December 18, 2018

Lead Stories

CNBC - December 17, 2018

S&P 500 drops more than 2 percent to new low for 2018, Dow dives 500 points

Stocks tanked on Monday, pushing the S&P 500 to a new low for the year amid growing concerns that the Federal Reserve's plan to raise interest rates could be too much for the economy and stock market to handle.

The S&P 500 fell as much as 2.5 percent to 2,530.54, surpassing its February intraday low of 2,532.69. The broad market index finished the session down 2 percent at 2,545.94, its lowest close for the year. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 507.53 points to close at 23,592.98, bringing its two-day losses to more than 1,000 points. Shares of Amazon and Goldman Sachs led the declines. The Dow and S&P 500, which are both in corrections, are on track for their worst December performance since the Great Depression in 1931, down more than 7 percent so far for the month. The S&P 500 is now in the red for 2018 by 4 percent. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite dropped 2.2 percent to finish the day at 6,753.73 as Microsoft dropped 2.9 percent. The Russell 2000 — which tracks the performance of smaller companies — entered a bear market, down 20 percent from its 52-week high. DoubleLine Capital CEO Jeffrey Gundlach said Monday that he "absolutely" believes the S&P 500 will go below the lows that the index hit early in 2018. "I'm pretty sure this is a bear market," Gundlach told Scott Wapner on CNBC's "Halftime Report. The major averages fell to session lows following his comments. All 30 stocks in the Dow and all 11 sectors in the S&P 500 posted losses on Monday.

Houston Chronicle - December 17, 2018

Oil closes below $50 a barrel for first time in more than a year

Crude oil prices on Monday settled below $50 a barrel for the first time in more than a year, threatening the health of the Houston energy sector again after a slow two-year recovery from the worst oil bust in a generation.

The dip below the $50 threshold places prices just below what’s considered necessary for most energy firms to make money. It adds to recent pessimism among investors and executives as oil companies set their spending budgets for 2019, potentially considering cutbacks and modest layoffs, energy analysts said. Oil prices have plunged by about one-third since early October from a high of $76 a barrel to a new 2018 low of just below $50 a barrel as markets have grown fearful of an oil glut as production increases and demand growth weakens amid a a global economic slowdown. A recent deal this month by OPEC and Russia to scale back production for the first six months of 2019 may have prevented another widespread industry collapse, analysts said, but the accord has failed so far to brighten outlooks. “We’re finding a floor and the oil price could go a bit lower in the short term,” said James West, an energy analyst with Evercore ISI in New York. “But we shouldn’t be in any kind of a bust scenario.” Staying at or below $50 a barrel likely will mean spending cuts by oil companies, a decline in drilling activity and the loss of some jobs in Texas, West said. Already, Houston-based ConocoPhillips, the nation’s largest independent oil and gas producer, said it is keeping its spending flat next year. If oil prices don’t rise in the weeks ahead, more companies will follow ConocoPhillips, analysts said. Oil prices are considered healthy at about $60 a barrel. U.S. oil prices settled Monday at $49.88 a barrel, down $1.32 on the day to its lowest level since September 2017. Oil futures were pushed further down by a weak overall day on Wall Street. On the flip side, lower oil prices are good for consumers. The Houston-area average for a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline on Monday slipped to $2 per gallon, the cheapest since December 2016, according to GasBuddy, which tracks prices across the country. Plenty of stations in the region are selling gasoline below $1.90 a gallon. Across the country, drivers can find gasoline for less than $2 a gallon in at least 31 states. The plunge in gasoline prices has put hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of American consumers. The economic and political benefits of lower gasoline prices are among the reasons President Donald Trump has urged Saudi Arabia and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to keep churning out oil, analysts said, even thought falling prices could undermine the growth of the U.S. oil and gas industry.

Dallas Morning News - December 17, 2018

Gov. Abbott says Texas will prioritize Obamacare replacement as health care lawsuit continues

Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas will work to pass its own health care law to replace the Affordable Care Act if it's ultimately struck down in the courts.

In the wake of a Friday ruling that struck down the federal health care law, Abbott said he will consult with the Trump administration on immediate next steps while state lawmakers and regulators fashion their own plan to succeed the ACA. "As the ACA lawsuit goes through the appellate process, Texas will work with the Administration to get appropriate waivers from federal law allowing insurers to provide coverage at lower rates while ensuring that Texans with pre-existing conditions continue to have access to quality healthcare," Abbott said. "Additionally, Texas will begin the process of reforming state regulations and proposing changes to laws that will achieve those same goals. Importantly, Texas will strive to expand healthcare insurance coverage, reduce the cost of healthcare, and ensure that Texans with pre-existing conditions are protected." Abbott then tweeted Texas would "be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for preexisting conditions." U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor struck down the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, late Friday. He ruled that without the individual mandate, which last year's federal tax law repealed, the health care law is unconstitutional. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led the lawsuit and came under fire during his 2018 re-election campaign for specifically targeting coverage for pre-existing conditions. Texas has the highest number of children without health care coverage in the country, a recent report showed, and the highest overall uninsured rate in 2016. Obamacare will remain in place while the Friday decision is appealed. But, in the meantime, conservative advocates have urged Republican leaders to pass state laws that could replace Obamacare if O'Connor's decision is ultimately upheld. "It's time to get started now, not to wait for the ultimate outcome of this case," Rob Henneke, general counsel with the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, said in a call with reporters Monday morning. When Texas lawmakers convene their 2019 session in January, he said, they should be "looking at the issue of pre-existing conditions. We need to look at ways of creating guaranteed protection pools." Henneke added states should prioritize "market-based solutions but also regulations that will provide for choice." Stacey Pogue, a health care policy analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, worried that Henneke was advocating a return to high-risk pools that offered separate coverage to the sickest patients who weren't covered by their employers. She said the waivers Abbott referenced state could be used to could pay claims for these people but warned this program could end if Obamacare is struck down. Plus, Pogue warned, brand new changes made to the waiver requirements allowing them to pay for so-called short-term plans could result in people getting handed "junk" health insurance. It all depends on what Abbott and the state's other Republican leaders truly want, she said "We welcome the governor and state lawmakers focusing their attention where it should have been a long time ago," Pogue said. "But it would take a commitment that we have not seen in this state to making good coverage affordable."

New York Times - December 17, 2018

Ousted CBS CEO Les Moonves will not receive $120 million severance

The CBS Corporation, battered by scandal and facing a leadership vacuum, said its former chief executive, Leslie Moonves, misled the company about multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and tried to hide evidence as he made a frenzied attempt to save his legacy and reap a lucrative severance.

The company determined he breached his employment contract and, as a result, will not receive his $120 million exit payout. “We have determined that there are grounds to terminate for cause, including his willful and material misfeasance, violation of company policies and breach of his employment contract, as well as his willful failure to cooperate fully with the company’s investigation,” the CBS board said in a statement on Monday. The board, which met over several days last week, came to its decision after reviewing information gathered by lawyers hired by the company to investigate claims against Mr. Moonves, who was forced out in September, as well as the broader workplace culture at the network. Mr. Moonves “engaged in multiple acts of serious nonconsensual sexual misconduct in and outside of the workplace, both before and after he came to CBS in 1995,” according to a late November draft of the investigators’ report reviewed by The New York Times. The lawyers had gathered ample evidence showing Mr. Moonves had violated CBS policies, including lying to investigators and deleting texts that revealed his attempts to silence an accuser. Mr. Moonves has denied all the allegations and said any sexual acts he engaged in were consensual. The investigators had spoken with Mr. Moonves four times and found him to be “evasive and untruthful at times and to have deliberately lied about and minimized the extent of his sexual misconduct,” according to the draft report. Mr. Moonves could still contest the board’s ruling and fight for his severance through arbitration. He could argue the company violated the confidentiality terms of his exit agreement when the internal investigation became public.

New York Times - December 17, 2018

Russian 2016 influence operation targeted African-Americans on social media

The Russian influence campaign on social media in the 2016 election made an extraordinary effort to target African-Americans, used an array of tactics to try to suppress turnout among Democratic voters and unleashed a blizzard of activity on Instagram that rivaled or exceeded its posts on Facebook, according to a report produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The report adds new details to the portrait that has emerged over the last two years of the energy and imagination of the Russian effort to sway American opinion and divide the country, which the authors said continues to this day. “Active and ongoing interference operations remain on several platforms,” says the report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Texas, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. One continuing Russian campaign, for instance, seeks to influence opinion on Syria by promoting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president and a Russian ally in the brutal conflict there. The New Knowledge report, which was obtained by The New York Times in advance of its scheduled release on Monday, is one of two commissioned by the Senate committee on a bipartisan basis. They are based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by Facebook, Twitter and the other companies whose platforms were used. The second report was written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media. The Washington Post first reported on the Oxford report on Sunday. The Russian influence campaign in 2016 was run by a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency, owned by a businessman, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who is a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. Mr. Prigozhin and a dozen of the company’s employees were indicted last February as part of the investigation of Russian interference by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel. Both reports stress that the Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every available platform. A major goal was to support Donald Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the presidential race, then in the general election, and as president since his inauguration. Creating accounts designed to pass as belonging to Americans, the Internet Research Agency spread its messages not only via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, which have drawn the most attention, but also on YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+, among other platforms. Its attack on the United States used almost exclusively high-tech tools created by American companies.

State Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 18, 2018

DACA, immigration advocates say they won’t support Trump's wall but are open to some compromise

As President Donald Trump and leading Democrats clash over border security spending, immigration advocates are increasingly at odds, unsure about compromising with a president committed to limiting all forms of immigration.

Though most say they don’t support the construction of a border wall in exchange for a path to citizenship for beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, some feel that Democrats might have to give in to some of Trump’s demands if Congress can find a permanent solution for Dreamers before 2020. DACA, as the program is known, was created by former President Barack Obama’s June 2012 executive order and has granted immigrants brought to the country illegally as children relief from deportation. They also get renewable two-year work permits. “We want something clean that doesn’t go into this notion that many have in Congress that in order to provide some protection for a few, you have to punish others,” said Julieta Garibay, co-founder and Texas director of United We Dream, one of the largest Dreamer advocacy groups in the U.S. A deal that included a DACA fix in exchange for $25 billion for a border wall fell apart in March. Garibay said members of United We Dream from all across the country have told her they are unwilling to support any border wall funding or measures that could prevent new immigrants from coming to the U.S., including those who traveled in the migrant caravan Trump railed against in the weeks leading up the midterm election. But Domingo Garcia, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S., said that compromise is the only way forward if a solution is to be viable before 2020. While he does not support constructing a border wall, Garcia said he does support bolstering funding for technology-based methods of border security if it means Trump and Republicans will support a DACA fix.

Dallas Morning News - December 17, 2018

DMN: Texas is being irresponsible with its $12 billion rainy day fund. Here's a better plan

Anybody who remembers the 1980s and the end of the oil boom in Texas understands why the state decided in 1989 to set up a constitutionally mandated rainy day fund. We needed to make sure we could keep the lights on should another crash come calling.

What no one expected then was the incredible return of the Texas energy industry that has seen “dry” oil and gas fields reborn and with them the soaring collection of severance taxes from oil and gas production. Those taxes have filled the rainy day fund to brimming with billions of dollars' new revenue. The fund’s official name — the Economic Stabilization Fund — holds more than $12 billion, and that’s after billions have been carved off to go into the desperately underfunded state highway fund. Plenty of people, both in government and outside of it, have ideas for what Texas should do with the money it’s stockpiling. Few of those ideas are as sound as the one presented by state Comptroller Glenn Hegar. In the last legislative session, Hegar proposed a couple of ideas that just make plain financial sense and that the Legislature should take up this session. First, the state can no longer justify keeping the entire rainy day fund earning returns that barely cover inflation. Certificates of Deposit at the local bank do better than the state of Texas does with its rainy day fund investment. Hegar has called for setting aside a responsible amount of the fund — equal to about 8 percent of state expenditures — in the ultra-safe sort of investments the entire fund currently sits in. The remaining amount — at present about $4.5 billion and growing — would go into an endowment Hegar calls the Texas Legacy Fund. That money would still be invested conservatively but with an aim of earning a return of 3 percent to 4 percent above inflation. Those are hardly market-beating numbers, but when the investment is billions of dollars, the modest return can make a big difference in available funds to the state. This isn’t a radical recommendation. Through Hegar’s office, the state already manages 14 endowments that are invested with a goal of creating returns that do more than keep up with inflation. That includes the money the state received from its settlement with tobacco companies. The returns on that money have helped support health care for the poor. If we created another endowment with rainy day funds, the state would still have plenty of money in the bank to cover the cost of government in the event of a drastic downturn in the economy or to help support recovery after a major natural disaster such as Hurricane Harvey.

Dallas Morning News - December 17, 2018

Trammell Crow, Hines ranked as country's largest property developers

A Dallas property firm has been named the country's top commercial real estate developer. Trammell Crow Co. topped Commercial Property Executive magazine's new ranking of the firms with the most commercial building activity.

Trammell Crow had almost 38 million square feet under construction and 34 million square feet completed during the last three years. The Dallas developer — a unit of CBRE — has held the magazine's top spot since 2014. Trammell Crow just finished its largest Dallas project, the two-tower, $350 million Park District development overlooking downtown's Klyde Warren Park. Trammell Crow had more than 6 million square feet of commercial real estate projects in the development pipeline in North Texas this year. Houston-based Hines was second in the ranking. And Dallas' Lincoln Property Co. ranked seventh among the country's biggest developers.

Houston Chronicle - December 18, 2018

Vietnamese refugees, immigrants across U.S. face deportation under proposed Trump policy

Hung Le’s face lit up when his 7-year-old daughter came home from school Friday. She took off her shoes with a wide grin on her face and skipped over to her father, who was sitting in the kitchen of her aunt’s Spring home. He gave her a side hug, the arm of his wheelchair creating a barrier between the two.

“There’s no living if I go back to Vietnam, only death,” Le said after she left the room. He was referring to his fate if the Trump administration’s latest immigration policy proposal goes into effect. The U.S. and Vietnamese governments met last Monday to discuss dissolving a 2008 repatriation agreement, according to immigration advocacy groups and multiple media outlets. The memorandum of understanding between the countries barred the deportation of Vietnamese immigrants with final removal orders who arrived in the United States prior to July 12, 1995 — the date Vietnam and the United States re-established diplomatic relations. If Vietnam caves to pressure from the U.S. to back out of the agreement set to renew in January, an estimated 9,000 Vietnamese immigrants nationwide — and roughly 1,500 in Texas — would be subject to deportation at the start of the new year. With a criminal record from the late 1990s, Le could be one of them. The move, immigration advocates and lawyers say, would be a devastating and unfair blow to a vulnerable population. Many came to the United States to flee the Vietnam War only to be placed in struggling neighborhoods with little or no resources. As a result, some may have looked to gangs for support they couldn’t find in their homes, schools and communities. “The original agreement for us has been tremendously important in providing humanitarian relief and protection for Vietnamese-Americans who came over as refugees… and unfortunately committed crimes they have served through sentences, many of them a decade old,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Southeast Asian Resource Action Center. Dinh added that the government considers a criminal act by a noncitizen problematic in and of itself, thanks to major immigration law reforms passed in 1996. Those reforms “expanded the definition of what is considered a felony by so many criteria, that even small crimes that are misdemeanors can be classified as aggravated felonies,” Dinh said. Those who entered the country illegally prior to 1995, or who overstayed temporary visas would also potentially be affected by the policy change, said Khanh Pham, attorney for the refugee and asylum advocacy group Boat People SOS.

Houston Chronicle - December 18, 2018

Investors pressure Exxon Mobil on climate emissions

The nation's largest oil company is coming under mounting pressure from shareholders to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change.

Institutional investors in Exxon Mobil filed a resolution Monday calling on the Irving company to set and disclose greenhouse gas reduction targets for its products and operations, according to New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. His office, a trustee of the New York State Common Retirement Fund, and the Church of England's investment fund are leading the effort. The resolution – the first of its kind at Exxon Mobil – calls on the company to set short-, medium- and long-term emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Climate agreement at a time when other energy companies are also facing investor pressure to reduce emissions. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, recently caved to growing investor pressure and agreed to link executive pay to emission reduction targets. "Exxon Mobil's lack of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions reduction targets puts it at odds with its industry peers that have taken such steps," DiNapoli said in a statement. "The world is transitioning to a lower carbon future, and Exxon needs to demonstrate its ability to adapt or risk its bottom line along with investors' confidence." Shareholders are expected to vote on the resolution at Exxon Mobil's annual meeting in the spring. Other investors supporting the resolution include California Public Employees' Retirement System, HSBC Global Asset Management, Presbyterian Church USA and Fonds de Solidarité des Travailleurs du Québec, a Canadian capital development organization The resolution was developed in line the Climate Action 100+, a global initiative with 310 investors and more than $32 trillion under management. The initiative aims to put pressure on the largest emitters of greenhouse gases to fight climate change. "Global investors are increasingly calling on the companies that they own to demonstrate that they are prepared for a carbon-constrained future," Andrew Logan, director of oil and gas at the sustainability nonprofit organization Ceres, said in a statement. "Setting ambitious goals consistent with the Paris Agreement to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions – and taking concrete steps to actualize those goals – would be a sign to investors that Exxon is taking this issue seriously."

Houston Chronicle - December 16, 2018

Can Houston keep its title as world’s energy capital?

Houston has held the title Energy Capital of the World for at least a century, but many local business leaders worry the globally recognized title could soon be under siege.

“The energy mix is changing, and it could be changing even faster than we thought even a few years ago,” said Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, or GHP, the business advocacy group for the region. “We’d like to be known as the ‘New Energy Capital’ as well.” Some GHP member companies have sounded alarms as renewables such as solar and wind keep growing at a rapid clip. In January, Harvey convened a small group of eight to 10 executives from local renewable energy companies to discuss ways GHP could attract what the group is now calling “new energy” companies to Houston. “A group of players were saying, ‘We’re doing interesting things but no one in Houston seems to know it, or notice, or care. In fact, it’s not even clear whether what we’re doing is even being appreciated by Houston,’” Harvey recalled. The group Harvey put together grew rapidly to include representatives from about 40 companies, including traditional oil and gas majors like Chevron. The goal is to recruit renewable energy companies to the region. There are also discussions on creating awareness campaigns, bringing major renewable energy conferences to Houston, and finding ways to add renewables to existing conferences, such as the oil industry’s venerable CERAWeek that occurs in Houston each spring. GHP has also dusted off the failed bid the city developed to entice Amazon to move one of its headquarters offices here, hoping to apply lessons learned about attracting tech companies and tech talent away from places like the Silicon Valley and Boston. The group has yet to achieve any major milestones and Harvey is the first to admit that Houston is behind. “Our first concern is that Houston have a healthy, dynamic economy,” Harvey said. “And we don’t want to be in a position where we have not picked up on emerging technologies.” John Berger, founder and CEO of Houston-based Sunnova Energy Corp., has been a longtime vocal critic of those in Houston who are too slow to recognize the prominent future of solar energy. “I think we need to take this very seriously,” Berger said, cautioning that the region can’t “just put our hands in our pockets.” Berger founded Sunnova six years ago. The privately held company provides residential solar and battery storage to 60,000 customers in the U.S and its territories, including Guam, Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. Berger said he’s seeing a convergence of technologies in solar and energy storage that could be as disruptive as the Apple iPhone. And Houston, he said, needs to be onboard when that happens. Michael Skelly, founder and chairman of Clean Line Energy Partners, a Houston company that builds transmission lines for wind and solar projects, said Houston has come a long way, but desperately needs more renewable companies in its roster. “We’re in the top five cities on wind and we’re not even in the top 10 on solar,” said Skelly. “And if you believe, as many people do, that renewables are going to be a bigger and bigger part of the energy mix, being in the very top cities is very important.” Skelly said he believes Houston still has time to make gains. But it better keep moving. “Right now, it’s a jump ball and it’s not clear who is going to win, but there’s a big prize.”

Austin American-Statesman - December 17, 2018

Refuting DPS findings, study rejects link between agency's traffic stops, racial profiling

A report commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety acknowledged there were racial disparities in citations that troopers issued during traffic stops, but concluded that those disparities could not be definitively linked to racial profiling.

The report, conducted by two University of North Texas professors, issued no recommendations and said that DPS’ policies align with best practices. A lawmaker and an expert, who have both called DPS’ practices into question, said they wish the analysts had dug deeper. A 2016 American-Statesman report revealed patterns of racial disparities in DPS traffic stops. The UNT professors’ report released last week also found disparities in citation rates, finding that nonwhite drivers got citations during traffic stops more often than white motorists. While traffic stops involving white drivers ended in citations 29.5 percent of the time in 2017, black drivers received citations at a rate of 41.2 percent, Hispanic drivers at 40.1 percent, Middle Eastern drivers at 39.3 percent, Alaska Native/American Indian drivers at 38.2 percent and Asian drivers at 35.8 percent. However, the report did not connect the disparities to racial profiling. “To state the reason for the disparity in citation rate across race/ethnicity is due to race only and thus demonstrates racial profiling on the part of the Highway Patrol troopers, is conjecture. ... Since most of the factors considered by the officer before taking the enforcement action are unknown — i.e., not in the TX DPS database — it is invalid to state the factor that explains the disparity in enforcement actions is race/ethnicity,” wrote the authors, Eric Fritsch and Chad Trulson, both professors with UNT’s Department of Criminal Justice. “A pattern of disparities in traffic stop enforcement actions does not establish a pattern of racial profiling.” Fritsch and Trulson added that “TX DPS should be lauded for its internal control mechanisms to inhibit racial profiling.” State Rep. Garnet Coleman, who chairs a House committee that has looked into research that showed that state troopers search black and Latino drivers at higher rates than Anglos, said he found the report’s tone to be defensive. “It reads like they’re defending the status quo,” said Coleman, D-Houston. However, DPS said it will launch a new system that tracks DPS traffic stop data related to the race and ethnicity of drivers. DPS will use this “to identify trends and outliers that could indicate performance issues, including the potential for racial profiling,” the department said in a statement. “We are pleased with the findings of the UNT analysis; yet, we continue to look for ways to enhance the way we protect and serve Texans,” DPS Director Steven McCraw said. “This new internal control program will do just that.” Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina professor who worked with the Statesman on an investigation in 2016, analyzed DPS data and found that 35 percent of Texas’ more than 1,100 state troopers search minority drivers at least twice as often as they do white drivers. The analysis came after the death of Sandra Bland, who was arrested in 2015 after a controversial traffic stop and was later found dead in a Waller County jail. In cases where DPS troopers were accused of racial profiling — most of which DPS has dismissed — a Statesman review of dashboard camera videos showed that the reasons why officers had stopped the motorists were not always so clear-cut and raised questions about how the agency handles the allegations. DPS officials strongly disagreed with the findings. The department reviewed several troopers identified by the Statesman as having high search-rate disparities, analyzing their complaint history and video of traffic stops, and found zero evidence of racial profiling, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in 2016. Still, DPS promised to broadly examine racial profiling issues. But a Statesman investigation found last year that DPS hand-picked Fritsch to be the report’s author. DPS Deputy Director Robert “Duke” Bodisch suggested Eric Fritsch in an August 2016 email that included a bio saying Fritsch is a “former police officer and has worked extensively with law enforcement agencies for the past 20 years.” Fritsch did not return an email from the American-Statesman seeking comment.

Austin American-Statesman - December 17, 2018

Richard Overton, nation's oldest living WWII vet, back in the hospital with pneumonia

Richard Overton, an Austin resident and oldest living World War II veteran, has been hospitalized with pneumonia for the second time this year, according to family.

His family is asking for prayers as Overton recovers at St. David’s Medical Center, where he has been since Wednesday, said his cousin Volma Overton Jr. “This is probably his third time fighting pneumonia this year, and he’s been to the hospital twice for it,” Volma Overton Jr. said. “It hit him hard, but they’re taking wonderful care of him.”

Texas Hill Country News - December 17, 2018

Azellia White, the first female black pilot in Texas, turns 105

Azellia White may be 105 years old, but she clearly remembers becoming the first African-American woman in Texas to receive her pilot’s license.

Born in Gonzales, Texas, in 1913, White married and then moved with her husband Hulon “Pappy” White to Alabama where he worked as a mechanic with the Tuskegee Airmen, an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee. One day in 1941, then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit the airfield and asked, despite Secret Service objections, to fly with one of the African-American pilots. After flying for an hour with one of the pilots, Eleanor Roosevelt was so impressed that she recommended deployment of the squadron into World War II. White was then inspired to learn how to fly herself. Onsite, she had eager teachers to train her, and she earned her private pilot’s license on March 26, 1946. Trips were often executed around the southern United States as it was often dangerous for African-Americans to travel from town to town by land. When World War II came to a close, White and Pappy returned to Texas, and she continued to fly. Partnering with her husband and two other Tuskegee Airmen, she started the Sky Ranch Flying Service, located in south Houston. Sky Ranch served as an airport for the segregated African-American community and provided instruction to veterans interested in flying, as well as charter flying, cargo services, and other amenities to afford African-American G.I.’s and civilians the opportunity to learn about aviation. The company closed its doors in 1948, reportedly due to new legislation which restricted the use of the G.I. Bill, leading to a downturn in the flight training business, but Sky Ranch and all involved made its mark on the community.

Austin Chronicle - December 17, 2018

CEO Chuck Smith leaves Equality Texas

Equality Texas, a statewide political advocacy organization for LGBTQ rights, announced earlier today that CEO Chuck Smith is leaving the nonprofit after his 15-year tenure.

In a press release sent out Monday, Dec. 17, President of Equality Texas Foundation Board Elizabeth Myers and Equality Texas Board President Steve Rudner made the announcement, noting that, as CEO “Chuck led the growth in programs to help LGBTQ Texans, oversaw the expansion of staff statewide, created a business outreach program that is a model for the country, gave transgender people a visible voice, defeated the bathroom bill twice during the 2017 legislative session and passed anti-bullying legislation in 2011.” Equality Texas will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year and Smith, via the release, notes that he's been with the organization for half its lifespan. Now, he said: “The Board and I have decided it’s time for a new generation of leadership to take us to the next step in our fight for equality in Texas.” However, neither Myers, Rudner, nor Smith give the reason for the unexpected departure – especially in light of the upcoming legislative session kicking off on January 8, 2019. Equality Texas plays a large role in backing legislation to support Texas’ queer and trans communities while also fighting to kill anti-LGBTQ bills. In fact, Smith spoke to the Chronicle two weeks ago about major lawmaking priorities in 2019. For the time being, Samantha Smoot, a native Texan and the former political director for both the Planned Parenthood Federation for America and the Human Rights Campaign, has been tapped to serve as interim executive director. Already, Smoot’s bio has been uploaded to Equality Texas’ website and Smith’s has been seemingly removed. Smoot, who once served as the executive director of Texas Freedom Network, brings 20 years of experience to Equality Texas, noted the email. Most recently, she worked with the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, where she’s “fought to support citizen groups and political leaders as they build more inclusive democracies … in the Middle East and North Africa, West Africa, and Eurasia,” according to the release. “On behalf of the Board of Directors, staff, donors, and volunteers, we want to thank Chuck for his extraordinary service,” signed off Myers and Rudner. “As board presidents, we can assure you Equality Texas is committed to a seamless transition.”

Star-Telegram - December 17, 2018

‘A life well lived’: Fort Worth gathers to celebrate the life of Reby Cary

For all the trails Reby Cary blazed and the battles against discrimination he fought, Nathan Williams, 72, will always remember him for his big ol’ smile.

Williams is a retired security guard from the FWISD. He attended Dunbar High School in the 1960’s and Cary — a pioneering educator and civil rights activist — was his history teacher in 1964. “He was my favorite teacher,” Williams said laughing. “He had a big, pretty smile.” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, city councilman Brian Byrd and Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks joined Williams and about 100 members and friends of the city’s African-American community to celebrate Cary’s life Monday afternoon. Cary died on Friday, Dec. 7, at age 98. He is survived by his only daughter, Faith Ellis. At the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Pastor Marcus McDonald delivered a passionate eulogy that highlighted Cary’s contributions and impact on Fort Worth. McDonald sang along with the choir of the New Rising Star Baptist Church, the church that Cary attended and that his father, Smith Cary, founded. “He has transitioned from labor to reward,” McDonald said. The church erupted into applause when McDonald retold the story of how Cary forced UT Arlington to change its mascot from a Rebel soldier and remove Confederate flags on campus. From teaching to being the first black man on Fort Worth school board to representing District 95 in the state legislature, Cary not only stood up on behalf of the African-American community, but he was always the one leading the charge. McDonald noted how Cary made sure that black students were educated as equally as students from other ethnicities. “Reby had the wisdom to write history,” said Jewell Blanton Kelly, a retired FWISD teacher. “And if a people forgets its history, it’s subject to make some of the same mistakes. He was a legend in his own time. He didn’t forget his people and he didn’t forget where he came from.” Bob Ray Sanders, former Star-Telegram columnist and long-time friend, said Cary was passionate about highlighting the contributions of black men and women in Fort Worth and Texas. “He wanted to tell black America’s story and black Fort Worth’s story,” Sanders said after Cary’s death this month. “He wanted people to know about those pioneers, the doctors, lawyers and others who contributed but who never got the attention or honors they deserve because they lived in a segregated society.”

Public News Service - December 17, 2018

Report: Most uninsured Texans are employed U.S. citizens

Unless Texas lawmakers make significant changes to health policies, the number of Texans without health insurance is projected to rise, according to a new report released by the Episcopal Health Foundation.

Foundation spokesman Brian Sasser says the report paints a clearer picture of just who lacks health coverage in the Lone Star State. He notes many work full-time in stores, wait tables, build homes or care for children, but still cannot afford insurance. "I think what may surprise some folks is that working Texans make up the majority of the uninsured in Texas,” Sasser points out. “In fact, two thirds of uninsured Texans live in working families." More than half of Texans without coverage live in families that include at least one full-time worker, according to the report. More than 4-in-10 live in families where at least one adult works at a company with more than 50 employees. A majority of Texans say they want the state to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which could insure more than a million residents. Lawmakers argue the move could put taxpayers on the hook for Medicaid costs if the ACA implodes. States that expanded Medicaid eligibility saw the largest increases in health coverage. Nationally, just 11 percent of people younger than 65 were uninsured in 2018, but in Texas 19 percent of people not old enough for Medicare coverage lacked insurance. Sasser notes that people without coverage lack access to preventive care, and when they get sick many end up in the emergency room where costs are much higher. "So when they go to the hospital and they can't pay for that because they don't have health insurance, that bill is passed onto somebody – whether it's the taxpayers or in higher premiums – and the cost goes down the line," he states. The report confirms that Texas has the highest number of uninsured people in the nation, currently nearly 5 million residents. And 60 percent of uninsured Texans live in families earning less than $35,000 a year for a family of four. More than 60 percent of Texans without coverage are Hispanic, compared with 24 percent white and 10 percent black. Researchers also found that nearly two-thirds of uninsured residents are U.S. citizens.

County Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 17, 2018

Galveston County judge calls on 2 officials to resign after scammers steal $500K from county

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry on Monday called on the county's auditor and purchasing agent to resign, blaming them for cyber scammers robbing more than $500,000 from the county earlier this year.

At a county commissioners meeting Monday, Henry said County Auditor Randall Rice and County Purchasing Agent Rufus Crowder should be held responsible for the June discovery of a wrongful electronic payment of $525,282.39 to a scammer posing as a county contractor. The scammer was pretending to represent Lucas Construction Co., a Houston company doing road work for the county. The cyber thief has not been caught and the lost funds have not been recovered. Henry compared the lack of oversight to a person foregoing their tax payments. "I find it unacceptable that homeowners are held to a different standard than county employees," said Henry, a conservative Republican who has led the county since 2011. "As a result of that, I'm calling for the resignation of the purchasing agent and the county auditor for their involvement and their refusal to take any responsibility for what has happened here." The county judge acknowledged that he doesn't have authority to force out the two officials, as neither reports directly to the commissioners' court. Henry said he would direct their boards to hold them responsible. "The purchasing agent reports to a purchasing agent board and the auditor reports to a state district judge board, so all six state district judges appoint him and can remove him," Henry said. Rice did not respond directly to Henry's demand, but he did point out that an investigation conducted by a private firm, the Dawson Forensic Group, absolved a single office or person for blame in the scam. "I think that the report was fairly accurate... the conclusion they had was that everything that had been done was done according to the constitution of the state of Texas and the appropriate procedures were followed that were existing at the time and since that time, we've added additional procedures and policies in place and we're continuing to work to improve all of those things to further protect the county," Rice said. Crowder did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

City Stories

Austin American-Statesman - December 17, 2018

Gus Garcia, Austin’s first elected Hispanic mayor, dies at 84

Gus Garcia, an always straight-talking founding father of Mexican-American politics in Austin and the city’s first elected Hispanic mayor, died early Monday morning at his Northeast Austin home, his family said.

Garcia, whose 40 years of civic and political ground breaking included being the first Hispanic member of the Austin Independent School District board and its first Hispanic board president, was 84. Born in the border town of Zapata in 1934, Garcia served on the Austin City Council for more than 10 years and on the Austin school board for six years. His position as a school district trustee meant he also had a spot on Austin Community College’s first board when the district created the college in the 1970s. Garcia is survived by his wife of 58 years, Marina, three sons and five grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending. “Gus was a first many times,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, whose mayoral job Garcia won in a November 2001 special election, called after Watson stepped down to seek statewide office. “The word ‘historical’ gets thrown around too much, but it shouldn’t lose its meaning when you talk about someone who purposely was willing to put himself on the line over and over to show how things could be and should be done in Austin. “He was in essence a loving and happy person. And those qualities translated into the way he led.” Upon learning of Garcia’s death, Austin Mayor Steve Adler posted on Twitter: “We feel a community-wide heavy heart as one of our greatest Austin giants moves on. ... I will miss my friend and teacher.” To Paul Saldaña, a former Austin school district board member who served as Garcia’s council aide and mayoral chief of staff for about 10 years, Garcia was a father figure, a mentor and a demanding boss. “If you were five minutes late to a 7:30 a.m. staff meeting, you would get a lecture,” said Saldaña, who is proud that he was sworn in to the school board by Garcia in 2014. “If he was in a good mood, you would get a lecture and a joke.” Garcia, Saldaña and others said, was energized first to last by a drive for equal economic and educational opportunity for Hispanics and others disadvantaged by their beginnings, race or ethnicity. “The minute the topic of education of low-income people came up, you could see he would sit up straight and have this passion and commitment to talk about it,” Saldaña said. “He saw himself in the young people who were struggling at home.”

Rivard Report - December 18, 2018

Robert Rivard: San Antonio has a week of swirling political news, and there's more in the forecast

There have been few weeks in memory when the political winds blew through San Antonio's City Hall with such unanticipated gusts from so many different points on the compass. Unpredicted political developments are moving through the city, one after the other, like so many seasonal fronts, with more in the forecast.

Happy holidays, readers. By the time you recycle the Christmas tree, there could be a leading finalist to serve as San Antonio's new city manager, a newly appointed Council person for the East Side's District 2, and announced candidates to run in the May election to fill Councilman Rey Saldaña's soon-to-be vacated seat in District 4. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members moved quickly last week to start the process of finding a replacement for City Manager Sheryl Sculley, who announced in late November her decision to retire early in 2019 after 13 years. In fact, the application period was opened Thursday and closes Jan. 3. That makes it all but certain the finalist will be a member of Team Sculley. There could be random outside candidates applying, but it's doubtful anyone of national reputation will try. The pay is no longer major league, and term limits will be a red flag to most credible outside candidates. While such bush-league limitations are an embarrassment to the city, several members of Sculley's staff would make strong candidates to succeed her, even if Prop B had not passed. None will have the stature or acquire the power Sculley amassed over the years, but none will face what she faced coming here. The city the next manager inherits is in far superior shape than the one Sculley found upon her arrival from Phoenix in 2005. That's one compelling reason to hire at home. Continuity right now should be valued above all else. City Hall does not need a change agent. Nirenberg said as much in a Friday interview. "Honestly, I don't know how anyone from outside can compete with our people inside, because the most important qualification for the next city manager is that they've worked with Sheryl Sculley, because she is the best," said Nirenberg, who has laid out an ambitious timeline that could see City Council voting on a finalist before the end of January. "There is a high degree of anxiety inside the city and I want to get people focused on our future again," he said. "The sooner we end this period of uncertainty, the better for everyone in the city. The entire process will be transparent, including posting of the names of all applicants." While the hunt for Sculley's successor proceeds, Nirenberg and City Council will consider candidates to fill the seat of attorney and City Councilman William "Cruz" Shaw, representing District 2 and the East Side. The first-term councilman surprised colleagues with his Thursday announcement that he was stepping down to accept appointment as an associate judge in a district juvenile court. That wasn't the day's only surprise. News also broke on the Rivard Report that Saldaña will be going to work for the Austin-based education nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas when he completes his fourth and final term in office in May. The state's leading advocacy group for public schools is expanding its reach in Texas and Saldaña will remain in San Antonio. He's made it clear that he intends to stay active in local affairs, too. Nirenberg has spoken to Saldaña on numerous occasions about replacing Hope Andrade as VIA chair. The transit agency's funding, improvement of its bus fleet, and reduced waiting times for riders were all priorities for Saldaña during his time on Council. "I've been after him for a year," Nirenberg said. "Rey would be perfect for it." Saldaña said his focus right now is serving out his full term and getting a grip on his new job. "I am still interested in staying involved in the city, and transportation is certainly an interest of mine," he said Friday.

National Stories

Associated Press - December 17, 2018

After judge's ruling against Obamacare, what happens now?

A federal judge's ruling would, if upheld, wipe away the entire Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul championed by President Barack Obama and twice sustained by the Supreme Court.

Judge Reed O'Connor's opinion was issued late Friday and supporters of the law vowed to appeal and take other steps to preserve health benefits in the law sometimes called Obamacare. Although O'Connor said the entire law must fall, he did not grant a request from its opponents to have his ruling take effect immediately. That means that all the law's provisions remain in effect. The federal Health and Human Services Department put out a statement making clear that it "will continue administering and enforcing all aspects of the ACA as it had before the court issued its decision." The impact would go well beyond the more than 20 million people who are directly covered through the Obama health law. More than 170 million Americans are covered by employers and they could lose no-cost preventive care, from screening tests like colonoscopies to birth control for women. Employers would no longer be required to keep young adult children of their workers covered up to age 26. Gone would be limits on annual out-of-pocket expenses, which provide greater financial protection for people with job-based coverage. Another kind of limit — lifetime caps on what insurance will pay for medical bills — could stage a comeback. Medicare would be affected because the ACA expanded no-cost coverage of preventive services and reduced the bills of seniors with high prescription drug costs. Program finances would also take a hit. Medicaid, the federal-state program for low-income people, was expanded under the ACA. So about 12 million people who gained coverage could be left uninsured. Efforts to counter the opioid epidemic would be dealt a severe blow, since Medicaid has become a mainstay for treatment. HealthCare.gov and state insurance markets offering subsidized private insurance would disappear, potentially leaving 10 million people or more uninsured. And the list would go on. The health law made hundreds of changes. A key part of the Affordable Care Act that Obama signed into law in 2010 was the provision requiring people to have health insurance or pay a penalty if they refused. The Supreme Court upheld this individual mandate in 2012. Congress reduced that penalty to zero as part of the tax legislation it passed and President Donald Trump signed in 2017. That means that beginning in January, there no longer will be a penalty for not purchasing health insurance. O'Connor agreed with Texas and other Republican-led states that challenged the law that the elimination of the penalty rendered the requirement to have health insurance unconstitutional. In a crucial step in his logic, O'Connor then held that because the individual mandate is so important to the overall law, the whole thing can no longer stand. The legal explanation is that O'Connor found that the mandate could not be severed from the rest of the law, meaning he struck it down in its entirety.

Associated Press - December 18, 2018

For Trump, the economy is a potential 2020 storm cloud

Forget Robert Mueller. The greatest threat to President Donald Trump’s re-election bid may not be the slew of investigations closing in on his Oval Office but a possible economic slowdown. And the president knows it.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell again Monday, the latest dip in the roller coaster markets amid the strain of Trump’s trade war, rising interest rates and worries about a slowing global economy. Trump, who has tied his political fortunes to the stock market in an unprecedented fashion, has nervously watched Wall Street, keeping an eye on the cable television ticker and barking at his aides for updates. And while he continues to talk up America’s financial might, he has repeatedly and publicly rebuked the chairman of the Federal Reserve for interest rate increases he feels could slow down the economy. Trump made his feelings clear again Monday, tweeting that “It is incredible that with a very strong dollar and virtually no inflation, the outside world blowing up around us, Paris is burning and China way down, the Fed is even considering yet another interest rate hike. Take the Victory!” Throughout Trump’s term, the economy has been strong. And while the president credits his aggressive tax-cut package and deregulation efforts, the gains in fact began under President Barack Obama. Optimism about the economy has cooled somewhat this fall as Trump’s trade fight with China rattled the markets. Fond of citing job statistics and market reports, Trump has appeared highly attuned to the shift. After unnerving much of the global financial system by imposing tariffs, Trump seemed eager to ease anxiety recently, striking a trade truce with China after a dinner meeting during an international summit in Argentina. And when that move only briefly buoyed confidence, Trump set off on an erratic bout of tweeting that rocked the markets even more. First Trump declared himself a “Tariff Man,” promising to inflict as much economic pain as possible — a move that horrified investors. A day later he sought to minimize the anxieties, saying there were “very strong signals” that China was negotiating in good faith. “Not to sound naive or anything, but I believe President Xi meant every word of what he said at our long and hopefully historic meeting,” Trump tweeted. Stocks fell again Monday as both the Dow and the S&P 500 are on pace for their worst December performance since 1931, when they were battered during the Great Depression. As investors turned to an upcoming meeting of the Federal Reserve, its chairman, Jerome Powell, has repeatedly been the target of Trump’s wrath, as the Fed has been raising interest rates to make sure that the lowest unemployment in nearly five decades does not start pushing inflation higher. Arguing that the rate hikes hamper economic growth, Trump has openly questioned Powell’s leadership. “I think the Fed is making a mistake. They are so tight. I think the Fed has gone crazy,” the president said in October.

Associated Press - December 18, 2018

Deported immigrants get their last flight on 'ICE Air'

Shackled at their ankles and wrists and their shoelaces removed, a long line of men and women waited on the tarmac as a team of officers patted them down and checked inside their mouths for anything hidden.

Then one by one, they climbed a mobile staircase and onto a charter plane the size of a commercial aircraft. This was a deportation flight run by ICE Air. The chains would be removed and the shoelaces returned when the plane landed in El Salvador. An obscure division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates hundreds of flights each year to remove immigrants. Deportation flights are big business: The U.S. government has spent approximately $1 billion on them in the last decade, and the Trump administration is seeking to raise ICE's budget for charter flights by 30 percent. ICE Air Operations transports detained immigrants between American cities and, for those with final removal orders, back to their home countries. About 100,000 people a year are deported on such flights. While Mexican immigrants are generally flown to southern U.S. cities and then driven to the border so they can cross over, Central Americans have to be transported by air. And the large numbers of Mexicans who used to cross the border have largely been replaced by migrants from three impoverished Central American countries: El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. According to flight-tracking data, deportation flights to Guatemala and Honduras have sharply increased this year. And ICE's budget request for charter flights increased 30 percent last year compared to the year before. The agency estimated last year that it spends about $7,785 per hour on the flights. ICE shifted to chartering private planes about a decade ago after previously using a government service with the U.S. Marshals. The agency says moving to private flights saves about $25 million a year and gave it more flexibility. Charter flights also avoid putting large numbers of deported immigrants on commercial planes, which requires buying tickets for deportation officers accompanying them, or holding them in the U.S. for longer than necessary and tying up space in detention centers. "I don't want to elongate anybody's detention with us," said Pat Contreras, director of enforcement and removal for ICE's Houston field office. "If a judge says you need to be removed, we should be expeditiously working to execute that order so that person does not spend any longer in detention than necessary." But migrant advocacy groups say ICE Air is an example of how tougher immigration enforcement — from detention to tracking to removal — enriches private companies. "The way you would save money on ICE Air is by deporting fewer people, not by privatizing the industry," said Bob Libal, director of Grassroots Leadership, which opposes immigration detention. "ICE is a largely privatized agency," Libal said. "In many ways, it's been captured by the industries that profit from deportation and detention." The Associated Press observed a deportation flight being loaded last month at a private terminal of Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. The Boeing 737 had no markings suggesting it was a deportation flight. Instead, it had the insignia of Swift Air, a private company that also flies charters for political campaigns and professional sports teams, including the NHL's Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks. In this case, Swift Air had been hired by Classic Air Charters, a Huntington, New York-based company that won ICE's deportation flights contract last year. Classic Air has been paid $51 million this year by ICE, according to federal spending records. The previous contractor, CSI Aviation of New Mexico, was paid $906 million by ICE's removals division since 2010, when ICE privatized its flights.

Politico - December 17, 2018

Trump offering farmers extra $4.9 billion in trade relief

The Trump administration announced Monday a second and "final" round of trade aid for farmers and ranchers burned by retaliatory tariffs, including roughly $4.9 billion in additional direct payments for certain commodity producers.

The second batch of trade relief payments will apply to the second half of 2018 production for producers of corn, soybean, wheat, sorghum, cotton, shelled almonds, sweet cherries, dairy and pork, according to USDA. The payment rates for each farm good included in the program were unchanged from the first round of direct aid, announced in August, and producers only need to sign up once to be eligible for both rounds of payments. “Today I am making good on my promise to defend our Farmers & Ranchers from unjustified trade retaliation by foreign nations,” President Donald Trump tweeted. “I have authorized Secretary [Sonny] Perdue to implement the 2nd round of Market Facilitation Payments. Our economy is stronger than ever–we stand with our Farmers!“ USDA in July authorized up to $12 billion in assistance to producers dealing with low commodity prices amid Trump’s trade disputes. After Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports and a wide range of Chinese goods, other countries imposed retaliatory duties on American agricultural goods, like soybeans and pork, lowering demand and driving down prices. "While there have been positive movements on the trade front, American farmers are continuing to experience losses due to unjustified trade retaliation by foreign nations,” Perdue said in a statement. "This assistance will help with short-term cash flow issues as we move into the new year." The additional trade relief for 2018 production announced today follows a $6.3 billion batch that USDA unveiled in August, which included $4.7 billion in direct payments, $1.2 billion in commodity purchases and $200 million in market development efforts. The sign-up period ends Jan. 15, but producers have until May to certify their 2018 production. Farmers and commodity groups have complained that the government aid has been insufficient to make up for the financial impact of the administration's tariff policies. USDA is not planning further trade assistance for 2019 production, department officials have said.

Politico - December 17, 2018

When they go low, Beto can too. It's how he won his contentious 2012 Congressional race.

Beto O’Rourke says he hasn’t decided yet whether he will run for president. But here in his hometown, his supporters are bracing for a combative primary. And they point to a previous campaign — his 2012 run for Congress — as evidence that he can hold his own in an intraparty brawl.

Six years before the high-minded Texas Senate run that lifted his national star, O’Rourke felled an eight-term incumbent House Democrat, Silvestre Reyes, casting him in a bruising primary campaign as ineffectual and unethical. The race pitted O’Rourke against not only Reyes but also then-President Barack Obama, who endorsed the sitting congressman, and former President Bill Clinton, who campaigned for Reyes in the West Texas border district. In a stunning result, O’Rourke went to Congress, while Reyes became the only Texas incumbent to fail to win renomination that election year. Among Democrats in El Paso, the race laid bare a rare asset for a Democratic presidential contender: the ability to cut at his opposition while simultaneously carrying the flush of an idealist. Knocking on thousands of doors in 2012 — a precursor to his tireless trek across Texas in 2018 — O’Rourke, then a former city councilman, highlighted reports that his fellow Democrat Reyes used campaign funds to pay family members. And he blamed him for long wait times at border crossings from Juárez, Mexico. “He hit Reyes,” said Steve Ortega, a friend of O’Rourke who served on the El Paso City Council with him. “Reyes hit him as well. They went after each other. He wasn’t bashful about exposing some of the negative things that Reyes had done.” For O’Rourke's supporters, the contest has become instructive ahead of a presidential primary in which he is already taking hits from the left, with progressive activists freshly scrutinizing his House votes and lack of involvement in the Congressional Progressive Caucus. O'Rourke said Friday he does not know whether he is a “progressive Democrat,” explaining he is “not big on labels.” But while Democrats here predict he will be far less likely to criticize rival Democrats in an open primary — as opposed to his campaign against an incumbent in Reyes — the 2012 campaign demonstrated to them that he has the stomach to do it. The election, said Danny Anchondo, a former chairman of the local Democratic Party in El Paso, "was very tough, it was very controversial, it was very heated.” By 2012, O’Rourke had already established a strong record on liberal issues while on the El Paso council, calling for the legalization of marijuana and championing a then-controversial proposal to provide health benefits to partners of gay city employees. In the House race, Anchondo said, O’Rourke effectively outflanked Reyes on the left, withstanding withering attacks on a past arrest for DUI while pummeling Reyes, a Vietnam War veteran, for shortcomings at the local veterans health care system. Reyes’ inability to secure more federal funding for veterans health services was “not necessarily … his fault,” Anchondo said. Nevertheless, he said, O’Rourke “used that very effectively, and that was one of the key issues that he used.” O’Rourke also benefited from outside money, with the nonpartisan super PAC Campaign for Primary Accountability spending heavily to defeat Reyes. And he accepted limited PAC money himself, before electing in 2015 to no longer accept such contributions.

Politico - December 17, 2018

Trump keeps GOP in suspense over shutdown

Senate Republicans are searching for a way out of the impending partial government shutdown. But they are waiting for President Donald Trump to weigh in before making a move, and he appears to be in no rush to help them out.

