board discovered in a preliminary investigation that the facility was not equipped with gas detection alarms or emergency shutoff valves that could have isolated the blaze.

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Houston Chronicle - July 25, 2021

Marc Levin: A conservative case for balanced bail reform

(Marc Levin is the chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice.) When Texas Democrats fled from Austin, they not only stopped the voting bill but many other bills including changes to the state’s bail system. While election legislation garners most headlines, policymakers can’t run from the urgency of pretrial reform to properly balance individual liberty and public safety. Gov. Greg Abbott was right to put it on the agenda and lawmakers should use this time to refine current proposals. The Texas Constitution doesn’t allow judges to deny bail to a person charged with even heinous offenses such as murder and rape, allowing it only for capital murder. This leaves judges seeking to detain people accused of some of the most serious crimes in the unenviable position of setting a high bail amount they hope defendants cannot afford. Using ability to pay to determine release is not only inequitable, but sometimes ineffective as well. Wealthy but highly dangerous defendants can purchase their release, while low-risk defendants charged with relatively minor offenses often languish in jail for months, unable to afford bail as low as $500.

A recent Houston Chronicle investigation revealed the number of new charges against defendants out on bond tripled from 2015 to 2020. Some of those new charges — a number that is small relative to the total awaiting trial — include murder. The recipe for successful reform is straightforward: a carefully limited expansion of the constitutional authority of judges to deny bail paired with a requirement that any bail amount be affordable and based on an individual analysis. Identical bail reform proposals in the disrupted special session, Senate Bill 6 and House Bill 2, include worthwhile provisions to create a statewide data system so all courts have access to relevant information at pretrial proceedings, such as whether the defendant has previously failed to appear in court or has a prior violent conviction. These bills incorporate these factors into a “public safety report” but prohibit the use of any score or risk rating tied to them. Nonetheless, this information alone will help judges make better decisions, and the provisions for training jurists and tracking implementation are welcome. However, there are several ways to strengthen the legislation. Judges not only need more information, but more options beyond pretrial detention and release without any conditions. One laudable feature of the current proposals is language requiring the least restrictive conditions needed to ensure reappearance and public safety, but personnel and technology are critical to enforcing conditions. Accordingly, pretrial services, which are absent in most rural Texas counties, should be expanded.

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Dallas Morning News - July 24, 2021

Donald Trump’s PAC makes last-minute ad buy for Susan Wright in District 6 congressional race

Susan Wright’s campaign consultants are confident that she’s well ahead of state Rep. Jake Ellzey in North Texas’ District 6 runoff for Congress. But in advance of Tuesday’s election, Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again Action PAC has dropped a last-minute, $100,000 campaign ad buy to help secure victory for Wright, records show. The ad buy follows Trump’s restatement this week of his endorsement of Wright, who is running to replace her late husband, Ron Wright, who died in February after battling COVID-19 and cancer.

Is Trump worried that Wright is vulnerable, despite her campaign aides releasing an internal poll that shows her ahead by 12 percentage points over Ellzey? Ellzey has raised more campaign cash than his rival. From the period between April 12 and July 7, which captures the final weeks of the primary and most of the runoff stage, Wright raised $454,286, bringing her total for the entire election cycle to $740,617. In the same period Ellzey raised $1.2 million, bringing his total campaign haul to $1.7 million. But candidate fundraising totals don’t tell the entire story. The anti-tax group called the Club for Growth has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars promoting Wright and slashing Ellzey in mailers and campaign ads. The wild cards in the contests are the voters. It’s rare to have a runoff in the dead of summer, and both candidates need strong voter turnout efforts to get their supporters to the polls. When asked about the Make America Great Again Action PAC buy, Matthew Langston, Wright’s chief campaign consultant, surmised that the ads were designed to get voters to the polls.

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Corpus Christi Caller-Times - July 23, 2021

John Moritz: New spike in COVID-19 cases could change political narrative. Can it change the culture?

When six of the fleeing Texas House Democrats came down with COVID-19, it was viewed by some as a metaphor with a punchline about the hapless out-of-power party's inability to catch a break in its effort to stop an election bill. "They left Texas with a case of Miller Lite and got to Washington, D.C., with a six-pack of Corona (virus)," went one of the jokes that referenced the box of beer on a seat in the Democrats' bus that became the viral photo of the getaway. But a week later, as a COVID-19 resurgence takes hold both in Texas and nationwide, the Democrats' current predicament might foretell a different story. Look at the recent COVID-19 hospitalization numbers in Texas. On July 1, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported 1,591 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. One week later, it was 1,888. The next week it was 2,653, and it had climbed to 3,692 the week after that.

Now hit the rewind button to May 21, 2020, when the hospitalization number was roughly equal to that of July 1 of this year at 1,578. A week later it was 1,752, then 1,855. And on June 11 it was 2,166. It's plain to see that the upward curve in the current trend, fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant, is steeper than last year's. The point of this little exercise is to illustrate how events often drive the political narrative regardless of the wishes of political leaders. Let's go back again to June 2020, when Gov. Greg Abbott and local leaders around the state were frantically trying to contain the virus's spread because hospital beds and intensive care units were rapidly filling up with very sick people. The death count, already frightening, was getting worse. Many businesses closed or were operating with reduced capacity, which led to widespread unemployment, work from home orders and more. But Abbott steadfastly refused to issue a statewide mask mandate amid cries from the right that it would be an unholy infringement of personal freedoms. Then by July 2, when Abbott finally ordered the mask mandate, 7,652 Texas were hospitalized with COVID-19. And three weeks later, the hospitalization curve began to fall and Texans, for the most part, rejoiced.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 24, 2021

Gilbert Garcia: Cortez alienates fellow House Dems with return to Texas

Breaking a legislative quorum is one of life’s rare bonding experiences. Kind of like touring the country in a van with your band mates or suffering through a grueling training camp with your teammates. Because you’re physically disconnected from home, family and friends, you lean on each other. You become a makeshift family and close ranks, simply because you have no choice. The flip side of that connection is the depth of resentment you feel if someone abandons the group or seemingly puts self-interest ahead of the shared cause. That explains the reaction this past week to the news that state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, returned to Austin after spending nine days in Washington, D.C., with most of the Texas House Democratic delegation.

Those Texas Democrats are breaking quorum during this special session to block a restrictive Republican election law. They’re using their time in D.C. to implore congressional Democrats to pass federal voting-rights legislation that would negate the Texas bill. Cortez was part of the D.C. contingent. A month earlier, he joined a Democratic walkout on the last night of the Legislature’s regular session, in opposition to a different iteration of the GOP bill. “It’s bad public policy,” Cortez told me that week. “We should be encouraging more people to come out and vote; we should be providing more avenues for working-class individuals to come out and vote.” Cortez nonetheless values his relationships with House Republicans. He felt indebted to House Speaker Dade Phelan, after Phelan got Cortez’s signature item of the session — a bill easing Medicaid eligibility requirements for Texas children — across the finish line. While Cortez was breaking quorum in D.C., Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, the author of the current House version of the bill (HB 3), tried to coax him back to the state Capitol to negotiate. Murr said he and Cortez “had very frank, candid discussions about the concerns he and his Democratic colleagues have” with the voting bill. On Wednesday, Cortez headed back to Austin. He framed his departure from D.C. as the best way for him to boost the Democratic cause. Cortez said “a small working group of Democrats decided to begin active discussions here in Austin on improving HB 3 and asked that I return to establish open communication lines.”

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Border Report - July 24, 2021

Border Patrol deploys rescue beacons in wake of 32 migrant deaths in Big Bend region of Texas

Thirty-two migrants have died this year after crossing into the United States in the Big Bend area of Texas — four times as many as in the previous year. That is why the U.S. Border Patrol this week unveiled a new tool to cut down on those fatalities: an array of solar-powered rescue beacons being placed in remote enclaves of the West Texas desert. The 30-foot towers feature illustrations and simple phrases in English and Spanish at the base instructing migrants who are lost, were abandoned by cartel smugglers, are injured or suffering from dehydration to push a big red button that will alert authorities to their plight.

The first beacon went live in Presidio County a few weeks ago and has already resulted in the rescue of 10 migrants. The other 29 are pending the green light from the owners of the expanse near the U.S.-Mexico border, said U.S. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Chief Agent Sean McGoffin. The beacons will increase agents’ ability to assist distressed migrants, given that the sector covers 517 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. When a beacon is activated, the agency will dispatch help and also scan any nearby cameras to get a better idea of what is going on, he said. The uptick in migrant deaths — mostly attributed to heatstroke and dehydration — coincides with an unprecedented surge in unauthorized migration and to cartel smugglers that often abandon those who hire them as soon as they can’t keep up. Agents say they have apprehended nearly 30,000 migrants since Oct, 1, a three-fold increase from the last fiscal year. “This area has never seen this amount of people coming. This is not only new for our agents but also for our residents,” McGoffin said. “So, this is something we’re trying to do on top of what we normally do in getting these rescue beacons out to get help to people in need.”

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Austin American-Statesman - July 24, 2021

Steven Weinberg, UT physics professor and Nobel laureate, dies at 88

University of Texas professor and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, lauded for his work in theoretical physics, died Friday at age 88, the school announced Saturday. Weinberg earned the Nobel Prize in physics in 1979 and wrote dozens of books and papers. Last year he earned the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for his leadership and research in the field over his career. Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes, described Weinberg as a key architect of “one of the most successful physical theories ever.”

He is best known for his work on the Standard Model of Particle Physics, a central theory describing the properties and interactions of known particles and forces within the universe. Through his work, Weinberg showed that two fundamental forces in the universe — electromagnetism and weak nuclear force — are different manifestations of the same phenomenon, “electroweak” symmetry. This work was the genesis of the Standard Model and earned Weinberg his Nobel Prize. He also was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1991, and in 2004 he received the Benjamin Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society, with a citation that said he is "considered by many to be the preeminent theoretical physicist alive in the world today." Weinberg was one of UT's most celebrated hires when he came to UT in 1982 after stints teaching and researching at Columbia University, the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Willy Fischler, the Jane and Roland Blumberg Centennial professor of physics at UT, said Saturday that Weinberg is a part of the history of physics.

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Spectrum News - July 24, 2021

Rick Perry: 'Trump couldn't pick Susan Wright out of a lineup'

In just a matter of days, a runoff race for a North Texas congressional seat will put to the test former President Donald Trump’s influence on the Republican Party. The race is between Republican Susan Wright, the widow of late Rep. Ron Wright, and state Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie. Trump supports Wright, who wants to fill her late husband's seat. He died earlier this year after battling cancer and contracting COVID-19. But, some big Texas Republican names say Trump got it wrong by not endorsing Ellzey.

“Donald Trump couldn't pick Susan Wright out of a lineup. He has no idea who she is, has no idea what she believes," former Texas Gov. Rick Perry told Capital Tonight. Perry, who is also Trump’s former energy secretary, is not the only one who thinks Trump is misinformed. It was Ellzey who introduced Perry to fellow veteran Marcus Luttrell. Perry and Luttrell's relationship is likened to that of a father-son relationship. Former Rep. Joe Barton, who held the seat for more than 30 years, backs Ellzey. He said it was not an easy decision, considering his close relationship with the Wright family. Ron Wright was chief of staff to Barton. Barton said he believes Ellzey will have a greater effect in Congress. “His elective experience is more than hers, his work experience, especially in the military, I think, is exceptional and, of course, private sector. He's been an airline pilot,” Barton said. Perry said he is disappointed because the anti-tax group Club for Growth is dishing out attack ads he thinks mislead voters about Ellzey.

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KXXV - July 25, 2021

Former U.S. marine & Texan sentenced to 9 years in Russian prison

A former U.S. Marine with deep ties to Texas will spend the next nine years behind Russian prison bars. Last week, 29-year-old Trevor Reed learned his fate in a Moscow courtroom. His parents watched the decision come down from their home near Central Texas. “At this trial, they broke every rule, every Russian law, to keep him and convict him. In any reasonable court in the world, the case would’ve never gone to trial,” Joey Reed, Trevor’s father, tells 25 News. In the summer of 2019, Trevor was visiting Moscow to study and be closer to his girlfriend.

Following a celebratory party one August night, Joey says his son had too much to drink, which prompted a run-in with Russian police. The Reed's say once Russian authorities realized Trevor was a former, standout Marine, one who’d even been posted to Camp David, they threw the book at him by inflating a host of “assault” charges. “For the past two years, he’s been in a room with five other people. Our concepts in America are different. There’s no time in the yard, no time lifting weights,” says Joey. Trevor grew up in California and Texas, earning an Eagle Scout rank before enlisting in the Marines. For a family that enjoys going to Texas Rangers baseball games, his mother Paula says the past two years have been nothing short of a nightmare. “I have my moments where I can function for a little while, then others when I can’t. The last week has been pretty rough,” said Paula. “I really miss his personality. He’s kind of a prankster."

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 23, 2021

Cynthia M. Allen: Buying sex will soon be a felony in Texas. Will law enforcement go after the buyers?

Two weeks after Texas Democrats fled the state to avoid casting a ballot on a voting reform bill, pundits are still arguing about whether the legislators’ move was novel. Whatever the case, Texas lawmakers did do something unprecedented this session: they made Texas the first state to curb the demand for commercial sex with a substantial, punitive measure. Tucked into H.B. 1540, the Human Trafficking Prevention Taskforce’s bipartisan omnibus bill, is a provision that makes sex buying from an adult a felony offense. (Solicitation of a minor was already a felony.)

Ty Bowden, who serves as the associate director of The Net, a Fort Worth anti-trafficking nonprofit, characterized the change as a significant step in the effort to transform the approach of law enforcement to the sex industry and the plight of trafficked individuals. “It reflects a cultural shift,” he told me, and one that is long overdue. Historically, buying and selling sex has been effectively indistinguishable under the law. Sellers, typically vulnerable women whose participation is often compelled, generally are not recognized as victims, even in the presence of physical, emotional or mental coercion, which by definition makes them trafficked. That’s a stark reality that The Net founder and executive director Melissa Ice says unfairly stigmatizes women who have already been exploited. She noted that even the nomenclature used carries an imputation; women are prostitutes but men are “johns.” “That’s a generous way to describe someone who is commodifying someone else,” said Ice. “They should be called predators and sex-buyers.” But however you title sex-buyers, their crime of solicitation has long been considered only a minor offense, one that is often pled down or not charged at all.

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Houston Chronicle - July 24, 2021

The AAC will be aggressive in pursuit of Big 12 leftovers

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12. For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it. It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.” Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore. And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU. The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions. The source said it’s unlikely the Big 12 survives the loss of its top two revenue-producing school, which would set off a scramble for the remaining schools to find a new home once the league’s grant-of-rights agreement ends in 2025. However, if the Big 12 looks to expand, one source said there are no schools that would bring significant value. If the Big 12 makes a call, Houston would most likely be at the top of the list. But would it be financially worthwhile? And it’s a certain that a reconfigured Big 12 would not possess the same clout. Right now, the AAC has something the Big 12 lacks: stability. That’s why the feeling in the AAC offices is completely different from five years ago. The 10 football-playing schools are “united” moving forward, the source said.

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Fox 26 - July 22, 2021

Bail reform author says eloping democrats are compromising public safety

With her legislation aimed at keeping violent predators "locked up" once again withering in Austin, State Senator Joan Huffman pounded eloping House Democrats for, in her view, putting electoral politics ahead of public safety. "I'm angry. How can we let this keep happening? The bill we have passed out of the Senate and the constitutional amendment is targeted at violent repeat offenders who have been released over and over again to kill people on the streets," said Huffman.. "You should be able to walk into a gym without being shot if someone wants to steal your car. You should be able to hold your baby in your arms without being shot and your baby being shot," said Huffman. With more than 120 Harris County residents killed by criminals out on bond Huffman's outrage was echoed by Governor Greg Abbott. "There will be people who will be harmed. There may be people who will lose their lives," said Abbott. "There will be people who are victims of crime because the Democrats are taking time off on a vacation in Washington D.C.."

While Huffman's felony bond reform has drawn some bipartisan support, many Democrats like Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis believe it discriminates against poor defendants. "If we believe in equal protection under the law," said Ellis. "If someone has money and they can pay to get out you shouldn't penalize someone who does not have money." But Huffman says that's simply not true, if, as she has proposed, Texans decide differently in a statewide referendum. "If the Constitutional amendment would pass then a high risk, violent offender could not be released no matter how much money they had," said Huffman. Wednesday was a critical deadline to get the bond reform initiative for Texas voters to consider in November. With their quorum busting elopement over voting rights still in progress, House Democrats insured that cannot happen.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 23, 2021

Judith Zaffirini: Trust our teachers to guide difficult conversations in classrooms

Esto no es cosa de armas (This is not a matter for weapons). Those reportedly were the last words uttered by Don Francisco Gutiérrez before he and his son, Manuel Gutiérrez, were shot in 1912 by a rogue Special Texas Ranger on a hot summer morning in Webb County. The shooting and its aftermath are detailed in the 2003 book “A Law for the Lion,” by Beatriz de la Garza. It’s a true tale of violence, prejudice and justice denied in the vast ranchlands of South Texas. I have a personal connection to this sad story from the border about this Ranger who was acquitted by an all-white jury: Francisco and Manuel were my husband’s great-grandfather and grandfather. Many of us have family stories that need to be told, no matter how painful. We are dismayed by legislation recently passed by the Texas Senate that could result in these stories being distorted or not being told at all.

Senate Bill 3 dictates controversial current events can’t be taught in public schools unless the teacher “strives to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” While the sponsor of SB 3 says it will apply only to current events, how would students in the 1940s have learned about the Holocaust if this had been state law then? If you are wondering where this idea came from, it’s related to an issue that isn’t mentioned in SB 3, but is its target: Fear of critical race theory, or CRT. It’s the latest bugaboo from those who somehow think white people are being marginalized in the name of diversity. CRT as an academic concept is approximately 40 years old. Although there’s often a difference of opinion about its exact meaning, at its core, CRT posits that racism is not only a result of prejudice by individuals but also often is embedded in our institutions, both public and private. The theory has been used to explain things like redlining, which is the largely eradicated practice of insurance companies drawing a “red line” around certain minority neighborhoods and then charging higher rates or denying coverage to those residents.

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County Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 24, 2021

When is a rule not a rule? At Tarrant water district, officials can override policies

Numerous Tarrant Regional Water District employee regulations include a clause that allows executives and board members to circumvent the district’s own policy “at any time.” The clause — which allows for expansive exceptions to 17 district policies — has already been linked to turmoil within the district. Earlier this year, former board president Jack Stevens used the exception clause to award two executives an extra $360,000 worth of paid time off. (The board in June revoked those exceptions and officials have said no payments were made.) But documents obtained by the Star-Telegram through a public information request show that the exception clause isn’t confined to paid leave. A version of it appears on a range of policies, from employee discipline to bereavement flowers. The exception clause technically allows board members or executives to skirt district policy when it comes to harassment, use of district vehicles and retiree health benefits.

Board president Leah King said Wednesday that one of the board’s priorities is to review and, where necessary, update the district’s policies. Among other things, she said, the authority to grant exceptions to the rules should “never be in the hands of a single person.” “My expectation is that we would take a look at all policies and make the appropriate corrections so that there aren’t such broad exceptions to those rules,” she said. Board member Mary Kelleher, who has publicly disagreed with the board at times, said she hadn’t been aware of the volume of district policies that include an exception clause. Kelleher said exceptions to the rules may be appropriate from time to time, but that extensive leeway could be problematic. “I imagine there’s applications in every policy that could give the taxpayer public concern,” Kelleher said. “We’re really going to have to go over each one.” King added that she doesn’t know of any potentially improper exceptions to district policies, aside from the two paid leave exceptions made by Stevens, but that the board is still on the lookout.

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City Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 23, 2021

Ex-Richardson mayor and her developer husband guilty on bribery and tax evasion counts

Laura Maczka was a first-time mayor, earning $2,600 a year, with three kids and a mortgage and a concern for appearances. The Richardson mother had quit her nonprofit job to avoid any potential conflicts as a top city official, prosecutors said Friday during closing arguments in her trial. Mark Jordan came from a different world. A wealthy businessman, he cultivated a taste for luxury and expensive things, the government said. He was also a womanizer, according to prosecutors. And he wanted to develop a prime plot of land he’d bought in Maczka’s city alongside busy U.S. Highway 75. But there was a problem: The majority of Laura’s neighbors adamantly opposed any new apartments nearby, according to testimony.

What happened next was the focus of a salacious and sensational federal public corruption trial involving the former mayor and the developer. Both were found guilty about 7:30 p.m. Friday on bribery and tax fraud counts. They were acquitted of wire fraud. They each face up to 10 years in prison when they are sentenced. The jury began deliberations Friday afternoon after hearing three weeks of testimony and evidence; and after the attorneys made their final pitches in closing arguments. Prosecutors say Maczka, now Laura Jordan, received attention, sex, $18,000 in cash, $40,000 by check, a Mercedes convertible and $24,000 in home renovations from Mark Jordan in exchange for her votes for his project. She voted for his Palisades development during her single two-year term as mayor despite her promises to oppose new apartments and intense opposition from hundreds of nearby homeowners, some who had been her friends, the government alleges. All told, the value of the benefits she accepted from him — but did not publicly disclose — added up to at least $130,000, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anand Varadarajan. That included at least a dozen trips to exotic locations, usually in fabulous accommodations overlooking the ocean, he said.

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Houston Chronicle - July 23, 2021

Houston's $9B I-45 rebuild could come down to online poll, after 15 years and $503 million

Unable to watch a recent discussion about rebuilding Interstate 45 and the state’s upcoming 10-year transportation plan live, Scott Smith watched a video of it later and was aghast at what he called a “take it or leave it” choice offered by Texas highway officials. His opinion, however, was easy to come to, he said. “Leave it,” the 33-year-old EaDo resident said. “Leave the freeway like it is. Leave these people alone. Just leave.” Others, such as Spring resident Matt Davies, 49, happily will open the door to billions in freeway upgrades that, he said, “are in everyone’s benefit.”

“There’s better transit, room for carpools, improved flood control,” Davies said in an email. “Nobody is getting everything they want, nor should they… What’s lost is everybody is getting something better than what they have now.” The fate of the massive $9 billion project may depend on how many people who agree with Smith or agree with Davies fill out an online poll — after 15 years of planning, design, discussions, political maneuvering and $503 million. The Texas Transportation Commission, citing the dust-up over the final design, a lawsuit filed by Harris County and a federal review, is considering whether to remove the rebuild from the state’s 10-year transportation plan. The process state transportation officials are using to inform their decision — a 30-day comment period, a public hearing and an online poll that asks respondents to proceed with the project as designed or remove it from the state’s upcoming project list — has drawn alarm from critics who want more opportunity to discuss changes rather than abandon the rebuild altogether. “A survey is not public engagement,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “Further, this survey is framing a false choice. We do not intend to play their game.”

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National Stories

NPR - July 22, 2021

Rising violent crime is likely to present a political challenge for Democrats in 2022

Violent crime is on the rise in urban areas across the country. Many small cities that typically have relatively few murders are seeing significant increases over last year. Killings in Albuquerque, N.M., Austin, Texas, and Pittsburgh, for example, have about doubled so far in 2021, while Portland, Ore., has had five times as many murders compared to last year, according to data compiled by Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst and co-founder of AH Datalytics. Most cities in the United States, including each of those named above, have a Democratic mayor. After protests last year over police violence against Black Americans — notably the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis — there has been a push from the left to "defund" police departments.

As a result, several cities, including Austin and New York, have reduced or reallocated police budgets — though some cities have looked to restore funding in recent months. That debate over funding, coupled with the rise in crime, has given Republicans what they believe is an opening in key swing districts that could decide control of the U.S. House next year. The GOP needs to pick up just a net of five seats to do so. "Democrats across the country spent the last year defunding police departments, so they shouldn't be surprised when voters hold them responsible for the spike in violent crime," said Mike Berg, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, which recruits and advises GOP congressional candidates. Republicans are already going after Democrats with a three-pronged strategy that includes attacks on crime; the economy, particularly rising inflation and labor shortages; and border security. In response, Democratic strategists believe Democratic candidates and the White House need to take on the issue of crime directly. "The most important thing for Democrats to do is to acknowledge the problem and demonstrate they take it seriously," said Mo Elleithee, executive director of the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service and a veteran of four Democratic presidential campaigns.

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The Guardian - July 25, 2021

Arizona secretary of state tells Trump before election lie rally: get over it

Arizona’s secretary of state had a message for Donald Trump before he appeared in Phoenix on Saturday: “Take your loss and accept it and move on.” Trump later spoke at an event organised by Turning Point Action, a conservative group, and called the “Rally to Save Our Elections!” He did not accept his loss and move on. Republicans in the most populous county in Arizona continue to pursue a controversial audit of ballots in an attempt to prove Trump’s claim that his loss to Joe Biden in the state, and nationally, was caused by widespread voter fraud. It was not. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, spoke to CNN on Friday. Asked what she wanted to tell Trump before he spoke in her state on Saturday, she said: “Well, I mean, like most grownups, take your loss and accept it and move on … Nothing that’s going on here is going to change the outcome, and, really, this is nothing more than being a sore loser.”

Hobbs also said Trump’s appearance – like support for his lies from local Republicans and congressional hopefuls who also appeared at Saturday’s event – was dangerous. “The bottom line is it doesn’t matter what he says or does,” she said. “Nothing is going to change the outcome of the 2020 election. But it also doesn’t change how dangerous this is.” Trump’s lie about electoral fraud stoked the deadly attack on the US Capitol in Washington on 6 January. He retains power in the Republican party, which has swung behind him in seeking to obstruct investigations of the assault. “The bottom line is that Arizonians are tired of being led by conspiracy theorists,” Hobbs said. “They don’t support this fake audit, and they’re ready for leaders who are going to put those partisan games aside and deal with real issues.” Hobbs is hoping to become governor of Arizona. Midterm elections next year will also see a key Arizona Senate seat up for grabs again. Mark Kelly, a former astronaut and a prominent campaigner for gun control reform, won the seat on Biden’s coattails last year. But that was to complete a term and he must now secure a full six years in the seat.

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NBC News - July 23, 2021

Conservative radio host, former vaccine skeptic ill with COVID-19

A conservative radio host in Tennessee who expressed skepticism about Covid-19 vaccines and was unvaccinated is hospitalized in critical care with the disease, his station announced Friday. Phil Valentine, who hosts a show bearing his name on WWTN-FM in Nashville, contracted the coronavirus a little more than a week ago and is battling pneumonia, his family said in a statement posted on Twitter. “He is in the hospital in the critical care unit breathing with assistance but is NOT on a ventilator,” the family said. “Phil would like for his listeners to know that while he has never been an “anti-vaxer” he regrets not being more vehemently “Pro-Vaccine”, and looks forward to being able to more vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air, which we all hope will be soon.

"Phil & his family would like for all of you to know that he loves ya’ll and appreciates your concern, thoughts & prayers more than you will ever know. Please continue to pray for his recovery and PLEASE GO GET VACCINATED!” Earlier this week, his brother, Mark Valentine, posted on Facebook: “Many of you know that my brother Phil is in the hospital with Covid related pneumonia. He is fighting for his life, which has persuaded me to go get vaccinated when I was previously not inclined to do so. “I haven’t posted anything pro or con relating to the vaccine because I felt like everyone should decide for themselves whether or not to get it. Having seen this up close and personal I’d encourage ALL of you to put politics and other concerns aside and get it. When the technician came out and asked … ‘do you have any questions or concerns about the vaccine’, I said hell yeah but I’m gonna get it anyway.” After Phil Valentine tested positive for Covid-19 but before his hospitalization, he told listeners to consider, “If I get this COVID thing, do I have a chance of dying from it?” If so, he advised his listeners to get inoculated. He said he made the decision not to get vaccinated because he thought the disease wouldn’t kill him. Tennessee continues to have among the lowest vaccination rates in the country even as cases are rising largely from the highly contagious delta variant. As of Thursday, 12,666 people have died from coronavirus.

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ABC News - July 25, 2021

Pelosi confident in bipartisan committee, plans to add more Republicans

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she is confident in the bipartisan select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, despite House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulling his recommendations. We have to ignore the antics of those who do not want to find the truth, she told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos. She said she also plans to name more Republicans to the committee.

McCarthy, R-Calif., pulled his five GOP recommendations for the committee on Wednesday after Pelosi said she would block Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio -- two prominent conservative leaders in the conference and allies of the former president -- over comments about the select committee. Pelosi and House Democrats were considering inviting Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois to join the committee and asking a former GOP congressman to serve on committee staff amid a standoff with House GOP leaders over their picks for the panel, sources familiar with the deliberations told ABC News.

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New York Times - July 24, 2021

The most influential spreader of coronavirus misinformation online

The article that appeared online on Feb. 9 began with a seemingly innocuous question about the legal definition of vaccines. Then over its next 3,400 words, it declared coronavirus vaccines were “a medical fraud” and said the injections did not prevent infections, provide immunity or stop transmission of the disease. Instead, the article claimed, the shots “alter your genetic coding, turning you into a viral protein factory that has no off-switch.” Its assertions were easily disprovable. No matter. Over the next few hours, the article was translated from English into Spanish and Polish. It appeared on dozens of blogs and was picked up by anti-vaccination activists, who repeated the false claims online. The article also made its way to Facebook, where it reached 400,000 people, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool. The entire effort traced back to one person: Joseph Mercola.

Dr. Mercola, 67, an osteopathic physician in Cape Coral, Fla., has long been a subject of criticism and government regulatory actions for his promotion of unproven or unapproved treatments. But most recently, he has become the chief spreader of coronavirus misinformation online, according to researchers. An internet-savvy entrepreneur who employs dozens, Dr. Mercola has published over 600 articles on Facebook that cast doubt on Covid-19 vaccines since the pandemic began, reaching a far larger audience than other vaccine skeptics, an analysis by The New York Times found. His claims have been widely echoed on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. The activity has earned Dr. Mercola, a natural health proponent with an Everyman demeanor, the dubious distinction of the top spot in the “Disinformation Dozen,” a list of 12 people responsible for sharing 65 percent of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media, said the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Others on the list include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a longtime anti-vaccine activist, and Erin Elizabeth, the founder of the website Health Nut News, who is also Dr. Mercola’s girlfriend. “Mercola is the pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement,” said Kolina Koltai, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “He’s a master of capitalizing on periods of uncertainty, like the pandemic, to grow his movement.” Some high-profile media figures have promoted skepticism of the vaccines, notably Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox News, though other Fox personalities have urged viewers to get the shots.

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Newsclips - July 23, 2021

Lead Stories

New York Times - July 22, 2021

Democrats’ divide on voting rights widens as Biden faces pressure

A quiet divide between President Biden and the leaders of the voting rights movement burst into the open on Thursday, as 150 organizations urged him to use his political mettle to push for two expansive federal voting rights bills that would combat a Republican wave of balloting restrictions. In the letter, signed by civil rights groups including the Leadership Conference and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, activists argued that with the “ideal of bipartisan cooperation on voting rights” nowhere to be found in a sharply divided Senate, Mr. Biden must “support the passage of these bills by whatever means necessary.” The issue is of paramount importance to Democrats: Republicans have passed roughly 30 laws in states across the country this year that are likely to make voting harder, especially in Black and Latino communities, which lean Democratic. Several of the laws give state legislators more power over how elections are run and make it easier to challenge the results.

In a fiery speech in Philadelphia last week, Mr. Biden warned that the G.O.P. effort was the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.” But the president and voting rights advocates are increasingly in disagreement about how to pass that test. Mr. Biden, a veteran of the Senate who for decades has believed in negotiating on the particulars of voting rights legislation, has faced calls to push Democratic senators to eliminate the filibuster, which would allow the two major voting bills proposed by the party to pass with a simple majority. The president and his advisers have repeatedly pointed out that he does not have the votes within his own party to pass federal voting legislation, and does not have the power to unilaterally roll back the filibuster even if he supported doing so. But voting rights groups say that Mr. Biden is not expending sufficient political capital or using the full force of his bully pulpit to persuade Congress. They point to the contrast between his soaring language — “Jim Crow on steroids,” he has called the G.O.P. voting laws — and his opposition to abolishing the Senate filibuster. “As you noted in your speech, our democracy is in peril,” the groups said in their letter. “We certainly cannot allow an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail efforts that a majority of Americans support.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

ERCOT insists it’s ready — with a string of near triple-digit-degree days on Texas’ horizon

A string of upcoming near-triple-digit temperatures in Texas could bring new record-setting demands on the state’s power grid operator already under pressure to regain the public trust. In a joint news conference Thursday, Public Utility Commission Chairman Peter Later and Energy Reliability Council of Texas interim president Brad Jones said they expect the state to have sufficient power as temperatures rise to meet demand from the more than 26 million Texans who get their electricity from ERCOT. “It’s going to be tight for the rest of the summer. We all know the heat is coming, but we’re ready for it,” Lake said. “In the meantime, we will be redesigning the ERCOT market for the future so that Texas has a grid that reliably delivers affordable power.”

Lake and Jones held the briefing to discuss operational changes PUC and ERCOT are making to improve gaps in the energy grid exposed during a February winter storm and June heat wave. The meeting offered little additional information on the ERCOT roadmap to grid reliability that was released ahead of a July 13 hearing in the Texas Legislature. What was clear was the work facing the state’s utility regulator and the grid operator as they prepare for future extreme weather swings. Lake repeatedly said the market the provides ERCOT with power needs a major overhaul. The present-day market is crisis-based, he said, rather than incentivizing reliability. “What does that look like in practice? We don’t know yet,” Lake said. “There are a myriad of possibilities in changing how generators are paid for producing electricity in Texas to adding new financial products that reward reliability to allocating costs differently.” The PUC will continue to host a series of workshops to discuss and gather ideas for revamping the market. Lake said customers will not be asked to bear the cost of changes that result. “The lights are going to stay on and your bill should not change,” Lake said. “Our goal is to re-allocate the payments that are currently being made to the most reliable source of power.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

Frustration, reinforced focus on meeting with Biden mark Texas Dems’ 11th day in Washington

They met with Vice President Kamala Harris on their first full day in Washington. But as the Texas House Democrats’ weeks-long crusade for voting rights in the nation’s capital stretches on, their long-coveted meeting with President Joe Biden remains elusive. On Thursday, they exhorted Beto O’Rourke — a former congressman from El Paso and now an outspoken party activist — to leverage his ties inside the Biden administration and wrangle a meeting between the president and the Texas members. “[Biden] absolutely must do more,” O’Rourke said with a promise to call members of Biden’s administration to push for the much-coveted meeting. “The least he could do, in my opinion, is to meet with you and listen to you and to hear it directly from you.”

A few members expressed their frustration. “I’m at the point where I’m pissed off that Joe Biden, our president, not only won’t meet with us — he’s not gonna meet with us, he’s gonna use COVID as an excuse not to meet with us — but he won’t even Zoom,” Rep. Richard Raymond of Laredo said Thursday during a virtual meeting with U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin. At least six Texas Democrats have tested positive for COVID-19 since Saturday. But members, now holed up in their hotel conducting virtual meetings with voting rights leaders, remain undeterred. Members praised O’Rourke’s fundraising efforts, which he said so far have brought in more than $600,000 in funding. In a news conference Thursday, O’Rourke said his organization, Powered by People, has so far received donations from 17,861 people. The average contribution amount is $36. “You’ve literally put food on our table. You’ve packed our parachute,” said Rep. Penny Shaw of Houston. “We’re eternally grateful. You are sustaining us.” “We couldn’t be doing this without you,” added Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas. In return, O’Rourke lauded the Democrats for their efforts, saying they’ve inspired him and people across the country. He said he will do everything he can to convince Biden to meet with them. Delegation leaders were optimistic that the president will eventually come around. “We anticipate that before we leave ... that we’re going to meet with President Biden,” Anchia said. “We know he has a lot on his plate ... but we also know that he holds deeply in his heart a reverence for voting rights.”

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Washington Post - July 22, 2021

Eddie Lucio, Jr.: I joined Texas Democrats’ walkout in 2003. Here’s why I’m staying in Austin this time.

(Eddie Lucio Jr., a Democrat from Brownsville, has represented South Texas in the state’s Senate since 1991.) More than 50 Texas state legislators, all Democrats, have taken flight from the state in an effort to block legislation that, in our party’s view, would suppress the votes of our constituents. This is an unusual action in Texas history — but by no means an unprecedented one. In 2003, with the prospect of a gerrymandered congressional map passing the legislature, 10 of my senate colleagues and I ventured to New Mexico to gain leverage in redistricting negotiations. Earlier that year, Democrats in the Texas House used a similar strategy to run out the clock on the regular legislative session by waiting it out in Oklahoma. Both tactics were a response to redistricting maps that we felt would put our party at an unfair disadvantage in the state’s congressional delegation. In the end, however, our efforts were unsuccessful. With the quorum break dragging on longer than expected, and a razor-thin margin keeping our effort alive, it took the return of only one senator to doom our effort. We had to go back to Austin to acquiesce to the maps on the table, which led to six Democratic congressmen losing their seats, just as we had feared.

Now, Democrats in the Texas House are again attempting to block legislation that threatens to diminish our constituents’ voices, this time in the form of a voting-reform proposal known as Senate Bill 1. The circumstances they face are different: As opposed to the one-vote margin that determined the outcome of our 2003 quorum break, the Texas House today requires 17 Democrats to consider a bill. As long as fewer than that number remain in Austin, Senate Bill 1 will not pass. The Democratic legislators waiting in Washington show every sign of being able to run out the clock on this bill. This is a consequence of recent elections, during which Democrats have made gains in both chambers of the Texas legislature. That is precisely why Democrats have taken such extraordinary measures to protect the ballot in Texas. To have a truly representative government, we must ensure a robust, competitive democracy, which requires that all eligible voters be given the opportunity to have their votes counted. As we heard in hours of testimony, the provisions in Senate Bill 1 will block ballot access for many people, especially people of color, individuals with disabilities and others without the means to meet new restrictions on the times and methods by which they may vote. The House Democrats bringing attention to our cause in Washington are an important part of our effort to stop this bill. In the meantime, those of us still in Austin — all of us veterans of the 2003 walkout — determined that we could be most useful staying here, asking questions of the bill’s author and bearing witness to the continuing problems in the bill.

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State Stories

San Antonio Current - July 22, 2021

San Antonio State Rep. Ina Minjarez: Texas Democrats making voting-rights progress in D.C.

State Rep. Ina Minjarez of San Antonio maintains that state Democratic lawmakers' walkout to protest the Legislature's controversial GOP-backed elections bill turns up the pressure for Congress to pass voting protections. Minjarez is one of roughly 60 Texas Democrats who flew from Austin to Washington D.C. earlier this month to break quorum and block progress for House Bill 3, which Republican backers say will bolster election security. However, Democrats and voting rights groups say the proposal — and others like it in statehouses around the country — are actually designed to make it harder for people of color and other likely Democratic voters to cast ballots. We caught up with Minjarez on the phone to ask her about the Texas Dems' trip to Washington D.C. The group plans to stay clear of the Lone Star State until August 7, when the special session called by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott comes to an end.

When you boarded that plane, some political observers said your intent was to force Republicans in Texas Lege back to the negotiating table. Given the partisan tone set by the governor, do you really think that could happen? Minjarez said, "Well, you can see from what's been put out in the media, Greg Abbott is front and center. In the House of Representatives where we serve, though, we have a leader in Speaker [Dade] Phelan, [R-Beaumont]. We hope that he will step up as a leader that we had elected him to be, and to actually encourage his Republican members to reach out so we can come to some sort of agreement on this bill. I firmly believe they know there are problems with this bill. After the first time we broke quorum, they acknowledged later that there were provisions of the bill that were very concerning and that they didn't know how those provisions ended up in there. That was egg on their face. So, I hope that the speaker will learn that he was elected, not just by Republicans, but by Democratic members of the House to be a leader. And that he needs to step up against Greg Abbott and do what he needs to do so that we can get a functioning House going — so that we can complete our service to the state of Texas."

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Austin American-Statesman - July 22, 2021

Beto O'Rourke raises $600K for Texas House Democrats in Washington

One week into their quorum bust in the nation’s capital, Texas House Democrats received an infusion of cash from fellow Democrat Beto O’Rourke to help cover costs for their indefinite stay outside state lines. O’Rourke, a former congressman and presidential candidate from El Paso, raised $600,000 for the lawmakers through his Powered By People PAC and said he wired money to party officials Monday, but he announced the contribution to the Democrats in their Washington hotel Thursday. O’Rourke, a prolific fundraiser during his U.S. Senate campaign against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in 2018, said in an interview that he expects his PAC will cut another check to the lawmakers before their quorum bust is done.