Roughly one-fourth of the federal government is scheduled to shutter on Friday without action, and Democrats and Trump continue to spar over his border wall. With the House out of town until Wednesday, all eyes are on the Senate GOP majority and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who hates shutdowns. But as of Monday night, McConnell and Senate Republicans don't have any plan. What Trump's intentions are as to a potential shutdown apparently are as opaque to them as they are to anyone else. Senior Republicans suggested the shutdown deadline may have to come closer before either side is willing to make a deal. “If there’s a plan, I think at the moment it’s the president and the Democrats trying to figure out what they can agree upon," said Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune of South Dakota following a leadership meeting in McConnell's office. “This is going to have to build for a few days here before there’s a solution out there,” he added. “We’re talking about how to resolve our dilemma, which is what we all need to do,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.). “We don’t know“ what the president wants. Shelby met privately with McConnell earlier Monday afternoon and has been trying to steer the GOP away from a shutdown. One option that’s been discussed has been a two-week continuing resolution to kick the fight into January; another is a massive “omnibus” spending bill with funding for seven federal agencies, including a boost to border security spending, according to sources tracking the spending fight. No final decisions by the White House have been made, according to multiple sources. A former White House official who spoke with Trump Friday said the president is relishing in the fact that Republicans are awaiting his signal and letting him set the terms. Trump wants to “maximize drama,” per another Republican close to the White House. Senate Democrats have effective veto power over any deal between Republicans and the president under the Senate’s 60-vote threshold. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he’s heard nothing from the White House since offering flat spending levels on border security to Trump last Tuesday. “We don’t even know what their parameters or plans are. We’ve asked them, we’ve sent them two things, they haven’t answered us. They’ve sent us nothing,” Schumer said on Monday. “They don’t seem to know where the president is at.” That likely leaves it to McConnell, who talks to Trump on a near-daily basis. Senate Republicans would prefer not to pass a stopgap bill but acknowledged on Monday it was possible. That would likely result in House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) passing a long-term spending bill in January and denying Trump the $5 billion in wall funding he’s demanding. “Failing everything else, I admit that’s a possibility. But that’s not the first, second or third choice,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) of a short-term bill. He added that the Senate could start passing spending legislation before the House, though it would require more procedural hoops.

The Hill - December 18, 2018

Who are the leading contenders to replace Zinke as Interior secretary?

President Trump said he plans to announce this week his pick to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who will be leaving the administration at the end of the year.

The likely contenders have experience on congressional committees overseeing the Interior Department or hail from western states, an important factor considering Interior's outsized influence in the West. Trump's eventual pick will need to go through the Senate confirmation process. Here are some of the most-talked-about contenders. Interior Dept. Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt had long been considered a shoo-in for secretary. But in announcing Zinke’s exit, Trump didn’t say the deputy secretary would be in charge of the agency and its 70,000 employees. Still, he will become acting secretary until Zinke's replacement is nominated and then confirmed by the Senate. Bernhardt worked at Interior in various capacities, including solicitor, during the George W. Bush administration. He has had multiple stints at at the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP, representing clients with business before Interior. In his current role at Interior, Bernhardt has taken the lead on major initiatives like efforts to ease Endangered Species Act compliance, reduce protections for the greater sage grouse, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling and direct more water to farmers in the West. Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah is the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and is getting a demotion and becoming its ranking member starting next month since the GOP lost its House majority in the November midterm elections. Bishop’s main qualification is that he has served for years on the Natural Resources panel, which oversees Interior, and has wielded the chairman's gavel for the past four years. He’s worked closely with Zinke to reduce national monuments and ease endangered species protections. Before that, he furiously fought the Obama administration’s policies. Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada hails from a state with a high concentration of federal land, managed by numerous agencies within Interior. He lost a competitive reelection bid last month to challenger Rep. Jacky Rosen, making him the only GOP senator to fall short on Election Day this cycle. The Nevada Independent reported that Heller is very interested in the Interior job, and that Trump is seriously considering him. But Heller may lack a key qualification Trump has sought in his Cabinet members: loyalty to him.

The Hill - December 17, 2018

GOP giant Sen. Lamar Alexander won't seek reelection

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on Monday announced that he will not run for reelection in 2020. He is the latest in a string of GOP chairmen from the establishment wing of the party to announce that they will retire during the Trump era: Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) are retiring at the end of the current Congress.

"I will not be a candidate for re-election to the United States Senate in 2020. The people of Tennessee have been very generous, electing me to serve more combined years as Governor and Senator than anyone else from our state," Alexander said. Alexander, who has been in the Senate since 2003, said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which runs through the end of 2020. "I have gotten up every day thinking that I could help make our state and country a little better, and gone to bed most nights thinking that I have. I will continue to serve with that same spirit during the remaining two years of my term," he added. Alexander, 78, is the first senator up in 2020 to announce that they won't seek reelection. Republicans face a challenging map during the next cycle, where they'll be defending approximately 22 seats, including in states like Colorado and Maine, which Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Corker, on Monday, called working with Alexander "one of the highlights" of his work in the Senate. "As one of the finest statesmen our state has ever seen, Lamar will leave behind a remarkable legacy. I know he will press through the next two years with great vigor, and I look forward to all he will accomplish on behalf of Tennesseans as he completes his service in Washington," Corker said in a statement. Alexander previously served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference and is considered to be close to both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). He's also been at the center of some of the biggest fights in the Trump administration because of his position as chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee. He was part of a working group of GOP senators, assembled by McConnell, that crafted the Senate GOP's failed ObamaCare replacement bill last year. But Democrats have credited him with being willing to work with them on key issues despite growing partisanship in the Senate. He crafted a deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the health committee, to funds key payments to health insurers for two years. He was also one of less than 10 GOP senators who voted for a bipartisan immigration proposal earlier this year that would have provided approximately 1.8 million immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children an eventual pathway to citizenship in exchange for $25 billion in border security.

Wall Street Journal - December 17, 2018

Roger Stone admits spreading lies on InfoWars

As questions swirl about his credibility, former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone settled a defamation suit seeking $100 million in damages on Monday for publishing false and misleading statements on InfoWars.com, a far-right website known for promoting conspiracy theories.

The agreement requires Mr. Stone to run ads in national newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, apologizing for making defamatory statements about a Chinese businessman who is a vocal critic of Beijing. It also requires Mr. Stone to publish a retraction of the false statements on social media. Doing so exempts him from paying any of the damages. In a text message, Mr. Stone described his conduct as “irresponsible” and added that “I am solely responsible for fulfilling the terms of the settlement.” Unrelated to the Russia probe, Mr. Stone’s settlement is the latest indication that Mr. Stone’s use of various media platforms to spread unfounded claims isn’t without consequences. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s office is investigating Mr. Stone’s role in orchestrating stories about key events being examined in the Russia probe, the Journal has reported. Adam Schiff (D., Calif.), who is expected to take control of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday of Mr. Stone’s testimony last year: “I believe there’s ample reason to be concerned about his truthfulness.” Mr. Stone has accused Mr. Schiff of “smear tactics” and said he stands by his testimony. The settlement resulted from a lawsuit filed in Florida federal court in March by exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui. Mr. Guo sued Mr. Stone for falsely accusing him of being a “turncoat criminal who is convicted of crimes here and in China.” Mr. Stone also accused him of violating U.S. election laws by making political donations to Hillary Clinton, according to the lawsuit. It is illegal for foreign nationals to donate to U.S. election campaigns. Mr. Stone did not respond to a question about how the settlement impacts him financially. In recent weeks, Mr. Stone has publicly complained of his mounting legal bills, which are likely to soar higher as he continues to be of interest to investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election. “This threatens to bankrupt my family and destroy me financially,” Mr. Stone said of the Russia probes on an InfoWars broadcast earlier this month. He asked for financial support and said his bills already exceed half a million dollars. Mr. Stone has repeatedly claimed that prosecutors will have to go through him to get to President Trump, and that he will never testify against the president, whom he has known for decades. He has criticized the investigators on social media, calling the special counsel’s probe a witch hunt run by “Deep State hit man Robert Mueller” and his “minions.” A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. Mr. Trump has denied colluding with Russia, and Moscow has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Mr. Stone has denied wrongdoing.

CNN - December 17, 2018

Mueller releases memo summarizing FBI's interview with Michael Flynn

Special counsel Robert Mueller has released a January 2017 memo detailing the FBI's interview that month with Michael Flynn –– a moment that led to a high-profile criminal case against the former Trump national security adviser.

In the interview described in the memo, Flynn lied about his contact during the presidential transition in 2016 with then-Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. At times, Flynn offered the FBI agents more benign descriptions of what he and Kislyak had said about Russian policy. In all, the newly released memo shows clear examples of Flynn denying he had made policy requests of Russia, and the agents prodding him toward fuller descriptions of the calls. READ: Mueller memo summarizing FBI's interview with Michael Flynn The release of the memo Monday night -- on the eve of Flynn's criminal sentencing for lying to investigators -- sets up a clearer picture of what he said to the FBI agents in January 2017. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to investigators in that interview and about his lobbying for the Turkish government. He will likely face zero to six months in prison, though Mueller's team has asked the judge to give him no prison time because he has helped their investigation, along with other federal probes. Whether the FBI decided Flynn was lying at that moment has become a touch point in President Donald Trump's recent attacks on the Mueller investigation. Trump has latched on to whether Mueller pursued Flynn on a criminal charge at odds with the FBI's initial findings. Former FBI agent Peter Strzok's participation in the Flynn interview -- and the fact that Flynn was not warned he could be prosecuted for lying and had no lawyer in the room with him when he met with the FBI at the White House -- has also cast political shadows on the case. Trump has alleged the FBI determined that day that Flynn hadn't lied. Yet the memo from January 24, 2017, that was released Monday night does not say the FBI agents made any determinations at that time. The memo only outlines what Flynn said in a straightforward manner. The subsequent criminal complaint, filed by Mueller's office in December 2017, outlined how Flynn's retelling of the conversations was wrong. A memo released by Mueller's office last week described how the FBI had known the facts of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak before the agency approached him in the West Wing. A separate memo filed with the court last week summarized how Strzok recalled he "had the impression at the time that Flynn was not lying or did not think he was lying."

December 17, 2018

Lead Stories

Tribune News Service - December 16, 2018

Newly emboldened Congressional Democrats will push to restore state and local tax deductions

One of the most contentious fights of the Republicans’ tax law is about to go another round. Democrats from high-tax states — including California — are preparing a new push to restore the state and local tax deduction, which the law capped, when Democrats take control of the House next year.

The SALT deduction, as it’s known, allows taxpayers to deduct state and local income, sales and property on their federal tax returns, It’s especially popular in states where local taxes and the cost of living are high. Members of Congress from those states — particularly New York, New Jersey and California — protested the cap, which allows people to deduction up to $10,000 of state and local taxes. But they could not to strip it from the 2017 law. With Democrats in the majority in the House next year, however, SALT’s top defenders are ready to try again. They are hoping that as taxpayers begin to file their returns under the new rules in the coming months, the backlash will give their effort a political boost. “I think we’re in for an interesting filing season,” said Jack Peterson, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties. Leading the charge on legislation to renew SALT is Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, a senior Democrat on the Ways and Means tax writing committee. “We’re working on it now,” Pascrell said. “We’re going to have hearings on it,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., another senior Ways and Means member. “We’re going to look into the whole tax code and see what we need to do” to adjust the Republican-backed law. Given the partisan divide in Congress, it’s unlikely that new SALT provisions will pass in 2019, but proponents of the deduction want to lay the groundwork for a deal in the coming years. They have some leverage: the $10,000 cap on the deduction, like most of the rest of the individual tax changes in last year’s law, expires in 2025. But that also means the pressure to address the issue is still several years away. The politics of SALT are also complicated, dividing politicians not just along party lines, but also geographically. According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, just six states — California, New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Texas, and Pennsylvania — claimed more than half of all SALT deductions nationwide. California alone was responsible for nearly 21 percent of them. According to California Franchise Tax Board, about 2.6 million taxpayers in the state each deducted more than the $10,000 limit in state and local taxes in 2015. Of that group, about 1 million will owe more in taxes in 2018 — about $12 billion collectively. About $9 billion of that will be paid by about 43,000 Californians who make $1 million or more. But some middle-class taxpayers are likely to pay more, too. According to tax board estimates, 751,000 California households with incomes under $250,000 will probably owe a combined $1.1 billion. And given the high cost of living in the state, $250,000 does not feel like nearly as much money as it does in other parts of the country. Defenders of the SALT deduction argue that it also enables state and local governments to implement more progressive tax systems and pay for more local services. Peterson said county officials are concerned that as residents realize their tax bill is going up, they will begin to complain to their local leaders.

Houston Chronicle - December 16, 2018

ACA still law of the land but consumers confused and worried after judge’s ruling

Insurance shoppers wanting to sign up on the final day of Affordable Care Act enrollment awoke Saturday to confusion, fury and dire reports that a Texas judge had declared the health care law unconstitutional.

The ruling Friday night by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, certain to be appealed and likely destined for the U.S. Supreme Court, reverberated across news and social media, sowing dismay not only among procrastinating consumers who hoped to buy insurance on the final day of enrollment but also those who already had bought plans. “Is there even going to be insurance on the marketplace for 2019?” asked one customer calling into the phone bank of Houston insurer Community Health Choice on Saturday. “Is my plan that I’m enrolled in still effective?” asked another. “If I enroll now, will this be good in 2019?” still another asked Angela Waltman, vice president of business development and call center operations for the regional insurance company that sells plans on the federal exchange. “These are just a few people who called,” she said as her shift ended. “I worry about the tens of thousands of people who didn’t and might be confused or already made the decision not to enroll because they think there is no more insurance. And after today, it will be too late.” O’Connor, sitting on the federal bench in the Northern District of Texas, ruled that because Congress removed the tax penalty that compelled nearly all Americans to carry health coverage last year, the entire law known as Obamacare is invalid. The Houston native, appointed in 2007 by President George W. Bush, sided with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton who led a coalition of states that sued in February to challenge the viability of the ACA. In his 55-page decision, O’Connor concluded that when Congress “sawed off the last leg” of the health care law by removing the tax penalty, it made the “individual mandate unconstitutional.” The individual mandate is considered a pillar of the health care law in that it required most everyone to carry health insurance to expand the risk pool. Prior to the law, insurers could charge the chronically ill or those with pre-existing condition much more for coverage or deny them outright as too risky. O’Connor said that without the individual mandate other provisions, including pre-existing condition protection, are “inservable and therefore invalid.”

New York Times - December 16, 2018

A shutdown looms. Can the G.O.P. get lawmakers to show up to vote?

Just days before a deadline to avert a partial government shutdown, President Trump, Democratic leaders and the Republican-controlled Congress are at a stalemate over the president’s treasured border wall.

But House Republican leaders are also confronting a more mundane and awkward problem: Their vanquished and retiring members are sick and tired of Washington and don’t want to show up anymore to vote. Call it the revenge of the lame ducks. Many lawmakers, relegated to cubicles as incoming members take their offices, have been skipping votes in the weeks since House Republicans were swept from power in the midterm elections, and Republican leaders are unsure whether they will ever return. It is perhaps a fitting end to a Congress that has showcased the untidy politics of the Trump era: Even if the president ultimately embraces a solution that avoids a shutdown, House Republican leaders do not know whether they will have the votes to pass it. The uncertainty does not end there. With funding for parts of the government like the Department of Homeland Security set to lapse at midnight on Friday, Mr. Trump and top Republicans appear to have no definite plan to keep the doors open. It is clear that as Democrats uniformly oppose the president’s demand for $5 billion for his border wall, any bill that includes that funding cannot pass the Senate, and might face defeat in the House, too. “That’s me with my hands up in the air,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican, told reporters last week, in case there was any confusion about the meaning of the exaggerated shrug he offered when asked how the logjam might be broken. “There is no discernible plan — none that’s been disclosed.” In the final moments of complete Republican control of government before Democrats assume the House majority in January, Republicans find themselves once again trapped between Mr. Trump’s messaging and their own political reality. The president’s declaration in the Oval Office last week that he would be happy to take sole responsibility for a shutdown undercut Republican leaders who had hoped to blame Democrats for any unresolved spending impasse — a point that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, reiterated Sunday morning on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They just have to have the guts to tell President Trump he’s off on the deep end here,” Mr. Schumer said of Republican leaders, “and all he is going to get with his temper tantrum is a shutdown. He will not get a wall.” While Mr. Trump insisted that he had the votes to push $5 billion in wall spending through the House, Republican leaders in the chamber are keenly aware that their rank-and-file members are in no mood to return to Washington days before Christmas to battle over his long-unfulfilled signature campaign promise.

BuzzFeed - December 17, 2018

Here's what a Julián Castro presidential run could look like

Julián Castro, the former Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary, is offering a broad vision for a potential presidential campaign and articulating the anxieties that he says communities of color face under President Donald Trump’s administration, as he publicly explores entering the 2020 Democratic primary.

“I’m clearly leaning in a certain direction,” Castro, told BuzzFeed News over a brief phone call outlining his plans to fundraise and make potential staffing decisions ahead of a January 12th announcement of his decision in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor before joining the Obama administration. “We’ll be using the next few weeks to put the building blocks in place if there is a campaign.” Castro’s decision to publicly launch an exploratory committee for 2020 on Wednesday gives him a head start on traveling the country ahead of what’s expected to be a broad field of Democratic candidates. “Some folks have said, ‘is it too early to form an exploratory committee or go forward?’ And I’ve got to move forward on my own timeline. I have a strong vision for the country’s future and I have no doubt there are going to be a whole bunch of other candidates in the race and they’re going to have their own plans and their own timelines, but I’m sticking to mine.” Castro said that while his team is still finalizing a travel schedule for the next month, he plans on making public appearances across the country, including in some of the early primary states. “I’ve been to the first four states already, so I’m going to focus on those states if I get in and some of the states that vote on super Tuesday, including Texas,” he said. “Politics is always about your message, how hard you work to get support, and also timing. So I’m going to get out there and I’m going to work hard and I’m going to deliver a message about the country’s future and my experience of getting things done, and people are going to have a choice to make,” Castro said about visiting early voting states in the primaries like Nevada, South Carolina, and New Hampshire. “I’m confident if I decide to run I can win the nomination,” he added. Castro, whose mother is a Chicana activist, hasn’t shied away from addressing racial and religious identity and its prominence in politics, a shift from 2010 when the New York Times Magazine reported that he was wary of referring to himself as “brown,” using the term “people of color” to describe Mexican-Americans, and considered younger generations less burdened than previous generations.

State Stories

Austin American-Statesman - December 15, 2018

Ken Herman: The most chilling title you’ll see on proposed legislation is also necessary legislation

Hundreds of bills have been filed for the 2019 Texas legislative session. Thousands more will be.

But it’s hard to believe there’ll be one with a more soul-chilling title than the one on House Bill 496 that recently was thrown into the hopper: “An act relating to the placement of bleeding-control kits in public schools and to required training of school personnel.” In a sad nod to the sad times in which we live and some schoolkids die, Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, D-San Antonio, has a depressingly good idea. The bill calls for immunity from civil liability for school employees for “damages or injuries resulting from the good-faith use of a bleeding-control kit ... to control the bleeding of an injured person.” Somehow, albeit in a different way, these words cause the same kind of chills we experience when we see the videos and photos after each school shooting. Schools probably always should have had bleeding-control kits. Accidents happen. Students trip and fall. Kids run with scissors. But knowing what we now know and seeing what we’ve now seen about how else kids wind up bleeding at school, we’re stunned at — but no longer surprised by — a bill calling for “placement of bleeding-control kits in public schools.” Yes, it would be helpful to stop the bleeding before it happens. Maybe our lawmakers will do us a kindness and work on that. I, for one, remain wary about further restricting the legitimate rights of the many because of the murderous wrongs of a few. And, though it’s a subtopic we must work on, I’m also wary of diluting the rights of the mentally ill. But we can do better. And until we sort all this out, we probably should add bleeding-control kits to the category we’ve long called “school supplies.” Let’s end on a note of what appears to be legislative serendipity. HB 496 is the public school bleeding-control kit bill. HB 497, filed right after HB 496, seeks to tweak the state’s handgun-carry license bill to add instruction in “types and uses of ammunition.” Guns are on our minds as our lawmakers prepare to convene in January. Let’s keep it that way. We can simultaneously work on putting bleeding-control kits in public schools while working on ways to reduce the need for them.

Austin American-Statesman - December 14, 2018

UT policies restrict students’ free speech, lawsuit by conservative legal group says

A nonprofit civil rights group is suing University of Texas leadership for what it says are restrictive university policies that violate students’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

The lawsuit, which was filed in federal court Thursday by Speech First, a national student group that advocates for free speech, names UT President Gregory Fenves and UT System Chancellor James Milliken, among others. It alleges that UT has “crafted a series of speech codes with numerous vague and overbroad prohibitions on student speech” that “poses a grave risk of chilling the open and unfettered discourse that should be central to higher education.” Specifically, it names portions of the undergraduate catalogue, handbook of operating procedures and nondiscrimination policy that ban verbal harassment, including threats, insults and personal attacks based on a person’s race, religion, gender, age and other personal characteristics, as well as portions of university and residence hall policies that prohibit uncivil behavior and harassment. The lawsuit says the university has not clearly defined what constitutes violations of these policies and that they have deterred students from speaking out on topics like immigration, identity politics and abortion out of fear they will be reported. “Students deserve to be able to express themselves and voice their opinions without fear of investigation or punishment – which is why these policies must be reformed,” Speech First President Nicole Neily said in a statement. The lawsuit also says that the university’s Campus Climate Response Team, which is charged with investigating “bias incidents,” poses a specific risk to student free speech. The climate response team is made up of senior university administrators who take complaints from students via an online portal that include everything from derogatory comments made on Facebook to student organizations participating in traditions that could be perceived as insensitive. Since September 2017, it has investigated more than 100 reports of “expressions of bias” in posters, fliers, social media, whiteboards and verbal comments, among others, according to the nonprofit. The lawsuit says these investigations can result in formal discipline for incidents that include “wide swaths of protected expression.” The suit asks the court to stop the Climate Response Team from operating and to declare UT’s speech codes unconstitutional. University spokesman J.B. Bird said Friday that UT had not reviewed the lawsuit and that it would respond through the proper legal channels. “The university’s policies vigorously protect students’ First Amendment rights,” he said. “The University of Texas at Austin strongly values and protects free speech, and all students, faculty and staff have the right of free speech and expression on the UT Austin campus.” The lawsuit includes accounts from three students, who are all members of Speech First and have chosen to remain anonymous. They say they are afraid to express their individual beliefs about the president, abortion, gun rights and immigration because they do not know if they will be investigated or sanctioned.

Dallas Morning News - December 16, 2018

O'Rourke marvels at Beto-mania, conceding it's 'a great question' whether he's ready for White House

TMZ trails him around the capital. Fans still check his Facebook page to see if he's going live again anytime soon. Democratic activists keep trying to lure him to Iowa and New Hampshire, and campaign operatives are sending him resumes, uninvited.

U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke is getting more buzz as a potential White House contender than people who've served as governor, senator or even vice president and secretary of state, even though he's still stinging from falling short last month to Sen. Ted Cruz. "The fact that we came close doesn't diminish the bitterness of the loss," he said, acknowledging the very real doubts about whether someone who couldn't win election in his home state deserves promotion to commander in chief. "Oh yeah. I think that's a great question," he said. "I ask that question myself." Standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, discussing a future he insists he hasn't sorted out yet, House colleagues walk past calling out "Beto! Beto!" or "Go 2020!" — razzing the El Paso Democrat who raised a stunning $80 million in his near-miss in Texas. He's avoided interviews since Election Day, and insists that he hasn't even begun the process of deciding whether to heed the siren song, though that hasn't stopped him from consulting with the likes of Barack Obama and the Rev. Al Sharpton. "I just don't feel comfortable talking to anybody in Iowa or New Hampshire, because I don't want to stoke," he said. "I just truly have not made a decision or even really begun the serious work of making a decision, so I just don't want to lead anyone to think that we're doing something or not doing something." But doing nothing doesn't quash the speculation. Invitations keep coming in and polls show continuing uptick for the non-candidate. A CNN/Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night showed O'Rourke one of just three Democrats with double-digit support among likely caucusgoers in Iowa, at 11 percent — lagging only former Vice President Joe Biden, at 32 percent, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders at 19 percent. The Texan topped a straw poll of progressive activists released Dec. 11 by MoveOn.org, edging out Biden, Sanders and Kamala Harris, with the rest of the pack trailing in single digits. Name ID is a big part of that at such an early stage. Still, that's a critical ingredient and now that O'Rourke has it, he can afford to bide some time. A national poll of Democrats released by CNN on Friday put O'Rourke in the top tier for the first time, though well behind Biden and Sanders.

Texarkana Gazette - December 16, 2018

Sen. Hughes, Rep. VanDeaver look ahead to next year's Texas Legislature

Texarkana's representatives to next year's Texas Legislature see property tax reform, public education funding and a new speaker of the House as the session's most significant focuses.

Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, and Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, spoke last week about the issues and bills they expect to top the agenda as the 86th Texas Legislature convenes on Jan. 8, 2019. Both expect to wrestle with how to limit local property tax increases while adequately funding schools, and both expect the election of Rep. Dennis Bonnen as speaker to help smooth passage of the Republican Party's policy program. Hughes spoke Wednesday during a members-only luncheon held by the Texarkana Chamber of Commerce, and VanDeaver shared his thoughts in a telephone interview Friday. What to do about ever-increasing local property taxes across the state—an issue that came up during the last legislative session—was top of mind. "I recognize that property taxes are high and we need to do something to keep people from being basically priced out of their homes due to property taxes. "We have to find a way to be fair to our property owners and try to hold their costs down, and yet fund the basic needs, public education being one of the very basic needs of the state. "Unfortunately, because of the structure of the way education is funded, it's been a growing burden on the local property owner and less of a burden on the state over the last several years. We have to get that balance back, so that the state is picking up the proper share of funding public education," VanDeaver said. Hughes agreed, adding that keeping education spending cost-effective is the necessary first step. "What we anticipate is taking the existing money in the school financing system and making sure it's being spent efficiently, plus bringing in some more state money," Hughes said. VanDeaver admitted some qualms about trying to control local taxation from Austin, which could be seen as counter to conservative principles. "I think that's what makes it so hard to do at the state level because this is really not a state tax; this is a local tax," VanDeaver said. "I've always felt that the best government is the local government and the one closest to the people, so that does give me a bit of heartburn to think that we're trying to regulate something that really belongs to the local entity." Because Bonnen is expected to be more in harmony with Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick than retiring speaker Rep. Joe Straus has been, property tax reform has a good chance of becoming a reality in 2019, Hughes said. "I think it's going to get done this time," Hughes said. VanDeaver agreed and said Bonnen would get his vote for speaker and his support. "(Bonnen's speakership) alone is going to give a new tone to the session, I think, than might have been otherwise. I think he's going to do a great job, and yes, I committed to him early on when he was seeking commitments. He has a lot of experience, he's very sharp, and I look forward to working with him," VanDeaver said. Both Hughes and VanDeaver spoke about specific bills they have authored or are working on. Hughes advocated for a bill that would hold any state agency responsible for a citizen's legal expenses if the agency is found to have pursued a frivolous enforcement action against them. "So the bill we're working on says this: If an agency pursues an action against you and you beat them, you beat them at the administrative level, you beat them in court, if at the end of that process the judge finds that what the agency did was frivolous, if they had no reason to do that to you, the agency should have to pay your attorney's fees and your expenses," Hughes said. VanDeaver's priorities include changing the law so public school students who leave school because of illness or injury are no longer counted as dropouts, which can decrease a school district's state funding. The problem disproportionately affects small, rural districts, VanDeaver said. Another would require the Department of State Health Services' Medical Advisory Board, which assists the Department of Public Safety in determining if a license applicant is capable of driving safely, to comply with the state's open meetings law. The bill came from a constituent's bad experience with the process, VanDeaver said. "We found that they were very dysfunctional, so this is just an effort to try to encourage them to do a better job of reviewing and taking the job a little more seriously than maybe what we have observed through this process," he said. Another would exempt U.S. attorneys' and assistant U.S. attorneys' personal information from disclosure under open records laws. Many other elected and government officials already have that protection.

Beaumont Enterprise - December 16, 2018

Beaumont women file suit against Brightwood College after for profit college suddenly closes

Three Beaumont women have filed suit against Brightwood College, which suddenly closed campuses across the country last week. The law firm representing them seeks to build a nationwide class-action case.

The women filed the lawsuit this week in federal court in Beaumont against the president of the Beaumont Brightwood College; Brightwood's parent company, Virginia College; Virginia College's parent company; Education Corporation of America; and the CEO and equity firms that own Education Corporation. "How is it that these students paid what they were supposed to pay, did what they were supposed to do, and are somehow worse off for it?" attorney Mark Sparks of Beaumont's Ferguson Law Firm said in a phone interview Friday. Education Corporation of America announced Dec. 5 that it would close all 75 of its for-profit college campuses nationwide, including the one on Eastex Freeway near Parkdale Mall. The company released a statement saying students would be given their transcripts so they could try transferring to a different school. The school focused on diplomas and associate's degrees related to health care, including programs for dental assistants, medical assistants, medical office specialists and pharmacy technicians. Education Corporation addressed the closures in a statement posted to its web page: "Recently, the Department of Education added requirements that made operating ECA schools more challenging. In addition, ACICS (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools) suspended the schools' accreditation with intent to withdraw. The uncertainty of these circumstances resulted in an inability to acquire additional capital to operate the schools." The statement continued, "This is not the outcome that the organization envisioned and is one that ECA recognizes will have a dramatic effect on both the students that they have served and their employees." Ferguson Law Firm said in an earlier statement about the lawsuit that the closures affected "thousands upon thousands of students." It said the firm also is looking to represent employees "who have lost their jobs." Ferguson and the Bailey Reyes firm are working on the lawsuit. Education Corporation of America oversaw five different college brands nationwide, according to its website, including Brightwood College, Brightwood Career Institute, Virginia College, the Ecotech Institute and the Golf Academy of America. Brightwood College did not respond to a request for comment.

Odessa American - December 16, 2018

West Texas Reps Landgraf and Craddick eager for Bonnen’s leadership

Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen’s presumptive election as speaker of the Texas House of Representatives when the 86th Legislature convenes Jan. 8 in Austin has the support of area Republicans who say his familiarity with the oil and gas concerns in his East Texas district bodes well for the Permian Basin.

Having announced last month that he’d secured the backing of 109 members of the 150-member House, including 31 Democrats, Bonnen “has quite a bit of the downstream side of our industry with petrochemicals processing and refining in his district,” said Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa. “He has a good understanding of the severance tax and that has served him well in the last two sessions as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee,” Landgraf said. Referring to the state’s tax of 7.5 percent of market value on natural gas produced and 4.6 percent on oil, Landgraf said, “We produce more severance tax revenues than any other part of the state. “Rep. Bonnen has been relied on by members from every corner of the Legislature. He is one of the smartest members of the House and understands the needs individual members have in their districts. “He has the ability to get things done. The way this unfolded was that Rep. Bonnen was drafted by a group of members when the other members running for speaker weren’t able to get traction. Once he threw his hat into the ring, he was able to secure the number of votes he needed and to do so in short order.” Both Landgraf and Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, have said they’ll vote for Bonnen. Landgraf said Bonnen and former Speaker Joe Straus. R-San Antonio, who is retiring, “have two different leadership styles.” Predicting Bonnen won’t accrue the opposition from conservative Republicans that Straus did, the Odessa representative said Bonnen “has always been independent and not associated with any particular faction” even while serving as Straus’s speaker pro-tem. “That autonomy will be very appealing as he presides over the House,” Landgraf said. “We have a great relationship and I’m looking forward to working with him.” Bonnen is a 46-year-old Houston native who graduated from St. Edward’s University in Austin and was first elected to the Legislature in 1996, representing District 25, which includes Matagorda County and southern Brazoria County with the cities of Lake Jackson, Freeport, Bay City, Palacios and Angleton. Bonnen is chairman-CEO of Heritage Bank in Pearland. His wife Kimberly is an associate attorney with the Houston-based Vinson & Elkins, which is considered the No. 1 law firm in the nation for energy, oil and gas law. Rep. Greg Bonnen of Friendswood is his brother.

Texas Public Radio - December 14, 2018

Texas has just five dry counties left. Why?

On Election Day in Stanton, just north of Midland, Ron Black was skeptical that a particular measure on the ballot would pass. “Well, I think at first it was - uh, nobody thought it would go through because they’ve tried it so many times, you know? I can’t tell you how many times it’s gone to the ballot,” he says.

Black manages the Lawrence Brothers grocery in Stanton. The vote was whether to keep Stanton dry – that is to prohibit the sale of alcohol – or to allow the sale of beer and wine at stores like Black’s. But to his surprise, Stanton went wet after all. And it’s part of a long-term trend that’s washing over Texas. To put it in perspective: in 1996, there were 53 dry counties in Texas. By 2011 that number dropped to 25. And as of Election Day when Stanton, the seat of Martin County went wet, there are now just five dry counties in Texas – in a state whose attitudes toward alcohol have always been complex, but tended to be more conservative than the country as a whole. Brendan Payne is a history professor at North Greenville University and an expert in Prohibition in Texas. “Texas is slightly earlier than the nation and slightly later than the nation in terms of how long its Prohibition was enforced,” Payne says. In the late 1880s, many immigrant communities and some religious groups were skeptical of prohibition, but others drove the bus full-speed toward temperance. “The large evangelical churches get behind it, especially the Methodists and Baptists,” Payne says. But these days, demand for alcohol is a bigger driver. Kimberly Frost is a liquor lawyer from Austin. In Texas, decisions on whether a community sells booze are made during local elections by cities, counties, or justice of the peace precincts. Voters can decide for themselves whether they want to go wet or dry, as well as at what level – say selling just beer and wine as opposed to liquor for example, or selling alcohol at just restaurants or just convenience stores. The system was put in place after statewide Prohibition was repealed in 1935. Since then, the number of dry counties has slowly ebbed away. The five exceptions include Throckmorton County, located in a rural area northwest of Fort Worth. Will Carroll is the mayor of its county seat. He’s tried to turn Throckmorton wet for most of the 18 years he’s been the mayor, partly for personal reasons, “You know I want to go down and buy a six-pack of beer at Allsup’s,” Carroll says. “And if I could, I would definitely buy a really nice Cabernet,” but mostly because of what it could mean for local coffers. The real shift toward dry county extinction came from the passage of House Bill 1199 during the Texas legislative Session in 2003. “That is what revolutionized our alcohol laws,” says John Hatch, president of Texas Petition Strategies. To hold a wet-dry election in Texas prior to 2003, you had to get signatures from 35 percent of a jurisdiction’s registered voters, each of which had to sign their name exactly as it appeared on their voter ID card, with their voter ID number. And you only had 30 days to do it. It was more difficult to get booze on the ballot than an actual candidate. Hatch asked the legislature to change the law.

Denton Record-Chronicle - December 16, 2018

Vigilance on campus: How schools assess threats and what they tell parents

A 13-year-old makes a hit list with the names of his classmates. A 17-year-old posts threats on social media. Two high schoolers bring a loaded gun to school. Middle schoolers talk about weapons on the bus.

Each of these events occurred at a Denton County campus within the past year, but which ones warrant criminal prosecution? And when should schools notify parents? Local districts and law enforcement agencies are grappling with these questions more and more as fear looms over campuses in the wake of high-profile school shootings. National experts say the number of threats reported in schools increased during the 2017-18 school year and more Denton County students who make those threats are facing criminal charges. Meanwhile, students are reporting more threats online, and some parents worry that districts aren’t communicating enough when threats occur. But school officials say there’s a fine line between informing the public and violating student privacy rights. “It’s a tough situation to be in and tougher now than it ever has been,” said Stephen Waddell, a retired school superintendent and a professor with the University of North Texas College of Education. Following school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, earlier this year, school safety researchers have seen a dramatic increase in threats, or an intent to harm someone. The Educator’s School Safety Network, an Ohio-based nonprofit, said in a recent report that the number of reported threats in American schools went up by 62 percent in the 2017-18 school year from the previous year. When researchers looked at the last year by itself, the number of threats shot up by 159 percent from fall 2017 to spring 2018. Waddell, a former superintendent at Lewisville ISD, said he handled several threats during his decades in school administration and believes the level of violence has gone up. “Districts are erring on the side of caution,” he said. “They always have, but more so today. No one wants to underestimate a problem, then find out if they’re wrong.” Even with the spike in numbers, officials say they investigate every threat that comes to them. Though the exact protocol varies between individual districts, campuses often form teams made up of principals, counselors and school resource officers to assess threats made by students. Threats are often classified at different levels. The more specific the threat, the higher the level. But Denton ISD Area Superintendent Jeff Russell stressed that each incident is unique and administrators have to examine a student’s background or past behaviors. “It truly is a lot more individualized than most people would think,” Russell said. “I think there’s a lot more asking of ‘why’ when it comes to behavior than there ever has been.”

Brownsville Herald - December 16, 2018

UTRGV celebrates first graduating class

As audience members bearing flowers and balloons made their way Friday onto the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus in Brownsville, students lined up behind the Student Union to make their official transition from pupil to graduate.

Those who walked the stage in their caps and gowns were part of the first graduating class of UTRGV, which began classes in August 2015, said Patricia Alvarez McHatton, executive vice president for Academic Affairs, Student Success and P-16 Integration. Aaron Beltran, 25, was graduating with his degree in accounting. “I’m actually happy to finish,” he said. “No more stress, no more all-nighters. It’s all good.” Beltran may not get a break for long. He’s planning to continue his education by earning a master’s degree and aims to become a certified public accountant. The main support that got him through his undergraduate years came from his parents, who contributed part of his tuition, and he said he’s grateful. “That’s the reason I’m actually here standing,” Beltran said. For Loreanne Tostado, 23, the moments before the graduation ceremony felt surreal. She graduated with honors in biomedicine. “I feel like I can’t believe it because you go through so many emotions throughout university,” many having to do with stress, she said. Tostado said the most trying times were around finals, but she will treasure the relationships and friendships she made during her time at UTRGV. While her parents didn’t attend college, she said they supported her throughout her studies and continue to encourage her as she prepares to apply for law school. Michael Torres, 23, earned a kinesiology degree with a focus on coaching. He said getting to the college finish line taught him about dedication and sacrifice. “It’s a sense of relief. Going to college is probably the closest to having a mental roller coaster because you have a lot of ups and downs,” he said. Torres said he was glad his friends and family were at the ceremony Friday to mark the end of the journey. His parents were a major part of what helped him push through. “They were there to pat me on the back and say, ‘Stick to it. You’re almost there,’” he said. Torres plans to become a football and baseball coach and “win as many championships as possible.” UTRGV President Guy Bailey told the graduates that while they’ve had a cadre of professors to guide and nurture them, their teacher for the next 50 years will be experience.

Houston Chronicle - December 17, 2018

Gas stations that price gouged during Hurricane Harvey to reimburse customers

Eleven gas stations in the Fort Worth area will have to reimburse customers for price gouging during Hurricane Harvey, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced.

Sun Macro Corporation, Mr. Group Inc., Star Impex Inc., Happy Hill Grocery and Lucky Mart will reimburse eligible customers who paid $3.99 per gallon or more for regular unleaded grade gasoline between Aug. 31, 2017 and Sept. 6, 2017. As Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas coast, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of disaster. That made price gouging on necessities, including gasoline, illegal. But, the attorney general's office said they received thousands of complaints about inflated prices at gasoline pumps. Some gas stations charged up to $4.99 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline during the hurricane, according to the settlement. This settlement comes after another in July, in which 48 businesses paid $166,592 in restitution to refund consumers. Most of the gas stations involved with that settlement are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Consumers will be refunded the difference between the price they paid and the average price for the same grade of fuel charged by the company on Aug. 30, 2017. Customers will receive an automatic refund to their debit or credit card they used to purchase the fuel if they submit an eligible claim. The companies will also pay the state a restitution amount of $27,004 to be used for customers who paid cash. Customers who did not pay with a card will be reimbursed by the State of Texas by check. In order to make a claim, a customer must either attach the receipt to the claim form or fill it out in full. The form must include: the name of the gas station, the address, the date of purchase, the price paid per gallon of fuel, the number of gallons purchased, the total sale amount, and the make and model of the vehicle for which the fuel was purchased.

Houston Chronicle - December 16, 2018

El Niño forecast to bring more rain, flooding this winter to Houston

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston. “After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.” El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world. In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual. Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said. In other parts of Texas, El Niño can bring a higher chance of snow this winter. San Antonio, for example, sees snow 2.5 times more often during an El Niño year than a typical year. Last year, San Antonio got 1.9 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service. Houston city officials said they are preparing for the possibility of more rain this winter due to El Niño. Mayor Sylvester Turner said he has instructed the city’s Office of Emergency Management, public works department, its police and fire departments and the Houston Airport System to update their preparedness plans for future storm. The city of Houston in recent years has invested in more training and assets, such as communication equipment and high water rescue vehicles, to respond to storms. The city maintains a list of high-water trouble areas and will put barricades up to prevent vehicles from driving into high water.

City Stories

San Antonio Express-News - December 15, 2018

Air Force veteran, 79, wins 5K race — her 1,208th one

At age 79, Mary Kaplan has already run a 5K race in every state in the union and has run at least one race in each of the 254 counties in Texas.

“I run to win, and at my age, that’s not too difficult in most cases,” she said. She added another ribbon to her collection Sunday, winning in her age bracket in the Elf Run 5K at the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute TeletonUSA with a time of 32:49. “It was fantastic, the weather was perfect,” Kaplan said. “There were lots of folks dressed up. They were all in elf costumes and Santa Claus costumes.” She donned a green shirt but did not partake in the costumes, running as the oldest of the race’s roughly 270 participants, according to race organizers. “She actually ran a mile before the race,” said Lisa Marie Barocas, CRIT’s marketing director. “She wanted to warm up.” The retired Air Force nurse has run in more than 1,410 races and won more than 1,200 of them. Included in all the ribbons and trophies are three memorable cartoonish figures. “I used to run in the races at Crawford, when President Bush had a race up there. I’ve got three bobbleheads of George Bush from the races up there,” she said with a chuckle. Kaplan, who lives near Marble Falls, figures she’s run between 75 and 100 races in San Antonio, where she lived for about six months after retiring from the Air Force in 1996. She has fond memories of the city and seeks out races involving a good cause. “I look for races that seem to give their profits to a good organization, and I think the Elf Run is just that,” she said before the run. Kaplan is also the founder of the Tx 254 Running Club, which has about two dozen members, some of whom are intent on running a race in every county in the state, as she did. Others have less lofty goals. “There are no rules except one rule that says there are no rules,” she explained. “Whatever distance you want to run or walk in a county, you can count that. There are no dues or officers. We correspond by e-mail.”

Abilene Reporter-News - December 16, 2018

Tuscola Mayor Robert Elkins and wife Vondean Rose killed in accident

The mayor of Tuscola and his wife were killed in a wreck near the town Thursday afternoon.

The city posted a statement on its Facebook page: "The City of Tuscola is grieving the loss of Mayor Robert Elkins and his wife Von Dean Elkins which were both tragically killed in an auto accident just North of Tuscola on Hwy 83 this afternoon. Robert and Von Dean were both loved and respected citizens of the City of Tuscola for over 54 years. Our prayers and thoughts are with the Elkins family. The community, council and employees will miss them greatly; we appreciate your patience during this time of loss." A vehicle that hydroplaned on a wet road north of Tuscola on Thursday led to a three-vehicle crash that killed the city’s mayor and his wife, the Texas Department of Public Safety said in a news release. At about 12:45 p.m., Brandon Michael McFall, 31, of Andover, Ohio, was driving a 2017 Dodge Ram pickup northbound on U.S. Highway 83 when the truck hydroplaned in the rain about one mile north of Tuscola, according to a preliminary DPS report. The truck slid into the southbound lane, hitting head-on a 2016 Lincoln MKX driven by Robert Vance Elkins, 82. The pickup then spun around and hit a second vehicle in the southbound lane, a 2018 Chevrolet pickup driven by Bryan Blake Meers, 38, of Abilene, the DPS stated. Elkins and his wife, Vondean Rose, 80, who was a passenger in the Lincoln MKX, were pronounced dead at the scene. McFall and Meers was treated and released at the scene. McFall’s passenger, Amber Thompson, 40, also of Andover, Ohio, was transported to an Abilene hospital with stable/non-incapacitating injuries, DPS said. The five people involved in the collision were wearing seat belts, DPS reported.

Star-Telegram - December 16, 2018

Betsy Price plans to run for Fort Worth mayor again: ‘There’s a lot yet to be done’

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price says she has more to do in Cowtown. Price, in her fourth term, said she will run again in May 2019. Official campaign filing begins Jan. 16 for the May 4 location elections, though several people have filed paperwork appointing campaign treasurers.

“I think there’s a lot yet to be done, and I think the citizens of Fort Worth will hopefully approve that,” she told Star-Telegram media partner WFAA/Channel 8 Sunday on “Inside Texas Politics,” voicing confidence should win a fifth term. “I’d like to continue on a couple more years.” Her comments came Friday in a taping for broadcast Sunday. A spokeswoman for Price said a formal announcement would come in January with more details. If elected again, Price would be the longest-serving Fort Worth mayor, according to the city’s list of past mayors. In the past, Price, a fiscal conservative, has touted economic development, education and transportation as her focuses. In October, she dipped into controversy surrounding the $1.16 billion Panther Island flood control and economic development project by calling for an independent review of project’s finances and management. The Trinity River Vision Authority’s board last week approved a proposal for the review. Recently Price and the City Council have faced criticism from United Fort Worth, a grassroots, cross-cultural alliance group. Members say elected officials haven’t done enough to speak out against racism and the city’s Race and Culture Task Force recommendations, adopted last week, don’t go far enough to address race and income disparities. A cyclist, Price has championed fitness and community health initiatives like FitWorth, which focuses on actively lifestyles for children and adults. Earlier this year, Fort Worth became the largest city in America to earn a Blue Zone designation, a measure of community’s focus on health and well-being. Price, elected first in 2011, faced a re-election challenger for the first time in 2017 in newcomer Chris Nettles, a minister and justice of the peace clerk. She sailed to an easy victory with about 70 percent of the vote. Nettles has appointed a treasurer for a campaign in City Council District 8, currently represented by Kelly Allen Gray.

National Stories

Washington Post - December 16, 2018

New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

The report, a draft of which was obtained by The Washington Post, is the first to study the millions of posts provided by major technology firms to the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., its chairman, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA., its ranking Democrat. The bipartisan panel hasn’t said whether it endorses the findings. It plans to release it publicly along with another study later this week. The research — by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm — offers new details of how Russians working at the Internet Research Agency, which U.S. officials have charged with criminal offenses for meddling in the 2016 campaign, sliced Americans into key interest groups for targeted messaging. These efforts shifted over time, peaking at key political moments, such as presidential debates or party conventions, the report found. The data sets used by the researchers were provided by Facebook, Twitter and Google and covered several years up to mid-2017, when the social media companies cracked down on the known Russian accounts. The report, which also analyzed data separately provided to House Intelligence Committee members, contains no information on more recent political moments, such as November’s midterm elections. “What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.” Representatives for Burr and Warner declined to comment.

Washington Post - December 16, 2018

SNL imagined a world without Trump as president. Trump was not amused.

The day after a “Saturday Night Live” sketch depicted what life might be like had Donald Trump never been elected, the president criticized what he called the show’s “one sided coverage” and suggested without any basis that it was defamation.

“A REAL scandal is the one sided coverage, hour by hour, of networks like NBC & Democrat spin machines like Saturday Night Live,” Trump wrote Sunday on Twitter. “It is all nothing less than unfair news coverage and Dem commercials. Should be tested in courts, can’t be legal? Only defame & belittle! Collusion?” Many responded to Trump’s tweet by citing the First Amendment’s protection of free speech and expression. Trump has frequently called the media “the enemy of the people” and has said it would be a good idea to “loosen up” libel laws. The president did not directly mention what coverage prompted his ire. On Saturday, Alec Baldwin reprised his role as Trump in a skit called ‘It’s a Wonderful Trump,' a parody of the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Baldwin as Trump reflects on recent difficulties and wonders what life would be like if he weren’t president. A guardian angel, played by Keenan Thompson, then guides Baldwin through an alternative reality — a world in which Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 presidential election instead of him. Virtually everyone in Trump’s inner circle — addressing him now as “Mr. Trump,” rather than “President Trump” — is depicted as having a better life without him in the White House. This includes Kellyanne Conway, Michael Cohen, Melania Trump and Eric Trump. At the end of the skit, Baldwin repeats “I want to be president again” until a bell rings and he’s brought back to reality. Thompson laments that Baldwin has learned nothing from the experience.

Page Six - December 15, 2018

Ruth Bader Ginsberg makes glamorous comeback after injury

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was spotted sipping white wine at the French Ambassador’s Residence in Washington, DC, Thursday night at the Soiree de Noel.

This past week, Ginsburg, 85, hung out with the stars of her new biopic, “On the Basis of Sex” — including Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Justin Theroux — at a Beltway premiere. The film’s director, Mimi Leder, revealed Ginsburg has seen the movie three times and “she thought it was magnificent. She is very proud of it.” Just last month, Ginsburg was hospitalized after fracturing three ribs.

NBC News - December 16, 2018

Poll: 62 percent say Trump isn't telling the truth in Russia probe

Six in 10 Americans say President Donald Trump has been untruthful about the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, while half of the country says the investigation has given them doubts about Trump’s presidency, according to a new national NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

The survey, conducted a month after the results of November’s midterm elections, also finds more Americans want congressional Democrats — rather than Trump or congressional Republicans — to take the lead role in setting policy for the country. And just 10 percent of respondents say that the president has gotten the message for a change in direction from the midterms — when the GOP lost control of the U.S. House of Representatives but kept its majority in the U.S. Senate — and that he’s making the necessary adjustments. “The dam has not burst on Donald Trump,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart, whose firm conducted this survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “But this survey suggests all the structural cracks [that exist] in the dam.” In a recent interview with Fox News, Trump denied directing Cohen to make the payments covering up the alleged affairs. "I never directed him to do anything wrong," Trump said. "Whatever he did he did on his own. He's a lawyer. A lawyer who represents a client is supposed to do the right thing that's why you pay them a lot of money." Asked in the poll if Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and related matters, 62 percent of all adults say they disagree. That includes 94 percent of Democrats, 64 percent of independents and a quarter (24 percent) of Republicans. By contrast, 34 percent believe Trump has been honest and truthful about the investigation, including 70 percent of Republicans, 29 percent of independents and just 5 percent of Democrats. These numbers are a slight shift from August, when 38 percent of registered voters agreed Trump has been honest and truthful about the investigation, and 56 percent disagreed. “Last week’s Cohen and Manafort news clearly hurt the president — no dramatic movement to be sure, but incremental erosion in President Trump’s credibility,” said Democrat pollster Fred Yang of Hart Research Associates. Also in the poll, a combined 50 percent of Americans say the Russia investigation — led by special counsel Robert Mueller — has given them “major,” “fairly major” or “just some” doubts about Trump’s presidency, versus 44 percent who say it hasn’t given them more doubts. McInturff, the GOP pollster, says that the 44 percent without doubts is a “powerful reminder about the status of his political base.”