“When we heard that they were leaving Texas, we emailed everyone on our list and tweeted, posted on Facebook and Instagram — every way we could possibly reach people to raise money for them and make sure that they had that clear support from Texas and around the country,” O’Rourke told the American-Statesman ahead of his announcement. “That’s both moral support — there were thousands of unique donors — and then financial support of not having to worry about resources to be able to stay there and stay in this fight.” O'Rourke announced the figure over Zoom on a projector screen in the hotel ballroom. Members stood and applauded his contribution. "It goes without saying that we cannot do this without you and the support of the tens of thousands of grassroots supporters and donors and volunteers," said Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Texas AG Ken Paxton's donors are defecting to his challengers and taking big money with them

Not only was Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently outraised by half a million dollars by primary opponent and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, but campaign finance data also shows more than two dozen of his previous donors gave to Bush, a possible sign of distress for the embattled incumbent. In just the last 10 days of June, weeks after launching his campaign, Bush raised about $2.3 million, while during about the same period, Paxton brought in about $1.8 million. Former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who also joined the race in mid-June, raked in about $1.1 million — including more than $300,000 from nearly a dozen GOP donors who have given to Paxton in the past. Paxton, 58, still boasts the biggest war chest, however, with $6.8 million on hand compared to Bush’s $2.7 million and $600,000 for Guzman. The fundraising hauls bolster the widely held belief that the contest will be the most competitive of the GOP primary.

Republican incumbents who hold statewide office in Texas rarely face serious primary challengers and tend to sail to victory with the support of a strong base. Yet the early peel-offs from Paxton’s donor network represent fractures in that foundation. The first indication of vulnerability — when Paxton defeated Democrat Justin Nelson by less than 4 percentage points in 2018 — was almost certainly part of his competitors’ calculations in deciding to run, as that kind of margin for an incumbent is “pretty unheard of,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “That shows potential weaknesses,” Cross said. “He hasn’t done anything necessarily to overcome those weaknesses, other than being a favorite of former President Trump. We’re seeing some folks jump over to a Guzman or a Bush because they’ve been proven winners but also they don’t have all the baggage he has. So that in itself has got to give Paxton some sleepless nights to a certain extent.” The two-term incumbent is still battling a six-year-old felony securities fraud indictment with no trial date in sight, and also faces an FBI investigation of claims by his former top aides that he accepted bribes and abused the power of his office to benefit his friend and campaign donor, Nate Paul. Paxton has denied all wrongdoing. Paxton campaign spokesman Ian Prior did not respond to a request for comment but has previously called the whistleblower allegations false. “Any accusations that the Attorney General acted contrary to the law are completely false and they will be proven false in court,” Prior said in a statement. The primary is still at least eight months away — even later if redistricting delays set the election back into summer — plus statewide candidates only had the month of June to solicit donations because of a ban on political contributions while the state Legislature is in session.

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

Texas Longhorns’ potential Big 12 exit raising concerns in state Legislature

Less than a day after news broke that the University of Texas is angling to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, one North Texas lawmaker said he will seek legislation requiring legislative approval before such moves can happen. College football fans flooded to social media Wednesday afternoon after the Houston Chronicle first reported that the two largest brands in the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma, reached out to the Southeastern Conference about potentially joining the top league in the country. In what could be a recipe for disaster for the Big 12, the move would force its remaining programs to immediately form future game plans on the fly. Officials from both Texas and its archrival up north declined to comment, though neither have denied the report.

But it didn’t take long for state lawmakers to get involved. By Thursday morning, Plano Republican Rep. Jeff Leach called UT’s transparency into question on social media, while announcing his intent to work on a bill that would require UT to receive legislative approval before leaving the conference. “The lack of transparency by our flagship institution is wrong,” Leach said in a tweet. “Such a monumental economic and educational decision impacting the entire state must not be made in a bubble on the forty acres. Working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.” Leach added in a later tweet: “This is about much more than college sports. The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Operation Horns Down: How Texas A&M can stop Texas from moving to the SEC

As soon as the Houston Chronicle reported that Texas and Oklahoma was making eyes at the SEC on Wednesday, Texas A&M made it very clear where it stands. Absolutely not. “We want to be the only SEC team from the state of Texas,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told reporters at SEC Media Days. “There’s a reason why Texas A&M left the Big 12 — to be stand alone, to have our own identity, and that’s our feeling.”

Of course, in college football – and in life – money talks and hurt feelings walk. The SEC already prints money, but bringing in the Longhorns and Sooners would add nitrous to that printing press. Those schools won’t actually add much as far as the TV footprint goes, since the Aggies already got the SEC into Texas and Oklahoma doesn’t offer much in the way of TV markets. But annual matchups between the Longhorns/Sooners and Aggies, plus those two against LSU and the occasional Texas-Alabama, Oklahoma-Georgia and Texas-Florida showdown will shoot the next SEC TV contract into a different stratosphere. Texas reportedly is willing to rid itself of one potential stumbling block by giving up the Longhorn Network, which presumably could be folded into the SEC Network, since both are operated by ESPN. Still, A&M doesn’t want the Longhorns in their conference, and the Aggies do have an avenue to stop it. Any additions to the conference require a three-quarters vote (11 out of 14) of current SEC members, meaning the Aggies just need to convince three other schools to go along with Operation Horns Down.

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Houston Chronicle - July 21, 2021

Conroe ISD won't keep COVID-positive students home

Conroe Independent School District students are set to return to class on Aug. 11. But as students return, the strict COVID-19 mandates of last year will not, and the district won’t be able to mandate that students positive with COVID-19 stay home to isolate. The district laid out the main tenants of its Roadmap to Remaining Open plan for the upcoming school year at its monthly board meeting Tuesday night. Chris McCord, executive director of operations for the district, explained what the district would be allowed to do based on the latest guidance from the Texas Education Agency as of July 20.

“It’s going to take all of us working together to successfully navigate the remaining days of COVID-19,” McCord said. “The best way to prevent the spread of illness is the same as it was when we were children and it is to stay home when you are ill.” But as of Tuesday’s presentation, the district made it clear that it won’t mandate that students stay home if they have COVID-19. A student can be sent home if they have a fever of 100 or higher. The district strongly encourages that parents do not send kids to school if they are sick, if they have a fever, or if they have an onset of new symptoms. “Increased expectation of students and staff to take personal responsibility for health-related decisions impacting both others and themselves,” is a key component of the return plan, according to McCord’s presentation. This personal individual responsibility includes regularly washing hands, which the district will continue to strongly encourage this coming year. The district cannot mandate that staff or students wear masks but must allow individuals to wear a mask if they so choose. CISD will continue to provide PPE for students and staff who want it. While the district cannot mandate that students who are positive with COVID-19 stay home, the district is still required by the TEA to report positive cases in staff and students to the local health department.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Hidalgo raising Harris County COVID threat level as delta variant rages, hospitalizations double

Harris County’s emergency threat level was raised to orange — or “significant” — on Thursday and County Judge Lina Hidalgo called for resumed mask wearing amid a fourth wave of COVID-19 that has already caused hospitalizations to spike across the region. "Its not too late," Hidalgo said. "But if we don’t act now, it will be too late for many people.... We are at the beginning of a potentially very dangerous fourth wave of this pandemic.” The guidelines for the orange threat level are voluntary, and urge residents — namely those who are not vaccinated — to avoid large gatherings and businesses with poor safety procedures.

Hidalgo also said “everyone” should resume wearing masks to protect the County’s population who are not fully vaccinated. Currently, about 2.1 million county residents are fully vaccinated — 44 percent of Harris County’s total population. She noted the county’s positivity rate is now doubling about every 17 days, quicker than any other point in the pandemic. Hidalgo had in May lowered the threat level from red — where it had been for nearly a year — to orange, then yellow a few weeks later, as COVID cases waned statewide. Since July 1, COVID-19 hospitalizations have more than have doubled across Texas, hitting 3,556 as of Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Local hospital leaders have for weeks warned of a coming increase in cases, which they said could overwhelm emergency rooms now that more people are getting elective surgeries they delayed at the height of the pandemic. They also worry that the closure of testing centers will make it more difficult to gauge the spread of COVID — particularly the more contagious delta variant — in communities. “As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a Tuesday conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Port aims to diversify companies it works with after report shows racial, gender disparities

Port Houston said it will launch a program to increase participation of minority- and women-owned businesses after a study found that these firms were significantly underrepresented by the contracts awarded by the port. The study, conducted by the Georgia consulting firm Griffin & Strong, found that minority- and women- owned construction businesses received 11.3 percent of contract dollars from the port between 2015 and 2019, even though they account for 45 percent of construction firms in Harris, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties. For architectural and engineering firms, minority- and women- owned businesses received less than 6 percent of the money spent on contracts, though they account for 47 percent of architectural and engineering firms in the three-county area. These disparities emerged over the years because the port was not tracking the minority- and women-owned businesses participating in its projects, said Roger Guenther, executive director of Port Houston.

“We are tracking them now.” Guenther said .“The port is a leader of commerce and economic activity, so we know we have the responsibility to promote diversity and equity in the region.” The port decided in 2019 to commission a study to examine its record in hiring minority- and women-owned firms, following similar moves by the Harris County Commissioners Court and the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, which have both published studies of racial and gender disparities in contracting. The port study used responses from more than 6,000 small businesses. The port has set a goal of awarding 35 percent of contract dollars to minority- or women-owned businesses, but does not have timetable for reaching that goal. About 6 percent of contract dollars now go to minority- or women-owned businesses, according to the port. The study found several reasons why minority firms may have been overlooked in the past. For example, the port tends to hire large companies that provide several services, instead of several smaller companies to work on different aspects of one big project. Also, it appeared common for the port to work with the same companies over and over again, rather than seeking out new companies to bid on work, said Michele Clark Jenkins senior director of the Georgia-based consulting firm, Griffin & Strong.

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Houston Chronicle - July 21, 2021

Erica Grieder: Persistent questions about Rodney Reed's guilt point to need for new trial

There has been plenty of drama in a Bastrop courtroom outside Austin since Monday, when an evidentiary hearing began to determine whether Rodney Reed should get a new trial. Reed, 53, has been on death row since 1998, when he was convicted of the 1996 murder of Stacy Stites, a 19-year-old woman who lived in Giddings and worked at H-E-B. His team has argued that Reed is innocent, and that the evidence points to someone else: Jimmy Fennell, who was Stites’ fiancee and, at the time, a Giddings police officer. This isn’t far-fetched, suggested Charles Wayne Fletcher, a former Bastrop County deputy, who testified that he knew Fennell socially as well as professionally at the time of the murder. On Monday, Fletcher said that he had heard Fennell say at a barbecue, some weeks before Stites’ death, that his fiancee was having an affair with a Black man. By Fletcher’s account, Fennell used a racial slur.

Asked why he didn’t come forward sooner, Fletcher cited concerns for the safety of his family and not wanting to break through the so-called blue wall of silence. “I couldn’t go against local law enforcement,” he said. It wasn’t the most dramatic moment of the hearing, which is expected to run through this week and will give Reed’s team a chance to put forward new forensic evidence as well as witness testimony. But it was chilling. From the beginning, Reed’s case has been a troubling one. He was convicted largely on the basis of DNA evidence, after his semen was found on Stites’ body. But that could be explained if the two were having a consensual affair, as Reed contends; several witnesses who knew Stites have come forward to say that was their impression, too. Then there is some important context here regarding race. Reed is Black, and was convicted by an all-white jury. Stites was white. Fennell is white too, and the law enforcement officers who investigated Stites’ murder considered him a person of interest in the immediate aftermath of her killing.

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Texas GOP’s vote audit plan hurts our democracy

The one thing that Democrats and Republicans can agree upon is that Donald Trump carried Texas in 2020 and Republicans carried every statewide seat as they have done in every election cycle since the mid 1990s. Yet, in a moment of overreaching political hubris, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, just introduced the Texas Voter Confidence Act, a red meat bill in the midst of a red meat special session. The measure would authorize the governor, the lieutenant governor and the speaker of the House to select an independent third party to audit votes cast in Texas’ 13 largest counties. Ten of the counties, including Dallas and Tarrant, backed Joe Biden in the election while the other remaining three — Collin, Denton and Montgomery counties — backed Trump.

This newspaper rightly criticized House Democrats for jetting off to Washington in a desperate effort to block passage of a GOP voting bill as an abdication of their legislative duty and a waste of time and money. Now we say the same about the grandstanding behind this GOP measure, which deserves to be tossed into a legislative trash heap. In a statement about House Bill 241, Toth said, “Texans want to know more about the claims of voter fraud and deserve to have confidence in their elections, [and] voters want to know that their legal vote counts and matters.” Really? Let’s deconstruct that. Months ago, election officials collected and certified the results. And despite all the rancor leading up to and following the 2020 election, is anyone going to argue that the GOP didn’t win Texas? And for that matter, is anyone going to seriously argue that Biden didn’t carry its most urban counties?

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Why Texas is willing to risk aggravation, serious opposition to join SEC, play in the big-boy league

The Big 12 is probably already circling its lawyers, Texas A&M will hold its ground and the future of a 12-team playoff could even be in jeopardy, yet there’s an over-arching reason why Texas would risk all that aggravation and opposition to bolt for the SEC along with Oklahoma. And it’s not just money, either. Texas has big money, and the boosters behind it want to play in a big-boy league. Even if the Houston Chronicle source that dropped Wednesday’s bulletin is off on its timing, and no announcement is imminent or on the horizon, it doesn’t change the sentiment. No offense, Iowa State. You, too, Kansas and Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

But you’re not Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida, Auburn and A&M. Kentucky can hoop as much as Kansas can. Heck, even Vanderbilt and Arkansas are killer in baseball. Texas Tech and Baylor have seen this side of Texas before. The Longhorns tired of their playmates in the dying days of the Southwest Conference and decided to step up in class. Now, according to unnamed sources, Texas boosters believe the Big 12 has run its course, too, and it’s time to move on again. Not only did I not see it coming, I nearly wrote last week that the Big 12 had never seemed so stable. Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner, even thanked the media last week at JerryWorld for not asking about realignment. Hope you enjoyed the reverie while it lasted, Bob. As previously noted, just because Texas probably wants to go doesn’t mean it will. The Longhorns would encounter serious opposition. Ross Bjork, A&M’s athletic director, couldn’t have been clearer Wednesday. The Aggies want to be the only SEC program in the state. It’s one of the reasons they left the Big 12, he said, “to have our own identity.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tests negative for COVID, after official he met at border event is infected

Gov. Greg Abbott was tested for COVID-19 on Thursday, and got a negative result, a day after a Florida politician who attended Abbott’s weekend border security event in Del Rio announced she’d become infected by the virus. At a Department of Public Safety aircraft facility at the Del Rio International Airport on Saturday, Abbott and a raft of elected officials and law enforcement leaders from Texas and Florida held a news conference in an open-air hangar. Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, who in photographs taken by the Miami Herald could be seen standing within a few feet of Abbott, tweeted Wednesday that she tested positive for coronavirus. Moody, 46, who had been vaccinated earlier this year, reported suffering only mild symptoms.

Abbott, 63, who received two doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine, starting on Dec. 22, “was tested this morning, which came back negative,” Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said Thursday. “Out of an abundance of caution, he will continue to test for the next three days,” she said. In recent months, the Republican governor has held numerous events to decry what he calls an “unprecedented surge” of unauthorized border crossings by migrants, which he blames on the immigration policies of President Joe Biden. Abbott has said he’s alarmed by how many illegal drugs and lethal weapons are being smuggled from Mexico into Texas. To attend the Saturday event, Moody and Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson flew with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to Del Rio on a plane owned by the state of Florida. At the event, also attended by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Moody “came in close contact with dozens” of law enforcement officials from both states, the Herald reported. Abbott’s potential exposure to someone infected with coronavirus came as Texas health officials have grown more concerned about the growing prominence of the highly contagious delta variant.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 22, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Fort Worth leaders, get ready to help TCU football if UT, OU leave Big 12 for the SEC

The new uncertainty in college football may soon become an all-hands-on-deck moment for Fort Worth and the TCU Horned Frogs. TCU’s sports future might be in question again, after news reports this week that the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma are inquiring about leaving the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference. This isn’t just about football. It’s about tourism and revenue for Fort Worth, and the economic success the entire city enjoys from home games and TV contracts at the top level of college sports.

Whenever TCU asks, Mayor Mattie Parker, County Judge Glen Whitley and leaders should put their own loyalties aside and join Tarrant County lawmakers to work nationwide and help keep TCU in one of college sports’ top conferences. Big 12 games have brought thousands of visitors to Fort Worth and Arlington, even more than anyone expected when the Horned Frogs replaced Texas A&M in the league nine years ago. Every TCU home conference football game is like a college bowl game, and games in other sports fill restaurants and hotels. The league championship game fills hotels in Arlington. But any realignment of college sports conferences would leave both TCU’s and the Big 12’s future in doubt. Tarrant County leaders must make these points strongly to every college president: TCU is the home of top-tier major college football in a market of nearly 8 million people, where every major college across the country likely has thousands of alumni and where visiting teams play before some of Texas’ most talented recruits; Fort Worth is where your team and league want to play. College football is king here, not the pros. Sundance Square and Mule Alley are great gathering places for college fans; DFW Airport is a nonstop flight from almost anywhere in the U.S. Those sports teams or staff members traveling on commercial airlines can get home faster and miss less classroom time.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 22, 2021

Tarrant County voter fraud case ‘threatens the integrity’ of democracy, group says

The case of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman convicted of voter fraud, continues to draw national attention and the support of bipartisan attorneys and leaders who say her five-year sentence should be overturned. On Thursday, a group of former state and federal prosecutors, along with the States United Democracy Center, filed an amicus brief in support of Mason in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the court in which Mason is appealing her illegal voting conviction. Texas House Democrats in D.C. met with Mason on Wednesday as part of a series of meetings about voting rights. “As it stands, Ms. Mason’s prosecution lies far outside the bounds of any reasonable exercise of prosecutorial power, and threatens the integrity of our democratic process and our electoral integrity as a nation,” said Donald B. Ayer, former deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice under President George H.W. Bush.

Mason, who is from Rendon, cast a provisional ballot in the 2016 election, later saying she was not aware she could not vote while on federally supervised release. Her ballot was not counted — provisional ballots are meant to allow a voter to cast a potential ballot even if their name does not appear on the list of registered voters. Even though the ballot was not counted and Mason said she was unaware she was not allowed to vote, she was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison for illegal voting in March 2018. The case has since worked its way through various appeals courts. At the heart of Mason’s case is the question of whether Black and white voters are treated equally in the U.S. In a January column in the Star-Telegram, Mason questioned why a Tarrant County justice of the peace who forged signatures to get on the ballot for re-election was only given probation. “Why was my case even prosecuted?” she wrote. “Why was I not shown that same grace? My life and my family matter, too.”

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Austin American-Statesman - July 22, 2021

Austin American-Statesman Editorial: Let Texas schools set their own COVID-19 mask rules

COVID-19 cases are surging again, and in less than a month roughly 5 million Texas students will return to school. They will pile into school buses and file into classrooms and huddle on playgrounds — largely unmasked, unvaccinated and vulnerable to a virus that hasn’t gone away. The arrival of vaccines, heralded as the key to reopening Texas, has done little to safeguard schools. Students under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine. Among those who are 12 to 17 in Texas, less than a third have received at least one vaccine dose, and only 27% are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, community spread of the virus is on the rise, thanks to the highly contagious delta variant. Every day since Friday, more than 10% of the state’s COVID-19 tests came back positive, a threshold officials set as a red flag earlier in the pandemic.

Without vaccines providing sufficient protection on most campuses, school officials need the next best thing: The ability to set their own mask policies to meet their community’s needs. Gov. Greg Abbott blocked such a thing months ago in his zeal to “open Texas 100%.” Abbott’s May 18 executive order forbids school districts and local governments from imposing mask mandates, taking away a valuable tool that helped prevent the spread of the virus during earlier waves of the pandemic. But even there, Abbott allowed officials to keep mask mandates in a few other group settings, such as state-supported living centers and county jails. Surely schools, filled with largely unvaccinated students, deserve the same protection. While young people are less likely to suffer serious complications from the coronavirus, they can still get sick. Travis County health officials last week said they were seeing an increase in pediatric cases of COVID-19. Some children have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk for developing COVID-19 complications.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 22, 2021

Texas AG Ken Paxton loses bid to raise $9,000 gun fine against Austin to $5.76 million

A state appeals court on Thursday rejected Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's bid to dramatically increase a $9,000 fine levied against the city of Austin for violating a state law by banning firearms from City Hall in 2016. Paxton asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to boost the fine to $5.76 million, arguing that the $9,000 penalty imposed by a trial judge in 2019 amounted to a "slap on the wrist" that would encourage cities across Texas to evade laws that protect gun rights. Austin, Paxton argued, continued to improperly ban guns from City Hall for 577 consecutive business days from July 2016 to January 2019, requiring $10,000-per-day fines to accumulate under a 2015 state law that limits when guns can be prohibited on government property.

The appeals court disagreed, upholding a $1,500-per-day fine that was assessed by state District Judge Lora Livingston, who ruled that Austin violated the gun-access law for six days in 2016. "We cannot conclude that the Attorney General’s evidence conclusively established a presumption of a continuing violation ... (over) the 577 days," said the opinion, written by Justice Melissa Goodwin, the only Republican serving on the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals. Paxton can appeal the ruling to the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court. In 2015, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 273, which allowed cities and counties to ban guns only in specific government buildings, including courthouses and those holding school functions. Austin banned guns from its downtown City Hall, saying rooms are periodically used as a community court and teen court, with signs etched in glass at entrances depicting a handgun with a line through it. Security guards enforced the ban.

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San Antonio Current - July 21, 2021

Ted Cruz blocks 60 diplomatic appointments in a move members of his own party call 'fruitless'

In a move both Democrats and Republicans warn is harming U.S. diplomacy, Sen. Ted Cruz is blocking nominees from being confirmed for "vital" State Department roles to make a political point, CNN reports. Half a year into the Biden administration, just six State Department candidates have been confirmed on the Senate floor, while Cruz's obstructionism has left 60 more in a holding pattern, according to the news organization. Cruz is using his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to block votes on nominees so he can protest the White House giving a sanctions waiver to a company building a Russian gas pipeline, CNN reports, citing six sources familiar with the process.

The only way to overcome Cruz's repeated objections is for Dems to maneuver around a filibuster for each nomination, the sources said. Tempers have already begun to fray as Cruz digs in his heels. "Maybe it's your presidential aspirations, I don't know, but you're turning to political purposes," Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, angrily told Cruz during a recent confrontation over the holdups. "You held over every nominee. Every nominee! I've never seen that." And Democrats aren't the only ones pissed at Cruz. Republicans in the Senate told CNN that Cruz's fight against the waiver — an effort to improve diplomatic ties with Germany, a key U.S. ally — is "fruitless." Further, Cruz bears "the bulk of the blame" for grinding nominations to a halt, the GOP members said. Cruz has built his political brand by being a fly in the ointment. But the CNN piece points out that his current obstruction campaign — much like his bid to overturn 2020's legitimate presidential election — appears to have real consequences. An acting assistant secretary now heads the Bureau of Central and South Asian affairs as Afghanistan heads into further instability, according to the report. Interim leaders also oversee Cuba, Haiti, Iran and China as the U.S. faces serious diplomatic challenges related to those countries. "The holdup shows how the Senate is no longer working in the way it worked in the past," a Democratic Senate aide told CNN. "Everyone is trying to get something they want for allowing a simple nomination to go forth."

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San Antonio Express-News - July 20, 2021

San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry's contentious divorce case dismissed, court file sealed

Flamboyant San Antonio personal-injury lawyer Thomas J. Henry’s contentious divorce case has been dismissed and the court file sealed. It couldn’t be determined if Henry and his longtime partner Azteca Henry reached a settlement, prompting the dismissal. The motion to dismiss the case that the pair filed is not publicly available because of an order sealing the entire court file. State District Judge Angelica Jimenez issued the order July 13, the same day Thomas Henry had been scheduled to submit to questions from Azteca Henry’s lawyers during a day-long deposition. Jimenez dismissed the case “with prejudice,” meaning it can’t be refiled.

Lawyers for the Henrys did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Susan Myres, a Houston family lawyer who wasn’t involved in the case, said there are “so many variables” that could have affected how the Henrys resolved the matter. “It could have been a settlement and they didn’t want the world to know what that settlement is,” said Myres, who has practiced for more than 35 years and is past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “It could be that there was money exchanged or maybe an agreement that impacted their children.” The Henrys have two adult children. Azteca Henry petitioned for divorce in November 2019, but Thomas denied they were even married. The two wed in 1999 and divorced in 2005. Azteca, 43, said they continued to live together until the summer of 2019 when Thomas, 59, moved out of the Anaqua Springs Ranch house they shared. Azteca has said they had a “common law marriage,” which, under Texas law, is considered a union when two adults consent to being married without the formality of obtaining a marriage license. It’s also referred to as an “informal marriage.” In a court filing last year, Thomas said he “vehemently denies” the existence of an informal marriage and called the claim “dubious.”

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NBC 5 - July 22, 2021

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick calls for portrait of Opal Lee to be hung in Senate chamber

Fort Worth civil rights icon Opal Lee, honored for her activism by the Texas State Senate Thursday, may soon have her portrait hanging in the Senate chamber as a hero of Texas. Lee, 94, has long championed the effort to make Juneteenth a federal holiday. That effort ultimately proved to be successful last month, when Congress passed a measure that President Joe Biden signed into law making Juneteenth the eleventh federal holiday. "We've had a lot of heroes on our floor over the 16 years I've been here … I really can't think of a greater Texas hero that we've ever had on this floor than you," Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday. "I'm going to do something extraordinary that I've never done before … your story is so important to Texas I think your portrait should be hanging in this Senate. As lieutenant governor, I'm going to recommend that your portrait be hung in this Senate chamber for all eternity."

Patrick said the Senate hasn't commissioned a new portrait in 40 years and that some of the portraits on chamber walls date back 135 years. The lieutenant governor said he wanted Lee's portrait to be on a front wall so that people see it when they enter the chamber on tours. Lee spoke before the Senate members, reminding them of their power to change the world while thanking them for the honor. "Young people. And you are all young people if you are not 94. You know I'm flabbergasted. You know I'm humbled. I just want you to know that you, as Senators, must be a committee of one. A committee of one to change somebody's mind. If people can be taught to hate they can be taught to love," Lee said. "And you are a body of people who can change the world. I just don't know what else to say except thank you for you all you've done and are doing." The Texas Senate honored Opal Lee with SR19 for being “the force” behind the establishment of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. The Senate reserved the number 19 for the resolution to correspond to the date of the holiday. “We want to honor this amazing Texan for her perseverance in making Juneteenth not just a Texas holiday but also a federal holiday,” said Patrick in a statement prior to Thursday's ceremony. An official statement noted that Patrick, a Republican, and Fort Worth State Senator Beverly Powell, a Democrat, spearheaded Thursday’s ceremony recognizing Opal Lee’s efforts. “Having ‘Miss Opal’ in my district is such an honor and I am so proud to host her at the Texas Capitol,” Powell said in a statement. “I look forward to introducing my famous constituent and our national treasure to my colleagues and presenting Senate Resolution #19 to honor her lifetime of work.”

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City Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

Carroll ISD changes board meeting format following controversies and protests

After a year of school board meetings that featured extensive public outcry around issues including critical race theory, the proposed Cultural Competence Action Plan and pandemic-related concerns, the Carroll Independent School District is implementing a new meeting structure that changes when members of the public can comment on non-agenda items. The school board will now meet twice a month. During what is being dubbed a “workshop” meeting, public comments will be limited to specific agenda items. The second meeting of the month will allow public comment on any topic, the district said in a release. The changes come after multiple instances of protests at school board meetings in the last year, including a board meeting in May in which protestors gathered inside and outside the administration building displaying divisive signs regarding COVID-19 mask protocols.

Parents and others lined the perimeter of the building, some holding signs that read “I can’t breathe,” a reference to George Floyd’s last words, and “No Moore,” calling for school board president Michelle Moore to resign. Moore said the new meeting structure will “allow trustees to dig deeper in understanding educational issues and better collaborate with our new administration.” Moore is optimistic for a fresh start as the upcoming school year marks the first full school year with superintendent Lane Ledbetter at the helm, as well as the hiring of a new deputy superintendent, a new assistant superintendent for staff and student services and a new executive director of communications. “Our district continues to want to improve and excel to new heights, and we believe this format will allow us to be more informed and better decision-makers,” Moore said. The first newly structured special meeting was on July 12.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 22, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Rising violence in Fort Worth alarms residents. But are we in an overall crime wave?

Are we in a crime wave? Around the nation, to varying degrees, violent crime is surging. In Fort Worth, homicides are up slightly over 2020, when the city recorded more than it had in decades, and police see a disturbing rise in gun violence generally. Part of that has been some attention-grabbing shootings, the kind that sparks fear and concern that crime is reaching a dangerous level. One was a shootout near the end of a well-attended Como neighborhood party, where eight people were wounded. The other, in which a man was wounded in Sundance Square as he and his girlfriend were attacked, is the type of crime that, while rare, sparks worries that public places often considered safe are no longer so.

But some perspective is in order. While these kinds of incidents draw attention and demand a strong police response, there doesn’t appear to be a surge yet of lesser violence or property crimes in Fort Worth. Those offenses reinforce the feeling that crime is out of control because people feel less secure in their own neighborhoods. The pandemic skews statistical comparisons because of 2020’s low level of public activity for so many. But stacking the first quarter of 2019, before coronavirus, against the same time period this year, indicates the situation is far from out of hand. Overall, crimes against persons are down in that stretch, though the worst, homicide and aggravated assault, spiked in a way no one should brush aside. Property crime has dipped, including many fewer vehicle thefts. Second-quarter statistics, not yet available from the Fort Worth Police Department, will provide a better understanding, as January through March of this year saw some reduced activity amid COVID-19 spikes that preceded the availability of vaccines. The increase in violence, here and in other large cities, is troubling. Year to date, for instance, Houston is recording 35% more murders. But it’s important to note that crime remains vastly reduced from the nightmarish rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fort Worth, for instance, has seen a 63 percent decrease in the most serious crimes since 1995, even while the population has nearly doubled since then, police leaders told City Council members in a recent presentation.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Electric buses are coming to Houston, as Metro takes first step toward letting up on the gas

Transit officials in the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world are recharging their attempts to wean Metro off fossil fuels. Metropolitan Transit Authority officials, sensing both the technology and federal interest in funding are ripe, are preparing to buy up to 20 all-electric buses that would operate along two routes. Though Metro has tried and failed to find an electric bus that can handle the hot Houston summer in the past, officials said they are growing more optimistic newer batteries have the necessary juice to keep the vehicles moving and riders cool. Fears the region may not have much time before drastic action is needed to mitigate climate change with lower vehicle emissions, are prompting Metro to move faster on flipping the switch on its fleet, albeit gradually.

“Some of the recent weather events have made this a more urgent matter,” said Kimberly Williams, chief innovation officer for Metro, referring to the increasing frequency of major hurricanes along the Gulf Coast and flooding in the Houston area. The costs of the new all-electric buses, estimated at $25.5 million, would be covered mostly by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, if Metro should snare the money. The federal program, formerly called TIFIA and then TIGER and now RAISE for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, is among the most competitive pots of federal transportation money, with applications exceeding available money in some years by a ratio of nine to one. Metro’s proposal, which requires final approval by its board once options are researched and bids solicited, would include the purchase of 20 electric vehicles for local routes. The local buses would be used for the Bellaire Quickline and the Route 28 bus service mostly along Old Spanish Trail and Wayside.

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Austin Business Journal - July 22, 2021

9 out of 10 Austinites: Bring on the big events again, survey says

Break out the cocktail shrimp and the cash bar, most of us are ready to return to in-person events. That’s the big takeaway from an exclusive national survey by The Business Journals, which surveyed 6,582 past event attendees across dozens of major metro areas. Nationally, 85% of respondents said they were comfortable returning to in-person events with proper Covid-19 protocols in place. In Austin, 93% said bring the events on, though it's unclear how recent news will affect attitudes in the coming weeks or months. Covid rates are starting to grow again in Travis County, and some expect a return to stage 4 restrictions. The survey shows how sentiments have dramatically changed since a prior survey in April, which found only 50% of respondents were ready to return to in-person events.

The April survey was taken as wide access to the Covid-19 vaccine was just ramping up, and the stark difference shows how increased vaccinations have affected the appetite for live events. The survey bodes well for an events industry still digging itself out of a challenging 16-month period marked by forced closures, steep reductions in revenue and labor challenges, with many looking to the U.S. Small Business Administration's Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program for assistance. Respondents also said they were more comfortable with larger events than they were in the April survey. Nationally, 42% of respondents said they would be comfortable attending an event with more than 500 attendees. In April, only 23% of respondents said they’d be comfortable with an event of that size.

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National Stories

The Hill - July 22, 2021

Critical race theory becomes focus of midterms

Critical race theory increasingly looks like it will play a major role in the 2022 midterm elections as Republicans ramp up efforts on culture issues in their pursuit of winning back control of both the House and Senate. Arguments about critical race theory (CRT), a decades-old academic theory that puts the nation’s history of institutional racism at the center of teaching history, are regularly featured on conservative media and are increasingly being seen in school debates around the country. Black lawmakers in Congress are expressing disappointment with the emerging battle lines, arguing it is a sign of the pushback to progress on issues of racial justice.

“Unfortunately, as the country makes progress and deal with truth telling, there are a group of Americans that tries to halt that progress and deals with falsehoods, and tries to stop the growth that the country has made, particularly in relationship to African Americans,” Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC, told The Hill. Many Republicans, however, see an issue that could drive conservatives to the polls in a midterm election cycle, when turnout is generally lower. Democrats are defending narrow majorities in both the House and Senate. Historically, the president’s party has lost seats in his initial midterm election. “This is an issue that can really help Republicans win back those suburbs that they might have lost in the 2020 election,” Republican strategist Ford O’Connell told The Hill. CRT is something that “could contribute to a red wave in 2022, particularly as it relates to the House of Representatives,” O’Connell added.

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Washington Post - July 22, 2021

Biden administration takes aim at ‘straw’ purchasers of guns used in crimes

Justice Department officials eager to stanch the rising tide of gun violence in America plan to ratchet up prosecutions of small-level “straw” buyers of weapons that are later transported to major cities and used in crimes. Attorney General Merrick Garland plans to launch a series of “strike forces” on Thursday to combat gun trafficking in D.C., New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and the San Francisco area. The effort does not involve more agents, officials said, but rather a refocusing — particularly of investigators at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — to crack down on the sources of illegal guns. Amid a precedent-shattering pandemic, shootings rose dramatically in both large and small American cities in 2020, with initial data showing homicides spiked by about 20 percent — the largest single-year increase since such record-keeping began in the 20th century.

Many Democrats say lax gun laws have fueled the bloodshed; many Republicans counter that Democrats have encouraged a crime wave by criticizing police and loosening bail requirements for criminal suspects. Historically, violent crime levels are still far below the record highs experienced in the 1990s. But there is growing concern among politicians and police that more must be done to reverse the recent trend. ATF officials have long said that firearms trafficking is not typically the work of large, coordinated criminal enterprises. Instead, in small-scale operations, illicit gun dealers find individuals to buy weapons, then hand them over to be resold to criminals out of town or out of state. Such straw purchases are illegal. But it is often difficult to prove the initial gun buyers deliberately lied on their paperwork. For that reason, officials say, many cases are not prosecuted. At a briefing this week, one ATF official compared gun traffickers to “ants marching from one place to another.”

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Washington Post - July 22, 2021

More than a laugh: Kamala Harris' is a sound check for a divided country

“You’re writing a story in the Los Angeles Times about the vice president’s laugh? I think that’s laughable.” — Bakari Sellers, Democratic lawyer and CNN commentator. Seriously, to weigh how the first woman and first woman of color to become vice president is perceived, Kamala Harris’ laugh may provide the ultimate gauge. While many people just hear levity in her laugh, those on the right react with heckles and attacks, a difference that says as much about the divisive, personally vicious state of politics as any debates over policies. President Trump made fun of “the laugh” at a late October rally in Pennsylvania. “Ha! Ha! Ha!” he bellowed mockingly, and mirthlessly, adding his own snicker as he otherwise savaged Harris for being "more liberal than 'crazy Bernie.'" Newt Gingrich, the Republican former House speaker and Fox News commentator, in an interview called Harris' laughs "distinctively jarring." And a male host on Newsmax claimed at one point, "Well, the queen bee — cackling Kamala — is losing her support among Democrats."

Harris’ supporters and some outside observers say the attention to her mirth is not funny. Instead, they say, it reflects the double standard she faces as a pathbreaking politician as well as the pressure to appear at once likable and tough, yet still authentic. Sellers called the critics' catcalls "obscene and upsetting — because she's such a great spirit and that’s what she exudes in her laugh.” “If it weren’t her laugh, it’d be her smile or the way she dressed,” said Arisha Hatch, vice president of Color of Change, a group that advocates for racial justice. “It is just another conversation that demonstrates how difficult it is to be a woman-of-color leader in this country.” Besides, say those who know her, Harris genuinely likes to laugh. “She’s just a person who tries to find joy and happiness in everything,” said Nathan Barankin, her former chief of staff when Harris was in the Senate and, before that, California's attorney general. He recalled her pun sessions with advisors that would put her in stitches. “I’m not saying every time you see or hear the laugh it’s the appropriate moment," he said. "It’s not like someone just told a joke. But I’m saying that’s where it comes from.” At times, like when she walks onto a stage after a lengthy introduction, Harris laughs unprompted in the way that politicians often do to try to demonstrate humility — as if to suggest that, while she may be a history-making vice president, she also sees the attention around her as a bit much. Or she'll laugh amid an earnest policy discussion, seemingly trying to bring the subject down to earth. At a speech in Michigan this month, Harris talked about people waiting months to get their COVID-19 vaccines. “It’s July!” she said with a guffaw. “It’s time!”

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New York Times - July 22, 2021

Details on F.B.I. inquiry into Kavanaugh draw fire from Democrats

Nearly three years after Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s tumultuous confirmation to the Supreme Court, the F.B.I. has disclosed more details about its efforts to review the justice’s background, leading a group of Senate Democrats to question the thoroughness of the vetting and conclude that it was shaped largely by the Trump White House. In a letter dated June 30 to two Democratic senators, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Chris Coons of Delaware, an F.B.I. assistant director, Jill C. Tyson, said that the most “relevant” of the 4,500 tips the agency received during an investigation into Mr. Kavanaugh’s past were referred to White House lawyers in the Trump administration, whose handling of them remains unclear. The letter left uncertain whether the F.B.I. itself followed up on the most compelling leads. The agency was conducting a background check rather than a criminal investigation, meaning that “the authorities, policies, and procedures used to investigate criminal matters did not apply,” the letter said.

Ms. Tyson’s letter was a response to a 2019 letter from Mr. Whitehouse and Mr. Coons to the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, posing questions about how the F.B.I.’s review of Mr. Kavanaugh was handled. In an interview, Mr. Whitehouse said the F.B.I.’s response showed that the F.B.I.’s handling of the accusations into misconduct by Mr. Kavanaugh was a sham. Ms. Tyson’s letter, Mr. Whitehouse said, suggested that the F.B.I. ran a “fake tip line that never got properly reviewed, that was presumably not even conducted in good faith.” Mr. Whitehouse and six of his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee replied to the F.B.I.’s letter on Wednesday with demands for additional details on the agreement with the White House that governed the inquiry. They also pressed for more information on how incoming tips were handled. “Your letter confirms that the F.B.I.’s tip line was a departure from past practice and that the F.B.I. was politically constrained by the Trump White House,” the senators wrote. Among those signing the letter were Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the committee’s chairman, Mr. Coons and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. The F.B.I. declined to comment. Donald F. McGahn II, the White House’s general counsel at the time, did not respond to requests for comment. Former President Donald J. Trump has long taken credit for Mr. Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which was almost derailed over allegations by a California professor that Mr. Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her during a high school gathering in the early 1980s. Despite widespread concern over the claims — which were followed by other allegations of sexual misconduct, all of which Mr. Kavanaugh has consistently denied — Mr. Trump steadfastly backed the judge. He deployed Mr. McGahn to shepherd Mr. Kavanaugh through the unusually fraught confirmation, which culminated in a heated, daylong hearing in September of 2018.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Top DOE official calls pace of clean energy transition 'wholly unacceptable'

The head of the Department of Energy's Loan Programs Office said the United States needs to scale up its investments in clean energy five fold if it is to meet President Biden's climate change goals. Jigar Shah, director of the loan office, estimated that government and private industry were spending about $2oo billion a year combined on climate solutions and that, "probably needs to be a trillion dollars a year." "The pace at which we are deploying climate solutions is wholly unacceptable,” he said in an episode of the CERAWeek Conversations series, which is hosted by the consulting firm IHS Markit.

Biden is set to appear at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow later this year, where he is expected to lay out his plans to get the United States to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. One avenue at Biden's disposal is the $40 billion in loans and loan guarantees the Energy Department has available to build out energy projects in the United States, which Shah described as a "catalyst" for Wall Street to invest in clean energy when traditional lenders won't step in. He pointed to loans to companies including Tesla a decade ago that had since generated close to a trillion dollars in shareholder equity. "Now we have to find the next set of technologies to do the same thing," he said. "Ultimately what you find is that the commercial debt market generally does not want to do new things. Sometimes it’s because they generally believe there’s technology risk that they don’t understand. But a lot of times it’s just because they can hit their numbers without doing new stuff." Shah cited nuclear power, geothermal energy and carbon storage as two areas ripe for more investment. But he said while investors were looking for clean energy opportunities, so far there were simply not enough projects to meet demand. "We perennially have too much money and not enough projects," he said. "The vast majority of people are still waiting for the government to tell them what a risk-free approach looks like. That’s not how it works. It’s not risk-free."

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The Hill - July 23, 2021

Pressure mounts for DeSantis in Florida

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing mounting pressure on the home front as he looks to cement his superstar status among Republicans nationally. Over the past week, COVID-19 infections have surged in Florida to the point that the state now accounts for about 1 in 5 new cases. The vaccination rate, meanwhile, has begun to level off. At the same time, Florida’s Gulf Coast is suffering from a particularly harsh bout of red tide, prompting local officials to call on the governor to declare a state of emergency. The troubles in Florida are putting pressure on DeSantis as he seeks to carve out a more robust national profile for himself in anticipation of what his supporters and critics alike see as a potential 2024 presidential run.

He took a fundraising trip to California last month ahead of his 2022 reelection bid. Over the weekend, he traveled to Texas to visit the southern border, where Florida law enforcement is deployed. And he was in Aspen, Colo., earlier this week for a meeting of the Republican Governors Association. “He’s running for president, not for governor. He’s much more interested in fundraising and shallow and destructive appeals to the MAGA base,” Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member from Florida, said, using the acronym for “Make America Great Again,” former President Trump’s campaign slogan. “The guy has a big responsibility, and he’s abdicating it because of his own political aspirations,” Kennedy added. The rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, combined with DeSantis’s recent trip to the southern border, prompted a scathing editorial from the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board on Tuesday that suggested that the governor was more interested in “burnishing his 2024 presidential ambitions” than addressing Florida’s public health challenges.

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Newsclips - July 22, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Texas Democrat’s surprise departure from DC dials up pressure on boycotters to hold their ranks

Pressure among breakaway House Democrats to maintain their boycott of legislative business in Austin intensified Wednesday after a San Antonio member came back from Washington, saying he’s trying to negotiate changes in a controversial elections bill. Denying quorum is now a numbers game. House Republican leaders hailed the return of Democratic Rep. Philip Cortez, suggesting that they now have 91 of the 100 members they need to re-establish a quorum and resume work. “We’re getting closer every day,” said House Republican Caucus Chairman Jim Murphy of Houston. Because it takes time to pass bills, the Legislature needs a quorum and fast, Murphy said, appealing again for Democratic House members to return to Austin.

“We’re kind of on the bubble right now, time wise and number wise,” he said. But runaway Democrats who’ve stalled passage of the GOP voting measure disputed suggestions that their unity is eroding — and repeated that they’re determined to hold out. The special session must end no later than Aug. 6. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie noted that 56 of 57 Democrats who last week sent letters asking that their voting machines remain locked are sticking with the plan to stay away from the state and lobby for federal voting legislation. “There are clearly more than enough Democratic House members committed to staying out of Austin to stop the Republican efforts to undermine the freedom to vote,” he said. Turner acknowledged he didn’t know in advance of the plan by Cortez, who had signed one of the letters, to return. “Everyone I have talked to fully plans to stay strong and unified,” said Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton. Still, Cortez’s decision to return caught many Democrats by surprise. Cortez told The Dallas Morning News he’s part of a small group of Democrats, both in Washington D.C. and Austin, negotiating with the bill’s Republican author to “improve the bill language.” Cortez said he returned to Austin this week as a sign of good faith in the ongoing discussions — a plan that was not shared in advance with the entire Democratic caucus.

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Houston Chronicle - July 21, 2021

Texas Democrats pledge not to return from D.C. until August

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end. “It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.” More than 50 Texas Democrats left the state on July 12 to make sure there were not enough members in the Texas House to vote on legislation that would place new restrictions on voting. Democrats are hoping to spur their colleagues in Congress to pass voting laws at the federal level to supersede the measures that Republicans are trying to enact in Austin.

Texas House and Senate Republicans are pushing a new voting restrictions bill that, among other things, bans drive-thru voting and stops late-night voting, prevents elections officials from sending out absentee ballot applications unsolicited, and eliminates absentee ballot dropoff boxes as an option for voters to submit completed ballots. Republicans have blasted the fleeing Democrats, accusing them of failing to do their jobs even as they collect a $221 per diem from the state for serving during the special session. Gov. Greg Abbott has threatened to have them arrested as soon as they return to Texas. Martinez Fischer said the walkout was an appropriate response because Republicans were not interested in addressing their concerns about the legislation. “The Republican majority hasn’t really worked with us in good faith,” he said from the Zoom call which he did from his hotel room in D.C. where he is quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 21, 2021

'This bill is going to pass': Dan Patrick, Texas Democrats duel over voting legislation

A bitter fight over voting legislation in Texas escalated on Wednesday as Democratic state senators and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held back-to-back press conferences railing at the opposing party for its elections bill rhetoric. Senate Democrats — most of whom returned to Texas this week after traveling to Washington, D.C., with their House colleagues — gathered at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon to denounce the legislation as a thinly veiled attempt at voter suppression that would disproportionately harm Texans of color. Sen. Royce West of Dallas promised that “all tools are still on the table” and wouldn’t rule out a Senate walkout in the near future. Last week, House Democrats staged their walkout to block the same measure. About half an hour after their press conference ended, Patrick took to the same podium to accuse Democrats of using divisive language and misrepresenting the bill.

“If they really do want to solve this issue, one, let’s drop this Jim Crow 2.0 rhetoric. It’s offensive,” Patrick said. “It’s tough to sit down and negotiate with someone when they’re basically calling you a racist.” The battle over the voting legislation has been playing out for months, but mostly in the state House of Representatives. Nine Democratic state senators joined House members in the nation’s capital, but four stayed behind, allowing Republicans to move forward with the voting bill in that chamber. House Democrats have pledged to stay in D.C. until the end of the special session on Aug. 7, but Gov. Greg Abbott has said he’ll just call special session after special session until the legislation gets a vote and passes, which is virtually assured because of GOP dominance in both chambers. If Senate Democrats decide to walkout next time, Patrick said he would send state troopers to round them up and bring them back to Austin, so long as they stay in Texas. (But, he added, “I trust our members aren’t going to break quorum.”) “At the end of the day, this bill is going to pass, pretty much in the form it’s in,” Patrick said, adding that he’s willing to negotiate. “This bill is going to pass. Is it in August or September or October? Is it next February? Is it next June? This bill is going to pass because the people of Texas of all color want safe and secure elections.” Patrick’s comments largely focused on rebutting Democrats’ assertions about the bill’s intent and impact. “This is a discriminatory, divisive, suppressive and intimidation bill focused at minorities, especially African Americans,” Sen. Borris Miles of Houston said at the Democrats’ press conference.

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CNN - July 21, 2021

McCarthy pulls his 5 GOP members from 1/6 committee after Pelosi rejects 2 of his picks

House Republicans balked at participating in the House committee that's investigating the January 6 insurrection on Wednesday after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi rejected two of the five Republicans House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had tapped for the panel. Pelosi's decision to reject the two Republicans -- and McCarthy's response to pull the rest his members -- injected new fuel into the partisan fight over the select committee that's been raging since Democrats created the panel last month to investigate the circumstances surrounding the January 6 attack on the Capitol.

The committee will still have Republican representation from one member: Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, an outspoken critic of former President Donald Trump who was one of Pelosi's eight choices to serve on the committee. Cheney's participation keeps the committee bipartisan even without anyone appointed by McCarthy. Still, Pelosi's move to reject Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jim Banks of Indiana gives House Republicans an avenue to attack the select committee as a partisan endeavor. McCarthy slammed the move shortly after it was announced Wednesday. "Unless Speaker Pelosi reverses course and seats all five Republican nominees, Republicans will not be party to their sham process and will instead pursue our own investigation of the facts," McCarthy said. At a news conference Wednesday, McCarthy accused Pelosi of an "egregious abuse of power." "Pelosi has broken this institution," he said. One senior GOP source argued that Pelosi's move was a "gift" to Republicans because they never wanted to take part and, if they were on the committee, would be forced to confront complicated questions over Trump's role in January 6.

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State Stories

Houston Chronicle - July 21, 2021

Gov. Greg Abbott rules out another mask mandate despite rise in COVID cases

Gov. Greg Abbott is ruling out another mask mandate, despite a rising number of COVID cases in Texas and around the country. “There will be no mask mandate imposed, and the reasons for that are very clear,” Abbott said in a Tuesday interview with Houston’s KPRC 2 News, noting that many Texans already have immunity to the virus through vaccinations or their own recovery from the illness. “It would be inappropriate to require people who already have immunity to wear a mask,” he added. Some health professionals have renewed calls for mask requirements as COVID-19 cases increase again.

That’s mostly attributable to the prevalence of the more contagious Delta variant, which now accounts for 83 percent of genetically sequenced COVID cases across the country, officials from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday. The state health department confirmed more than 3,300 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday, compared to the roughly 1,200 it had been recording daily in June. The CDC still recommends that unvaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings, though that’s not the case for fully vaccinated individuals. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, recommends that all people wear masks inside regardless of their vaccination status. “Everyone in the state of Texas, as well as the United States — they know exactly what the standards are, what practices they want to adopt to help protect themselves,” Abbott said. “There’s no more time for government mandates. This is time for individual responsibility, period.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Rick Perry says Donald Trump was ‘fed a bill of goods’ before backing Susan Wright over Jake Ellzey

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday said former President Donald Trump received misleading information, prompting him to endorse Republican activist Susan Wright for Congress. Perry, who served as Secretary of the Department of Energy under Trump, is backing Wright’s rival —state Rep. Jake Ellzey — for the District 6 seat once held by Ron Wright, Susan Wright’s late husband. Perry contends that Trump was given bogus information by the leader of the conservative group called the Club for Growth. “I explained to the president where he had been fed a bill of goods,” Perry told The Dallas Morning News. “I think he recognizes it to some degree.”

Perry then unloaded on the Club for Growth, calling them a “corrupt” organization that distorts facts in order to promote their choices in elections. “This is the same Club for Growth that spent millions of dollars against Donald Trump,” Perry said. On Wednesday Trump restated his endorsement of Wright via email. “Big election coming up on Tuesday, July 27, in Texas.,” he wrote. “Go out and vote for Susan Wright! Susan is outstanding, and her late husband, Congressman Ron Wright, is looking down and is very proud of her. She will serve the people of the Great State of Texas in the 6th Congressional District very well.” He then touted Wright’s conservative credentials. “Susan is for Strong Borders, Pro-Life, Pro-Second Amendment, Great Education, and will fight to bring back Free and Fair elections. Susan has my Complete and Total Endorsement.,” he wrote. “She will make our Country proud. Vote on Tuesday!” In response to Perry, Joe Kildea, a vice president for Club for Growth, directed The News to comments Trump made about his backing of Wright during a May tele-town hall meeting. “It’s just my honor to also get involved and be involved in this race,” Trump said as he praised his partnership with the Club for Growth. “We’ve worked together. We’ve never had a loss together. Every time we’ve gone after someone and, you know, supported and worked for someone, we’ve had victory. So I hope everybody can get out on Saturday, May 1, and vote for Susan Wright.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

Video captures woman being kicked off DFW-bound flight while making homophobic remarks

A woman making homophobic remarks was apparently removed from a flight bound for DFW International Airport, according to a video posted to YouTube Monday. The 46-second video, made of two screen-recorded Snapchat videos, shows a woman following the rest of her travel party through the aisle with her mask around her chin while arguing with other passengers on the plane. The video is the only one posted by YouTube account Viral Dallas 99. Someone in the party, which included multiple children, can be heard using a homophobic slur several times, followed by a chorus of other passengers telling the group to get off the plane. “You think I talk to my kids about same-sex marriage,” the woman yelled after the rest of her party was out of the video frame. “No, we don’t talk about that. But if we all want to talk about it, let’s talk about it.” Her exit was met with cheers and clapping from other passengers.

“No one wants to listen to your bigotry,” a passenger said in the background of the video. “Get off the plane.” The video identifies the woman as a North Texas real estate agent. The Dallas Morning News left a message on a publicly available cell phone number for the woman, though she didn’t return the call. The scene, which has circulated on Twitter and Reddit since being posted, garnered some outrage from viewers. “Not only is it always Texas, it’s always Dallas,” wrote Twitter user @leftgrrl75. The airline on whose plane this occurred could not be confirmed. American Airlines, which operates the bulk of flights out of DFW, said it needed a flight number or date and destination to determine if it was one of its flights. Passenger disruptions on planes have become a major issue in recent months, with leisure travel picking up following months of pandemic isolation. Just 10 days before this video was posted, a female body builder was barred from an American Airlines flight from DFW to Miami for clothing deemed “offensive” by the airline.

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Texas comptroller may blacklist Ben & Jerry’s over decision to stop selling ice cream in Palestine

The Texas Comptroller’s office says it will investigate whether ice cream giant Ben & Jerry’s should be blacklisted by the state for announcing it will no longer do business in the Palestinian territories. The announcement by Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office comes two days after Ben & Jerry’s released a statement saying it will no longer sell ice cream in “Occupied Palestinian Territory” — using the United Nations-recognized term to describe territories, including the West Bank and Gaza Strip, that have been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Ben & Jerry’s, which is well-known for championing progressive causes, said in its statement that selling ice cream in those territories was “inconsistent with our values.” The statement was posted several weeks after a conflict left more than 200 people dead — most of them civilians in the territories occupied by Israel. Hegar said he has directed his staff to determine whether Ben & Jerry’s statement would violate Chapter 808 of the Texas Government Code, which prohibits the state from giving contracts to companies that support a boycott of Israel or an “Israeli-controlled territory.” “Texans have made it very clear that they stand with Israel and its people. We are against all those wishing to undermine Israel’s economy and its people,” Hegar said. Ben & Jerry’s said in its statement that while it will no longer sell ice cream in territories occupied by Israel, it will stay in Israel itself through “a different arrangement.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 22, 2021

College Armageddon 2.0? What Texas, Oklahoma bolting to SEC would mean for NCAA sports landscape

Conference realignment talk is back in a huge way. So is all the drama, the speculation and intrigue, with the focus on Texas and Oklahoma. The Houston Chronicle first reported Wednesday that Texas and Oklahoma have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the football powerhouse. Multiple industry sources confirmed what was described as mutual interest between Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC, with Texas making first contact. UT board of regents chairman Kevin Eltife, a former state senator from Tyler, is believed to be a key player in the process as he was in the hiring of football coach Steve Sarkisian.

Rumors have been circulating among college football power brokers for a few weeks. Welcome to College Armageddon 2.0. Remember the proposal for the Pac-16 a decade or so ago? This would be bigger in impact. By SEC bylaws, the addition would require 11 votes from the current 14 members. If that occurs, the acquisition of Texas and OU would result in a 16-team super-conference. It would also gut the Big 12, taking the conference’s two flagship members and leaving just eight schools trying to hold things together. College sports, which is dealing with name/image/likeness legislation, lingering COVID-19 issues and a possible 12-team football playoff, would be changed immeasurably with two huge dominos falling. The SEC would become even more of a revenue and football powerhouse. In a 12-team playoff era, it’s not hard to imagine an expanded SEC placing four teams in the field. Oklahoma has won the last six Big 12 titles and is expended to be a strong playoff contender this year. While Texas is on its third coach in eight years and hasn’t won a Big 12 title since 2009 under Mack Brown, the Longhorns are still a coveted brand.

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

UTSW predicts COVID-19 numbers like worst periods of pandemic if latest trends continue

By October, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in North Texas could return to levels not seen since January and last summer, according to the latest forecasting model from UT Southwestern Medical Center. That’s especially true if vaccination rates remain slow and the public doesn’t step up use of masks and social distancing, experts say. “We really find ourselves at an important crossroads and decision point, where we have this narrow window to step into action to help turn the tide of these rising cases,” said Dr. James Cutrell, an infectious-disease expert at UTSW.

The model, which used data as of Monday, predicts that Dallas County will see roughly 600 new coronavirus infections a day by Aug. 9. UTSW’s previous model, which used data as of July 13, projected that the county would see roughly 200 new infections a day by Aug. 2. Hospitalizations in North Texas have risen 89% over the last two weeks and 156% over the last month, according to the latest model. Data from the state indicates that 925 people in the 19-county region that includes Dallas-Fort Worth are hospitalized with the virus as of Monday. UTSW’s updated model predicts that Dallas County alone will have 400-500 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 cases by Aug. 9. Dr. Stephen Love, president and CEO of the Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council, said that if the model’s predictions for August play out, hospitals will have enough beds and PPE but could face staffing issues, as they did in January. Love noted that traveling nurses provided by the state to bolster existing hospital staffing in January are no longer in place.

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Dallas Morning News taps 26-year veteran as its next newsroom leader

The Dallas Morning News has named Katrice Hardy, a veteran journalist whose newsrooms have a track record of award-winning reporting, to be its next top editor. Hardy, 47, joins The News next month as executive editor. She’s currently executive editor at the Indianapolis Star, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for national reporting, and Midwest regional editor for the USA Today Network. Hardy becomes the first woman and Black journalist to hold The News’ top newsroom job. She also led newsrooms in Virginia and South Carolina before joining The Star in March 2020.

Under her leadership, The Star won several prestigious awards, including journalism’s top honor, the Pulitzer Prize in national reporting for its investigative work “Mauled: When Police Dogs are Weapons.” The report was produced in collaboration with The Marshall Project, AL.com and Invisible Institute. Grant Moise, The News’ publisher, praised Hardy’s “journalistic wisdom and passionate leadership style.” “We conducted a very thorough search to find the best executive editor in the country and I am confident we found that person in Katrice,” Moise said. “Throughout the search, it became increasingly clear she is the ideal person to fill this important role.” People who have worked with Hardy say she’s energetic and demands excellence, but she won’t ask the staff to do anything she wouldn’t do herself. It’s not uncommon for her to roll up her sleeves to make a story as strong as it can be.

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

‘I’d suggest Spirit:’ Stoic DFW American Airlines agent bars cursing woman from flight

An American Airlines employee is drawing praise for his calm and stoic manner after a viral video shows him kicking a woman off of a flight and barring her from the carrier after she flung an expletive at a flight attendant over a mask dispute. The unnamed American Airlines employee at DFW International Airport’s Terminal D is drawing praise on Twitter and other social media channels for the way he handled a woman who allegedly called a flight attendant an inappropriate name during an interaction after a dispute over masks. “Second of all, you called my employee a b****, completely uncalled for and inappropriate,” the agent said. “We don’t tolerate that crap with us at all.

“You can find another carrier to fly,” he continued. “I’d suggest Spirit.” The incident took place on July 17 on a flight from DFW Airport to Miami. According to fellow passenger Christopher Freeman, a flight attendant had questioned the woman about her mask, which had holes in it. Freeman captured the video Sunday as the plane was being reboarded after a delay. Fort Worth-based American didn’t provide details on the incident but did provide a statement. “We expect our customers to comply with our policies and treat everyone with respect when they choose to travel with us, and we take action when that is not the case,” said a statement from an American Airlines spokesperson. Since the beginning of the year, the FAA has received at least 2,475 complaints about passengers refusing to wear masks, part of an extreme escalation in unruly behavior coming out of the pandemic. Flight attendants have complained about being referees for obstinant passengers who refuse to wear masks or take them off during flights.

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Fort Worth schools Dallas when it comes to redistricting

Some North Texas cities may be just weeks away from consequential redistricting decisions. This is something residents should pay careful attention to in the coming months. The U.S. Census Bureau is set to release block-level data on Aug. 16, less than a month from now. Another release of more user-friendly data will follow in September. Cities will have months to plan before districts have to be set for the spring 2023 municipal elections, but some cities are already ramping up commissions and community engagement events. In Fort Worth, city staff have been hosting a series of 11 public meetings about redistricting. Five of those are training workshops that equip residents with the knowledge and even the software tools to redraw City Council boundaries. Attendees are encouraged to draw their own maps, and submit them to the city.

“All of this is in line with the City Council’s intent to make the redistricting process as transparent and participatory as possible,” Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa told attendees to the first workshop July 12. In addition to those meetings, Fort Worth has made what Redistricting Task Force Chair Lorraine C. Miller called a genuine and concerted effort to publicize the process. “Sometimes, the city will put things on the city website and then say, ‘OK, we’ve informed the public,’” Miller said. “But how many people go to the city’s website every day? If you don’t, you won’t know a flat flying fajita about what’s going on with the city.” So her task force conducted a media blitz. They sent press releases. Miller was interviewed by KXAS-TV (NBC5). The first public hearing on redistricting, all the way back in January, was viewed online by more than 7,800 people, according to Michelle L. Gutt, director of Fort Worth’s Communications and Public Engagement Department. “We had a lot of discussions about trying to capitalize on the awakening in Fort Worth lately. Because of the summer of protests, overall, I think people are much more aware,” Miller said. “We wanted to piggyback on that to let people know what’s going on.”

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Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

JR Treviño: Texas municipal leaders formed a group to communicate directly with ERCOT

(JR Treviño is mayor of Castle Hills and chairman of the Texas Municipal Officers ERCOT Advisory Board.) The week of Feb. 14 is burned into the synapses of most Texans as the week of a statewide freeze that prompted deadly widespread blackouts. What started off as fun in the snow suddenly turned bleak as we experienced gaps in almost all utilities, largely driven by a deficit in electrical generating capacity. Reflecting on what transpired, I could not help but believe that there was a disconnect between the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state grid, and end-users. In my capacity as mayor of Castle Hills, I wrote a letter to ERCOT sharing my concerns and opinions. Five other San Antonio-area mayors added their names to the letter. We didn’t get enough timely information ahead of the outages to help our residents make sure they had warm places to sleep, to prevent their pipes from bursting, and to make sure they had enough pantry food to last until their refrigerators were back on.

I proposed ERCOT create what has since become the Texas Municipal Officers ERCOT Advisory Board. But at the time, I didn’t expect any response to my letter. All said and done, I was content knowing I represented Castle Hills and its population of 4,200 in my letter to ERCOT, even if nothing came of it. A month later, I received a call from ERCOT Interim Chief Executive Brad Jones. He was two days into his new role, he had read the letter, and he was interested in a recommendation that I offered to open lines of communication to city officials. I recommended ERCOT gather a group of municipal leaders from across Texas to meet regularly and build communication channels and bonds of trust. And the framework for such a council already exists with the Texas Municipal League’s existing regional map, designed to touch every city, town and region in Texas. There’s no need for Jones to reinvent the wheel to keep in contact with local leaders; the league’s framework is designed to disseminate information broadly. I jumped at what I believe was an opportunity to make our state a little better than we found it. Over the next month I worked to draft the framework and a board charter with the help of the Texas Municipal League’s deputy executive director, Rachael Pitts. We were on a swift timeline to schedule our first meeting before extreme weather hits this summer and might stretch power-generating resources.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

As vaccinated Galveston cruises continue, Carnival passengers without shots face fees, restrictions

Carnival Cruise Line has announced new requirements to take effect Aug. 2 for unvaccinated passengers on its three Galveston-based cruise ships. The company released the policy changes amid ambitious plans to restart cruises by the end of the year on 15 of its 24 ships. Under CDC regulations, cruise operators have two options to resume service: ensure at least 95 percent of passengers and 98 percent of crew are vaccinated, or perform test voyages to receive permission for masked and socially distanced cruises. After completing two vaccinated trips from Galveston, with no masks or social distancing required onboard for most guests, Carnival is staying its course.

“Based on the success of its initial resumption of service and the guest response to the onboard experience and health and safety protocols … Carnival will continue to operate all its ships as vaccinated cruises through at least October,” the company said in a Monday release. Carnival confirmed it will soon require guests without proof of vaccination to pay a $150 COVID-19 screening fee and purchase travel insurance covering medical treatment and emergency medical evacuation. Children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated, are exempt from the insurance requirement, but those 2 or older must still be tested for the coronavirus. After Florida in May banned businesses from demanding proof of vaccination, Carnival and several other cruise lines began imposing restrictions on unvaccinated passengers. But in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill against “vaccine passports,” cruise lines are still requiring vaccines thanks to an exemption in the law. Texas businesses are allowed to comply with public health guidelines, including the CDC sailing order.

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Houston Chronicle - July 22, 2021

Will all the oil and gas jobs lost during the pandemic ever return?

The U.S. oil and gas industry supported 11.3 million workers, including 2.5 million Texans, before the global pandemic and subsequent oil crash forced energy companies to lay off more than 160,000 jobs nationwide. American Petroleum Institute President Mike Sommers says he believes the number of jobs in the industry can return, says to the 2019 level outlined in the trade group’s biennial jobs report released Tuesday. API commissioned accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to compile the report using government data. “This is a preview of what could be again,” Sommers said. “We’re still very bullish on the future of oil.”

Analysts and economists however, aren’t so sure the jobs lost during the pandemic will return as the industry consolidates in the aftermath of the pandemic and increasingly relies on remote drilling technology and automation to streamline operations. There’s also looming uncertainty over oil and gas as governments worldwide impose more regulations on the industry and as society shifts to renewable energy These trends will have profound implications in Texas, where oil and gas represents 14 percent of the state’s jobs and nearly a quarter of the state’s total economic output. In Texas, the oil and gas industry pays more than $251.1 billion in wages and has more than $411.5 billion in economic impact. The Texas oil and gas industry in 2019 employed more than 620,000 workers in the oil exploration and production sector, 1 million in oil-field services, 212,000 at fuel stations, 118,500 in oil and gas transportation, and 71,000 in oil-field equipment manufacturing.

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Houston Chronicle - July 21, 2021

Texas, Oklahoma reach out to SEC about joining conference

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon. Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have both reached out to the Southeastern Conference about potentially joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday. An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first of a national super-conference.

Texas A&M exited the Big 12 nine years ago this month, and along with Big 12 ex Missouri gave the SEC 14 teams, which it has been at since. UT’s addition to the SEC would also mean the Aggies and Longhorns would again meet annually on the football field for the first time since 2011. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey declined comment. "Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics," a Texas spokesman said. "We will not address rumors or speculation." The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025.

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Beaumont Enterprise - July 20, 2021

Deshotel speaks in-depth on Democrats' walkout

As the days in Washington, D.C., drag on for Texas Democrats, it seems more likely that Congress will see a breakthrough on a pared-down version of a voting rights bill than of Texas Democrats reaching an agreement with Texas House leaders on a less-restrictive voting access bill. State Rep. Joe Deshotel, who shared that prediction during a virtual town hall this week, and 58 other state House Democrats still are in the nation’s capital meeting with U.S. House and Senate Democrats on a bill that would focus directly on voting instead of unrelated issues that have been tacked on and limits the bill’s passage. Deshotel said he has not been in contact with state House Speaker and local Rep. Dade Phelan on allowing any Democratic amendments since they broke quorum by going to Washington, D.C. to prevent any movement on the state bill that would curtail early voting hours and make it more difficult for people to turn out.

“I haven’t spoken to Dade at all,” Deshotel said in the hour-long presentation moderated by Joseph Trahan, chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party. “There are no amendments to be talked about. The only thing to talk about is an agreement between (state House) Republicans and Democrats.” To reach such an agreement, the parties would have to restore some of the voting access used in the November 2020 election, such as drive-through voting, particularly in Harris County. The measure was put in place as the state was suffering through the COVID-19 pandemic. And while much of life seems to have gone back to normal, the lawmakers have unintentionally underscored the virus’ continued existence as some of them have tested positive since flying to D.C. Deshotel said on Monday evening that no one is showing symptoms and he himself tested negative. But restoring COVID-prompted alternate voting methods is hardly the only concession Democrats are looking for.

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Beaumont Enterprise - July 20, 2021

Lamar State Colleges again lower tuition, increase accessibility

While still waiting to see if state Democrats will return to resume the special legislative session, Speaker Dade Phelan and higher-education officials celebrated making higher education even more accessible in Southeast Texas. On Tuesday, educators and legislators met at Phelan’s Austin office to announce that three Southeast Texas schools in the Texas State University system now will be able to further reduce tuition again an additional $17 million was secured in the recently approved state budget. Lamar Institute of Technology, Lamar State College Orange and Lamar State College Port Arthur, known collectively as the Lamar State Colleges, will be able to reduce an average 15-credit-hour semester as low as $1,770 for students trying to secure their futures.

Students will see the newest reduction benefit them as soon as this fall, but Phelan said its impact is something that he’s been thinking about since he first ran for the state House of Representatives in 2014. When asked about the issues that he felt were important for Southeast Texas, Phelan said there were obvious answers like water, education and transportation. But there’s something else, something even more essential to the well-being of the region’s communities. “...one of the things I said was Southeast Texas needs more smart young people,” Phelan said during his address. “And that’s what this is about — more smart young people in Southeast Texas.” The problem of “intellectual brain-drain,” as some Southeast Texas leaders have called it, has been one that many recruiters and educational professionals have tried to address by making sure there are local pathways for students to continue their education. But Phelan said addressing the problem has been made even more difficult by the seemingly constant assault from natural disasters that sometimes force students to choose between shelter for their families or their future career.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 20, 2021

UT looks like national title contender thanks to transfer portal domination

New Texas coach Chris Beard and his staff arrived on campus to find a nearly blank canvas. The only confirmed returning scholarship player on April 1, when the Longhorns announced the hiring of Beard, was junior swingman Brock Cunningham. Even the three class of 2021 players who signed when it was still Shaka Smart’s program decided to pursue opportunities elsewhere, leaving Beard and Co. with one of the most extensive rebuild jobs in the entire nation. Fast forward a few months and the new regime has built an inspired roster that’s as unique and imaginative as any in the nation.

Beard brought back senior guards Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones, who both started 26 games last season while tallying a combined 697 points, 163 assists, 103 3-pointers and 53 steals. Sharpshooter Jase Febres also decided to return after shooting 39.2 percent from 3 in 13 games last season. But the NCAA transfer portal is where Beard and his staff — associate head coach Rodney Terry, assistant Jerrance Howard and assistant Ulric Maligi — have demonstrated the full extent of their recruiting wizardry. The Longhorns signed seven high-profile transfers this offseason, a stunning stretch of portal wins that began April 14 with Kentucky guard Devin Askew and Utah forward Timmy Allen and culminated July 17 with Minnesota guard Marcus Carr. Between those dates, Texas also picked up Creighton forward Christian Bishop, Massachusetts big Tre Mitchell, Vanderbilt forward Dylan Disu and Texas Tech guard Avery Benson. ESPN ranked three of the Longhorns’ seven signees among the nation’s top five offseason transfers (Carr, Allen, Mitchell), and all but Benson ranked among the top 31.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 19, 2021

Elaine Ayala: Once-a-decade statistical Super Bowl could make a 'profound' change in how it counts Latinos

Results of the 2020 Census are due next month, and the data collected last year will be used to apportion new seats in Congress, help all kinds of institutions prepare for population changes and further divide us. It’s race, it’s always about race. Specifically, it’s the two questions on the census form that ask about ethnicity and race. The latter has been far more complicated for Latinos to answer. A proposal to combine the two into one question has been described as a fundamental shift in how the federal government counts the Latino population. The race query raised questions from the start, because how Hispanics and Latinos self-identify ethnically doesn’t always translate to race.

While those who identify as Blacks or Caucasians may have less trouble self-identifying racially, Latinos aren’t solely of one race, or even see themselves in terms of race. They may have Native American and European ancestry and/or Black and Asian ancestry. They may see themselves as white, as generations of Texans largely have been categorized. Racial identity can be personal and complicated, even if two people share the exact same ancestry. The two questions, and resulting data, can be divisive, scaring or angering some white Americans. Divide-and-conquer politicians have made sure of that by seizing on feelings of white majority loss. On the other hand, the potential rise of a majority-minority population has empowered and animated Latinos, Black, Asians and other groups that hope new data translates into visibility, equality and equity in resources and power.

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The 74 Million - July 21, 2021

Returning to school as pandemic lingers, San Antonio students inundate counseling center

For years, kids in Veronica Salgado’s “transition camps” have enrolled because they are anxious about making the challenging leap from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school. But this summer, after students experienced more than a year of isolation, struggled to keep up with online learning and had little contact with friends, Salgado, youth development manager for Family Service Association, and her team are tackling bigger problems than just helping kids figure out how to find their lockers or make new friends. Anxiety levels are skyrocketing as kids worry about their ability to keep up with schoolwork, focus in a room full of peers and navigate social situations with peers they have not seen face to face in more than a year. The need is so great that some of the kids in the camp are not transitioning to new schools. “It’s all hands on deck, for sure,” Salgado said of the camps, hosted in coordination with school districts, and now connected to a hub of mental health services. Many of them were established just months before the pandemic hit in March 2020 in what was once a mental health desert on San Antonio’s South Side.

While students are participating in transition camps, other family members can access counseling, addiction support and parenting classes. The pandemic accelerated the demand for mental health care. Jewish Family Service of San Antonio, which provides counseling services at the hub, had expected to serve about 300 people in its first few months with the collaborative, said Talli Dolge, the organization’s CEO. By May 2020, it saw more than 1,600 people. Demand stayed strong in the next school year: From Aug. 1, 2020, to May 27, 2021, the collaborative served 4,619 people. Most of the counseling during the pandemic had to do with grief and fear as jobs disappeared, loved ones fell ill and domestic violence increased. The collaborative weathered the pandemic using telehealth, including donating burner phones to families that didn’t have access to the necessary technology. Jewish Family Service continued seeing clients in person, and Communities in Schools, another collaborative partner, made house calls. But now there is a new issue: reentry. Kids started going back to school midyear, Dolge said, and the mental health crises exploded as the hazards of being isolated at home gave way to panic over returning to school. “The crisis rates are up tremendously,” Dolge said. “Social anxiety is huge and across the board.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 21, 2021

Family files excessive force suit against ex-Fort Worth officer who shot man 5 times

A Fort Worth man and his family say a police officer shot him in the back five times in 2020 as he slept inside a motel room. Tracy Langiano still has debilitating injuries from the shooting in July 2020, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Texas on July 1. The police officer who shot him, Officer Landon Rollins, was working on the Fort Worth Police Department’s Mental Health Crisis Intervention Team when he shot Langiano. Rollins reported that Langiano pointed a gun at him, and an internal investigation by the police department determined Langiano pointed a weapon. The family and Langiano, however, dispute this claim, saying that Langiano was asleep when he was shot.

In April 2021, Rollins was suspended for 15 days for violating several Fort Worth police policies during the shooting. The lawsuit names the city of Fort Worth and Rollins as defendants. The suit says Rollins violated Langiano’s Fourth Amendment rights by using “unnecessary, unjustified and excessive force,” and that the city provided inadequate training. The suit asks for a jury trial and unspecified damages. Rollins’ attorney said in a statement that Rollins is one of the most decorated police officers in the state and he “attempted to make contact with the reportedly suicidal Mr. Langiano in order to try to stop him from taking his own life.” “Only after Langiano pointed his gun at Officer Rollins was Rollins forced to fire his own weapon in self-defense,” attorney Ken East said in the statement. A Fort Worth city spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment. The city does not typically comment on pending litigation.

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D Magazine - July 21, 2021

How will Texas’ weatherization laws impact the energy industry?

New weatherizing laws won’t have a significant financial impact on Texas’s oil and gas industry, said Ann Bluntzer, TCU’s Energy Institute director. In what may surprise some who follow the industry, regulations received the support of most of the state’s energy companies in the wake of the grid’s failure this winter. Winter storm Uri left nearly five million Texans without power in February, and a Buzzfeed report found that 700 people may have died during the storm, though the official state total is 151 deaths. The fallout resulted in calls to improve the state’s power grid, and earlier this year, Governor Greg Abbott signed two bills into law to address the issue. Senate Bill 3 focuses on the state’s power generators and transmission lines, requiring them to upgrade to function in extreme weather. Texas Tribune reported the Texas Railroad Commission and Electric Reliability Council of Texas would conduct inspections of these facilities, with possible penalties of up to $1 million.

Bluntzer believes the bill found common ground for power users and producers alike. “It’s a move in the right direction, and it’s nice when you have a balance,” she said. “Law and private business intersect, and there has to be a little bit of accountability.” A change was long overdue. A winter storm ten years ago (as Dallas hosted the Super Bowl) caused massive outages but resulted in no significant changes to the laws that govern power producers and transmitters. The new legislation is welcome but won’t likely have an impact on the profitability of energy companies. “I don’t think anyone’s going to say that you’re not going to be able to make money on your asset if you have to spend on weatherization,” Bluntzer said. “We get extreme weather now and then, and it’s important to protect and prepare for it.” Even as a winter storm gripped the entire country, Texas made headlines because its grid wasn’t able to handle the temperatures, leaving some without power for days at a time in below-freezing temperatures. Of course, energy production companies in much colder places have long been able to function in extreme cold. Still, similar technology hadn’t been installed in Texas because there had never been a need. Until there was. So how did we get here? Texas residents enjoy some of the lowest energy costs in the nation because the grid is on a demand-based system, meaning generators get paid only when they provide power each day.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 22, 2021

Texas Democrats find renewed hope after virtual meeting with key U.S. House member

Texas' quorum-breaking Democrats reported a new sense of hope after meeting virtually Tuesday with House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., even as another Texas Democrat revealed a positive coronavirus test. "I'm hopeful. I wasn't hopeful days ago, but, through this conversation today, I became hopeful," state Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, told the American-Statesman. Gervin-Hawkins said that Clyburn made two commitments during the meeting. First, that he would commit his staff to help the Texas delegation in meeting with various other U.S. House members. And second, that the House will pass a new version of the federal voting legislation ahead of Aug. 7 — the day that Texas' special legislative session will end and the members can return home without fear of arrest.

The Democrats left the state to block passage of a GOP bill in the Legislature that would put new limits on voting that Democrats say target people of color. Republicans say the bill, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott's, would restore integrity to elections. "I specifically asked that question — the terms of timing," Gervin-Hawkins said. "He was optimistic that indeed it could happen in the time we need it to." What form that federal bill will take remains unclear. However, state Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said there is a high level of interest in restoring pre-clearance provisions into law, which would require U.S. Justice Department approval for all changes made to state voting laws. Pre-clearance provisions were part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but were eliminated after a 2013 Supreme Court ruling found them unconstitutional. "That's what we really need in Texas," Turner said. "That's how we can block oppressive voting laws in Texas. It's how we can block discriminatory redistricting plans in Texas." An initial version of the federal voting bill, the For the People Act, which passed the House in March, has remained stalled in the divided, Democratic-controlled Senate as U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., remains the lone Democratic holdout. Several of the Texas Democrats met with Manchin last week.

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National Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 21, 2021

Quarantine, confusion and a made-for-TV affair: Early observations from mid-pandemic Tokyo Olympics

Even 13 years later, Nastia Liukin still remembers her first “I’m at the Olympics” moment. She and the U.S. women’s gymnastics team were minutes from walking into their first qualification competition of the 2008 Games. Through the Beijing arena’s tunnel, Liukin could hear the raucous 19,000-fan crowd eager to root against the Americans, though Liukin tried to convince herself otherwise. Locking eyes with her teammates, Liukin felt her adrenaline pulse with the noise. She felt the Olympic dream she’d worked toward since she was a young girl in her family’s Dallas gym become tangible. This week, Liukin is back at the Olympics, and her role in Tokyo as a gymnastics commentator for NBC might be almost as important as her presence as an Olympic champion in 2008.

That’s because this mid-pandemic Olympics will be a two-week, made-for-TV event. The Games have been rescheduled, restricted, regulated and rife with confusion. Ahead of Friday’s Opening Ceremonies, there have already been logistical hurdles, ethical debates, and daily updates about rising COVID-19 case counts, athlete withdrawals and quarantine limitations. Over the next two weeks, settle in to watch more than 70 athletes with Texas ties compete throughout Japan, but know at-home comforts and excitement while cheering for the best in the world won’t reflect the delicate, tenuous operations behind the scenes of this sporting spectacle. “I have nothing but so much admiration and respect for every year, every Olympian, every athlete, but especially this year,” Liukin said in a recent interview. “I can’t imagine thinking you’re literally about to be at the peak of your career and all of the sudden, it’s like, ‘Nope. One more year.’ “I’m so excited it’s still going to be able to happen for them, and they’ll be part of an Olympics like no other. Yeah, it’ll be in the history books, for sure.” This is where my editors wanted me to describe the scene in Tokyo about two days before the Opening Ceremonies of the only postponed Games in history. And I would — but I’m not sure any Dallas Morning News readers are interested in a detailed account of two hotel rooms, each less than 100 square feet, where photographer Vernon Byrant and I have remained quarantined since arriving in Japan on Sunday afternoon.