Politico - December 15, 2018

Melania Trump spox slams critical op-ed, says media focus on 'trivial and superficial'

Melania Trump’s spokeswoman wrote Saturday that “absurdity abounds in the media's coverage of our first lady,” offering the type of vehement public defense President Donald Trump has grown to expect from his most loyal aides.

“Reports focus on the trivial and superficial, rather than the deeper issues facing our country that she has tirelessly worked to address,” Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s director of communications, wrote in an opinion piece published on CNN.com. Grisham’s roughly 1,300-word entry was written as a rebuttal to an opinion piece published earlier Saturday on CNN.com by network contributor Kate Andersen Brower, titled: “Melania shows she's a Trump through and through.” Brower, who has authored a book on the history of America’s first ladies, argued that Melania Trump’s interview Wednesday with Sean Hannity of Fox News “proved that she doesn't understand what it means to be first lady.” In that conversation, Melania Trump slammed “opportunists” including journalists, comedians and performers who use “my name or my family name to advance themselves.” The first lady added: “The problem is they’re writing the history and it’s not correct.” Brower took aim at the remark, writing in her op-ed Saturday: “Really? Is her family's legacy the thing that worries her most? After all the pain she has witnessed as first lady, from meeting with a survivor of the Parkland, Florida, high school shooting to visiting with children separated from their parents at the border, has the media really been the most difficult part of her job?” Grisham accused Brower and the media at-large of unfairly exaggerating Melania Trump’s interview with Hannity, as well as the results of a CNN poll released last week showing that the first lady’s approval rating has dropped 11 points since October. “When Brower claims Mrs. Trump has no understanding of what it means to be first lady, she intentionally ignores all the effort the first lady has put into fulfilling the traditional responsibilities of the role,” Grisham wrote, citing the state dinner Melania Trump organized in April for French President Emmanuel Macron, her various holiday events at the White House and other official duties. Grisham also lamented that Melania Trump “is still characterized as a ‘reluctant’ first lady,” and claimed she is routinely attacked for giving “honest answers” in interviews. “I could continue with examples, but will inevitably be attacked for having a ‘woe-is-me attitude’ — it couldn't possibly be that we are defending ourselves,” Grisham wrote. “The simple fact is that Mrs. Trump deserves honest reporting and media coverage that focuses on the substance of her message: the importance of helping children grow up to be happy, healthy and socially responsible adults.”

Wall Street Journal - December 17, 2018

Malaysia files criminal charges against Goldman Sachs

Malaysian authorities on Monday filed criminal charges against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. units and a former partner of the bank in connection with the 1MDB financial scandal, the country’s attorney general said.

Goldman Sachs International and two Asian subsidiaries of the Wall Street bank were charged under securities laws for the omission of material information and publishing of untrue statements in offering documents in 2012 and 2013 for the sale of international bonds by state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., or 1MDB. “We believe these charges are misdirected, will vigorously defend them and look forward to the opportunity to present our case. The firm continues to cooperate with all authorities investigating these matters,” Goldman said. Malaysia’s attorney general also filed charges against Tim Leissner, a former Goldman partner, under securities laws. Mr. Leissner pleaded guilty in criminal charges made public by the U.S. Justice Department in November to misappropriating 1MDB money and bribing officials in Malaysia and Abu Dhabi. His sentencing is expected early next year. Mr. Leissner wasn’t immediately available for comment. Goldman arranged $6.5 billion in bonds for 1MDB in 2012 and 2013, of which $2.7 billion was allegedly stolen. The bank made $600 million in profits. The 1MDB fund is now the center of global investigations led by the U.S. Justice Department and including authorities in Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland and Luxembourg. “Malaysia considers the allegations in the charges against the accused to be grave violations of our securities laws, and to reflect their severity, prosecutors will seek criminal fines against the accused well in excess of the $2.7 billion misappropriated from the bonds proceeds and $600 million in fees received by Goldman Sachs, and custodial sentences against each of the individual accused: the maximum term of imprisonment being 10 years,” the attorney general’s statement said. The attorney general also filed charges against Jho Low, the alleged mastermind of the 1MDB scheme, and Jasmine Loo, a former 1MDB counsel. Both already have been charged in absentia by Malaysian authorities with money laundering and other offenses. The Justice Department also indicted Mr. Low with money-laundering and other charges. The whereabouts of Mr. Low and Ms. Loo are unclear, but Malaysian authorities believe Mr. Low is living in China. Another former Goldman executive, Roger Ng, a Malaysian citizen, is in detention in Kuala Lumpur and is expected to be charged later this week. Attempts to reach Mr. Ng, who is fighting extradition to the U.S., weren’t successful.

CNN - December 16, 2018

UK flirts with second referendum to escape eternal Brexit chaos

It was only months ago that the mere utterance of a second referendum would be palmed off by the bulk of Britain's political class as wishful thinking by "remoaners" who voted to stay in the European Union.

But as UK Prime Minister Theresa May ended her most tumultuous week since coming into power, and parliament remained gridlocked over her withdrawal agreement, some prominent Conservative party politicians were reportedly arguing that the only way out of this political impasse is to bring the question back to the people. What was once considered unthinkable is now, according to the Sunday Times, being discussed, with some of May's most senior allies preparing for a second referendum. Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, May's de facto deputy, held talks with opposition Labour party lawmakers in a bid to build a cross-party coalition for a second people's vote, the paper reported. He is part of a group of senior ministers -- Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark -- who believe a new referendum is the only way to break the parliamentary gridlock, it added. The Sunday Times also reported May's Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell told Cabinet ministers that a second referendum was "the only way forward." Both men later distanced themselves from the report on Sunday, with Barwell taking to Twitter to deny the claims. May also criticized the report, saying in a statement that "another vote which would do irreparable damage to the integrity our politics, because it would say to millions who trusted in democracy, that our democracy does not deliver." The Prime Minister's statement came after she hit out on Sunday at her predecessor Tony Blair's own calls for a second referendum. May condemned his call as an "insult to the office he once held and the people he once served." In response, Blair said he was speaking in the national interest and in the interests of democracy. "Far from being anti-democratic it would be the opposite, as indeed many senior figures in her party from past and present have been saying," he said according to Press Association. "What is irresponsible, however, is to try to steamroller MPs into accepting a deal they genuinely think is a bad one with the threat that if they do not fall into line, the government will have the country crash out without a deal." But even if May and the opposition leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn are united in their distaste for a second referendum -- at least publicly -- it is increasingly looking like a viable option.

The Intercept - December 17, 2018

Austin teacher who lost job for refusing to sign anti-BDS pledge files suit

A children’s speech pathologist in Austin has been told she can no longer work with the public school district after she refused to sign an oath vowing that she “does not” and “will not” engage in a boycott of Israel or “otherwise tak[e] any action that is intended to inflict economic harm” on that foreign nation.

A lawsuit on her behalf was filed early Monday morning in a federal court in the Western District of Texas alleging a violation of her First Amendment right of free speech. The child language specialist, Bahia Amawi, is a U.S. citizen who received a master’s degree in speech pathology in 1999 and, since then, has specialized in evaluations for young children with language difficulties (see video below). Amawi was born in Austria and has lived in the U.S. for the last 30 years, fluently speaks three languages (English, German, and Arabic), and has four U.S.-born American children of her own. As a result, Amawi informed her school district supervisor that she could not sign the oath. As her complaint against the school district explains, she “ask[ed] why her personal political stances [about Israel and Palestine] impacted her work as a speech language pathologist.” In response, Amawi’s supervisor promised that she would investigate whether there were any ways around this barrier. But the supervisor ultimately told Amawi there were no alternatives: Either she would have to sign the oath, or the district would be legally barred from paying her under any type of contract. Because Amawi, to her knowledge, is the only certified Arabic-speaking child’s speech pathologist in the district, it is quite possible that the refusal to renew her contract will leave dozens of young children with speech pathologies without any competent expert to evaluate their condition and treatment needs. But this year, all of that changed. On August 13, the school district once again offered to extend her contract for another year by sending her essentially the same contract and set of certifications she has received and signed at the end of each year since 2009. She was prepared to sign her contract renewal until she noticed one new, and extremely significant, addition: a certification she was required to sign pledging that she “does not currently boycott Israel,” that she “will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract,” and that she shall refrain from any action “that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on, or limit commercial relations with Israel, or with a person or entity doing business in Israeli or in an Israel-controlled territory.” The bill’s language is so sweeping that some victims of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated Southwest Texas in late 2017, were told that they could only receive state disaster relief if they first signed a pledge never to boycott Israel. That demand was deeply confusing to those hurricane victims in desperate need of help but who could not understand what their views of Israel and Palestine had to do with their ability to receive assistance from their state government. The evangelical author of the Israel bill, Republican Texas State Rep. Phil King, said at the time that its application to hurricane relief was a “misunderstanding,” but nonetheless emphasized that the bill’s purpose was indeed to ensure that no public funds ever go to anyone who supports a boycott of Israel. At the time that Texas enacted the law barring contractors from supporting a boycott of Israel, it was the 17th state in the country to do so. As of now, 26 states have enacted such laws — including blue states run by Democrats such as New York, California, and New Jersey — while similar bills are pending in another 13 states.

Reuters - December 17, 2018

Guatemalan girl's dad: she was healthy, well-hydrated before death at border

A young Guatemalan girl who died after she and her father were detained by U.S. border agents was in no medical distress when they arrived and had received adequate food and water on their journey, relatives said on Saturday through representatives in Texas.

A statement from the family of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin, released to reporters in El Paso, Texas, by the head of a migrants shelter where her father was staying, disputed media reports that the girl had gone days without food or water and become dehydrated while traveling from Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. border. News of the child’s death, and suggestions that border officials ignored or overlooked a medical crisis, added to criticism from migrant advocates and congressional Democrats of President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies. But neither the father nor other family members cast blame on U.S. border authorities in their first statements about the tragedy. Ruben Garcia, director of the Annunciation House shelter, said the girl’s father, Nery Caal, 29, told him he had no inkling his daughter was ill when they arrived by bus with dozens of other migrants at the U.S. border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, on the night of Dec. 6. Garcia also said the father agreed with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) account of the father and daughter’s brief detention, including CBP’s assertion there was no indication that the girl had been suffering from any medical problem until several hours after their arrival. “Jakelin had not been crossing the desert for days,” her family wrote in the English-language statement, which Garcia said was prepared by their attorneys. “She and her father sought asylum from Border Patrol as soon as they crossed the border,” the statement said. “She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border.” According to CBP’s account, the girl and her father also had access to water and restrooms during the seven hours they waited to board a CBP bus that would take them early on Dec. 7 from Antelope Wells to another Border Patrol station at Lordsburg, about 95 miles (153 km) away. The CBP said Nery Caal told agents just before their bus departed that his daughter was vomiting, and by the time they arrived 90 minutes later she had stopped breathing. She was treated in Lordsburg by emergency personnel, then rushed to an El Paso hospital, where she died the next morning, Dec. 8, after doctors found she was suffering brain swelling and liver failure. Although the father did not contest CBP’s chronology of events, the family’s statement called for “an objective and thorough investigation ... within nationally recognized standards for the arrest and custody of children.” The family did fault CBP for relying on interview forms printed in English, a language the father did not understand. The family’s native tongue is Q’eqchi’, a Mayan dialect, with Spanish being their second language.

Wall Street Journal - December 16, 2018

Politicians grapple with response to health care ruling

Lawmakers in both parties began debating whether to respond with legislation to a federal court ruling that found the Affordable Care Act to be unconstitutional, as Democratic attorneys general weighed legal action to challenge the judge’s decision.

Republicans on Sunday said they wanted to maintain the 2010 law’s guarantee of insurance coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But they also said they continued to oppose most or all of the law, such as its requirement that most people obtain health insurance, the so-called individual mandate. How they might accomplish both goals remained unclear. “There is widespread support for protecting people with pre-existing conditions. There’s also widespread opposition to the individual mandate,’’ said Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), speaking on CNN. She said the insurance-purchasing requirement, which is intended to ensure enough healthy people buy policies to make the plans economically viable, was particularly burdensome for low- and middle-income families. Democrats called for a quick vote to intervene in the federal case, to show the judge in the case that the intent of Congress has been to preserve the law. Sen. ?Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) said Sunday on NBC that Democrats will press the GOP leadership to hold a floor vote urging intervention in the case. “We have a divided House and Senate,” he said. “I think the courts have to be the first and best way to go.” U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled Friday that the ACA is unconstitutional. He sided with the claims of 20 Republican-led states that brought a lawsuit seeking to strike down the law. The law remains in place for now, and the Trump administration has signaled it plans to enforce it. But its future is uncertain, and the ruling essentially leaves decisions on implementing the law to the states in the near term. Congress has been unable to pass substantive health care legislation at a time when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House. With Democrats taking control of the House next month, the prospects for anything beyond modest legislation are likely to become dimmer. That could mean the next substantial steps rest on legal action rather than legislation. The legal staff working for Attorney General Xavier Becerra of California, one of several Democratic-led states moving to defend the health law, spent the weekend examining their legal options. They said they would challenge the decision soon.

December 16, 2018

Lead Stories

Star-Telegram - December 15, 2018

This is not the first time Fort Worth judge has ruled against key Obamacare provisions

A Fort Worth judge who ruled core provisions of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional Friday has a history of controversial rulings, several of which blocked other parts of Obamacare.

District Judge Reed O’Connor was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2007, according to his court biography. He is a former state and federal prosecutor who attended the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In August 2016, O’Connor faced federal backlash over his judgment that blocked the Obama administration’s order to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice in public schools. In that case, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office asked for the nationwide injunction against the Obama’s administration to accommodate transgender students. Paxton is also the one who filed the most recent lawsuit against Obamacare that prompted Saturday’s ruling. Federal officials appealed the decision in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the injunction. In 2017, the Trump administration dropped the appeal. In January 2017, O’Connor blocked another Obamacare provision that prohibited insurers, doctors, or hospitals from discriminating against transgender patients or women with an abortion in their medical history. The rule was adopted in 2016 and also prohibited discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex, age or disability in “any health program or activity” that receives federal financial assistance. “Congress did not understand ‘sex’ to include ‘gender identity,’” O’Connor said in the ruling. In the Affordable Care Act, he said, Congress “adopted the binary definition of sex.” In April 2018, the Trump administration pointed to the decision to justify rolling back protections for trans patients, The New York Times reported. In 2015, O’Connor ruled that the Arlington’s current regulations on distributing material at busy street intersections are constitutional. Open Carry Tarrant County had sued in May 2014 after members handing out pamphlets at busy intersections were confronted by Arlington police officers. While O’Connor said the city’s regulations prohibiting the distributions were legal, he ordered Arlington to reimburse Open Carry Tarrant County for its lawsuit costs because the suit was filed under the city’s original ordinance. In 2014, O’Connor sentenced Brice Johnson to more than 15 years in federal prison for kidnapping and severely beating a gay man he lured to his house after meeting him through an online service. In the ruling, O’Connor concluded the Johnson kidnapped the man because of his sexual orientation.

Washington Post - December 15, 2018

White House prepares for shutdown as GOP lawmakers struggle for an alternative

The White House and a number of federal agencies have started advanced preparations for a partial government shutdown, as President Trump and congressional Democrats appear unlikely to resolve their fight over a border wall before some government funding lapses at week’s end.

GOP leaders are scrambling to find a short-term alternative that could stave off a shutdown, which would start on Dec. 22 absent a deal. But White House officials signaled to lawmakers Friday that they would probably not support a one- or two-week stopgap measure. Some congressional Republicans support such a “continuing resolution,” but the White House rejection has dramatically increased the odds of a spending lapse. “We could be headed down the road to nowhere,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). “We’ll have a [continuing resolution] rather than a shutdown, I hope.” Several budget experts believe a partial shutdown, which would impact agencies that manage law enforcement, homeland security, housing and other programs, could drag on for days, if not weeks. That is in part because Trump believes the final days of the existing Congress are his best chance to extract $5 billion in funds to partially build a wall along the Mexico border. In early January, Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, giving them more control over the process. Multiple agencies and senior administration officials are preparing for the possibility that about a quarter of the government — and more than one-third of federal workers — could be left without funding. The agencies themselves are providing scant information about what they will do if their funding lapses, and with the deadline days away, mass confusion remains about what would actually happen in a partial government shutdown. The Statue of Liberty, for example, closed to thousands of visitors during a brief government funding lapse in January. National parks across the country stayed open, though without visitor centers and fees and with only minimal emergency staff. National Park Service officials confirmed Friday that parks would stay open this time — but they declined to say whether the Statue of Liberty would again close. “We are not going to speculate on any possible change in government operations,” Jerry Willis, a spokesman for the national park that encompasses the Statue of Liberty, wrote in a text message. He referred questions to the Park Service, where another spokesman wrote an identical message in response to an inquiry. The lack of clarity on all fronts is seizing Washington just ahead of the Christmas holiday and as Democrats prepare to take control of the House of Representatives, illustrating how jarring the transition in power could be next year.

Fox News - December 15, 2018

OMB Director Mick Mulvaney to replace John Kelly as 'acting' chief of staff

President Trump on Friday named White House budget director Mick Mulvaney as his new acting chief of staff, saying the former South Carolina Republican congressman will replace John Kelly as his top aide.

“I am pleased to announce that Mick Mulvaney, Director of the Office of Management & Budget, will be named Acting White House Chief of Staff, replacing General John Kelly, who has served our Country with distinction,” Trump tweeted. “Mick has done an outstanding job while in the Administration. I look forward to working with him in this new capacity as we continue to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” The president said Kelly, who recently announced plans to leave the White House, will stay through 2018. “John will be staying until the end of the year,” Trump tweeted. “He is a GREAT PATRIOT and I want to personally thank him for his service!” The president did not say why Mulvaney will serve in an “acting” capacity. Mulvaney, who served in Congress before joining the Trump administration, also served as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while simultaneously running the White House budget office. In a tweet, Mulvaney said, "This is a tremendous honor. I look forward to working with the President and the entire team. It’s going to be a great 2019!"

Politico - December 16, 2018

DNC Chair Tom Perez goes to war with state parties

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez launched an attack on his own party’s state organizations Saturday with a long and angry email over the future of the party’s most valuable asset — its voter data file.

Just days before an important Tuesday meeting in D.C. on the future of the data operation, Perez sharply criticized a new proposal from state party leaders and singled out prominent state officials by name. “For some inexplicable reason, this proposal would tear down just about everything about our current data structure, reversing so much of the progress we made over the past decade,” Perez wrote. The national chairman, describing his own reaction to the state proposal as “disappointed” and “dumbfounded,” accused the president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, Minnesota’s Ken Martin, of undermining the DNC by not keeping other state party officials “in the loop,” prompting withering criticism of Perez from state party leaders. It‘s the latest fight in a quickly escalating war over the trove of Democratic voter information — a conflict which broke into the open at a gathering of the state parties and the DNC in Puerto Rico late last month. The party’s data is largely owned by the state parties, but there is a considerable amount of other data being collected by outside groups like labor unions and super PACs that could be leveraged to benefit Democratic candidates and the eventual 2020 nominee. The DNC wants to gather all the data points on voters into a new, massive for-profit database but needs to convince state parties on the idea. The state parties have been wary, accusing the DNC of conducting a power grab that could financially benefit a few elite party figures. In response to the DNC plan, Martin circulated a counter-proposal Friday designed to better integrate data from outside groups within the existing infrastructure. It was this proposal that prompted Perez’s email. Perez’s email — with the seemingly innocuous “UPDATE on data” subject line — immediately triggered an uproar Saturday among state party leaders who held conference calls and communicated with a flurry of emails and texts. The DNC chair was referred to in a call as “a bull in a china shop,” according to one state party official. Another state party official called him “petulant” via text message. The backlash threatens to splinter the state parties and the national committee — technically separate entities — just as Democratic contenders are preparing to launch presidential campaigns. Perez argued in his Saturday email that “Ken’s new entity...amounts to having State Parties effectively going alone on technology and data.” He threatened to cut off access to campaign tech tools like VoteBuilder, an online organizing platform, if state parties go forward with their plan. “You would have to find a replacement for VoteBuilder — either building or buying — as the DNC has sole rights to the platform,” he wrote.

Austin American-Statesman - December 14, 2018

Why parking a scooter at the Capitol is a bad idea

When politicos from around Texas descend on Austin for the Jan. 8 start of the regular session of the Legislature, there is no doubt some of them might be tempted to hop on one of the rental dockless scooters now scattered around the city for their commute to the Capitol.

But for anyone riding a scooter, lawmakers included, parking a dockless means of mobility on Capitol grounds can lead to a hefty fine. Dockless scooters and bikes, which have flooded Austin’s urban core over the past year, are banned on Capitol grounds, and any that are left on the property are impounded by Capitol grounds crews, said Chris Currens, director of special projects for the State Preservation Board, which operates the Capitol. To date, about 130 scooters have been picked up and returned to scooter companies, Currens said. Before Sept. 22, they were returned free of charge, but now, the State Preservation Board charges companies $150 per scooter. Only 23 scooters have been impounded and returned for a fine. The scooters are impounded under a state statute that prohibits the use of Capitol grounds for the “commercial benefit of any individual, business, corporation, special interest group or other entity.” Preservation Board officials say the rental scooters and bikes meet that definition. “Additionally, the use of dockless devices creates problems with (disability) access to the building, rider-pedestrian safety and improper parking,” Currens said. The scooters are often left haphazardly on sidewalks around the Capitol and elsewhere in the city, presenting difficulties for those who use wheelchairs. Bird, Lime and Jump all mark the Capitol grounds with a red no-ride zone on their apps’ map to try to prevent scooters and bikes from being impounded. Companies give slightly different boundaries for the off-limits area, but the boundaries range from one to three blocks from the Capitol in each direction. But there is nothing to stop a rider from ending a ride in a prohibited area. On a recent afternoon, scooters from a variety of dockless companies were parked on the Capitol grounds. “To proactively address any issues related to the placement and parking of our vehicles, our local team of Bird watchers monitor the community daily and ensure Birds are parked appropriately,” according to a statement from that company. “We are also working closely with the State Preservation Board, as well as House and Senate leadership, on rider education and proper parking protocols. We are grateful for their partnership and will continue to work together to improve and evolve our service in Austin.”

State Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 14, 2018

With special gear and righteous anger, activists document emissions in the Permian oil fields

Environmental activist Sharon Wilson knows what she’s likely to get from her regular trips to the Permian Basin: a headache and sore throat from the fumes and a dark mood from the bleak industrial landscape.

Still, she returns, armed with more than $100,000 worth of camera equipment and righteous anger over what few people see in the heart of the U.S. oil industry. Wilson, a senior organizer for the environmental group Earthworks and a longtime critic of fracking, is working to prove that those invisible emissions are worse than originally thought. The impact of those gases ranges from exacerbating global climate change to polluting the air. "Right now, the Permian Basin is the most important place on earth to show what's happening, and what we have to stop," Wilson said, referring to oil and gas drilling. Month after month, Wilson, 66, records infrared video of oil and gas facilities that she says are spewing methane and other hydrocarbons into the air. Some of the emissions are permitted by state law, some are forgiven as accidents and some are noted as violations. It’s a job, Wilson says, that regulators have all but abdicated. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has just four air monitors in the Permian Basin, which includes all or parts of 61 counties. Most emissions data is industry-reported. Alan Septoff, an Earthworks spokesman, described the Texas approach as “drill and then regulate when possible.” “There’s no one out there trying to quantify this,” he said. State environmental officials say they are effective at monitoring emissions from Texas’ vast oil and gas industry. “TCEQ utilizes a broad range of resources to enable and require the regulated universe to comply with environmental rules,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said in an email. She said the TCEQ “utilizes innovative technology,” including cameras like Wilson’s, and also hires private contractors for aerial surveys that help with investigations. And while Morrow said the agency does accept “citizen-collected evidence,” regulators can’t vouch for the quality of the data. Oil and gas companies say they have made progress in reducing pollution. Mostly, industry executives acknowledge climate change as a man-made threat that needs to be addressed.

Dallas Morning News - December 15, 2018

Texas again leads U.S. in executions in 2018, and Dallas was top county, with four

Texas again led the country in executions this year with 13 lethal injections — and Dallas County topped the state list. There were 25 executions nationwide, and only eight states carried out the ultimate punishment, according to an annual report released Friday by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Texas accounted for more than half of those executions. Dallas County led the state with the most offenders executed this year at four, including two executions this month. Execution dates have been set in 2019 for two inmates from Dallas County: Mark Robertson and Patrick Henry Murphy, a member of the Texas Seven prison escapees. Dallas also sent someone to death row for the first time since 2013. There were seven new death sentences across the state, up from four in 2017. New death sentences have been declining steadily in Texas in the past 20 years. In 1999, Texas juries sent 48 people to death row. Since 2015, only 17 people have been sentenced to die. Two death row offenders were exonerated this year and three others were granted clemency and given life sentences instead, the national report shows. One of those given clemency was Thomas Whitaker of Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott spared Whitaker one hour before the scheduled execution in February. Whitaker's father, who survived the 2003 attack, pleaded for his son's life. The man had been convicted of hiring a hit man to kill his parents and brother. His mother and brother died in their suburban Houston home. Also, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals threw out the death sentence for a man twice condemned in Dallas County — first in 1987 and again in 2014. Kenneth Wayne Thomas, 57, was convicted of capital murder for killing a Dallas civil rights attorney and his wife, a math professor. Fred and Mildred Finch were found stabbed to death in their home in 1986. The state's highest criminal court ordered a new sentencing trial so a jury could determine whether Thomas is intellectually disabled, making him ineligible for capital punishment. It is the second Dallas County death sentence that has been sent back to a trial court in recent years. Hector Medina, 39, was convicted of capital murder for killing his 3-year-old son and 8-month-old daughter in retaliation after their mother left him. Medina was granted a new sentencing trial in October 2017 because of his defense attorney's "deficient performance." A trial date has not been set.

Dallas Morning News - December 15, 2018

Father of immigrant girl who died says she had the food and water she needed

The father of Jakelin Caal Maquin, the 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in the custody of U.S. authorities, disputed through a statement Saturday that his daughter was malnourished or had not been drinking water before the two turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Nery Caal issued the statement through attorneys to "clarify key points" that surround the death of his daughter early Dec. 8, more than 24 hours after her father said he alerted agents that his daughter wasn't feeling well and was vomiting. "Jakelin's father took care of Jakelin, made sure she was fed and had sufficient water," said a statement read by Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides refuge for immigrants. Caal is staying there after having been released by federal agents, although he was not present when the statement was read. Caal, his daughter and more than 160 other immigrants seeking asylum were taken into custody by Border Patrol agents Dec. 6 after they crossed into the U.S. near Antelope Wells, N.M. The statement continued, "She and her father sought asylum from Border Patrol as soon as they crossed the border. She had not suffered from a lack of water or food prior to approaching the border." "He's been very clear, very consistent that his daughter was healthy, and his daughter very much wanted to come with him," Garcia added during a news conference. The White House and the Department of Homeland Security have called the death "tragic," but placed responsibility on the father's decision to cross the border illegally. "After completing a days-long, dangerous journey through remote and barren terrain, the child, who according to the father had not been able to consume water or food for days, began vomiting, went into sepsis shock and after receiving emergency treatment from U.S. Border Patrol Emergency Response Technicians (EMTs), air paramedics and emergency room personnel, died," said a Friday statement by the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials originally examined the girl and said she was in good health, then left her and her father waiting nearly eight hours for a bus to take them to a larger center. The White House, CBP and DHS say border agents tried to save her once they were alerted to a health problem and described initial screening forms signed by Caal that allegedly said his daughter was healthy. Caal's primary language is Q'eqchi', a pre-Columbian Mayan language, and he speaks Spanish as a second language, according to the statement read by Garcia.

Dallas Morning News - December 14, 2018

Are Trump’s policies making life more dangerous for immigrants on the Mexico side of the border?

Desperate asylum seekers are making dangerous desert crossings into the U.S. or becoming easy prey for drug cartels in Mexico because the Trump administration’s immigration policies have slowed the screening process to a trickle, say immigration and border security experts.

Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent, said the immigrants, mostly from Central America, are the “perfect recruits" for the cartels. "They have no known relatives nearby, no one who will miss them," Fontes said. "They’re sitting ducks. Vulnerable people. Some will be hired as hit men, some as sex slaves. They will become victims of crime. ... They will use them 'cause they won’t cost them a lot of money, and many will then be executed.” The death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who was in U.S. custody after her family crossed the border in a New Mexico desert has inflamed the debate over whether President Donald Trump’s policies are putting immigrants in danger. White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said Friday that the child’s death was “tragic” and “horrific” but added, “Does the administration take responsibility for a parent taking a child on a trek through Mexico to get to this country? No." A Facebook post by the Department of Homeland Security said, “As we have repeatedly said, traveling north illegally into the United States is extremely dangerous. Drug cartels, human smugglers and the elements pose deadly risks to anyone who attempts to cross the border illegally. “We are begging parents to not put themselves or their children at risk by attempting to enter illegally,” the post said. Under U.S. and international law, anyone who crosses into U.S. territory has a right to ask for asylum. But for several months, the Trump administration has used a policy it calls “metering” at most border crossings. Typically, agents on each international bridge turn away anyone without documents. Asylum seekers are then processed at a relatively slow pace before being admitted to the U.S. to pursue their cases. The number allowed in varies depending on the port of entry. It may be as few as 20 a day in Brownsville and as many as 60 a day in El Paso, according to a recent study on metering and wait lists by the Migration Policy Institute and others. The policy led to long lines of asylum-seekers sleeping on the bridges, waiting their turn to walk across, until the metering system was put in place last month. Under the system, asylum-seekers are assigned a number, which in some places is written on their arms, and must wait in Mexico until Mexican officials tell them that the U.S. Border Patrol is ready to process them. The result is thousands of immigrants waiting along the Mexican side of the border, mostly in crowded shelters, for the chance to state their cases to U.S. authorities.

Dallas Morning News - December 15, 2018

Austin DWI lawyer charged with scamming Colombian drug traffickers suspects CIA meddling

James Balagia’s expertise is DWI cases, not large drug trafficking conspiracies.

The veteran Austin lawyer with a long gray beard and ponytail who calls himself “DWI Dude” also is known for his opposition to laws criminalizing marijuana. It was his main issue when he ran for Texas Attorney General in 2014 as a Libertarian. But now he’s caught up in an alleged scheme to scam Colombian drug traffickers out of as much as $2 million by claiming to be able to pay off U.S. justice officials to help their cases. Balagia has responded by casting doubt on the government’s motives and use of a longtime CIA operative and drug informant in his case. Balagia says the man, a co-defendant, flew aircraft for the CIA during the Vietnam War and has worked behind the scenes over the years on international drug-trafficking cases. “It reads like a Colombian soap opera. But does it all make sense?” asked Joaquin Perez, one of the many attorneys involved in the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Heather Rattan said in a court filing that Balagia interfered with the government’s plea negotiations with the Colombians and affected ongoing criminal investigations. “At the heart of this crime is the integrity and reputation of the United States system of justice,” she wrote. Balagia, 62, denies the allegations -- contained in a 2017 indictment -- and is asking the government for more information about Charles “Chuck” Morgan. Balagia’s attorney, Daphne Pattison Silverman, says in a court filing that Morgan was involved in an FBI drug trafficking operation in the 1980s. Silverman is asking a judge to order the government to turn over Morgan’s CIA and FBI files and any other documents on him. Morgan, 81, has already pleaded guilty for his role in the alleged plot and is serving a six-year federal prison sentence. Morgan admitted in court documents to soliciting the Colombian defendants with promises of fixing their cases. He has not left much of a paper trail during his life, according to a Dallas Morning News examination of public records. North Texas federal prosecutors say Morgan was a private investigator in a small Florida coastal town. Prosecutors say they don’t know about any CIA connections to Morgan but that, even if true, it would be irrelevant to Balagia’s case. A hearing is scheduled on whether the government will have to turn over more information on Morgan. Meanwhile, prosecutors have agreed to give Balagia information about Morgan’s dealings with the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations. Silverman said she’s “puzzled” as to why the feds would indict her client and his investigator. She said she wants to know if it was politically motivated given Balagia’s outspoken opposition to marijuana laws.

Austin American-Statesman - December 15, 2018

Texas marijuana advocates set sights on 2019 legislative session

Texas is poised for historic action in 2019 to ease some marijuana prohibitions and join a national cannabis legalization movement that, to varying degrees, has already swept up all four of its border states. Or maybe not.

Cannabis proponents in Texas see the potential for big wins once the Legislature convenes in January — particularly in the areas of medical marijuana and decriminalizing possession of small amounts of pot — based on mounting evidence that the issues have gained bipartisan traction. But resistance still runs deep among some law enforcement officials and social conservatives. “It’s certainly not a slam dunk or something we are expecting to be easy — but I do think 2019 is the year,” said Heather Fazio, director of Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy, a pro-cannabis advocacy group. “We have the wind at our backs, and I’m very optimistic about the bipartisan support and the growing public sentiment in wanting to see this change.” More than a dozen cannabis-related bills have been filed in advance of the legislative session, including proposals to make marijuana for medical purposes available to more Texans at greater potency, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of pot and to allow farmers in the state to grow and market hemp — marijuana’s nonpsychoactive cousin — as an agricultural product to the extent allowed under federal law. The effort surrounding medical marijuana would build on the state’s lone foray into legalization, the Compassionate Use Act that was approved by Texas lawmakers in 2015. It allows people suffering from a rare form of epilepsy to legally buy medical cannabis in Texas, although only two of the three dispensaries that have been licensed under the law are operational, and their products can contain no more than tiny amounts of the chemical in marijuana that induces a high. The Compassionate Use Act is so restrictive and has served so few patients that Texas isn’t considered to have a comprehensive medical marijuana program by national organizations that track the issue. The roster of those states that do is up to 33 — and it now includes all four Texas border states, after Oklahoma approved a medical cannabis bill this year. “I don’t understand what it is that we are afraid of,” said state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who has introduced a bill in the upcoming legislative session that would bring Texas law more in line with that of its neighboring states. “It is not like (advocates for greater access to medical cannabis) are out on some limb here — even those liberal bastions of Arkansas and Louisiana have done it.” His Senate Bill 90 would make many more Texans eligible to obtain medical marijuana under the Compassionate Use Act by expanding the list of qualified ailments to include conditions such as cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and severe pain.

Austin American-Statesman - December 14, 2018

Why Beto O’Rourke’s 254-county strategy flopped

JoAnn Randall, a writer and rancher in Placid, a dot on the map 145 miles northwest of Austin in the geographical center of Texas, describes herself as a political independent. Randall and her husband, Bill, a blues and rock guitarist, vote in the Republican primaries in McCulloch County because that’s the only game in town.

But, this past election, JoAnn Randall was smitten with Beto O’Rourke. “All you have to do is get in the presence of him and it’s contagious, especially if you’re a woman because he’s so danged good looking,” said Randall, who is 79 and has lived in the county for 25 years. “The charisma just emits.” When O’Rourke came to McCulloch County, population 7,957, and neighboring San Saba County, population 5,959, for well-attended town halls on April 6, Randall was his guide. They were stops 231 and 232 of O’Rourke’s tour of all 254 counties, and, Randall wrote at the time, “It was one of the most exciting, enlightening and hopeful days of my life.” Seven months later, O’Rourke won just 400 votes in McCulloch County, or 15 percent of the vote. That was half a percentage point less than Hillary Clinton received in 2016, 3 points less than Barack Obama’s total in 2012 and 9 points less than Obama’s tally in 2008. O’Rourke’s 11.9 percent of the vote in San Saba County told the same story. Rural Texas, it seems, was immune to Betomania, or, more accurately, it had symptoms of both the phenomenon and the antibodies creating a rural firewall that saved U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, from defeat. “It pulled every Republican out of the woodwork,” said Jerry Blankenship, the San Saba County GOP chairman. In his 2.6-percentage point victory, Cruz out-polled O’Rourke by 214,921 votes thanks to the Republican’s lopsided margin of 446,693 in the state’s 172 rural counties. Overall, O’Rourke did make some small progress over recent Democratic performances, winning 25.6 percent of the state’s rural vote, a small rebound from the last two cycles, in which Hillary Clinton won 24.3 percent against President Donald Trump in 2016 and Wendy Davis won 23.5 percent against Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014. But as recently as 2002 — eight years after Texas Democrats last won statewide office — Democrat Ron Kirk won 40 percent of the rural vote and 44 percent of the urban vote running against U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. In the weeks since the election, Democrats have been left to puzzle over why a candidate as good as O’Rourke gained so little ground in rural Texas after covering so much ground to introduce himself, and if there is anything he might have done differently to coax just enough additional votes from these sparsely populated precincts to have won. And, considering O’Rourke’s quick turn from losing Senate candidate to potential presidential prospect, what might his poor showing outside the state’s largest metro areas reveal about O’Rourke’s strengths and weaknesses as a possible national candidate in 2020?

Austin American-Statesman - December 14, 2018

In pursuit of new Austin campus, Apple took the un-Amazon path

Fifteen months ago, online retailer Amazon set off the biggest economic development competition in U.S. history, igniting a media firestorm when it opened public bidding for its $5 billion second headquarters project, dubbed HQ2.

Amazon invited every North American city to submit a proposal, and in January the company — in almost reality TV-style fashion — chopped the list of contenders to 20 finalists. Four months after Amazon kicked off the HQ2 bidding war, executives at Apple Inc. started the process of picking a site for a new major corporate campus. But they approached it much differently. Instead of the frenzy Amazon had set off, Apple simply wrote in a blog that it would create 20,000 jobs over the next five years, including at a new corporate branch, before quietly moving into its selection process and saying little else about its intentions until this week. Apple revealed Thursday that it will build a $1 billion hub in North Austin that will initially employ 5,000 people but could eventually house up to 15,000 workers. While the campus will be smaller than Amazon’s HQ2, it will still be Apple’s biggest corporate location outside of its headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Apple, which already employs about 7,000 people in Austin, is in line to receive $25 million from the Texas Enterprise Fund, along with millions of dollars’ worth of tax abatements from Williamson County. As was the case with the metro area’s pitch for Amazon’s HQ2, the city of Austin did not offer any financial incentives to Apple. Despite the stunningly different ways the two corporate giants approached their deal-making and site selection process, both sets of tactics worked for each company in the end.

Austin American-Statesman - December 14, 2018

Texas A&M training health students to respond to opioid overdoses

Starting in 2019, Texas A&M University will be the first university in the nation to train all of its health science students to administer the drug naloxone, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

This will include more than 5,000 students each year from the pharmacy, dental, nursing, medical and public health schools, and is being done in response to the growing drug crisis in the state, said Marcia Ory, vice president of strategic initiatives at the university’s Health Science Center. Students will take a 90-minute course to learn how to administer the drug. They then will train other students across disciplines and within the greater community. Naloxone is available in a nasal spray or intramuscular injection and restores normal breathing in the event of an opioid overdose. Its availability nationwide has led to significant reductions in deaths from opioids in some states. Texas A&M Pharmacy professor Joy Alonzo, who is spearheading the new program, said the idea is to breed a new type of clinician, one who is knowledgeable about opioid addiction and how to treat it. More than 1,300 people died in Texas from opioid overdoses in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. While the rate of deaths is smaller in the state compared to other places, experts have repeatedly said that reporting is skewed because of a lack of trained medical examiners in Texas who can spot an overdose and record it on death certificates. The numbers could be even higher, they have said. Ory said Texas A&M Health Science Center wanted to do something to combat the problem before it gets worse. It formed an opioid task force this year to address issues related to the crisis. Teaching students to administer naloxone will be among its first initiatives. “From now until the opioid crisis is over, we will be training every student that comes through our doors,” Alonzo said. “We teach all of our health professionals students to be CPR-certified, it’s the same idea.” The program will also include education on what opioid use disorder is, how to spot an overdose, as well as addiction risk factors and myths. “The ultimate goal is to destigmatize substance use disorders and teach providers — and society in general — to consider it a chronic health condition, not a lack of willpower or a character flaw,” university officials said in a statement about the program. “Naloxone doesn’t solve the problem or help people overcome addiction, but it does save their lives so they have the opportunity to seek treatment.” The training is being added to course curriculum for all campuses, including those in Round Rock, College Station and Houston, and comes at no additional cost to students. The naloxone itself is being made available through state funding for the opioid crisis.

Houston Chronicle - December 14, 2018

Texas lawmakers press border patrol on Guatemalan girl’s death

House Democrats on Friday sharply questioned the border patrol’s handling of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died last week after being detained in a remote desert border crossing in New Mexico, about 120 miles west of El Paso.

The incident, first disclosed in press reports Thursday, has intensified scrutiny of the border patrol’s child and family detention policies, as well as the decision of Customs and Border Protection officials to hold off on notifying Congress, as required by law. The criticism mounted Friday as new details emerged of the death of Jakelin Caal Maquin, who was detained along with her father the night of December 6 after crossing the border illegally with a large group of people. Her death, reportedly of dehydration and shock after an arduous desert crossing, also has roiled the debate over the Trump administration’s asylum policies and heightened the stakes in a potential government shutdown next Friday over funding for a border wall. “This death raises significant questions about the conditions in CBP’s short-term holding facilities, and the general suitability of such facilities for families and children,” a group of Democratic leaders, including San Antonio Democrat Joaquin Castro, said in a letter Friday to Homeland Security Acting Inspector General John Kelly. “We are also troubled by the fact that we learned of this incident from the Washington Post, rather than through congressional notification as required under Department of Homeland Security (DHS) appropriations laws.” In a statement Friday, CBP officials said they immediately notified the Guatemalan government following the girl’s death. However they said they did not issue a public statement “out of respect for the family of the deceased.” But under fire from Democrats and immigrant activists, CPB officials announced that the Office of Professional Responsibility and the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General would conduct a review of the agency’s disclosure and notification policies. Officials also defended the border patrol’s handling of the girl and her father, saying they did “everything in their power” to save the girl after her father notified them of her distress at a remote forward operating base near the Antelope Wells port of entry, 94 miles from the nearest border patrol station in Lordsburg, New Mexico. The girl died early Saturday morning, a day and a half later, at the Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso, where she was flown by helicopter after a long bus ride to Lordsburg with her father and others in the group of detained immigrants.

Houston Chronicle - December 16, 2018

‘It’s shameful.’ Lawmakers’ panel sounds alarm on Texas schools

Texas slipped to 46th in the nation in fourth-grade reading. Even the best school districts report that just half their low-income students are at grade level. And just 28 percent of graduating seniors earn a post-secondary degree or credential in six years.

As state legislators plan to make 2019 a banner year for capping property tax growth, some are warning in a much-anticipated report that the focus next year needs to be on pumping resources into schools or risk jeopardizing Texas' long-term future. “We have to stop lying to ourselves. We have to acknowledge who these students are, the circumstances they find themselves in. The state for a very long time has stared them in the face and said ‘You’re going to get a little less from us. We have other things that we care about, whether it’s border security… or tax breaks for corporations,” said Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat from San Antonio on the commission that released the draft report this week. “It’s shameful.” The findings are dire, especially for low-income students and those who struggle to speak English. The 13-member committee found that the school system failed to adjust to changing demographics that mean more poor children, and more whose primary language is not English. The report also reveals a state where the majority of public school students are unprepared for grade-level work and adult life and fewer people are pursuing degrees in education to fuel the next wave of teachers. “I think the commission learned some uncomfortable things about the challenges that our schools face,” said Mark Wiggins, of the Association of Texas Professional Educators. While the panel is sounding alarms, top state education officials say they have made progress in recent years. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees Texas schools, agrees these are issues to be improved upon. However Texas is making progress elsewhere, according to the TEA 2017 Annual Report. Graduation rates are at an all-time high and among the top five states in the country. More high school students are earning college credit than in past years and African American, Hispanic and white students out-performed students in all but eight other states in the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress. Texas lawmakers have vowed to prioritize curbing property tax growth and school finance in the 2019 legislative session. Both issues are complicated and intractably linked.

Houston Chronicle - December 15, 2018

Proposed fence in Rio Grande Valley shows challenges of building Trump’s border ‘wall’

A Border Patrol truck powered past a stretch of steel bollard fence, built a decade ago on top of a fortified flood control levee snaking along the winding Rio Grande River.

Muddy footprints caked parts of the concrete embankment where migrants had tried to scale it and a branch used to hook a ladder to the top had been flung to the ground. Then the fencing stopped. The truck swung on to a dirt road on the levee. The government plans to add an 18-foot fence here, alongside a 150-foot-wide clearing for agents to patrol past the thick cenizo brush, in which migrants often slip through undetected. The new fence would slice through the home of Fred Cavazos, who has lived and worked on these 77 acres extending from the river all his life. He has looked at the satellite image showing how the fence would cut him off from his beloved cattle and riverfront so many times but even now — especially now — it fills him with rage. A federal judge ruled just last week that the government could enter his property within 72 hours to survey it for the structure. “This thing won’t work,” Cavazos said. “They’ll find a way to get over it. So why should I give up my home?” More than 1,700 miles away in Washington D.C., President Donald Trump had threatened a government shutdown if Democrats did not agree to another $5 billion to fund a wall, his signature campaign promise that he vowed Mexico would pay for. He falsely stated that “tremendous amounts of wall” had already been built, when just $1.57 billion has been appropriated, generally for bollard fencing such as what is slated to slash through Cavazos’ land. This stretch of the Rio Grande Valley is the nation’s busiest illegal crossing point, but it also poses the greatest challenges to building a fence; certainly here, no one seriously mentions a wall. Much of the region is rugged and either privately-owned or under environmental protection and there are doubts about whether such a structure would make a significant difference. The Cavazos family was the last of 29 landowners to hold out against proposed fencing in Mission. The property has been in the family for decades, one of the few remaining chunks of what was once a Spanish land grant of more than half a million acres. In the 1760s, their ancestors owned about a third of the Rio Grande Valley, but over the years it has shrunk through taxes, land grabs and sales. In 2006, Cavazos’ cousin, Rey Anzaldua, fought President George W. Bush’s administration when it proposed fencing further south, in Granjeno, that cut through his family home. Officials eventually agreed to build it just beyond, but the family forfeited dozens of acres.

Associated Press - December 15, 2018

O'Rourke, other Dems don't want tent city's contract renewed

Rep. Beto O'Rourke and four other Democratic members of Congress toured a remote tent city in West Texas on Saturday where they said that 2,700 immigrant teens are being held at a cost of roughly $1 million per day.

The lawmakers urged the nonprofit running the facility not to renew a federal contract that expires Dec. 31, a longshot request that could effectively shutter the camp. It was supposed to be temporary but has instead taken in more children and taken on a permanent feel with soccer fields, a dining facility and tents housing separate sleeping quarters for boys and girls. O'Rourke — a Texan who has been mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate after nearly upsetting Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in his deep-red state — was joined by U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Tina Smith of Minnesota, and California Rep. Judy Chu. O'Rourke said he and his colleagues weren't allowed to speak to the children in any meaningful way. "They kind of nodded their heads, but what are they going to say when everyone around them is watching?" O'Rourke said after touring the facility. "But there was something in the look on their faces that we saw, the way that they weren't really engaged in the sports that they were playing out on those fields. "We need to shut it down," Chu added. "It is inhumane. It is a child prison. It has no right to exist." O'Rourke made no mention about his possible White House aspirations after making his fourth visit to the camp just outside Tornillo. He noted the area was about an hour's drive from his native El Paso, which borders Mexico at the westernmost tip of Texas. "It's in a remote location on purpose so that the American people do not know what's happening here," O'Rourke told reporters. The lawmakers said 2,700 boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 17 were being held at Tornillo. They described touring the tents housing the teens, but could only ask light questions. O'Rourke said he asked a few of them what countries they were from — Guatemala and Honduras, they said — and received assurances that the conditions were "OK." Tornillo opened as a temporary facility in June, amid what President Donald Trump's administration described as an emergency situation on the U.S.-Mexico border. Since then, the contract keeping it open has been renewed, and the numbers of kids being held inside has grown, though determining how fast and by how much has proven difficult. The lawmakers said the contractor running the facility, BCFS Health and Human Services, told them that the tent city has cost taxpayers $144 million since opening, or about $1 million a day.

Associated Press and Dallas Morning News - December 15, 2018

Baylor ties pervade rape case that sparked uproar over probation plea deal

The Texas judge who approved a plea deal allowing a former Baylor University student accused of rape to avoid jail time holds three degrees from Baylor. The criminal district attorney overseeing the case holds two. The prosecutor who agreed to the plea agreement graduated from Baylor law school.

Local leaders say those connections to the world's largest Baptist university cast doubt on the handling of the criminal case against ex-Phi Delta Theta president Jacob Walter Anderson, who was accused of repeatedly raping a woman outside a 2016 fraternity party. Anderson was indicted on sexual assault charges, but the agreement allowed him to plead no contest to unlawful restraint. He must seek counseling and pay a $400 fine but will not have to register as a sex offender. His lawyers say a statement from the woman, which she read in court, is riddled with misrepresentations and distortions. Prosecutors have defended the plea deal. The case has some similarities to that of ex-Stanford swimmer Brock Turner, who was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six month in jail. While community leaders in Waco said they do not believe or have proof of collusion in the Texas case, they said it shows a failure of the local legal system and reflects a larger culture where preferential treatment is given to people with status in the Baylor community. "It seems that Waco just shoots itself in the foot just time and time again," said Mary Duty, a lifelong resident of the Waco area and chair of the McLennan County Democratic Party. Duty said Judge Ralph Strother, who presided in the Anderson case, was known in the community as a nice and decent man. She said the sentencing goes "completely against the grain" of his reputation and left many disappointed. The unwelcome attention hit Baylor about two years after a sexual assault scandal surrounding the football program engulfed the school, leading to the firing of then-football coach Art Briles, resignation of the Athletic Director Ian McCaw and the demotion of the university's president, Ken Starr, who later resigned. Baylor has reached settlements with several women who say they were sexually assaulted by football players and their stories were ignored. The local legal system also has been tarred by the handling of a 2015 shootout involving rival biker clubs and police in Waco that left nine bikers dead. McLennan County Criminal District Attorney Abel Reyna brought charges against more than a hundred bikers. He was ousted by voters in the Republican primary in March. At that time he had failed to convict anyone for the killings. He will leave office at the end of the year.

San Antonio Express-News - December 15, 2018

Seventy miles of razor wire later, some GIs pulling back from border

Active duty soldiers sent to the U.S.-Mexico border by President Donald Trump have installed seemingly endless rolls of concertina wire since the earliest days of the operation, but as some of them prepared to return to home bases this week, the Army stated exactly how much.

Soldiers have reinforced existing border fences with some 70 linear miles of the razor wire and movable barriers at 22 ports of entry in Texas, Arizona and California — but none in New Mexico — since the operation started at the end of October. It included a small amount of wire soldiers had installed in Laredo but removed recently at the request of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officials at Army North said. They referred questions about it to CBP, which did not provide an explanation. Around 750 troops in the Lone Star Star and Arizona redeployed Wednesday to their home bases after a stay of about six weeks, the U.S. Northern Command said. They included some engineering, logistics and headquarters elements. Some in Texas will head west rather than go home. The border force as of Thursday numbered 4,200 troops, including 1,700 in Texas, 1,500 in California and 1,000 in Arizona. Another 2,100 National Guard service members support CBP under Operation Guardian Support, launched last spring. Concertina wire is so nicknamed because it is coiled, so a linear mile of wire doesn’t equal a mile of border. The command said engineers used more than 480 miles of single-strand wire to create the 70 miles of obstacles. The total is still considerably shorter than the 1,954 miles of border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The barrier reinforcement job has been completed, the general in charge, Army North’s commander, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, said in a prepared statement. Trump sent 5,800 active duty troops, some of them Marines, to the border as the Nov. 6 midterm elections approached, prompting Democrats and other critics to accuse him of using the military as a prop in a campaign to stoke fear about thousands of Central Americans then making their way toward the U.S. border in caravans to ask for asylum. The president described the caravans as an invasion force. Most of the migrants arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, and are still stalled there, waiting for a chance to press their asylum claims at the U.S. port of entry. Using tear gas, federal agents twice rebuffed attempts by smaller groups of them to force open a border fence. So far, no soldiers or Marines have been confronted by anyone and none have fired tear gas as part of crowd control, Buchanan said in a written statement in response to questions from the San Antonio Express-News.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times - December 15, 2018

'Vice' film: Harry Whittington, man shot by Dick Cheney, on what really happened on ranch

Harry Whittington was a longtime Austin lawyer and a largely behind the scenes player in Texas Republican politics in February 2006 when he became a central actor in what came close to being a life-or-death drama involving then-Vice President Dick Cheney.

Whittington, then 78, was part of a quail-hunting party on a South Texas ranch with Cheney and others when the vice president accidentally shot him in the face and torso after a covey of game birds took flight. Dozens of tiny bird-shot pellets peppered his face and torso. He lost consciousness and was taken to the hospital. He suffered what at the time was called a minor heart attack because some of the lead shot hit blood vessels near his heart. The incident, first reported by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in South Texas, was extensively covered locally, nationally and internationally at the time. Now, it's part of the movie, "Vice," due for release on Christmas and depicting the political life of the man sometimes described as the most powerful vice president in history.

Wall Street Journal - December 14, 2018

Muslim GOP leader targeted by party activists in Texas

Shahid Shafi was drawn to the Republican tenets of small government and secure borders after growing up under a military dictatorship in Pakistan. Now he is under fire from conservative activists who say he isn’t fit for a leadership position in the party because he is Muslim.

Five months after he was named vice chairman of the Republican Party in Texas’ Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth, a faction including local precinct chairs are seeking to recall him at a vote in January. One described the conflict as a “civil war” within the party. They argue that Dr. Shafi, who came to the U.S. in 1990 before becoming a surgeon, is unfit because Islam is entwined with political ideology they believe is incompatible with Republican Party positions and American values—a charge Dr. Shafi, party leaders and religious experts reject as prejudice. Top Texas Republicans including Sen. Ted Cruz and land commissioner George P. Bush have defended Dr. Shafi. And local GOP officials worry the controversy threatens efforts to expand the appeal of their party in Texas’ third most-populous county, part of a rapidly diversifying region that is important to Republicans maintaining statewide power. “There are some people in our party here who are just plain anti-Muslim,” said Tarrant County GOP chairman Darl Easton, who appointed Dr. Shafi to his post. “There are more than I expected there to be.” John Fowler, one of the precinct chairs leading the campaign, said that while Dr. Shafi should be free to practice his religion and belong to the party, he shouldn’t hold a leadership position because Islam is inseparable from certain political views that run counter to the GOP. “I believe the [Tarrant County] GOP must stand firmly for the values expressed in the Constitution,” he wrote in an email. “I believe that Political Islam does not; particularly with regard to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, equality of women, and separation of Church and State.” Dorrie O’Brien, another precinct chair allied with Mr. Fowler, voiced concern that Dr. Shafi hadn’t expressed sufficient support for Israel and has raised questions about whether he was connected to terrorist groups. Dr. Shafi, 53 years old, who also serves as city councilman in Southlake, Texas, adamantly refuted the claims made by his detractors, denied connection to any terrorist groups and characterized Israel as a strong U.S. ally. “Our party does not allow discrimination based on religion and I will not allow anyone to give a bad name to our party and hijack our party platform for personal agendas,” he said. Denise Spellberg, a history and Middle Eastern studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said assertions that Dr. Shafi’s religion interfered with his ability to serve in a political position amounted to a “loyalty test” and were similar to bigotry-fueled criticisms of Jews and Catholics earlier in American history. “The fear that an observant Muslim citizen is therefore not compliant with state and federal law, or is somehow not fit to be a Republican leader, is a claim without factual merit and is pure bigotry,” said Ms. Spellberg, who has studied the intersection of Islam and American politics.

The Eagle - December 16, 2018

What's ahead for the Dallas-Houston high-speed rail

After a year filled with public hearings, partnership announcements and meetings with landowners, Texas Central Partners is looking toward breaking ground on its Dallas-to-Houston high-speed rail in 2019.

The bullet train, which promises a 90-minute connection between the two major cities with a stop in Grimes County, is still awaiting final approval from the Federal Railroad Administration. Texas Central says construction will start immediately after that hurdle is cleared. "We're excited to be building this project on paper every day, and we're very anxious to get shovels in the ground and start building all along the alignment," said Holly Reed, Texas Central's managing director of external affairs. It was this time last year that the FRA released a draft environmental impact statement for the train, which for the first time identified a preferred route for the 240-mile alignment. Reed said many more major milestones have happened since then. The FRA hosted a series of public meetings in counties the high-speed rail is planned to pass through, and completed a public comment period. Texas Central, the private developer of the rail, also inked agreements with several companies for the project. The Spanish rail operator Renfe will serve as strategic operating partner, and Salini Impregilo, along with its U.S.-based subsidiary The Lane Construction Corporation, will lead the civil construction of the rail line. Bechtel will serve as the project manager. Texas Central has announced more than 30 percent of the parcels along the proposed route are already under land option purchase agreements, and in the counties in the lower portion of the alignment -- including Grimes, Madison and Waller counties -- more than half of the parcels are under agreement, Reed said. Not all landowners are on board, though. The project has been met with strong resistance from some Texans, particularly in rural counties, and the company's eminent domain authority remains a point of contention. Texas Central says state law gives it the right to use eminent domain in cases where agreements can't be reached with landowners. Critics, though, have challenged that the company is a railroad and therefore can't take land through eminent domain. Court cases on the issue are still playing out. Reed said the company's goal is still to come to sales agreements with "every single landowner." Texas Central has also promised to minimize the impact of the bullet train on surrounding property through means such as building it on elevated tracks and berms, meaning there won't be any at-grade crossings.

Axios - December 16, 2018

Activist Democrats question whether Beto O'Rourke is one of them

Beto O'Rourke ran a decidedly progressive Senate campaign in 2018, especially for a Democrat running in deep-red Texas. But now activists on the left are questioning his ideology and if he's progressive enough to represent their party in 2020.

Why it matters: The left is where the energy is in today's Democratic Party. Nearly half of Democratic voters describe themselves as liberal, up 17 percentage points from a decade ago, according to Pew Research Center. After Bernie Sanders didn't get the nomination in 2016, expect the activist base that organized behind him to be even more demanding of all 2020 candidates. Show less "I can’t remember anything from Beto's campaign that seems like a big policy idea," said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee, who also worked with Sanders during the 2016 election. "Progressives will hold all these 2020 contenders accountable to the grassroots energy in the Democratic Party and he’ll be one of them." The problem with O'Rourke, various Democratic activists say, is that he didn't support bills they consider to be crucial to the progressive platform and he was a member of the centrist, fiscally conservative New Democrat Coalition. O'Rourke supports universal health care, but his campaign website doesn't mention Medicare for All and he didn't co-sponsor the House bill for it. (He's explained why on Facebook and said he's "exploring an alternative.") He supports protecting Social Security, but he didn't sign the House bill for it. He's not on the bill for debt-free college, which will become a litmus test for 2020 Democrats among progressives. He supports reforming the current bail system, but not abolishing it completely. On energy, he wants the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate accord, but that's not enough for Democratic activists who said they'll be looking for whether or not he endorses Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal. "The thing I fear most about Beto is that he’s like Emmanuel Macron: super charismatic, runs a great campaign, really good at organizing and really good at speeches," said Shahid, "but then on policy he's going to surround himself with Wall Street backers because he doesn’t have really strong ideas." O'Rourke's office didn't respond to our request for comment.

Lubbock Avalanche-Journal - December 15, 2018

Jay Leeson: Texas turned amarillo, not purple

Texas didn’t turn purple in 2018. It turned amarillo.

When I say amarillo, I’m more referring to the political attitude of place than a color. An expectation that lawmakers, who’d like to remain elected, apply political energy and competence to solving practical matters. Rather than being firebrand ideologues who solve almost nothing. Back in the spring, in the Panhandle’s rural metropolis of Amarillo, state Sen. Kel Seliger and state Rep. Four Price had their Republican primaries contested, as did state Rep. Ken King to the east in Canadian. Seliger and King had two opponents each. The primaries were coordinated by Empower Texans, an outside dark-money funded group, unrivaled in its knack to put the “con” in conservative. This is the same shady group whose spokesman baselessly claimed former Texas Tech Chancellor Robert Duncan was fired over “misappropriation of funds” back in August. After each legislative session, the group releases a self-aggrandized scorecard. In 2017, they graded Seliger at 75, King at 40, and Price at 44. Price went on to roll his primary opponent. Seliger and King squeaked out victories of 1 percent or less; thus foiling plans of dragging both into tough runoff elections. Then in the November, Price went unopposed. Seliger and King won in landslides. General elections are, after all, the only landslides possible on the reliably Republican High Plains. In this, the Panhandle provided a correlative by which to understand the state’s 2018 election cycle: Good scorecards yielded poor general election results. Most everywhere in Texas, Republican state representative races, political allies of the Panhandle delegation carried the day. Look no further than Tarrant County, one of the state’s largest suburban counties. Fort Worth’s Charlie Geren, with an Empower Texas rating of 41, won the northwestern portion of the county by 29 percent. South Lake’s Giovanni Capriglione, with a 63 rating, won northeastern Tarrant by 39. Compare those outcomes with other Empower-backed incumbents in the county, members of a so-called House Freedom Caucus: Tony Tinderholt’s 100 rating won by just nine points. Matt Krause’s 98 percent rating won by eight. Jonathon Stickland’s perfect scorecard won by two. And Bill Zedler’s 93 won by three. There’s a reason Plano’s Jeff Leach in neighboring Collin County recently announced his departure from the Freedom Caucus. Leach, a bright, up-and-coming Texas pol, barely survived Texas 2018. Leach is already making strides to take the amarillo route headed into 2020. Pan out from Tarrant and look at Republican outcomes to the east and down south. Morgan Meyer in Dallas County, along with Sarah Davis and Jim Murphy in Harris County all bombed their scorecards, yet survived in counties in which state senate seats and appellate courts went decisively towards Democrats. When the Legislature convenes Jan. 8, Meyer, Davis, and Murphy will be – to borrow a metaphor from former Texas Gov. Rick Perry – cherry tomatoes in bowls of blueberries that are now their respective state rep delegations.

County Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 14, 2018

Criminal case grows against Arlington mental hospital accused of holding patients against their will

An Arlington mental health hospital, indicted last month on charges of illegally holding patients, was indicted on 11 new counts Thursday by a Tarrant County grand jury.

Sundance Behavioral Healthcare System now faces 20 counts of violating state mental health codes, nearly all of them related to holding patients illegally. Lawyers representing Sundance said their position on the charges is unchanged, repeating their belief that the case is an instance of "unprecedented overreach" that will have major consequences. The original indictments were issued Nov. 14. Between January 2017 and last month, Sundance, officially SAS Healthcare Inc., involuntarily or illegally detained 11 patients, according to the indictment. The 20 counts include allegations that Sundance failed to help patients create a written request for discharge, detained a minor without a guardian’s consent and illegally held a patient past the 48-hour maximum for preliminary examination. Sundance's attorneys argued that the detention of mentally ill people is necessary at times for their own and others’ protection. They pointed to the beating death last month of an inmate in the Tarrant County Jail as an example of “the dangers the mentally ill can pose and why, at times, restraining their liberty is justified to protect both themselves and the community at large.” The inmate, Clinton Don Simpson, 76, was charged with multiple counts of child sexual assault when a fellow inmate in the jail’s medical unit beat him to death in November, officials said. Sundance faces up to a $100,000 fine for each day the alleged offenses took place.

National Stories

Washington Post - December 15, 2018

Interior Secretary Zinke resigns amid investigations

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke submitted his resignation to the White House on Saturday, facing intense pressure to step down because of multiple probes tied to his real estate dealings in his home state of Montana and his conduct in office.

President Trump announced Zinke’s exit via Twitter on Saturday morning and praised the departing Interior chief. “Secretary of the Interior @RyanZinke will be leaving the Administration at the end of the year after having served for a period of almost two years,” the president tweeted. “Ryan has accomplished much during his tenure and I want to thank him for his service to our Nation.” Behind the scenes, however, the White House had been pushing Zinke for weeks to resign, administration officials said. Last month, these officials said, Zinke was told he had until the end of the year to leave or be fired. ADVERTISEMENT Zinke — 57 and the first Montanan to serve in a presidential Cabinet — is the fourth Trump Cabinet member to resign under an ethics cloud in less than two years. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt also relinquished their posts amid scrutiny on subjects including how they spent taxpayer money on their travel. For Zinke, the key moment in his loss of support at the White House came in October, when Interior’s inspector general referred one of its inquiries to the Justice Department, according to two senior administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. That probe, which continues, is examining whether a land deal Zinke struck with the chairman of oil services giant Halliburton in his hometown of Whitefish, Mont., constituted a conflict of interest. Zinke blamed his departure in a private resignation letter, obtained by The Washington Post, on “vicious and politically motivated attacks.” In a tweet Saturday afternoon, he said, “I love working for the President and am incredibly proud of all the good work we’ve accomplished together. However, after 30 years of public service, I cannot justify spending thousands of dollars defending myself and my family against false allegations.” As the leading advocate for Trump’s push to expand domestic energy production, the former Navy SEAL and congressman from Montana became a lightning rod for controversy. He was hailed by energy industry officials for relaxing Obama-era environmental rules and opening up large areas of federal land and waters for oil and gas prospecting. But environmental groups assailed his policies and conducted opposition research into his management practices and financial dealings. Though Zinke won Senate confirmation by a vote of 68-to-31, views on him divided sharply along partisan lines as he promoted U.S. “energy dominance,” a phrase he coined and Trump quickly adopted.

Washington Post - December 14, 2018

Deportations under Trump are on the rise, but still lower than Obama's, ICE report shows

Amid President Donald Trump's push for tighter immigration policies, the United States deported more than 256,000 illegal immigrants in 2018 - the highest number since the Obama administration, new data shows.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Ronald Vitello announced Friday that in the past fiscal year, which ended in September, ICE has detained "a record number" of illegal immigrants and that the number of those deported has risen about 13 percent since 2017. The data, which comes from a new agency report, shows that 145,262 of those who were deported were convicted criminals and that 22,796 had criminal charges pending against them. In addition, some 5,872 were reported as known or suspected gang members and 42 were believed to be terrorists, according to the report. The number of families and unaccompanied children who were deported also increased. ICE said that 2,711 who were traveling in families and 5,571 unaccompanied children were removed from U.S. soil. "We've continued to achieve gains in all meaningful enforcement measurements," Vitello said, despite significant underfunding. The strain on resources is a consequence of current border crisis, he said. "With the continued surge and without congressional action to fund the agency at adequate levels, ICE may be forced to make difficult choices that could hamper our ability to fulfill our public safety or national security mission," he added, noting that the agency does not want to release detainees due to budgetary constraints because it would create a public safety risk. Since taking office, Trump has maintained a harsh stance on illegal immigration and in favor of border security. On Thursday he vowed to do "whatever it takes to get border security," in large part by building a wall. The president's promise to assuage the ongoing "crisis" at the U.S.-Mexico border has also included a series of executive orders in recent months, including calling for separation and detention of families entering at the border and limiting those eligible to apply for asylum. Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it is "appalling and morally unconscionable that this is the place where we find ourselves" - deporting people "without a sense of priorities." "It used to be that there was a sense that they were looking for people who had committed serious crimes," she said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. In fact, U.S. deportation numbers were higher during the Obama administration, reaching 409,849 in 2012, according to ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations reports. Data shows that in 2015 and 2016, however, the number of those deported dropped to 235,413 and 240,255, respectively. Under the Trump administration, Bauer said that there has been a sense that U.S. immigration officials are "looking for everyone," which has "created a society of fear and terror" in immigrant communities.

Wall Street Journal - December 15, 2018

Federal judge rules Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional without insurance-coverage penalty

A federal judge in Texas on Friday ruled that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional now that Congress has eliminated a penalty for those who forgo health insurance, casting doubt on the embattled health law and coverage for millions of Americans.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, an appointee of President George W. Bush, ruled that the entire Obama-era health law is invalid, siding with the claims of 20 Republican states that brought a lawsuit seeking to strike down the ACA. Republicans eliminated the ACA’s penalty for not having coverage last year, although the measure doesn’t go into effect until 2019. Mandatory health coverage was a linchpin of the original law, intending to draw healthier people into the insurance pool to help offset the costs of sicker enrollees. The Supreme Court has upheld the ACA as constitutional based on Congress’s taxing power. The Trump administration, which has long sought to repeal the ACA, applauded Friday’s ruling. “Wow, but not surprisingly, ObamaCare was just ruled UNCONSTITUTIONAL by a highly respected judge in Texas. Great news for America!” President Trump wrote on Twitter. In a statement, the White House elaborated, saying, “Once again, the President calls on Congress to replace Obamacare and act to protect people with preexisting conditions and provide Americans with quality affordable healthcare.” Friday’s decision rattled top Democratic politicians, medical groups and health-industry leaders. Some advocacy groups called on Congress to immediately pass legislation protecting coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, and the American Medical Association vowed to work with other organizations in seeking an appeal. “This is a five alarm fire—Republicans just blew up our health care system,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) said in a statement. “The anti-health care zealots in the Republican Party are intentionally ripping health care away from the working poor, increasing costs on seniors, and making insurance harder to afford for people with preexisting conditions.” The ruling, while invalidating the law, didn’t immediately block enforcement of the ACA, a situation that could trigger widespread uncertainty in the near term. Some states could stop enforcing or administering the law, including Medicaid expansion, starting Jan. 1, when the elimination of the penalty takes effect. Democratic states that had intervened in the lawsuit said they would quickly seek an appeal to the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Ultimately, the case could reach the Supreme Court. The decision Friday thrust the future of the 2010 law on unstable terrain just before the busiest final days for sign-ups during the ACA’s open-enrollment period. “It will destabilize health-insurance coverage by rolling back federal policy to 2009,” said Barbara McAneny, president of the American Medical Association. Organizations that oppose the ACA said they supported the decision. The law, they said, has amounted to heavy government intrusion into health care and limited choice for consumers.

Wall Street Journal - December 15, 2018

State and local investment gets lift from rising revenues

State and local government investment in roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure hasn’t returned to its previous peak, but it is now showing signs—late in the expansion—of a real recovery.

Since the 2007-09 recession, slow economic growth and rising expenditures on Medicaid and pensions crowded out infrastructure investment. Spending on school buildings, hospitals and public safety languished. Now, bigger state and local tax collections, propelled in part by an acceleration in sales-tax receipts from consumer spending, is boosting capital projects and driving a municipal borrowing boom. At a time when other engines of U.S. economic growth show signs of slowing, public spending at the state and local level could help keep the expansion going. New money is going into projects aimed at making cities and towns more livable and efficient. Spending on transportation infrastructure in October was up 15 percent from a year earlier, according to Commerce Department data. Spending on amusement and recreation facilities was up 31 percent from a year ago. “From an economic perspective, this is about as good an environment as a state or local policy maker is going to see,” said Dan White, director at Moody’s Analytics. “If they’re ever going to do more one-time investment for infrastructure or put more money in their rainy-day fund … this is exactly the time when you would expect to see that.” In all, state and local construction spending was up 9.7 percent in October from a year earlier to an annual rate of $288 billion, still shy of the $296 billion pace reached in March 2009. Borrowing is supporting the pickup. State and local governments issued $228.45 billion in bonds for new projects in the 10 months through October, a 19% percent increase from the same period a year earlier, according to data compiled by Citigroup Inc. Some borrowers want to lock in loans now, before interest rates go much higher. Given the lag between bond issuance and project spending, this year’s surge in bond sales bodes well for state and local spending in the coming quarters.

New York Times - December 15, 2018

How McKinsey has helped raise the stature of authoritarian governments

This year’s McKinsey & Company retreat in China was one to remember.

Hundreds of the company’s consultants frolicked in the desert, riding camels over sand dunes and mingling in tents linked by red carpets. Meetings took place in a cavernous banquet hall that resembled a sultan’s ornate court, with a sign overhead to capture the mood. “I can’t keep calm, I work at McKinsey & Company,” it said. Especially remarkable was the location: Kashgar, the ancient Silk Road city in China’s far west that is experiencing a major humanitarian crisis. About four miles from where the McKinsey consultants discussed their work, which includes advising some of China’s most important state-owned companies, a sprawling internment camp had sprung up to hold thousands of ethnic Uighurs — part of a vast archipelago of indoctrination camps where the Chinese government has locked up as many as one million people. One week before the McKinsey event, a United Nations committee had denounced the mass detentions and urged China to stop. But the political backdrop did not appear to bother the McKinsey consultants, who posted pictures on Instagram chronicling their Disney-like adventures. In fact, McKinsey’s involvement with the Chinese government goes much deeper than its odd choice to showcase its presence in the country. For a quarter-century, the company has joined many American corporations in helping stoke China’s transition from an economic laggard to the world’s second-largest economy. But as China’s growth presents a muscular challenge to American dominance, Washington has become increasingly critical of some of Beijing’s signature policies, including the ones McKinsey has helped advance. One of McKinsey’s state-owned clients has even helped build China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, a major point of military tension with the United States. It turns out that McKinsey’s role in China is just one example of its extensive — and sometimes contentious — work around the world, according to an investigation by The New York Times that included interviews with 40 current and former McKinsey employees, as well as dozens of their clients. At a time when democracies and their basic values are increasingly under attack, the iconic American company has helped raise the stature of authoritarian and corrupt governments across the globe, sometimes in ways that counter American interests. Its clients have included Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, Turkey under the autocratic leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and corruption-plagued governments in countries like South Africa. In Ukraine, McKinsey and Paul Manafort — President Trump’s campaign chairman, later convicted of financial fraud — were paid by the same oligarch to help burnish the image of a disgraced presidential candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovych, recasting him as a reformer. Once in office, Mr. Yanukovych rebuffed the West, sided with Russia and fled the country, accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars. The events set off years of chaos in Ukraine and an international standoff with the Kremlin. Inside Russia itself, McKinsey has worked with Kremlin-linked companies that have been placed under sanctions by Western governments — companies that the firm helped build up over the years and, in some cases, continues to advise. It has consulted in many sectors of the Russian economy, including mining, manufacturing, oil and gas, banking, transportation and agriculture. A McKinsey official sat on the Russian government’s energy board. Former McKinsey consultants have gone to work in the Russian companies they once advised.

New York Times - December 15, 2018

Climate negotiators reach an overtime deal to keep Paris Climate Accord alive

Diplomats from nearly 200 countries reached a deal on Saturday to keep the Paris climate agreement alive by adopting a detailed set of rules to implement the pact.

The deal, struck after an all-night bargaining session, will ultimately require every country in the world to follow a uniform set of standards for measuring their planet-warming emissions and tracking their climate policies. And it calls on countries to step up their plans to cut emissions ahead of another round of talks in 2020. It also calls on richer countries to be clearer about the aid they intend to offer to help poorer nations install more clean energy or build resilience against natural disasters. And it builds a process in which countries that are struggling to meet their emissions goals can get help in getting back on track. The United States agreed to the deal despite President Trump’s vow to abandon the Paris Agreement. Diplomats and climate change activists said they hoped that fact would make it easier for the administration to change its mind and stay in the Paris Agreement, or for a future president to embrace the accord once again. The United States cannot formally withdraw from the agreement until late 2020. Observers said United States negotiators worked constructively behind the scenes with China on transparency rules. The two countries had long been at odds because China had insisted on different reporting rules for developing countries, while the United States favored consistent emissions-accounting rules and wanted all countries to be subject to the same outside scrutiny. “The U.S. got a clear methodology to make sure that China and India are meeting their targets,” said Jake Schmidt, international policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That creates the level playing field they have been asking for.” Many of the attendees at this year’s United Nations climate talks — known as COP24, shorthand for their formal name — expressed disappointment at what they saw as half measures to deal with a mounting climate crisis. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising around the world, and millions of people are facing increased risks from severe droughts, floods and wildfires. But supporters of the deal reached Saturday said that they hoped the new rules would help build a virtuous cycle of trust and cooperation among countries, at a time when global politics seems increasingly fractured. “Particularly given the broader geopolitical context, this is a pretty solid outcome,” said Elliot Diringer, executive vice president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. “It delivers what we need to get the Paris Agreement off the ground.’’ Editors’ Picks Ellen DeGeneres Is Not as Nice as You Think 50 Years Later, It Feels Familiar: How America Fractured in 1968 How a Liberal Couple Became Two of N.Y.’s Biggest Trump Supporters “The fundamentals are in place,” Mr. Diringer added. Not every country got what it wanted at the meeting, which had been scheduled to end on Friday. Developing nations were hoping for more robust promises on climate aid, but that issue has been postponed for future talks. The negotiations over the Paris rule book, often dense and technical, were frequently bogged down by sharp political disputes inside the saucer-shaped convention center here in Katowice, at the heart of Poland’s coal country. Midway through the conference, a huge fight over climate science, with the Trump administration at the center, threatened to derail the negotiations altogether.

Associated Press - December 15, 2018

For 76-year-old Joe Biden, age a factor as he mulls 2020 run

As he considers running for president, Joe Biden is talking with friends and longtime supporters about whether, at 76, he’s too old to seek the White House, according to several sources who have spoken with the former Democratic vice president.

The discussions suggest Biden is aware that his age may be the biggest hurdle to launching another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, especially in an era when many in the party yearn for a new generation of leadership. He would be the oldest person to ever be elected president. Past and current advisers to Biden have held frequent conversations about options to alleviate concerns about age, including teaming him with a younger running mate. One option that has been floated, according to a source with knowledge of the talks, is outgoing Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who at 46 has become the subject of intense 2020 speculation after nearly beating GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations. Representatives for Biden and O’Rourke declined to comment for this story. At a town hall Friday in El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke said he hadn’t made a decision about whether to seek the presidency. The question of age has roiled Democratic politics since the midterms. At 78, Rep. Nancy Pelosi is on her way to regaining the House speaker’s gavel — but only after she agreed with mostly younger lawmakers to serve in the position for no more than four years. Other potential presidential contenders, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 69, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, 77, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 76, face the prospect of competing against Democrats who are decades younger. The younger set of the 2020 class includes Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota along with Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana and Obama housing secretary Julian Castro. They’re all in their 40s and 50s. Iowa Democratic activist Dale Todd, who was an early backer of Barack Obama in 2007, said he has misgivings about potential candidates in their 70s, despite their experience. “Can you mobilize younger voters with older candidates? Bernie showed us that you can, but can you effectively mobilize a winning coalition with an older candidate? That is our conundrum, and I would suggest you probably can’t,” said Todd, who has lent early advice to Booker. “We want freshness coupled with experience; we also want energy and passion in our candidates.” Ronald Reagan was 73 when he won the White House a second time, making him the oldest person to win a presidential election. Donald Trump was 70 when he won the presidency in 2016. Biden is expected to decide in January or February whether to seek the White House. He has done little to tamp down talk that his answer may be yes.

Associated Press - December 16, 2018

Investigations look at Trump’s life from all angles

Investigations now entangle Donald Trump’s White House, campaign, transition, inauguration, charity and business. For Trump, the political, the personal and the deeply personal are all under examination.

Less than two years into Trump’s presidency, his business associates, political advisers and family members are being probed, along with the practices of his late father. On Saturday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke became the fourth Cabinet member to leave under an ethical cloud, having sparked 17 investigations into his actions on the job, by one watchdog’s count. All of this with the first special counsel investigation against a president in 20 years hanging over Trump’s head, spinning out charges and strong-arming guilty pleas from underlings while keeping in suspense whether the president — “Individual 1” in prosecutor Robert Mueller’s coded legalese — will end up accused of criminal behavior himself. The scope of the scrutiny has shaped Trump’s presidency, proving a steady distraction from his governing agenda. So far, much of it has been launched by federal prosecutors and government watchdogs that eschew partisanship. The intensity is certain to increase next year when Democrats assume control of the House and the subpoena power that comes with it. Although Trump dismisses the investigations as politically motivated “witch hunts,” his high-octane Twitter account frequently betrays just how consumed he is by the scrutiny. He’s also said to watch hours of television coverage on milestone days in the investigations. “It saps your energy, diverts your attention and you simply can’t lead because your opponents are up in arms against you,” Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political scientist and historian, said of the scrutiny. “It weakens your friends and emboldens your enemies.” Almost midway through his term, Trump is struggling to deliver on his central campaign promises. He may end the year without a Republican-led Congress giving him the $5 billion he wants for a border wall. And he’s previewed few legislative priorities for 2019. Even if he had, it’s unlikely the new Democratic House majority would have much incentive to help a president weakened by investigations rack up wins as his own re-election campaign approaches. Perhaps not since Bill Clinton felt hounded by a “vast right wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton put it, has a president been under such duress from investigation. This jeopardy has come with Trump’s party in control of Congress and the Justice Department driving at least three separate criminal investigations. They are the Mueller probe looking into possible collusion, obstruction of justice or other wrongdoing in contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia; the New York campaign-finance case involving hush money paid to Trump’s alleged lovers; and now a case from New York, first reported by The Wall Street Journal this past week, examining the finances and operations of Trump’s inaugural committee and whether foreign interests made illegal payments to it. Behind those matters is a battery of lawsuits or inquiries from state attorneys general and other parties tied mainly to Trump businesses.

Associated Press - December 14, 2018

California chief justice gives up Republican Party label

The chief justice of the California Supreme Court said Friday she gave up her Republican Party affiliation over concerns about increasing political polarization and incivility in the U.S.

Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a telephone interview that she switched her voter registration to “no party” preference after the confirmation hearings for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Her decision was first reported Thursday by the news site, CALmatters . Cantil-Sakauye told The Associated Press she had been considering the move for several years and stressed that it was not a rejection of the Republican Party, but of a broader political climate that no longer reflects her open-mindedness and centrism. “This is the first time I really began to question the label that was otherwise attached to me that didn’t seem to fit me,” she said. She added, “I have to live in my skin.” Her switch comes at a time of turmoil for Republicans in California. The party was routed in the 2018 midterms and controls no statewide office. Opposition to President Donald Trump was a factor in the election results. He lost California by over 4 million votes in 2016 and has remained deeply unpopular in most parts of the state. Cantil-Sakauye said the Trump administration’s rhetoric against immigrants was a factor in her decision, adding that she was the product of “tremendous opportunity and inclusiveness.” She is the second woman and first Asian American to serve as the state’s chief justice. Her family traces its roots to the Philippines. She asked Trump administration officials in a letter last year to stop making immigration arrests at California courthouses, saying the practice will affect the public’s confidence in the court system. Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly responded that state and city policies barring local law enforcement from turning over suspects for deportation compelled federal agents to arrest immigrants at courthouses and other public places. Cantil-Sakauye — a registered Republican since age 18 — was nominated chief justice in 2010 by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Early in her career, she worked as a deputy legal affairs secretary for Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who appointed her as a Sacramento municipal court judge. Another Republican governor, Pete Wilson, elevated her to Sacramento County court before she became an appellate court judge. Cantil-Sakauye said the Kavanugh hearings left her “disheartened” and “hollow.” Kavanaugh’s confirmation was delayed and nearly derailed when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford made sexual assault allegations against him. A subsequent hearing in September before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee exposed a sharp partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans considering Kavanaugh’s nomination. Kavanaugh denounced Senate Democrats during his confirmation hearing.

Money - December 14, 2018

Mark Zuckerberg lost $15 billion this year, more than any other billionaires in the world

Mark Zuckerberg could be ending the year about three-fourths as rich as he was coming into it.

Mired in controversy throughout the year, Zuckerberg’s net worth started at around $75 billion on January 2, and he’s set to finish at least $15 billion less when the year comes to a close — a greater loss than any of the other 499 richest people in the world. The Facebook founder’s 13 percent stake in the company makes up almost all of his fortune. Accusations of the platform’s role in Russian election interference and the mass genocide in Rohingya put a closer eye on Facebook, and the unraveling revelations of data breaches and unsavory practices at the executive level that followed led to a number of stock price drops. As the person holding the reins for the entire operation, Zuckerberg has been held accountable personally and — as the chart below shows — financially. It goes without saying that his accountant probably isn’t too worried about his declining fortune, which also includes $2.4 billion in “cash and other assets” and $175 million in real estate according to Bloomberg. But the events of 2018 have done the unprecedented for Zuckerberg: his net worth backtracked to where it was almost two years ago.

CNN Business - December 14, 2018

The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine critical of Trump, to shutter after 23 years

The Weekly Standard, the magazine that espouses traditional conservatism and which has remained deeply critical of President Donald Trump, will shutter after 23 years, its owner Clarity Media Group announced Friday morning. The magazine will publish its final issue on December 17.

The announcement came after the magazine's editor-in-chief, Stephen Hayes, met privately with Ryan McKibben, the chief executive and chairman of Clarity Media Group, a media holding company owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz. "For more than twenty years The Weekly Standard has provided a valued and important perspective on political, literary and cultural issues of the day," McKibben said in a press release. "The magazine has been home to some of the industry's most dedicated and talented staff and I thank them for their hard work and contributions, not just to the publication, but the field of journalism." Employees were told at an all staff meeting, which CNN obtained an audio recording of, that they would be paid through the end of the year, and that afterward they would receive severance which would range in scale depending on factors like seniority. To receive severance, however, employees would need to sign a strict non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement. "I know it's an emotional day, but I want to tell you don't get on social media and attack anybody because it will put your severance in jeopardy," McKibben told employees in the meeting. Employees were also told to clear out their desks by the end of the day. People familiar with the matter said that the email addresses of employees were already in the process of being shut off. When employees raised questions during Friday's meeting, McKibben told them, "I'm not going to take questions. This isn't a press conference." The closing of the magazine represents a broader shift in conservative media. Outlets on the right that are critical of Trump have lost influence or changed their tone, while media organizations on the right supportive of the President have flourished. McKibben, in his statement, blamed The Weekly Standard's demise on the challenges within the journalism industry, not the magazine's politics. He said the magazine had over the past several years seen "double-digit declines in its subscriber base" and that "after careful consideration" it "became clear that this was the step we needed to take." In a statement posted to Twitter, Hayes said he was "profoundly disappointed in the decision to close The Weekly Standard," writing that its "unapologetically conservative" voice was "needed now more than at anytime in our previous 23 years." Earlier, in a note sent to staff Friday morning, Hayes referenced the difficulty conservative news organizations critical of Trump have had in recent years. "This is a volatile time in American journalism and politics," Hayes wrote. "Many media outlets have responded to the challenges of the moment by prioritizing affirmation over information, giving into the pull of polarization and the lure of clickbait."

Stars and Stripes - December 15, 2018

In America's hidden war in Syria, troops face peril on many fronts

The ruined, fearful city of Raqqa was once the Islamic State's capital, the showcase of its caliphate and a magnet for foreign fighters from around the globe. Now it lies at the heart of the United States' newest commitment to a Middle East war.

The commitment is small, a few thousand troops who were first sent to Syria three years ago to help the Syrian Kurds fight the Islamic State. President Donald Trump indicated in March that the troops would be brought home once the battle is won, and the latest military push to eject the group from its final pocket of territory recently got underway. In September, however, the administration switched course, saying the troops will stay in Syria pending an overall settlement to the Syrian war and with a new mission: to act as a bulwark against Iran's expanding influence. That decision puts U.S. troops in overall control, perhaps indefinitely, of an area comprising nearly a third of Syria, a vast expanse of mostly desert terrain roughly the size of Louisiana. The Pentagon does not say how many troops are there. Officially, they number 503, but earlier this year an official let slip that the true number may be closer to 4,000. Most are Special Operations forces, and their footprint is light. Their vehicles and convoys rumble by from time to time along the empty desert roads, but it is rare to see U.S. soldiers in towns and cities. The new mission raises new questions, about the role they will play and whether their presence will risk becoming a magnet for regional conflict and insurgency. The area is surrounded by powers hostile both to the U.S. presence and the aspirations of the Kurds, who are governing the majority-Arab area in pursuit of a leftist ideology formulated by an imprisoned Turkish Kurdish leader. Signs that the Islamic State is starting to regroup and rumblings of discontent within the Arab community point to the threat of an insurgency. Without the presence of U.S. troops, these dangers would almost certainly ignite a new war right away, said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official with the Self-Administration of North and East Syria, as the self-styled government of the area is called. "They have to stay. If they leave and there isn't a solution for Syria, it will be catastrophic," she said. But staying also heralds risk, and already the challenges are starting to mount. A Turkish threat to invade the area last month forced the United States to scramble patrols along the border with Turkey, which has massed troops and tanks along the frontier. Turkey regards the main Kurdish militia, the YPG, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party inside Turkey, as a terrorist organization and fears the consequences for its own security if the group consolidates power in Syria.

Bloomberg - December 16, 2018

Macron's popularity declines despite yellow jacket concessions

Emmanuel Macron’s popularity continued to slide in December despite concessions announced by the French president in response to weeks of protests by the so-called Yellow Vest movement.

Macron’s approval rating dropped two points from a month earlier, to 23 percent, according to a poll by Ifop for the Journal du Dimanche weekly. Macron’s popularity has fallen by 27 points during the course of 2018, the newspaper reported. On Saturday, the same day that the polling ended, demonstrations held across France by the Yellow Vest movement drew around half the number of last week’s protesters, suggesting that his offers have dented the campaign’s momentum. Macron on Dec. 10 announced that he’ll raise the minimum wage, abolish taxes on overtime and get rid of a controversial tax on pensions. "Dialogue must now bring together all those who want to change France," Interior Minister Christophe Castaner wrote late Saturday in a tweet, adding that the day "ended well." The protests have battered the French economy at a time when Macron is in need of a boost to help deliver his agenda. Sales sacrificed to the protests have already exceed 1 billion euros ($1.13 billion), according to the FCD national retail federation. And the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index showed the country’s private sector contracting in December for the first time during Macron’s presidency. The Bank of France has cut its growth forecasts for this year and the next as a broad cross section of sectors report falling output. People across France have been donning high-visibility vests for more than a month to express a range of grievances and demands, from lower taxes and higher wages to better public services. "We’re taking reality into account" in making the proposals, National Assembly President Richard Ferrand, a political ally of Macron, said in an interview in the Journal du Dimanche. "What would people have said if we hadn’t come to any conclusions from the Yellow Vest movement?" Support for Prime Minister Edouard Philippe fell 3 points to 31 percent, according to the Ifop poll. Ifop surveyed 1,943 people of voting age, via phone and Internet, between Dec. 7 and Dec. 15.

Reuters - December 16, 2018

Turkey says Trump working on extraditing wanted cleric Gulen

President Donald Trump has told his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan that Washington is working on extraditing a U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused of orchestrating a failed Turkish coup in 2016, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Sunday.

“In Argentina, Trump told Erdogan they were working on extraditing (Fethullah) Gulen and other people,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said, referring to the G20 summit where the leaders met two weeks ago. Turkey has long sought the extradition of Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed U.S. exile for nearly two decades. A former ally of Erdogan, he is blamed by Turkish authorities for the failed coup when rogue soldiers commandeered tanks and helicopters, attacked parliament and shot unarmed civilians. Gulen denies any involvement in the failed putsch. Trump said last month he was not considering extraditing the preacher as part of efforts to ease Turkish pressure on Saudi Arabia over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. Erdogan said last week Turkey would start new initiatives abroad to target the financing of Gulen supporters. “I have recently seen a credible probe by the FBI on how the Gulen organization avoids taxes,” Cavusoglu told a conference in Doha.

December 14, 2018

Lead Stories

Wall Street Journal - December 13, 2018

Trump inaugural fund and Super PAC under criminal investigation by federal prosecutors

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said.

The criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions, some of the people said. Giving money in exchange for political favors could run afoul of federal corruption laws. Diverting funds from the organization, which was registered as a nonprofit, could also violate federal law. The investigation represents another potential legal threat to people who are or were in Mr. Trump’s orbit. Their business dealings and activities during and since the campaign have led to a number of indictments and guilty pleas. Many of the president’s biggest campaign backers were involved in the inaugural fund. The investigation partly arises out of materials seized in the federal probe of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s business dealings, according to people familiar with the matter. In April raids of Mr. Cohen’s home, office and hotel room, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents obtained a recorded conversation between Mr. Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to Melania Trump, who worked on the inaugural events. In the recording, Ms. Wolkoff expressed concern about how the inaugural committee was spending money, according to a person familiar with the Cohen investigation. The Wall Street Journal couldn’t determine when the conversation between Mr. Cohen and Ms. Wolkoff took place, or why it was recorded. The recording is now in the hands of federal prosecutors in Manhattan, a person familiar with the matter said. The inaugural committee hasn’t been asked for records or been contacted by prosecutors, according to a lawyer close to the matter, who said: “We are not aware of any evidence the investigation the Journal is reporting actually exists.” The inaugural committee has publicly identified vendors accounting for $61 million of the $103 million it spent, and it hasn’t provided details on those expenses, according to tax filings. As a nonprofit organization, the fund is only required to make public its top five vendors.

NBC News - December 13, 2018

Trump was in the room during hush money discussions with tabloid publisher

Donald Trump was the third person in the room in August 2015 when his lawyer Michael Cohen and National Enquirer publisher David Pecker discussed ways Pecker could help counter negative stories about Trump's relationships with women, NBC News has confirmed.

As part of a nonprosecution agreement disclosed Wednesday by federal prosecutors, American Media Inc., the Enquirer's parent company, admitted that "Pecker offered to help deal with negative stories about that presidential candidate's relationships with women by, among other things, assisting the campaign in identifying such stories so they could be purchased and their publication avoided." The "statement of admitted facts" says that AMI admitted making a $150,000 payment "in concert with the campaign," and says that Pecker, Cohen and "at least one other member of the campaign" were in the meeting. According to a person familiar with the matter, the "other member" was Trump. Trump was first identified as attending the meeting by The Wall Street Journal. Daniel Goldman, an NBC News analyst and former assistant U.S. attorney said the agreement doesn't detail what Trump said and did in the meeting. "But if Trump is now in the room, as early as August of 2015 and in combination with the recording where Trump clearly knows what Cohen is talking about with regarding to David Pecker, you now squarely place Trump in the middle of a conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud." A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York, which investigated Cohen's hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, declined to comment.

Politico - December 13, 2018

'There's no plan': Congress skips town as shutdown nears

Without President Donald Trump to worry about, a bipartisan deal would likely sail through Congress to fund the government ahead of the holidays. But with Trump fueling the border wall brinkmanship, everyone in the Capitol has basically stopped talking.

The House and Senate left town Thursday with no strategy to avert a partial government shutdown next week, putting Congress on the brink of an intractable conflict that could drag out through New Year’s Day — furloughing hundreds of thousands of workers and costing taxpayers millions. Frustrated lawmakers in both parties are complaining that congressional leaders have made zero progress since Tuesday, when Trump stunned even his fellow Republicans by boasting that he would take the blame for the closure of a dozen federal agencies if he doesn’t get money for his border wall. Lawmakers say there is no public plan to prevent a partial government shuttering. And no secret plan either. “There is no discernable plan. None that’s been disclosed.” said Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, as he threw his hands into the air. “Everybody’s looking to [Trump] for a signal about what he wants to do. So far, it’s not clear.” The House isn’t planning to return until the night of Dec. 19 — leaving only about 72 hours to reach a border wall deal that has eluded both parties for months. Democrats say they’re waiting on Republicans, and Republicans say they’re waiting on Trump. With one week to go, the GOP must find an agreement that can satisfy both Trump and Democratic leaders, who have only grown more emboldened since their sit-down with Trump. “I’ve not heard of any Republican who’s sitting down and figuring out how to get this through. There’s no plan,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Yet there’s no indication that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are even talking. Senators in both parties said they were unaware of anything cooking between the two leaders, and the often-chatty Schumer was tight-lipped when asked if there were ongoing discussions. “No comment,” he said Thursday. The House was expected to make the first move this week. House GOP leaders had planned to try and pass a bill giving $5 billion for Trump's wall and force Senate Democrats to reject it under the chamber's 60-vote threshold. But with morale and attendance low in the House following a brutal election loss last month, Republicans left Washington empty-handed, with all eyes now focused on the Senate. “It’s just all politics and theatrics,” said Rep Tom Cole (R-Okla.). He said leaders of both parties have the same thought going into next week’s final round of negotiations: “Somebody has to lose, and it’s going to not be them.”

Wall Street Journal - December 14, 2018

Brexit disarray sends a shiver through the financial sector

Nervous bank executives have been busily jetting in and out of meetings with Europe’s top financial regulators in the past few months. The reason: to make sure Brexit doesn’t turn into financial armageddon.

Political turmoil in Britain this week has increased the likelihood of a disorderly U.K. departure from the European Union without a deal in place. Under such a scenario, decades of financial integration, which helped make London the undisputed capital of European finance, could come undone overnight on March 29, the deadline for the U.K. to leave the EU. “I can’t predict that markets will take everything in their stride and work very effectively,” James Bardrick, Citigroup Inc.’s U.K. head, told journalists last week. “It will be a major, major problem if we have no deal.” One big problem, bankers, say, is that their clients have been a drag. Banks need client permission to change and shift certain contracts from the U.K. to the EU to continue servicing them, or new contracts need to be signed. The situation is most pertinent around privately negotiated contracts between banks and customers or other financial firms for managing market risks. Bankers say the task is so large and complex, it is almost impossible for them to work out solutions with clients individually. Some customers are too absorbed with adapting their business model to Brexit and are postponing dealing with financial issues. Others simply don’t believe Brexit will happen. So banks have for months urged regulators in the EU to come up with a universal rule—even if it is temporary—that would allow contracts to remain valid as is. The trouble is, in a no-deal Brexit assessment last month, the European Central Bank said it doesn’t see any significant financial stability risk from the private contracts as long as the parties involved take “sufficient action.” Some European regulatory officials say it would send the wrong message if they commit to step in no matter what. “I don’t think the commission realizes that we may get to March 29 and suddenly a flood of clients will call in realizing their contracts may fall in some sort of black hole the next day,” said an official at an international bank in London. Since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, banks that use London as their EU base have obtained licenses and shifted staff to offices in EU financial centers like Paris, Frankfurt and Dublin.

Houston Chronicle - December 13, 2018

Houston makes final pitch to host Democratic National Convention

Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez is scheduled to visit Houston on Friday, where he will tour parts of the city with Mayor Sylvester Turner and assess whether to hold the party’s national convention here in 2020.

Perez and a group of aides touched down Thursday in the Bayou City and were set to spend Friday taking in the Toyota Center and George R. Brown Convention Center, Houston’s proposed Democratic National Convention sites, among other parts of the city. Perez’s trip to Houston is his last of the three finalist cities, following visits to Miami and Milwaukee this month. The committee is likely to decide on a city in “the first quarter” of 2019, Perez said, well before the convention takes place July 13-16, 2020. Though Perez remained tight-lipped about which location may have the edge, the political calculus appeared to shift in Houston’s favor last month when Texas Democrats arguably put the state in play for the 2020 election. Though Republicans once again swept statewide offices, Democrats grew their ranks in both chambers of the Texas Legislature and lost a handful of statewide races by single digits — including Democrat Beto O’Rourke’s defeat by fewer than three percentage points against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. President Donald Trump won Texas by nine points in 2016. Perez played down how much political calculations would factor into the DNC’s decision, though he said the point comes up often. “I understand that argument and I am confident I will hear it from all three cities, and I appreciate it. I don't minimize that,” Perez said. “But what's going to help us win every state, first and foremost, is going to be making sure we are organizing in every zip code in that state.” More important than the electoral map, Perez said, are the city’s facilities, transportation, hotels and stakeholders who can raise the private money needed to fund the convention. Turner, while actively courting the DNC, has made the case that Houston checks each of those boxes. In June, soon after cities submitted their bids, Turner visited the committee’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., then hosted roughly 20 DNC staffers sent to Houston in August to make detailed inquiries about the city’s viability. Since June, Perez — who passed along his cellphone number to each finalist city’s mayor — has talked “fairly regularly” with Turner, he said. The chairman does not seem to have especially close ties to Houston, though he recalled working often with former Mayor Annise Parker while serving as President Barack Obama’s labor secretary. Houston was not the only Texas city linked this year to a possible national political convention. In May, San Antonio officials decided against making a play for the Republican National Convention, hesitating in particular over the cost of putting on the event. Some estimates said private interests would need to come up with more than $60 million, on top of $6 million in public funds, to pay for the convention.

State Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Helen Giddings: Voters halted the extremism in the Texas Legislature

While I shall not be returning to the Texas Legislature in January, I am cautiously optimistic and hopeful the members of the Legislature, both House and Senate, recognize that Texans are ready to turn to a different page, one absent of the deep divisiveness and antics of the last session.

The message of the November election is quite clear: time out for extremists. Texans want to focus on ideas and policies that promise opportunities for all to do better, for quality education for children regardless of zip code, for access to higher education even for those without high incomes, for healthcare for all, for better pay and benefits to create stronger families, for the protection of foster children and for criminal justice reform, and finally, for all to be treated with dignity and respect. These things are neither Republican nor Democrat. They are the things that make us human. They offer recognition that we all matter. Our state is stronger when all have the opportunity to live up to our full potential. As legislators, we run on party labels. Our ability to be agents of change is dependent on our ability to put aside partisanship and the party label and become statespersons and servant leaders when elected. It is not about us or some elite group. It is about our whole community. Beto O'Rourke narrowly lost the U.S. Senate race. Yet in losing, he delivered a victory to the state by significantly changing the face of politics. A welcome change that will not soon be reversed. With more women and moderates in the 86th Legislature, the body will more willingly engage in an honest search for the greater good and common ground. There is greater likelihood of legislators practicing the principles of servant leaders. I commend the men and women who serve for the sacrifices they make. And indeed we have accomplished a great deal as a state. Still, we can do much better. To be one of the 181 members of the legislature elected to serve 28 plus million people is a great privilege. With great privilege, comes commensurate responsibility. The past couple of sessions, the legislature fell short in listening to and adequately responding to the needs of our citizens. The deeply divided body was pregnant with incivility, disrespect and intolerance, largely fueled by fear of the dreaded primary opponent. The people of Texas found their voices and silenced those outliers who threatened to "primary" legislators who didn't toe the line. When our electronic devices malfunction, we hit the reset button. The Texas legislature with new members and a new speaker, (presumptively, Rep. Dennis Bonnen) is due for a reset. The elections are over. The 86th Legislature can now toss out the party labels and begin to address the challenges, but yet great opportunities, to champion issues that will positively impact our entire state.

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Trump 'doesn't know what's about to hit him,' retiring Rep. Joe Barton says of House Democratic rule

Ennis Rep. Joe Barton needed newspapers. Lots of them. Earlier that Wednesday — the 1,769th and sixth-to-last Wednesday of his 34-year congressional tenure — the retiring Republican had walked into his Capitol Hill office to find a hard truth staring at him from the newly-empty hallway spot where his nameplate had long been.

It was time to finish packing, with any materials available, and move on out. “Logically, I’m OK with it,” Barton said in his half-empty office, as aides scrambled to find the newsprint needed to wrap up decades’ worth of plaques, framed photos and other political memorabilia. “But emotionally ... it hits you. I’m not going to lie about that.” Barton’s exit is unique among the raft of looming departures in the Texas delegation. He didn’t get voted out like two of his GOP colleagues. He isn’t leaving totally on his own terms, either, since he decided last year under pressure to not run for re-election after lewd images related to an extramarital affair he had were released online. Barton again apologized for that episode in a wide-ranging interview with The Dallas Morning News, explaining that he embarrassed himself and his family with his poor judgment. But he also reflected more broadly on a career — still perhaps best-known, particularly among environmentalist foes, for his intense focus on the oil and gas industry — that will end amid worries from some Republicans that the party could be losing its grip on Texas. “Texas can stay conservative, but we’re going to have to work at it,” he said, before employing the characteristic bluntness that sometimes ruffled colleagues and constituents. “We got lazy.” So even as Barton was eager to tout GOP successes on energy, the economy and beyond, he also made sure to offer cautionary notes. He fumed that lawmakers, even Republicans, haven’t done more to curtail a federal debt that’s grown by $20 trillion over his tenure. He vented frustration toward hardline GOP immigration views, including hostility toward younger immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. He predicted that many Republicans, including President Donald Trump, are in for a “rude awakening” when Democrats take over the House next month. “Trump’s path is media celebrity, instant direct communication, say things in a flamboyant way to get attention and never back down,” Barton said. “And it worked, and to some extent it still works. So he thinks, ‘Why should I change?’ “He doesn’t know what’s about to hit him.” That perspective is shaped by a career, that, given its expanse, is hard to distill. There is Barton’s local advocacy in D.C., the oft-overlooked work that Arlington spokesman Jay Warren recently cited to call him the city’s “longtime friend.” There is the heartfelt leadership he showed last year when a gunman opened fire on the GOP congressional baseball team.

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Before paying to hide Trump's 'dirty deeds,' National Enquirer smeared Ted Cruz for affairs, JFK killing

When the National Enquirer reported without proof in March 2016 that Sen. Ted Cruz had been caught cheating with five mistresses, Cruz blamed the "tabloid smear" on "Donald Trump and his henchmen."

When it asserted two months later that Cruz's dad took part in a conspiracy to assassinate John F. Kennedy, Trump gleefully spread the claim to discredit his GOP presidential rival -- without regard for its shaky basis, a blurry, decades-old photo of a man handing out pamphlets with Lee Harvey Oswald. It was a "very, very nasty and tough campaign," Trump said in October as he headed to Houston for a rally with Cruz, shrugging aside his use of such a dubious allegation because after all, he'd won. "I don't regret anything. ...It all worked out nicely." On Wednesday, two developments in federal court ended any doubt about the lengths to which the Enquirer had gone to promote Trump and protect him against salacious but true allegations that threatened his campaign. Prosecutors revealed that the Enquirer's publisher admitted to paying a Playboy centerfold model, Karen McDougal, $150,000 for rights to her story about a nine-month affair that began shortly after the birth of the first couple's son. That was less than three months before Election Day. The tabloid never published the story. McDougal went public earlier this year, complaining she'd been the victim of a "catch and kill" maneuver. The Enquirer's publisher, American Media Inc., "admitted that its principal purpose in making the payment was to suppress the woman's story so as to prevent it from influencing the election," according to prosecutors -- which made it a felonious campaign contribution. The revelation came the same day that Trump's former longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison for what the judge called a "veritable smorgasbord" of crimes that included the McDougal deal and another $130,000 in hush money paid to Dallas-based porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about her own sexual encounter with Trump. Cohen called it an effort to cover up the future president's "dirty deeds."

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Tech firms helped knock down Texas' bathroom bill. Is Apple's $1B campus the fatal blow?

Big businesses helped kill the Texas bathroom bill two years ago, targeting it as discriminatory and unnecessary. They said the legislation, which would have required Texans to use the restrooms that match their sex at birth, would have hampered efforts to woo new companies to the state and turned off convention planners and sports leagues looking at venues for events.

Now, some companies are doubling down on that commitment, citing diversity and inclusivity as factors in their decisions. Apple made this clear Thursday, when it announced a $1 billion investment in the capital city. The bathroom bill, or something like it, may be back when state lawmakers meet in 2019. But opponents of these restroom regulations say the business community will again give them the ammunition they need to shoot down such divisive legislation. "These kinds of relocation or expansion announcements certainly provide an additional argument as to why it was good that we did not pass a bathroom bill two years ago," Texas House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said Thursday. "If we want to keep these kinds of good news stories coming, we need to make sure we don't enact these kind of discriminatory laws." On Thursday, Apple announced it would invest $1 billion to build a new campus in Austin. At a news conference with Gov. Greg Abbott and Austin Mayor Steve Adler, a company executive lauded the city for its inclusive culture. "This campus is one of Apple's most diverse," Deirdre O'Brien, Apple's vice president of people, said. "The commitment and the embracing of so many different cultures, races, people that have different backgrounds and experiences make us so proud to have an incredible community of people of color, LGBTQ, immigrants and Dreamers here on Apple's campus." It's become common for big businesses to list a welcoming environment and cultural diversity as necessary characteristics for new investment sites. That’s because companies say this helps them attract the best workers. Phillip Jones, who heads the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Texas can attract investments like this if its lawmakers eschew divisive social policymaking. “This is a good example of what happens when you’re able to defeat bathroom-type legislation or any other type of discriminatory legislation,” Jones said. “It reinforces that if we maintain that strategy and philosophy, we’ll see significant results.” Joe Straus agreed. As the speaker of the Texas House in 2017, Straus sided with the business community to become the most outspoken Republican opponent of the bathroom bill. “[Apple CEO] Tim Cook was one of the most prominent voices warning us away from that divisive and discriminatory bill a couple years ago,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said Thursday. “Today’s announcement is very exciting, and I think very validating, that we did the right thing.” But Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick criticized the speaker's continued advocacy on the issues and pointed to the state's longstanding reputation as a top destination for business investment and development. "The Lt. Governor joins Governor Abbott in welcoming Apple to Texas — one of the many businesses that have moved here and will continue to move here," Patrick's senior advisor Sherry Sylvester said in a statement. "The facts are irrefutable. Texas has been and will continue to be the best place to do business in America. Everyone knows that, apparently, except Speaker Straus."

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Seven-year-old from Guatemala dies of dehydration, shock while in U.S. custody in Texas

A 7-year-old from Guatemala died while in Border Patrol custody after she and her father were detained for entering the United States illegally, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Thursday.

The girl, who had crossed into the U.S. with a large group of migrants in a remote stretch of New Mexico, died of dehydration and shock, The Washington Post reported. The 7-year-old and her father were part of a group of more than 160 travelers who turned themselves into U.S. agents about 10 p.m. Dec. 6 near Lordsburg, N.M. The Post obtained records that show the girl began having seizures more than eight hours after she was detained. Her temperature was 105.7 degrees, and according to a statement from CBP, she "reportedly had not eaten or consumed water for several days." She was flown by helicopter to an El Paso hospital, where she went into cardiac arrest and was initially revived but died less than 24 hours after arriving to the Texas center, the agency said. Her name has not been released and neither has her father's. He is in El Paso awaiting a meeting with Guatemalan consular officials, according to The Post. The U.S agency has said it will investigate to see if its policies were followed before the girl's death. Migrants in U.S. custody are typically given food and water, but it wasn't clear Thursday if the girl had received provisions or a medical exam before the seizures began, The Post reported. "Our sincerest condolences go out to the family of the child," CBP spokesman Andrew Meehan told The Post.

Houston Chronicle - December 14, 2018

After $84K Farenthold settlement, Congress makes lawmakers foot sexual harassment bills

Less than a year after Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold left Congress behind with an $84,000 settlement for sexual harassment, the House and Senate have agreed to make lawmakers pay their own misconduct judgments.

The legislation, which the House and Senate each passed unanimously on Thursday, caps a year of acrimonious debate over how to handle sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill. Under the terms of a bipartisan deal reached this week, members of the House and Senate would assume financial liability for settlements and judgments stemming from sexual harassment complaints. Historically, taxpayers have picked up the tab. The issue came to a head last April when Farenthold, a four-term congressman, resigned amid an Ethics Committee investigation into allegations of improper conduct by at least three former staffers. That followed revelations that Congress had already covered an $84,000 settlement reached in a 2014 harassment suit brought by Lauren Greene, his former communications director. The payment came to light last December only after House administrators, under pressure in the early months of the #MeToo era, agreed to release summary data on payouts involving Capitol Hill offices. Farenthold became one of a half-dozen members of Congress to step down in the past year amid allegations of sexual misconduct or harassment. While denying any personal wrongdoing in the case, Farenthold initially vowed to repay taxpayers. He later reneged, however, on the "advice of counsel." He also refused a request by Gov. Greg Abbott to help defray the estimated $200,000 in expenses for the special election prompted by his early departure. Victoria Republican Mike Cloud was elected to replace him. Farenthold later took a job lobbying for the Calhoun Port Authority, a move that sparked further controversy because of his involvement as a member of Congress in trying to steer a contract to Randy Boyd, the port's chairman. Campaign finance reports also showed that Farenthold, who had a net worth in the millions, spent more than $100,000 from his campaign account on legal bills before and after the Ethics probe. The legislation passed Thursday, now headed for President Donald Trump's signature, extends to members who leave office but is not retroactive, meaning it will not require Farenthold to make good on his promised reimbursement.

Houston Chronicle - December 13, 2018

Lawyers say Rice professor not involved in controversial gene-edited babies research

Lawyers for Rice University professor Michael Deem are denying his involvement in the controversial research that is said to have produced the world’s first genetically edited babies.

The Associated Press, which broke the story Nov. 26, reported that Deem worked with China’s He Jiankui on the project and quoted him about the parental consent given and how the editing of the embryos aims to work like a vaccine to prevent the acquisition of the AIDS virus once the babies are older. “Michael does not do human research and he did not do human research on this project,” says the statement issued Thursday by Houston lawyers David Gerger and Matt Hennessy. The statement notes that Deem was He’s Ph.D. adviser a decade ago in a field — He received his Rice doctorate in biophysics in 2010 — “that did not involve human research.” It added that “they have stayed in touch since then” and that “Michael even commented on Jiankui’s papers.” The experiment, conducted in China, triggered global outrage because of concerns the DNA changes would be passed to future generations and could cause harm. It is unpublished and unverified, though He has said a manuscript is being prepared for publication and most experts appear to think the work was carried out. Rice is currently investigating Deem’s involvement in the work, of which it says it had no knowledge. In a statement at the time, the university said “the research raises troubling scientific, legal and ethical questions.” “Regardless of where it was conducted, this work as described in press reports, violates scientific conduct guidelines and is inconsistent with ethical norms of the scientific community and Rice University,” according to the statement released Nov. 26. A Rice spokesman declined to comment on the lawyers’ statement Thursday. He said Rice will not make any further comment while its investigation is ongoing. Deem is listed on the Rice website as the John W. Cox Professor of Biochemical and Genetic Engineering and Professor, Physics and Astronomy. He is also listed as the founding director of the Program in Systems, Synthetic, and Physical Biology. Deem has not responded to a Houston Chronicle email and phone call. AP’s director of media relations told the Chronicle Thursday night the news agency “stands by its story.”

Star-Telegram - December 12, 2018

Tarrant GOP leader facing ouster because he’s Muslim is ‘proud to be a Republican’

The last few months have been hard for Shahid Shafi and his family. For months, a group of people within the Tarrant County Republican Party have called for the 53-year-old surgeon and Southlake councilman to be removed from the post of vice chairman because he’s Muslim.

Those behind the move say this is not about religion but whether Shafi is loyal to Islam and Islamic law or connected “to Islamic terror groups.” “I’m used to facing challenges in life,” Shafi told the Star-Telegram on Wednesday, noting that people tried to use religion against him each time he ran for city council. “And this is just yet another challenge. I remain very confident and positive that this too shall pass. “I’m a Muslim and I’m an American. And I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive, but there are some people who think that way and they have tried to use that in their political opposition to me.” Republican Dorrie O’Brien, a Republican precinct chairwoman from Grand Prairie, asked earlier this year for Shafi’s appointment to be reconsidered. Shafi was appointed to the post in July. Tarrant precinct chairmen discussed the issue behind closed doors during their Nov. 10 meeting. A vote is scheduled Jan. 10 for the Tarrant County GOP executive committee, which is made up of precinct chairmen. After the Star-Telegram recently reported that the effort to remove Shafi had expanded to other Republicans with Muslim ties, the issue gained media attention across the country. Others targeted include the party chairman, Darl Easton; a precinct chairwoman and area leader, Kelly Canon; and a precinct chairwoman who is married to a Muslim, Lisa Grimaldi Abdulkareem. “This is where we are in Tarrant County today,” O’Brien recently posted on Facebook. “Divided by those who won’t see the stealth jihad and by those who do. Those who’ve drunk the Islamic Kool-Aid and those who haven’t.”

Star-Telegram - December 13, 2018

Dozens of bomb threats made in DFW similar to threats made nationwide demanding bitcoin

Bomb threats have been made in several North Texas locations that are similar to others made across the country. Threats have been made in Fort Worth, Arlington, Southlake, Irving, Grand Prairie, Dallas, Coppell and Lewisville, according to police.

According to NBC, law enforcement authorities around the United States on Thursday were responding to a wave of bomb threats, many of them sent by email. In a statement, the FBI said it was “aware of the recent bomb threats made in cities around the country, and we remain in touch with our law enforcement partners to provide assistance,” NBC reported. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives issued a statement on Twitter in regards to the emails. “We are aware of recent bomb threats made in cities around the country & remain in touch w/ our law enforcement partners to provide assistance,” the tweet said. “As always, we encourage the public to remain vigilant & to report suspicious activities that could represent a threat to public safety.” The email demands payment in the form of bitcoin in order to not set off the bomb, according to a post from the Southlake Public Safety Department. “No credible threats have been found at this point,” the post continued. “We encourage the public to continue to be vigilant and call 911 with anything suspicious.” Cook with Arlington police also said the threats have not been determined to be credible. Carrollton posted on the city Facebook page about the threats and said they are originating from overseas. “Investigations are underway; however, there is currently no credible threat. If you receive one of these threats (currently coming in by email), please report it to your local authority,” the post said. Arlington officer Cook said the emails appear to be “spoofs,” meaning they come from a false email account. McClelland compared the bomb threats to email scams. “This is like the Nigerian scam that people get in emails,” McClelland said.

Star-Telegram - December 13, 2018

Thousands demand judge’s removal for granting Baylor student no jail time in rape case

Thousands have signed a petition calling for the judge in an ex-Baylor frat president’s rape case to resign or be removed from office after he accepted a plea deal that involved no jail time.

On Monday, Judge Ralph Strother accepted the plea agreement for Jacob W. Anderson, a former Baylor student who was accused of raping a woman referred to as Donna Doe in 2016. As part of the deal, Anderson agreed to plea to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint and will not have to register as a sex offender. Strother and Assistant District Attorney Hilary LaBorde, who prosecuted the case, were not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon. The petition, titled “Request the Resignation of Judge Ralph Strother,” had more than 20,000 signatures on the Care2 Petitions website early Thursday afternoon. According to the site, about 2,000 of the signers were from Texas. The petition targets both Strother and LaBorde, who agreed to the plea deal. Donna Doe’s family said LaBorde blindsided them with the plea deal after reassuring them that Anderson would be convicted. In emails between LaBorde and Doe’s family, LaBorde said she thought a plea deal would be best because she had just tried a rape case similar to Doe’s in which the accused rapist was not convicted. Strother told KWKT he has also received death threats via email in response to the plea deal. Attorney Vic Feazell, who has been the spokesperson for Doe’s family, said he knows Strother to be “a fair and honorable man.” “There’s a lot of emotion over this case, and I understand why. I disagree with his decision too, but a petition to remove the judge isn’t helpful for two reasons: Texas doesn’t have a recall procedure and our judiciary must remain independent,” Feazell said. “I am still in contact with the victim and her family and am providing support however I can. She wants to get this behind her, but she is strong and encourages women to continue reporting sexual assault and not take what happened to her as a reason not to.”

Houston Chronicle - December 13, 2018

Appeals court tosses Texas’ pre-emptive lawsuit over ‘sanctuary cities’ law

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday dumped Texas’s odd attempt to prove in court the constitutionality of a 2017 anti-sanctuary cities law before it went into effect, ruling Attorney General Ken Paxton’s case was “unconvincing.”

Paxton filed the lawsuit hours after Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 4 in an attempt to keep critics of the controversial law at bay. Not only did passage of the law draw protests to the state capitol, but Paxton anticipated officials in Austin and San Antonio and other opponents would sue the state, which they later did. A district court found portions of the law unconstitutional, although the 5th Circuit later upheld most of the law on appeal. Paxton’s attempt to pre-emptively head off legal challenges was not as successful. A three-judge panel in New Orleans affirmed a ruling by a federal district court in 2017 that Texas lacked standing to sue before the law had gone into effect. To rule beforehand would “open a Pandora’s box to invite every local government to seek a court’s judicial blessing” before a law takes effect, the judges found. SB 4 bars city and state officials from refusing to cooperate with federal requests to detain immigrants suspected of being in the country illegally. The law also allows law enforcement to ask about an individual’s legal status during routine stops. The law has spurred a flurry of lawsuits, including one Paxton filed against San Antonio last month over the police chief’s decision to release a dozen people suspected of being in the country illegally. They were riding in the back of a tractor-trailer that had broken down, and had been driven up from Laredo after crossing the border, according to police.

Dallas Observer - December 13, 2018

Despite huge improvement, Texas voter turnout has a long way to go

The final numbers are in and, stop us if you've heard this one before, Texas still had one of the United States' worst voter participation rates in 2018, despite an 18 percentage point increase in voter participation over 2014.

This November, 46.3 percent of Texas' voting-eligible population cast ballots, according to research from the United States Elections Project, which tracks historical trends in turnout nationwide. That figure, while up significantly from the 28.3 percent of the voting eligible population that voted in the last midterm election, still represents turnout far below the national average. In the 50 states and the District of Columbia, just over half of the voting eligible population actually cast ballots, according to the Election Project's data, an increase of 13 percentage points over the last four years. Despite Texas' turnout growth being 5 points higher, it lagged in total turnout, finishing 44th out of 51. It's important to note that the Elections Project uses a state's voting-eligible populations, rather than its number of registered voters, to calculate its turnout percentage. That makes it easier to evaluate turnout numbers for states that might have different registration rules, Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who runs the project, told the Texas Tribune. “The voting-eligible population makes it easier to make comparisons across states and across time, because the way states manage registered voters differs quite a bit,” McDonald said. A study published earlier this year by the Center for American Progress showed that it's especially important to note the difference between those who are eligible to vote and those who are registered to vote when it comes to looking at turnout in Texas, thanks to the state's onerous voting laws. With a few small tweaks to its laws, researchers Danielle Root and Liz Kennedy say in their study, the state could add millions of voters to its rolls. The biggest thing Texas could do, according to Root and Kennedy, is implement automatic voter registration in the state. Automatic voter registration is exactly what it sounds like. When a resident of a participating state turns 18, he or she automatically becomes eligible to vote unless he or she actively opts out of registering. By July 2019, 14 states will have automatic voter registration. Another 10 are set to vote on it by the end of the year.

Associated Press - December 13, 2018

Texas report says 'changing climate' intensifying disasters

Natural disasters in Texas on the scale of Hurricane Harvey's deadly destruction last year will become more frequent because of a changing climate, warned a new report Thursday ordered by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in a state where skepticism about climate change runs deep.

But the report makes no mention of global warming, and in urging steps Texas should take to blunt the impact from intensifying hurricanes and flooding, there are no recommendations to curb greenhouse gases in a state that leads the U.S. in carbon emissions. The phrase "climate change" also does not appear in the 200-page report, except in footnotes that reference scientific papers. The report was not commissioned as an assessment of climate change in Texas. Instead, it is the findings of a rebuilding task force Abbott created after Hurricane Harvey devastated the Texas coast, killing more than 100 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage. The Category 4 hurricane dumped more than 50 inches of rain on Houston, leaving the nation's fourth-largest city underwater. But in underscoring the inevitably of future disasters in Texas, the report notes rising sea levels and extreme downpours becoming more frequent in recent decades. It also cites a "changing climate" while reinforcing the need to strengthen dams and levees. "Flooding risks for coastal Texas, and much of the rest of the state, will continue to rise. The current scientific consensus points to increasing amounts of intense rainfall coupled with the likelihood of more intense hurricanes," the report read. The report was spearheaded by Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp, who Abbott appointed as a recovery czar after the storm. It urges state and local officials to think in "generational terms" to infrastructure planning so as to "future-proof" the Gulf Coast . Abbott, who easily won re-election in November, was set to discuss the findings at a news conference later Thursday. He has been noncommittal in his career about whether he thinks human activity is affecting the climate. Before becoming governor in 2015, Abbott repeatedly sued the federal government over environmental regulations as Texas' attorney general.

ProPublica - December 13, 2018

Government reverses course, sending four year old Austin boy back to father

It looked like a happy holiday reunion: A 4-year-old boy wearing a Spider-Man baseball shirt sprinted across an airport baggage claim area in Austin, Texas, late Tuesday night and flung himself into his father’s arms, then immediately pulled toys out of his bag as if trying to catch his father up on all that was new in his life.

He had a Woody doll from “Toy Story,” a coloring book and stickers. There were a lot more toys in his suitcase, the boy squealed, between hugs and kisses. And, he announced, his eyes widening at the sight of a couple of fake reindeer displayed on baggage carousel 1, he’d seen reindeer for real. “Some of them have horns,” the boy giggled, poking his index fingers from each side of his head. This reunion wasn’t about the holidays, however. It was the bittersweet homecoming of a father and son from El Salvador who’d been separated for more than 11 weeks and 1,800 miles for reasons the United States government still has not made entirely clear. Brayan and his father, Julio, are among a small, new wave of family separations that immigration lawyers and advocates say signal an unofficial continuation of the Trump administration’s controversial zero-tolerance policy. Brayan, with striking reddish-blond hair, and his 27-year-old father came to the U.S. seeking refuge from gang violence in September but were separated at a border detention facility in Texas. Brayan was sent to temporary foster care in New York, Julio to an immigration detention facility outside San Antonio. ProPublica is not using their last name because the family is worried that Julio’s wife and stepson could face gang threats in El Salvador. When ProPublica asked about their case, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency had separated them for Brayan’s safety, and had evidence that Julio was a gang member. But the agency did not provide that evidence to ProPublica or to an immigration court or explain what made Julio a danger to his son. So, two weeks ago, an immigration judge released Julio from detention on bond to pursue his asylum claim. And late Tuesday night, authorities returned Brayan to his dad in Austin, where Julio’s mother lives. While waiting for his son to arrive at the airport, Julio, still bewildered, kept revisiting the anguish he and his son had suffered during their separation. “I still don’t understand why they did this to us,” he said. “I guess they can do whatever they want.” But when Brayan glided down the escalator, Julio was all tears of joy. “He feels skinnier to me,” Julio gushed. “Isn’t he beautiful?” A Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman would not say why the agency had reversed course and allowed Brayan to be reunited with Julio. But Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities, said the reunion proved there had likely never been any justification for the separation. The government, he said, had not provided Catholic Charities with any evidence or arguments that Julio was unfit or otherwise unable to care for Brayan. The same, he said, was true for other recent separation cases he’s handled. “Because the children were ultimately released without any attempt to justify the separation, there probably was no justification.” That senselessness, he said, cast a pall over Julio and Brayan’s reunion. “As happy as these endings may be,” Enriquez said, “it’s hard to celebrate when we don’t know why they were separated and what the magic words were that got this reunification done.”

Texas Standard - December 13, 2018

Districts say state cuts to Pre-K funding have hurt school programs

A new survey shows Texas school districts are feeling the effect of state funding cuts to prekindergarten programs. Back in 2017, the state legislature eliminated roughly $150 million in funding. That included $118 million for the High Quality Pre-K Grant program Governor Greg Abbott championed.

“And our survey of school districts found that the legislature’s decision hurt students in a lot of ways and hurt districts in a lot of ways,” says David Feigen with Texans Care for Children. The advocacy group surveyed 95 school districts in 49 counties, accounting for two of every five kids enrolled in pre-k in the state. He says 62 percent of those districts said the loss of pre-k funding negatively impacted their programs at least a “moderate amount.” “While 38 percent said the cuts had a lot or a great deal of impact, so that’s really significant,” Feigen says. Some of the challenges they faced include needing to reduce spending on instructional coaching and staff compensation, as well as lay-offs. And Feigen explains these negative effects were felt beyond pre-k. “And we also found that these cuts impacted programs outside of pre-k because those funding streams were tapped to fill the gaps that had been left in pre-k. So we saw student-to-teacher ratios increase in the K-12 side as well,” He says. Feigen says districts are largely committed to providing high quality, full-day pre-k – and almost 80 percent would if the state helped fund it.

KVUE - December 13, 2018

Abuse, neglect violations found in Texas' foster care system, report shows

A new report from the state's office of the Ombudsman for Children and Youth in Foster Care reveals that of 241 investigated complaints in Texas foster care in 2018, there were 71 confirmed violations.

There were also four instances of illegal restraint, including choke holds. This comes after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the state of Texas doesn't correctly monitor its foster care facilities. The report said, in some cases, state agencies charged with protecting children are not adequately investigating and addressing allegations of abuse and neglect. It said Child Protective Services (CPS) responded to only 38 percent of situations these watchdogs deemed needing investigation. It is worth mentioning that children often do not report or are afraid to report abuse in the foster care system, and therefore, those cases would not be covered by this report and the gathered statistics. The Texas Legislature and the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) have taken steps in other areas to improve child welfare during the last two years, such as reducing turnover among caseworkers who investigate abuse and neglect in biological families and addressing wait times for health exams when children enter foster care.

City Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 13, 2018

'Leaning heavily' toward running for mayor again, King files campaign paperwork for Houston mayoral race

Bill King, a Houston businessman who narrowly lost his bid for mayor in 2015, filed paperwork with the city secretary Wednesday marking his likely intent to challenge Mayor Sylvester Turner again in 2019.

King lost to Turner, then a state representative, in a runoff decided by about 4,000 votes, or 1.9 percentage points, out of more than 212,000 ballots cast. Though King's filing of a campaign treasurer's report does not lock in his candidacy, he said in an interview that he is "leaning heavily" toward running. "I've been watching City Hall for 40 years, and this is the most corrupt administration I've seen," King said. For now, King said he plans to conduct some polling — the reason he filed a treasurer's report — and likely will make a formal decision in the next 60 days. Houston's municipal elections will not take place until November 2019, with possible runoff elections occurring the following month. Asked after Wednesday's council meeting about King's filing, Turner replied, "Next question." Regardless of whether King runs, the issue of compensation for Houston firefighters is likely to become a dominant issue in the race, particularly because the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association supported Turner in the 2015 election. The mayor and fire union have since disagreed vehemently over the issue of pay "parity" between firefighters and police officers, as well as the handling of the firefighters' pension benefits. Turner successfully pushed pension cuts through the Legislature to resolve a multi-billion-dollar pension crisis.

Houston Chronicle - December 14, 2018

HISD trustees opt against seeking partnership bids, risking sanctions in 2019

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools. HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option. In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships. Trustees who opposed seeking partnership proposals generally said they do not support giving control of HISD campuses to private organizations, particularly under the threat of state sanctions. “This is a first step toward normalization of privatizing our schools,” Trustee Elizabeth Santos said. “If we don’t take a stand, there’s no pressure on the TEA to address our problems.” Trustees who voted in favor of seeking bids argued they should be allowed to consider all options for campuses, frequently noting that their vote Thursday did not require HISD to ultimately approve partnerships. Trustee Sue Deigaard said other school districts have successfully executed partnerships with universities and nonprofits, though she would not have automatically supported such an arrangement in HISD. “This board member does not have any interest in engaging in any partnerships just to save this board,” Deigaard said. Even before Thursday’s vote, it appeared unlikely that HISD would ultimately engage in private partnerships. Only one organization, a nonprofit formed in late November by the city of Houston’s education czar, had expressed public interest in partnering with the district. The nonprofit, titled the Coalition for Educational Excellence and Equity in Houston, had not disclosed any detailed plans for its potential partnership bid.

Rivard Report - December 13, 2018

Outgoing San Antonio Councilman Rey Saldaña to join Raise Your Hand Texas

Councilman Rey Saldaña, who is serving his last term as San Antonio's District 4 representative, will start working with education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas next year, said Kate Rogers, acting executive vice president of The Holdsworth Center.

Saldaña announced at a fundraiser Thursday evening that he would not seek the mayor's position in May and that he wanted to take a couple of years off from politics. "I am a mechanic for municipal government," he told the crowd. "I have not run my last race." In attendance alongside Saldaña's staff members and friends Thursday were Mike Flores, chancellor of Palo Alto College and Gina Ortiz Jones, former Democratic candidate for the Congressional District 23 seat. He said he can think of no better field than education to take a broad look at things. "Education makes my heart beat," Saldaña told the Rivard Report. "It's in my DNA. What better place [to work] than an organization that fights for kids like [I was], who understands that the one guarantee for success is public education." He said he will serve out the rest of his term on Council and will begin working part-time for Raise Your Hand Texas in January. He said he made that part of the agreement with the nonprofit because he wanted to finish the job. Saldaña said money raised at the fundraiser will essentially serve as a savings account for when he returns to run for mayor. Raise Your Hand Texas and The Holdsworth Center, both supported by H-E-B Chairman and CEO Charles Butt, are based in Austin, but Saldaña will remain in San Antonio working under an enhanced community engagement initiative. Libby Cohen, director of advocacy and outreach for Raise Your Hand Texas, said Saldaña "has earned respect in the San Antonio region and throughout the state for his dogged personal and professional pursuit of a high-quality public education for all children." "Raise Your Hand Texas is thrilled Rey chose to join us, following his time on City Council, to help build capacity for our outreach efforts across the state," Cohen said. "He is a tireless and accomplished community engagement strategist and tactician who credits his San Antonio public education – from pre-k to South San Antonio High School – with preparing him for college and his career. Rey’s story, passion, and talents will help bring much needed regional support from families, community leaders, and business executives to advance public education issues at the state level.”

National Stories

New York Times - December 12, 2018

Slow police response and chaos contributed to Parkland massacre, report finds

In the weeks after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., widespread criticism was focused on Scot Peterson, the armed sheriff’s deputy who heard the exploding gunfire but failed to run in and try to stop the massacre.

But a state commission that has been investigating the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the past 10 months found that the shortfall in the police response went much further: Seven other sheriff’s deputies who raced to the school and heard gunshots also stayed outside the building, the commission found, and officers lost even more time scrambling to retrieve bulletproof vests from their cars. A total of 17 students and staff members lost their lives in an attack that spanned a full six minutes; 17 others were injured. The draft report released Wednesday by no means lifted blame from Mr. Peterson, who the investigation showed had told some of the other officers to stay away from the building where students were being gunned down. But it pointed to a range of other failures on the part of school and law enforcement officials that likely contributed to a shooting so deadly that it set off a national youth movement against gun violence. A campus security monitor saw the gunman enter the building and was suspicious, but did nothing to alert students. Mental health counselors knew the gunman was troubled, but never had a complete picture of just how dangerous he had become. In a separate set of statements released by the authorities on Wednesday, officers described a bloody, chaotic scene as they arrived. “It’s basically like a ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ” Hank Juntunen, a sheriff’s deputy, said of the scene he and other officers encountered on the third floor of the school building where the shooting occurred. The 22 officers interviewed as part of the commission’s investigation described radios that did not work, and problems communicating between law enforcement agencies and medical responders. “I couldn’t key up” on the radio, Deputy Brian Hayes said, describing his attempts to call paramedics to help the injured. “Like, it was just a tone, a tone, a tone.” The Parkland Commission’s 400-page draft report, based on a detailed examination of timelines, emergency response records and testimony from witnesses, police, school officials and others, called for a full internal evaluation of the police response, given the commission’s finding that eight deputies from the Broward County Sheriff’s Office ignored protocol for active shooters that calls for pursuing a gunman to try to disarm him. Other officers who came later did go in as soon as they arrived, the report noted.

New York Times - December 13, 2018

Senate votes to limit war powers in Yemen, angered by Saudi killing of journalist

The Senate voted resoundingly on Thursday to withdraw American military assistance for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, issuing the latest in a series of stinging bipartisan rebukes of President Trump for his defense of the kingdom amid outrage in both parties over Riyadh’s role in the killing of a dissident journalist.

The 56-to-41 vote was a rare move by the Senate to limit presidential war powers and send a potent message of official disapproval for a nearly four-year conflict that has killed thousands of civilians and brought famine to Yemen. Its immediate effect was largely symbolic, after the House earlier this week moved to scuttle it, all but assuring that the measure will expire this year without making it to Mr. Trump’s desk. But the action signaled a growing sense of urgency among lawmakers in both parties to punish Saudi Arabia for its role in the brutal killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to question a decades-old bipartisan tradition of Washington averting its gaze from human rights abuses and other wrongdoing by the kingdom in the interest of preserving a strategically important relationship in the Middle East. Senators also approved, by a voice vote, a resolution to hold Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir to the kingdom’s throne, personally responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The nonbinding measure also calls on Saudi Arabia to “moderate its increasingly erratic foreign policy” and urges an end to American air-to-air refueling of bombers operating in Yemen. The United States stopped refueling Saudi warplanes operating in Yemen last month; the resolution would keep the Pentagon from restarting that support. With the moves, senators were breaking forcefully with Mr. Trump, who has maintained steadfast support for Saudi Arabia and Prince Mohammed, even though the C.I.A. has concluded that he directed the grisly assassination of Mr. Khashoggi inside its consulate in Istanbul in October.

Washington Post - December 13, 2018

Senate votes to condemn Saudi crown prince for Khashoggi killing, end support for Yemen war

The Senate on Thursday delivered back-to-back rebukes of President Trump’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, first voting to end U.S. participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen and then unanimously approving a measure blaming the kingdom’s crown prince for the ghastly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Together, the dual actions represent an unambiguous rejection of Trump’s continued defense of Saudi leaders in the face of a CIA assessment that concluded Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered and monitored Khashoggi’s killing Oct. 2 inside a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It suggests a bipartisan majority of senators will pursue broader punitive measures when Congress regroups next year — including sanctions and a halt to weapons transfers — despite the administration’s objections. “What we showed in this vote today is that Republicans and Democrats are ready to get back in the business of working with a president — and sometimes against a president — to set the foreign policy of this nation,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) a longtime advocate for checking Saudi Arabia’s regional expansion. “The United States has said, through the Senate, that our support for the Saudi coalition is no longer open-ended.” The unanimous vote to hold Mohammed responsible for Khashoggi’s murder reflects the extent to which senators in both parties have grown tired of Trump’s continued defense of Mohammed’s denials. It also puts significant pressure on leaders in the House — where the president’s Saudi policy is far more divisive — to allow for a similar vote to condemn the crown prince before the end of the year. Earlier this week, House leaders maneuvered to block rank-and-file members from forcing a vote on any Yemen-related resolutions, an attempt to stop the Senate’s effort to curtail U.S. involvement in the Saudis’ military campaign by invoking the War Powers Resolution. Senators voted 56-to-41 on Thursday to support the Yemen resolution, put forward by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), after seven Republicans joined all Senate Democrats to back the measure. That figure strongly suggests a majority of the Republican-led Senate will challenge Trump on his Saudi policy next year, alongside a Democratic-led House, whose incoming leaders also have promised to be proactive about demanding changes to the status quo.

Washington Post - December 14, 2018

Russian agent’s guilty plea intensifies spotlight on relationship with NRA

The guilty plea Thursday of a woman accused of infiltrating the National Rifle Association on behalf of the Russian government has thrust the powerful conservative group into an uncomfortable spotlight as the organization appears to be facing declining donations and signs its fearsome political influence may be waning.

Russian gun rights activist Maria Butina pleaded guilty in federal court in Washington to conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Russia, admitting that she worked for more than two years to forge relationships with conservative activists and leading Republicans in the United States. One of Butina’s main targets was the NRA — a group she identified in a 2015 memo as an organization that “had influence over” the Republican Party, according to court filings. Her relationships with the group, she wrote, could be used as the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication to the next presidential administration. Later that year, she helped organize a delegation of top NRA leaders to visit Moscow, arranging for them to meet Russian government officials, and she attended the group’s annual conventions as an honored guest. Butina and Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official who helped direct her activities, then used their NRA connections to get access to GOP presidential candidates, according to court filings. Butina’s case exposed how Russia saw the NRA as a key pathway to influencing American politics to the Kremlin’s benefit. And it has intensified questions about what the gun rights group knew of the Russian effort to shape U.S. policy and whether it faces ongoing legal scrutiny. The 30-year-old — the first Russian national convicted of seeking to influence U.S. policy as a foreign agent before the 2016 election — agreed to cooperate in a plea deal with U.S. investigators in exchange for less prison time.

Washington Post - December 13, 2018

Trump denies directing Michael Cohen to break the law to buy the silence of Playboy playmate and porn star

President Trump denied Thursday that he had directed his former personal attorney Michael Cohen to break the law during the 2016 campaign by buying the silence of women who claimed they once had affairs with the future president.

In morning tweets, Trump, however, did not dispute that he had directed Cohen to make the payments, as Cohen and federal prosecutors have alleged — actions that could imperil Trump. The president claimed that Cohen bore responsibility for any criminal violations of campaign finance law but also asserted that Cohen “probably was not guilty” of even civil violations related to the payments to former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal and adult-film star Stormy Daniels — a view at odds with that of many lawyers. “Those charges were just agreed to by him in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did,” Trump alleged. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison Wednesday for what U.S. District Judge William H. Pauley III called a “veritable smorgasbord of criminal conduct” — crimes that included tax violations and lying to a bank as well as those related to the hush-money payments. Trump’s tweets Thursday were his first public comments about Cohen since his sentencing. On Wednesday afternoon, the president ignored questions shouted by reporters about his onetime loyalist. Trump largely echoed his tweets in a television interview broadcast Thursday afternoon. “I never directed him to do anything wrong,” Trump told Fox News anchor Harris Faulkner, speaking about Cohen. “Whatever he did he did on his own. ... I never directed him to do anything incorrect or wrong.” Trump sought to minimize his relationship with Cohen, saying he did “more public relations than law” and was generally responsible for “low-level work.” He said that in retrospect hiring Cohen was a mistake. During the interview, which was conducted late Thursday morning, Trump also said he was being held to a different standard on campaign finance issues than other presidents. “Nobody except me would be looked at like this,” he said. “I’m the only one that this happens to.”

Politico - December 12, 2018

A ‘loud gong’: National Enquirer’s surprise deal could imperil Trump

The National Enquirer’s parent company has agreed to tell prosecutors everything it knows about Donald Trump — and it might know a lot. In a court document released Wednesday, the tabloid publisher, American Media Inc., admitted to coordinating a hush-money payment with Trump’s 2016 campaign, reversing two years of denials.

The confession came as part of an immunity agreement with the U.S. attorney’s office in New York, made public shortly after Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was sentenced to three years in prison over charges of tax fraud, campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. But the disclosure might just be scratching the surface. Based on court documents and a plethora of media reports, Trump and his aides have worked for years with the tabloid to kill incriminating stories. AMI’s CEO David Pecker also had a decades-long copacetic friendship with Trump. Legal experts say that could mean more legal peril for Trump, who has already been implicated in directing Cohen to work with the National Enquirer during the 2016 campaign to pay women in exchange for their silence about alleged affairs. The immunity deal, said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor from Northern Virginia, “is a huge red flag and loud gong against the president.” Under the agreement dated from late September and released Wednesday, AMI accepted immunity from federal prosecutors in exchange for documents and “numerous interviews” with the company’s executives and staff about the Trump hush-money scheme and other arrangements involving politicians running for office. As part of the deal, the tabloid publisher acknowledged a series of “admitted facts” tied to its work with the Trump campaign to ensure damaging allegations about the real estate mogul didn’t come out before Election Day 2016. The arrangement — which involved Pecker, Cohen and one other member of Trump’s campaign — stretched back to August 2014, according to a separate court filing on Friday. In the document released Wednesday, AMI confirmed that it paid a woman $150,000 in “cooperation, consultation and concert” with Trump’s campaign to ensure she “did not publicize damaging allegations about that candidate before the 2016 presidential election and thereby influence the election.”

Politico - December 13, 2018

Accused Russian secret agent Maria Butina pleads guilty

Maria Butina, a Russian gun rights proponent who cultivated close ties to the NRA and conservative political figures, pleaded guilty Thursday to acting as an agent of the Russian government.

The plea makes Butina, a former graduate student at American University, the first Russian national convicted of trying to covertly influence U.S. policy during the the 2016 election, although her case was not handled by special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into the Kremlin’s election meddling efforts. As part of her deal, Butina agreed to cooperate with investigators. Her cooperation could shed light on Russian efforts to gain a foothold in conservative politics and the Kremlin’s willingness to interfere, not just with propaganda and cyber operations, but also by collecting human intelligence. Appearing in Washington, D.C.’s federal courthouse Thursday morning, Butina, hair in a long braid and wearing a green prison uniform, admitted to participating in an information gathering operation that put her in close contact with powerful operatives tied to the Republican Party and the campaign of President Donald Trump. Butina, 30, then relayed to the Russian government that she had “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication” with the next U.S. administration, according to court documents. While the lawyers and judge spoke at Thursday’s hearing, Butina remained quiet and stone-faced, only responding “yes” and “no” to a series of questions. Butina’s work to ingratiate herself with Republicans started in 2015, long before it was clear that Donald Trump would become the GOP frontrunner, much less the president. Instead, Butina worked to develop ties that would make her close to any Republican presidential nominee. In late 2015, Butina helped organize a trip to Moscow for NRA leaders in late 2015, later telling a prominent Russian banking official: “We should let them express their gratitude now, we will put pressure on them quietly later,” according to the court filing. During this time, Butina also passed back information to the Kremlin on the GOP operatives she was cultivating, prosecutors said.

CNN - December 13, 2018

Strasbourg shooting suspect killed by police, Paris authorities say

The man suspected of killing at least three people and wounding 13 others at Strasbourg's famed Christmas market has been killed by French police, following a shoot-out not far from the scene of Tuesday's attack.

Cherif Chekatt, 29, was shot dead on Thursday evening, two days after he first disappeared sparking a massive manhunt involving hundreds of police officers, soldiers and anti-terror specialists from three European countries. French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said police recognized a man who looked like Chekatt walking on the street in Strasbourg's Neudorf district on Thursday night and approached him. He opened fire on officers when they tried to question him, he said. Police returned fire, killing the suspect, Castaner said. "As I am speaking to you, I am thinking about the victims and the wounded. I am thinking of those close to them. I am thinking of Strasbourg and France that was hit by this terrible attack," Castaner said. On Thursday, Strasbourg police said the death toll from the attack had risen to three, after one person succumbed to their injuries. Five people remain in serious condition with eight others suffering light injures. The hunt prompted a curfew in the eastern French city near the German border and forced the country to raise its national security threat level to its highest status: "emergency terror attack." French prosecutors said the suspect shouted the Arabic phrase "Allahu Akbar," meaning "God is greatest," at the time of the attack. "It's relief for the people of Strasbourg to know that the attacker has been killed," Strasbourg Mayor Roland Ries said, adding that the Christmas market would reopen on Friday. The French National Police thanked the public for their assistance in finding Chekatt. "Thank you for your alerts which allowed us to find the wanted individual," the National Police said on Twitter.

CNN - December 13, 2018

Gun deaths in US reach highest level in nearly 40 years, CDC data reveal

Nearly 40,000 people in the United States died by guns last year, marking the highest number of gun deaths in decades, according to a new analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's WONDER database.

A similar analysis was first conducted by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence, a non-profit gun policy advocacy group. CNN replicated that analysis and found that 39,773 people died by guns in 2017, which is an increase of more than 10,000 deaths from the 28,874 in 1999. The age-adjusted rate of firearm deaths per 100,000 people rose from 10.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 12 per 100,000 in 2017. CDC statisticians confirmed with CNN on Thursday that these numbers are correct and they show gun deaths have reached a record-high going back to at least 1979, which was the year firearm deaths started to be coded in mortality data. CNN's analysis also showed that 23,854 people died from suicide by guns in 2017, the highest number in 18 years. That's a difference of more than 7,000 deaths compared with 16,599 suicide deaths by guns in 1999. The age-adjusted rate of suicide deaths by firearm rose from 6.0 in 1999 to 6.9 in 2017. Firearm deaths in the data include gun deaths by homicide and suicide, unintentional deaths, deaths in war or legal interventions, and deaths that are undetermined. When the data are analyzed by race and gender, they show that white men made up 23,927 of the total 39,773 firearm deaths last year, including suicides.

Governing - December 13, 2018

A growing response to school shootings: a panic button on phones

There have been 82 school shootings so far in 2018 -- by far the highest annual tally on record, according to the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security, which maintains a database of them.

As that number has increased dramatically in recent years, public safety officials have grappled with how to respond to the incidents quickly and safely. One innovation that many cities have implemented is "panic buttons" -- phone apps that can instantly send out 911-style alerts during a shooting and hopefully reduce the number of injuries and fatalities. Last week, Washington, D.C., became the latest local jurisdiction to announce it would adopt the technology. The mobile application, which every school employee will be able to access, sends alerts to emergency personnel in much the way 911 systems work, but it includes several added features. For one, the app distributes information about a fire, medical, police or active shooter emergency to other cell phones connected to the same school safety network. So if an active shooter incident is reported by a teacher or staff member, their fellow employees will receive the same information being given to the police. Secondly, the app gives automatic access to additional information even if the person triggering the call can’t -- the address of the school, a floorplan of the building, the best points of access, the number of students and teachers in the building; and the layout of the entire school campus. It also will provide contact information for key school personnel. “The top priority for the mayor and our office is the safety of our residents,” says Karima Holmes, director of the Office of Unified Communications, which consolidates all the city's emergency and nonemergency services. “Making improvements to how information is shared with first responders and improving emergency response times is paramount to our mission.” According to the Department of Homeland Security, the average response time to an active shooter incident is 18 minutes, while the average active shooter event lasts less than 13 minutes. Panic button providers claim the apps cut response times in half, but there haven't been any independent studies of the technology's use in a school setting. Panic buttons have become increasingly popular in both the public and private sector. Hotel workers have long asked for them to protect staffers from physical attacks by guests. City ordinances requiring hotel workers to be equipped with panic buttons have spread in recent years -- to places including Chicago and Miami Beach, Fla. In Seattle, though, the hotels are still fighting a 2016 ballot measure that required their employees to have panic buttons. Since the Parkland shooting, which left 17 people dead at a Florida high school in February, the technology has begun a slow but steady adoption by school districts across the country -- from Connecticut, Iowa and South Carolina to Arkansas, Texas and Utah.

Associated Press - December 11, 2018

New Mexico city celebrates $450M drinking water project

A $450 million drinking water project that was first conceived decades ago is paying off as New Mexico’s largest metro area has slashed its reliance on groundwater by almost 70 percent despite the arid state’s struggles with drought.