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Associated Press - July 21, 2021

Seemingly safe GOP incumbents under attack from right wing

Republican U.S. Sen. James Lankford would seem to have all the conservative credentials he'd need to coast to reelection in deep-red Oklahoma. A devout Baptist, Lankford was the director of the nation’s largest Christian youth camp for more than a decade. He speaks out regularly against abortion and what he describes as excessive government spending. And his voting record in the Senate aligned with former President Donald Trump’s position nearly 90% of the time. But like several other seemingly safe GOP incumbents, Lankford, who didn't even draw a primary opponent in 2016, finds himself under fierce attack by a challenger in his own party. The antagonist is a 29-year-old evangelical minister and political newcomer who managed to draw more than 2,000 people to a “Freedom Rally" headlined by Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, at which Lankford was accused of being not conservative enough.

Similar scenes are playing out in other red states where ultra right-wing challengers are tapping into anger among Republicans over Trump's election loss and coronavirus-related lockdowns. Some incumbents suddenly are scrambling to defend their right flank, heating up their own rhetoric on social media and ripping into President Joe Biden at every opportunity. In Texas, GOP Gov. Greg Abbott, who faces a contested reelection primary next year, is pushing looser gun laws than he ever previously embraced and proposing unprecedented state actions, including promises to build more walls on the Mexican border. “I think it’s unquestionably attributable to the aftermath of the 2020 election and the insurrection and former President Trump’s claims of voter fraud,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. Some conservative incumbents are obvious targets for right-wing challenges — notably U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney in Wyoming and Anthony Gonzalez in Ohio, who voted to impeach Trump. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's offense was refusing to block Georgia's electoral votes from being awarded to Biden. But with the 2022 election cycle approaching, the backlash is also touching even those who backed Trump consistently through countless controversies. Texas' Abbott echoed Trump's partisan positions and has banked $55 million in campaign funds, more than any sitting governor in history. But he's drawn a challenge from Allen West, who until recently was the chairman of the Texas GOP. West, a tea party firebrand and former Florida congressman, has attacked Abbott's leadership after Democrats temporarily thwarted a GOP voting bill by decamping to Washington.

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CNN - July 21, 2021

US extends COVID-19 travel restrictions with Canada and Mexico through August 21

The Biden administration is extending non-essential travel restrictions for the US northern and southern borders until August 21. The US has been limiting non-essential travel along both borders since the start of the pandemic and extending those restrictions on a monthly basis. The restrictions don't apply to cross-border trade, US citizens and lawful permanent residents, as well as people traveling for medical purposes or to attend school, among others.

But over recent weeks, the administration has come under fire for continuing to keep restrictions in place, more than a year into the pandemic, and after Canada announced it was reopening to vaccinated Americans. In notices to be posted in the Federal Register, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas notes that there have been "positive developments in recent weeks," citing the millions of vaccines doses administered in the United States and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moving Canada and Mexico to Covid-19 Level 4 (Very High) to Level 3 (High) "in recognition of conditions that, while still requiring significant safeguards, are improving." Still, DHS found that the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of Covid-19 both in the US and globally posed a risk. A DHS spokesperson cited concerns over the dangerous Delta variant and said the agency is in "constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably." The restrictions go into effect Thursday and remain in effect until August 21, "unless amended or rescinded prior to that time."

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NBC News - July 21, 2021

Vegas workers will put masks back on, but tourists won't have to under new rules

Workers in Las Vegas and other parts of Clark County, Nevada, will have to resume wearing masks indoors but customers will not under new rules. The Clark County Commission voted Tuesday in an emergency meeting to require face coverings for all employees working indoors and around co-workers or members of the public in an increase in Covid cases driven by a more transmissible variant and a slowing vaccination rate. The new rules do not apply to customers, and it is not a blanket return to masking, like the one recently imposed in the Los Angeles area. "We have already been through a shutdown and a start-up, and we cannot afford to have major conventions decide to go elsewhere," Commissioner Jim Gibson said.

Tourist-dependent Las Vegas endured Covid restrictions last year that shuttered casinos, dine-in restaurants, bars and other businesses. Casinos were closed altogether for more than two months. Covid cases, hospitalizations and deaths are rising across Nevada and the rest of the U.S., fueled by the more transmissible delta variant. Clark County has experienced almost triple the number of Covid-19 cases since early June and a tripling of the positivity rate, said Dr. Cort Lohff, chief medical officer for the Southern Nevada Health District. The increases are being driven by the delta variant, he said, as well as a plateauing of the vaccination rate. The regional health district recommended Friday that all people, both those fully vaccinated and those unvaccinated, wear masks in crowded indoor public places. Chris Scarpulla, who owns two The Great American Pub locations, told NBC affiliate KSNV of Las Vegas that the new rules, while a burden, are better than closing.

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Washington Post - July 21, 2021

Pennsylvania decertifies county voting system following private company audit promoted by pro-Trump state senators

Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of state has decertified a county’s voting system for future elections after it was subjected to a review by a private company in an effort promoted by a group of state senators supporting former president Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election. Acting secretary of state Veronica W. Degraffenreid said in a statement Wednesday that Wake TSI’s examination of the Fulton County ballots earlier this year violated the state’s election code. Pennsylvania is the second state where officials have decertified election equipment because of questionable audits requested by Republicans. Arizona’s Maricopa County said in June that it will replace voting equipment that was turned over to a private contractor for a Republican-commissioned review of the 2020 election.

Trump backers in multiple states are trying to launch post-election audits in an effort to overturn President Biden’s election victory. According to a statement from Degraffenreid’s office, Fulton County officials allowed Wake TSI, of West Chester, Pa., “to access certain key components of its certified system, including the county’s election database, results files, and Windows systems logs. The county officials also allowed the company to use a system imaging tool to take complete hard drive images of these computers and other digital equipment.” The statement called Wake TSI “a company with no knowledge or expertise in election technology.” “These actions were taken in a manner that was not transparent or bipartisan,” Degraffenreid wrote in a letter to county officials. “As a result of the access granted to Wake TSI, Fulton County’s certified system has been compromised and neither Fulton County; the vendor, Dominion Voting Systems; nor the Department of State can verify that the impacted components of Fulton County’s leased voting system are safe to use in future elections.”

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Newsclips - July 21, 2021

Lead Stories

Axios - July 20, 2021

Texas Democrats may have infected Pelosi and White House aides, dimming prospects for Biden meeting

A White House official and a staff member for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have both tested positive for COVID-19 after attending the same reception last week, officials confirmed to Axios. Why it matters: While both individuals are vaccinated and mildly symptomatic, they illustrate how Americans inoculated against the coronavirus can still contract and, potentially, unknowingly transmit the virus — even at the highest levels of the nation's government.

"We know that there will be breakthrough cases, but as this instance shows, cases in vaccinated individuals are typically mild," a White House official told Axios. Driving the news: The Pelosi staffer helped usher a delegation of Democratic Texas lawmakers around the Capitol last week. Six of those lawmakers, who flew to Washington to block the Texas legislature from changing the state's voting laws, have since tested positive. Both that staffer and the White House official were at the same rooftop reception at the Hotel Eaton last Wednesday night. The White House official has not had any recent direct contact with President Biden. The Pelosi aide did not have any contact with the speaker since that person's exposure. What they're saying: "Yesterday, a fully vaccinated White House official tested positive for COVID-19 off campus," a White House official told Axios in a statement. "In accordance with our rigorous COVID-19 protocols, the official remains off campus as they wait for a confirmatory PCR test. The White House Medical Unit has conducted contact tracing interviews and determined no close contacts among White House principals and staff. The individual has mild symptoms." The official added: "The White House is prepared for breakthrough cases with regular testing. This is another reminder of the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines against severe illness or hospitalization. We wish our colleague a speedy recovery." Drew Hammill, deputy chief of staff to Pelosi, told Axios in a statement: "Yesterday, a fully-vaccinated senior spokesperson in the Speaker’s press office tested positive for COVID after contact with members of the Texas state legislature last week."

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

GOP Texas House members seek forensic audit of November 2020 election in state’s largest counties

Republican House members are seeking a forensic audit of the November election results, but only in Texas’ largest counties that mostly went for Democrat Joe Biden. Legislation filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, requires the state’s Republican leadership to appoint an “independent third party” to carry out the audit. Among the bill’s 15 GOP co-authors are Deer Park Rep. Briscoe Cain, who chairs the House Elections Committee, and Cypress Rep. Tom Oliverson, vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus. “Texans want to know more about the claims of voter fraud and deserve to have confidence in their elections,” Toth said in a statement about House Bill 241. “Voters want to know that their legal vote counts and matters.”

The legislation will likely go nowhere in the 30-day special session, since Democrats’ walkout stopped the GOP-led House from conducting any business. But the push shows how some Republicans are still raising questions about the 2020 election results six months after Biden took office and in a state Trump carried, despite no evidence of widespread fraud. Trump himself never raised doubts about the Texas election and in states where the Republican has claimed the election was stolen through fraud, more than 80 judges, some who he appointed, tossed out all such allegations as utterly baseless. Down ballot, Republicans largely fended off a national push by Democrats in 2020 to flip Texas congressional and legislative seats. Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs the Texas House Democratic Caucus, said Tuesday the legislation sounds like “it’s all based on the lie that there’s widespread voter fraud and Donald Trump really won the election.” “I don’t know if these folks are aware of it, Trump actually did carry Texas,” said Turner, D-Grand Prairie. “So I’m not sure what they’re trying to find in their audit.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

Fourth COVID wave on the horizon, could overwhelm emergency rooms, Houston medical leaders warn

A fourth wave of COVID-19 cases is on the horizon and could potentially overwhelm emergency rooms as predominantly unvaccinated people seek treatment for the more deadly and contagious delta variant, three of the Houston region’s top medical leaders said Tuesday. And, they said, it’s likely to come as testing centers remain closed, schools welcome back students and many people discard masks and other precautions ahead of a potentially serious flu season. “As this fourth wave begins in force, our radar is down,” Texas Medical Center CEO William McKeon said in a conference call with reporters. “We have only a fraction of the testing…. We’re going to be running much more blind to the spread of delta variant in our community.”

The warning came one day after Houston Methodist Hospital reported a 70 percent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations in the last week, nearly all of them delta variant cases among those who have not been vaccinated. Methodist Hospital also reported its first recorded case of the lambda variant, which originated last year in Peru and has devastated many Latin American countries. Meanwhile, the more contagious and deadly delta variant is likely to continue wreaking havoc across southeast Texas, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital. “Delta will accelerate, and it will accelerate the most in places where vaccination rates are low” including many rural parts of Texas, Hotez said during Tuesday’s call. Hospitalizations across the state have more than doubled this month, ballooning from 1,591 on July 1 to 3,319 as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The state’s hospitalization count peaked in January at 14,000. That has the potential to overwhelm hospitals as more people continue to get elective surgeries that they delayed during the height of the pandemic, or seek emergency room care now that they feel more comfortable in hospitals, said Baylor College of Medicine President Paul Klotman. “There is a lot of pent up medical need,” he said.

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NBC News - July 20, 2021

Sean Hannity, who downplayed COVID-19, urges viewers to 'take it seriously'

Fox News host Sean Hannity, who has spent considerable airtime downplaying the effects of Covid-19, urged his viewers Monday to "take it seriously." "Please take Covid seriously. I can’t say it enough. Enough people have died. We don’t need any more death," he said. "Research like crazy. Talk to your doctor, your doctors, medical professionals you trust based on your unique medical history, your current medical condition, and you and your doctor make a very important decision for your own safety." After highlighting the importance of "medical privacy" and "doctor-patient confidentiality," Hannity added: "And it absolutely makes sense for many Americans to get vaccinated. I believe in science, I believe in the science of vaccination."

He stopped short, however, of directly encouraging vaccination. During a segment on universities mandating that students get the vaccine, Hannity said there are very "rare cases where people have serious underlying health conditions that could be aggravated by the vaccine." He highlighted a woman who he reported was paralyzed for a month after taking a different vaccine in 2019. "That's why it's important you research, talk to your doctors, and you make the decision — in conjunction with your doctor — that is best for you," Hannity said. In the early days of the pandemic, he preached to his viewers that Covid was only as bad as the flu, and Democrats were using the virus to attack then-President Donald Trump. Fox News hosts have been criticized for minimizing the effects of the deadly virus in its early days and now, turning vaccinations into a political fight by pushing back on President Joe Biden's efforts to get Americans vaccinated. White House officials said Friday that almost all recent hospitalizations and deaths involve unvaccinated people. Meanwhile, five of the top six states with the highest daily average cases over the past two weeks, driven in part by the delta variant, have below-average vaccination rates and voted for Trump last fall.

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State Stories

Texas Observer - July 20, 2021

After Kelcy Warren’s Energy Transfer Partners made billions from the deadly Texas blackouts, he gave $1 million to Greg Abbott

The Texas electric grid collapse during the February winter storm killed hundreds of Texans and caused an estimated $295 billion in damages, while generating seismic gains for a small and powerful few. The natural gas industry was by far the biggest winner, collecting $11 billion in profit by selling fuel at unprecedented prices to desperate power generators and utilities during the state’s energy crisis. No one won bigger than Dallas pipeline tycoon Kelcy Warren: Energy Transfer Partners—the energy empire Warren founded and now is executive chairman of—raked in $2.4 billion during the blackouts. That immense bounty soon trickled down to Governor Greg Abbott. On June 23, Warren cut a check to Abbott’s campaign for $1 million, according to the governor’s latest campaign finance filing, which covers January through June. That’s four times more than the $250,000 checks that the billionaire has given to Abbott in prior years—and the most he’s ever given to a state politician in Texas.

In the months after one of the worst energy disasters in U.S. history, Abbott has dutifully steered scrutiny away from his patrons in the oil and gas industry. Last month, the governor signed into law a series of bills that strengthened regulation of the state’s grid. But experts warned that lawmakers didn’t go far enough to prevent another grid failure and failed to crack down on natural gas companies. At a bill signing ceremony on June 8, Abbott proclaimed that “everything that needed to be done was done to fix the power grid in Texas.” The unusually large contribution from the blackout’s biggest profiteer raises questions about Warren’s influence over the governor and has prompted outrage at what many see as a blatant political kickback for kowtowing to the powerful natural gas industry. “When Governor Abbott said that we did everything we needed to do to fix the grid, what he meant was we did everything we needed to do that doesn’t interfere with my cronies’ profit margins,” says Democratic state Representative Erin Zwiener, who chairs the House Climate, Environment, and Energy Caucus. The governor’s office and his campaign did not respond to emails requesting comment, nor did Energy Transfer Partners.

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KXAN - July 19, 2021

Texas Impact holds "Let My People Vote" rally at state Capitol

Faith-based advocacy group Texas Impact led a rally on the south steps of the Capitol building Monday in hopes of highlighting the potential threats voters may face in the coming months. “We are here today to encourage legislators to stop the partisanship and hit a big reset on this whole voting rights question,” said Bee Moorhead, the executive director of Texas Impact. “We are on a bad path as a state, it’s not gonna end well for anybody who’s involved. And that’s a shame because all of our local communities want elections that are free and fair.” The rally’s speakers ranged from major faith leaders to everyday Texans who advocated for lawmakers to compromise in future elections without violating voters’ rights.

“What’s at stake here is that people have fought for their whole lives for the rights of women and people of color to vote. We cannot afford to go backward in this state of this country,” Moorhead said. Hundreds of people were at the rally, and they continued to chant, “Let my people vote.” “We are calling on people of faith and other civic leaders all over the state to get involved and help make their county elections robust,” Moorhead said.

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

Elon Musk brings exploding rockets and real estate to South Texas. Not everyone is happy.

A Starship spacecraft exploded midair and spread debris across South Texas. Somehow, that was not the most surprising or significant development here on March 30. “Please consider moving to Starbase or greater Brownsville/South Padre area in Texas & encourage friends to do so!” Elon Musk tweeted that day. This was followed by “Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization.” The phones of real estate agents and the local economic development group began ringing immediately. People snatched up houses and began touring vacant downtown properties. “The day he tweeted it caught everybody off guard,” said Josh Mejia, executive director of the Brownsville Community Improvement Corp. “The interest in downtown was already picking up, but with one tweet everything sort of boiled over.”

No one could really be prepared for the likes of Musk, who communicates by tweet, has legions of fans and haters alike and is comfortable with both exploding spaceship prototypes and public regulatory spats. Officials in South Texas certainly were not. His company, SpaceX, has pursued a rapid test-fail-fix-test strategy in developing the Starship system that could carry humans to Mars, meaning lots of explosions and fireballs. SpaceX has about 1,400 employees and hundreds of contractors working in Boca Chica, according to Cameron County. Musk, who calls the area Starbase and would like to incorporate a city, said it could grow by several thousand over the next year or two. His company has provided college internships and boosted the business of local restaurants and food trucks. But it also has created friction, with some locals feeling bullied by the newcomers. They are worried about rising home prices and SpaceX encroaching on the habitat of shorebirds. The road closures, launches and crashes are disruptive. It’s an expected dichotomy when a brash billionaire and his legion of engineers pick your backyard to launch rockets.

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

$2.5M plan to eliminate Harris County's courts backlog gets unanimous approval from commissioners

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved a $2.5 million proposal that adds three new new visiting judges in the felony courts to help eliminate the mounting backlog there - and usher some of the most serious cases out of the local system. Judge Lina Hidalgo said adding the judges, who would be appointed and not elected, is a response to an “emergency situation” in the felony district courts. Felony and misdemeanor courts combined have a backlog of about 100,000 criminal cases, compared with 38,000 before Hurricane Harvey in 2017. About 40,000 of the current cases are past national standards for the time it should take to dispose, Hidalgo said. “Alleviating our unacceptable and dangerous case backlog in the criminal courts is the most impactful thing we can do right now to reduce and prevent crime in Harris County,” she said. “Justice delayed is justice denied. Justice denied for the victims of crime and denied for those who are accused of violent crime, some of whom are inevitably innocent.”

Hidalgo and the four commissioners threw their support behind the proposal, which will also fund extra staffing, space and prosecutors to accompany the visiting judges. The jurists will have many of the same responsibilities as district court judges, who will pass off some of their longest pending and most serious cases, such as murder, aggravated assault and rape. Most of the commissioners pointed to a need to reduce a rising violent crime in Harris County, and some drew comparisons to the 1980s. Crime rates are still not as high as they were then, however, and Hidalgo said the new initiative is a departure from more regressive policies in the 80s that resulted in the overincarceration of Black and brown people. Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the proposal seems to be coming too late but is still a necessary step. “I think it’s important that we show bipartisan support in terms of dealing with our crime pandemic,” Ramsey said. “In many ways, they’re (the courts are) dysfunctional and something has to be done.” The criminal case backlog skyrocketed after Harvey shut down the courthouse, stalling hearings, pleas, trials and other proceedings. For a time, judges doubled up in courtrooms, and cases mounted. The pandemic worsened the problem.

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

Harris County civil court judge resigns following six complaints

A Harris County civil court judge has resigned amid several allegations of judicial misconduct, including showing bias or prejudice toward litigants and attorneys on the basis of race, sex or socioeconomic status, according to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. George Barnstone, of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 1, was the subject of six complaints encompassing at least seven allegations of misconduct. Those also included claims he used his judicial office to advance his private interests and made appointments violating the Texas Government Code, which bars conflicts of interest, the resignation agreement states. He signed the agreement on July 12, records show, and state commission Chair David Hall approved the decision Monday.

Judicial complaints are not public. Barnstone did not respond to requests for comment, and a person hung up after answering a phone number listed for the former judge. Other complaints — all listed in the agreement — alleged the judge didn’t comply with the law related to awarding attorneys fees or statutory interest post-judgment; failed to give a defendant their right to be heard; failed to treat attorneys with patience, dignity and courtesy; and failed to require and maintain order and decorum in court proceedings. The state commission had not made any findings related to the complaints, and Barnstone’s resignation will take place instead of disciplinary action, the document reads. The resignation, however, is not an admission of guilt. Barnstone won’t be able to run for judicial office or sit in a judicial capacity again, the agreement stipulates. The former judge, a Democrat, took office in 2016. His term was set to expire in 2022. The four county civil courts at law have jurisdiction over all civil matters with a disputed amount of over $250,000. The courts also hear appeals from civil justice courts in Harris County, as well as proceedings on statutory eminent domain and inverse condemnation suits.

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

Maria Reeve named top editor at Houston Chronicle

Maria Douglas Reeve, managing editor of the Houston Chronicle since November 2019, has been named the newspaper’s top editor. Hearst Corp., the Chronicle’s New York-based parent company, said Tuesday that Reeve will lead the paper as executive editor, effective immediately. Reeve, the first journalist of color to lead the Chronicle, will succeed Steve Riley, who announced in March that he will retire after a 41-year career in journalism.

“We didn’t have to look far to find the best person to become executive editor,” said Hearst Newspapers President Jeff Johnson. “Since Maria began working for the Chronicle in 2019, we have all seen her commanding leadership, creativity and dedication to providing our readers with the stories that matter most to them. We know she will continue to drive growth and important storytelling in the newsroom.” Reeve, 53, joined the Chronicle from the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she served in various roles including assistant managing editor of news, assistant features editor and deputy metro editor. She previously worked for the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Saint Paul, Minn. She started her journalism career as a general assignment reporter at The Bradenton Herald in Florida, where she covered transportation and the environment. Reeve joined the Chronicle four months before the coronavirus pandemic broke out. She oversaw the newspaper’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, the historic oil bust and the Texas blackouts — all while managing a remote staff.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Exxon Mobil names new chief financial officer

Exxon Mobil said Monday it has chosen Kathryn Mikells as its new chief financial officer. The Irving oil giant’s board of directors elected the former executive with Diageo, United Airlines and Xerox as the company’s senior vice president and CFO, effective Aug. 9. Mikells will replace longtime Exxon employee Andrew Swiger, who will retire Sept. 1 after more than 43 years with the company.

“I’d like to thank Andy, both personally and on behalf of the board of directors, for his many years of dedicated service, and wish him all the best in his retirement,” Exxon CEO Darren Woods said in a statement. “We welcome Kathy to ExxonMobil and look forward to the perspective and experience she brings as we work together to deliver on our strategies and increase shareholder value.” Mikells joins Exxon from British alcoholic beverage giant Diageo where she was the CFO since 2015 and was a member of its board of directors. Previously, she was the CFO at Xerox, ADT, Nalco and United Airlines. She holds an MBA from the University of Chicago. Swiger has been a longtime member of Exxon’s management, joining the management committee in 2009 and becoming its CFO in 2013. He joined Mobil in 1978 as an operations engineer in Morgan City, La. after receiving his petroleum engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines. He has held several roles with the company, including assignments in Singapore, Canada, London and eastern Europe.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Arbitrator throws out indefinite suspension of fire union president Marty Lancton

An arbitrator has ruled that the city must reinstate fire union President Marty Lancton, throwing out an indefinite suspension the city issued in January. Fire Chief Sam Peña issued the suspension, tantamount to a firing, after he said Lancton, the president of Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341, did not report to a required training program in November and did not explain his absence. In a ruling issued on Friday, arbitrator Ruben Armendariz said Peña did not provide adequate notice to transfer Lancton out of his special assignment at the union hall. “The conclusion and award says it all,” Lancton said. “We went on record saying that what the city was trying to do was an attack and affront on elected labor leaders — and this neutral third party clearly wrote it all.”

The city had argued that Lancton had failed to follow his duty assignment and then refused to comply with an investigation into his alleged misconduct. The mayor’s office deferred questions to Chief Peña, who said the arbitrator’s ruling undermines his authority to make personnel decisions. “The underlying conduct is undisputed,” Peña said. “He was terminated for failing to report to work.” The union president typically is exempt from his day-to-day job to handle union business, per the union’s collective bargaining agreements with the city. The last such agreement expired in 2017, and the two sides have not been able to reach a new deal. When the deal expired, Peña allowed union members to donate their own time off to Lancton and other union leaders; that time expired in late 2019. Peña then drafted a memorandum of understanding that Lancton would be placed on a “special administrative assignment” at the union hall. Under that agreement, Peña had to provide Lancton with 120-days notice if he wanted to rescind the special assignment. Peña did not do that when he tried to transfer Lancton to the training program, Armendariz said, thus violating Lancton’s due process rights.

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

The ‘Killer Bees’ offer a strategic roadmap for Texas Democrats’ latest quorum break

When it comes to breaking quorum in the Legislature, Texas has a history. In 1979, a dozen state senators nicknamed the “Killer Bees” used filibustering tactics and eventually left the Capitol and hid from Texas Rangers for four days. At stake then was a GOP-backed bill to shift the timing of the Texas presidential primary to boost former Gov. John Connally’s chances. The House Democrats camped out in Washington this month are following much the same playbook — this time to block Republican legislation on how elections are run. “We’re not going to sit in Austin, in the House chamber, and watch the Republican majority steamroll the voting rights of my constituents,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

At the Democrats’ first press conference at the U.S. Capitol, an original “Killer Bee” was there to lend his support: U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin. “I was a young state senator then, they used to call me the ‘baby senator,’” the congressman recalled with a smile. “We had a really bad legislative session where we were opposing a lot of anti-consumer legislation…. After some discussion, 12 of us agreed to leave — I think 10 of us ended up in a converted two-car garage.” A walkout that was initially supposed to be only a few hours turned into four days at that garage apartment. The Republican bill they were blocking, an elections bill, was trying to change how the presidential primaries worked in Texas. “They sent the Texas Rangers out after us. They claimed they were going to bring us back in chains and all this,” Doggett said. “And finally, after I think four or five days, they agreed to pull the bill down and not to pass it.” The legislators earned the “Killer Bees” moniker for their efforts. The lieutenant governor at the time, Bill Hobby, came up with the nickname, a reference to fears that Africanized bees were invading the U.S. There was a series of famous Saturday Night Live skits in the late 1970s satirizing the panic.

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

Breakaway Texas Democrat returns for family reasons, goes to Austin to seek voting bill changes

Rep. Harold Dutton returned to the House floor in Austin on Tuesday after joining breakaway Democrats in Washington last week – and even launched a solo effort to wrest concessions in a GOP-backed election bill. Dutton, the third longest-serving member of the Texas House – and one who’s not afraid to defy his fellow Democrats – surprised Republican colleagues with his return. He’d missed seven days of the special session, and his absence helped Democrats block action on the voting bill and all other items that Gov. Greg Abbott has placed on the agenda. In an interview at his Capitol office, Dutton explained that he decamped from Washington, D.C., on Saturday for family reasons – his sister, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., is staying at Dutton’s home in Houston while she undergoes chemotherapy.

Over the weekend, after tending to domestic items such as having a broken garage-door opener repaired, Dutton said he heard about the outbreak of coronavirus infections among his Democratic colleagues in Washington. Dutton said he decided it was unwise for him to return to the nation’s capital. “I thought, ‘I can’t do that because I can’t expose myself [to COVID-19] and then I come back home to her … because her white blood cell count is down because she’s taking chemotherapy,’” he recounted. “So I thought, ‘I can’t go back there.’ So I thought, ‘Well, OK, maybe I’ll just go to Austin. I’ll go to see Murr.” Dutton was referring to Junction GOP Rep. Andrew Murr, the House’s lead author of the “election integrity” bill for the special session, House Bill 3. Republicans say the bill is needed to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats say it would suppress the votes of minorities and give credence to former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims the 2020 election was stolen. In Washington, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner of Grand Prairie on Tuesday noted that Dutton stopped short of signaling early last week that he’d be AWOL for the remainder of the 30-day session. It must end no later than Aug. 6.

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson wants more money for police, city services in next budget

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson says he wants the city’s next budget to include more money for police officers and to improve basic services such as street maintenance and garbage collection. Johnson said in a memo to City Manager T.C. Broadnax that his top budget priorities would include hiring 275 new police officers, almost double the number the city projects employing. Johnson also said he wants to see better pay for first responders, 911 call takers and sanitation truck drivers. He also wants to boost funding to improve the conditions of streets and sidewalks. “I believe our primary focus this fiscal year must be on improving basic services,” Johnson said in a memo last Thursday. “Our residents depend on these services, and it is imperative that the City Council and city staff rally around these concepts and goals.”

The mayor also called for resolving delays in the city’s building permitting process with a goal of making it “the most efficient” in Texas. The city’s current approval process takes months, even for basic permits. Putting more money into city programs that aim to deter crime through civilian intervention and cleaning up vacant, abandoned or poorly maintained properties are his other priorities. Broadnax will unveil his proposed budget for the city next month. The City Council will debate, amend and approve Dallas’ latest spending plan between August and September. The next fiscal year starts Oct. 1. City officials last month estimated Dallas having $50 million more in general fund cash for the next fiscal year, largely because the city expects to get millions more in property and sales tax revenue than anticipated. Dallas also received about $178 million in federal money from the American Rescue Plan this year and will get the same amount next May. Better pay would help the city improve staff retention, Johnson said in his memo, and he suggested the city do more to recruit police officers from other agencies to work for Dallas. Around 3,100 officers work for the Dallas Police Department, which reported hiring almost 80 officers since October. In that time, it also lost about 145 officers.

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Dallas Morning News - July 20, 2021

Victim’s family files $250M lawsuit over fatal natural-gas explosion in Collin County

The family of one of the victims of a fatal Collin County natural-gas explosion last month is suing over the blast, alleging that negligence led to the man’s death. Melissa Tarver, the widow of Deric Tarver, filed the wrongful-death lawsuit Friday in Dallas County, court records show. The lawsuit, which seeks damages in excess of $250 million, names Atmos Energy and Bobcat Contracting as defendants. Neither company immediately responded to a request for comment. Tarver, 35, was working at an Atmos facility in Farmersville, about 15 miles east of McKinney, on June 28 when an explosion killed him and another worker, 22-year-old Ethan Knight, and injured two others.

The lawsuit says Atmos had hired Tarver’s employer, Fesco Petroleum, and Bobcat Contracting to use a pipeline inspection gauge — a “pig” — at the site to check on the condition of part of the pipeline. The pig is inserted into a trap at one end of the pipe segment and then propelled to a trap at the other end. In this case, Tarver was standing near the pipeline using a pushrod to manually move the pig. But, the lawsuit says, Bobcat’s contractors failed to ground at least one of the traps, resulting in a static discharge that ignited residual gas in the pipeline, causing an explosion that “ripped apart the fabric binding a young, blossoming family.” The lawsuit alleges that Atmos and Bobcat failed to ensure that Tarver had safe working conditions by neglecting to properly maintain the pipeline and failing to train employees about industry standards, among other omissions. That inaction amounts to gross negligence, according to the lawsuit. In a written statement, the Tarver family’s attorneys noted other natural-gas explosions involving Atmos, including a February 2018 blast in northwest Dallas that killed 12-year-old Linda “Michellita” Rogers. The Railroad Commission of Texas determined that Atmos failed to detect leaks leading up to that explosion and proposed a record $1.6 million fine. The company settled a lawsuit with the girl’s family for an undisclosed amount.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 20, 2021

Did Texas lawmakers remove classroom requirement to teach KKK as 'morally wrong'? Here's what we know.

The Texas Senate has passed a bill that would limit teaching certain topics, notably those that revolve around race and racism. The agenda item was one of 11 pieces of legislation Gov. Greg Abbott noted when he called for a special session in early July. Senate Bill 3 states that a "teacher may not be compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs." The bill is a follow-up to an already passed House bill that Abbott signed in May. Among the changes in SB 3 is the removal of a reference to the Ku Klux Klan being "morally wrong" from House Bill 3979, which is set to become law in September. But with more than 60 House Democrats breaking quorum in response to push for more restrictive voting laws, SB 3 is unable to be brought up for discussion in the House, leaving its future in limbo. Here's what we know about the current law and what passage of the new bill would mean.

The term "critical race theory” has become a catch-all phrase among legislators and pundits who have pushed for limits on teaching practices relating to race and racism. The actual theory provides a framework for understanding how racial disparities developed and endure. The author of HB 3979, Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, told House members that critical race theory rejects "the rule of a law as a disguise for the selfish interests of a supposedly white supremacist American society." "HB 3979 is about teaching racial harmony by telling the truth that we are all equal, both in God's eyes and our founding documents," he added. Toth proposed amending the bill to require that slavery and racism to be portrayed as betrayals of, and deviations from, the founding principles of the United States in classroom instructions. Meanwhile, SB 3, proposed by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, expounds on that idea while removing references to the KKK.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 20, 2021

Witnesses share new testimony in Rodney Reed evidence hearing

Defense attorneys for Rodney Reed continued to call witnesses to the stand Tuesday to bolster their theory that it was not Reed who killed 19-year-old Stacey Stites over two decades ago, but rather her fiancé, Jimmy Fennell. The testimony shared this week was not presented during Reed's trial in the late 1990s in which he was convicted of capital murder, and instead was part of the evidence Reed's lawyers presented to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 2019, prompting the court to halt his execution five days before he was set to die. The court ordered a hearing, which began Monday in Bastrop County, to review the new evidence that Reed's lawyers say casts doubt on his conviction.

One of the witnesses who spoke this week was Ruby Volek, who used to sell insurance policies at Round Rock community dances. Fennell would sometimes handle security at these dances and brought Stites to one of them, Volek testified. While Stites was filling out a life insurance form that Volek gave to her, Volek heard Fennell say to Stites, "If I ever catch you messing around on me, I will kill you, and nobody will ever know I did it," Volek said on the stand. At the conclusion of the hearing, which is expected to last two weeks, state District Judge J.D. Langley will have some time to author his opinion on the findings. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will then review the new evidence as well as Langley's opinion and determine whether Reed should go free, get a new trial or be executed. Defense attorneys may call Fennell to testify, according to a list of witnesses filed in court documents. New evidence presented in court Tuesday includes testimony from Michael Bordelon, who knew Fennell in prison.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 21, 2021

‘No moral compass,’ Texas Republican says of group targeting him in congressional race

State Rep. Jake Ellzey is defending himself against what he describes as lies about him coming from a Washington-based conservative political action committee as Election Day for a North Texas congressional runoff nears. The Club for Growth, which describes itself as a “free-enterprise advocacy group,” has loomed large in the North Texas race as Republicans Ellzey and Susan Wright, the widow of late Ron Wright, vie for the seat. Ron Wright died in February prompting the special election and the subsequent runoff on Tuesday. Early voting started Monday and ends Friday. The fundraising arm for The Club for Growth has endorsed Wright for Texas’ 6th Congressional District and, according to Politico, has spent $230,000 on TV ads in the months since the May 1 special election, when Wright and Ellzey advanced from a field of 23. The group has also put out a number of mailers targeting Ellzey and encouraging voters in the district to support Wright for Congress.

The Club for Growth, which was also involved in the race before the primary, did not return requests for comment. “They are willing to do and stay anything to win because they have no moral compass,” Ellzey told the Star-Telegram. The organization has gotten involved in other Texas races in the past, such as the 2020 Republican primary in Texas’ 13th Congressional District, when the group’s PAC backed U.S. Rep. Ronny Jackson. The group endorsed U.S. Ted Cruz for president in 2016. Mailers related to the runoff, obtained by the Star-Telegram through an Ellzey spokesperson, claim Ellzey voted for a tax increase, missed legislative votes and identify the Republican as the Democratic-backed choice. They also tout Wright’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump. “Democrats are trying to steal the Republican runoff election by trying to get Jake Ellzey elected,” reads one mailer calling Ellzey a “Puppet for Democrats in DC.” The group states on some mailers that Ellzey has been endorsed by Democrats. They name Stephen Daniel, a Democrat who ran for the seat in 2020 against Ron Wright. Daniel wrote on Twitter after the special election that he would support Ellzey because Republicans were his only choice. In an interview with the Star-Telegram at the time, he stressed that the vote declaration was not an endorsement.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 19, 2021

Mac Engel: A Texas A&M Aggie great is passionate about renewing rivalry with Longhorns

Don’t shoot the messenger, Texas A&M, but one of your own wants to play Texas again. Because Von Miller is smart. Because Von Miller is wise enough to put aside his ego in one of the great college football debates going within our borders. For the past few years the only people who cared to keep this debate going are big-mouthed, self-serving sports journalists who want quality content. (Not me, of course.) Texas playing Texas A&M in kickball is quality content. Texas playing Texas A&M in football is shut-down-the-state content that will not require the help of ERCOT.

Last week, I had the chance to visit with Miller, the former Texas A&M and current Denver Broncos star linebacker. I posed the innocent question if he would like to see one of the great college football rivalries continue. “I think both of these schools could really benefit from that,” Miller said. “Both of these schools would be alright without it.” This is correct answer. The two have not played the other since Thanksgiving night on 2011, and both are rolling in money without the other. (Also, neither has won a national title, or reached the playoffs. Call it the Dallas Cowboys Syndrome.) Miller could easily have stopped there with his answer, but he didn’t. He didn’t for a reason. “You have two big-time schools that played the game over 100 years annually. But I would really like to see it. I really would,” Miller said. This does not make him a turncoat. It just makes him honest. SEC’s Media Days are here, which means Texas A&M is preparing to play its 11th season in the conference that just means more. Coach Jimbo Fisher will talk on Wednesday, and he may be asked about playing Texas (again), but a decision like this are above his head. The respective decision makers will all say they want to play again, and then promptly won’t do a thing about it. Miller’s case is the only that should exist.

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KXAN - July 19, 2021

Austin area may see over 12,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations before October, UT projections show

The Austin-metro area could experience three vastly different COVID-19 realities over the next three months, depending on what happens starting now. That’s according to a report released Monday by the University of Texas at Austin: which used trending data, in addition to vaccination rates, to project how the disease may spread through October 1. UT’s COVID-19 scenario projections for Austin, Texas divides the possibilities based on if precautions continue as they currently are, if Austin enacts stricter guidelines and if residents actually comply with strict measures. Here are the possibilities.

If guidelines continue as they are: Hospitalizations: 12,279; Probability of a 7-day average of 30 new hospitalizations per day: 94%; Probability of exceeding estimated ICU capacity of 200 beds: 87%. If stricter guidelines are enacted: Hospitalizations: 1,078 — a 92% reduction in hospitalizations than if current guidelines continue; Probability of a 7-day average of 30 new hospitalizations per day: 37%; Probability of exceeding estimated ICU capacity of 200 beds: 2%. UT says these projected numbers will depend on the city enforcing universal mask recommendations for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents — and if residents comply. If residents only comply with stricter guidelines about 50%: Hospitalizations: 4,355 — a 65% reduction in hospitalizations than if current guidelines continue; Probability of a 7-day average of 30 new hospitalizations per day: 82%; Probability of exceeding estimated ICU capacity of 200 beds: 53%. The researchers say they’re sharing the results of the study without peer review — a typical measure to indicate veracity — out of public safety concern, in addition to hope that it provides “intuition” for policy makers and residents.

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The74Million - July 20, 2021

Dallas school braces for surge in returning students facing mental health challenges

Dallas principal Ruby Ramirez knew trouble was brewing when the school counselor came to her office looking grim. A once gregarious, curious student was disappearing before their eyes, the counselor told her, rarely speaking in class, ignoring his work and classmates, and combing his hair forward over his eyes as if to block out the world. The bright middle schooler had been struggling with remote learning, and Dallas Independent School District’s School for the Talented and Gifted was able to convince his parents to send him to school in person, hoping that would reignite his love of learning.

It didn’t. The counselor also had an ominous message for Ramirez: “He’s not the only one.” That’s when Ramirez knew for sure: The second pandemic — the pervasive mental health challenges facing youth around the world — was at her doorstep. If her school didn’t get out ahead of it, it could lose its students. With the looming crisis, Ramirez decided it was time to revisit her Mental Health First Aid training. Mental health professionals and doctors around the globe are warning that after more than a year of stress, isolation, grief and fear, students will not simply spring back into school. Young people everywhere from the Netherlands to Peru to the United States are reporting more anxiety, depression and trauma symptoms. In addition to withdrawal, increased moodiness and volatility, parents are reporting terrifying instances of self-harm, or young children expressing thoughts of suicide, which have led to a nationwide surge in hospital visits for children under 18. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that between April and October 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits for kids ages 5 to 11 was up 24% from the same period in 2019, and the proportion of visits for 12- to 17-year-olds increased by 31%. Experts say the stressors of the pandemic have added to the already mounting crisis of anxiety-related disorders in young people, some as young as 8 years old. As a result, demand for the Mental Health First Aid courses is soaring among teachers, counselors, coaches — people who interact with kids, said Judith Allen, a certified Mental Health First Aid instructor. Through her Chicago affiliate of Communities in Schools, Allen trained 500 adults this spring, and the nonprofit will triple instructors to meet demand this fall. The online courses made it possible for people from across the country to participate.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 20, 2021

Struggling to pay rent? Texas Eviction Diversion Program extended during COVID-19

A statewide program helping renters and landlords facing the effects of COVID-19 has been extended by the Texas Supreme Court. The state’s highest court ordered on Monday that the Texas Eviction Diversion Program be extended until Oct. 1. The program helps eligible renters stay in their homes while providing landlords an alternative to an eviction. Those who are eligible may have their past due rent obligations and utility delinquencies covered in full, and the eviction case dismissed.