Utility officials are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the San Juan-Chama Project. It has resulted in billions of gallons of purified water flowing through Albuquerque’s taps. Once thought of as a boondoggle, the project has helped to spur a significant recovery of the aquifer beneath the city and has boosted supplies for other communities and farmers along the Rio Grande. Officials say the project has provided a much needed hedge against the demands of a growing population and predictions of drier times. The San Juan-Chama Project brings water from the Colorado River Basin into the Rio Grande Basin via a system of diversion dams, tunnels, channels and other infrastructure. The water flows from the headwaters in southern Colorado through the San Juan River. At a certain point, it’s diverted through the Continental Divide using tunnels and dumps into the Chama River, which ultimately flows into the Rio Grande. Water can be stored in reservoirs along the way. Albuquerque’s piece of the puzzle includes a diversion dam along the Rio Grande at the northern edge of the city. There, water is pulled from the river and pumped through a network of pipelines to a $160 million treatment plant that processes the water for distribution to homes and businesses. Nearly 137 billion gallons of river water have been purified and delivered by the system. Utility officials say now that 60 to 70 percent of the city’s water comes from the river, so there’s less stress on the aquifer. In some areas, groundwater levels have risen by 50 feet or more, according to figures released by the U.S. Geological Survey. Stomp pointed to this year’s drought, when record-low flows were reported along stretches of the Rio Grande. The utility worked with the federal government and other agencies to pool their resources to keep the river flowing through Albuquerque. The idea is to manage the groundwater so it’s not being overused and can provide a supplemental supply in times of drought or peak use, he said. As part of a 100-year plan, the utility looked at the state of the climate and predictions from federal scientists who monitor the Colorado River. They warn that there could be a 30 percent reduction in the water supply 60 years from now.

ABC News - December 14, 2018

Ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen says Trump knew it was wrong to make hush-money payments during campaign

Donald Trump directed Michael Cohen to arrange hush-money payments with two women because then-candidate Trump “was very concerned about how this would affect the election” if their allegations of affairs became public, the president’s former personal attorney said in an exclusive interview with ABC News.

Cohen’s comments are his first since being sentenced earlier this week to three years in federal prison for financial crimes, lying to Congress and two campaign finance violations in connection with the deals with the women, Karen McDougal and Stormy Daniels, who claim past affairs with Trump. “I knew what I was doing was wrong,” Cohen told ABC News’ Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos. “I stood up before the world [Wednesday] and I accepted the responsibility for my actions.” When asked if the president also knew it was wrong to make the payments, Cohen replied, “Of course,” adding that the purpose was to “help [Trump] and his campaign.” Cohen said he is “angry at himself” for his role in the deals, but that he did it out of “blind loyalty” to Trump. “I gave loyalty to someone who, truthfully, does not deserve loyalty,” he said. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York have implicated, but not charged, the president in the deals reached in the closing weeks of the 2016 election. They allege that Cohen acted “in coordination with and at the direction of” Trump, according to court filings. Prosecutors also reached a non-prosecution agreement with AMI, the publishers of the National Inquirer, in which the tabloid admitted to making a $150,000 payment to McDougal “in concert” with the Trump campaign. The president has denied allegations of the affairs -- but has had shifting explanations about when he learned about the payments to the women. He has also contended that the deals were private and unrelated to the campaign and that if anything illegal occurred, it was Cohen’s responsibility. Trump has lashed out at Cohen since his sentencing, contending in a Thursday tweet that his former close confidant only agreed to plead guilty “in order to embarrass the president and get a much reduced prison sentence, which he did.” “It is absolutely not true,” Cohen said. “Under no circumstances do I want to embarrass the president. He knows the truth. I know the truth.”

CityLab - December 13, 2018

Urban flooding is worryingly widespread throughout the country but understudied

When a major city like Houston or Detroit floods, the nation pays attention. The president may declare a state of emergency, and agencies at all levels of the government begin recovery efforts while monitoring the event.

When flooding happens in a small town or only a small part of a city, though, the event may not be closely examined for its economic and social damages. That dearth of data is why researchers behind the the first-ever nationwide assessment of urban flooding call the issue the country’s “hidden challenge.” Researchers at the University of Maryland and Texas A&M University surveyed professionals involved in public and private flood management from more than 350 municipalities in 48 states. Eighty-three percent of respondents said they’d experienced urban flooding in their communities. Over half said their communities were affected by moderate or larger urban floods. While major hurricanes like Florence and Michael command our attention, the researchers’ review of online news alerts found that multiple flooding events happen almost daily. Searches of reports from the National Weather Service for the terms “urban flooding” and “street flooding” resulted in more than 3,600 entries between 1993 and 2017 from all regions of the country. “It gnaws away in so many places, and it doesn’t [always] rise to the level of a big Mississippi River flood or a [Hurricane] Harvey in downtown Houston,” said Gerry Galloway of the University of Maryland, who co-authored the report. Yet there isn’t nearly enough information to help government officials understand the extent of these floods. Part of the problem, the authors note, is that there is no single federal agency that collects and evaluates urban flooding as it occurs or over time. And because the threat of coastal floods often overshadows that of urban floods, there has been little effort to distinguish between the two kinds of events. Galloway says the social costs, in particular, are neglected. Researchers know that urban floods disproportionately hurt lower-income communities that have the least resources, but it’s difficult to put a firm number to the problem. According to the report, they’re more likely to live in high-risk flood zones but less likely to have flood insurance. They’re also more badly hurt by what the researchers call “secondary effects,” such as the loss of hourly wages when a flood prevents them for getting to work, or the hours lost to traffic rerouting. Galloway uses an analogy: “If you have one pair of shoes and they get soaked, you don’t go to school that day,” he said. “You may not get the meals you normally get for breakfast and lunch.” These effects might seem minor, but they add up. When the consequences of urban flooding are written off, it often means that communities are not proactive about it. One thing is for sure: Urban floods are largely a result of the human-built environment (both CityLab and The Atlantic have previously reported on this). In the survey, 70 percent of respondents reported that aging and inadequate drainage systems were their main problems when it comes to flooding. Of those respondents, more than half said their communities failed make proper infrastructure improvements to withstand increasing levels of rainfall—which has on average risen roughly 4 percent across the U.S. since 1901, with the Northeastern and Midwestern regions experiencing the largest hikes.

Wired - December 13, 2018

Dr. Elon and Mr. Musk: Life inside Tesla is Hell

If it has been strange to watch Musk’s wild ride via news reports and social media, it’s been even weirder inside the company. Over the past six months I’ve communicated with dozens of current and former Tesla employees, from nearly every division.

They describe a thrilling and tumultuous workplace, where talented engineers and designers have done some of their proudest work but where, as one former executive put it, “everyone in Tesla is in an abusive relationship with Elon.” Almost all these employees spoke on the condition of anonymity because of nondisclosure agreements or fears of being sued or fired by Musk. (Even those with positive things to say asked for anonymity.) Most wanted the best for Tesla and said the recent profit report made them hopeful that the company is finally climbing onto firmer ground. But experience gives them pause. A large number of high-­ranking executives have left in the past two years, and Tesla has stumbled over basic tasks like delivering its cars. Working at the firm has been an agony and ecstasy, some say—sometimes toggling between both extremes in a single day. Tesla, which was given extensive summaries of the reporting in this article, including what took place during Musk’s Gigafactory visits and the engineer’s dismissal, said through a spokesperson that some aspects were “overly dramatized,” “abbreviated,” and “ultimately misleading anecdotes that completely lack essential context.” The company added that “Elon cares very deeply about the people who work at his companies. That is why, although it is painful, he sometimes takes the difficult step of firing people who are underperforming and putting the success of the entire company” at risk. Tesla also noted that Musk was worried about the comfort and safety of workers when he complained about the vapors in the Gigafactory. Tesla declined to make Musk, any board members, or any executives except the company’s general counsel available for on-the-record interviews. WIRED did hear from an outside law firm representing Tesla and Musk, which objected to the reporting and how questions were being asked, and suggested that WIRED might be sued. On the day in 2017 that Musk gave a speech at the Gigafactory, he was both despot and savior. There were grand pronouncements, searing interrogations, and a laserlike focus on doing what no one had accomplished before. His speech deflated some and inspired others. “That was a pretty typical Wednesday, actually,” one senior executive told me. “That’s what it was like until I quit.”

Politifact - December 11, 2018

PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year: Online smear machine tries to take down Parkland students

In the days after 17 people were viciously gunned down at a high school in Florida, the state’s Republican governor called for tighter gun laws and President Donald Trump hosted victims’ families in the State Dining Room. The nation seemed steadfast in seeking answers and finding solutions.

"It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past," Trump said. "It’s been going on too long. Too many instances, and we're going to get it done." But in the shadows, the internet engine of hoaxes and smears had started. The lies went like this: David Hogg, an outspoken student of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, was really a "crisis actor" coached on what to say. Hogg wasn’t even from Florida, he was from California. Students, who began to advocate for restrictions on guns, had secretly organized before the shooting or were backed by radicals with a history of violence. Another student, Emma González, was a communist with ties to Cuba. She even ripped up the U.S. Constitution. The students and the country were about to learn a hard lesson about participating in democracy in 2018. That you don’t have to be a politician to be on the receiving end of the internet’s worst hoaxes. That the lies don’t vanish after being debunked. That the same hoaxes will spread again after the next attack. At least there was this: During a time of so little bipartisanship, the attacks on the Parkland students set off a shared outrage in nearly all political corners. "Claiming some of the students on TV after #Parkland are actors is the work of a disgusting group of idiots with no sense of decency," wrote Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., on Twitter on Feb. 20. "THIS CONSPIRACY THEORY IS INSANE," tweeted U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif. "Our kids know David Hogg. My wife and I know his mom, who taught at our kids' elementary school before they moved to Florida. Although David is very articulate, he is not a crisis actor." In another year of lament about the lack of truth in politics, the attacks against Parkland’s students stand out because of their sheer vitriol. Together, the lies against the Parkland students in the wake of unspeakable tragedy were the most significant falsehoods of 2018. We name them PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year.

December 13, 2018

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 12, 2018

Gov. Abbott’s property tax reform plan calls for $1.3B from state in 2020

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday state lawmakers will ultimately decide how to fund his plan to limit how much local school districts can raise each year in property taxes. But Abbott suggested oil and gas tax revenue could help cover the projected loss of over $3 billion in school tax money by 2023.

“There have been dozens of funding strategies already identified,” Abbott said at a chamber of commerce event in Austin, though he didn’t name any others. “Because there’s going to be different pieces of the puzzle that fit together, I think it’s best left to the House and Senate and their members.” Abbott made property tax reform a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, first floating the 2.5 percent tax cap in January. It would restrict how much local school districts can raise in property taxes each year to pay for daily operation costs such as teacher salaries and school supplies. According to his plan, the state would fill the hole, which is projected to start at nearly $1.3 billion in 2020 and reach $3.7 billion by 2023, according to an analysis released this week by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance. Details, however, have been scarce about where the money will come from. And school administrators have been skeptical, worrying there’s too much focus on tax reform and not enough on improving public education. “It sounds to me like we could spend a tremendous amount of money and it not really effect education all that much,” said Rep. Diego Bernal, D-San Antonio, at a meeting of the state’s school finance commission Tuesday. “I’m not opposed to property tax relief at all... but I don’t know that it should be the one non-negotiable centerpiece of all the work we do.” Public education is funded through a mix of local property taxes, state aid and federal funds. The state’s share, however, has dropped from nearly 50 percent in 2008 to roughly 38 percent now. School finance and property tax reform are poised to be top issues for state lawmakers in 2019, after they failed to make meaningful changes last session. Abbott’s plan is one of several under consideration. It would prevent school districts from collecting more than 2.5 percent in property tax revenue from the year before. In addition, property-wealthy school districts such as Houston ISD would hand over less money in recapture payments, which are sent to districts that bring in less property tax revenue.

Houston Chronicle - December 13, 2018

Cornyn: 'I don't see the benefits of a shutdown strategy.'

John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, distanced himself Wednesday from President Donald Trump's remarks welcoming a government shutdown over funding for a border wall.

"I've been here during government shutdowns," Cornyn said. "When the government reopens, the same problem is staring you in the face, because the government shut down in the first instance. So I don't understand the strategy. Perhaps the president has a strategy. I heard him talk about getting the military to build some of those physical barriers. That just remains to be seen. But I can tell you that right now I don't see the benefits of a shutdown strategy." Cornyn said he shares Trump's "concern about border security" and "fully" supports the president's efforts to fund it. Cornyn, however, has long argued that border security involves more than physical barriers, but personnel and technology enhancements as well. Cornyn's remarks to Texas reporters echoed reservations among other top GOP leaders about Trump's on-camera clash Tuesday with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "I am proud to shut down the government for border security," Trump said to Schumer and Pelosi in an unusual Oval Office encounter. "I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I won't blame you for it." Trump's willingness to shoulder the blame for any government shutdown stunned many Republicans in Congress and delighted Democrats, who view it as a political victory. With time running out, it remains to be seen if Trump has painted himself into a corner or if he might settle for anything short of the wall, his central campaign promise. Democrats have noted, however, that Trump's original promise was that Mexico would pay for it. Now he wants U.S. taxpayers to pick up the bill, which is estimated at about $25 billion. Republicans had sought to put off a damaging shutdown fight until after the midterm elections in hopes of retaining control of the House. But with Democrats flipping 40 Republican-held seats to win back the majority, the GOP now finds itself fighting a rear-guard action to provide Trump with the wall money he wants before the new Congress convenes in January.

CNBC - December 12, 2018

Abortion opponents are starting to worry Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh isn't the ally they were expecting

Justice Brett Kavanaugh has only been on the bench for two months, but a controversial decision announced this week has abortion opponents starting to worry that he may not be the ally on the high court that they expected.

On Monday, the court announced that it would not review two lower court decisions that temporarily banned Louisiana and Kansas from cutting Planned Parenthood's Medicaid funding. While three of the court's conservatives voted to take up the cases, Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts declined to join them, ensuring the cases would not receive the necessary four votes for review. Despite a claim of "vindication" from Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, who voted to confirm Kavanaugh after he assured her that he viewed the court's abortion precedents as settled law, progressives have cautioned against reading too much into Kavanaugh's vote. The question the cases presented was not about the legality of abortion, but instead over whether individuals have a right to challenge a state's determination that a Medicaid provider is "qualified." But opponents of abortion are already sounding alarm bells, frustrated that President Donald Trump's second nominee to the court declined his first opportunity to hear a case that could have ramifications for America's largest provider of abortion services. "There goes everyone's certainty that Kavanaugh was going to kill abortion," one poster wrote on a popular online forum for individuals in the pro-life movement. Other posts said harsher things. "I think people are upset. They are upset and it's understandable," said Travis Weber, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council, a Christian nonprofit and activist group. Weber said his group was not holding Kavanaugh's decision against him, because while the decision was "not the greatest result," it was largely procedural. Though some suspect that Kavanaugh's vote was designed to deflect criticism from the left after a brutal confirmation process, Weber said that at this point it was impossible to know for sure. "If that's what he's doing here, that's a big problem," Weber said. "We don't know that." To Nicholas Drake, pastor at Richland Baptist, a rural church in Kingdom City, Missouri, Kavanaugh's decision could not have been more disappointing. In an interview, Drake said that during the nomination process he was hopeful about where Kavanaugh would land on the issue, but that he was hearing "conflicting things." Kavanaugh's comments during his confirmation hearings gave him more reason for concern. Kavanaugh said at the time that Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion ruling, was "an important precedent of the Supreme Court that has been reaffirmed many times." "It was clear that he was pro-life, but at the same time he seemed to be very big on the precedent, so I thought, 'Hmm,'" Drake said. "It gave me a hesitance about whether he would be able to side with the conservatives, and so far, this most recent decision proved that he hasn't." In a statement, Leana Wen, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that the result of Monday's decision is that "our patients who rely on Medicaid can continue accessing life-saving services like birth control, cancer screenings, and STD testing and treatment at Planned Parenthood." "However, I am a doctor, and I have to look at the data – Justice Kavanaugh has a deeply troubling record when it comes to access to health care including safe, legal abortion," Wen said. "While we celebrate, these attacks won't stop."

The Hill - December 12, 2018

Nate Silver: Ocasio-Cortez's race and gender drive 'certain Republicans crazy'

FiveThirtyEight founder and election forecaster Nate Silver on Tuesday claimed that many members of the GOP have disdain for Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., because of "her race and gender."

Ocasio-Cortez, a 29-year-old Hispanic woman, has drawn immense scrutiny and criticism from leading GOP figures and pundits since her campaign to unseat incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley in a New York primary. "There are lots of reasons Ocasio-Cortez drives certain Republicans crazy, foremost among them her race and gender," Silver tweeted. "But it's also that she's quintessentially a New Yorker and DC political culture is formal and prudish when NYC mostly isn't those things," he added. Silver was responding to a tweet from CNN political analyst Joshua Green, who claimed Ocasio-Cortez was the "big preoccupation" at multiple GOP gatherings this week. "Put differently, New Yorkers are very good at trolling, and Washington has extreme troll-vulnerability," Silver wrote, following up on his original tweet. "It's always made for a mismatch but more pronounced now that we're in the Golden Age of Trolling. We may need to move the capital back to Philly to keep it a fair fight." Ocasio-Cortez has crafted a robust social media presence, frequently hitting back at those who have criticized her, including conservative journalists, Fox News hosts, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and more. Her supporters have praised her online "trolling" skills, while detractors have criticized her as unprofessional. Some on the right have compared her to President Trump, another New Yorker who has also gone after his critics online. Ocasio-Cortez last month slammed Republicans for "drooling" over footage of her and accused them of waiting to criticize her over any missteps.

The Guardian - December 12, 2018

After surviving no confidence vote, Britian's May signals she will step down before 2022 election

Theresa May has told Conservative MPs she knows they will not let her lead them into another general election in 2022, though “in my heart” she would have liked to.

The prime minister was addressing a packed meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, shortly before colleagues began voting in a no-confidence ballot that would determine whether she could remain in her post. MPs present said the prime minister made clear she would have liked to fight the next general election – to make up for the Conservatives’ poor performance in 2017 – but signalled that she would step down before 2022. However, when pressed by colleagues, MPs said she carefully avoided offering a specific date at which she would resign. “She recognises a lot of people are not comfortable with her leading us into a future general election,” said James Cleverly, the May loyalist and Conservative party deputy chair, who emerged early from the meeting and spoke to reporters. By promising to step down before the Conservatives next face the country, the prime minister was hoping to peel off MPs who fear she would be an electoral liability. Some MPs who had previously expressed doubts about May’s Brexit deal said after the meeting they would support her. George Freeman, a former May adviser who had urged her to promise to step down next year, said he would vote for her, as did the Harlow MP, Robert Halfon, who said the prime minister had promised to make social justice her first priority. “The country faces great uncertainty. Now is not the time to make it worse,” Halfon tweeted. The chief whip, Julian Smith, emerged from the meeting with May to the sound of loyal MPs banging on tables and walls, and said it had been “very positive”. However, the chair of the European Research Group of Brexiter backbenchers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been calling for May to face a vote of no confidence for several weeks, claimed the prime minister had “hedged her bets” in the meeting. “She said that in her heart she would like to fight the 2022 election, but that she recognised the party did not want her to, and therefore it was not her intention to,” he said. “But the word ‘intention’ is a classic politician’s word, because intentions can change.”

State Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 12, 2018

Boy Scouts reportedly exploring bankruptcy protection amid sex-abuse lawsuits

The Boy Scouts of America organization is weighing whether to file for bankruptcy protection as it deals with lawsuits over alleged sex abuse, The Wall Street Journal has reported. The Irving-based youth organization has hired Sidley Austin, a Chicago-based law firm, to help with a possible Chapter 11 filing.

In a statement, Michael B. Surbaugh, the organization's chief Scout executive, said the group was "working with experts to explore all options available to ensure that the local and national programming of the Boy Scout of America continues uninterrupted." "We have a social and moral responsibility to fairly compensate victims who suffered abuse during their time in Scouting, and we also have an obligation to carry out our mission to serve youth, families and local communities through our programs," the statement said. A number of people have sued the Boy Scouts in recent years, contending that the organization did not do enough to prevent pedophiles from becoming Scout leaders in decades past. In one lawsuit, filed last week, a New Mexico man alleges that two Catholic priests who were troop leaders sexually abused him for years in the 1980s. Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would halt the civil proceedings against the Boy Scouts, giving the organization an opportunity to negotiate settlements. The Boy Scouts organization, founded in 1910, has about 2.4 million youth members — a number that has fallen in recent years. Last year, the Mormon church announced that it was beginning the process of pulling hundreds of thousands of youths out of the Boy Scouts as it developed its own scouting-type program. Last month, Girl Scouts of the USA sued the Boy Scouts, alleging that the group was committing trademark infringement by admitting girls and using the more-generic term "Scouts" in its advertising.

Dallas Morning News - December 12, 2018

Baylor frat president accused of rape is no longer welcome at UT Dallas, school says

The former Baylor University fraternity president accused of raping another student is no longer welcome at the University of Texas at Dallas, where he had been completing his degree, the school announced Wednesday.

"Two years ago we admitted a student without knowing their legal history," university President Richard C. Benson said. "Based on recent court action and other information over the last several days, that student will not participate in UTD commencement activities, will not attend UT Dallas graduate school and will not be present on campus as a student or guest." An online petition calling for Jacob Walter Anderson's removal had reached more than 20,000 signatures when the school released the statement Wednesday afternoon. "I am grateful to the UT Dallas students, faculty and other community members who have shared their concerns, disappointment and outrage over this student's presence on our campus," Benson wrote. Anderson, 23, was initially charged with four counts of sexual assault in connection with the alleged 2016 incident at a frat party. The woman who accused Anderson told police that she became disoriented after drinking a beverage and that Anderson led her behind a tent and raped her. The Garland man was allowed to plead no contest Monday to a charge of unlawful restraint. State District Judge Ralph Strother approved a plea deal for Anderson from the outgoing district attorney that allows him to receive three years of deferred-adjudication probation. He had faced up to 20 years in prison for each of the sexual-assault charges. Anderson withdrew from Baylor about two weeks after the allegations surfaced. Kelsey Casto, a student at UTD, created the MoveOn.org petition Tuesday morning. She told the Waco Tribune-Herald that if Anderson "wasn't good enough for Baylor, why should he be trusted to be good enough for [UTD] either?"

Dallas Morning News - December 12, 2018

Proposed law would target students accused of sexual assault, like ex-Baylor frat president

An Arlington Democrat in the Texas House is proposing a law that would make it harder for college students found guilty of sexual assault to quietly transfer to a new school.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Chris Turner, would compel universities to add notations to students' transcripts, notifying other colleges about expulsions or suspensions. That would have been critical in situations like Jacob Anderson's, the Baylor University fraternity president who was indicted on sexual assault charges. Anderson, who is from Garland, was accused of raping another student at a Phi Delta Theta party in 2016, and this week pleaded to a lesser charge of unlawful restraint in a deal that won't require jail time. Weeks after the accusation surfaced, Anderson withdrew from Baylor and transferred to the University of Texas at Dallas, where he's been taking classes for two years. He's expected to graduate next week. "This is exhibit A of why my bill would be beneficial to universities and students," Turner said. "It's important that in instances where a student is expelled, or in this case, withdrew from a university as a result of a sexual assault allegation, that the school that the student transfers to is aware of those circumstances." Turner's bill would apply to other disciplinary violations, like cheating on a test, but is intended to protect campuses from sexual predators, he said. If a student withdraws from the university while an investigation is ongoing, Turner's bill would force the institution to continue the investigation and update the transcript if the student was found culpable. Some schools, including those in the University of Texas system, already include such notations on transcripts for expulsions and suspensions. Turner's bill would account for final conclusions made by a university, not pending investigations. Notations would be required only if the institution opted to suspend or expel the student.

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

In Dallas visit, acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker hails violent-crime task force

Acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker on Wednesday visited Dallas and lauded a task force dedicated to reducing violent crime in troubled northeast Dallas neighborhoods.

During a brief appearance at the northeast patrol station, Whitaker said Project Safe Neighborhoods “is not just important to Dallas.” “It is important to the entire Department of Justice,” he said. “You’re helping us achieve our goals as a department nationwide.” Erin Nealy Cox, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas, said the task force has made more than 120 arrests for violent offenses in northeast Dallas crime hot spots, including one in which an officer was killed this year. In eight months, the initiative has reduced violent crime by nearly 20 percent, she said. The task force has targeted locations seen as havens for criminals. And federal prosecutors have charged dozens of individuals with felonies, including carjacking and attempts to illegally obtain guns in Dallas. But the aggressive crime-reduction efforts have also created some concerns among residents. City Council member Adam McGough — who represents part of northeast Dallas and chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee — said he had heard from constituents who were worried about excessive policing with the initiative. “It’s not about coming to just arrest. ... It also has a community component,” said McGough, who was still supportive of the initiative.

Associated Press - December 12, 2018

Julian Castro moves toward 2020 White House run with exploratory committee

Former Obama housing chief Julian Castro says he’s taking a step toward a possible White House campaign in 2020 by forming a presidential exploratory committee. The Texas Democrat tells The Associated Press that he will announce a decision Jan. 12.

The move Wednesday gives the 44-year-old former San Antonio mayor an early start to what’s shaping up as a crowded Democratic field without a clear front-runner to challenge President Donald Trump. Castro indicated in an AP interview that his mind was all but made up. “I know where I’m leaning, for sure,” said Castro, who has said for weeks that it was likely he would seek the nomination. An exploratory committee usually is a formality before a candidate launches a presidential campaign. It legally allows potential candidates to begin raising money. But just as important for Castro, the step gives him an early jump on bigger name Democrats who are considering running but are taking a slower approach. No potential contender is more ascendant than outgoing Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost last month in a surprisingly close race against Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. O’Rourke has excited donors and activists who are now prodding him to seek the presidency. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, along with former Vice President Joe Biden, are also potential candidates. Castro would be among the youngest candidates in the field and the most prominent Latino. He played down the attention that others are generating and pointed to past election cycles in which early favorites ended up faltering. “People might say right now, ‘Well, hey, you’re way down here in polling that’s taken.’ The most dangerous place to be right now is actually in the pole position,” Castro said. “It doesn’t bother me that in December of 2018 I’m not right up at the top of the list. If I decide to run, it would be because I believe I have a compelling message and I’m going to work hard and get to the voters and I believe I can be successful.” Castro, who attended O’Rourke’s election-night party in El Paso last month, said O’Rourke doesn’t complicate his own chances. “He’s talented. He ran a good race against Ted Cruz,” Castro said. “I’ll let him talk about his future.”

Associated Press - December 12, 2018

Aide to ex-Texas Congressman Steve Stockman sentenced to 18 months in prison

A onetime aide to former Texas Congressman Steve Stockman must follow his ex-boss to federal prison in a $1.25 million charity and campaign funds scam. Thomas Dodd of Houston was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months and ordered to repay $800,000.

Dodd in 2017 pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and to conspiracy to make conduit contributions and false statements. Prosecutors say Stockman spent funds, solicited for charitable and nonprofit efforts, on personal bills or campaigns. Stockman, who's from the Houston area, in April was convicted on 23 counts including fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. He was sentenced in November to 10 years in prison. Stockman served in the U.S. House from 1995 until 1997, and from 2013 until 2015. He failed in a U.S. Senate bid.

Austin American-Statesman - December 12, 2018

State panel suggests school finance overhaul

Directing more money toward schools educating poor children, updating outdated funding formulas and curbing property tax growth are among ways the state should overhaul its beleaguered school finance system, according to draft recommendations made by a state commission on Tuesday.

The final report from the Texas Commission on Public School Finance is due to the Legislature by the end of the month. The Legislature, in lieu of pumping more money into Texas classrooms, created the commission last year to develop ways to fix the way the state funds public schools. The commission has spent the last nine months learning about the state’s complex funding formula, how to redirect money to districts that need it the most. The group also has studied how to drop property taxes, the main source of local revenue for schools, a goal some say runs counter to bolstering school funding. Although the commission has devised 29 recommendations so far, members on Tuesday were divided on whether to put a dollar figure on how much more money school districts need. “What I’m uncomfortable about is telling the Legislature they have to inject new money. I read this to say we recommend the Legislature ... increase school finance funding by 2 billion and I don’t think that’s our job,” said commission Chairman Scott Brister, a Gov. Greg Abbott appointee to the panel. Brister is a former justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the only member who disagreed with the court’s 2005 ruling that the state’s public school finance system was unconstitutional. Brister added that he didn’t want the commission to open the state to a lawsuit if the Legislature, which has many priorities to balance, fails to follow a recommendation to inject a set amount of new money into Texas classrooms. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston and chairman of the House Public Education Committee, was adamant that the commission increase the overall pot of money for education. “I would not be willing to sign a report that doesn’t say that we’re going to spend more money or new money on public education,” he said.

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

Elaine Ayala: San Antonio archbishop says Catholics must lead on immigration

On the eve of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller gave an impassioned, detailed speech Tuesday on how the U.S. immigration system should be fixed.

He also challenged Catholics in the pews to have difficult conversations about the polarizing issue, saying they have a responsibility to speak out about policies that detain families, keep asylum seekers at bay and result in mass deportations. The call to action will bring a necessary “conversion,” García-Siller told a meeting of Catholic leaders and immigrant advocates hosted by the Mexican American Catholic College and America Media, a Jesuit ministry that publishes a national magazine called America. As a homilist Tuesday, García-Siller quoted the Book of Isaiah urging Catholics to comfort the afflicted. As keynote speaker for a talk titled “The Church in America: A Conversation on Immigration,” he implored them to afflict the comfortable over “the most urgent sign of our times.” “We heard today what it really means to be Catholic,” said Arturo Chávez, president of the Catholic college. “If that challenges us, if that stretches us, that’s exactly what it’s supposed to do.” The event featured responses to the archbishop by Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a shelter for migrants in McAllen, and Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational group in Nogales, Arizona, that provides humanitarian assistance to migrants. Pimentel cited an experience she had with a businesswoman who said she was “100 percent against these illegal aliens.” Pimentel, who was listed by Texas Monthly magazine as one of the state’s most powerful people of 2018, said she invited the woman to the shelter to meet the children there. “God has a marvelous way of changing our hearts,” the nun said. “Her husband called and said, ‘I don’t know what you did to my wife, but she says when you call I should do what you tell me.’” García-Siller called for a path to citizenship for the undocumented, changes to legal immigration, strengthening the right to asylum, addressing causes of migration and the role the United States plays in it, and for enforcement that’s “fairly and humanely applied.” A path to citizenship should be “achievable within a reasonable time period,” he said, noting that visa-wait times can take decades to reunite families. García-Siller became emotional when speaking about detention centers, asking, “What kind of nation are we if we are locking up women and children who are not a threat?” Alternatives to detention exist, he said, including allowing groups such as Catholic Charities to provide case management to help prepare for their legal hearings. García-Siller said legal immigration must be open to low-skilled workers, not just the well-educated, and he denounced the administration for deterring asylum-seekers. “Delaying justice is denying it,” he said.

El Paso Times - December 11, 2018

Gift drive goal met: Immigrant children at Tornillo shelter to get 2,400 soccer balls

A gift drive for migrant children being held in tents in the border city of Tornillo, Texas, has met its goal of collecting 2,400 soccer balls.

The gift drive, organized by state Sen. José Rodríguez of El Paso, will end Wednesday morning, now that enough soccer balls have been purchased for the more than 2,000 children being held at the shelter. The temporary shelter, which is being used to house minors who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border alone, is scheduled to close by the end of the year. But given the number of children still being housed in tents at the shelter and the available bed space at permanent state-licensed facilities, it is expected to continue operations through next year. Rodríguez launched a gift drive for the migrant children at the shelter on Thursday, asking people to purchase soccer balls from a pre-selected wish list. Balls are being shipped to Rodríguez 's office and they will be delivered to Tornillo. With their goal met, Rodríguez's office is now looking for volunteers to help inflate the purchased soccer balls. Those interested should contact his office at 915-351-3500.

Houston Chronicle - December 12, 2018

Border wall will not hinder access to National Butterfly Center, agency says

Responding to concerns that President Donald Trump’s border wall will ruin a butterfly sanctuary at the southern tip of Texas, the administration has promised to minimize environmental damage “to the greatest extent practicable” and to provide access to the part of the preserve on the southern side of the wall.

“Access to the National Butterfly Center will not be impeded by the border wall,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement to the San Antonio Express-News. The statement acknowledged, however, that the wall will cut through the 100-acre preserve, and that plans call for a patrol road and enforcement zone on the south side of the wall that could require “removal of vegetation” in a 150-foot strip. The wall will consist of a levee topped by bollards, creating a barrier about three stories high on the north side of the Rio Grande. Butterfly center staff and visitors “will continue to have access to the 70 acres on the south side of the existing levee,” CBP said. The statement offered no detail as to how many access points would be provided, where or what kind. Related: Migrant parents still separated from children at border after government claims gang ties or crime The sanctuary — home to butterflies, birds and other flora and fauna — is one of several natural areas or historic landmarks that are expected to be affected by the 33 miles of wall the administration plans to build in the Rio Grande Valley. The butterfly center, established in 2002 in Mission, just west of McAllen, is in a “liminal,” or transitional, zone where both tropical butterflies and North American butterflies thrive. About 240 different varieties can be seen there, sometimes in dense swarms of color. Nearly 300 species of birds also live in the habitat. Butterfly center officials say the government has indicated bulldozers will begin clearing land in February. Contract workers showed up at the preserve last year to conduct surveys. The administration has waived 28 environmental laws to allow accelerated construction of the wall. Environmental groups challenged that decision, unsuccessfully. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower-court ruling in the government’s favor. One of the laws being bypassed is the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an assessment of the environmental impact of major projects and ways to mitigate it. The Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding, CBP said it was conducting environmental surveys of the butterfly sanctuary “to identify the presence of any biological, cultural, or natural resource.” The agency said it “will identify methods to avoid or minimize impacts to any resources present to the greatest extent practicable.” Marianna Wright, executive director of the butterly center, said she was skeptical of those assurances.

Austin American-Statesman - December 13, 2018

Apple plans new $1 billion Austin campus, 5,000 more jobs

Apple is planning to spend $1 billion to build a new 133-acre corporate campus in North Austin that initially will employ up to 5,000 people, cementing Austin’s status as the high-tech company’s largest hub outside of its California headquarters.

The facility — which will be less than a mile from Apple’s existing main Austin campus on Parmer Lane — eventually could expand to accommodate up to 15,000 workers, the company said. Apple employs about 6,200 people in Austin now. Counting contractors, its current Austin workforce numbers about 7,000. The new Austin campus is part of a wider Apple expansion that will see the tech giant build new facilities in Seattle, San Diego and Los Angeles with “over 1,000 employees” each, and add “hundreds of new jobs” in New York, Pittsburgh, Boulder, Colo., Boston and Portland, Ore., the company said. None of those facilities will be as big as the new Austin campus. “Apple is proud to bring new investment, jobs and opportunity to cities across the United States and to significantly deepen our quarter century partnership with the city and people of Austin,” Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, said in a written statement. “Talent, creativity, and tomorrow’s breakthrough ideas aren’t limited by region or zip code, and, with this new expansion, we’re redoubling our commitment to cultivating the high-tech sector and workforce nationwide.” Apple is in line to receive as much as $25 million in taxpayer-funded grants for the new Austin campus from the state’s deal-closing Texas Enterprise Fund, based on investment and job creation at the site. It also is seeking a 15-year property tax abatement from Williamson County, where the project is located just over the line from Travis County, that could be worth tens of millions of dollars over the life of the deal, although specific numbers weren’t available Wednesday. Apple isn’t receiving any financial incentives from the city of Austin. Apple — which is one of the most valuable companies in the world with a market capitalization of about $803 billion — was pledged an estimated $36 million in combined incentives from the state, the city of Austin and Travis County in 2012, when it agreed to build its existing Parmer campus. The company has received about $21.6 million of the money so far, including $15.75 million of $21 million pledged from the Texas Enterprise Fund. The announcement of Austin as the site for the new Apple campus capped a nearly yearlong search by the tech giant that took place concurrently, but with a much lower profile, as Amazon Inc.’s splashy sweepstakes to pick new corporate locations. Austin was named to Amazon’s list of 20 finalists but lost out to sites in New York and Virginia, which pledged incentive packages valued at $1.7 billion and $573 million, respectively, for the promise of 25,000 Amazon jobs each and billions of dollars in investment.

City Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 13, 2018

Despite concerns, Dallas City Council extends State Fair contract through 2038

The Dallas City Council on Wednesday approved an extension of the State Fair of Texas’ contract through 2038. In doing so, the city added a handful of key provisions to the contract.

Those included a request for the State Fair to fully reimburse the Dallas Police Department for security costs, the institution of a living wage provision for the fair's employees and an attempt to better define the State Fair’s excess revenue, which the nonprofit is contractually obligated to use on improvements to Fair Park. “We tried to kind of wrap all that together with one contract,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said. The 10-year contract extension comes after several years of increased scrutiny of the State Fair's finances and of its dominance at Fair Park, which was recently placed under the control of an outside group. And a council committee’s vote against the deal on Monday had raised doubts that the contract amendment would receive full council approval — at least this month. But the revised version of the amendment passed on an 11-3 vote. Council members Sandy Greyson, Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs voted in opposition. Greyson chairs the council’s Quality of Life Committee, which had issues with the document. The committee voted 4-3 on Monday to not recommended the amendment to the full City Council. When the contract came up on Wednesday’s agenda, Greyson asked for a deferral. She worried that the multiyear extension would make it harder for Fair Park’s new manager — the nonprofit Fair Park First — to hammer out agreements on myriad issues that it might have with the State Fair. “I think what’s going to happen is that Fair Park First is going to lose leverage,” Greyson said. Fair Park First and its for-profit partner, the Philadelphia-based venue-and-hospitality company Spectra, took over operation of Fair Park after a unanimous City Council vote in October.

National Stories

New York Times - December 12, 2018

Playing by his own rules, Trump flips the shutdown script

The trick in Washington has always been to make sure a government shutdown is pinned on the other guy. President Trump is the first to ever pin one on himself.

In a new twist on the old game of shutdown politics dating to the 1990s, Mr. Trump was essentially goaded on Tuesday by Representative Nancy Pelosi of California and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York into embracing ownership of a shutdown yet to come if Democrats do not accede to his request for $5 billion to build a wall on the southern border with Mexico. “I will take the mantle,” Mr. Trump told the two Democratic leaders in the Oval Office, saying he would proudly close parts of the executive branch if he did not get his way. “I’m not going to blame you for it,” he continued. “The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down, and I’m going to shut it down for border security.” A smiling Mr. Schumer seemed more than satisfied with Mr. Trump’s retort. “O.K., fair enough,” he said. The moment was a little reminiscent of the climactic scene in “A Few Good Men,” when Tom Cruise’s character elicits an incriminating answer from Jack Nicholson’s Marine colonel. In this case, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer were more than happy to handle the president’s truth. Ms. Pelosi couldn’t say the term “Trump shutdown” enough times. “We gave the president two options that would keep the government open,” the two leaders said in a joint statement after the remarkable White House session that offered a sneak peek at 2019’s divided government. “It’s his choice to accept one of those options or shut the government down.” Mr. Trump has consistently played by his own rules in Washington, and perhaps this is just one more example of how he can upend the conventions of the capital and win a shutdown showdown on his own terms. Many of his most enthusiastic supporters are both anti-Washington and pro-border wall, so his decision to potentially close down a section of the federal government to secure funding for the wall could play well with them. It could also generate some welcome backing from his base at a time when he seems under siege on the legal end and is struggling to staff his administration as the two-year mark nears. In addition, the 2020 campaign is already on the president’s mind, and his efforts to limit immigration have worked for him in the past. With Democrats about to take over the House, the president’s opportunities to win the wall money — a central facet of his 2016 campaign and one he has so far been thwarted on — are diminishing. As that window is closing, shutting down the government is starting to sound like a victory, at least in the president’s mind. “If we have to close down the country over border security, I actually like that in terms of an issue,” Mr. Trump told reporters late Tuesday after the Democrats had departed. “I will take it because we are closing it down for border security, and I think I win that every single time.”

New York Times - December 12, 2018

Michael Cohen sentenced to three years after implicating Trump in hush-money scandal

Michael D. Cohen, a former lawyer for President Trump, was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday after denouncing Mr. Trump and explaining that “I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

Mr. Cohen gave an emotional apology to the court for his involvement in a hush-money scandal that could threaten the Trump presidency — a scheme to buy the silence of two women who said they had affairs with Mr. Trump to protect his chances before the 2016 election. Mr. Cohen said his blind loyalty to Mr. Trump led him to ignore “my own inner voice and my moral compass.” The sentencing in federal court in Manhattan capped a startling fall for Mr. Cohen, 52, who had once hoped to work by Mr. Trump’s side in the White House but ended up a central figure in the inquiry into payments to an adult-film star and a former Playboy model before the 2016 election. Judge William H. Pauley III called Mr. Cohen’s crimes a “veritable smorgasbord of fraudulent conduct” and added, “Each of the crimes involved deception and each appears to have been motivated by personal greed and ambition.” He added that Mr. Cohen’s particular crimes — breaking campaign finance laws, tax evasion and lying to Congress — “implicate a far more insidious harm to our democratic institutions.” “As a lawyer, Mr. Cohen should have known better,” the judge said. Mr. Cohen had pleaded guilty in two separate cases, one brought by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, the other by the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Before he was sentenced, a solemn Mr. Cohen, standing at a lectern, sounded emotional, but resolved, as he told the judge he had been tormented by the anguish and embarrassment he had caused his family. “I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today,” he said, “and it was my own weakness and a blind loyalty to this man” — a reference to Mr. Trump — “that led me to choose a path of darkness over light.” Mr. Cohen then apologized to the public: “You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust.”

CBS News - December 11, 2018

Homelessness on the rise in some U.S. cities

Homelessness has declined across most of the U.S. over the last decade as the economy has crawled back from the housing crash. In some cities, however, the problem is getting worse, with researchers pointing to a one culprit in particular: rising rents.

A new analysis from Zillow found that the incidence of homelessness is growing faster in the least affordable rental housing markets, including Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. "It's undoubtedly good news that the overall level of homelessness has fallen nationwide, even as housing costs have increased. But that zoomed-out view obscures some very real, local tensions between housing affordability and homelessness, and ignores the reality that success in tackling homelessness in one community doesn't necessarily have the same effect in another," said Skylar Olsen, director of economic research and outreach at Zillow, a provider of real estate data, in a statement. In cities with high housing costs, even a modest rent increase can significantly drive up homelessness, found Zillow, which did the study in collaboration with researchers at the University of New Hampshire, Boston University School of Social Work and University of Pennsylvania. In Los Angeles, where the rent burden — the share of income people spent on rent — is 49 percent, a 2 percentage point increase in that metric could result in an additional 4,000 people finding themselves on the street, according to the report. "We particularly noticed it around 2014 when we were housing more people than ever... yet our streets looked terrible," said Molly Rysman, Housing and Homelessness Deputy, Los Angeles County District 3, referring to widely circulated pictures of people sleeping on the city's sidewalks. Notably, the rate of homelessness jumps sharply when the rent burden exceeds 32 percent, such as in cities like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. The rent burden already exceeds that threshold in 100 real estate markets across the country, according to the analysis. Homelessness in the U.S. has dropped about 13 percent since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nationwide, some 661,000 people were homeless for some period of time last year, the researchers found. Nationwide, a renter earning the median U.S. income — roughly $61,000 per household in 2017 — looking to rent a median-priced apartment should expect to spend 28 percent of their income on rent, according to the study.

CBS News - December 12, 2018

Christian Bale says Trump thought he was actually Bruce Wayne when they met

How would you react if you came face to face with Christian Bale dressed for his role in a Batman movie? Apparently, it happened once to Donald Trump, and Bale found the future president's reaction "quite entertaining."

Bale says he met Mr. Trump back in 2011 while filming a scene for "The Dark Knight Rises" at Trump Tower. Bale shared the hilarious tale with Variety at the red carpet premiere of "Vice," in which he stars as former Vice President Dick Cheney. "I met him, one time," Bale told Variety's Marc Malkin of Mr. Trump. "We were filming on 'Batman' in Trump Tower and he said, 'Come on up to the office.'" "I think he thought I was Bruce Wayne, because I was dressed as Bruce Wayne. So he talked to me like I was Bruce Wayne and I just went along with it, really. It was quite entertaining. I had no idea at the time that he would think about running for president." He added that the story told in "Vice," about Cheney's powerful role in George W. Bush's administration, "is part of how we got to be here with that, uh, 'Individual 1' being president" — referring to Mr. Trump by the designation used in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's recent court filings. Unfortunately, Bale didn't answer the question of who he thought should play Trump in a movie.

STAT - December 12, 2018

Freeze on fetal tissue procurement may impede work at NIH cancer lab, agency says

The National Institutes of Health freeze on fetal tissue procurement is threatening to hamper work at an agency lab conducting cancer research, the latest sign that a Trump administration decision could slow the efforts of some scientists who depend on the samples.

“If they don’t procure new fetal tissue by, say, end of January, [there] will be an impact,” an NIH spokeswoman said, adding that the agency was taking unspecified steps in an effort to make sure research did not have to be paused. The spokeswoman, Renate Myles, declined to identify the lab for “security reasons,” but said that the group is working on cancer immunotherapy.Two other NIH labs, one in Montana and another at the National Eye Institute, are also conducting research using fetal tissue that could ultimately be affected by the suspension. NIH is also working with its overseers at the Department of Health and Human Services to see how the researchers can get the tissue amid the agency-wide pause on new orders, Myles said. “We’re working with HHS to see how we can procure the tissue,” she said. The Trump administration is in the midst of a wide-ranging audit into research involving human fetal tissue. As part of that review, the NIH asked staff scientists to “pause” purchases of fetal tissue beginning in September, as Science first reported. Anti-abortion activists have decried researchers’ use of fetal tissue, which comes from aborted fetuses, alleging that it fuels an industry that makes money off of the fetuses. In some states, it is illegal to buy and sell fetal tissue, and federal law prohibits companies from profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Meanwhile, the administration has expressed interest developing alternative research methods that don’t depend on fetal tissue. NIH announced this week it intends to spend up to $20 million to support research into such alternatives. HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told STAT that “by no means was [the audit] meant to halt or ban or cease research, and if procuring new fetal tissues is crucial to that work, then we will work with people to make sure that research continues.” She added in a written statement that earlier this year, “NIH leaders asked to be notified by … investigators if new procurement would be necessary.”

NPR - December 12, 2018

Evelyn Berezin, computer scientist behind groundbreaking word processor, dies at 93

Evelyn Berezin, a computer scientist who designed the world's first word processor, has died at the age of 93. She died in New York City on Saturday.

In addition to revolutionizing how the world writes, Berezin also developed the first computer system for making airline reservations — and an automated banking system, a weapons-targeting calculator and gambling terminals for horse tracks, according to the BBC. In the 1940s, Berezin studied physics at NYU. After earning her bachelor's degree, she did graduate work through an Atomic Energy Commission fellowship. But, as she explained in an oral history interview, she was having trouble finding work in the physics field, so she started asking about computers — having barely even heard of them. "Somehow I had read somewhere about computers," she said. She got a job at a computer company, and was promptly thrown into designing networks and computer systems with no training. She'd arrived in the industry just in time for the final years of vacuum-tube computers and the dawn of the transistor age. With a gift for logic, she swiftly rose up through the ranks, managing other computer scientists as she designed novel networks and systems. When she designed a reservation system for United Airline in 1962, it was one of the largest computer systems ever built, according to the Computer History Museum. "The design of the central system (three independent, linked processors) served 60 cities throughout the United States with a one-second response time and no central system failures in 11 years of operation," the museum writes. It wasn't easy being a woman in the industry. In 1960, Berezin says she was offered a job at the New York Stock Exchange, as a vice president managing the computer system that handled their communications. But then the offer was retracted by the board of directors. "And I said, what? Why? At the time, I was probably one of the very few people in the world who could design a machine for them. I was really just stunned." The man who offered her the job apologetically explained, "They said that you were a woman, you'd have to be on the stock market floor from time to time. And the language on the floor was not for a woman's ears. "I had worked in laboratories all my life," Berezin said. "I had seen practically naked men working on these hot machines. I said, what in the world was he talking about? But there was no way I could get back to them. So that tells you the situation of women at the time." After working at other people's companies for throughout the '50s and '60s, Berezin founded her own in 1969 — when it was highly unusual, to say the least, for a technology company to have a female president and founder. Founding her own company seemed like the only option for career growth — but she didn't know what it would do. After some brainstorming with a colleague, Berezin decided that what the market really needed was a computerized word processor designed for secretaries. (At the time, an IBM typewriter that relied on magnetic tape, not computer chips, was the state-of-the-art system for processing text, but it wasn't designed for general secretarial use.) So she launched Redactron with the goal of inventing such a device. It wasn't easy. It required cutting-edge hardware: Berezin's company had to design and build some of its own computer chips, because of limitations on what was available on the market. The company built a plant before they had a product, and designed the product before the necessary parts were available. At one point, Redactron was preparing to show off its only working device, a prototype referred to as the "test machine," to reporters in New York City. But the device had a flaw; in dry weather, static electricity would interrupt the circuits and keep it from functioning. "To our horror it was a dry day and the engineers were setting this non-working machine up for our big story, and the reporters were coming in an hour, and everyone was going crazy," Berezin said. One of her colleagues took care of that by overturning a pail of water and soaking the room's carpet. But after less than two years, she brought the Data Secretary — a computerized word processor — on the market.

ProPublica - December 12, 2018

Understaffed, a slashed budget and archaic equipment: the eight-year campaign to gut the IRS

In the summer of 2008, William Pfeil made a startling discovery: Hundreds of foreign companies that operated in the U.S. weren’t paying U.S. taxes, and his employer, the Internal Revenue Service, had no idea.

Under U.S. law, companies that do business in the Gulf of Mexico owe the American government a piece of what they make drilling for oil there or helping those that do. But the vast majority of the foreign companies weren’t paying anything, and taxpaying American companies were upset, arguing that it unfairly allowed the foreign rivals to underbid for contracts. Pfeil and the IRS started pursuing the non-U.S. entities. Ultimately, he figures he brought in more than $50 million in previously unpaid taxes over the course of about five years. It was an example of how the tax-collecting agency is supposed to work. But then Congress began regularly reducing the IRS budget. After 43 years with the agency, Pfeil — who had hoped to reach his 50th anniversary — was angry about the “steady decrease in budget and resources” the agency had seen. He retired in 2013 at 68. After Pfeil left, he heard that his program was being shut down. “I don’t blame the IRS,” Pfeil said. “I blame the Congress for not giving us the budget to do the job.” Had the billions in budget reductions occurred all at once, with tens of thousands of auditors, collectors and customer service representatives streaming out of government buildings in a single day, the collapse of the IRS might have gotten more attention. But there have been no mass layoffs or dramatic announcements. Instead, it’s taken eight years to bring the agency that funds the government this low. Over time, the IRS has slowly transformed, one employee departure at a time. The result is a bureaucracy on life support and tens of billions in lost government revenue. ProPublica estimates a toll of at least $18 billion every year, but the true cost could easily run tens of billions of dollars higher. The cuts are depleting the staff members who help ensure that taxpayers pay what they owe. As of last year, the IRS had 9,510 auditors. That’s down a third from 2010. The last time the IRS had fewer than 10,000 revenue agents was 1953, when the economy was a seventh of its current size. And the IRS is still shrinking. Almost a third of its remaining employees will be eligible to retire in the next year, and with morale plummeting, many of them will.

Governing - December 12, 2018

Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene: Defying predictions, union membership isn't dropping after Supreme Court's Janus ruling

Five months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt what was seen as a massive blow to unions in Janus v. AFSCME.The justices banned the collection of union fees from public workers who receive union-negotiated benefits but choose not to belong to the union.

The ruling had an immediate negative effect on union finances. In Pennsylvania, for instance, refunding fees to nonmembers resulted in a roughly 15 percent loss of the $42.5 million that unions collected from executive branch members and nonmembers in 2017, according to the state’s Office of Administration. The court’s decision also led many to predict that massive defections of union members would follow. But so far, even as anti-union organizations wage campaigns to convince members to drop out, most are staying put. Some unions have actually increased their numbers since the Janus verdict. “I think the right wing thought this would decimate public-sector unions, and they were clearly wrong,” says Kim Cook of the Cornell University Worker Institute, which provides research and education in support of unions and workers’ rights. According to Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, “After the Janus case, public-service workers are choosing to join AFSCME at a much higher rate than those who drop.” But Ken Girardin, analyst for the fiscally conservative Empire Center for Public Policy in New York, says that many employees are still uninformed about their right to leave unions and that it will take a few years to see significant declines in membership. “Based on what we’ve observed, you will likely see a multi-year drop in membership, driven chiefly by the fact that people aren’t going to join in the first place," says Girardin. "The next cohorts of employees won’t join at the same rate as the retirees they are replacing.” In the meantime, state unions are seeing similar trends to AFSCME. In Pennsylvania, 50,072 state executive branch employees were members of unions at the time of the Janus decision. That number has increased to 51,127, according to the state’s Office of Administration. In Oregon, the Local 503 chapter of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) reported in September that new union members have outnumbered dropouts by three to two. In California, data from the Controller’s Office show a small increase in state employee union membership, which totaled 131,410 in October -- up a small fraction from 131,192 in June. “The decision didn’t have the major impact on membership that was anticipated,” says Science Meles, executive vice president of a Chicago chapter of SEIU, which had about 23,800 members in August 2017 and now has about 26,000.

The Atlantic - December 12, 2018

Trump moves to deport Vietnam War refugees

The Trump administration is resuming its efforts to deport certain protected Vietnamese immigrants who have lived in the United States for decades—many of them having fled the country during the Vietnam War.

This is the latest move in the president’s long record of prioritizing harsh immigration and asylum restrictions, and one that’s sure to raise eyebrows—the White House had hesitantly backed off the plan in August before reversing course. In essence, the administration has now decided that Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the country before the establishment of diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam are subject to standard immigration law—meaning they are all eligible for deportation. The new stance mirrors White House efforts to clamp down on immigration writ large, a frequent complaint of the president’s on the campaign trail and one he links to a litany of ills in the United States. The administration last year began pursuing the deportation of many long-term immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and other countries who the administration alleges are “violent criminal aliens.” But Washington and Hanoi have a unique 2008 agreement that specifically bars the deportation of Vietnamese people who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995—the date the two former foes reestablished diplomatic relations following the Vietnam War. MORE STORIES Immigrants sit on a border fence between the United States and Mexico after arriving as part of a caravan. Trump Keeps Invoking Terrorism to Get His Border Wall KATHY GILSINAN The Latest Target of Trump's Immigration Attacks PRISCILLA ALVAREZ Visitors arriving at the Miami airport wait in line to have their passports checked. A Functional Immigration System Would Look Nothing Like America's KRISHNADEV CALAMUR Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street ahead of the no-confidence vote in Parliament. Theresa May Isn't Going Down Without a Fight YASMEEN SERHAN The White House unilaterally reinterpreted the agreement in the spring of 2017 to exempt people convicted of crimes from its protections, allowing the administration to send back a small number of pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants, a policy it retreated from this past August. Last week, however, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi said the American government was again reversing course. Washington now believes that the 2008 agreement fails to protect pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants from deportation, the spokesperson, who asked not to be identified by name because of embassy procedures, told The Atlantic. “The United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral agreement on removals in 2008 that establishes procedures for deporting Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the United States after July 12, 1995, and are subject to final orders of removal,” the spokesperson said. “While the procedures associated with this specific agreement do not apply to Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, it does not explicitly preclude the removal of pre-1995 cases.” The about-turn came as a State Department spokesperson confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security had met with representatives of the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., but declined to provide details of when the talks took place or what was discussed. Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for DHS said: “We have 5,000 convicted criminal aliens from Vietnam with final orders of removal—these are non-citizens who during previous administrations were arrested, convicted, and ultimately ordered removed by a federal immigration judge. It’s a priority of this administration to remove criminal aliens to their home country.” Spokespeople for the Vietnamese embassy did not immediately respond to requests for comment. But the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group, said in a statement that the purpose of the meeting was to change the 2008 agreement. That deal had initially been set to last for five years, and was to be automatically extended every three years unless either party opted out. Under those rules, it was set to renew next month. Since 1998, final removal orders have been issued for more than 9,000 Vietnamese nationals.

Roll Call - December 12, 2018

Senators urge no prison time for Intelligence Committee aide who lied to FBI

While federal prosecutors on Tuesday recommended a two-year prison sentence for James Wolfe, a former director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee who pleaded guilty in October to a charge he lied to the FBI about his contacts with journalists, his former bosses urged the judge to show mercy.

A letter to the judge from current committee Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina, top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia, and former chairwoman Dianne Feinstein of California urged no prison time for Wolfe, who was director of security for nearly three decades. Prosecutors said Wolfe told a reporter in October 2017 that he had served a subpoena to someone related to the investigation into potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. He later lied to the FBI about the exchange. Wolfe admitted to making false statements about his interactions with at least four reporters. Wolfe was indicted on three counts related to making false statements back in June, and pleaded guilty to the one charge in October. Wolfe was not accused of leaking classified information, but he admitted he did not tell the FBI the truth about the interaction. The senators said in a letter that there is no “public utility in depriving him of his freedom.”

CNBC - December 12, 2018

Trump makes one last try to get the Fed to ease up, but it likely won't work

President Donald Trump has made one last pitch to pressure the Federal Reserve into not raising interest rates next week, but it's expected to have little impact.

Despite a string of events that has seemed to push the central bank into a more dovish posture, a December hike now seems inevitable. The market is pricing in a quarter-point increase and Fed officials have done little to dissuade that position, so Trump's protests again are unlikely to influence Chairman Jerome Powell and the rest of the Federal Open Market Committee. Powell "has a clear path from the marketplace to raise 25 basis points. There's no reason for him not to," said Steve Blitz, chief U.S. economist at TS Lombard. "Given all the noise from Trump, it would probably do his credibility and the Fed's credibility more harm if they skipped December." Still, the president gave it one last shot. For months, Trump has been blasting the Fed for the series of rate hikes it has undertaken since December 2015. The FOMC has raised its benchmark overnight rate six times since Trump has been in office, including three increases after Powell took over as chair in February 2018. This time around, the president took a little softer approach. In an interview with Reuters, Trump called Powell "a good man" who is "trying to do what he thinks is best." That's a contrast to recent statements he has made implying he regrets naming Powell to succeed Janet Yellen, who was the first one-term Fed chair since the late 1970s. But he repeated his assertion that he needs "accommodation" as he engages in a pitched trade battle with China. Most economists also are expecting the economy to cool off a bit next year after a 2018 that saw the highest growth since the Great Recession ended in mid-2009. Powell, though, is likely to shepherd another increase through and provide some clues about the direction of policy in 2019.

Esquire - December 13, 2018

Ted Cruz has a beard and it actually looks good on him

Clean-shaven, Ted Cruz might have the most upsetting face in politics. It was just about two years ago, that feels like two decades ago, that the Senator from Texas was trotting around the country, trying to be likable and the President and failing miserably at both.

As he hit the national stage once again, forcing his daughters to hug and kiss him, assuming the fetal position in Donald Trump's presence, and refusing to acknowledge whatever that was on his top lip, the man showed us how genuinely difficult it was to like him. And then last week, fresh off a victory over an opponent whose attractiveness is undeniable, Secret Service Codename "Cohiba" showed up with a little fuzz on his face. Some were premature in singing its praises. Five days ago, Slate published a story titled I’m So Sorry to Report that Ted Cruz’s New Beard Looks Great, in which the writer proclaimed that "a marginally less insufferable mug" had arrived. While I agree with the writer's assessment that his transition to Chin Strap, But Thicc was a marked improvement, I couldn't help but balk at the idea that it actually Looked Great. And then he showed up on Fox News last night. I have to say, I share the sentiment of CNN's Andrew Kaczynski here—as well as that of Chrissy Teigen. See, the thing about this beard is that it's fucking endearing, man. It's salt, it's pepper, it's still a bit patchy, but good Lord, he's trying. And you can tell he's trying. And it beats the alternative so, so badly that suddenly, on this 12th day of December 2018, you've found yourself rooting for Ted Cruz. Yeah, the guy who so easily and frequently opens pop-up shops for his dignity now occupies a small space in a different part of your brain. I know Beto O'Rourke gave him a run for his money in the midterms, but Cruz's greatest opponent has always been his own face. The pursed lips, the dead eyes, a chin that constantly looks like it was just rid of melted popsicle juice. That's all changed now, because there are whiskers covering half of it.

Politico - December 12, 2018

Pelosi strikes deal with Dem rebels, paving the way for her speakership

Nancy Pelosi struck a deal Wednesday with Democratic rebels intent on denying her the speakership, paving the way for her to reclaim the gavel she lost eight years ago.

The California Democrat has agreed to limit her time as speaker to four years at most. In return, a critical number of lawmakers who vowed to oppose Pelosi will support her in a crucial Jan. 3 House floor vote. The proposal also limits the time her two deputies, Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-MD, and Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn, D-SC, can stay in their posts, although those changes will likely have to be ratified by the full caucus. “Over the summer, I made it clear that I see myself as a bridge to the next generation of leaders, a recognition of my continuing responsibility to mentor and advance new Members into positions of power and responsibility in the House Democratic Caucus,” Pelosi said in a statement announcing the agreement. The accord is a major triumph for Pelosi, who has spent the past several weeks engaged in a full-court lobbying campaign to line up the remaining votes she needed to clinch the speakership. Following her announcement seven of Pelosi‘s critics released a joint statement endorsing her for speaker. “We wish to thank Nancy Pelosi for her willingness to work with us to reach this agreement," the lawmakers wrote. "We are proud that our agreement will make lasting institutional change that will strengthen our caucus and will help develop the next generation of Democratic leaders. We will support and vote for Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House in the 116th Congress.” The seven rebels who agreed to support Pelosi on the floor as part of the deal are Reps. Perlmutter, Sánchez, Foster, Filemon Vela of Texas, Tim Ryan of Ohio and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts will back Pelosi, as will Rep.-elect Gil Cisneros of California.

Wall Street Journal - December 13, 2018

Congress agrees on sexual harassment bill

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have reached an agreement to overhaul congressional policies on sexual harassment, snapping an impasse between the chambers and teeing up the proposal for passage this week.

The legislation would hold members of Congress personally liable for awards and settlements that stem from acts of harassment and related retaliation they personally commit. There would also be a preliminary review of the merits of the claim by a hearing officer. Those elements, some of which already apply to House members, would also apply to members who have left Congress. “We are shifting the balance of power to more clearly protect the victim and create a more level operating place,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D., Calif.), who has been one of the biggest advocates for the reforms on Capitol Hill. The bill leaves out some provisions sought by Republicans and Democrats in the House, including one that would hold members personally liable for discrimination in their offices. House lawmakers plan to take up that issue and others in the next Congress, but lawmakers of both parties cheered the compromise brokered Wednesday. “This will show that, you do something that you shouldn’t do and it’s a career ender,” said Rep. Gregg Harper, a Mississippi Republican who was one of the key architects of the compromise. “And it’s something the taxpayers should never have to shell out money for.” The legislation would also eliminate both the 30-day counseling period and mandatory mediation required by current policy. “I think it’s very historic for us to do two things: Number one to bring ourselves into line to with what the modern practice is, and number two to bring ourselves more in line with what we expect from the private sector,” said Rep. Bradley Byrne (R., Ala.). Because lawmakers are amending an existing law on workplace conduct, they need to pass legislation agreed on by both chambers. The deal notched Wednesday clears the path for the legislation to reach President Trump’s desk before the end of the year. Congress could clear the legislation as soon as Thursday, Mr. Harper said, and Mr. Trump is expected to sign it not long after. The push for an overhaul of congressional procedures for handling sexual-harassment cases took on new urgency last year when it was revealed some lawmakers had used taxpayer funds to pay settlements to their accusers, amid a nationwide movement to curb harassment in businesses, media, Hollywood and politics. Though lawmakers were able to come to a lame-duck agreement over the sexual harassment bill, negotiations over how to keep the government open next weekend remained at an impasse. House GOP leaders were debating Wednesday whether to try to pass a spending bill that includes $5 billion in funding for a physical wall at the Mexico border, in a show of support for Mr. Trump, who has made a wall a central item on his agenda. The measure would almost certainly fail in the Senate, where it would need 60 votes to clear procedural hurdles and Republicans hold only 51 seats.

December 12, 2018

Lead Stories

New York Times - December 11, 2018

Trump threatens shutdown in combative meeting with Democrats

President Trump on Tuesday vowed to block full funding for the government if Democrats refuse his demand for a border wall, saying he was “proud to shut down the government for border security” — an extraordinary statement that came during a televised altercation with Democratic congressional leaders.

“If we don’t have border security, we’ll shut down the government — this country needs border security,” Mr. Trump declared in the Oval Office, engaging in a testy back-and forth with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York and Representative Nancy Pelosi of California. “I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it,” Mr. Trump added, insisting on a public airing of hostilities even as the Democrats repeatedly asked him to keep their negotiating disputes private. “It’s not bad, Nancy; it’s called transparency,” Mr. Trump snapped after one such interjection by Ms. Pelosi, who appeared to trigger the president’s temper when she raised the prospect of a “Trump shutdown” over what she characterized as an ineffective and wasteful wall. “The American people recognize that we must keep the government open, that a shutdown is not worth anything, and that we should not have a Trump shutdown,” Ms. Pelosi said. “A what?” Mr. Trump shot back. The unusual display in the Oval Office raised fresh questions about how and whether Mr. Trump and lawmakers can reach agreement by a Dec. 21 deadline to keep much of the government open, appearing to harden diametrically opposed positions on the president’s signature issue. It also showcased the interplay of two politicians playing to very different bases: Mr. Trump appealing to his core anti-immigration supporters and Ms. Pelosi to the young liberal lawmakers she needs to keep in her camp ahead of next month’s speaker election. Outside the West Wing after the meeting Mr. Schumer said Mr. Trump had thrown a “temper tantrum” over the wall, saying: “The president made clear that he wants a shutdown.” In a statement shortly afterward, Mr. Schumer and Ms. Pelosi said it was up to Mr. Trump to avert the disaster he had promised, by embracing their proposals to essentially postpone the dispute for another year, either by passing the six noncontroversial budget measures that are outstanding and extending Homeland Security funding for one year at current levels, or passing one-year extensions for all seven remaining spending bills. “We gave the president two options that would keep the government open,” they said in a statement. “It’s his choice to accept one of those options or shut the government down.”

Politico - December 11, 2018

Pelosi on verge of deal with rebels to reclaim speakership

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is on the verge of a deal with Democratic rebels once intent on denying her the speakership, an accord that could deliver her the decisive votes needed to reclaim the gavel, according to multiple Democratic sources Tuesday.

The California Democrat and some of her fiercest party critics have tentatively agreed to limit her speakership to four years at most, these sources said. In return, several lawmakers who had vowed publicly to vote against Pelosi on the House floor in a critical Jan. 3 roll call will instead back her ascent to the position she held eight years ago. Although the agreement was still being finalized Tuesday night, it could be unveiled as early as Wednesday morning; the timing is fluid. Both sides were haggling about the rollout of the deal rather than the substance of the terms, these sources said. “It’s pretty much done,” a source with knowledge of the agreement said. “The issue is how do we wrap this up. What are the procedural steps that we need to get this done?” Under the tentative terms of the deal, the top Democratic leaders would be allowed to serve for only three terms. If any leader wanted to exceed that limit by one term, he or she would need a two-thirds majority in the Democratic Caucus. They currently need only a simple majority to do so. After this time frame, the lawmaker would need to run for another position or vacate leadership altogether. Most important, Pelosi’s agreement with rebels, the deal would be retroactive. That means Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Democratic Leader Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) would already be entering their third term in leadership during the next Congress. They would need two-thirds approval from the caucus to serve beyond 2020 — and the longest they could remain in place in their current jobs is four years. Pelosi has agreed to publicly support this deal, which would require a change to caucus rules, the sources said. Pelosi will whip to try to pass it inside the caucus, they continued. And should the caucus reject the agreement, she has promised to abide by it anyway. “Ultimately, their goal is to have a clear declaration for when Nancy Pelosi will exit,” the Democratic source said. The agreement is expected to deliver Pelosi at least five rebel votes, which would almost certainly give Pelosi the support she needs to be speaker. Reps. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) hammered out the final provisions with Pelosi in a 45-minute meeting Tuesday afternoon and will back the agreement. Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who organized a conference call Tuesday morning in which the rebels agreed on an offer the trio would later take to Pelosi, also will back the deal. So too will Rep. Filemon Vela (D-Texas), these sources said. Until now, all five of these members have publicly opposed Pelosi, insisting that she would cost them the majority in 2020. Picking off these members would be a major coup for the leader. Pelosi’s newfound support would enable a host of incoming freshmen who campaigned against her on the trail to vote against her on the floor without sinking her speakership. In fact, that was a driving force behind the agreement, multiple Democratic rebel sources said. According to a Pelosi aide, "There are various conversations going on about a path forward. Progress has been made and the conversations are constructive because all involved care about the institution of the House of Representatives." The deal will likely cause serious tension in Democratic leadership, and, potentially, in the broader caucus. Hoyer, whose future in leadership would be jeopardized under this agreement, has made clear he wants no part of term limits. “She’s not negotiating for me,” the Maryland Democrat told reporters at his own news conference. Hoyer added: “I’m not for term limits. Is anybody confused? I am not for term limits. I … am … not … for … term … limits.”

Houston Chronicle - December 12, 2018

Alvarado wins Senate District 6 special election

State Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, won the Senate District 6 special election Tuesday, finishing with just enough votes to avoid a runoff against fellow state Rep. Ana Hernandez.

With all precincts reporting, Alvarado received 50.4 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns, which showed that less than 5 percent of eligible voters turned out. It was unclear until the final precincts reported whether Alvarado, who hovered around 50 percent the entire night, would reach enough votes to skip the runoff. She attributed her win to a much stronger ground game than in 2013, when she lost the special election for this seat by about 1,000 votes. Still, heading into Election Day, Alvarado said she was unsure if her efforts would be enough to win outright. "I had some expectations, but I wasn't sure," she said, sounding upbeat. "I knew I was doing everything possible, staying in campaign mode (during the summer), constantly being in civic clubs." Ultimately, Alvarado built on areas where she struggled five years ago, easily won the precincts that overlap with her House district, and came within striking distance of Hernandez in the latter Democrat's own district. Unofficial returns showed Hernandez had received 24 percent of the vote, just ahead of Republican Martha Fierro's 23 percent. A precinct chair for the Harris County GOP, Fierro refused to concede Tuesday night. Mia Mundy, an executive search consultant for a Houston firm, finished with 2.1 percent of the vote. Alvarado entered the race with several advantages, notably a large cash on hand edge and the residual name ID from her prior campaign. Her House district also overlaps a greater portion of Senate District 6 than Hernandez's, and she previously represented a Houston City Council district that covered further ground in the Senate district. During the months leading up to the resignation of U.S. Rep.-elect Sylvia Garcia, who previously held the seat, Alvarado said she spent hours block walking, often painstakingly explaining to voters why the election would not be on the November ballot. Garcia, D-Houston, did not resign until Nov. 9, three days after winning the race for Texas' 29th Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Gene Green, also a Houston Democrat, did not seek re-election. "We knew this was coming, even though we never had an election day," she said. "It was never the most pleasant thing" knocking on doors in the Houston summer heat, she said. Hernandez, who conceded around 10 p.m., entered the race along with Alvarado on March 7, the day after Garcia won her congressional primary. She will return to the Texas House, having won re-election in November. Alvarado, meanwhile, will face re-election in November 2020 and hold the seat through January 2021, finishing out Garcia's term.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Cornyn, Turner unlikely allies in support of liquefied natural gas export terminal and pipeline project

Although their political parties are on the opposite ends of the climate change debate and other issues on Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner have found a topic to agree on.

The Republican senator and Democrat mayor have become unlikely and bipartisan allies in their support of a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal and pipeline project that face stiff opposition from environmentalists and community groups in the Rio Grande Valley. The Republican senator and Democrat mayor have become unlikely and bipartisan allies in their support of a proposed liquefied natural gas export terminal and pipeline project that face stiff opposition from environmentalists and community groups in the Rio Grande Valley. Over the past week, Cornyn and Turner have filed open letters to members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to voice their support for NextDecade Corp.'s Rio Grande LNG export terminal at the Port of Brownsville. The proposed project includes a pipeline that will move natural gas from the Agua Dulce hub near Corpus Christi to the deep South Texas waterway. Cornyn primarily cited economic reasons for his support of the project. NextDecade recently moved its headquarters from The Woodlands to downtown Houston, and if the projects are approved, the company will spend up to $20 billion to build them. "FERC's final approval of this project will unleash the additional natural gas export potential of the U.S. and the state of Texas, driving significant economic, energy, trade and environmental benefits for generations to come," Cornyn wrote. Turner cited different reasons. Months before Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, Turner had already joined the Climate Mayors movement. The 300 U.S. mayors have pledged to uphold the terms of the Paris Climate Agreement even though President Donald Trump has vowed to pull the United States out of the international treaty. In his letter, Turner wrote that the Houston-based company will deliver long-term economic and environmental benefits. "Next Decade's Rio Grande LNG project will enable developed and emerging markets around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by replacing carbon-intensive fuels with natural and other forms of cleaner energy," Turner wrote in his letter. "The project will also provide energy producers across the state of Texas an important link to global markets and an opportunity to reduce wasteful flaring of valuable energy resources into the atmosphere." It remains to be seen if Turner's support of the project will result in any backlash. Environmentalists and community groups cite environmental and safety concerns in opposing the project. Working under the banner Save RGV From LNG, organizers with the Sierra Club reported that opponents have filed more than 850 public comments with FERC against Rio Grande LNG and its pipeline.

Austin American-Statesman - December 11, 2018

Dan Patrick endorses John Cornyn after speculation he’d challenge him

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Tuesday endorsed U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in his bid for re-election after speculation that Patrick might challenge Cornyn in the 2020 Republican primary.

“Senator John Cornyn and I have been working together for Texas for many years,” Patrick said in a written statement. “I told him months ago that I would be proud to endorse his re-election in 2020 and today, I am making that endorsement official. John is a principled leader who has been a great U.S. senator for Texas.” Online news site Capitol Inside reported Thursday that Patrick was considering a run for the seat. A representative for Patrick, though, called the report “fake news.” The next day, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, endorsed Cornyn. Patrick added in his statement Tuesday that Cornyn defends Texans against “left-wing forces that are determined to destroy our country and state,” is an ally of President Donald Trump and fights to confirm conservative jurists to the federal bench. He also praised Cornyn for his response to Hurricane Harvey. “He worked tirelessly following Hurricane Harvey and was successful in securing the resources Texas needed to rebuild,” Patrick said. “We need to re-elect John Cornyn to the U.S. Senate in 2020, and I will do all I can to help him secure that victory.” Cornyn is shoring up his candidacy as U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, ponders his next move. O’Rourke lost to Cruz by 2.6 percentage points last month and some Democrats are urging him to run for the Senate again. O’Rourke also is considering running for president.

State Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Byron Cook: Want to keep the Texas economy strong?

Recently Amazon announced its next headquarters will be in New York and Virginia. Since the two finalists from Texas (Dallas and Austin) lost out on this opportunity for approximately 50,000 new jobs and up to $5 billion in investment, it is important to understand why.

One of the reasons why we lost out may be the prominence of manufactured social issues used to promote unnecessary legislation, like the 2017 so-called “bathroom bill.” Although this bad proposal was defeated twice, other needless bills will likely return when lawmakers convene in 2019 — the most likely of which and potentially most harmful to our state being the removal of in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants. Under Republican Gov. Rick Perry’s leadership in 2001, Texas became the first state to pass an in-state resident tuition policy that gives undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools and meet certain requirements the same in-state tuition rates afforded to other Texans. The law makes college more affordable for students who were brought to Texas by no fault of their own and now call Texas home. As evidence of how persistently this law has been under attack, since enacted, over 30 bills have been filed to repeal all or some of its provisions. As of November 28, 2018, one bill has been filed in advance of the 2019 session. And, unfortunately, there will likely be more. Some claim the law allows undocumented students to attend college for free — and that is simply not true. This law is not a drain on our taxpayer dollars, but a judicious investment in our state’s youth. Since the U.S. Constitution requires that all children living in our country (even undocumented immigrants) have the right to public education, why would we not continue to invest in these kids when they attend college after spending years educating them in our public schools? Restricting access to higher education not only hurts the undocumented students who have lived in our state for years, but it also hurts our economy. When serving as chair of the House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness last fall, our committee heard testimony from numerous witnesses who repeatedly cited our state’s lack of an educated workforce as a concern for our future economic success. Notably, we learned that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing in our state and currently has one of the lowest rates of educational attainment. As the vice president and senior economist of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Dr. Pia M. Orrenius, testified, “Texas is on the brink of squandering a demographic dividend by underinvesting in a pool of high school graduates.” By removing the in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, we are reducing the number of students who can afford a college degree, and therefore decreasing our state’s skilled workforce. We need to ensure that everyone who lives in this great state is educated so they can reach their fullest potential and fill the critical gaps in our workforce. Unfortunately, some lawmakers continue to promote pointless legislation that offers no benefit and actually hurts our state. As the next legislative session convenes in January, it is critical that instead of focusing on unnecessary legislation, that our state’s leaders find ways to increase educational attainment so the quality of life for all Texans can be improved and the state will be more attractive to businesses like Amazon in the future.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Beto O’Rourke leads in 2020 presidential straw poll from MoveOn

Beto O’Rourke is leading the pack of contenders for 2020 according to a new straw poll of one of the most influential progressive policy advocacy groups in Democratic politics.

The straw poll of members of MoveOn shows the El Paso Congressman was the choice of almost 16 percent of respondents. Former Vice President Joe Biden was second at just under 15 percent, followed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders at 13 percent and California U.S. Kamala Harris at 10 percent. No other Democratic contender received more than 10 percent of the vote. Nearly 18 percent said the did not know who they support yet. MoveOn, founded in 1998, has been a major player in Democratic politics over the last two decades, raising million of dollars for Democratic candidates. In early 2008, MoveOn’s membership voted to endorse U.S. Sen. Barack Obama early in the primary season, giving the future president a major boost at a key point in the campaign. In 2014, the organization made a major push to get U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run for the White House. When she did not run, the group threw its support behind Sanders. MoveOn stressed on Tuesday that the group is not endorsing any candidates at this point, but the straw poll “helps illuminate what progressive voters are looking for as the 2020 presidential primary gets underway.” O’Rourke initially was adamant that he would not run for president in 2020. But late last month at a town hall meeting in El Paso, O’Rourke changed his tune and refused to rule out running in 2020. He hasn’t said he is running, but has reportedly met with Obama and other top Democratic leaders.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Migrant parents still separated from children at border after government claims gang ties or crime

President Donald Trump’s administration ended its controversial practice of separating families at the southern border six months ago but attorneys say federal agents continue such separations by accusing parents of gang affiliation — sometimes with scant or undisclosed evidence — or using even minor crimes they committed years ago in the United States as justification.

The administration said it is complying with current law and a settlement in the landmark San Diego federal suit that allows the government to remove children from their parents if the adults could pose a danger. U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who is overseeing that case, imposed no standards or guidelines for when such situations warrant separation. Past administrations, including President Barack Obama’s, also split up families if there was a question about the safety of the child or the biological relationship. But attorneys say such determinations are now playing out with greater frequency and with little transparency, and that the government risks mistakes that could permanently sever children from their parents. “The lack of transparency when the U.S. government separates families is troublesome on many levels,” said Laura Peña, a former immigration prosecutor turned advocate with the Texas Civil Rights Project, an Austin nonprofit monitoring the practice. “It becomes David vs. Goliath when the U.S. government has secret ‘information’ or ‘suspicion’ of gang membership, fraud, or other issues that leads to the separation of a parent from a child. We have seen that the strength of Goliath tends to lead to permanent family separation.” Once children are removed from their parents, they are placed in federal shelters and adults can quickly be deported alone. Half a year since the federal lawsuit forced the reunification of more than 2,600 separated children, 96 remain in government custody as advocates struggle to find their deported parents. Since June, Homeland Security statistics show another 81 children have been separated from their parents or legal guardians. In about a third of those cases, the adults were accused of gang ties, a criminal history or an extraditable warrant. The remainder were hospitalized, prosecuted for other crimes, or it is not clear why they were separated. “The welfare of children in our custody is paramount,” said Katie Waldman, a Homeland Security spokeswoman, in a statement. "As we have already said —and the numbers show: separations are rare.” About half of all such separations appear to have occurred in the McAllen area, where the Texas Civil Rights Project flagged 35 cases since June — 20 in which parents had a documented criminal history in the United States, ranging from possession of cocaine to drunken driving, as presented during their federal court hearings. “We are very concerned that the government is using all criminal history to circumvent the injunction in San Diego prohibiting the separation of families,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who filed the lawsuit blocking the practice. “We are looking into the cases that are brought to our attention from around the country.” The reason for separating the remaining 15 parents in McAllen is unclear, but they include at least one Guatemalan father who was suspected of having a false birth certificate for his 2-year-old daughter. The Texas Civil Rights Project sought a DNA test proving their biological relationship, and the father and toddler were later reunified and released.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Lone Star College System to appeal findings that it owes $14 million in federal funds

The Lone Star College System plans to file an appeal to the Department of Education findings that they owe nearly $14 million in incorrectly disbursed federal grants and loans.

During a program review of the college, the Department of Education found that more than 6,000 students received Pell Grants, Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and federal loans over a four-year period, which made up about 2 percent of the almost $663 million awarded from 2012 to 2016. The college announced the findings at the end of November. Jennifer Mott, the college’s chief financial officer, said the internal offices have been reviewing those students’ records since receiving the determination. “We have begun reviewing them and finding documentation that (some students) were in fact eligible…it’s important that we review all records,” Mott said. At the Lone Star College board meeting last week, the board approved a request for assistance in doing so from financial aid consultant services. Mott added that the college is also identifying, by record, the specific cause of confusion: for example, if a student was actually eligible to receive federal funds, why they were marked as ineligible in the Department of Education review. Therefore, Mott said she is planning to submit a request this week for an administrative hearing for a review of the financial liabilities. Also last week, auditing firm Weaver presented their external audit findings of the college’s fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2018. Mott said that the auditor’s role is to review the college’s comprehensive annual financial report and determine its accuracy, as well as the college’s weaknesses. This is the first time the college has worked with Weaver in this capacity. James Fitts presented the findings for the firm. Fitts labeled the most critical weakness identified as “inadequate interdepartmental communication,” which relates to the Department of Education findings. Based on the firm’s review, Fitts said that there was information relating to federal financial aid that didn’t make it to the financial statements last year as a result of insufficient communication. “It’s certainly not the first time we’ve issued a comment like this, especially in an entity this size. This is prone to happen from time to time,” Fitts said. During more specific discussion regarding the Department of Education issue, Fitts added that there were individuals in the financial aid department who could override a student’s academic progress eligibility—but there was no one to review those overrides.

Dallas Morning News - December 11, 2018

In Dallas, Tillerson refuses to respond to Trump's criticism of him as 'dumb' and 'lazy'

After a harsh clap-back from the White House, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has moved on from his public feud with President Donald Trump. The former Exxon Mobil chief executive on Tuesday refused to comment on Trump's contention that he is "dumb as a rock" and "lazy as hell."

"That must have been an observation of my current state of affairs," Tillerson joked at the annual meeting of the Dallas Citizens Council, noting that he has not been working. "I'm trying to be very lazy these days, but my wife tells me I'm failing." Tillerson and another former secretary of state, Jim Baker, were featured at a forum hosted by the Citizens Council. When moderator and former Public Broadcasting System anchor Jim Lehrer gently pushed Tillerson to respond to Trump's accusations, the business leader declined. "I hereby, as a public service, grant you time to respond," Lehrer said. "I have no response to that," Tillerson said as the crowd applauded. When asked if a person should work in Trump's administration, Tillerson was blunt. "You will never regret serving your country, regardless of who you're working for," he said. That was a departure from his stance in a public interview last week in Houston, when Tillerson said the president was acting on instincts and sometimes wanted to do things that would have violated laws. He acts on his instincts, and in some respects that looks like impulsiveness," Tillerson told the moderator, CBS News' Bob Schieffer, according to The Washington Post. "But it's not his intent to act on impulse. I think he's trying to act on his instincts."

Dallas Morning News - December 12, 2018

Dallas mayor: Confederate monuments bill 'another example' of state interference in city affairs

A North Texas lawmaker wants cities to find another way to foot the bill for removing their Confederate monuments. Pat Fallon, a Prosper Republican who will be sworn into the Texas Senate in January, filed Senate Bill 226 on Friday.

The legislation would prohibit the use of taxpayer money to remove, relocate or alter any statue, portrait, plaque, seal or symbol or to rename any building, bridge, park, area or street "that honors an event or person of historical significance." While the bill would apply to nearly any historical marker, Fallon said he was spurred to file it after the city of Dallas removed a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Oak Lawn last year. The city also renamed Lee Park with its pre-1936 moniker: Oak Lawn Park. The changes, which were approved by the City Council, were estimated to cost at least $450,000. "It was an absolutely egregious waste of money," Fallon told The Dallas Morning News Tuesday. A Massachusetts native who grew up seeing monuments to the Union side of the Civil War, Fallon insisted he's not supporting the concepts espoused by the Confederacy by filing this bill and said he'd be in favor of adding context to memorials whose messages are "inconsistent with our values." "That's the ugliest portion of American history. I don't want to wash it away," Fallon said. "Our young people are woefully, unfortunately, in many instances, unaware of our history and where we came from." But the Rev. Michael Waters, a leading advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments, said bills like this allow mistruths about the Civil War to be propagated in the public mind. "There are so many who are unfortunately attempting to rewrite history," Waters, who founded the Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Dallas, said Tuesday. "Instead of having the courage to bring down these monuments to white supremacy, lawmakers — some lawmakers — are willing to protect white supremacy at all costs." City leaders and municipal organizations are already opposing the legislation, which they say would infringe on local control. Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings called it "another example of state leaders interfering in local decision-making." "Municipal leaders are best positioned to address these types of matters with the appropriate sensitivity and considerations," Rawlings told The News. "There cannot be one-size-fits-all solutions on complex local challenges." Bennett Sandlin, who advocates for city and county leaders as the head of the Texas Municipal League, agreed: "Top-down control from the state is seldom the best way to go. Citizens elect their mayors and councils to enact policies they support." Dallas still has statues of Confederate leaders standing in Pioneer Park Cemetery outside of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Advocates have pushed for the removal of those statues and the renaming of streets and schools named for Confederate leaders, the latter of which have already seen several changes. Fallon's bill, in its current form, would also require voters to approve changes to historical monuments and school names that have been in place for 20 years or more. But he's planning to remove that portion of the legislation, Fallon said, and instead add in a provision that will ensure war memorials on state property — including the Capitol grounds — remain there in perpetuity. "If the monument is on public property that is not state-owned, tax dollars cannot be used to remove it," Fallon explained. "If it's on state property, then we're going to protect it."

Dallas Morning News - December 11, 2018

Baylor frat president accused of rape shouldn't be student at UT Dallas, hundreds say in petition

An online petition is calling for the former Baylor University fraternity president accused of raping another student to be removed from UT Dallas, where he is completing his degree.

Jacob Walter Anderson, 23, was initially charged with four counts of sexual assault in connection with the alleged 2016 incident at a frat party. The woman who accused Anderson told police she became disoriented after drinking a beverage and that Anderson led her behind a tent and raped her. The Garland man was allowed to plead no contest to a charge of unlawful restraint Monday. State District Judge Ralph Strother approved a plea deal for Anderson from the outgoing district attorney that allows him to receive deferred probation. Anderson withdrew from Baylor about two weeks after the allegations surfaced. Kelsey Casto, a student at UTD, created the MoveOn.org petition Tuesday morning. She told the Waco Tribune-Herald that if Anderson "wasn't good enough for Baylor, why should he be trusted to be good enough for [UT Dallas] either?" The petition, which had more than 2,600 signatures Tuesday night, says the university should help protect students "from predators like Anderson" at its Richardson campus. "He submitted a plea of no contest and was sentenced to deferred probation, and will not be made to register as a sex offender," the petition states. "That being the case, the school is has a responsibility to remove him from this new potential hunting ground." The university's communications department said Tuesday that it is aware of the petition and is reviewing available information. Anderson, who works for a Dallas real estate development company, is slated to graduate next week with a finance degree, the Tribune-Herald reported. He is listed in the online directory as a senior, majoring in finance, in UTD's Naveen Jindal School of Management.

San Antonio Express-News - December 12, 2018

Missing ring from American WWII POW in Germany to be returned to Kerrville man

Wayne Gotke already owns several pieces of memorabilia from the time his father, also named Wayne, spent in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II.

But on Friday, the San Antonio native, who now lives in Kerrville, will receive perhaps the most valuable piece of memorabilia: His father’s inscribed gold wedding ring, recently rediscovered more than 75 years after it was lost in Stalag Luft III, the German POW camp later made famous by the movie “The Great Escape.” Gotke will receive the ring during a presentation scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Friday at the Kerr County War Memorial on the grounds of the county courthouse in Kerrville. “My parents divorced when I was a baby, and I never had an adult conversation with my father,” said Gotke, 72 and a retired federal law enforcement agent. “But I’m truly excited to receive my father’s ring.” The story of the ring’s return is one of post-war reconciliation and efforts to pay respects due to former POWs. It began in September, during a routine excavation by a team from the POW Camps Museum of what was one of the many prisoner huts at the camp which, during the war, was located near the German of Sagan. “We do two kinds of work here,” said Marek Lazarz, director of the museum. The museum is located in an area that, at the end of the war, was given to Poland as part of war reparations and is now near the renamed town of ?aga?. “We do archaeological searching, but we also clear away the brush that grows over some of the abandoned areas that used to be foundations of the prison barracks.” On this day, one of the volunteers was excavating a dirt-filled sink and drain in what had been the bathroom of barracks No. 139. As he knocked the accumulated dirt out of the drain, a metal ring fell out. “We were not very excited at first, because we find stuff all the time,” Lazarz said. “Pieces of metal, pilots wings, even rings.” But upon closer inspection, they realized that the inside of the ring was inscribed with the words “Ann to Wayne 1942” and “MIZPAH” in all caps. That’s the Hebrew word for “watchtower” but which has also come to mean an emotional bond between two people who are separated but hope to reunite. “That’s when we became excited,” he added.

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

As Trump threatens shutdown, Sen. Ted Cruz pitches $25B border wall funding bill

While President Donald Trump and top Hill Democrats hurtle toward a potential holiday shutdown over his long-promised border wall, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz is backing a longshot plan to cover the $25 billion cost by tightening rules so as to deny food stamps, tax credits and other federal benefits to people living in the country illegally.

The proposal, a fixture of conservative immigration policy, comes amid a standoff over Trump’s bid to win more wall funding from Congress before a Dec. 21 deadline for averting a government shutdown. Cruz and his allies say that further restricting welfare and tax benefits - most are already barred for undocumented immigrants — would solve the White House funding dilemma. Democrats argue it would shift the costs of an unneeded wall onto children, many of them living legally or born in America. The proposal has faint hopes of resolving the wall standoff in a sharply divided Congress, but it stands as a symbolic marker of how deep the split remains on the intractable problems of immigration and border security. Trump clashed Tuesday with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker-designate Nancy Pelosi in an unusual on-camera encounter at the White House. The two sides remained far apart, with Trump telling the Democratic leaders he would be “proud to shut down the government over border security." So far, the Democrats’ offer has been the $1.6 billion bipartisan agreement reached earlier this year, far short of the $5 billion Trump wants for wall construction and border security in 2019. They also have offered to continue the current $1.3 billion in wall funding for the next year. “We gave the President two options that would keep the government open,” Schumer and Pelosi said in a statement. “It’s his choice to accept one of those options or shut the government down.” With no agreement in sight, Trump also suggested in a series of tweets Tuesday that he might be willing to declare victory with the current collage of “newly built Walls, makeshift Walls & Fences, or Border Patrol Officers & Military.” Republicans, who are losing their House majority at the end of this year, have sought to include more wall funding in a last-ditch spending package, though they have not identified a funding source. Although most of the government is funded into 2019, there are half-dozen departments and agencies hanging in the balance, including NASA and the Department of Homeland Security, which covers money for the border wall. Cruz, in a conference call with supporters Monday night, expressed deep reservations about the GOP’s end-game, saying they missed a chance to secure wall money with a filibuster-proof budget measure that could pass without any Democratic votes.

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

National Butterfly Center starts GoFundMe to protect sanctuary from President Trump’s border wall

Bracing for construction of a border wall through delicate habitat for butterflies, birds and other wildlife, the National Butterfly Center is calling for donations to help it fight the project and, if that fails, to repair the environmental damage.

The center, part of the nonprofit North American Butterfly Association, has set up a GoFundMe. “For us to financially survive and weather this storm, we’re trying to create a fund that will be kind of like an endowment,” said Jeffrey Glassberg, president of the New Jersey-based NABA. Construction of the wall is expected to begin in February through the 100-acre habitat near the Rio Grande River in Mission, just west of McAllen. U.S. Customs and Border Protection described the project’s path and proposed design in a July letter to an environmental nonprofit. The San Antonio Express-News obtained a copy. Officials of the butterfly center interpret the letter to mean the wall will be as high as 36 feet, with gates at least 18 feet high and 20 feet wide to accommodate vehicles. The letter and accompanying maps also outlined a 150-foot-wide “enforcement zone” south of the wall, where “all vegetation… will be cleared.” The letter indicated that LED lighting and a camera surveillance system would be installed on the wall, with a patrol road running parallel to it. The proposed route would put 70 percent of the butterfly habitat on the side of the wall facing Mexico. The center said the government has not indicated whether that land would be accessible once the project is completed, or what kind of damage the habitat might suffer during construction. “The truth is, nobody knows exactly what’s going to happen and exactly what effect it’s going to have,” Glassberg said. The center said that in the worst case, destruction of much of the habitat would pose a significant threat to the sanctuary’s survival. In a less dire scenario, the center could face a steep decline in visitors if construction of the wall is noisy and disruptive. “It could be a situation where nobody wants to come because all you hear is jackhammers every day,” Glassberg said. The center relies on membership dues and admission fees to operate. Glassberg said the center would use money from the GoFundMe campaign, which was launched Monday, to pay legal fees, offset lost revenue or remediate environmental damage, among other possible uses. He said that at some future point, the center conceivably could tap the money to dismantle the segment of wall within the sanctuary.

Austin American-Statesman - December 11, 2018

Dell shareholders vote to take tech giant public again

Dell Technologies shareholders on Tuesday voted to take the Round Rock-based tech giant public after five years as a private company. Based on a preliminary vote tally, shareholders approved the reverse merger — valued at more than $23.7 billion — which industry analysts expected would pass.

The vote means that Dell will once again be a public company through common shares, and it will simplify the stock structure of the company and its cloud computing subsidiary VMware. Shareholders of more than 61 percent of Dell Technologies’ Class V common stock, excluding affiliates of Dell, voted in favor of the complex plan, according to a news release from the company. The deal won’t be done through a traditional initial public offering — the usual option, which hands over substantial control to the open market — but through an unusual avenue created by Dell’s 2016 purchase of data storage giant EMC Corp. “We appreciate our stockholders’ support. With this vote, we are simplifying Dell Technologies’ capital structure and aligning the interests of our investors,” chairman and CEO Michael Dell said in a written statement. “This strengthens our strategic position, as we continue to deliver innovation, long-term vision and integrated solutions from the edge to the core to the cloud. We’ve created Dell Technologies to be our customers’ most trusted partner in their digital transformation.” The company expects Dec. 28 to be the projected closing date of the deal and first day of trading for the Class C common stock under the ticker symbol “Dell.” Dell Technologies is the largest private employer in the Austin metro area, with about 13,000 workers in Central Texas. The company first announced in July that it would buy out shareholders of a tracking stock formed through the EMC acquisition to create a new class of publicly traded common shares. The tracking stock, which trades under the tracker DVMT, has mirrored Dell’s 81 percent ownership in VMware, the cloud computing subsidiary it has controlled since taking over EMC. READ MORE: Dell readies for shareholder vote; here’s what it means for Austin Tuesday’s vote means that Dell will once again become the area’s largest publicly traded company — a title Michael Dell backed away from when he took the company private in 2013. In a 2013 interview with the American-Statesman, Dell said: “It’s easier, more fun and great to be a private company.” “We’re kind of at the start of a great new journey and we have our destiny in our control. We have incredible people. We have great assets. We have a strong brand and we have tremendous opportunity and we couldn’t be more thrilled,” Dell told the Statesman at the time. Away from Wall Street’s watchful eye, Dell worked on its transition from PC-maker into a wide-ranging, full-service technology company. It made huge bets on data storage, cloud computing and software, and completed its $67 billion acquisition of EMC in 2016. The acquisition is the biggest information technology merger in history. Dell also gained majority ownership of VMware through its purchase of EMC. So far, Michael Dell’s bet on taking the company private seems to be paying off. In the company’s latest earnings report — which Dell continued to report because of its tie to publicly traded VMware — Dell reported a 15 percent growth in revenue for its fiscal third quarter, increasing from $19.56 billion a year ago to $22.5 billion. VMware also beat both profit and revenue estimates. Dell, who owns 72 percent of the company’s common shares, will remain as chairman and CEO under the new plan approved by voters Tuesday. Investment firm Silver Lake Partners will keep its 24 percent minority stake. Now, the company will face additional reporting and regulatory rules, but industry analyst Rob Enderle expects the impact to be mostly positive. “We’ll probably be discovering with them what will and will not be allowed,” Enderle said of the plan that does not include a traditional IPO. “The reason they’re doing it this way is so that they can have their cake and eat it too.”

Texas Observer - December 11, 2018

Four Texas abortion court cases to watch in 2019

The Texas Legislature’s zeal for passing anti-abortion legislation has created an endless cycle of court challenges that’s frustrated lawmakers and judges alike. “Why don’t we just stop passing unconstitutional laws?” pleaded Democratic Representative Chris Turner, in the midst of a debate over a sweeping anti-abortion bill last May. But the measure passed and immediately prompted a lawsuit, landing in front of a fed-up federal judge just three months later.

“There is a constant, never-ending stream of these cases,” District Court Judge Lee Yeakel, a George W. Bush appointee, said of the challenge that August. His Austin courtroom is merely a “whistlestop” on the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he added. Before Trump swung the Supreme Court to the right, reproductive rights advocates were plotting how to leverage the Court’s favorable HB 2 ruling in 2016 into more legal victories. Their plan: a sweeping lawsuit, filed this spring by abortion provider Whole Woman’s Health, along with a group of Texas abortion funds, challenging dozens of Texas anti-abortion laws from the last two decades. Their argument is that a slew of abortion regulations — including the state’s required waiting period, ultrasound and parental consent, as well as restrictions on medication abortion — are unconstitutional under the “undue burden” standard for abortion access that was affirmed in the 2016 SCOTUS ruling. But the lawsuit presses on. Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law banning what anti-abortion lawmakers call “dismemberment abortions” — a nonmedical term for the dilation and evacuation (D&E) procedure, the most common form of second-trimester abortion. The bill was the top legislative priority in 2017 for the far-right group Texas Right to Life, which says the policy “sheds light on the humanity of the preborn child” and could offer a “historic opportunity” to overturn Roe. Reproductive rights advocates say the law amounts to an illegal abortion ban, and that the state’s proposed alternatives to D&E put pregnant women at risk of unsafe practices. Last summer, a federal judge agreed that the law was an undue burden on abortion access, writing that it would cause women to “suffer irreparable harm by being unable to access the most commonly used and safest” type of abortion in the second trimester. The state of Texas filed an appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments on the case in early November but has yet to issue a ruling. Just days after the Supreme Court struck Texas’ anti-abortion regulations in HB 2 in 2016, the state health commission quietly entered a new rule requiring the burial or cremation of all fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages at facilities across the state. Whole Woman’s Health quickly challenged the measure, and it was ultimately blocked by a federal judge. But as litigation continued, the Legislature met the following year and passed a similar measure. That version, too, was blocked in court. A judge once again sided with the plaintiffs, writing that the law would “likely cause a near catastrophic failure of the healthcare system designed to serve women of childbearing age within the State of Texas.” The state appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit; a hearing has not yet been set. Texas has been fighting for a few years now to kick Planned Parenthood out of its Medicaid program entirely. The state argued in 2015 that the organization was not fit to serve in the program, accusing Planned Parenthood of trying to sell fetal tissue. The state’s proof: heavily edited and widely discredited undercover videos, which Attorney General Ken Paxton has referred to as “raw, unedited footage.” Calling the state’s arguments “the building blocks of a best-selling novel,” a federal judge halted the move last February, agreeing with Planned Parenthood advocates that kicking the provider out of Medicaid would limit access to care for thousands of low-income patients. The Fifth Circuit heard arguments on the state’s appeal this summer, but has not yet issued a ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court in December declined to take similar cases out of Louisiana and Kansas, leaving lower court rulings in place that blocked the Medicaid ban.