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported in April the numbers of evictions that occurred during the pandemic are hard to calculate. Texas does not track them at a statewide level. It is estimated that there were 11,500 eviction filings in Tarrant County from March 2020 to March 2021, according to January Advisors, a research firm. In order to participate, the landlord and renter must agree to participate in the program and meet the requirements. Once a landlord files an eviction case, renters are notified about the program through the citation alerting them that they are being sued for eviction and are provided a phone number and website link for more information: “If you and your landlord agree to participate in the Texas Eviction Diversion Program, you may be able to have up to 15 months of the rent you owe paid and stop your eviction. At your trial, the court will notify you about the Program and ask if you are interested in participating.”

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Associated Press - July 20, 2021

Led by Texas billionaire, critics take aim at charitable money sitting in donor funds

Wealthy philanthropists have long enjoyed an advantageous way to give to charity: Using something called a donor-advised fund, they’ve been able to enjoy tax deductions and investment gains on their donations long before they give the money away. These so-called DAFs set no deadlines for when the donations must reach charities; the donors themselves decide when and where the money goes. Critics complain that because DAFs provide no financial incentive to quickly donate the money, much of it ends up sitting indefinitely in the accounts rather than being distributed to needy charities. That criticism has helped drive a Senate bill that would tighten the rules for DAFs and aim to speed donations to charities. The bill, introduced by Sens. Angus King, a Maine Independent, and Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, appears to be gaining bipartisan support in Congress. The bill would make numerous reforms to DAFs by, among other things, creating new categories of accounts.

The debate was ignited when John Arnold, a Texas-based billionaire who made his fortune in hedge funds and now co-chairs Arnold Ventures, joined with a group of scholars and philanthropies to propose a set of reforms under a coalition they called The Initiative to Accelerate Charitable Giving. The group met with lawmakers to advocate for the reforms, which have largely been incorporated into the Senate bill. What sparked Arnold’s interest, he said, was seeing rich people with philanthropic intent funneling money into DAFs yet distributing very little of it to charities. “The money was just sitting there growing,” Arnold said. “There wasn’t any intent of abuse of the system. But the money was just building up because there was no forcing mechanism.” Opponents of the bill counter that tighter restrictions on DAFs are unnecessary because the average annual payout rates for DAFs hover around 20% — much higher than the 5% minimum required of private foundations. Richard Graber, who leads the conservative Bradley Foundation, calls the legislation “a solution in search of a problem.” (The foundation is affiliated with Bradley Impact Fund, a DAF sponsor). Yet without payout requirements, supporters of the legislation say DAFs — which hold an estimated $142 billion in the United States — have essentially become warehouses for charitable donations. The accounts let donors set up endowed accounts that exist in perpetuity and can pass on to their heirs.

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City Stories

San Antonio Express-News - July 21, 2021

Judson ISD pays undisclosed amount to ransomware hackers to regain access to phones, email

The Judson Independent School District paid an undisclosed amount to hackers to at least partially resolve a ransomware attack that has hobbled the district since June 17. The attack shut down phones, e-mail and computers for the district, which has about 26,600 students and staff members across 30 campuses on the Northeast Side. Officials haven’t said whether personal data was breached. District spokeswoman Nicole Taguinod confirmed a ransom was paid but declined to elaborate on when, how or how much. The district regained access to its phone and e-mail systems Monday, she said. It was unclear Tuesday whether the district’s computer systems were fully operational.

Ransomware is a type of software designed to block access to files and systems, rendering them unusable to the owner. The attackers then request a ransom, usually in cryptocurrency because it’s difficult to trace, in exchange for releasing the data and systems. The FBI has advised against paying ransoms, mainly because doing so doesn’t guarantee recovery of locked data and could embolden hackers to make more such attacks. In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the district acknowledged the payment and said the service “restoration was achieved through the acceleration of key upgrades to reinforce the security of our systems in preparation for the 2021-22 school year.” Judson officials did not disclose whether the district has cyber insurance to mitigate costs of such an attack. Last year, Texas school districts hit with such attacks paid from $50,000 to $2.3 million in ransom to hackers. Athens ISD outside Dallas doled out $50,000, Sheldon ISD near Houston paid $207,000 and Manor ISD near Austin handed over $2.3 million. All three districts are significantly smaller than Judson ISD.

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National Stories

Associated Press - July 20, 2021

Trump inaugural committee head accused of being UAE agent

The chair of former President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural committee was arrested Tuesday on charges alleging he conspired to influence Trump’s foreign policy positions to benefit the United Arab Emirates and commit crimes striking at what prosecutors described as “the very heart of our democracy.” Tom Barrack, 74, of Santa Monica, California, was among three men charged in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, with conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent as they tried to influence foreign policy while Trump was running in 2016 and later while he was president. Besides conspiracy, Barrack was charged with obstruction of justice and making multiple false statements during a June 2019 interview with federal agents. Also charged in a seven-count indictment were Matthew Grimes, 27, of Aspen, Colorado, and Rashid al Malik, 43, of the United Arab Emirates.

“The defendants repeatedly capitalized on Barrack’s friendships and access to a candidate who was eventually elected President, high-ranking campaign and government officials, and the American media to advance the policy goals of a foreign government without disclosing their true allegiances," Acting Assistant Attorney General Mark Lesko said in a release. Prosecutors said Barrack not only agreed to promote UAE foreign policy interests through his unique access and influence, but also provided UAE government officials with sensitive information about developments within the Trump administration — including how senior U.S. officials felt about the Qatari blockade conducted by the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries. “Worse, in his communications with Al Malik, the defendant framed his efforts to obtain an official position within the Administration as one that would enable him to further advance the interests of the UAE, rather than the interests of the United States,” prosecutors wrote in a letter seeking his detention. Authorities said Barrack served as an informal adviser to Trump’s campaign from April 2016 to November 2016 and chair of the Presidential Inaugural Committee from November 2016 to January 2017. Beginning in January 2017, he informally advised senior U.S. government officials on Middle East foreign policy, they added.

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Washington Post - July 20, 2021

What were the Capitol rioters thinking on Jan. 6?

Robert Gieswein is a good man, according to family and friends, who describe him as gentle and compassionate. His mother says he has “an amazing work ethic.” His younger sister calls him “the most inspiring person in my life.” He bought clothes and shoes for the residents of a nursing home where he worked as a nurse’s aide. The 24-year-old had no criminal history when he traveled to D.C. in January and, according to the U.S. government, joined a violent siege of the U.S. Capitol. Gieswein appears to be affiliated with the radical militia group the Three Percenters, the FBI says, and the leader of a “private paramilitary training group” called the Woodland Wild Dogs. On Jan. 6, he donned goggles, a camouflage shirt, an army-style helmet and a military-style vest reinforced with an armored plate and a black pouch emblazoned with “MY MOM THINKS I’M SPECIAL.” Then, wielding a baseball bat and a noxious spray, he stormed the U.S. Capitol, attacked a federal officer and helped halt the certification of the 2020 presidential election, the government claims.

Gieswein has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts, including assaulting an officer and destruction of government property. Now he wants to be let out of jail, subject to very strict conditions, while he awaits trial — because the man he really is, according to his lawyer, is not the man the government says he was on that day. “If what the government says is true, then Mr. Gieswein committed assault on January 6,” federal public defender Ann Mason Rigby said July 1 during a hearing on his detention. “The question before the court is: Is he incorrigibly violent? Is that a characteristic that cannot be controlled? And that’s why you have to look at his history.” That’s what the U.S. District Court in D.C. is doing with at least 535 people who were somehow involved in the breach of the Capitol; there are hundreds of ongoing investigations beyond that, according to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray. Were these people acting on their most deeply held convictions, or were they somehow not themselves on Jan. 6? Six months of evidence, court filings and motion hearings have created a composite sketch of the people arrested — in all their treachery or boneheadedness — and of the country many said they were fighting for.

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ABC News - July 21, 2021

Senate Republicans warn Schumer they won't help on Wednesday's high-stakes infrastructure vote

As the Senate barrels toward a key test vote Wednesday on a bipartisan infrastructure deal, some Senate Republicans involved in trying to nail down the deal are pleading with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to delay the vote until next week. Key Republican negotiators in the bipartisan group of senators who have been trying to work out the deal say they believe they can firm up their proposal by Monday. The group huddled over Mexican food and wine behind closed doors for over two hours late Tuesday night, but left without squaring all of their differences on how to pay for the $1.2 trillion package. Without a firmed-up agreement, Republican negotiators left the Capitol Tuesday saying they do not believe a single Republican will vote "yes" to start debate on any measure Wednesday.

Republican negotiators advocated that Schumer delay the vote until Monday to buy more time for the bipartisan group to finish its work. Schumer, the Republicans say, is well-aware of their position that waiting until next week to hold a vote would heighten the chances of success. Schumer had set the high-stakes vote to try to force progress on a top priority for President Joe Biden, but he needs the Republicans to get past the 60-vote threshold to advance legislation. "I don’t think any Republican votes yes tomorrow. I don’t think we should, because we’re not ready,” the senior lawmaker said looking ahead to Wednesday's vote. Instead, the GOP negotiators debated sending a letter to Schumer saying that Republicans, who have been warning they won't vote on advancing a bill that's not yet written, are prepared to support starting debate on Monday, the senior lawmaker said. The group, which has been working around the clock, along with White House officials, is "close" to a deal on how to pay for roads, bridges and other "traditional infrastructure," according to numerous members involved. They were meeting again Tuesday afternoon -- joined by senior Biden aides – to try to finalize a bill.

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New York Times - July 20, 2021

As virus resurges, G.O.P. lawmakers allow vaccine skepticism to flourish

As the coronavirus surges in their states and districts, fanned by a more contagious variant exploiting paltry vaccination rates, many congressional Republicans have declined to push back against vaccine skeptics in their party who are sowing mistrust about the shots’ safety and effectiveness. Amid a widening partisan divide over coronavirus vaccination, most Republicans have either stoked or ignored the flood of misinformation reaching their constituents and instead focused their message about the vaccine on disparaging President Biden, characterizing his drive to inoculate Americans as politically motivated and heavy-handed. On Tuesday, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No. 2 House Republican who said he had received his first Pfizer vaccine shot only on Sunday, blamed the hesitance on Mr. Biden and his criticism of Donald J. Trump’s vaccine drive last year. Senator Tommy Tuberville, Republican of Alabama, said skeptics would not get their shots until “this administration acknowledges the efforts of the last one.”

And Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas pointed the finger at the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. “Every time Jen Psaki opens her mouth or Dr. Fauci opens his mouth,” he said, “10,000 more people say I’m never going to take the vaccine.” Some elected Republicans are the ones spreading the falsehoods. Representative Jason Smith of Missouri, a Senate candidate, warned on Twitter of “KGB-style” agents knocking on the doors of unvaccinated Americans — a reference to Mr. Biden’s door-to-door vaccine outreach campaign. Such statements, and the widespread silence by Republicans in the face of vaccine skepticism, are beginning to alarm some strategists and party leaders. “The way to avoid getting back into the hospital is to get vaccinated,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader and a polio survivor, pleaded on Tuesday, one of the few members of his party to take a different approach. “And I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.” Nationally, the average of new coronavirus infections has surged nearly 200 percent in 14 days, to more than 35,000 on Monday, and deaths — a lagging number — are up 44 percent from two weeks ago. The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated on Tuesday that the Delta variant accounted for 83 percent of all new cases.

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The Hill - July 19, 2021

Aides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book

Aides to former President Trump intentionally gave his then-personal attorney Rudy Giuliani the wrong time for a presidential debate preparation event last year, according to a new book. The incident is detailed in the forthcoming “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year,” by Washington Post reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. According to excerpts first obtained by Insider, aides told Giuliani that a prep session for Trump's first 2020 presidential debate would take place at 2 p.m. when it really started at noon.

The practice featured former senior counselor Kellyanne Conway acting as the moderator in place of Fox News host Chris Wallace and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) acting in place of then-Democratic nominee Joe Biden. According to the book, Giuliani's advice for Trump was to attack Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden repeatedly during the debate. Other aides, including Christie, reportedly suggested he only touch on the subject and not make it a focus. “Most of the other advisors found Giuliani’s advice to be ‘supremely unhelpful,’ as one characterized his coaching tips for the president,” the book says. Giuliani did reportedly show up toward the end of the session, making it in time for the final half-hour. Insider notes that Trump took Giuliani's advice regardless, and at the Cleveland debate, he repeatedly took aim at Hunter Biden. The debate was extremely chaotic, with both candidates flinging insults at one another. Trump repeatedly interrupted Wallace and Joe Biden and attacked the former vice president on multiple fronts, including Hunter Biden’s business dealings and claiming that Joe Biden is not intelligent. Joe Biden characterized Trump as a “clown” and a “liar” and told him to “shut up” at one point.

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Newsclips - July 20, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 19, 2021

Sixth Texas Democrat in DC tests positive for COVID, and boycott isn’t going quite as planned

With COVID-19 hitting more than 10% of the Texas Democrats who fled Austin to stymie a GOP elections bill, the runaways spent Monday strategizing ways to prod Congress for new voting rights protections without being able to lobby in person. A sixth member of the Texas House tested positive on Monday, according to state Rep. Rhetta Bowers of Dallas, adding that she and others have brought food to those quarantining in their rooms. “It definitely is not stopping our work,” she said. “We’re just having to be a whole lot more careful.” At the White House a few blocks from their hotel hideaway, press secretary Jen Psaki shrugged aside concerns that Vice President Kamala Harris could have caught the coronavirus from the Texans, or may now be putting President Joe Biden at risk. Harris spent an hour with them last Tuesday, three days before one lawmaker developed cold-like symptoms and then tested positive.

“There haven’t been additional precautions taken,” Psaki said after noting that Harris has since tested negative, and insisting that her visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Sunday was routine and previously scheduled. But with six of the 55 fugitives testing positive since Friday, the Texans’ hopes of meeting with Biden this week dimmed substantially. The outbreak upended their plans to return to the U.S. Capitol for more lobbying. Democrats nationwide are clamoring for federal voting rights legislation to tamp down restrictions emerging from Austin and other GOP-controlled state capitals in the wake of Donald Trump’s defeat. To pass the time and keep up interest in their cause, the Texans held a hybrid seminar on Monday with guest speakers and most of the lawmakers attending via Zoom. A screen showed 20 or so scattered around a ballroom at the Washington Plaza hotel – no more than three per table, each stocked with a bottle of hand sanitizer. “Everybody is talking about you, talking about what you are doing. I hope you can stay out of Texas as long as you can, until the governor and the other Republicans in Texas come to their senses,” Dolores Huerta, 91, an icon of the labor movement who co-founded the National Farm Workers Association with César Chavez, said by video, the sound of a cat’s meows punctuating her comments. “You Texas Democrats are the soldiers that are fighting for everybody.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Oil tumbles after OPEC ends production cuts as Delta variant spreads

Oil prices tumbled Monday after OPEC said it would end pandemic-related production cuts next month, just as a more contagious coronavirus variant threatens to send economies back into lockdown. West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. crude benchmark, plunged 8 percent to settle in New York at $65.79 a barrel. Less than two weeks ago, oil prices were hovering around $75 a barrel, and there was speculation that oil could hit $100 a barrel next year as demand recovers from the pandemic. However, crude collapsed after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries on Sunday agreed to increase its production by 400,000 barrels per day each month starting in August until it recovers the 5.8 million barrels it cut at the start of the pandemic last year. The decision comes as the Delta variant of the coronavirus is raging across many countries, threatening new rounds of economic lockdowns and travel restrictions that would stifle petroleum demand.

Although the OPEC deal broke a weekslong impasse and headed off worries of the alliance breaking up, the decision raises the prospect of more crude coming online as demand falters. Oil supply growth is emerging as a major market concern, said Matthew Eversman, associate director for crude and fuel oil markets at S&P Global Platts. “Rising COVID-19 cases in the United States and Europe, largely attributed to the Delta variant, could put the brakes on the reopening, raising questions of stymied or reverse product price trends," Eversman said. While OPEC's deal outlines its production growth well into 2022, the cartel is unlikely to go through with its plans unless demand recovers to soak up the supply growth, said Bill Farren-Price, director of intelligence at Austin-based energy firm Enverus, "They are sending a signal to U.S. shale producers that they remain in the driving seat – able to swing production higher and lower on a monthly cycle," Farren-Price said.

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Houston Chronicle - July 20, 2021

'Used as pawns': Texas Republicans shame absent Democrats with retired teacher bonuses

While the vast majority of Democrats in the Texas House continue to camp out in Washington, D.C., Republicans are berating their colleagues for blocking not only the GOP’s priority elections bill, but also a proposal to send retired teachers a one-time pension bonus. Last week, the Texas Senate passed a bill authorizing the so-called 13th check to the state’s more than 400,000 retired teachers equal to their monthly annuity or $2,400, whichever is less. Republicans have since convened news conferences and meetings with retired teachers at the Capitol in an effort to shame the absent House Democrats for holding up the measure, which would cost the state an estimated $701 million. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, last week demanded that Democrats “get back to Texas to pass legislation that would provide a 13th check for retired teachers,” among other items.

And one of the speaker’s allies, state Rep. Dustin Burrows of Lubbock, posted a photo of himself with one of his former teachers who visited Austin to discuss the bill. “I told her if only 18 Democrats would show up for work, we would pass this legislation!” Burrows tweeted. House Democrats have been quick to point out that nearly their entire caucus signed onto the bonuses in the spring, only to watch the proposal die in a Republican-controlled committee — a committee led by Burrows. “Texas House Democrats supported both a 13th check and a cost-of-living increase for our retired teachers during the regular session. Yet, Governor (Greg) Abbott and Republican leadership drowned those measures to keep dangerous and partisan bills afloat,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, who chairs the House Pensions, Investments and Financial Services Committee, which advanced both bills. All but three of the 67 Democrats in the House signed on as authors of the bill, while 17 Republicans declined to do so — a number of them allies of Phelan, including Burrows, chairman of the House Calendars Committee, which controls which bills reach the House floor and did not advance the measure on the 13th check.

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Politico - July 18, 2021

Pollsters: ‘Impossible’ to say why 2020 polls were wrong

A new, highly anticipated report from the leading association of pollsters confirms just how wrong the 2020 election polls were. But nine months after that closer-than-expected contest, the people asking why are still looking for answers. National surveys of the 2020 presidential contest were the least accurate in 40 years, while the state polls were the worst in at least two decades, according to the new, comprehensive report from the American Association for Public Opinion Research. But unlike 2016, when pollsters could pinpoint factors like the education divide as reasons they underestimated Donald Trump and offer specific recommendations to fix the problem, the authors of the new American Association for Public Opinion Research report couldn’t put their finger on the exact problem they face now. Instead, they've stuck to rejecting the idea that they made the same mistakes as before, while pointing to possible new reasons for inaccuracy.

“We could rule some things out, but it’s hard to prove beyond a certainty what happened,” said Josh Clinton, a professor at Vanderbilt University and the chair of the association’s 2020 election task force. “Based on what we know about polling, what we know about politics, we have some good prime suspects as to what may be going on.” Those “prime suspects” will hardly be comforting to pollsters and those who depend on them, from political campaigns to the news media. The most likely — if far from certain — culprit for off-kilter polling results is that key groups of people don’t answer polls in the first place. Decreasing response rates have been a major source of concern for pollsters for more than a decade. But the politicization of polling during the Trump era — including the feedback loop from the former president, who has falsely decried poll results he doesn’t like as “fake” or deliberately aimed at suppressing enthusiasm for answering polls among GOP voters — appears to be skewing the results, with some segment of Republicans refusing to participate in surveys. But pollsters say they can’t be sure that’s the main reason, because you never know exactly whom you’re not talking to. That makes the problems with polling a lot harder to fix than the diagnosis four years ago, which mostly focused on adjusting surveys to account for Trump’s popularity with voters who haven’t earned college degrees and his corresponding weakness with college degree-holders.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 19, 2021

Joe Barton backs Jake Ellzey over Susan Wright in Congressional District 6 runoff for his old seat

Joe Barton on Monday endorsed state Rep. Jake Ellzey for the congressional seat that he once held. Barton is backing Ellzey over Susan Wright, the widow of late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, who died in February after battling COVID-19 and cancer. Early voting for the runoff between the two Republicans began Monday. Election Day is July 27. Barton told The Dallas Morning News Monday that the decision to back Ellzey for the Congressional District 6 runoff was hard, given his tight relationship with Susan Wright and her family. A close friend who worked as his district director and chief of staff over a 13-year period, Ron Wright beat Ellzey in the 2018 GOP primary and won the seat Barton held for more than three decades. Though Barton says Susan Wright could do a good job in Congress, he says his backing of Ellzey is based on the best person for the job. “Jake would be a more impactful member of Congress,” Barton said. “He would leave a bigger footprint.”

Barton’s backing of Ellzey comes as the race is taking a nasty turn toward the homestretch. On Monday, Wright’s campaign lashed out at Barton’s endorsement, including making reference to a scandal that preceded Barton’s resignation from Congress. In 2017 nude images Barton shared during an extramarital affair surfaced online. He confirmed that the pictures were of him and apologized to the people of the district. “Between disgraced creep Joe Barton and 2020 Democrat nominee Stephen Daniel, Rep. Ellzey certainly knows how to pick winning endorsements in a Republican runoff,” said Matthew Langston, Wright’s chief consultant, in a prepared statement. “Our campaign is thrilled to be endorsed by President Trump, Senator Cruz, and hundreds of grassroots conservative across TX-06 — and we’re more than glad to let Rep. Ellzey claim those clowns.” Barton responded to Wright’s consultant calling him a “disgraced creep” by pointing out that he was elected to lead the district 17 times by comfortable, if not overwhelming margins. “I’ve been elected in 17 primaries and 17 general elections,” Barton said. “How many elections has he won? I’ll put my record up against his on any day.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Texas A&M, Prairie View A&M form grad school exchange program

Texas A&M and Prairie View A&M universities will work together this fall to enhance graduate-level education through a five-year partnership. It launches with a teaching exchange program that will allow doctoral students of one college to teach at its partner institution to learn about their respective core undergraduate courses, according to a Friday release from the A&M system. The strengths of Texas A&M’s Graduate and Professional school and Prairie View’s Office of Graduate Studies will offer students a unique educational experience, officials said.

Karen Butler-Purry, dean of the A&M’s graduate and professional school, called it a “win-win.” “Texas A&M graduate students will benefit from the experience of teaching at a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) whose student population is uniquely diverse — culturally, socially, educationally and economically,” Butler-Purry said in a statement. “Likewise, Prairie View graduate students will benefit from the experience of teaching at a Tier 1, (research), land-grant institution whose student population is different from that at their home institution.” Butler-Purry added that undergraduates will benefit from learning from advanced grad students and might be inspired to consider graduate school. Dorie Gilbert, dean of Prairie View’s College of Arts and Sciences worked to develop the partnership over the past year and said the collaboration is a natural one considering the schools’ close proximity.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Gov. Abbott plans to ban gender-affirming medical care for transgender youth

Lacking the support to advance such a proposal in the state Legislature, Gov. Greg Abbott says he has found another way to stop transgender children from receiving gender-affirming medical care. The Texas Legislature had considered a bill to ban transition-related health care for minors during the regular session. It passed the Senate but died in the House of Representatives in May — at the time, a temporary relief for activists who decried the legislation as an unnecessary attack on transgender youth. “I have another way of achieving the exact same thing, and it’s about a finished product as we speak right now and may be announced as soon as this week,” Abbott told Mark Davis, a conservative radio talk show host, in an interview Monday morning.

The governor did not provide any additional details, and a spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Abbott offered the vague description after Davis asked why the governor declined to include the issue on his agenda for the special legislative session that began July 8. “The chances of that passing during the session in the House of Representatives was nil,” Abbott said. Republicans say the measure is necessary to prevent Texans from making life-altering decisions at a young age. The bill that passed the Senate in the spring would have outlawed gender-affirming surgeries, hormone therapies and puberty blockers. LGBTQ rights advocates have fiercely opposed the proposal, denouncing the legislation as a dangerous and cruel charge against a group of young people who already face bullying and higher rates of suicidal thoughts. Medical care bans would outlaw “age-appropriate, evidence-based, private, life-saving care” for transgender youth, the advocacy group Equality Texas wrote in a May press release.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

GLO, Pleasantville locked in struggle over post-Harvey home rebuilding

Kathy Taylor has had two ceilings cave in since Hurricane Harvey dumped 40 inches on her home in 2017. She qualified to have her home rebuilt through a city relief program, but has waited as the money shuffled from Congress to the city to the General Land Office. Now, progress has been slowed by a standoff with her civic league in Pleasantville. “It’s just frustrating,” she said, noting that recent rains have damaged her home even more. Pleasantville, located just inside Loop 610 in east Houston, prides itself on being one of the first historically Black neighborhoods in the country protected by deed restrictions. In a city with no zoning, minority neighborhoods lacking deed restrictions often find themselves encroached upon by industry that negatively impacts property values.

But the General Land Office says it can’t spend the money to rebuild the type of homes that the Pleasantville Civic League says are required by those deed restrictions — namely houses on concrete slabs with garages. The GLO said the language doesn’t actually mandate those specifications and that the civic league never formally created the architectural control committee that could veto inferior, less-expensive structures they are proposing. The GLO has also told homeowners that they may owe the government money if they back out of the contract because they are unhappy with the quality of home they are planning to build. The fight is disheartening to Pleasantville residents, who feel like the government is undermining a historic community that residents have spent seven decades building and maintaining. “None of it makes sense, and by doing this in this historic community, they are literally destroying the property values of all of the homes,” Pleasantville Civic League President Mary Fontenot said. “You’re tearing apart the fabric of the deed restrictions in this historic community on what one might consider a loophole or a technicality.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Voting mistake arrest is Paxton's lowest blow in championing the Big Lie

They finally found the voter fraud. Our long, national nightmare is over. Order is restored. Democracy is saved. President Biden, call up a moving company and start packing your bags. Donald Trump, start measuring the drapes in the Oval Office. Texans, we finally got our money’s worth out of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s beefed-up voter fraud unit that spent more than 22,000 hours sniffing out cases and, as of March, had prosecuted just 16. Just when Republicans had started to hedge a bit on their claims of widespread fraud, and stress that even one case was worth a slew of new voting restrictions, the heavens opened and delivered exactly one case. Miracle, thy name is Hervis Rogers. His crime? The 62-year-old Black man from Houston voted in the March 2020 Democratic primary just a few months shy of completing felony parole and getting his voting rights restored. The horror.

The true horror is how desperately the apostles of the Bie Lie are trying to keep the voter fraud myth alive despite any evidence that it’s a real problem in our society in need of legislative remedy. Over the past year, the Big Lie that began with Trump claiming widespread voter fraud cost him the popular vote has become more than a nefarious attempt to undermine the peaceful transfer of power. It has created pressure on Republicans to substantiate the false narrative and to show their primary voters that they did something to deliver our elections from imagined evil. Of course, instances of actual voter fraud do exist, although the chances of it occurring are slimmer than getting struck by lightning. But at this point, the stakes are so high to prove the alleged danger it poses to our democracy that the term “voter fraud” has been stretched beyond recognition. In Texas, it now encompasses just about any nontraditional attempt to vote for someone who likely will not vote to protect GOP hegemony. Twenty-four-hour voting? Fraud. Mail-in ballots? Fraud. Secure drop-boxes? Fraud. Early voting on Sunday morning? Fraud. Red state turning blue? Fraud. And yes, “fraud” includes one man’s mistaken belief that his voting rights had been restored before they actually were.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

How Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin changed the small West Texas town of Van Horn

For most, Van Horn is a stop along Interstate 10 — an ideal spot to rest and refuel in the outer reaches of West Texas. It’s easy for interstate travelers to miss the odd silver feathers hanging inside restaurants. Or to overlook the red-and-blue rocket mailbox on Broadway Street. “They say, ‘Well, what’s going on?’” said Lisa Cottrell, who has spent most of her life in Van Horn. “And so when you start to tell them, they look at you almost like you’re crazy.” She doesn’t blame them. The locals didn’t know what to think when Jeff Bezos first announced he would use their community to launch people into space with his company, Blue Origin. That was 16 years ago, a date many Van Horn residents struggle to recall. It almost feels like Blue Origin has always been a neighbor — a quiet, private neighbor until recently, when the world’s richest man announced he was going into space.

Bezos, his brother, an 82-year-old female aerospace pioneer and the 18-year-old son of a Netherlands investment firm CEO will take an 11-minute ride into space on July 20. They will be the first people to experience Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket system. It’s a big thing for a small town. Rooms in the hotels and motels are booked. Journalists are descending. The quiet community is the center of global attention. The company’s logo, a feather, is painted on the rocket as a symbol. To Blue Origin, the feather represents freedom, perfect flight design and gentle landings. But around Van Horn, the feather hints at the various ways a billionaire and his space company have impacted the community. “Our team started handing these out to town establishments that Blue Origin heavily relies on,” a company spokesperson said. Blue Origin has brought money into Van Horn, with its workers eating at local restaurants and buying houses. Some of its employees are becoming involved in the school and local museum. But new demographics aren't always good. This town, like a thousand other rural communities, has seen agriculture diminish and infrastructure deteriorate. Its local improvements often depend on grants. And with Blue Origin’s higher-paid workforce, the town no longer qualifies for citywide grants reserved for low- to moderate-income communities. Residents talk about about the tight housing market and problem-plagued water system.

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Dallas Morning News - July 19, 2021

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Pass the ‘I am Vanessa Guillén Act’

The legacy of U.S. Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén should have been a long and honorable military career. Everything we know about the energetic and patriotic Houston native murdered last April at the age of 20 tells us that, even from a very young age, she wanted nothing more than to serve her country, defend the Constitution, and obey the Uniform Code of Military Justice. That all came to a brutal end when, according to a federal criminal complaint, on April 22, 2020, Guillén was bludgeoned to death with a hammer at her workplace in the Fort Hood armory. On July 1, 2020, Spc. Aaron David Robinson, the lead suspect in the murder and a co-worker of Guillén’s who she had told her family had sexually harassed her, took his own life with a firearm when approached by police.

After months of prevarication, the Army now confirms that Guillén had reported being sexually harassed two times by a fellow soldier who was not Robinson, but Army officials failed to report the incidents further up the chain of command. Guillén’s family says she didn’t report Robinson for sexual harassment for fear of reprisal, something she told her family was all too common at Fort Hood. On June 30, 2020, after going missing for nearly two months, Guillén’s remains were found in a shallow grave on the Leon River near Belton. When Robinson was confronted by police early the next morning, he shot himself before being taken into custody. One year later, after her family’s anguish led to numerous investigations and myriad reports on the scourge of sexual harassment, assault and fear on U.S. military bases, Guillén’s legacy will almost certainly be a long-overdue change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice she once swore to obey. That change, recently introduced in both the House and Senate as the I am Vanessa Guillén Act of 2021, would rely on independent military prosecutors rather than military commanders to decide whether cases involving allegations of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other serious crimes such as murder, manslaughter and child pornography should be prosecuted.

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Dallas Morning News - July 19, 2021

‘Not under control’: COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations surge in North Texas

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across Dallas-Fort Worth and the state — with some metrics spiking to levels not seen since winter. On Monday, Dallas County reported 406 new COVID-19 cases. On Saturday, Tarrant County reported 966. Both numbers were the largest one-day totals in the counties since February. Dallas County has averaged 213 new cases per day over the past two weeks, more than double the 97 it averaged during the previous two-week period. The state reported 22,870 cases over the past week — nearly double the 12,745 cases reported the previous week.

“It indicates that the virus is not under control,” said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health. “We may be looking at a fourth wave, and this is preventable.” North Texas coronavirus hospitalizations this fall could surpass levels from summer 2020 if the current behavior and vaccination pace continue, according to a forecasting model published last week by the UT Southwestern Medical Center. The University of Texas COVID-19 modeling consortium also projects that daily COVID-19 hospitalizations in North Texas will surpass levels from last summer, with a median projection of 3,274 hospitalizations on Aug. 13. On the same day last summer, 1,200 hospitalizations were reported. As of Monday, 236 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Dallas County, according to the North Central Texas Trauma Regional Advisory Council. In the North Texas region, there are 813 hospitalizations, and there are 3,046 statewide. All three are at their highest level since March.

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Dallas Morning News - July 19, 2021

U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas selected for seat on House committee to investigate Jan. 6 riot

Texas Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Richmond, is among the five Republicans that U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-California, tapped for the Democratic-led select committee to investigate what happened on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol. Nehls is a former sheriff credited with trying to help Capitol police barricade the entrance to the House chamber as rioters tried to enter. The House, with a 220-211 Democratic majority, voted to create the committee on June 30 after it was proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. It passed largely along party lines — with 190 Republicans voting against the panel’s creation — and McCarthy was responsible for filling five slots on the panel “in consultation” with Pelosi. McCarthy announced his selections late Monday.

Nehls, the former Fort Bend County sheriff, won his House seat in south Houston last November. On Jan. 6, the freshman congressman said he tried to back up the Capitol police by negotiating with members of the mob as they attempted to bust into the House chambers. Before his run for Congress, Nehls worked in law enforcement for more than 25 years. The effort produced a stunning image: Nehls standing next to two members of Capitol police with their guns drawn, talking through a broken window in the House chamber to rioters on the other side. “What I’m witnessing is a disgrace,” Nehls tweeted on Jan. 6. “We’re better than this. Violence is NEVER the answer.” When the mob stormed the Capitol, the House was in the process of officially certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election. After reconvening, Nehls voted to challenge the results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, in line with objections many other pro-Trump Republicans made. The rest of McCarthy’s selections include Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind.; Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill.; Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio; and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D. McCarthy named Banks as the ranking Republican on the panel.

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Texas Monthly - July 16, 2021

Can this Houston-born COVID vaccine save the developing world?

When 92 guests gathered for a recent Houston wedding, they thought they were doing everything right. The happy couple had required all who wished to attend to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Those arriving from overseas had tested negative before boarding their international flights. The wedding took place outdoors, where transmission of the novel coronavirus is far less likely. And 92 guests isn’t exactly huge, in wedding terms. Yet within a week, six of those guests—two vaccinated with Pfizer, two vaccinated with Moderna, and two, from India, vaccinated with Covaxin—tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A month later, one of them was dead. Until recently, COVID-19 infections had been steadily decreasing in Texas and elsewhere in the U.S. But Delta, the most contagious variant of the coronavirus yet—one that appears to cause a significant number of “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated people—has begun reversing that trend, causing the first uptick in Texas infections in months.

A pair of dedicated Texas researchers are poised to play a significant part in making that happen. Dr. Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi, co-directors of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, in Houston, have helped develop a COVID-19 vaccine that’s likely to become one of the cheapest and most accessible vaccines throughout the world. It’s just entered phase three clinical trials in India, and it could prove vital to low-income countries that can’t afford to purchase or manufacture the sort of vaccines that are widely available in the United States. “Right now, nobody in Africa is getting vaccinated, and not many more are in Latin America or Southeast Asia, because we don’t have a scaled-up vaccine for low- and middle-income countries,” says Hotez, also dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “We’re hoping this one will fill the gap. We think it’s going to be one of the real, truly low-cost people’s vaccines that could be used to vaccinate the world.” What makes their vaccine, Corbevax, so special is that, well, it’s not that special. Instead of relying on newer—and more expensive—technology, such as mRNA (as in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines) or adenovirus vectors (the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines), Corbevax is a more conventional recombinant protein vaccine. It’s designed the same way as the hepatitis B vaccine and others that have been in use for decades. Yet testing so far suggests that Corbevax is about as effective as its newer, fancier counterparts, with an efficacy over 85 percent.

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Texas Monthly - July 19, 2021

Texas restaurant workers are in short supply—and that gives them new leverage

“Sadly, due to government handouts, no one wants to work anymore. Therefore, we are short staffed,” reads a table placard at Corralito Steak House in El Paso. At the Oasis, a restaurant on Lake Travis in Austin, a sign greeting diners reads: “We are short staffed. Please be patient with the staff that did show up. No one wants to work anymore.” A similar sign was spotted at a Chicken Express drive-through in Fort Worth. As the COVID-19 pandemic eases and diners eagerly return to restaurants that had laid off many employees, those businesses are finding themselves short on workers. This is a national phenomenon, but given the rapid growth of Texas’s population and economy, the crunch is especially evident here. Owners are blaming the shortage on a variety of factors, often embracing the much-challenged theory that workers prefer to stay on unemployment insurance rather than return to work. But workers we interviewed say it isn’t the unemployment checks that are keeping them from returning to work as servers and cooks—it’s the demanding, low-paid, and often benefit-free nature of the jobs. As economic growth accelerates in Texas, those workers face more attractive opportunities in other industries than they did before the pandemic. And by their account, most restaurant owners prefer to blame government handouts or employee laziness rather than behave like rational capitalists and compete for talent.

An April 2021 survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association showed 91 percent of Texas eatery operators “currently have job openings that are difficult to fill,” while 84 percent of operators nationwide have lower staffing levels now than before the pandemic. In May, a group of 38 Texas business organizations, including the Texas Restaurant Association and nearly two dozen chambers of commerce, wrote a letter asking Governor Greg Abbott to end the $300 monthly unemployment supplement that workers received as part of federal COVID-19 relief. The extra funds, they wrote, posed “a major barrier to fill [sic] their job openings.” Abbott agreed and granted their wish. Citing “voluminous jobs,” with restaurant roles given as an example, the statement accompanying his decision boasted of the booming Texas economy and copious high-paying job opportunities. As of June 26, unemployed Texans no longer received the supplemental benefits. (The undocumented workers who make up 8.4 percent of the state’s workforce were never eligible to receive them to begin with.) What remains to be seen is whether this move, accompanied by the resumption of residential evictions at the end of July, is enough to push workers to fill low-paid jobs in restaurants, or whether they will find better prospects in other industries. There is much that eateries could do to bring back experienced workers and lure new staff. First, in the words of President Joe Biden, businesses could, of course, “pay them more.” Workers have additional ideas in the wake of a pandemic during which, as pastry chef Austin Walton says, many employers “essentially left us out to dry.”

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San Antonio Express-News - July 19, 2021

Inspired by Texas Democrats, Lindsey Graham suggests U.S. Senate walkout over $3.5T budget deal

A top Republican in the U.S. Senate says he has been inspired by the Texas Democrats’ trip D.C. to derail the special session in their home state. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, suggested his Senate GOP colleagues take a lesson from the Democrats and skip town to stop a multi-trillion-dollar spending bill Democrats are preparing to pass along party lines. “To my Republican colleagues, we may learn something from our Democratic friends in Texas when it comes to avoiding a $3.5 trillion tax-and-spend package: Leave town,” Graham said on Fox News on Sunday. “Hell yeah, I would leave.”

It would be a harder move for Senate Republicans to pull off, however. The Texas House requires two-thirds of its members present for a quorum, while the Senate just needs 51 senators. Graham would have to convince all of his Republican colleagues to go along. The Democrats in Austin needed only 51 members of the 150-member house to flee Texas. And he might have a hard time convincing some of his colleagues, who have been vocal critics of what they’ve deemed a “political stunt” by Texas Democrats. “Cutting and running is not a Texas virtue,” U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said last week. “You’re not guaranteed to win every single vote, but you are responsible to show up, and cast your ballot, and debate the issues.”

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Austin American-Statesman - July 19, 2021

Save Austin Now's proposed ballot measure would require Austin to hire more police officers

Save Austin Now, the political action committee behind the return of Austin's homeless camping ban, says it is on the verge of bringing a second ballot measure before voters — this one aimed at bolstering public safety by requiring the city to add more police officers. Save Austin Now said Monday that it has submitted more than 25,000 signed voter petitions to the city clerk's office. That office will conduct a review to determine if at least 20,000 of the signatures are valid, which would meet the minimum requirement to be included on the ballot. If certified, the proposal would be on the ballot for the Nov. 2 election.

The proposal comes one year after the City Council voted to cut or redistribute $150 million from the Police Department's budget in the wake of nationwide protests against racism and police use of force. The cancellations of three cadet classes were among the cuts. The department's staffing levels have declined since then. The proposal from Save Austin Now requires that the city: Employ at least two sworn officers for every 1,000 residents. Enroll no fewer than three cadet classes until staffing levels return to the level prescribed in the 2019-20 budget. Mandate 40 hours each year of continuing education and in-service training for all sworn officers. Create a program designed by the police chief to provide incentives for language proficiency, the mentorship of cadets and good conduct. In response to Save Austin Now's announcement, 25 local organizations issued a joint statement opposing the proposals. Among them was AFSCME Local 1624 —the labor union for city and Travis County employees.

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CNBC - July 16, 2021

Texas is among the 10 worst places to live in 2021

More than a year of quarantine has reminded all of us about the importance of home. And even as the pandemic subsides, some companies are rethinking their policies on remote work. That helps explain why states are increasingly touting their quality of life in pitches to businesses. Plus, companies that are seeking workers in a time of shortages want to be in a state where workers will want to reside. This heightened competitiveness over quality of life puts some states at a disadvantage. By the numbers, they are just not great places to live. The definition is changing, too. We now know how important public health systems and hospital capacity can be. Inclusive states value all their citizens and protect them from discrimination. And corporate America has spoken loudly, as well as quietly behind the scenes, against restrictive voting laws. CNBC’s America’s Top States for Business study takes all of this into account, along with basic quality of life measures like crime rates and environmental quality, in our Life, Health and Inclusion category. Based on our methodology, this category is worth 15% of a state’s total points. Some states score highly as places to live, or more specifically, as places to remote work.

For all its strength as a place to do business, Texas keeps trying to outdo itself when it comes to laws and policies that are seen as exclusionary. It is one of the only states with no public accommodation law to protect against discrimination. Texas Democrats thwarted a bill that would have further restricted voting in a state that is already, by some measures, the hardest to vote in. That likely saved the Lone Star State from finishing at the bottom of this list, though Governor Greg Abbott and legislators are pushing ahead in a new special session to pass the legislation. Democratic lawmakers fled the state as a way to slow down the process and draw national attention, while the Texas Senate already voted in favor of the bill. 2021 Life, Health and Inclusion score: 104 out of 375 points (Top States Grade: F). Strength: Hospital resources. Weaknesses: Inclusiveness, health, voting rights, public health funding.

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Rolling Stone - July 16, 2021

An abortion provider discusses his biggest fears over Texas’ abortion ‘bounty’ law

Dr. Bhavik Kumar has been a Texas abortion provider for six years, with the last two at the Planned Parenthood Center for Choice in Houston, Texas. He started practicing shortly after House Bill 2 — the last Texas abortion law to go all the way to the Supreme Court before it was struck down as unconstitutional — went into effect. In the three years between the law’s passage and the Supreme Court’s decision, HB2 forced roughly half of Texas’ abortion providers to shut their doors. A new bill, passed by the Texas State Legislature in May and signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott in June, has the potential to be even more disruptive. Instead of outlawing abortion outright, the new law empowers private citizens to sue doctors like Kumar, nurses, members of his staff, as well as anyone else who “aids and abets” an abortion — family members who drive patients to the clinic, faith leaders who provide counseling, abortion funds — for $10,000 each.

The ban applies to abortions that take place after heart activity can be detected in the embryo — six weeks gestation, or roughly two weeks after a woman’s missed period, when many women don’t even know they are pregnant yet. Kumar, who moved from London to a small town in east Texas when he was 10 years old, felt called to abortion care in medical school, when he learned how few young doctors were being trained to provide abortions. “Growing up in Texas as a gay brown man — my family and I were documented for about 11 years — it really resonated with me how certain policies and systems worked to oppress people and take away their rights,” Kumar says. “I learned about abortion, and how safe it is, and yet we weren’t being taught about it… It really made me think, who is going to provide abortion care in Texas? What about all the people that I know and care about who need access to abortion in a state like Texas?” But the threat of SB 8 is giving even Kumar pause about continuing to provide abortion care in Texas. “To think about [having to contend with] maybe one lawsuit, maybe hundreds of lawsuits? Maybe many of those are trivial and will go away with time, but it’s still very daunting to think about,” he says. Rolling Stone spoke with Kumar — who joined a lawsuit filed Tuesday to prevent the law from going into effect — about the terrifying prospect of providing abortion care while also having to defend yourself from a virtually limitless number of lawsuits.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 20, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: It’s Republican vs. Republican in this runoff for Congress. Here’s our recommendation

The runoff race for an open Dallas-Fort Worth congressional seat has been fairly quiet, especially compared to the raucous first round that featured 23 candidates of all stripes on one special election ballot. Mainly that’s because there’s not much dividing the candidates. State Rep. Jake Ellzey of Waxahachie and Susan Wright of Arlington are both conservative Republicans, with similar stances on issues across the board. With no chance of a partisan shift in a district the GOP has held for decades, there’s less attention and investment from outside Texas or even beyond the district.

We recommend that voters elevate Ellzey to Congress. His record of leadership, including a long and decorated military career, make him the better choice to get off to a quick start in Washington. That will be important for a district that hasn’t had an elected representative since Rep. Ron Wright, Susan Wright’s husband, died in February after battles with lung cancer and COVID-19. Ellzey, 51, is a former Navy fighter pilot and has flown for the airline industry, too, giving him important perspective on industries crucial to the Fort Worth area. The former Texas Veterans Commission member will be prepared to advocate for that constituency. And he’ll give residents of Ellis and Navarro counties, the rural portion of the district, a familiar voice as well. Wright, 58, led the first round of voting with 19.2% of ballots cast, compared to Ellzey’s 13.9%. She’s running on a pledge to extend her late husband’s legacy as a staunch conservative who gets results for local constituents. With long experience working for area legislators and extensive political experience in Arlington Republican circles, she would serve the district well. Wright has the backing of much of the GOP political establishment, including former President Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. There are notable exceptions, including former Gov. Rick Perry and Houston-area U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, both of whom are in Ellzey’s corner.

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Texas Tribune - July 19, 2021

Surgery kept one longtime Democratic lawmaker from fleeing Texas. He fears missing a moment in history more than arrest.

For a week now, state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been hiding out in Texas, wondering if police are going to track him down. While dozens of other Texas House Democrats fled to Washington, D.C. to block a Republican voting bill, the longtime Houston legislator stayed behind, unable to travel while recovering from severe illness that led to the amputation of his lower right leg in May. His continued presence in the state makes him more vulnerable to arrest, as Republicans have voted to force back to the Texas Capitol any absent House Democrat within state police jurisdiction. That prospect doesn't trouble the 59-year-old lawmaker, who questions both the constitutionality and optics of such a move.

“Let them come,” Coleman said in an interview Friday in an airy, art-filled house. “They’re going to have to carry me in this wheelchair, and they’re going to have to carry me into the chamber and lock me in there.” What does weigh on him is having no choice but to watch the historic moment from the sidelines. The last time House Democrats skipped town in 2003, to delay political map drawing, Coleman led the way. “I want to be there,” he sighed. “All the people that are in Washington D.C. that are Democrats, this is their Martin Luther King moment, because it’s about the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.” During a two-hour interview, Coleman alternated between sharp political insight and raw emotion, his hands occasionally trembling against the tires of his new wheelchair. The Texas Tribune is not revealing Coleman’s location while the majority of House Democrats remain out of state, which they have pledged to do until the 30-day legislative special session ends on Aug. 6, depriving Republicans of the quorum needed to pass legislation. In 2003, he said state police showed up at his house and his wife’s job looking for him. A spokesperson for Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan said last week that a “civil arrest warrant” would be issued and carried out with the help of state police for any Democrats believed to have returned to Texas from D.C., but he said he did not know if any orders had been given for quorum-breakers who never left the state. He did not respond to a question Monday specifically about pursuing Coleman.

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County Stories

Austin American-Statesman - July 19, 2021

Case against Austin officer dismissed after DA says prosecutor withheld evidence

Travis County prosecutors will not proceed with a case against an Austin police officer, saying Monday that an assistant district attorney who initially handled the case failed to disclose favorable evidence to his defense and to colleagues. The case against officer Gregory Gentry was dismissed "in the interest of justice," according to court records. In a letter Monday to Gentry's attorney, District Attorney José Garza said he learned that the prosecutor on the case had consulted with an expert concerning Gentry's use of force on a suspect and that the expert, who was not identified, deemed it lawful.

The cases against Gentry and a second officer, Chance Bretches, were particularly significant, the first indictments brought against officers by Garza, who ran on a platform of police accountability. They also highlighted the disparity in how prosecutors and police officials viewed the evidence after police administrators also had deemed the officers' force appropriate. The officers were charged with aggravated assault by a public servant. The case against Bretches is still pending. Attorneys Ken Ervin and Doug O'Connell, who represent Gentry and Bretches, accused prosecutors in other high-profile cases involving Austin police officers of "selecting and presenting evidence to the grand jury in ways calculated to produce indictments." "Today's events confirm the one-sided and secretive nature of the grand jury process and its potential for abuse," they wrote.

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City Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 18, 2021

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Conservation isn’t enough. Booming Fort Worth area needs new lake as a water source

No one builds a lake on a lark. It takes decades of discussion and planning to designate a reservoir site, conduct extensive environmental reviews and acquire permits and property. Along the way, stakeholders at every level have ample opportunity to weigh in. That process has been playing out for nearly 25 years when it comes to the proposed Marvin Nichols Reservoir. It’s a key part of the future for much of the Dallas-Fort Worth region, including Tarrant County. So, its inclusion in the latest version of the state’s master water-supply and regulation plan is good news.

Landowners in northeast Texas, the proposed site of the lake, and some environmentalists are reinforcing their opposition to the new reservoir, which still wouldn’t be built yet for decades. There’s no question its creation will be a hardship for many, and property rights deserve the utmost respect and defense. But it’s in the best interest of the region and state to build Marvin Nichols, and it’s not a close call. The process must move forward. Dan Buhman, general manager of the Tarrant Regional Water District, which ensures a safe and reliable water supply for the area, said that the agency always seeks first to maximize conservation, reuse water and seek other efficiencies. But the need for a new source in the coming decades is inevitable. “We have to meet the demands of a growing region,” Buhman said. “Marvin Nichols has got to be part of our portfolio of our possible water supplies. But it’s not our only option. The first priority is always efficiency.”

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

Impact Hub Houston, Sketch City merge to create civic initiative

Nonprofit startup development group Impact Hub Houston said this week that it would merge with Sketch City, folding the nonprofit dedicated to using tech and data for civic purposes into an initiative that uses technology to improve local decisionmaking. The initiative, “Code for Houston,” will partner with community organizations and local governments to help improve existing programs, create digital tools and guide policy decisions. Both groups said the merger will streamline their annual competitions — the Houston Hackathon and Climathon Houston — and will expand resources available for use by civic groups. Jeff Reichman, founder of Sketch City, said his nonprofit and Impact Hub Houston have always had aligned missions and have worked well together, organizing events and projects over the past three years.

While Sketch City was able to reach thousands of people across the world, Reichman said the pandemic forced them to rethink how they operate. “Merging Sketch City with Impact Hub Houston feels like a natural extension of the work we've done together; and it creates additional administrative capacity for programming and community growth,” Reichman said. “I'm thrilled to be a part of that new chapter.” During Hurricane Harvey, for example, Impact Hub Houston and Sketch City worked together to connect volunteers and resources to help people across the region get rescued, find shelters and connect with resources and supplies. Leaders of both hope to create more solutions for disaster recovery and resilience through their annual Climathon, where groups compete to dream up new innovations to help create more sustainable businesses and ways to respond to the changing climate. “From our response and recovery collaboration after Hurricane Harvey to our ongoing events that help diverse do-gooders and developers collaborate on and create impactful solutions for Houston, we have established a strong track record of effective #Tech4Good initiatives,” said Grace Rodriguez, CEO and executive director of Impact Hub Houston. “We look forward to continuing Sketch City’s legacy of strengthening and activating relationships between Houston’s tech talent and diverse communities.”

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San Antonio Express-News - July 16, 2021

Elaine Ayala: Good reasons Shirley Gonzales shouldn't be the mayor's pick for Housing Commission

Of all the reasons not to elevate former District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales to the city’s Housing Commission, one stands out. It happened June 5, when the people of District 5 rejected her in a runoff election to City Council. Gonzales wasn’t on the ballot. She was termed out. But her stances on public and low-income housing and her pro-development decisions were on voters’ minds when they turned down a candidate carrying her water. Rudy Lopez was never his own candidate, unable to represent his views confidently or answer questions knowledgeably. City Councilwoman Teri Castillo, on the other hand, was razor-sharp on issues of public policy, poverty, affordable housing, public housing, historic preservation, tax breaks for developers and gentrification.

She certainly isn’t going to be easy on developers, but that’s what her constituents want. The upshot of Gonzales’ last term is that she has applied for a seat on the city’s Housing Commission. Mayor Ron Nirenberg mustn’t appoint her. There’s a lot of history here. She failed District 5 voters by supporting a plan to raze the Alazan-Apache public housing project, the city’s oldest and largest, and replace it with mixed-income development. It would’ve decreased the number of units for the poor and working poor. In January, the San Antonio Housing Authority, which runs the complex, listened to residents’ concerns and withdrew the plan. It promised to seek federal funds to redevelop the complex and maintain it for its low-income residents. Even after SAHA reversed itself, however, Gonzales held on to her position, unmoved by her constituents’ perspectives. She also played a major role in pushing through the redevelopment of the Friedrich complex on the city’s East Side, which activists say contains too few low-income units in exchange for the lucrative tax breaks its developers will receive from the city. The Housing Commission needs leaders that will guide the city’s affordable housing strategies and prevent residents from being priced out of housing.

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National Stories

Washington Post - July 19, 2021

Delta variant fears send Dow tumbling more than 700 points in worst one-day decline of 2021

Global stock markets swooned Monday, with the Dow slumping more than 700 points, as investors grow increasingly anxious about a delta-led resurgence in coronavirus cases and its potential to derail the economic recovery. Oil prices also fell sharply. The delta variant is now the dominant strain worldwide and surging rapidly, even in countries with high vaccination rates. New coronavirus infections in the United States rose nearly 70 percent in a single week, officials reported Friday, and nearly every state has reported an increase in cases. Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo during the Summer Games — which kick off later this week — and banned spectators, but there have been several positive coronavirus tests at the Olympic Village and an alternate for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has tested positive. Many market watchers are fearful the uptick will lead to a resumption in travel and business restrictions.

Asian markets closed in the red across the board, with Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index leading the losses with a 1.8 percent slide and Japan’s Nikkei falling 1.3 percent. European markets posted even bigger declines, with Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC 40 tumbling more than 2.5 percent and the Pan-European Stoxx 600 sliding 2.3 percent. The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 725.81 points, or nearly 2.1 percent, to 33,962.04 for its worst day of 2021. The S&P 500 index skidded 68.67 points, nearly 1.6 percent, to settle at 4,258.49. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index shed 152.25 points, or nearly 1.1 percent, to close at 14,274.98. Companies whose fates are tethered to the recovery were hit hard in early trading, with Carnival Cruises and United Airlines sliding 5.7 and 5.5 percent, respectively. Energy stocks were also pummeled, with ExxonMobil losing 3.4 percent and Chevron sliding more than 2.7 percent. “The big concern for the market is whether we going to see a slowdown in the global economic recovery,” Russ Mould, investment director at AJ Bell, wrote in commentary Monday. “This could be the overriding force which results in a bad period for equities in the weeks ahead.”

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Washington Post - July 20, 2021

Infrastructure deal in precarious state as endgame nears

President Biden on Monday took a subtle yet unmistakable dig at Republicans who have backed away from a major funding component in a bipartisan infrastructure package that is now starting to fray, saying pointedly that “we shook hands on it” even as he continued to promote the agreement. Biden’s comment, with its accusatory undertones, reflected the agreement’s precarious state at the outset of what could be a pivotal week. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) plans to force a vote within days to advance the roughly $1 trillion plan despite the Republican hesitations, a high-stakes gamble that is intended to force agreement but that GOP senators on Monday warned they would reject. Biden also will seek to turn up the pressure by traveling to Ohio on Wednesday to pitch the plan and hold a town hall session with voters.

The last-minute struggle to nail down details of the blueprint for revitalizing roads, bridges, water pipes and broadband systems is threatening a bipartisan victory that stands not just at the core of Biden’s economic agenda, but also is intended as Exhibit A in the president’s case that bipartisanship is still possible in a divided Washington. The current flare-up revolves around more than $100 billion in revenue that a bipartisan group of senators hoped to raise by beefing up Internal Revenue Service enforcement so it could better collect unpaid taxes. Conservatives rebelled against empowering an agency they deeply distrust, however, even after Republicans including Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, a top GOP negotiator, sought to address the concerns by proposing safeguards on the IRS’s authority. But those suggested restrictions made the IRS provision virtually unworkable, according to aides familiar with the discussions, forcing negotiators to nix it as a source of revenue and leaving senators scrambling to find tens of billions of new dollars to pay for the infrastructure deal.

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Washington Post - July 19, 2021

Mask mandates make a return — along with controversy

Two months after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said vaccinated individuals didn’t need to wear masks in most settings, a growing number of experts are warning it’s time to put them back on. First, there was Los Angeles County, where the rising menace posed by the delta variant of the coronavirus prompted health officials to reimpose a mask mandate. Then, Bay Area health officers on Friday recommended that residents of seven counties and the city of Berkeley, Calif., resume wearing masks indoors. Mask mandates are being discussed, too, in coronavirus hot spots such as Arkansas and Missouri, where cases have sharply increased in recent weeks and many residents remain unvaccinated. “Universal masking indoors is a way of taking care of each other while we get more people vaccinated,” said Barbara Ferrer, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which last week moved to reinstate an indoor mask mandate. “It really doesn’t disrupt any business practices. It allows us to remain fully open — while we acknowledge that the delta variant [is] spreading like wildfire here.”

And the nation’s current and former surgeon generals warned the nation should brace for a broader return to mask-wearing. “We need to prepare the public for what could be, again, a return to some of these mitigation measures,” former surgeon general Jerome Adams told Indianapolis TV station WISH-TV on Sunday, highlighting a resurgence of the virus across the Midwest. Adams, an appointee of former president Donald Trump, called on the CDC to “hit the reset button” and once again recommend widespread mask-wearing as coronavirus cases spike. But the growing calls to reinstate mask mandates — echoed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which Monday called for everyone over the age of 2 to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status — renewed a cultural and health flash point a year and a half after the virus landed in the United States. “In a free [country] people will evaluate their personal risk factors and are smart enough to ultimately make medical decisions like wearing a mask themselves,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said in a statement last week, introducing legislation that would ban mask mandates on planes and public transportation.

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NBC News - July 20, 2021

Same-day delivery: Amazon's Jeff Bezos set to make history with suborbital spaceflight

Jeff Bezos, the 57-year-old founder of Amazon, may soon have a new title to add to his résumé: astronaut. Bezos will attempt to fly to space Tuesday aboard a rocket and capsule developed by his private spaceflight company, Blue Origin. If he is successful, he will make history by being part of the first unpiloted suborbital flight with an all-civilian crew. The much-anticipated trip will also be the first crewed launch for Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket. Bezos' launch comes just nine days after another billionaire, British entrepreneur Richard Branson, flew to the edge of space on a rocket-powered vehicle designed by his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. Both flights — combined with the competition between the rival billionaires — have captured global attention and garnered interest and enthusiasm for the nascent space tourism industry.

Weather permitting, Bezos is scheduled to launch Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET from a site in the West Texas desert southeast of El Paso. Blue Origin will stream the event live on its website beginning at 7:30 a.m. ET. In an interview Monday on NBC's "TODAY" show, Bezos described his anticipation for the trip. "I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like. People who go into space say that they come back changed,” Bezos told "TODAY" co-host Hoda Kotb. "I can’t wait to see what it’s going to do to me." Joining Bezos on the flight is his brother, Mark, and Wally Funk, 82, a former test pilot who was one of the Mercury 13 women who underwent training in the 1960s to demonstrate that women could qualify for NASA's astronaut corps. Funk would be the oldest person to reach space. Rounding out the four-person crew is Oliver Daemen, 18, of the Netherlands, who could become the youngest astronaut.

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New York Times - July 20, 2021

Twitter suspended the lawmaker Marjorie Taylor Greene for 12 hours for posting coronavirus misinformation.

Twitter said on Monday that it was suspending Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from its service for 12 hours after she posted messages that violated its policy against sharing misleading information about the coronavirus. Ms. Greene, Republican of Georgia, has been an outspoken opponent of vaccines and masks as tools to curb the pandemic. In tweets on Sunday and Monday, she argued that Covid-19 was not dangerous for people unless they were obese or over age 65, and said vaccines should not be required. But cases of the coronavirus are on the rise, and the highly contagious Delta variant accounts for more than half of new infections in the United States, federal health officials said this month. In Ms. Greene’s home state, Georgia, new cases have increased 193 percent in the past two weeks.

Twitter said Ms. Greene’s tweets were misinformation, and it barred her from the service until Tuesday. “We took enforcement action on the account @mtgreenee for violations of the Twitter Rules, specifically the Covid-19 misleading information policy,” a Twitter spokesman said. The company also added labels to Ms. Greene’s posts about the vaccines, calling them “misleading” and pointing to information about the safety of the inoculations. In a statement, Ms. Greene said Silicon Valley companies were working with the White House to attack free speech. “These Big Tech companies are doing the bidding of the Biden regime to restrict our voices and prevent the spread of any message that isn’t state-approved,” she said. Twitter took action after President Biden called on social media companies to do more to combat the spread of vaccine misinformation on their platforms. On Friday, Mr. Biden said that sites like Facebook were “killing people” by allowing misinformation to flourish unchallenged, adding, “Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that — and they’re killing people.”

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Politifact - July 19, 2021

Fact check: Donald Trump says Capitol rioters had 'no guns whatsoever'

The claim: “There were no guns whatsoever” in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 — former President Donald Trump In a Fox News interview, Trump went on to describe the events of Jan. 6 by saying that “people with no guns walked down” to the Capitol, that the building’s doors were open, and that there was a “lovefest” between the Capitol police and the insurrectionists. PolitiFact rating: False. Court records and news reports show that many insurrectionists were armed, and several were charged with having firearms on Capitol grounds or stashed nearby while in Washington, D.C. In addition, rioters had weapons other than firearms and used them during the attack.

Court documents, video evidence and news coverage directly contradict Trump’s characterization of the riot. Many of those involved in the attack were armed, and several had guns that police later seized. The event was far from a lovefest: Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer, and more than 140 officers were injured in the day’s events. Video evidence shows both police officers and rioters being injured in the brawls. Rioters called for hanging then-Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Damage to the Capitol is estimated at $1.5 million and included ransacked offices, broken windows and doors, broken and stolen photography equipment, ruined statues, murals and furniture. A review of the case files of approximately 430 defendants who were arrested and charged in connection with their actions at the Capitol shows that several of the defendants were found by police to have taken firearms with them into the Capitol. Some were charged with having firearms on Capitol grounds, while others stashed them away while in Washington. They included: Lonnie Coffman of Alabama: Police found multiple firearms and weapons in Coffman’s possession. Coffman’s pickup, which he had parked in the vicinity of the Capitol on the morning of Jan. 6, was packed with weaponry including a handgun, a rifle and a shotgun, each loaded, according to court documents. In addition, the truck held hundreds of rounds of ammunition, several large-capacity ammunition feeding devices, a crossbow with bolts, machetes, camouflage smoke devices, a stun gun and 11 Molotov cocktails.

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Politico - July 19, 2021

‘It’s ceding a lot of terrain to us’: Biden goes populist with little pushback

When President Joe Biden unveiled a series of sweeping executive orders to combat monopoly power, the response from Republicans was notable — because there was barely one at all. Not long ago, a Democratic administration taking unilateral action to rein in corporations on everything from non-compete agreements to prescription drug affordability would have engendered fury from elected conservatives. Yet over the last week, few Republicans were warning that Biden’s actions would severely kneecap business or slow the economic recovery. And inside the White House, the relative silence was not just noticed but seen as vindication. “If you're against competition, then what are you for?” said Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council. “Big business charging people whatever they want. You’re for businesses being able to offer workers low wages because there's no other competitor in town to offer something better. I mean, it's very hard to be against competition.”

The right’s muted response to Biden’s orders underscores the remarkable ideological shift that’s occurring in Washington, D.C. A Republican Party once closely allied with corporate America finds itself increasingly less so in the Donald Trump era. Indeed, in the aftermath of Biden’s orders, even officials in Trump’s orbit were saying the politics were smart. “Both [Biden and Trump] have elements in their constituencies that want this, and, by the way, they’re on solid ground with the rest of America,” said a Trump adviser. “America has a love-hate relationship with these companies.” But, so far, much of the GOP’s newfound economic populism has been delivered in words rather than action. And that’s given Democrats space to pursue an agenda that, even just five years ago, likely would have sparked massive blowback. “People will understand who's on their side and who's not,” said Cedric Richmond, a senior White House adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement. “There will be Democrats who are on the side of working families, and not Republicans. For them, I think it's a terrible mistake.” The executive order Biden issued earlier this month included 72 initiatives in all. Among the most consequential were his moves calling for greater scrutiny of tech acquisitions, bolstering competition for generic drug makers and importers from Canada, allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter, standardizing plans for health care shoppers trying to compare insurance options, and protecting certain meat-packing workers from what are seen as artificially low wages.

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Newsclips - July 19, 2021

Lead Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Two more Texas Democrats test positive for COVID-19 ahead of 2nd week in D.C. push for voting bills

Two more of the Democrats who fled Texas last week to prevent the Legislature from passing Republican-backed voting bills have tested positive for COVID-19. After three members tested positive for the coronavirus on Friday and Saturday, the Texas House Democratic Caucus provided daily rapid tests for all members and staff in Washington, D.C., this week. After a round of testing, two additional members tested positive, the caucus said in a release. All of the Texas lawmakers in Washington are vaccinated. The caucus has not provided the names of the now five members in the delegation who have tested positive, though they said all are feeling good, with no, or only mild, symptoms. “The House Democratic Caucus is following all CDC guidance and protocols,” Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie said Saturday after the first three members tested positive.

Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio confirmed in a press release Sunday evening that he was one of the two members to test positive Sunday. He said in a statement that he tested negative on Friday and Saturday. “I am quarantining until I test negative, and I am grateful to be only experiencing extremely mild symptoms,” Martinez Fischer said. The positive tests come as the state lawmakers plan another full week of pushing for federal voting legislation, including attending a five-day conference, with big names such as labor leader Dolores Huerta and the secretaries of state from four states on the schedule. Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino civic engagement group, and the Service Employees International Union Texas are hosting the event, which begins Monday. “We will educate our legislators, train our allies, and fight back against the perpetrators of voter suppression to preserve our democracy,” Elsa Caballero, president of SEIU Texas, said in the press release. The roundtable has been adapted to be more virtual after members of the delegation tested positive. Most guest speakers will attend virtually and the Texas Democrats will tune in as a group from their hotel, according to NBC News.

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Associated Press - July 18, 2021

With pandemic worsening in US, surgeon general worried

The U.S. surgeon general said Sunday that he’s concerned about what lies ahead with cases of COVID-19 increasing in every state, millions still unvaccinated and a highly contagious virus variant spreading rapidly. Noting that nearly all coronavirus deaths now are among the tens of millions of people who haven't received shots, despite widespread vaccine availability, Dr. Vivek Murthy painted an unsettling picture of what the future could hold. “I am worried about what is to come because we are seeing increasing cases among the unvaccinated in particular. And while, if you are vaccinated, you are very well protected against hospitalization and death, unfortunately that is not true if you are not vaccinated," Murthy said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

U.S. cases of COVID-19 last week increased by 17,000 nationwide over a 14-day period for the first time since late fall, and an increase in death historically follows a spike in illness. Much of the worsening problem is being driven by the delta variant first identified in India, that has since hit the United Kingdom and other countries, said Murthy. While U.S. case numbers and hospitalizations are still far below levels from the worst of the pandemic early this year, Murthy said the worsening situation shows the need to convince more people to get inoculations. “It is our fastest, most effective way out of this pandemic,” he said. About 186 million Americans have received at least one shot, but another 90 million eligible Americans haven't. Officials are trying to overcome a refusal among some — particularly conservative, rural white people — to get vaccinated, but it's unclear how to do that. So, for the meantime at least, some places have reverted to health precautions that had been cast aside.

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Fox News - July 17, 2021

Texas Democrats are 'lying' about voting rights bill, positive COVID tests a 'gimmick,' state rep says

Texas State. Rep. Briscoe Cain slammed the dozens of Democrats who fled the state capital earlier this week and argued they left purely for political reasons. "It’s disingenuous, they’re lying and they are playing games with the people of Texas," Cain, a Republican and chair of the House Elections Committee, told Fox News. "Anyone that reads it," Cain said about the controversial voting rights bill that prompted the lawmakers to flee to Washington, D.C. earlier this week citing claims that the bill would suppress voting rights, "realizes it doesn’t criminalize mistakes, it expands voting access, it expands hours, and protects our elections. That’s it."

Cain said that ultimately Democrats will have no choice but to return to Texas and because of their "bad faith" actions there is "no reason to negotiate with them" and he hopes the legislature can pass an even stronger bill when they return. Cain claimed that at least three of the fleeing lawmakers privately admitting that there was no voter suppression in the bill but leaving the capital anyway and publicly stating that there was. When the Democrats flew in a private plane to Washington, D.C., they were widely criticized on social media for taking a group photograph on the plane without masks, which many felt was hypocritical given their public statements about the importance of masks and the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, especially given that federal regulations still require commercial air passengers to wear masks on planes. Cain agreed with those criticisms and suggested they had violated the law multiple times on the trip. "My reading of federal transportation law and mask mandates is that the mask rule applies to private charters regardless of whether you’re vaccinated. Humorously, a local ordinance in Washington, D.C. also prohibits a person from importing an alcoholic beverage into the District of Columbia without a permit."

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NBC News - July 18, 2021

Texas Democrats to spotlight national voting rights with week of events

The Texas Democrats who fled the state last week to block voting restrictions are planning a week of events with national advocates and labor leaders, election officials and other Democrats as they seek to keep the pressure on Congress to pass federal voting legislation. The lawmakers will participate in in a five-day conference starting Monday that will bring guest speakers and other lawmakers to work with the Texas coalition. Service Employees International Union Texas and Mi Familia Vota, a national civic engagement group, are hosting the event. Guest speakers include labor leader Dolores Huerta, four secretaries of state from around the country, and lawmakers from other states where Republicans have advanced voting restrictions.

Organizers said the event will be educational for participants, while highlighting the need for Congress to pass federal voting legislation, including the For the People Act, Democrats’ sweeping election overhaul bill that Republicans have so far blocked thanks to filibuster rules that prevent legislation from passing without 60 votes in the Senate. “Once there’s a little sunshine on this issue, I think there’s nobody in America that would disagree that voting rights are more important than Senate rules,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a Democrat from San Antonio. After three of the Texas lawmakers in Washington tested positive for Covid-19, the event was adapted to be more virtual; the state Democrats will participate as a group from an event space in their hotel while the majority of the speakers join virtually. “We didn’t want to wait or postpone the conference given everything going on right now. All eyes are on this issue, because of what the state legislators have done,” SEIU Texas President Elsa Caballero said. “The climate is just right for us to continue to put that extra light and pressure on to get something done.”

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State Stories

Politico - July 18, 2021

Postponed weddings, stockpiled insulin and Covid: The bizarre life of Texas Democrats in exile

Celia Israel was putting finishing touches on her wedding last week when she learned that, instead, she had to drop everything and leave. The Democratic state representative from Texas had driven with her partner of 26 years, Celinda, to see a family friend who was making her outfit. They were set to get married on the floor of the Texas state House early in the morning on Thursday. But before Israel’s partner got fitted last Sunday, her phone buzzed with a text from fellow state legislator Gina Hinojosa. “She said, ‘I need to talk to you.’ And I could just sense, like, ‘Oh no,’” Israel said. “So I called her and I said, ‘Are you in jail?’ She said, ‘No, I’m going to have some news. I hate to tell you this, but your wedding isn’t going happen on Thursday.’”

Israel is one of the over 50 state House Democrats who fled Texas on Monday to deny Republicans a quorum for a major new elections bill that has stirred backlash: axing pandemic-era practices to expand voting access adopted in a large Democratic-leaning county, further restricting mail voting in the state and making election workers liable for new potential civil or criminal penalties. Democrats are in the minority in Texas, but Republicans can’t pass the legislation without them there — so they left for Washington, D.C. In interviews with a dozen Texas lawmakers during their first week in Washington, they described a hectic, last-minute scramble to pack and get out of the state. Many found out on Sunday that the quorum break was a go, but they didn’t know how long they would be gone — or, until hours before they departed on Monday, where they were actually heading. “One thing I had to do early Monday morning was stock up on insulin,” said state Rep. James Talarico, who has Type 1 diabetes, “because I didn’t know where we were going to be and if I was going to have access to a pharmacy. It’s those little things you don’t think about.” State Rep. John Bucy piled into a car with his 27-weeks-pregnant wife and their 17-month-old daughter and drove 22 hours to join the rest of the caucus, after deciding not to fly. State Rep. Erin Zwiener brought her young daughter with her to D.C., keeping her entertained during meetings with members of Congress. Tearing up, state Rep. Ina Minjarez described leaving her husband at home as he grieves the recent death of a parent. “I don’t think the public understands what we leave behind is important to us. It’s important,” Minjarez said. “And for me, it was just trying to get my house in order.”

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Associated Press - July 18, 2021

Texas Democrats see walkout as the way out of party slump

Jasmine Crockett, a Black civil rights lawyer and one of the youngest lawmakers in Texas, was just a few months into her first term in the Legislature when Republicans were on the cusp of passing new limits on when and how Texans could vote. Like other Democrats, she was adamantly opposed to the bill. But when they discussed using extraordinary tactics to try to block it — including a walkout — she sensed hesitancy from older, veteran members who are more accustomed to being the minority party in the state House of Representatives. “I don’t understand. Why are we sitting here?” Crockett, 40, recalled of the frustration among her younger colleagues. “We’re asking legitimate questions, like, ‘Can’t we leave? What is the problem?’”

When Texas Democrats bolted for Washington in a dramatic gambit to block the bill, it was a significant strategic victory for Crockett and a group of newer Texas lawmakers, including Black and Latino members, whose instincts are more inclined to confrontational politics. If their long-suffering party is to find a way out of the wilderness in Texas, Democrats need to sharpen their message and their elbows, they argue. “The demographics are there for someone to win Texas right now. I don’t think it can be someone who is completely measured. They have to be loud and outspoken,” said Crockett, who is the only first-term Black legislator in a state Capitol that still is mostly older and white. As Texas Democrats enter the second week of their holdout on Monday, they are continuing their media blitz with a town hall on cable news and meetings with members of Congress. To run out the clock on the GOP's sweeping elections bill back home, Democrats must stay out of Texas for 19 more days, at which point Republican Gov. Greg Abbott says he will immediately call another special session to try for a third time to pass the measure. Nationwide, younger progressives elected to office are pushing a more aggressive strategy within the Democratic Party, most notably in their calls to rewrite Senate rules and do away with the filibuster — it stands in the way of federal voting rights legislation that Texas Democrats say is their best hope of blunting new GOP restrictions back home. A similar dynamic spurred the first dramatic walkout in May, though Texas Democrats remain more unified.

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Houston Chronicle - July 18, 2021

Steven W. Lewis: Should the Chinese consulate return to Houston?

(Steven W. Lewis is the C.V. Starr Transnational China Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute.) Accusations of spying, smoke rising from documents being burned in a courtyard, one superpower evicting another from its building on Montrose Boulevard — it has been just over a year since Houston was thrust in the middle of the international spotlight on June 23, 2020, when the State Department shuttered the People’s Republic of China consulate. Was it the right thing to do? Should the Biden administration offer to reopen it, so long as China reopens the American Consulate in Chengdu, which it shuttered in retaliation? And above all, if the consulate is reopened, should Houstonians adopt a new stance — less naive and more wary — or go back to “business as usual” in dealing with representatives of the Chinese government?

I believe the answer to the last question is yes. From my observation, Houston’s civil society failed to see that China’s interests aren’t always aligned with our own, something that not even the obvious advantages of a closer working relationship with a major trading partner should have allowed us to forget. But before we look closely at that, it’s worth reviewing last year’s decision and its consequences. Evidence suggests that the official rationale for closing the Houston consulate — espionage at enormous scale — was exaggerated. Mike Pompeo, then secretary of state, referred to the PRC Consulate in Houston as a “center of malign activity,” especially industrial espionage, a claim repeated by many Trump administration officials and presidential contenders in Congress, but a full detailing of the extent of these “malign activities” has never been made public. Nor has the Department of Justice’s China Initiative exposed any exceptionally high levels of espionage in our region: Of the 84 cases mentioned by the DOJ over the last three years and across the six Chinese consular regions in the U.S., only 11 are in the Houston consular region, and of those only three involved theft of trade secrets or purchases of advanced technology.

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Houston Chronicle - July 19, 2021

Chris Tomlinson: Texas colleges and universities are mediocre when it comes to value for money

Texas colleges and universities are at best mediocre when it comes to value for money, according to a new study. SmartAsset, a financial technology company, created a college education value index that incorporates tuition, retention rates, student aid, living costs and average starting salaries. Texas schools offer a return on investment that rates a C+ when compared to universities in other states. Rice University ranked highest in Texas with a score of 73.07 on a 100-point scale. The Houston-based, private university has the highest tuition, but also offered the largest average scholarships and grants, and its students graduated to an average salary of $72,400 a year.

A distant second was the University of Texas at Austin, with a score of 66.45. Longhorns average $62,100 a year after graduation. The University of Houston came in third at 57.68 with earnings of $57,500, thanks to low tuition. The rest of the Texas Top Ten ranged from Texas A&M with 57.21 down to Texas State University, which scored 46.87. Nationally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was at the top with a 100. The school retains 99 percent of its students, average scholarships and grants cover most of the tuition and the average starting salary is $88,300 a year. That’s a great deal, for those who can get it. Most fascinating, though, is that Princeton is the only Ivy League school to make SmartAsset’s Top Ten best value for money. The school’s average awarded scholarships and grants are more than the cost of tuition, and average salaries are $77,300. But even that only warrants sixth place. California has the most schools in the Top Ten, including the California Institute of Technology at No. 2, Stanford University at number three and Harvey Mudd College at number four. Most of the universities in the Top Ten have strong engineering and technology programs.

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Houston Chronicle - July 15, 2021

President of Panama says he wants to 'boost' relationship with Port Houston

Panama President Laurentino Cortizo Cohen on Thursday urged Port Houston officials to pursue the $1 billion project to widen and deepen the Houston Ship Channel and build on the growth in international trade that has followed the expansion of the Panama Canal five years ago. The expansion of the canal, which provides a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, opened new markets in Asia, and contributed to a surge in both exports and imports at Port Houston. Cortizo Cohen referenced the $5.25 billion project, which took nearly a decade to complete, encouraging local officials to forge ahead with widening and deepening the Houston Ship Channel so it can accommodate more and bigger ships. The canal expansion, which faced with construction delays and other snags, added a third lane and doubled the canal’s capacity.

“It wasn’t easy,” Cortizo Cohen said of the Panama Canal expansion, “but it was smart.” Cortizo Cohen arrived in Texas on Monday, paying visits to the Houston Chamber of Commerce, the University of Texas, his alma mater, and the Greater Houston Partnership before visiting the port. His goal he said, was to build on the relationships between Panama, Houston and Texas. “Four out of ten vessels that go through the Panama Canal go to Houston,” Cortizo Cohen said, “And I’d like it to be more.” Port Houston estimates that trade moving through the Houston Ship Channel generates nearly 1.4 million jobs in Texas and $339 billion in economic activity. Last year, the Houston Ship Channel was ranked the busiest waterway in terms of tonnage by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The port launched the ship channel expansion, known as Project 11, in May. It will widen the ship channel from 530 feet to 700 feet and deepen it to 46.5 feet, to make it safer and more efficient for vessels to navigate the waterway.

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

Dr. Peter Hotez: Houston should be concerned that 'too many people' are not getting vaccinated

During a Friday morning interview on “Houston Matters,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, said Houston should be concerned about what is happening in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana and other parts of the south with low vaccination rates. Fewer than 20 percent of adolescents in Tennessee, Alabama and Louisiana are vaccinated, Hotez said, and only 40 percent of young adults in east Texas counties have received their shot. “In most of east Texas, vaccination rates are really low,” he said during the “Houston Matters” interview. “Harris County is doing better, but there are a lot of vulnerabilities in parts of the state. We will see an uptick in transmissions.”

Hotez said while COVID cases and hospitalizations remain low in Harris County, health officials are watching closely. At Harris Health System, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 has risen from one at the beginning of the month to 14 as of Friday. Since many older Americans are vaccinated, Hotez estimates mostly unvaccinated young people and adolescents will become infected. Currently, the delta variant is a top concern for Houston Methodist, Memorial Hermann and Texas Children’s Hospital. Houston Methodist spokesperson Lisa Merkl said more than 40 percent of new COVID hospitalizations since mid-June are delta cases. “Anecdotally, what we’re seeing is those who are hospitalized are younger than who we’ve seen before,” Hotez said. “Adolescents are being hospitalized. We’re also worried about new information about longhaul COVID happening in more mild cases.” While Memorial Hermann does not sequence for specific variants, Dr. David Callender, president and CEO, said the system’s emergency departments are seeing a “drastic increase in positive cases,” which he attributes to delta.

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Houston Chronicle - July 18, 2021

Facebook reacts as Gov. Abbott says Texas election bill 'doesn't disenfranchise' voters

Social media users broke into a bitter debate mirroring the Texas Legislature’s arguments over a controversial “election integrity” bill on Sunday, following Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest Facebook post sharing a Houston Chronicle opinion piece on the legislation re-introduced during a special session. The opinion piece, authored by Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, called the rancorous fight in the Texas Legislature “based on misconceptions and hyperbole.” The elections bill, which would ban drive-thru voting, 24-hour voting and election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications before a voter requests one, is making its second appearance this year after a first version of the legislation died in May.

“Facts matter,” Abbott wrote. “Reckless rhetoric doesn’t. The Texas election integrity bill doesn’t disenfranchise Texas voters. It makes elections fair and uniform. Anyone saying that the bill denies people the right to vote is simply lying.” Earlier in the week, the majority of the 67 House Democrats flew to Washington, D.C. to deny the Texas House quorum during the special session of the Legislature. They say the bill would make it harder for people of color to vote. The reactions to Abbott’s post came in droves, with more than 1,400 comments as of Sunday afternoon. “Nothing like starting a lie with the ‘Facts matter,’” user Michael Paolini wrote in the comments. “If facts mattered, you produce proof of voter fraud and no one would fight you on fixing it. Instead you lie and lie more in the pursuit of power.” Another Facebook user, Sarah Freed, said “politics in general is corrupt.” “All you folks still stuck on the ‘Trump was cheated’ bandwagon,” Freed wrote. “This was the largest voter turn-out in history. He lost. Many Republicans did NOT vote for him! Next!!!”

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Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

This Plano woman survived an attack and led police to suspected serial killer Billy Chemirmir

Seven of Mary Bartel’s neighbors had been found dead by the time the stranger knocked on her door. Jewelry and other valuables were missing from their apartments at Preston Place Retirement Community in Plano, but police and paramedics said their deaths must have been from natural causes, like heart attacks. And though a stranger had been spotted on the property and fliers were posted warning residents about him, no one suspected he was robbing and killing the women until he visited Bartel. Billy Chemirmir, 48, was arrested the next day, accused of forcing his way into her apartment, trying to smother her with a pillow and stealing her jewelry. He has since been charged with 18 counts of capital murder in Dallas and Collin counties.

Police have long said a woman who survived an attack in Plano helped lead them to Chemirmir, but they hadn’t identified her publicly, though Bartel’s name appears in court documents identifying her as the surviving victim. The Dallas Morning News has not named her until now either, because she was a surviving victim of the crime and at the request of families of other victims. But her family has now published a book about her life, publicly acknowledging for the first time her role in cracking the case. The book details the attack, how Bartel helped police finally realize women were being killed in their homes and independent living facilities, and how the attack affected her mental and physical health in her final years. Mary Bartel died in February of last year at the age of 92.

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Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Mitchell Schnurman: As labor shortage gets worse, why not tap more immigrants?

The U.S. had over 9.2 million job openings in May, the highest monthly number on record, and many employers complain about the difficulty of finding candidates. So why aren’t we boosting immigration to ease the labor shortage? Foreign-born workers have been crucial to Texas’ rapid growth for decades, keeping the great jobs machine cranking. In May, they accounted for nearly 23% of Texas’ nonfarm workers, almost 6 percentage points higher than the share nationwide.

They’re more heavily concentrated in certain sectors, including manufacturing and hotels and restaurants. Those fields also have seen the largest numerical increases in job openings since the pandemic. Together, hotels, restaurants and manufacturers had over 2 million openings in May, up by 853,000 since February 2020. Immigrants already hold a disproportionate share of jobs in those industries, and one local restaurant owner says they’re needed to staff up and get business growing again. “We’re having tremendous difficulty recruiting people, and the younger generation is not applying for our jobs,” said Jim Baron, CEO and co-owner of Blue Mesa Grill and TNT/Tacos and Tequila. He has about 170 employees and wants to hire 25 more. He raised pay rates by about 25%, he said, and many competitors have closed, yet workers haven’t come back in large numbers. He cited the hard work required and employees’ sense of betrayal over layoffs in the early days of the pandemic. “If we want to fill all these jobs in restaurants, hotels, construction, landscaping — then immigration is the solution,” said Baron, who estimates that half his workers were born outside the U.S.

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Dallas Morning News - July 16, 2021

Dallas resident has Texas’ first-ever case of monkeypox, but it’s ‘not a reason for alarm’

A Dallas resident has been diagnosed with monkeypox, the first case of the virus ever reported in a human in Texas, officials said Friday. But they stressed that the risk posed to the general public was very low. The patient flew to Dallas Love Field from Atlanta on July 9 after arriving in the country earlier that day on a flight from Lagos, Nigeria, officials said. Heath officials said the patient, whose identity was not released, was in isolation at a Dallas hospital and was stable. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was working with its counterparts in Nigeria to determine how the patient contracted the virus.

According to Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County’s public health director, the patient went to the hospital Tuesday, four days after arriving in Dallas. Local health officials did preliminary tests, and the CDC confirmed the diagnosis of monkeypox on Thursday. State, local and federal health officials, along with the airline, were working to identify people who may have had close contact with the passenger during the flights — but they expect the number of potential contacts to be low. Those close contacts will be monitored for 21 days, receiving twice-daily calls from health officials checking on whether they have developed any symptoms. Officials noted that because travelers are required to wear masks on flights and in airports to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the potential for the transmission of monkeypox was diminished. “With everyone wearing masks … that really reduced any risk in those settings,” Huang said.

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Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Bill Peacock: Ditching electric competition would cost Texas

(Bill Peacock is the policy director of the Energy Alliance, a project of the Texas Business Coalition.) Twenty years ago last month, Texas began its experiment to bring competition to its electricity market. Competition truly was an experiment. Texas was attempting something that had never been done before in our country. Yet the desire to bring competition to electricity was widespread and bipartisan; Republicans and Democrats both knew the heavily regulated electric markets of the day were taking consumers to the cleaners. Even with a few hitches along the way, competition proved wildly successful for consumers. Prices dropped, choices in retail electricity plans and providers rose, and the grid became more reliable as investors flocked to Texas to build new generation.

However, in the aftermath of the Great Texas Blackout in February, competition appears to be on the way out. Texas politicians are using it as a scapegoat to distract from their role in the grid failure. Yet embracing competition is the only way to restore reliability and affordability to our electric grid. Despite its successes, competition has always had its detractors. Generators with little competitive experience worried about making money. Consumer advocates did not like the fact that competition left them little to advocate for. And Texas politicians and regulators got skittish because they were no longer in control of keeping the lights on. Now, a new generation of politicians, regulators and generators have joined forces to push for reducing or eliminating competition in the Texas electricity market. The latest to make headlines on this is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who recently called for “constructing a managed capacity market where additional plants are built to provide emergency backup power.” His rationale is that “in the Texas energy market, prices are used as an incentive for investors to build plants to come online when needed. That model served Texas well for many years, but it failed during the winter storm for many reasons while the cost of electricity skyrocketed.”

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San Antonio Express-News - July 16, 2021

Nancy Preyor-Johnson: Texas Lege must pass Christine Blubaugh Act

Debra Blubaugh’s story is of gut-wrenching heartbreak, but over and over again, she shares it — hoping others can be spared the devastation. “I want you to personally imagine your daughter is going on a date and you kiss her goodbye. She is 16 years old. You tell her to come in before midnight, and she doesn’t come home. It’s raining that night, and you start calling around to all the hospitals and all of her friends,” she shared with state lawmakers in April. “In the morning, she’s still not home. As you go to church that morning, unbeknownst to you, you’re passing by the park where her body is lying, and the young man that killed her killed himself and his body is lying there.” Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who sponsored Senate Bill 1109, laid it out April 27, saying: “Young love is supposed to be beautiful. Young love isn’t supposed to hurt and, no, it isn’t supposed to kill, but unfortunately it does.”

Did Blubaugh’s story work on the hearts of lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats? Yes. Gov. Greg Abbott’s? No. Abbott’s decision to veto SB 1109, known as the Christine Blubaugh Act in honor of the 16-year-old in Grand Prairie who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 2000, was heartless. The legislation would have required Texas schools to teach middle and high school students about child abuse, family violence and dating violence. Abbott said he wanted to “safeguard parental rights regarding this type of instruction.” Please. The only parents who want to safeguard their children from this instruction are either clueless, abusers or victims. Now, an amended Senate Bill 9 passed out of committee July 10 requires schools to share detailed information about the instruction with parents and allow them to opt out their children.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 16, 2021

ICE says 780 undocumented immigrants flown out of military base in Del Rio

The Biden Administration acknowledged Friday that it is using a military base in Texas to fly hundreds of undocumented immigrants for processing to other areas to relieve overwhelmed border facilities. Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they signed an agreement with Laughlin AFB in Del Rio last month, and have flown more than 700 immigrants from Border Patrol custody to ICE custody since June 29. The acknowledgment comes after media reports about a leaked email in which an Air Force colonel advises Laughlin military staff to limit releasing details about the flights, which could continue into the coming months.

It’s the latest in an ongoing debate between federal and state officials over how to secure the border and deal with the uptick in immigrants. Since the end of June, 780 “noncitizens” were transferred by “ICE Air” on six of its flights from Laughlin, ICE said via email. The immigrants were moved from Border Patrol custody to “ICE field offices where the appropriate level of custody and supervision will be determined.” “In accordance with the interim civil immigration enforcement priorities, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is focusing its limited resources on national security, border security, and public safety,” the statement said. ICE said it would take into consideration whether the immigrants have immediate family in the U.S., if an attorney represents the immigrants and the status of their (immigration) removal proceedings.

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San Antonio Express-News - July 18, 2021

Alamo's ties to slavery stir debate; 'We want the truth ... But it needs to be the truth'

Alamo historians typically have not touched on slavery. Scholars who study forced labor haven’t delved deeply into the Alamo and the motivations of the 189 known Texians and Tejanos who died or were executed in the 1836 battle. But it’s common knowledge that William Barret Travis had a slave, Joe, who survived the battle and later escaped to freedom. Jim Bowie traded slaves. There also was abolitionist Amos Pollard, the garrison’s chief surgeon, and a 15-year-old boy, William Philip King of Gonzales, among the defenders.

The Alamo Citizens Advisory Committee has held weekly discussions on the history of the Alamo as it moves forward with a $400 million plan to make over the historic fort. “I’m hoping for an Alamo that interprets those truths, struggles with them, asks lots of different questions,” Carey Latimore, a member of the panel and Trinity University history professor specializing in African American studies, said after the group’s most recent panel reviewed the impact of slavery at the Alamo. A theory has been brewing for years that slavery was an underlying cause of the Texas Revolution. But it’s recently created tension in discussions about the war for independence from Mexico and the Battle of the Alamo. Andrew Torget, a leading scholar on slavery in Texas, said Anglos and Tejanos forged an alliance to harness the windfall of a booming cotton economy. He believes the complexity of the 1835-1836 war makes it “more interesting and more useful to understand” as an event that affected all of North America.

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KXAN - July 18, 2021

State of Texas: ‘This always ends in court’ Lawmakers brace for redistricting battle

While a special session is already in progress, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are already thinking about the redistricting session which will occur later this year once the census data is released. To prepare, the House Redistricting Committee has held public hearings focused on needs in Houston, El Paso and San Antonio. These hearings are meant to allow Texans to share their thoughts on the process and the outcomes they want to see. State Sen. Carol Alvarado, Sen. José Menéndez, and Rep. James White, who are all on their respective chamber’s redistricting committees, also shared their insights. Menéndez, D-San Antonio, stressed the importance of keeping communities within the same district.

“My constituents have called and written and sent emails and redistricting is important because they want to have a district and representatives that have the same values, the same sense of community,” said Menéndez. “They don’t want to see districts drawn where they go all the way from Austin to the valley, because nothing against any community, but people in the valley have different sets of issues sometimes then people in Austin.” Rep. White, R-Hillister, echoed the sentiment that rural Texas does not belong in the same district as major cities like Houston or Dallas. “We want to make sure that we have adequate representation to tell our story about our infrastructure, our roads, our broadband access; tell our story about our rural schools and farming and ranching and how that is important to the state,” explained White. The lawmakers agreed their constituents don’t want a gerrymandered state. Menéndez put it simply. His constituents “want to be able to have the right to elect the people that they want to elect, not have districts drawn that force them to have [specific] elected officials.”

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KXAN - July 17, 2021

Which Texas Democrats are in D.C., which are not, and how we know

Democrats in the Texas Legislature walked out in the midst of a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this week and headed to Washington, D.C. — hoping to block the Republicans’ voting legislation by stalling the special session. “Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Texas House Democrats said in a joint statement. Meanwhile, Republicans argue all 254 counties in the state need to have uniform voting rules, and the proposed legislation would not make it harder to vote, just harder to cheat.

Texas lawmakers not in Washington, D.C. House Democrats Rep. Eddie Morales, Jr. of Eagle Pass said he would not be joining his more than 50 colleagues in Washington, D.C., because he felt he could get more done in Texas. He posted a statement Friday which said in part: “I believe that staying to both debate and articulate my reasons for opposing the bill is the best way for me to represent my particular district. That said, I support the decision of my colleagues who choose to fight this bill differently, using parliamentary procedures.” Rep. Abel Herrero of District 34, which includes parts of Corpus Christi, posted on Twitter: “Although not in Washington, D.C. with other Democrats breaking quorum to oppose voter suppression legislation, I fully support their efforts. While responsibilities in the district have kept me from being in Austin, I will join other Democrats to fight against oppressive legislation upon returning to the Texas Capitol.” KXAN’s Wes Rapaport saw Rep. Terry Canales at the Texas Capitol Friday, though he has not posted anything official. Tracy King of Batesville, Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City and John Turner of Dallas have also opted to stay behind.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 19, 2021

Doctor accused of groping, harassing 24 women in North Texas allowed to practice again

Women who reported they were sexually abused by a cardiologist in Weatherford said they feel betrayed after the Texas Medical Board gave him a “slap on the hand” in terms of discipline. Dennis Doan has been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing at least 24 women over a five-year period at the Heart Center of North Texas. The Texas Medical Board determined Doan engaged in a pattern of “unprofessional sexual misconduct” with patients by groping, touching or massaging their breasts. On June 11, the board handed down its discipline for Doan’s actions — two years of probation. The terms of Doan’s probation prohibit him from practicing on or seeing female patients, although he can consult on cases, review records and interpret medical tests.

“The Medical Board chose to protect one of their own over sending a message to doctors that you cannot do this,” said Jan Williams, one of the four women who filed criminal charges against Doan. “But they chose their own. I think their message says to doctors, ‘Hey, we can do this in the future. We’re just going to get our hands slapped.’” The Texas Medical Board did not respond to requests to comment. The criminal case against Doan began in 2018 when Sunny Woodall reported to Weatherford police that he had sexually abused her during an exam. During an appointment, Doan grabbed her chest and roughly massaged her breasts, according to police testimony at a Medical Board hearing. As Doan massaged her breasts, Woodall felt his erection on her side. Weatherford police put a call out to the public asking if anyone else had been abused by Doan. As of the June 11 Medical Board hearing, 24 women — some patients, some coworkers — reported that they, too, had been sexually harassed or abused by Doan as far back as 2013, according to Medical Board documents. Four women, including Williams, pursued criminal charges against the 46-year-old doctor.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 19, 2021

Early voting starts Monday as Susan Wright, Jake Ellzey vie for Congress in North Texas

North Texas’ Congressional District 6 will soon have a new Republican leader. Will it be Susan Wright, the widow of late U.S. Rep. Ron Wright, or Waxahachie-area state Rep. Jake Ellzey? The two were part of 23-candidate field in the May 1 election. Wright and Ellzey were the top two vote-getters, advancing to a double Republican runoff to fill the seat held by Ron Wright, who died in February following battles with lung cancer and COVID-19.

Early voting for the July 27 election runs Monday through Friday. The district covers southeast Tarrant County and Ellis and Navarro counties. Wright, who served as district director for two state representatives, got 19.2% of the votes in the special election and Ellzey, who served as a fighter pilot in the Navy, got 13.9%. The two candidates don’t vary much ideologically, said Southern Methodist University political science professor Cal Jillson, but with two Republicans on the ballot, much of the race has been colored by candidates’ efforts to distinguish themselves as conservative as they work to win over voters in what is expected to be a low turnout election. “Only the most interested, committed voters are going to turn out,” Jillson said. Ellzey reported $1.2 million in contributions on his report filed Thursday, outraising Wright, who reported more than $450,000 for the period covering April 12 through July 7. Wright’s contributions in the most recent filing period include $68,800 from The Club for Growth PAC. (That figure doesn’t include individual contributions earmarked through the organization.) According to Politico, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik raised $60,000 for Wright through WinRed, an online donations platform.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 18, 2021

Austin American-Statesman Editorial: On Texas voting rules, the fear is the point

Make a mistake at the polls and you could go to jail. Potentially for years. Still feel like voting? For all of the attention on Texas Republicans’ efforts to limit late-night voting or voting by mail, the GOP’s assault on voting rights is also a campaign of fear. The voting restriction bills proposed in the Legislature this year define new crimes and enhanced penalties for voting mishaps that could be honest mistakes: a person failing to sign a written oath when helping someone else vote by mail, or a voter impeding the view of a partisan poll-watcher, or an elections official who provides a vote-by-mail application to someone who didn’t request it.

All are crimes under House Bill 3, a bill so rife with problems that House Democrats busted quorum and fled the state this week to try to stop it. And lest there’s any doubt that Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials are ready to pounce on instances of voter error and send people to jail, we have the recent arrest of Hervis Rogers. Rogers became a hero overnight last year after dutifully waiting in line six hours — until 1:30 a.m. — to cast his presidential primary ballot at a Houston polling place. But it turns out his wait wasn’t long enough. Under Texas law Rogers shouldn’t have voted until his probation was up, nearly four months after the March 2020 election. Rogers also voted in 2018. It’s absurd to think Rogers would draw attention to his efforts to vote, speaking to reporters last year about his hours-long wait, if he knew he was breaking the law. Surely Rogers, who left prison in 2004 after serving nine years for a burglary conviction, has no desire to go back. But Paxton is trying to send him there. On the eve of the Legislature’s special session to address “election integrity,” Rogers was charged with two counts of illegal voting, second-degree felonies that could carry prison terms of anywhere from two to 20 years.

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Dallas Voice - July 16, 2021

Longview City Council adopts resolution denouncing possible white supremacy gathering

Last week, the Longview News-Journal reported that a group calling itself the Aryan Freedom Network claimed to be planning a rally there in Longview on Sept. 25. City officials at the time told the newspaper they knew of no such event planned for public property, but Longview Police Department spokesman Brandon Thornton said the department had “heard about it, and we are in the process of looking into it. … Even though [the website] says Longview, that doesn’t mean it will be in the city.” Shawn Hara, a spokesman for the city of Longview, issued a statement saying that the city “recognizes and appreciates the diversity of our community,” and while city officials do not support or condone “hateful activity,” they also “recognize the rights of citizens to free speech and free assembly. However, we also recognize the risk to public safety if gatherings become violent or unruly.”

Then this week, during a Thursday, July 15, meeting, the Longview City Council adopted a resolution denouncing the event, even though Mayor Andy Mack said the resolution was just “ceremonial” because, he said, the event is “unverified” and “undocumented,” the News-Journal reports. At the same time Mack acknowledged that the possibility of the event happening in Longview has “disrupted our community.” The News-Journal said that the resolution was passed “One hundred years after the Ku Klux Klan paraded through the streets of Longview,” and that “More than a dozen residents spoke during the packed council meeting, with many saying that it is a step forward from the city’s past, which included the race riot of 1919 and the first KKK parade in the city in 1921.” The Longview newspaper notes that the Aryan Freedom Network is calling its event a “white unity conference,” and saying it will be“an indoor event” featuriung “educational lectures, Aryan folk music and Racial Unity amongst different organizations and individuals from all across North America.” The website also says this will be a private event not open to the public. The event originally was planned to be held Oct. 9 in Paris, Texas, but was apparently moved after the Paris City Council passed a resolution Feb. 8 condemning the rally.

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County Stories

Austin American-Statesman - July 18, 2021

Finance report shows former Williamson Sheriff Robert Chody plans to run again in 2024

Former Williamson County Sheriff Robert Chody, who is under criminal indictment, has filed a campaign finance report that shows he is planning to run for sheriff again in 2024. Chody could not be reached for comment. His wife, Beverly Chody, who is listed as his treasurer on the report, did not respond to a request for comment. Chody lost his 2020 reelection bid in November to Michael Gleason. On Wednesday, he dropped a lawsuit against Gleason that claimed last year's election was fraudulent.

Chody filed a campaign finance report July 9 in Williamson County. He wrote on it that he was running for sheriff in the March 5, 2024, Republican primary.Chody cannot officially file as a candidate until about four months before the election, said Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis. Chody already has spent $569.34 that he loaned to himself on his campaign, according to the report. It said some of the money paid for campaign bookkeeping services and food from Taco Cabana. It also said he received no campaign contributions between Jan. 1 and June 30. Chody was indicted in Travis County on an evidence tampering charge in the Javier Ambler II case.He was previously indicted on the same charge in Williamson County, but a judge dismissed it June 3, which is common when a defendant faces similar charges in two jurisdictions. The charge involves the destruction of reality TV show footage that showed deputies chasing and using force on Ambler, a Black man who died in custody in 2019.

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City Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 16, 2021

As Fort Worth 911 answering-delays persist, fire department offers an alternative line

As inadequate staffing continues to cause delays in 911 callers reaching operators in Fort Worth, the city fire department on Friday offered a second line to call. A department spokesman said that a person reporting an emergency should continue to first call 911. “However, If you feel that you are experiencing a longer than expected delay in your call being answered for a fire or medical issue you can call the Fort Worth Fire Department at 817-923-6699.”

An understaffed 911 call center has led to delayed responses for some people in Fort Worth who try to reach emergency services, police said in late June. The system is struggling with call-center employee attrition and rapid population growth. “Much like other agencies across the country, the Police Communications Division has been experiencing staffing challenges that they are working diligently to rectify,” a fire department representative wrote on Friday in a release.

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

Massive Houston hemp facility has its eyes on a cannabis-infused future

There is a distinct aroma wafting through the offices of Bayou City Hemp, where the skunky odor of cannabis mixes with the sweet smell of optimism. One of the first and largest hemp processing plants in Texas, the two-year-old company is planting the seed for a legal cannabis industry its founders say is sure to come. Until then, Bayou City is focusing on clean forms of extraction of cannabidiol — CBD — oils from the hemp plant, turning it into items such as edible gummies, drinkable mixers and inhaleable vape pens. Products it manufactures can put you to sleep, ease your pain and even get you high.

Ben Meggs and Jeromy Sherman were friends and colleagues working in the oil and gas industry before forming Bayou City Hemp in 2019. The business is meant to fill a void in the budding Texas market — regulators legalized the industry in 2019 as a way to help farmers squeezed by America’s trade war with China. Once they started planting and harvesting, the farmers needed a place to process the raw hemp. House Bill 1325, enacted two years ago, made it legal to manufacture, distribute and sell consumable hemp products in Texas in an emerging industry now regulated by the Texas Department of State Health Services. The legislation followed passage of the federal Farm Bill in December 2018, which redefined hemp as a low-THC cannabis product with (0.3 percent or less THC) and removed it from the definition of marijuana in the Control Substances Act. While by law hemp differs from its cousin marijuana by THC content — they are the same species of cannabis plant — nature often doesn’t draw a clear line. If hemp grows to be too high in THC, federal regulators require it be destroyed.

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National Stories

Associated Press - July 18, 2021

Klobuchar: Infrastructure bill could include voting measures

Congressional Democrats are exploring ways to include financial incentives for states to expand voting access as part of a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure bill, a key senator said Sunday. Democrats have been struggling to get their marquee election reform bill passed in an evenly split Senate, where Republicans remain unified in their opposition and rules require 60 votes to advance most pieces of legislation. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota who chairs the powerful Senate Rules Committee, said in an interview that the priority continues to be passing the legislation known as the For the People Act, which would usher in minimum voting standards in the U.S. such as automatic and same-day voter registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting.

But Klobuchar noted that Democrats could also use the process known as reconciliation to advance financial incentives for states to adopt certain reforms. Election systems have been designated critical infrastructure on par with the nation’s power plants, banks and dams. “You can do election infrastructure in there because that is part of infrastructure,” Klobuchar said. “It’s no substitute for the For the People Act, but it is something we can start working on immediately and are working on right now.” Pushing election-related measures into the infrastructure bill would be a high-stakes gambit with no guarantee of success. Under the congressional budget process, certain measures regarding revenues, spending and the debt can be approved with a 51-vote threshold, which is why Democrats are pursuing it. The process allows them to bypass a near-certain filibuster from Republicans. But there’s a catch: The Senate’s nonpartisan parliamentarian can rule for the removal of any provision not directly related to the budget, or items whose budget impact is “merely incidental” to their intended policy changes.

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Wall Street Journal - July 19, 2021

Senate infrastructure bill drops IRS funding, raising pressure for new revenue

Lawmakers dropped plans to pay for a roughly $1 trillion infrastructure package in part by boosting tax-collecting enforcement at the Internal Revenue Service, a setback for the bipartisan measure ahead of a looming deadline for agreement. The shift came after pushback from Republicans who were wary of granting the agency more money and power, Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), one of the lead negotiators, said Sunday on CNN. Legislative aides from both parties confirmed the move. The change means that the plan to strengthen the IRS to do more to collect taxes owed but not collected—a priority for President Biden —has stalled, at least for now. But lawmakers say it could be revived elsewhere, in a separate spending package pushed by Democrats. The decision to exclude the IRS provision means lawmakers will have to scramble to replace it to complete the infrastructure package before a midweek deadline, and it casts new uncertainty over the talks.

Republicans and Democrats have spent weeks trying to negotiate an infrastructure deal, including funding for roads, bridges and broadband. But they have struggled with how to cover the cost without increasing the federal deficit, which has risen to record levels over the past few years because of tax cuts and pandemic-related spending. They have said the plan would be fully paid for with new revenue. Lawmakers face the first test this week of whether there will be enough support to move forward with the infrastructure deal, along with a separate $3.5 trillion budget resolution supported only by Democrats. That package includes provisions aimed at addressing climate change, expanded access to education and affordable child care and broader Medicare benefits. The two pieces of legislation together comprise most of the White House’s legislative agenda. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said last week that he would take the first procedural step Monday, setting up a vote Wednesday to begin debate on the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Democratic support for the infrastructure legislation, however, depends on the party coalescing by the same day around the $3.5 trillion budget resolution.

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Wall Street Journal - July 19, 2021

Stock futures, oil drop as Delta variant sends investors into bonds

U.S. stock futures, oil prices and government bond yields slid, amid anxiety that the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant would hold back the global economy. Futures for the S&P 500 fell 0.8%, signaling opening losses for the broad stock-market gauge after it snapped a three-week winning streak Friday. Contracts for the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1%. Futures on the technology-focused Nasdaq-100 fell 0.4%. In a sign that investors were sheltering in the safety of government bonds and other safe-haven assets, the yield on 10-year Treasury notes fell to 1.257% Monday from 1.30% Friday. Yields, which fall when bond prices climb, haven’t been that low since mid-February. The WSJ Dollar Index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of other currencies, rose 0.3%. Oil prices fell after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and a Russia-led group of big producers agreed to raise production. Futures on Brent crude, the international benchmark, fell 2.6% to $71.67 a barrel, their lowest level since mid-June.

The moves were reminiscent of trading patterns that prevailed in the early days of the pandemic. Investors sold shares of companies directly affected by restrictions on movement and business, while buying government bonds and stocks that stood to benefit from the work-at-home phenomenon. Surging cases of the coronavirus in many parts of the world, including highly-vaccinated countries such as the U.K., have prompted investors to dial down their expectations of economic growth in the coming months. Some also are concerned that a steep rise in prices will pinch consumption and prompt central banks to withdraw stimulus, creating an environment of lower growth and higher inflation in which stocks tend to struggle. “What you’re seeing is a sense that the consumer is starting to be affected quite significantly” by the jump in prices, said Sebastien Galy, senior macro strategist at Nordea Asset Management. Business reopenings, rising vaccination rates and government pandemic aid have helped propel rapid gains in consumer spending—the economy’s main driver. But surveys show that inflation, which accelerated to a 13-year high in the U.S. in June, is starting to knock consumers’ confidence in their ability to keep spending, Mr. Galy said.

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CNN - July 18, 2021

Fact check: Arizona audit chief baselessly raises suspicion about 74,000 ballots

Arizona's Senate held a Thursday briefing on the ongoing Republican-initiated "audit" of the 2020 election in Maricopa County, where Joe Biden outperformed Donald Trump by enough of a margin to win the state. The review is being conducted by Cyber Ninjas, a cybersecurity firm that has no experience in election auditing. And the company's chief executive officer, Doug Logan, made some Thursday claims that were immediately called into question by the county and independent experts. Here's a brief look at two of them.

Logan said that door-to-door questioning of Maricopa County voters is the "one way" the auditors could determine whether what they are seeing in the elections data are "real problems" or "clerical errors of some sort." "For example, we have 74,243 mail-in ballots where there is no clear record of them being sent," he said. Logan made clear that this wasn't necessarily a case of fraud, saying it could be a "clerical issue." But his claim about an unexplained 74,000-plus ballot gap between the county's list of mail-in ballots received and its list of mail-in ballots sent out was amplified on Twitter by Liz Harrington, the spokeswoman for former President Donald Trump, and by numerous other Trump supporters, such as Republican Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert. Some of them, including Boebert, went further than Logan did. "In Arizona, 74,000 ballots were counted with no record of being sent in. That's not normal. That's not right. That's not safe nor is it secure," Boebert wrote. Facts First: There is no evidence of either fraud or any significant error with these ballots, and certainly not "magically appearing ballots." Both Maricopa County and outside experts say there is a simple explanation for the gap Logan claimed had not been explained: the existence of in-person early voting. Contrary to Logan's claims, the ballot lists he was talking about include not only mail-in ballots but also ballots cast early in person. Here's why it's entirely normal for Maricopa County's submitted-ballots list to include a significant number of votes that do not match up with entries on the requested-ballots list. After the deadline to request a mail-in ballot, which was October 23 in 2020, the requested-ballot list doesn't get updated by the county. But the submitted-ballots list does get updated after that October 23 deadline -- with the votes of in-person early voters.

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Washington Post - July 19, 2021

The new real estate normal

The new “For Sale” sign had been posted in the yard for less than 10 minutes when the first visitors started driving by the house, slowing down and stopping to take pictures. Trevor Descisciolo watched from his front lawn, trying to understand how the home he referred to as “a basic little starter” had suddenly become a destination in the far exurbs of Boise. A few minutes later, another car pulled to the curb, and the driver rolled down his window. “Do you guys have a list price yet?” he asked. “We’re finalizing it soon,” Descisciolo said. “What kind of place are you looking for?” The driver stared for a moment and considered the house. It was a two-story craftsman in a subdivision of mass-produced homes, where identical mailboxes aligned the sidewalk and some of the cul-de-sacs backed up to cornfields. “Honestly?” he said. “At this point we’re looking for pretty much anything.”

In the record-setting housing market of 2021, homeownership has become the dividing line for a fractured economy that’s racing toward extremes. Real estate values have surged by almost 25 percent since the beginning of the pandemic, creating more than $1 trillion in new wealth for existing homeowners. Many of them have used that money to buy investment properties and second homes, further driving up prices while first-time buyers increasingly struggle to afford anything at all. Homeowners on average are now reported to have as much as 80 times greater net worth than renters, who continue to suffer disproportionately from some of the pandemic’s worst effects: high rates of unemployment, eviction and a historic increase in the cost of living. Descisciolo had moved from California to Idaho a few years earlier with his wife and two young daughters, in part because the area was still affordable for a middle-class family. He’d managed to buy their home in a new suburb called Star in 2018 with help from a relative, spending $239,000 for a new three-bedroom house with a horseshoe pit in the backyard. During the next few years, he’d watched out his back window as the Boise metropolitan area continued to expand outward, until the crop dusters slowly disappeared from the sky above his house and construction crews built another subdivision behind his backyard. Then, early in the pandemic, he’d begun to receive form letters from investors offering to buy his home. “We can pay now. We can pay cash,” one read. Descisciolo started checking the estimated value of his house on Zillow, watching in disbelief as it continued to rise by $30,000 each month, until it felt to him like the only sensible thing to do was to sell and then use the proceeds to build a bigger home for his family farther from the city.

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

Oil-field services companies recover thousands of jobs in June

U.S. oil-field services and equipment companies added thousands of jobs in June as oil producers continued to bring more rigs online to meet recovering demand for petroleum products. Employment in the sector, dominated by companies like Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, rose by an estimated 8,000 jobs, or 1.3 percent, in June, the fourth consecutive month of growth. Texas accounted for more than half of the growth, estimated to be more than 4,400 jobs, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics analyzed by Houston trade group Energy Workforce & Technology Council.

The sector has recovered 18,600 jobs so far this year, less than a fifth of the 102,000 jobs that were lost last year during the pandemic. Employment reached a low in February at 591,413 jobs, down nearly 12 percent since the pandemic began in March 2020. The oil-field services sector has been among the industry’s hardest hit during the pandemic, which slashed demand for oil and products such as gasoline and jet fuel. Many exploration and production companies, which hire oil-field services firms, stopped drilling new wells and halted production from existing wells for several months last year. During the worst period of pandemic-related cuts, oil-field services companies slashed almost 57,300 jobs in April 2020, when crude prices fell into negative territory for the first time. It was the largest job loss recorded in the sector in a single month since at least 2013. The rollout of coronavirus vaccines has lifted local economies and travel, boosting demand for gasoline and jet fuel. U.S. drillers have added 235 rigs since the rig count fell to a low of 244 in August, according to oil-field services firm Baker Hughes.

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Newsclips - July 18, 2021

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - July 17, 2021

Andrew Murr: My bill doesn't disenfranchise Texas voters. It makes elections fair and uniform.

Since last November’s general elections were conducted during the upheaval of a global pandemic, our sacred right to vote has been a frequent topic of discussion and sometimes heated debate. Gov. Greg Abbott added election integrity on the call for our current special session to allow all legislators the opportunity to discuss and improve our elections codes, a process that is not uncommon, and one that has continually been done over the years in our state. It’s understandable that a debate on voting practices has provoked a passionate response. It’s regrettable that much of the discussion this summer has been based on misconceptions and hyperbole and it’s disheartening to see a number of my fellow colleagues in the House leave the state rather then fully participate in the democratic process of our Legislature.

Despite being portrayed as a partisan issue, the integrity of our elections is an issue all Texans can agree upon. Texans of all political affiliations should be encouraged by the recent renewed emphasis on preserving our free and fair elections and our fundamental right to vote. As lawmakers, we want to ensure an equal opportunity for all Texas voters to have their voices heard. That's why I filed House Bill 3, the Election Integrity Protection Act of 2021, during the 87th legislative special session currently underway in Austin, which seeks to create statewide standards for the equitable conduct of elections while preserving the validity of each and every ballot. Last year, we bore witness to unprecedented events that exposed shortcomings across many aspects of our society. Unfortunately, elements of our election process were caught up in the general confusion, with voting regulations sometimes differing from one area of the state to the next as individual counties created ad hoc voting measures outside of Texas' election code. House Bill 3 would provide for uniformity and consistency of our state's election laws across all 254 counties, a policy that ensures that all Texans receive a fair and equal opportunity to vote. Rather than overhauling our election system or disenfranchising voters, this election integrity bill protects legal voters and does not impair Texans' current right to vote. By filing this omnibus piece of legislation, I intended for all my House colleagues to come together and consider all facets of our election process. Importantly, this bill also seeks to clear up the confusion that arose during the past election cycle. It establishes definitive time frames (6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on early voting weekdays) and an expanded minimum of at least nine hours of availability for weekday early voting for most jurisdictions.

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Fox 4 - July 17, 2021

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asks for change to Texas Legislature quorum rules

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has asked Gov. Greg Abbott to add an item to the next Texas Legislature special session to reduce the quorum rules to a simple majority. A change to the rules would take more than a vote by the legislature -- it would also require Texans to vote. But some experts say lawmakers should remember the tables could always turn. Right now, majorities in the House and Senate favor Republicans. Quorum requires two-thirds of members be present to conduct business. But SMU political science professor Cal Jillson warns the change would further erode any need for bi-partisanship.

"He needs to keep in mind, Democrats have been gaining on Republicans, and if they change the quorum, at some point you will have an unobstructed Democratic party passing laws in Texas," Jillson said. Friday was Day 5 of the Texas House Democrats fleeing the state to halt passage of a GOP voting bill and many of the members showed no signs of backing down. "I know there are search warrants and I'm ready to be arrested, what do you do to a slave if you don't arrest them when they flee?" said Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston). She likened the proposed voting laws to segregation. "When I think about how we had to watch signs that said no dog, no negroes, no Mexicans, when dogs were released on our people, they were beaten, bombed and killed. Haven't we done enough? Haven’t we paid the price enough? What is it going to take for me to be an American in this country?" Thompson said. Republicans in the Texas House tried to dispel fears about the proposals on Friday.

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Spectrum News - July 16, 2021

Sen. Joe Manchin tells Texas Democrats to focus on narrower federal voting rights bill

exas Democrats got a meeting with a key senator Thursday as they push for federal voting rights legislation to pass. After meeting with state lawmakers who fled Texas, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-WV, said the path to a national law is a pared-down bill. “Make a piece of legislation, one piece of legislation that protects the rights of voting, the procedure of voting, democracy, the guardrails on democracy, that’s all. And there shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat [who] should oppose it,” Manchin told journalists who attended the closed-door meeting. Texas state Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, attended the discussion at the U.S. Capitol and said while he would like to see the passage of a broad, far-reaching federal bill, working at the Texas Legislature has taught him to recognize the importance of incremental progress.

"If enough people can become convinced that that is the only path forward, I think there may be some chance of drawing some Republican support over when they feel less pressed by the larger objectives on the Democratic side. I think that's a potential path to getting something done, and it would address a lot of the concerns that we have in Texas," Johnson told Capital Tonight after the meeting. ?Manchin told journalists he and the Texas Democrats have come to an agreement. “Voters just want to vote, and so if we make sure that voters can get registered easily, can change their address easily, can vote by mail easily, can do drive-thru voting...if they have issues getting out of their car [or] mobility issues, they can get assistance from people that they trust, and all they have to do is ask for those people to assist them. Rather than have those people run the gauntlet of possible prosecution,” state Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Bastrop, said. Manchin said forget breaking the filibuster, the rule which requires two-thirds of Senators to advance legislation. The Democrat from West Virginia said a federal bill can be done without changing Senate rules, including a carveout on elections. That would mean they need some Senate Republicans to sign on. “I certainly would not support anything that requires Texas legislators to come to Washington and ask the Biden Justice Department for permission to change our state laws,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said.

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Houston Chronicle - July 17, 2021

3 Texas House Democrats test positive for COVID-19 in D.C.

Three Democratic state lawmakers who left the state for Washington, D.C., this week have tested positive for COVID-19, the Texas House Democratic Caucus announced Saturday. All three members are fully vaccinated, according to the caucus, which did not identify the lawmakers. One member tested positive for COVID Friday night, followed by two members who tested positive on a rapid test Saturday morning, according to a statement from the caucus.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat and chair of the caucus, said the members are following guidance and protocols issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is a sober reminder that COVID is still with us, and though vaccinations offer tremendous protection, we still must take necessary precautions,” Turner said. “We are in touch with public health experts in Texas to provide additional guidance. Our caucus will follow all recommendations from public health experts as we continue our work.” The agency advises that fully vaccinated people who have been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID “do not need to quarantine, be restricted from work, or be tested following an exposure to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, as their risk of infection is low.” Members of the delegation have met with a number of top officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, after fleeing the state Monday to block Texas Republicans’ elections bill. It was not immediately clear which officials had been in direct contact with the state lawmakers who tested positive.

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Dallas Morning News - July 16, 2021

George P. Bush leads fundraising in attorney general race, but AG Ken Paxton has most campaign cash

Republican George P. Bush outraised the competition in the crowded race for Texas attorney general, but embattled incumbent Ken Paxton maintains the largest campaign war chest heading into the 2022 race. One of Paxton’s biggest financial supporters is the Republican Attorneys General Association, a sign the group will throw its resources behind him in the three-way GOP primary. Another big-dollar donor is Houston attorney Mark Lanier, who Paxton hired late last year to represent the state in a high-profile antitrust lawsuit against Google. In all, campaign finance reports show that Paxton raised $1.8 million in the last 10 days of June, a far stronger showing than last year and a sign that his bid for re-election is viable after several scandals. Last fall, Paxton’s fundraising plummeted after several senior staffers accused him of abusing the office to help a campaign donor and the FBI began investigating. Paxton has denied wrongdoing and no charges have been filed.

In a statement, Paxton said he’s always won past campaigns, despite being outspent and out-raised. “What is clear from this report is that attacks on me from RINOs are solidifying my support and contributions from Texans who want to keep a conservative champion as their chief law enforcement officer,” Paxton said. The campaign finance reports filed Thursday offer the first glimpse at how quickly candidates can raise cash after a nearly six-month ban on fundraising lifted with the close of the regular legislative session. They also signal a tough race ahead for Paxton — who has not faced a primary opponent since being elected attorney general in 2014. In seeking a third term as the state’s top lawyer, Paxton faces serious Republican challengers in Bush and former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. Two Democrats have also mounted campaigns, with more with more potentially on the way. The opponents jumped into the race amid Paxton’s mounting legal woes, which include an ongoing whistleblower lawsuit, the FBI investigation and a 6-year-old indictment on securities fraud that he is still fighting. Bush, who currently leads the Texas General Land Office, raised $2.3 million, according to his campaign finance report. About $1.5 million came from Texas donors, with some of the biggest six-figure checks from Dallas oilman Trevor Rees-Jones and Woodlands lawyer Arnulfo Eduardo Treviño Garza.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Our recommendation for U.S. House District 6 runoff

On the issues, there is not a lot of daylight between Republicans Susan Wright and Jake Ellzey. Both are conservatives who believe in limited government, Second Amendment rights, low taxes and personal responsibility. And both want to represent U.S. District 6 in Congress. Although neither candidate was our choice in the May 1 special election, which drew 23 candidates, our recommendation in the runoff election on July 27 goes to Ellzey, 51, for the seat formerly held by Wright’s late husband, Ron Wright, who died from COVID-19 in February.

Susan Wright, 58, has deep roots in Tarrant County GOP politics and community service, including stints on the Arlington Transportation Advisory Committee, Fort Worth Community Development Council and the Tarrant County Crime Commission. Wright also was district director to two state representatives, an elections judge, precinct chair and a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, which is the governing board of the Republican Party of Texas. Nonetheless, Wright has struggled to make a compelling reason for her candidacy beyond the vague explanation that she wants to continue her late husband’s conservative legacy. Wright’s strength will be in constituent services, but she seems less ready to offer the kind of principle-based conservative leadership that the district needs in the years ahead. Ellzey, who is currently a state legislator representing District 10 in the Texas House, is seeking this seat for the second time. In 2018, he received this newspaper’s recommendation and narrowly lost a primary runoff against Ron Wright to replace outgoing U.S. Rep. Joe Barton. At the time, we noted Ellzey’s military experience as a Navy pilot in Afghanistan and Iraq and service on the Texas Veterans Commission as experience that could make him an influential voice in Congress on these issues. We haven’t changed our mind. Although Ellzey’s stand on immigration, election security and other issues are to the right of this newspaper’s position, we find common ground with him on tax relief, the national debt, government spending and personal liberty.

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Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Mark Seitz and Daniel Flores: Gov. Abbott, don’t shut down our ministry to care for migrant children

(The Most Rev. Mark J. Seitz is the bishop of El Paso. The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores is the bishop of Brownsville.) Texas officials are poised to shutter several religious ministries, which would leave foster children without homes and immigrant children in mass facilities. Unless something changes, this will happen on Aug. 31, in violation of state laws protecting religious freedom. Across the state of Texas, Catholic Charities provides homelike care to hundreds of vulnerable migrant children every day; many were born in Texas and some were abandoned and alone after crossing the border. Children in our homes often suffer from severe trauma, instability and uncertainty. For those who crossed the border, many escaped or evaded drug cartels and child sex traffickers on their way into this country. Motivated by our faith, Catholic Charities provides food, clothing and shelter to these children, following Jesus’ command to care for orphans and widows in their distress, to welcome the stranger and to care for those who suffer.

But this work is now in peril. A recent state-level executive order will soon strip the child care licenses from any organization that provides shelter to migrant children, including the six child welfare programs operated by Catholic Charities in Texas. While perhaps well-intentioned, this order has serious unintended consequences. The order wouldn’t just remove migrant children from care; it would also close homes that care for Texas-born foster children. Instead of relieving pressure on Texas’ overstressed foster care system, it would transfer hundreds of these kids each year into a system that is already short on homes. And it would remove state-level conscience protections for Catholic Charities, exposing us to regulation and pressure from those who do not share our commitment to the dignity, safety and well-being of mothers and children. The move will cost children homes and Texans jobs. Were Catholic Charities to lose their state license, this would strip well over 100 Texas foster children of loving foster families and necessary support, and if our homes closed, it could mean the loss of hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in economic impact in Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. If Catholic Charities shelters are forced to close their doors, then the Texas foster children they serve would be taken from these secure and nurturing settings they know to be bounced into new places. Studies show that the more a foster child moves from place to place and changes caseworkers, the more the odds of finding a forever home decrease. The migrant children in our care would be taken from homelike settings and moved to federal facilities that lack the resources and staff necessary to properly care for children who have experienced trauma and trafficking. It is no place for a child to live.

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Dallas Morning News - July 16, 2021

Hopefuls for Texas governor show their money clips – and incumbent Greg Abbott’s is humongous

Gov. Greg Abbott raised nearly $19 million in the final 10 days of June, giving him a bankroll more than seven times bigger than that of former state Sen. Don Huffines, his best-funded foe in next year’s GOP melee for governor. Giving $1 million each to Abbott last month were Dallas billionaires Kelcy Warren and Kenny Troutt, Houston road builder James Pitcock and a Gillespie County couple, Michael and Mary Porter, who’ve made repeated seven-figure contributions to Abbott in recent cycles. “I have $55 million in the bank already, and I’m a very aggressive fund-raiser,” Abbott told Chris Wallace of Fox News last Sunday.

Campaign-finance reports to the Texas Ethics Commission that were made public Friday confirmed the governor’s brag: As of June 30, he had $55.1 million of cash. Huffines, who is challenging Abbott from the right in the Republican gubernatorial primary, had $7.6 million – and that was after the Dallas businessman lent himself $5 million. Through June 30, Huffines raised $4.1 million from others. His biggest contributions were $100,000 – from Houston retiree Joe Gutierrez and a Midland couple active in conservative causes, Tim and Terri Dunn. Colleyville homebuilder Nelson Mitchell, Austin entrepreneur and educator Jeff Sandefer and Austin janitorial-services entrepreneur Don Dyer each gave Huffines $50,000. “I’m proud and excited to announce how much support my campaign received in just a short amount of time,” Huffines said in a written statement late last week. Huffines, who announced his candidacy May 10, referred to “the two-month figures” as “historic.” Former state GOP Chairman Allen West of Dallas, who jumped into the governor’s race on July 4, said Friday he hadn’t raised any money in the reporting period. For non-officeholders, it covered Jan. 1 through June 30. Blaze TV host and motivational speaker Chad Prather of Fort Worth, who’s also announced he’ll seek the governorship as a Republican, raised nearly $50,000 and had about $26,000 of cash as of June 30. Decatur attorney Paul Belew raised $1,100 and had a loan balance of $5,000. No report was available for veteran Kurt Schwab of Hurst, the fifth Republican challenger.

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Dallas Morning News - July 18, 2021

Patience of border residents is tested as coronavirus closure keeps getting extended

Rogelio Martinez is fully vaccinated and eagerly waiting for the border to reopen so he can return to work hundreds of miles away in Midland, Texas, where he toils in oil fields. “Texas is reopening its economy, but I have not been able to get back,” said Martinez, 35, outside his ranch in this mining town nestled outside Chihuahua City. “I’m ready to get back to work.” But despite a massive vaccination campaign underway, Martinez and other Mexican residents will have to wait at least another month, maybe much longer, before they can resume their normal lives of crisscrossing the border to visit families, shop, or work, say senior Mexican officials.

“At this point, we don’t have all the vaccines needed to meet the goal for lifting restrictions by July 21,” said Roberto Velasco, director general and Acting Undersecretary for North America at Mexico’s Foreign Ministry. “I feel the end of the restrictions is not far off, maybe not the 21st, but we’re not so far away.” Land border crossings have been closed to most Mexicans since March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted travel restrictions along the 2,000-mile border. The reopening date is conditional on Mexico’s vaccination rollout and the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases. U.S. authorities have set a goal for vaccination levels in border municipalities of at least 70% before reopening. “It’s going well, but not as we had hoped for,” added Velasco. “We were aiming to vaccine people within weeks, but it’s taken so much more time.” A formal decision on the immediate future is expected no later than Wednesday. Another senior Mexican official said, “we’re looking at several more weeks, perhaps months, and a reopening may happen in phases,” as in gradual segments of the population fully vaccinated. The official asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly. Canada announced Thursday it may welcome immunized Americans as soon as mid-August.

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Dallas Morning News - July 17, 2021

Texas Dems’ quorum break inspires Senate allies on voting rights, but they’re helpless to act

Democrats who fled Austin to bring the Texas House to a halt now face a war of attrition. However long they hold out, Gov. Greg Abbott can counter by calling another month-long special session of the Legislature, and more after that, until they relent on his demands to rewrite the state’s election rules. Congress controls the only possible trump cards: a pair of stalled bills that would supersede state laws the Democrats view as voter suppression. The Texas runaways have used their exile to spotlight that effort. But in their first workweek on the lam, they made no measurable headway. A handful had a terse interaction with Sen. John Cornyn in a committee room. But the only sit-downs they snagged were with Democrats, nearly all strong allies who need no convincing, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, and Vice President Kamala Harris.

“Unless we take action, unless we see model legislation pass, our voices will be silenced,” said Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, chair of the Black Caucus in the Texas House. “We’re handing the baton to our Senate colleagues, to our Senate members, to finish this for us.” But unless 10 Senate Republicans break ranks — and there’s no sign that even one will do so — the Texans will find no salvation at the U.S. Capitol for the staredown with Abbott. “These are Texas House members who are asking the federal government to overrule the decisions made by Texas representatives on how our elections should be conducted,” said Cornyn. “Since when do Texans ask the federal government to run our state? ... They can’t stop this forever.” Two proposals are at issue in Congress: the For the People Act, a sweeping measure that touches on campaign finance, voting rules and government ethics; and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would restore federal scrutiny of Texas and others states with a history of discrimination that the Supreme Court lifted in 2013.

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

Texas Southern partners with National Museum of African American History and Culture

Texas Southern University has partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to strengthen archives and create a pipeline of new museum employees. The Houston university announced in a release this week that it is one of five historically Black colleges to participate in the national museum’s five-year project, which will work to improve the care of HBCU archives and help share the stories of African Americans and their role in American history around the world. The project also aims to educate students from underrepresented groups on the various positions within the museum industry — from archivists, art conservators and curators to directors and designers.

The consortium also includes Clark Atlanta University, Florida A&M University, Jackson State University and Tuskegee University. Texas Southern’s University Museum, which was founded in 2000 with the vision of renowned artist John Biggers and the university’s first president, Raphael O’Hara Lanier, is home to thousands of African and African American artworks that celebrate the African diaspora. “This Smithsonian collaboration provides for us an unprecedented platform to give our students these incredible opportunities with major institutions. The NMAAHC is such a visionary place,” said Dr. Alvia Wardlaw, director and curator of TSU’s museum. “They have all these role models and going to the national museum and seeing Black curators and Black conservators will do nothing but inspire.” The national museum’s strategic partnership office will lead the initiative, creating a pipeline of museum archive specialists, curators and educational experts through internships, fellowship programs and training for underrepresented groups.

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Houston Chronicle - July 16, 2021

COVID infections are on the rise again in Houston. Will there be another surge?

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July. Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses. Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said. COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives. Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated. “If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said. Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

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Houston Chronicle - July 18, 2021

Houston Chronicle Editorial: Violent crime in Houston won't go down until our courts operate efficiently

The Houston police blotter reads like a document from a much deadlier era decades ago. A murder-suicide in southwest Houston. A woman robbed at gunpoint in her driveway in northwest Houston. A man shot and killed in north Houston following a dispute over money. A teen shot on the freeway on the way home from an Astros game, later dying of his wounds. And that’s just the past two weeks. The uptick surged during the pandemic and continues with near-daily incidents adding up to one of the highest homicide rates in three decades. To date, there have been more than 250 homicides in Houston — a 35 percent increase from this time last year.

During the crime spike 30 years ago, when crack cocaine still raged and the city was becoming a hub for the illicit drug trade, Houston recorded so many murders — 617 in 1991 alone — that curfews were being discussed. Then, as now, Houston faced a public safety crisis. Then, as now, fear led to finger-pointing and convenient narratives for political opportunists. History suggests that this downward spiral, if sustained, could usher in draconian measures and regressive tactics that threaten to stall the progress the state and city have made on smarter, fairer criminal justice policies. Armchair criminology is in full swing as some on the right weaponize opposition to bail reform, falsely blaming efforts to end unconstitutional poverty jailing in minor cases for fueling a rise in violent crime. Joined by victim advocates and police union representatives, politicians in Austin point to increasing numbers of charges against people out on bond as evidence that misdemeanor bail reform and the use of no-cash bonds in Harris County are to blame.

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Houston Chronicle - July 18, 2021

Erica Grieder: GOP's 'election integrity' bill merits scrutiny given Republicans' blind eye to 'Big Lie'

To hear Republicans tell it, the House Democrats who broke quorum this week to prevent passage of an “election integrity” bill are overreacting — overreacting on purpose, perhaps, to help boost their public profiles as well as their fundraising. Much of the debate over Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 “has been based on misconceptions and hyperbole,” writes state Rep. Andrew Murr, an impressively mustachioed Republican from Junction and the author of HB 3, in an op-ed for the Houston Chronicle. In his telling, the far-reaching legislation was informed by a desire to clarify election procedures in Texas after a 2020 election that was, if nothing else, shaped by the pandemic. Concerns about the spread of COVID-19 led state and local leaders to implement various changes on short notice, including drive-thru and 24-hour voting in Harris County.

“Unfortunately, elements of our election process were caught up in the general confusion, with voting regulations sometimes differing from one area of the state to the next as individual counties created ad hoc voting measures outside of Texas’ election code,” Murr observed. Gov. Greg Abbott, similarly, has asserted in a series of media appearances this week that the bill would make it harder to cheat but easier to vote. For example, he notes, it would expand early voting hours. That’s true, at least in some parts of the state. As it stands, counties with populations greater than 100,000 are required to have at least 12 hours of early voting in the run-up to Election Day; the bills filed during the special session would lower that threshold to 30,000 people. Jon Mark Hogg, a lawyer based in San Angelo and founder of The 134 PAC, considers this one of several “silver linings” of the legislation at hand. Insofar as the change would make it easier to vote in rural Texas, which is reliably red, it would help Republicans in statewide elections. But Democrats in rural Texas would also be able to take advantage of the change.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 16, 2021

Texas Republicans seek to expand restrictions on teaching about racism to any subject

State senators are considering new legislation that would expand recently passed restrictions on social studies courses in public grade schools, despite concerns from educators and the absence of most Texas House Democrats that has brought lawmaking in that chamber to a halt. It’s the latest GOP push to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, a framework used to examine racism in colleges and universities that has become a Republican catch-all term for what some see as divisive efforts to address racism and inequity in schools. During the regular legislative session that ended in May, Republicans rallied to pass House Bill 3979, which limits how teachers can discuss race and current events in social studies courses and bars them from awarding students course credit for social or political advocacy work.

The new law, slated to go into effect in September, says teachers may not be compelled to discuss current events or controversial topics of public policy. If they do discuss such a topic, they must explore it from “diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” But Gov. Greg Abbott called lawmakers back to the Capitol on July 8 to work on Republican priorities left pending after House Democrats’ walkout at the end of the regular session. As part of the special session agenda, Abbott asked lawmakers to continue the work started in HB 3979. The Senate State Affairs committee, chaired by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, met Thursday to hear public comment on Senate Bill 3, a broad measure expanding HB 3979’s restrictions to any subject in grades K-12, including ethnic studies courses. After hearing testimony from around 70 people, the majority of whom opposed the legislation, the committee approved it 6-1 with the only Democrat present, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, voting no. Divided along party lines Friday, the Senate gave final approval to SB 3 on an 18-4 vote, with nine Democrats absent while in Washington to join House Democrats in a protest over GOP voting bills. The House, however, cannot accept SB 3 due to a lack of quorum in the lower chamber.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 16, 2021

Fact-check: Is there 'clear legal authority to handcuff and put in leg irons' fleeing Texas Democrats?

Ted Cruz: "There is clear legal authority to handcuff and put in leg irons legislators that are trying to stop the legislature from being able to do business." PolitiFact's ruling: False Here's why: On Tuesday morning, less than 24-hours after Texas Democratic legislators fled their home state to block passage of a GOP voting rights bill, USA Today reporter Savannah Behrmann caught up with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, for his thoughts on the errant lawmakers. It’s nothing but a political stunt that is doomed to fail, he said. And as soon as they return to the state he expects their immediate arrest, echoing a pledge made earlier this week by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

"There is clear legal authority to handcuff and put in leg irons legislators that are trying to stop the Legislature from being able to do business,” Cruz said in a hallway interview. And that “clear legal authority” is explicitly expressed in the state constitution, a fact he learned 18 years ago when state Democrats made their last exodus to thwart a GOP-backed congressional redistricting effort. In 2003, before Cruz became a national household name, he was appointed to serve as the Texas Solicitor General by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott. That same year, Republicans’ redistricting plans were foiled when at least 50 Democratic state House members broke quorum and fled to Ardmore, Okla., forcing Texas Gov. Rick Perry to call a special session. During that special session, the Republican effort was scuttled again when 11 Democratic state senators made their own quorum-breaking getaway by fleeing to Albuquerque, N.M. At the time, Speaker of the House Tom Craddick asked Abbott what legal authority the House has to arrest its absent Democratic colleagues. According to Cruz, that question was placed in Cruz's hands. “Abbott asked me. I researched it. It turns out the Texas Constitution has a provision that explicitly authorizes fleeing House members to be arrested,” Cruz recalled Tuesday. But Cruz’s interpretation of the constitution doesn’t appear to be shared by all.

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Austin American-Statesman - July 16, 2021

Who is Chris Turner, the leader of the Texas House Democrats who busted quorum?

This isn't Chris Turner's first quorum bust. Or even his second. Turner, a six-term state representative from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, burst into the national headlines Monday when he led more than 50 of his Democratic colleagues from Texas to Washington, D.C., to block a measure they say would erect barriers to the ballot box for people of color. As chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, which is outnumbered 83-67 by Republicans, Turner has emerged as the face of the walkout that took most of the party's state lawmakers from Austin to the nation's capital for an uphill battle to break the impasse in the U.S. Senate on national legislation to protect voting rights.

But in 2003, as an aide to then-U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, Turner was dispatched to Ardmore, Okla., to assist Texas state House members who fled Austin to block Republican-backed plans to redraw congressional district boundaries. The House Democrats came back to Austin and the redistricting effort died in the regular session. And when then-Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to restart the effort, state Senate Democrats absconded to New Mexico and Turner joined them for the six-week absence to halt business in the Legislature. "I believe Chris Turner is the only person who spent every day of both quorum breaks — both the House quorum break and the Senate quorum break — with the members," said veteran Texas Democratic political consultant Matt Angle, a longtime friend and associate of Turner's. In an interview from Washington on Thursday, Turner said his experience as a staff member 18 years ago is paying dividends as he seeks to keep House Democrats focused on their mission and manage what has become a remote field operation. "There's just a million logistics to think through," Turner said, "It's sort of controlled chaos at all times. Sometimes you're just trying to get ahead six hours at a time."

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The 19th - July 17, 2021

Texas Democrats to U.S. Senate: ‘Save our state, save our country’

Texas state Rep. Erin Zwiener on Thursday evening held a town hall for her constituents back at home to explain why she, along with 55 of her Democratic colleagues, had left the state to come to Washington: they believe a Republican voting bill slated for a vote in the statehouse this week is a threat to democracy. “We have a duty to protect that freedom and we are best able to protect that freedom by being here, putting it all on the line, and helping give our United States senators the courage to move forward on legislation that protects everyone’s freedom to vote,” Zwiener said. The trip is not, Zwiener emphasized, a “joy ride,” or an “all expenses paid charter jet and vacation,” as Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas suggested earlier this week. Zwiener said she is working “the longest days I’ve ever worked as a legislator” and is looking into how to return her lawmaker $221 per diem for the time she is not in Texas.

The Democrats came to Washington under threat of arrest after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott called a 30-day special session to begin this week to tackle bills that stalled when Democrats walked out in May. The legislative agenda includes a restrictive voting measure, new prohibitions on abortion and one that would bar transgender students from being on sports teams that match their gender identity. Republicans held marathon hearings over the weekend, and votes were set for early this week. The Texas Senate is in session. House Democrats, out of options because they are in the minority, decided to leave the state so their chamber did not have the required number of people for what’s known as a quorum. They packed their bags and showed up for a flight without knowing where they were going. The destination was Washington, Zwiener explained, because “this isn’t just a Texas issue.” “Breaking quorum was an extremely difficult decision and I did not make it lightly and it’s not something any of my colleagues took lightly either — it’s not an easy thing to do, it’s something that comes at a personal cost to each of us, but we did it because we have a duty to defend the freedom to vote,” Zwiener said.

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NBC News - July 17, 2021

Over 60 people decontaminated after chemical leak at Texas water park

Over 60 people were decontaminated Saturday after they were exposed to an airborne chemical leak at a Texas water park, authorities said. They said 26 people were treated at hospitals, including a 3-year-old who was "under severe condition," after the incident at the children's pool at Six Flags Harbor Splashdown in Spring, Texas. The Harris County Fire Marshal's Office tweeted that it was investigating the source of the leak while monitoring air quality at the water park outside Houston. "People affected are experiencing minor skin and/or inhalation irritation," the office said. It did not elaborate on what the decontamination procedure entailed.

The water park was closed for the remainder of the day as a precaution, said Six Flags spokeswoman Sandra Daniels in a statement. "A small number of guests in a section of the park reported feeling ill with respiratory irritation," she said. "The safety of our guests and team members is always our highest priority and the park was immediately cleared as we try to determine a cause." The park fully reopened July 3 after a pandemic-related closure.

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NBC 5 - July 16, 2021

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton says state bar probe is unconstitutional

Lawyers for Texas' embattled attorney general have asked the state bar association to drop its investigation into whether the Republican's failed efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election amounted to professional misconduct, arguing the probe is an unconstitutional overreach. In late May, the State Bar of Texas began looking into Attorney General Ken Paxton's petitioning of the U.S. Supreme Court to block Joe Biden's victory based on bogus claims of fraud. The investigation was prompted by a Democratic Party activist's complaint that the Republican official's actions were frivolous and unethical. In a wide-ranging formal response Thursday, Paxton's office argued that the activist lacks the standing to bring a complaint against the attorney general and that the bar's investigation amounts to the judicial branch unconstitutionally intervening in the work of the executive.

"The regulation of the professional conduct of attorneys does not extend to the regulation of the decisions of the Attorney General, his office, or any other agency that happens to be led by a licensed attorney, or any public official who may happen to be a licensed attorney," a lawyer for Paxton's office wrote in the 22-page reply. Kevin Moran, the 72-year-old president of the Galveston Island Democrats, said he's proceeding with his complaint. He provided Paxton's response to The Associated Press and said "my reading of it is that he has declared himself above the law, essentially." A spokeswoman for the bar, which operates under the authority of the Texas Supreme Court, declined to comment. Paxton's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The case drew more than 80 bar complaints against Paxton and his top deputy, according to the attorney general's response. It said the bar initially dismissed all the complaints but the tribunal that oversees grievances against lawyers overturned those decisions in four cases. Along with Moran's, the response states, the other complaints the bar is investigating came from a lawyer, a man who described himself as a "citizen of Texas" disgusted by Paxton's actions, and David Chew, the former chief justice of a state appeals court. Paxton's lawyers largely dismissed Chew's claims as "vague, non-specific, and conclusory." The retired judge could not be immediately reached for comment.

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New York Times - July 17, 2021

In Texas, top two Republicans steer ship of state hard to the right

One is a former State Supreme Court justice who acts with a lawyer’s caution; the other a Trumpist firebrand who began his political career in the world of conservative talk radio. They have sparred at times, most recently this winter over the deadly failure of their state’s electrical grid. But together, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the two most powerful men in Texas, are the driving force behind one of the hardest right turns in recent state history. The two Republicans stand united at a pivotal moment in Texas politics, opposing Democrats who have left the state for Washington in protest of the G.O.P.-controlled Legislature’s attempt to overhaul the state’s election system — blocking Republicans from advancing any bills to Mr. Abbott’s desk. Any policy differences between the governor and lieutenant governor have melted away in the face of the realities of today’s Republican Party, with a base devoted to former President Donald J. Trump and insistent on an uncompromising conservative agenda.

“The lieutenant governor reads off the playbook of the far right, and that’s where we go,” said State Senator Kel Seliger, a moderate Republican from Amarillo. “The governor less so, but not much less so.” Both leaders are highly cognizant of what the Republican base wants: Stricter abortion laws. Eliminating most gun regulations. Anti-transgender measures. Rules for how schools teach about racism. And above all there is Mr. Trump’s top priority: wide-ranging new laws restricting voting and expanding partisan lawmakers’ power over elections. Republicans continue to hold most of the cards, but they face the prospect of appearing toothless amid frustrating delays and rising calls from conservatives to take harsh action against the Democrats.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - July 17, 2021

Fort Worth’s Panther Island will get federal funding in 2022, US Rep. Kay Granger says

The Panther Island project will see enough federal money in the 2022 funding cycle to begin digging the channel under the already-built bridges, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger said Saturday. Granger, R-Fort Worth, said it’s not clear how much funding will come through for the project, but she’s confident it will be enough to begin cutting the 1.5-mile channel. “It comes in different buckets, so there may be some in this one and then some in the next one,” Granger said. “I think it will be funded for everything they can spend in the next cycle.” Granger’s comments came after a Saturday morning ribbon cutting for the North Main Street bridge. That bridge, which opened to traffic in late June, is the second of three Panther Island bridges. The White Settlement Road bridge opened in April and the Henderson Street bridge is slated to open later this summer.

But for now, all three bridges span dry land. Officials, including Granger, have long said that it was cheaper and easier to build the bridges first and then cut the channel that will connect the ends of a U-shaped bend in the Trinity River. The area known as Panther Island is not actually an island until water begins flowing through the channel. “We didn’t have to do the water this way, but it was the smart way, it could be done faster and cheaper,” Granger said. The ambitious, $1.17 billion project is part economic development and part flood control. “Panther Island” refers specifically to the economic development portion; officials refer to the flood control portion, which is headed up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as “Central City.” Because of the multi-sourced funding, the city and county have been awaiting federal money for the flood control piece, which is primarily the digging of the channel. And while U.S. Congress in 2016 authorized the funds — which could be up to about half of the total project cost — it has not appropriated the money and actually sent it to Fort Worth.

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Texas Observer - July 14, 2021

Joshua Howell: It’s time for Texas police to ban bean bag rounds at protests

In late May of 2020, Anthony Evans says he was “walking down the street with [his] hands in the air” when a bean bag round fired by Austin police shattered his jaw bone. His injuries required surgery, and he had to have his mouth wired shut while he healed. Sareneka “Nemo” Martin was pregnant when bean bag rounds struck her in the back and stomach, knocking her to the ground. Luckily, she did not lose her baby. Levi Ayala, a 16-year-old with interests ranging from math and science to boxing and music, was shot in the head with bean bag rounds as he watched protests from a nearby embankment. According to his brother, Ayala suffers permanent brain damage, has trouble regulating his emotions, and will require long-term therapy. And Justin Howell, my younger brother, was recording the protests on his phone when he was shot in the head with a “less lethal” bean bag round. Like Ayala, he spent significant time in the ICU and suffered both skull fractures and brain damage. He still requires medical attention more than a year later.

All of these occurred during one weekend in Austin, at protests over the murder of George Floyd. Since then, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated to GoFundMe campaigns for Ayala, Martin, Drake, and Justin, and there have been protests in Justin’s and Ayala’s names specifically. Taking note of these stories as well as public outrage, the Austin Police Department soon thereafter decided to prohibit the use of bean bag rounds for the purposes of crowd control. It was a wise decision. Firing such rounds into crowds—a shifting mass of individuals—was clearly poor policy. And stories like those above, of which there are too many to keep track, are certain to decrease respect for policing, which endangers protesters and officers alike. Now it’s time for the rest of the state to follow suit and ban the practice. That’s why I traveled to the Texas Capitol to testify in favor of “Justin’s Bill” in April. Filed by my brother’s state Representative, Erin Zwiener, it would have codified the Austin Police Department’s prohibition of bean bag rounds for crowd control statewide. “Justin’s Bill” was far more limited than the George Floyd Act, also introduced this session: Like the APD ban from which it took inspiration, “Justin’s Bill” did nothing to prohibit bean bag rounds more broadly, nor did it touch other forms of crowd control, such as tear gas. But like most commonsensical solutions, the bill died in committee, never receiving a vote. Instead, in the past year, state governments have introduced a slew of anti-protest bills.

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National Stories

Washington Post - July 16, 2021

Delta variant takes hold in U.S. as coronavirus cases rise nearly 70 percent

Federal health officials sounded an alarm Friday about a surge in U.S. coronavirus infections fueled by the twin threats posed by the highly transmissible delta variant and a stagnation in efforts to vaccinate as many Americans as possible. During a White House briefing, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the seven-day average of coronavirus infections soared nearly 70 percent in just one week, to about 26,300 cases a day. The seven-day average for hospitalizations has increased, too, climbing about 36 percent from the previous seven-day period, she said. “There is a clear message that is coming through: This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Walensky said. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk, and communities that are fully vaccinated are generally faring well.”

Data and maps illustrated the hastening pace of cases — and the disproportionate burden borne by some states. Florida emerged as a national hot spot, accounting for 1 in 5 cases in the past week. Four states were responsible for more than 40 percent of cases in the past week, health officials said. And 10 percent of counties have moved into “high transmission risk.” The response in some corners of the nation was swift. In Los Angeles County, an indoor mask mandate — applying to everyone, vaccinated or not — was reimposed. In Abilene, Kan., the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum was shuttered because of an increase in covid-19 cases. Health officials repeatedly stressed the outsize toll covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, is taking on unvaccinated people and communities. More than 97 percent of hospitalizations are among those who are unvaccinated, Walensky said, and almost all covid-19 deaths — which climbed 26 percent in the past week — are among people who have not received a shot. “Unvaccinated Americans account for virtually all recent covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths,” said Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus coordinator. “Each covid-19 death is tragic, and those happening now are even more tragic because they are preventable.”

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Washington Post - July 18, 2021

Cuba’s president confronts a nation in crisis. Among his challenges: ‘He’s no Fidel.’

“Freedom!” the crowds shouted. “Down with Fidel!” It was 1994, and hundreds of Cubans poured their rage and desperation onto the oceanfront boulevard known as the Malecón. The country was in the midst of an economic crisis known as the “special period,” when the collapse of the Soviet Union stripped Cuba of its primary trading partner and left the country on the brink of famine. Some 27 years later, the country saw even larger protests, with thousands across the island taking to the streets over similar complaints: a failing economy, tightened U.S. sanctions, food shortages and blackouts that have left scores of Cubans sweltering in the heat. A spiking covid-19 outbreak has only made matters worse. But there is one big difference: Fidel Castro — revered liberator, feared tyrant, master propagandist — is gone.

Moments after police quelled the 1994 protests, Castro stepped out of a Jeep onto the Malecón, according to news reports from the time, to find, almost magically, a group of supporters shouting “Viva Fidel!” When the current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, walked through streets of protesters this week, he was cursed at. Díaz-Canel lacks the revolutionary pedigree of a Castro — a guerrilla fighter credited by his followers for freeing the island from the yoke of U.S. domination — nor has he yet displayed the kind of geopolitical sleight of hand that Castro relied on to wiggle out of difficult situations. While Díaz-Canel has shown no aversion to strong-arming and detaining protesters, neither does he have Castro’s decades-long record of consistent and brutal repression of political opponents. Díaz-Canel is dealing with “a situation much more complicated than the one in 1994,” said Miguel Coyula, an architect and urban planner in Havana. “And he’s no Fidel. That’s a fundamental difference.” A former education minister, longtime bureaucrat and Communist loyalist, Díaz-Canel became Cuba’s new head of state in 2018 after nearly six decades of Castro rule. This year, he succeeded Raúl Castro as first secretary of the Communist Party.

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Politico - July 18, 2021

Democrats look to crush states' highway habit

House Democrats are trying to use a massive climate and infrastructure bill to change how Americans get around — by breaking states’ decades-old fondness for building highways. Legislation the House passed this month is the biggest advance yet in Democrats' efforts to bake climate policies into transportation, addressing the largest single contributor to the United States’ greenhouse gas output. It would also represent an historic shift away from the roads-first approach to federal transportation spending that has reigned since Dwight Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System.

But the bill is riling up opposition from two potential allies of the Democrats' big-spending infrastructure initiatives: state transportation departments and the road-building lobby. That creates an awkward dynamic for supporters of the House bill, which faces a perilous path through the evenly divided Senate. Critics say the five-year, $549 billion bill would represent one-size-fits-all Washington meddling at its worst. “There are 50 different states with 50 different sets of transportation challenges. What is right for one may not be right for another," said Dave Bauer, CEO of the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, which supports many of the bill's provisions and principles. "It’s really hard to determine that five years at a time from Washington, D.C.” The bill’s supporters say the old system is unsustainable. "We have to begin to look at alternatives,” House Transportation Chair and bill sponsor Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) told POLITICO in the run-up to the bill's passage in June. "You can’t pave over the whole country."

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Daily Beast - July 15, 2021

MAGA world’s ‘Freedom Phone’ actually budget Chinese phone

The pro-Trump internet went wild on Wednesday for the Freedom Phone, a $500 smartphone that comes stocked with conservative apps and promises to liberate anyone else who buys it from Silicon Valley censorship. The American flag-branded phone was immediately promoted by a wide range of right-wing figures, including former Trump adviser Roger Stone, Jan. 6 rally organizer Ali Alexander, and pundit Dinesh D’Souza. “I’m holding a freaking phone that is not controlled by Apple or Google,” conservative personality Candace Owens told her fans in an Instagram video. “We made the switch immediately.”

Despite being lauded by some of the right-wing media’s leading figures, though, the Freedom Phone’s buyers could be getting less than they expect for its $500 price tag. That’s because the Freedom Phone appears to be merely a more expensive rebranding of a budget Chinese phone available elsewhere for a fraction of the Freedom Phone’s price. The Freedom Phone was created by Erik Finman, the self-proclaimed “youngest bitcoin millionaire” and one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential Teens of 2014.” In a video announcing the phone, Finman said he was inspired to create the phone after the tech giants’ crackdown on both Donald Trump and conservative social media app Parler in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot. “Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg censored MLK or Abraham Lincoln,” Finman said in the video. Freedom Phone’s website is nearly totally devoid of technical information about the device. Finman declares in the promotional video that the Freedom Phone is “comparable to the best smartphones on the market” and “truly is the best phone in the world.” In fact, Freedom Phone appears to be a simple rebranding of a budget phone called the “Umidigi A9 Pro,” made by the Chinese tech company Umidigi. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Finman confirmed that the Freedom Phone was manufactured by Umidigi, but couldn’t say immediately which Umidigi phone it was based on.

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Washington Times - July 16, 2021

‘Get back to work’: Republican ad targets wayward Texas Democrats

The Texas Democratic legislators camped out in the nation’s capital to stymie a new voting bill back home show no sign of returning to Austin, so Republicans are giving them a nudge. The Republican State Leadership Committee (RLSC) and Associated Republicans of Texas launched this week a six-figure text and digital campaign seeking to “hold Democrats accountable for abandoning Texas.” “Democrats in Texas took an oath to serve the people,” says the 15-second spot. “But instead, they hopped on a D.C.-bound private jet to avoid passing critical laws that Texans support. Stop the publicity stunt. Get back to work.” Nearly 60 Texas House Democrats flew Monday by chartered jets to Dulles International Airport, denying the chamber a quorum in a second attempt to stop the passage of GOP election-integrity legislation decried by Democrats as a voter-suppression bill.

Another eight Lone Star State Democratic senators have since joined the House legislators, but even so, the state Senate had enough members this week to pass the elections bill, as well as legislation toughening up bail requirements and barring transgender athletes from female scholastic sports. Those bills will remain in limbo until the return of the House Democrats, who say they plan to stay out of state until the special session ends Aug. 7, although Texas GOP Gov. Greg Abbott has vowed to keep calling 30-day special sessions as long as necessary to move the legislation. Vice President Kamala D. Harris has lauded the Democrats for their “great sacrifice,” while Associated Republicans of Texas President Jamie McWright called them a “national embarrassment.” “They are subverting democracy and leaving critical legislation on the table to die solely to engage in a publicity stunt to raise money,” said Ms. McWright in a statement. “We are proud to partner with the RSLC to make sure that, come November 2022, Texans remember they were abandoned by those that swore to serve them.” Texas Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan announced Thursday that he has chartered a private plane on standby to bring back the Democratic legislators, an offer they declined, saying that the Republican speaker “should save his money.”

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Wall Street Journal - July 16, 2021

DACA immigration program invalidated by federal judge

A federal judge in Texas on Friday invalidated an Obama-era initiative that provided deportation protections and work permits to some young immigrants, a ruling that places the program in jeopardy. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen ruled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unlawful because Congress never gave the executive branch the power to grant mass reprieves to immigrants who are in the U.S. without authorization. “As popular as this program might be, the proper origination point for the DACA program was, and is, Congress,” Judge Hanen, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote. The judge in another part of his ruling said the Obama administration also erred by not soliciting public comment on DACA before adopting it.

Judge Hanen’s ruling barred the Biden administration from approving new DACA applications. But the judge stayed the immediate effect of his ruling on current DACA recipients, citing their longtime reliance on the program, meaning there won’t be upheaval right away for those people who are currently in good standing. Current recipients will also be allowed to renew their status under the program, the ruling said. The judge sent the matter back to the Department of Homeland Security for it to determine how to proceed. DHS has previously said it is working on a formal regulation to codify a DACA-like program in the coming months, which potentially could firm up some legal vulnerabilities. The case is likely to see additional legal proceedings at higher-level courts, which could leave any final outcome many months away.

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Boston Globe - July 17, 2021

At the kickoff event of the 2024 presidential race, Trump voters in Iowa say they are ready to move on

If ever there was a political bloc that could be counted on to hold a candle for Donald Trump, it would seem to be white evangelical Christians, who maintained a near-uniform front for the Republican throughout his presidency and beyond. Yet, as some 1,200 evangelicals gathered here for the Family Leadership Summit, widely seen as the first political event on the long road to the 2024 Republican primary, there was a feeling among some that it was time to move on. “I agree with pretty much everything Trump did on policy as president, but I don’t think it would be good for him or good for the country if he ran again,” said Ken Hayes, a retired nonprofit worker from rural Fort Dodge, who said he prayed for Trump every day the man was in office. Held in the Des Moines convention center, the daylong event is considered a key preview of how would-be candidates resonate among social conservatives, who dominate the Republican caucuses here. It featured appearances from former vice president Mike Pence, former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.

To be sure, there was plenty of praise for Trump, and more than a few attendees said they have his back as he continues to make baseless claims about the 2020 election. But in interviews with 15 people at the conference, all of whom voted for Trump, none said they hoped the former president would run again. “I am interested in who comes next,” said 58-year-old Cheryl Prall. Trump himself has remained largely focused on bogus audits in states he lost to President Biden. Denied access to major social media platforms, most days he churns out press releases complaining about the election and those he feels have slighted him. On Friday alone, he released at least four press statements on the topic through his political action committee. But for Mary Bloom, a 55-year-old homeschooling parent who attended Friday’s event and believes some of Trump’s claims about the 2020 election, “It is what it is and we all need to move on to the next election.” Indeed, while Iowa traditionally grants winners of the first-in-the-nation contest momentum in the presidential race, in 2024 it could do something else: show that the party is moving on. That subtext was apparent in speeches on Friday. Pence talked repeatedly about “our administration” with Trump and said being his vice president was “the greatest honor of my life.” Yet he also bashed the Biden administration, setting up a possible 2024 battle cry. “After 177 days of open borders, higher taxes, runaway spending, defunding the police, abortion on demand, censoring free speech, canceling our most cherished liberties, I’ve had enough,” said Pence to applause. Pompeo brought up how Trump called him in January after a major news outlet said he was Trump’s most loyal Cabinet member. But he mainly focused on his own story and time as secretary of state. Noem didn’t mention Trump at all, and instead focused on her time as governor and her refusal to lock down her state during the pandemic. “A lot of the people I’m talking to sort of realize that 2020 happened and we need to focus on 2024 if we’re going to get anything done, because worrying about the past isn’t going to help,” said Ronald Forsell, the Republican Party chair in Dallas County, a fast-growing suburban county.

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