Star-Telegram - December 12, 2018

Amazon picks Alliance for regional air hub, bringing hundreds of jobs to DFW

Amazon may not be bringing HQ2 to North Texas but it is bringing its fleet of planes. Amazon announced plans Tuesday to open a regional air hub at Alliance Airport and bring hundreds of jobs to the region.

The announcement said the regional hub “will include a brand new facility that will be built to suit Amazon Air’s needs.” Construction is already underway, “which will create hundreds of new jobs,” Amazon said in a news release. This is the first airport project of its kind for Amazon Air. “Unlike other gateways and facilities within Amazon Air’s network, the Regional Air Hub will be tailored specifically to Amazon Air’s larger scale regional needs,” Amazon said. “The Regional Air Hub will be constructed with the future in mind to include sortation capability and infrastructure to handle multiple flights daily.” The new hub should be up and running next year with daily flights planned. “We are excited to build a brand new facility from the ground up at the Fort Worth Alliance Airport,” said Sarah Rhoads, director of Amazon Air. “The new facility is the first of its kind for us and we’re thrilled to ensure we have the capacity to continue to delight our customers.” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said the announcement is another victory for Fort Worth. “The expansion of Amazon services at Alliance Airport is a huge win for Fort Worth,” Price said. “The recent improvements and runway extension made at Alliance Airport are already proving beneficial. Fort Worth continues to establish itself as a transportation and logistics hub.” Congresswoman Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, also praised Amazon’s commitment to Fort Worth. “I am excited to welcome Amazon Air and the hundreds of jobs this regional hub will create in the Fort Worth area,” Granger said in a statement. “Alliance continues to draw the very best. It more than meets expectations year after year.” Haslet Mayor Bob Golden also welcomed the news saying, “Haslet is very happy and excited to welcome another Amazon facility to our city. Amazon has been an awesome partner and we look forward to expanding that relationship in the future.” Though Amazon’s buildings will be in Haslet, the increased traffic at the airport solidifies Fort Worth as a logistics hub, councilman Dennis Shingleton said. Having the Dallas-Fort Worth region on a short list for HQ2 was a win, he said, and Amazon’s continued interest in the area may spur smaller businesses to relocate. “There’s plenty of company’s out there who may have said ‘We never thought about Fort Worth, but they’re on Amazon’s list,’” he said. Fort Worth Chamber senior vice president Chris Strayer said Amazon’s move to Alliance was a benefit from increased regional partnerships with communities it Tarrant County. “I’m sure we will continue to work with Amazon in the future to identify any other new opportunities in our area,” he said in a statement.

City Stories

Austin American-Statesman - December 11, 2018

Austin ISD proposes closing 12 schools, among $55M in cuts

Austin school district officials are proposing closing 12 schools, among other cost savings that total $55.1 million, as the district faces a deficit for the third year in a row.

The proposal, obtained Tuesday by the American-Statesman, lists 91 ideas to cut costs and increase revenue. It doesn’t suggest campuses for closure but shows two schools could be closed as early as next school year, with seven more shuttered in 2020-21 and three more in 2021-22. The document, which administrators said they are still working on and will change, proposes layoffs at smaller schools, charging a fee for magnet programs on a sliding scale, reducing special education and eliminating partial pay during employee extended leave. Other options include eliminating cellphone stipends for the 427 employees who receive them and increasing student-teacher ratios for middle and high schools to 30 to 1, which had been discussed. District staff members distributed the proposal to board members Monday night but did not publicly release it. Reyne Telles, executive director of district communications and community engagement, told the Statesman that the “options are by no means final.” “Through this process, difficult discussions will be had, but are we are committed to communicate openly and engage our community every step of the way as we move toward proposing a budget for board approval in June,” Telles said. Trustee Ann Teich said students currently being taught in old buildings that are not meeting their needs “deserve a lot better.” “It’s critical that we prepare our communities thoroughly to understand why it’s important to do some of these consolidations,” she said. “There’s an academic advantage. There’s a monetary advantage. There’s also a facility advantage.” The proposed reductions to the operating expenses come as the district drafts its 2019-20 budget, which will be adopted in June. The district has approved spending plans with deficits for two years, including a $29 million budget shortfall this year. Budget projections show the district would deplete its reserves within three years if no changes are made. Contributing to the district’s budget woes is its shrinking enrollment, which fell by another 1,600 students this year, which means losing millions of dollars in state funding. There are now 80,064 students in the district. The district also is taking a hit from required payments to the state under school finance laws, which mandate property-wealthy districts share property tax revenue to help subsidize education in districts deemed property-poor. Austin’s recapture payment this year is $669.6 million, up nearly 23 percent, or $123 million, over last year. The recapture payment is projected to grow and will eclipse the amount of money the district gets to keep for its own operating expenses in two years. This year’s operating budget is $775.2 million.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Officers shot while serving warrant in Mount Houston area, suspect found dead

A man wanted for battering his girlfriend took his own life Tuesday afternoon after wounding a Harris County Sheriff’s Office sergeant and two agents with the Texas Attorney General's Office during a gun battle at a Houston home, according to authorities.

The three officers are in stable condition after being shot around 12:50 p.m. by suspected gunman Daniel Trevino, who was the target of their arrest warrant being served at a home in the 5000 block of Hartwick Road. The shooting prompted a five-hour-long standoff with Trevino, who was barricaded inside the home. Authorities were in contact with Trevino during the standoff and Harris County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Edison Toquica said he offered to come out. He never did. The standoff ended at 6:15 p.m. when police found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound inside the house, Toquica announced at a news conference. Trevino had been wanted for more than a week since he allegedly violated a protective order from his girlfriend, officials said. During a Dec. 2 encounter, he accused the woman of infidelity and head-butted her. She told police later that day he came to her home, but she did not want to press charges because she feared for her life, according to documents. Trevino was charged with aggravated assault on Sept. 20 about a week after he allegedly confronted his girlfriend with a revolver. He threatened to kill her and her two children because he believed she had cheated on him, according to court documents. She told police Trevino forced her family to stay inside the apartment until her kids could muster $360 in rent he demanded back. He then hit her legs repeatedly with the handgun, police said. He was arrested on Oct. 25 and released after posting a $40,000 bond on Oct. 31, records show. The protective order against Trevino was issued on Oct. 26. As last week's warrant for violating the protective order was issued, prosecutors requested that Trevino not be allowed a bond. Police tracked Trevino to the north Harris County home where he is believed to have shot the three officers. The officers managed to return fire, police said.

National Stories

New York Times - December 11, 2018

Marriott data breach is linked to hackers as U.S. readies crack down on Beijing

The cyberattack on the Marriott hotel chain that collected passport information or other personal details of roughly 500 million guests was part of a Chinese intelligence-gathering effort that hacked health insurers, other hotels and the security clearance files of millions more Americans, according to two people briefed on the preliminary results of the investigation.

The hackers are suspected of working on behalf of the Ministry of State Security. The discovery comes as the Trump administration plans a series of actions targeting China’s trade, cyber and economic policies. The Justice Department is preparing to announce new indictments against Chinese hackers working for the intelligence and military services, according to four government officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Trump administration also plans to declassify intelligence to reveal concerted efforts by Chinese agents, dating to 2014 or earlier, to build a database containing names of executives and American government officials with security clearances. And the administration is considering an executive order intended to make it harder for Chinese companies to obtain critical telecommunications equipment, a senior American official with knowledge of the plans said. The coordinated moves could be announced within days. They stem from a growing concern within the administration that the 90-day trade truce negotiated between President Trump and President Xi Jinping in Buenos Aires two weeks ago may do little to change China’s behavior — including coercing American companies to hand over valuable technology if they seek to enter the Chinese market, as well as the theft of industrial secrets on behalf of state-owned companies. The hack of Marriott’s Starwood chain, which was only discovered in September and revealed late last month, is not expected to be part of the coming indictments. But two of the government officials said it has added urgency to the administration’s crackdown, given that Marriott is the top hotel provider for United States government and military personnel. It also is a prime example of what has vexed the Trump administration as China reverted over the past 18 months to the kind of cyber intrusions into American companies and government agencies that former President Barack Obama thought he had ended with a 2015 agreement with Mr. Xi. Geng Shuang, a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied any knowledge of the Marriott hack. “China firmly opposes all forms of cyberattack and cracks down on it in accordance with the law,” he said. “If offered evidence, the relevant Chinese departments will carry out investigations according to the law.” “China is one of the major victims of threats to cyber security including cyberhacking,” he said. A Marriott spokeswoman, Connie Kim, said the company was focused on ”how we can best help our guests” and said the firm “had no information about the cause of this incident and we have not speculated about the identity of the attacker.”

New York Times - December 11, 2018

Trump’s judicial nominees take heat but largely keep marching through Senate

The Senate narrowly confirmed Jonathan Kobes as a federal appeals court judge on Tuesday even as the American Bar Association questioned his understanding of “complex legal analysis” and “knowledge of the law.”

Mr. Kobes, a 44-year-old aide to Senator Mike Rounds, Republican of South Dakota, is the second of President Trump’s judicial nominees to be confirmed after the bar association deemed them unqualified. A number of other Trump nominees have raised concerns, including five who also received the unqualified rating. Others were rated as qualified but carried with them politically or racially insensitive remarks from their past that resurfaced during their confirmations. One wrote in an online forum that the nation’s commitment to diversity was tantamount to the accepting “lower standards.” To the chagrin of even some Republicans, their confirmation hearings have thrust politically sensitive topics into the spotlight at a time when the party is wrestling with issues of race and governing competence. Despite the controversies, they have all won the backing of most Republican senators, revealing how far they are willing to push the boundaries on their drive to reshape the judiciary as a conservative bastion. The judicial renaissance, led by Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, has energized a party wowed by the number of judges placed on the federal bench — two have risen to the Supreme Court and 30 will have made it to appeals courts by the end of the year. Mr. McConnell has come to define his legacy by his ability to transform the judiciary, calling the confirmations “the most significant, long-term contribution we are making to the country” in an interview with a Kentucky radio station last week. The nominees are deeply conservative and often white, young and male. Mr. Kobes has worked for Mr. Rounds since 2014. He worked as an assistant United States attorney in South Dakota for two years, then as counsel for two agriculture companies. He has tried six cases in his life, for assault and intent to distribute drugs, for instance, which the bar association considered straightforward and not legally complex. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, blistered the Kobes nomination. “He’s never been a judge, has tried only SIX cases, and has argued only ONE appeal — 15 years ago,” she wrote on Twitter. “Kobes has filed briefs in only two appeals, yet he’s been nominated to serve on an appellate court where he would write dozens of opinions a year. Circuit courts are where most Americans receive final justice. They deserve to have qualified, experienced judges presiding.” In other cases, the nominees have carried vaunted résumés and commendations from their home-state senators, and in the spirit of bipartisanship, several of the district court nominees were first selected by President Barack Obama. For the most part, those nominees have passed through the Senate (though often along party-line votes) with the ministerial ease once expected for judicial confirmations. But others have created major headaches for Republicans, spurring outcries from their own — most notably the typically media-averse Tim Scott of South Carolina, the Senate’s lone black Republican. “We should stop bringing candidates with questionable track records on race before the full Senate for a vote,” Mr. Scott wrote in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal last week. So far, three nominees, Thomas Farr, Ryan W. Bounds and Brett Talley, have been derailed over concerns about their roles in racially divisive writings or actions. Mr. Farr defended a North Carolina voter identification law and a partisan gerrymander that a federal court said was drafted to suppress black votes “with surgical precision.” In college, Mr. Bounds railed against “race-focused groups” on campus and “race-think.” Mr. Talley, who dabbled in ghost hunting, was forced to withdraw his nomination after a 2011 message-board post surfaced in which he defended an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan.

Washington Post - December 10, 2018

Agents of doubt: How a powerful Russian propaganda machine chips away at Western notions of truth

The initial plan was a Cold War classic — brutal yet simple. Two Russian agents would slip onto the property of a turncoat spy in Britain and daub his front door with a rare military-grade poison designed to produce an agonizing and untraceable death.

But when the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal was botched, the mission quickly shifted. Within hours, according to British and U.S. officials who closely followed the events, a very different kind of intelligence operation was underway, this one involving scores of operatives and accomplices and a scheme straight out of the Kremlin’s 21st-century communications playbook — the construction of an elaborate fog machine to make the initial crime disappear. Dozens of false narratives and conspiracy theories began popping up almost immediately, the first of 46 bogus story lines put out by Russian-controlled media and Twitter accounts and even by senior Russian officials, according to a tabulation by The Washington Post — all of them sowing doubt about Russia’s involvement in the March 4 assassination attempt. Ranging from the plausible to the fantastical, the stories blamed a toxic spill, Ukrainian activists, the CIA, British Prime Minister Theresa May and even Skripal himself. The brazenness of the attempt to kill a Russian defector turned British citizen at his home in southwest England outraged Western governments and led to the expulsion of some 150 Russian diplomats by more than two dozen countries, including the United States. Yet, more than eight months later, analysts see a potential for greater harm in the kind of heavily coordinated propaganda barrage Russia launched after the assassination attempt failed. Intelligence agencies have tracked at least a half-dozen such distortion campaigns since 2014, each aimed, officials say, at undermining Western and international investigative bodies and making it harder for ordinary citizens to separate fact from falsehood. They say such disinformation operations are now an integral part of Russia’s arsenal — both foreign policy tool and asymmetrical weapon, one that Western institutions and technology companies are struggling to counter. “Dismissing it as fake news misses the point,” said a Western security official who requested anonymity in discussing ongoing investigations into the Russian campaign. “It’s about undermining key pillars of democracy and the rule of law.” Variations on the technique existed during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union used propaganda to create alternative realities. In the early years of President Vladi­mir Putin’s rule, Russian officials and state-owned broadcasters promoted false narratives to explain the death of Alexander Litvinenko, the former Russian security official who died in 2006 after being exposed to a radioactive toxin in London. But the disinformation campaigns now emanating from Russia are of a different breed, said intelligence officials and analysts. Engineered for the social media age, they fling up swarms of falsehoods, concocted theories and red herrings, intended not so much to persuade people but to bewilder them. “The mission seems to be to confuse, to muddy the waters,” said Peter Pomerantsev, a former Russian-television producer and author of “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” a memoir that describes the Kremlin’s efforts to manipulate the news. The ultimate aim, he said, is to foster an environment in which “people begin giving up on the facts.”

Washington Post - December 12, 2018

Is there a double standard for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

Ever since Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her Democratic primary, which basically ensured that she would win her general election, she has been a magnet for criticism from both sides of the aisle. Experts on the issue say it reinforces research showing how ambitious young women are treated differently than men.

Ocasio-Cortez, 29, called out what she sees as a trend in how her critics treat her as opposed to how they treated outgoing House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-WI, a white male who was elected at 28 and went on to be the Republican Party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. She tweeted: Critics have taken aim at her appearance and fashion choices, her knowledge about basic government facts and her talk of the challenges finding housing in Washington. Last week, the soon-to-be lawmaker got into a Twitter spat with the president’s eldest son after he tweeted a meme claiming that socialists eat dogs. “He is in his fifth decade of public service, and this country owes him a debt of gratitude, not the nonsense that’s been spewed about him, even recently from the left and from this 29-year-old congresswoman who doesn’t seem to know much about anything when you ask her basic concepts about the economy, the Middle East, military funding — really embarrassing,” Conway said. Jean Sinzdak, associate director at Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics, said she believes Ocasio-Cortez’s assessment of the double standard is correct. “In our decades of experience at the center, this has been a constant refrain from women officeholders and candidates we’ve talked to,” Sinzdak said. “For women in politics, it is an almost universal experience that they are held to a higher standard and need to work harder to be taken seriously. Many women of color also talk about the double burden they face, as women and as people of color, in combating the perceptions that they are not qualified enough. We have heard so many stories from women officeholders about being dismissed or ignored because of their gender and/or race — as I said, almost a universal experience.” Karine Jean-Pierre, a democratic strategist who worked in the Obama White House, told The Fix that Congress is seeing a host of young women who are not interested in continuing business as usual. “Men and women are held to different standards in Washington and around the country, but the men in this Congress better figure out times are changing, and quick,” Jean-Pierre said. “Because this new class of freshmen women are not going to take a back seat to anyone — and they shouldn’t. Ocasio-Cortez and many of the incoming freshmen are not playing the usual Washington game — and she shouldn’t. But that is scaring a lot of people.” While the lawmaker-elect is pushing back on what she considers to be mistreatment, the greater consequence is that it could be deterring other young women from entering politics. A report by the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics shows that young elected leaders are overwhelmingly likely to be male, creating an imbalance of men and women in office overall, and that young women are less likely to run for elected office than young men. There are at least two possible outcomes here. Despite all of the attention paid to the historic number of women sent to Congress this year, interest in continuing the trend could be stalled if constant criticism of young women lawmakers — especially those of color — is so severe that it makes it unnecessarily difficult for them to do what they came to Washington to do. Or the negative pushback could motivate and mobilize young women on Capitol Hill in ways that Americans have not previously seen, to tackle sexism and ageism not just in the halls of Congress — but nationwide.

CNBC - December 11, 2018

Defying Trump, Saudi Arabia chooses 'Saudi first' oil policy at OPEC meeting

President Donald Trump has told foreign leaders that "America First" means he will always put the needs of America ahead of the needs of other nations — and that they should do the same for their own country. Saudi Arabia's leadership appears to be on board with that message.

Last week, Saudi Arabia disregarded Trump's public pressure campaign to keep pumping at full throttle and cut fuel costs. The kingdom instead persuaded two dozen oil producers to cut output and announced a steep drop in Saudi production over the next two months. "Saudi Arabia today had a 'Saudi first' policy," Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets, said on Friday. Hours earlier, OPEC, Russia and several other producers agreed to take 1.2 million barrels per day off the market beginning in January. The decision marks a reversal in Saudi energy policy. Over the last six months, the Saudis ramped up production by more than 1 million bpd — a move cheered by Trump. Now, the kingdom will endeavor to cut about 900,000 bpd in just two months. On the surface, the decision looks like a stinging and risky insult to a critical ally. It comes as U.S. lawmakers are threatening to punish the kingdom after Saudi agents killed U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October. But with oil prices mired in a bear market, few commodity analysts doubted Saudi Arabia would cut production. The kingdom needs Brent crude to rise about $25 a barrel just to balance its budget, according to the International Monetary Fund. It was also clear that Saudi Arabia, which produces twice as much oil as the next-biggest OPEC producer, would have to contribute the largest cuts. The Saudis produced below their quota when OPEC reached a deal with Russia and other producers to cut output beginning in 2017, and the kingdom's production hikes have dwarfed increases from other producers since the alliance agreed to raise output in June. Meanwhile, many other OPEC members are producing at or below the levels they agreed to in 2016.

CNBC - December 11, 2018

Tesla is seeking $167 million in damages from the former employee Elon Musk accused of sabotage

Tesla is seeking more than $167 million in a lawsuit against former employee Martin Tripp, recent legal filings revealed. In the lawsuit, which was filed by the electric car maker in June, Tesla alleges that Tripp, a former process engineer, had illegally exported data and made false claims to reporters, among other things.

Tripp had earlier claimed in a number of press interviews that Tesla engaged in poor manufacturing practices at its massive battery plant outside of Reno, Nevada, and that it may have used damaged battery modules in its Model 3 vehicles, posing a risk to drivers. An interim case management report published on Nov. 27 reveals that Tripp's attorneys aim to depose Tesla CEO Elon Musk and more than 10 people involved with the company. Tesla has refused to make Musk available and sought to limit the number of people deposed by Tripp's defense team at the law firm Tiffany & Bosco. Tripp's lawyers wrote in that report: "Tesla has objected to Mr. Tripp's desire to take more than ten depositions...In this case, where Mr. Tripp is being sued for more than $167,000,000 and has asserted counterclaims against Tesla, more than ten depositions is certainly reasonable and appropriate." Tripp attorney Robert D. Mitchell said in an e-mail to CNBC: "The purported damage amount claimed by Tesla relates to supposed dips in Tesla's stock price by virtue of the information Mr. Tripp provided to the press last summer." He characterized the damage claims as "absurd." Tesla declined to comment. The suit in Nevada is separate from a whistleblower complaint involving Tripp. In early July, Tripp filed a formal complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that Tesla made "material omissions and misstatements" to investors relating to its flawed manufacturing practices and handling of scrap at the Gigafactory.

Rolling Stone - December 11, 2018

After flipping, what's next for Russian spy Maria Butina?

Jailed Russian national Maria Butina has reached a deal with federal prosecutors to plead guilty to a charge of conspiracy to violate a prohibition on undeclared foreign agents, ABC and the Daily Beast report.

In a version of the plea document to be filed with the court, Butina reportedly will admit that she “sought to establish unofficial lines of communication with Americans having power and influence over U.S. politics.” Butina will also reportedly cooperate with prosecutors in ongoing investigations. The details of the plea deal are yet sketchy. According to ABC, Butina will admit to acting with “Person 1” — previously identified as her boyfriend, the GOP activist Paul Erickson — in a conspiracy “with a Russian government official… and at least one other person… to act in the United States under the direction of Russian Official without prior notification to the Attorney General.” The Russian Official has previously been identified as the former senator and central banker Alexander Torshin. As Rolling Stone reported in April, Torshin and Butina worked together for years to infiltrate the NRA to gain access to Republican power players, politicians and the Trumps. The Daily Beast reports that the settlement paints Butina’s outreach to the NRA as duplicitous. It quotes a missive Butina sent to Torshin after the duo hosted the NRA at a gun rights conference in Moscow in 2015: “We should let them express their gratitude now,” Butina reportedly wrote of the NRA guests, “we will put pressure on them quietly later.” (This quote appears to indicate that the glitzy, boozy trip was part of a long-game influence operation.) According to ABC, the plea deal also describes Butina and Person 1 as collaborating on a 2015 proposal — a “Diplomacy Project” — in which Butina claimed to have “laid the groundwork for an unofficial channel of communication with the next U.S. administration.” The proposal included a request for $125,000 in funding from a Russian oligarch, ABC reports, and was favorably received by the Russian Official. Butina’s ongoing cooperation is a cause for concern for Erickson, who is under increasing scrutiny and reportedly received a “target letter” from the feds, often a precursor to an indictment. Erickson’s lawyer has not responded to questions from Rolling Stone.

Daily Beast - December 11, 2018

Top Vatican cardinal convicted for sexual abuse

The Vatican’s third-most powerful official has been convicted in Australia on all charges he sexually abused two choir boys there in the late '90s, according to two sources with knowledge of the case.

A unanimous jury returned its verdict for Cardinal George Pell on Tuesday (Australian time) after more than three days of deliberations, the sources said, in a trial conducted under a gag order by the judge that prevented any details of the trial being made public. Pell, the Vatican’s finance chief and the highest Vatican official to ever go on trial for sex abuse, left Rome in June 2017 to stand trial in Melbourne. As that trial was about to get underway in June, a judge placed a suppression order on all press coverage in Australia, according to the order reviewed by The Daily Beast. Prosecutors applied for the order and it was granted to “prevent a real and substantial risk of prejudice to the proper administration of justice.” That order remains in place in Australia. That trial, known as “the cathedral trial,” was declared a mistrial earlier this year after a hung jury, the sources say. A retrial began immediately and ended this week with the unanimous verdict. In a book published last year, journalist Louise Milligan reportedly wrote that Pell was accused by two former choir boys of sexual abuse while he was archbishop of Melbourne in the '90s. The boys sang in the choir at St. Patrick's cathedral and were allegedly abused by Pell in a room in the confines of the church. Pell’s office told The Guardian in 2017 he “repeats his vehement and consistent denials of any and all such accusations.” A second trial known as “the swimmers trial” is due to get underway early next year, according to sources familiar with the case. That trial is expected to hear evidence that Pell “sexually offended” two men when they were boys playing games in a swimming pool in Ballarat, Victoria. At the time of the allegations, which date back to the '70s when Pell was a priest in the area, according to The Guardian.

Associated Press - December 12, 2018

British PM Theresa May to face no-confidence vote from her party

A no-confidence vote in British Prime Minister Theresa May Wednesday threw U.K. politics deeper into crisis and Brexit further into doubt.

May vowed to fight for leadership of her party and the country “with everything I’ve got” after opponents who have been circling for weeks finally got the numbers they needed to spark a vote among Conservative Party lawmakers. The threat to May has been building as pro-Brexit lawmakers within the Conservative Party grew increasingly frustrated with May’s conduct of Brexit and the divorce deal she has agreed with the European Union. The challenge throws Britain’s already rocky path out of the EU, which it is due to leave in March, into further chaos and comes days after May postponed a vote to approve the divorce deal to avoid all-but-certain defeat. Many supporters of Brexit say May’s deal, a compromise that retains close economic ties with the EU, fails to deliver on the clean break with the bloc that they want. Former Environment Secretary Owen Paterson accused May of acting like a “supplicant” in dealings with the EU. “She’s not the person to see Brexit through,” he said. Leading pro-Brexit legislators Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker said in a joint statement that “in the national interest, she must go.” But in a defiant statement outside 10 Downing St., May said “a change of leadership in the Conservative Party now will put our country’s future at risk.” She said ousting her and holding a leadership vote — a process that could take weeks — could result in Brexit being delayed or even stopped. May, who spent Tuesday touring EU capitals to appeal for changes to sweeten the divorce deal for reluctant U.K. lawmakers, has until Jan. 21 to hold a vote on her deal in Parliament, a timetable that could be scuttled if she is ousted. On Wednesday morning Graham Brady, who heads a committee overseeing Conservative leadership contests, said he had received letters from at least 48 lawmakers asking for a vote. That’s the 15 percent of Conservative legislators needed to spark a vote under party rules.

Fox News - December 11, 2018

Google has 'no plans to launch search in China,' CEO Pichai says

Speaking in front of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday amid allegations of anti-conservative bias and privacy violations on the platform, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said the company had "no plans to launch search in China."

Pichai responded to Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat. question when she said she was concerned about the company's controversial Project Dragonfly and asked what the company is doing to minimize the efforts. The Google CEO said: "Right now, we have no plans to launch [a search product] in China," adding that "getting access to information is an important human right." Google has not yet responded to a request for comment on whether Pichai's comments signaled a new stance for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company or whether they were in line with the company's previous statements. The search giant has typically couched its words about any potential Chinese search engine very carefully. In October, speaking at a Wired tech conference, Pichai was asked whether Google could operate in China and if so, what would it look like. He answered the question by saying that the company would be able "to serve well over 99 percent of the queries there are many, many areas where we would provide information better than what's available." At the Wired conference, he expanded upon that by touching on areas such as cancer treatments and said Google could help provide useful information instead of fake treatments. "So things like that, you know, weigh heavily on us, but we want to balance it with you know with what the conditions would be," Pichai said "So we haven't made ...it's very early. We don't know whether we would or could do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore." The search giant, owned by internet holding company Alphabet, has come under considerable scrutiny, both internal and external, about its intentions for the search engine, internally known as Project Dragonfly, which would be app-based, and any perception that it would be kowtowing to the Chinese government's demands for censorship. On Tuesday, a human rights group issued a letter to Pichai and the company asking them "to drop Project Dragonfly and any plans to launch a censored search app in China, and to re-affirm the company's 2010 commitment that it won't provide censored search services in the country. The letter was first reported by The Intercept, which first broke the news of the potential search engine. In remarks made at the Hudson Institute in October, Vice President Mike Pence specifically called out Google by name and said it should abandon the project. "More business leaders are thinking beyond the next quarter, and thinking twice before diving into the Chinese market if it means turning over their intellectual property or abetting Beijing’s oppression," Pence said in his prepared remarks. "But more must follow suit. For example, Google should immediately end development of the 'Dragonfly' app that will strengthen Communist Party censorship and compromise the privacy of Chinese customers…" In August, Google employees revolted over the controversial project, with more than 1,000 of them writing a letter to company management expressing their displeasure with the proposed search engine. Employees demanded that the company be more transparent about its decisions. The letter also called the project's ethics into question.

Bloomberg Quint - December 12, 2018

Fentanyl is a killer opioid. It could become a weapon of mass destruction.

It would take only 118 pounds of fentanyl to kill 25 million people. That’s how much of the powerful opioid painkiller Nebraska State Trooper Sam Mortensen found in April when he stopped a truck marked “U.S. Mail” swerving onto the shoulder along Interstate 80.

Rolling up the trailer door revealed an empty hold. But just below a refrigeration unit, behind a plastic panel secured with mismatched bolts, Mortensen found 42 brick-shaped packages, weighing 54 kilograms, full of fentanyl. The drug is so potent that even a small amount — the equivalent of a few grains of salt — can be lethal. “Is that even believable? Can you even imagine?,” President Donald Trump said in October when Mortensen was honored at the White House for making one of the largest fentanyl seizures in U.S. history. The truck’s two drivers were arrested. “Trooper Mortensen, that was a job well done.” Fentanyl has emerged as the most dangerous of a group of drugs blamed for creating a U.S. public health crisis. American deaths linked to fentanyl grew more than 50 percent to 29,406 last year, from 19,413 in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Relatively easy to manufacture, the drug is turning up more on the streets as dealers strive to meet still-enormous demand for opioids in the U.S. Fentanyl is ever-evolving as suppliers try to avoid detection and still boost the potency of the drug using what are called analogues — essentially chemical cousins. “There’s never been a drug like fentanyl before,” said Josh Bloom, senior director of chemical and pharmaceutical research at the American Council on Science and Health. “For street drugs, this absolutely destroys anything else in terms of lethality and danger.” Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, with which it is often mixed. In its strongest form, called carfentanil, it is used legally as an elephant tranquilizer. Law enforcement officers and first responders have been warned to handle fentanyl with extreme caution; some have fallen seriously ill after getting it on their skin or clothing. The fatal potential of even glancing contact with fentanyl is a major reason why national security experts are becoming alarmed at the prospect of it being used to sow terror. The drug is “a significant threat to national security,” Michael Morell, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, wrote last year. “It is a weapon of mass destruction.” The use of fentanyl as a weapon isn’t new. In 2002, 50 armed rebels held more than 800 hostages in a crowded theater in Moscow, demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. After a few days, Russian forces used a gas, reported by state news agency Interfax to be fentanyl, to incapacitate the attackers, though more than 100 hostages were also killed. As a tool of terror, the drug would work best in a closed space, said Daniel Gerstein, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp. who served as acting undersecretary in the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate in the Obama administration. Open-air release likely wouldn’t be as effective, as the drug could become too diluted, he said. If ground-up fentanyl is placed on everyday objects, people could easily put their fingers in their mouths or rub their eyes and have a deadly reaction, said Bloom, the American Council on Science and Health official. Containing a fentanyl attack would be difficult for police and emergency medical officials. Overdoses of the drug are hard to reverse with existing formulations of antidotes such as the Narcan nasal spray.

The Guardian - December 11, 2018

Suspect on the run after three killed in Strasbourg Christmas market shooting

France has upgraded its security threat level as hundreds of police hunted a gunman who shot three people dead and injured 12 others in a terror attack on Strasbourg’s celebrated Christmas market on Tuesday evening.

Six hours after the gunman disappeared after firing at passers-by in the busy city centre, the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, said the government had raised the risk level to the highest category. The move would strengthen border controls and bolster protection of Christmas markets and other events. In a statement, Castaner said the gunman had opened fire in three different places in the city before engaging in firefights with patrolling soldiers. “He fought twice with our security forces,” Castaner said. French media reported the man, who was injured in one of the exchanges, then jumped in a taxi and disappeared. Police immediately cut off major roads in and out of the city and launched a massive operation involving 350 police gendarmes and soldiers, as well as helicopters, to find him. French security services said they had identified the gunman as a 29-year-old born in Strasbourg, known to police and also on the “Fiche S” list of potential security threats. French media reported that gendarmes had attempted to arrest the man for a separate crime at his home in the Neudorf district of south-east Strasbourg earlier on Tuesday. The suspect was not home, but officers reportedly found grenades in his apartment. Shortly before 8pm local time, the man, armed with an automatic rifle, walked over one of the city’s many bridges around the Grand Île toward the Christmas market, which attracts millions of visitors every year. Witnesses said the man fired a first volley of rounds and then walked down the street before opening fire again. Local resident Yoann Bazard said he heard “two or three shots” and screams; and when he went to his window he saw people running. “After that I closed the shutters. Then I heard more shots, closer this time. There were two or three episodes like that ... As it got close, it was really shocking. There were a lot of screams.” Freelance journalist Camille Belsoeur said he was at a friend’s apartment in the city centre and at first mistook the gunfire for firecrackers. “We opened the window. I saw a soldier firing shots, about 12 to 15 shots,” he said. He said other soldiers yelled for people to stay indoors and shouted “Go home! Go home!” to those outside. One of the dead was said to be a Thai tourist who was shot in the head outside a restaurant. Staff and diners tried to save him but were unsuccessful. Six of the injured were reported to be in a critical condition. The anti-terrorist section of the Paris prosecutor’s office declared the incident to be an act of terrorism and announced an inquiry had been opened into “murder and attempted murder in relation to a criminal enterprise”.

USA Today - December 12, 2018

Mitch McConnell, in reversal, says Senate will vote on criminal justice bill

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a shift, announced Tuesday the Senate would take up a long-awaited bipartisan bill that aims to reduce the number of people in the nation's crowded prisons.

"At the request of the president and following improvements to the legislation that have been secured by several members, the Senate will take up the revised criminal justice bill this month," the Kentucky Republican said. He said he would turn to it as early as the end of the week. An unusual coalition of Republicans and Democrats, civil rights groups and small-government conservatives have pushed for action on the Senate bill called the “First Step Act." President Donald Trump also backs it. The effort to pass a Senate bill had stalled as McConnell remained reluctant to bring it to a floor vote by the end of the year. Then pressure began to mount on him from Trump and other Republican senators. The measure would give judges more discretion in sentencing offenders for nonviolent crimes, particularly drug offenss, and bolster rehabilitation programs for former prisoners. It would also call for placing federal prisoners closer to home – no more than 500 miles – so families could visit more often. Trump welcomed McConnell's announcement. “Looks like it's going to be passing, hopefully – famous last words,'' Trump said at the White House. "It’s really something we're all very proud of. Tremendous support from Republicans and tremendous support from Democrats. Lot of years they've been waiting for it.” The measure has faced fierce opposition from some Republicans, including Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who said it would free too many prisoners, including violent felons. Cotton said he looked forward to debating a revised measure and introducing amendments to address his concerns, including the early release of felons who commit certain crimes. "Unfortunately, the bill still has major problems and allows early release for many categories of serious, violent criminals,'' he said in a statement Tuesday.

Politico - December 11, 2018

Pelosi privately disses Trump’s manhood after White House meeting

Nancy Pelosi was on fire with her fellow Democrats. Minutes after a very public showdown with Donald Trump on Tuesday over his border wall with Mexico, the House minority leader returned to the Capitol and railed against the president in a private meeting with her colleagues.

Trump “must have said the word ‘wall’ 30 times,” the California Democrat said, according to multiple sources in the room. “I was trying to be the mom,” Pelosi added, but “it goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.” And then, she went for the most sensitive part of Trump’s ego. “It’s like a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him,” Pelosi deadpanned. “This wall thing.” Congressional Democrats are feeling smug — and actually a little excited — for the looming shutdown fight with the president after Tuesday’s Oval Office meeting. The president may have decided at the last minute to open up the entire negotiation session to the public to throw Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York off their game. But in the end, Democrats feel confident that their leaders came out ahead. Trump, Democrats argue, fell into a trap the minute he took ownership of what Pelosi has dubbed “the Trump shutdown.” Absent a bipartisan agreement on Trump’s border wall, about a quarter of the government will run out of money on Dec. 21. But instead of finger-pointing, as Republicans and Democrats usually do during spending standoffs, Trump said he wanted to close the government and said he wouldn't even try to pass the blame. "If we don't get what we want ... I will shut down the government,” Trump said in the Oval Office before a room full of reporters and TV cameras. “I am proud to shut down the government for border security. ... I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I won't blame you for it." The remarks left Republicans on the Hill perplexed. Even some Democrats scratched their heads. But the comments, Democrats say, work to their benefit. Their leaders look like the only reasonable adults at the table: They were the only side arguing that a government shutdown is a bad thing.

Tribune News Service - December 11, 2018

Amid Denver push for supervised drug injection site, feds threaten reprisals

The feds aren't happy with Denver's controversial new plan for drug treatment. vIn recent weeks, the Denver City Council and Mayor Michael Hancock approved a law that would allow the city to host a supervised drug-use facility.

If state lawmakers also approve, Denver could become the first U.S. city where people can use heroin and other drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. The idea is that supervision can prevent overdose deaths and help people get services. But the sites remain illegal under federal law, as the city was reminded in a letter Tuesday from the U.S. Attorney's Office and the local field office of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The law enforcement officials compared supervised facilities to "so-called crack houses," claiming that they will "attract drug dealers, sexual predators, and other criminals, ultimately destroying the surrounding community." They also said there's no evidence the sites reduce drug deaths or that users seek treatment, and warned that they "normalize serious drug use." People involved in the facilities face penalties including "forfeiture of the property, criminal fines, civil monetary penalties up to $250,000, and imprisonment up to 20 years in jail," the letter states. Jason Dunn was sworn in as the U.S. attorney for Colorado in October. But the federal office already was signaling a tough stance on drug issues: Bob Troyer, who preceded Dunn, warned that the office would take a more aggressive approach to cannabis businesses. Councilman Albus Brooks quickly responded to defend the new law Tuesday. "While we recognize the role of the federal government, we cannot wait for federal action while the death toll rises. These people are not simply addicts. They are our neighbors, friends, and family members who are experiencing addiction," he said in a written statement. Denver's local health department, Brooks said, has the power to "address and regulate this type of emergency." His statement cited studies that found supervised sites have no effect on local crime and that they reduce emergency calls and save lives.

Reuters - December 12, 2018

Trump says would intervene in arrest of Chinese executive

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he would intervene with the U.S. Justice Department in the case against a Chinese telecommunications executive if it would help secure a trade deal with Beijing.

“If I think it’s good for the country, if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made – which is a very important thing – what’s good for national security – I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary,” Trump said in a wide-ranging interview with Reuters in the Oval Office. Trump expressed optimism that he could strike a trade deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping as the two countries struggle to resolve a dispute that has contributed to recent U.S. stock market declines and raised questions about whether economic turmoil could beset the president in the new year. At the request of U.S. authorities, Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou was arrested earlier this month in Vancouver on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. The arrest came the same day Trump and Xi declared a 90-day truce in their trade war during summit talks in Buenos Aires. Trump, who wants China to open up its markets to more American-made products and stop what Washington calls the theft of intellectual property, said he had not yet spoken to Xi about the case against Huawei’s executive. Over the course of the 30-minute interview, Trump also addressed the controversy surrounding the Oct. 2 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying he stood firmly beside Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite accusations that he was the mastermind of it. Trump refused to comment on whether the crown prince was complicit in the murder, but he provided perhaps his most explicit show of support for MbS, as the prince is known, since Khashoggi’s death more than two months ago. “He’s the leader of Saudi Arabia. They’ve been a very good ally,” Trump said. Asked if standing beside Saudi Arabia means also standing by the crown prince, Trump said, “Well, at this moment, it certainly does.” While Trump has condemned the murder of Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist who was often critical of MbS, he has given the benefit of the doubt to the prince with whom he has cultivated a deep relationship. Trump again reiterated on Tuesday that MbS “vehemently denies” involvement in a killing that has sparked outrage around the world. Despite Trump’s desire to maintain close ties to Saudi Arabia, several of his fellow Republicans have joined Democrats in blaming the crown prince for Khashoggi’s death and backing legislation to respond by ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war effort in Yemen, imposing new sanctions and stopping weapons sales. Last month, the CIA assessed that MbS ordered the killing.

BuzzFeed - December 11, 2018

China warned of consequences for the arrest of a senior tech executive. Now a former Canadian diplomat has gone missing.

A former Canadian diplomat based in Beijing has reportedly been detained in China. Michael Kovrig's employer, the International Crisis Group, said it was "doing everything possible" to find out more about his location, and to secure his release.

Reports of Kovrig's detention come just days after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, was arrested in Canada at the request of US authorities. Chinese law enforcement authorities could not be immediately reached for comment on the reason behind Kovrig's detention. Kovrig did not respond to calls and messages on Tuesday. He is the senior adviser for North East Asia for the NGO International Crisis Group, focusing on writing analysis of foreign policy, according to his bio. It was not immediately clear whether Kovrig's detention was retaliation for Meng, but the Chinese government has protested vigorously since her arrest on Dec. 1. The People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece, said in a commentary published over the weekend that Canada would face "serious consequences" if Meng was not released immediately. The commentary was published with the byline "Zhong Sheng," a pseudonym the paper uses to mark significant statements on foreign affairs. Meng is the daughter of the founder of Huawei, which is the second biggest maker of smartphones in the world — behind only Samsung and ahead of Apple. The US is seeking her extradition so she can face charges related to alleged violations of Iran sanctions. Huawei has said it acted in accordance with laws. US State Department spokesperson Robert Palladino told reporters on Tuesday that the US condemns “all forms of arbitrary detention” in response to a question about Kovrig's disappearance.

Wall Street Journal - December 11, 2018

Schisms over economics, culture and geography underlie dramas simmering in Europe

The U.K. government’s pratfalls over Brexit show one thing still unites London with the continent: the growing difficulty of governing Western European nations in which new schisms have made it hard to find a majority for any way forward.

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to delay a parliamentary vote on her withdrawal deal with the European Union, and avoid a humiliating defeat on Tuesday that could have brought her down, sets up the tensest weeks for Brexit since Britons voted to leave the EU in 2016. Meanwhile, political dramas are also simmering in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Issues and plotlines differ by country. Despite much-discussed international trends such as the rise of populism, “European politics is and remains, first and foremost, national politics,” says Cas Mudde, a political scientist at the University of Georgia. Yet the underlying drivers share some resemblance. Divisions over economics, culture and geography are challenging governments’ longevity or their ability to pursue their agenda. France’s large, partly violent street protests against President Emmanuel Macron and his pro-business agenda are exposing discontents that echo some of those behind Brexit, or the ascendancy of antiestablishment parties in Italy. A decade after the financial crisis, still-straitened households feel abandoned by leaders in politics and business whose culture, speech and even dress seem more attuned to gleaming globalized cities such as Paris, London or Milan than to the provincial towns where most people live. The U.K. looks on its surface like an exception to the splintering of Europe’s political party systems. Mrs. May’s governing Conservatives and the left-wing Labour opposition dominate, helped by an electoral system that keeps rivals small. But the battle over how to do Brexit, and whether to rethink it, is playing out between factions within each. “You have two big parties but they’re hopelessly divided internally,” says Anand Menon, professor of European politics at King’s College London. It isn’t just Brexit’s practical headaches that cut across the parties, Mr. Menon says, but also a cultural divide between social liberalism and social conservatism, as well as a rift between London and provincial England. A geographical revolt also reordered Italian politics in elections early this year, when the antiestablishment 5 Star Movement crushed established parties in the country’s south, while the nativist League did the same in the north. The coalition between the two insurgent movements is one of Europe’s most popular governments. Many Italian observers have noted parallels between the two parties and the concerns of France’s yellow vest protesters. Germany, unlike elsewhere, looks more politically stable than a few weeks ago. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s preferred heir, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, became leader of her center-right party, the Christian Democratic Union, signaling continuity after a year of heavy pressure on Ms. Merkel. AKK, as she is known, has given the ailing party a fillip in opinion polls, at least for now. But it is unclear how long the switch will shore up the CDU, which has been squeezed by the rise of the Greens to its left and the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany to its right. Ms. Merkel may have gained time as chancellor, but only by ceding more of her effective power. In Spain, the previously tiny far-right Vox movement won a breakthrough 11 percent of the vote in a regional election this month, potentially complicating an already fragmenting party landscape. The Socialist government, lacking a parliamentary majority to pass a budget, is widely expected to fall in early 2019, leading to early elections.

December 11, 2018

Lead Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Lawmakers pledge crackdown on free-standing ER billing practices

Texas lawmakers on Monday vowed to crack down on the state's booming free-standing emergency room industry in the wake of a troubling AARP Texas survey and a Houston Chronicle story that both showed how some facilities are sending confusing messages to patients.

The AARP Texas survey showed that 30 percent of the state's 213 for-profit free-standing emergency rooms "appear to not comply fully with state disclosure laws," according to findings presented at a state Senate committee meeting in Austin. The statewide survey also found that 77 percent said they "take" or "accept" major health insurance plans but were actually outside the network for those plans. And when AARP asked the centers' staff directly, less than half were able to answer a "yes" or "no" question about health plan coverage. The survey was presented the same day the Houston Chronicle published a story about how 90 percent of the area's 52 free-standing emergency rooms are outside the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas network, leaving unsuspecting patients potentially vulnerable to enormous surprise medical bills. The story further said that while many of the Houston facilities prominently advertise on their websites they "accept" all major insurers, an admission that they are out of network can be more difficult to find. The back-to-back revelations come 15 months after a Texas law went into effect that mandated that the facilities disclose declarations including that they are an emergency room and charge facility fees, inform patients what insurance plans they accept and if they are part of those insurance networks. They are also required to include the warning that a physician may bill separately from the facility. Committee members on Monday voiced concern over the AARP findings and said they would consider stronger laws when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 8. "There was recognition that more needs to be done in both enforcing existing laws and to make new laws to protect consumers," said Blake Hutson, associate state director of AARP Texas, who testified at the hearing. He added that many seemed surprised at the breadth of the problem. "We need to do something about this," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo, said at the hearing. Larry Taylor, a Republican senator from Friendswood, called the AARP findings disappointing and suggested getting tough. "Send a letter that you get into compliance or we're coming after you," he suggested during testimony.

CNBC - December 10, 2018

Stocks are on track for the worst year in a decade. Four experts weigh in on what 2019 will bring

Stocks saw a huge reversal on Monday as investors are trying to sort out which of the litany of market factors will have the biggest impact on their portfolios in 2019.

Fears of slowing global economic growth, a hiking Fed and peak earnings have all weighed on Wall Street in recent months, putting the S&P 500 on track for its worst annual performance since 2008. Four experts weigh in on what they'll be keeping an eye on as a volatile 2018 draws to a close. Tudor Investment founder Paul Tudor Jones says he is feeling good about the markets in 2019 and willing to make a bullish bet on the back of buybacks and deleveraged stocks. "I can't imagine at some time next year we won't be up ... 10 or 15 percent on the year," says Jones, "because we still have the same buybacks we had this past year. The difference is, we're walking in completely and totally deleveraged." Even recently, buybacks have been a boon for stocks under pressure. Facebook's $9 billion in additional buybacks has the stock up more than 2 percent since they were announced on Friday. J.P. Morgan's Joyce Chang leans bearish, pointing out that "geopolitical noise" has draped a veil of uncertainty over the markets — and it's not going anywhere anytime soon. "You've got a combination of geopolitical risk and market liquidity concerns that are really weighing on the market right now," says Chang. In her view, U.S.-China trade talks and Brexit are the most important things to watch going forward, with questions regarding their resolutions still far from being answered. If these questions are answered, it could be big news for the bulls in 2019. With more geopolitical certainty, growth might be in good shape for next year. "It's not the growth story or the fundamentals," says Chang about what the market needs. "It's — right now — confidence that the market is looking for." Shawn Matthews of Hondius Capital Management identifies two key factors for a positive 2019 outlook. "The two things that have to really happen for the economy to do well and certainly for the equity market to do well [are] productivity has to go up or the perception of productivity has to go up — that has to be a story that continues — and credit spreads have to normalize here at some point," says Matthews. His rationale is that people have to feel comfortable getting back into the market. If not, it could be another volatile year. "I think there are going to be tradeable rallies here and there, but certainly the theme is in place for the next year or two," says Matthews. Baird's Bruce Bittles says a recession might be on the horizon for some of the world's markets, but not the U.S. "The fact that Germany is down 20 percent, China is down 20 percent, and now the U.S. has joined the downturn also, that's what suggests to us that the global economy is in recession or on the verge of recession. The U.S. we don't think is going to enter recession. We think there's going to be a slowdown here, but that's going to influence corporate profits to a certain extent." More than any one indicator, Bittles points to volatility as something that could remain high going into 2019, with the negative sentiment of downward momentum another obstacle to a turnaround.

Bloomberg - December 11, 2018

For U.S. allies, 'Mad Dog' Mattis is the last adult in the room

Since Donald Trump assumed office almost two years ago, U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and beyond have counted on a number of so-called adults in the room to constrain an unpredictable president. With the imminent departure of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, only Defense Secretary Jim Mattis remains.

As Trump assembled his first cabinet, allies took comfort that the group -- including retired or serving generals -- would help preserve the fundamentals of U.S. foreign and economic policy that have largely endured for decades. The expectation was they would guide, and even restrain, the new commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful military. Attrition has been high. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by tweet in March. Chief economic adviser, former Goldman Sachs Chief Operating Officer Gary Cohn, announced he was resigning the same month, while Marine Corps Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said he was leaving as national security adviser. And now Trump has announced Kelly, a retired Marine general, will leave later this month. Mattis, the warrior intellectual in charge of the Pentagon, has worked to get fellow North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and Pacific allies to watch what the U.S. does, not what it tweets. Were he to go, too, at a time of escalating trade tensions and frictions between the U.S. and its partners on everything from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal to climate change, those most reliant on U.S. support would be shaken. "His departure definitely wouldn't be a positive message for us,'' said retired Gen. Ants Laaneots, who commanded the armed forces of Estonia, one of NATO's three small Baltic state members, from 2006 to 2011. Mattis, he said, "knows what is happening here and knows there is a Russian threat." There's no immediate indication the defense secretary's job is in danger. Still, whether his days are numbered is among the big questions doing the rounds at NATO's shiny-new Brussels headquarters, according to two alliance officials, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. They described Mattis as one of the last remaining Atlanticists in the Trump administration, and the main interlocutor for European allies. Nicknamed "Mad Dog," Mattis is credited within NATO for quietly ensuring that U.S. funding for beefed up defenses in Europe's east increased significantly during the Trump administration, despite the president's evident coolness toward the alliance and desire - at least some of the time - to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mattis was instrumental, too, in persuading Trump to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, rather than completely withdraw, and was among those who pressed for restraint on North Korea at a time rhetoric on both sides appeared to be escalating toward conflict over the regime's nuclear weapons program. "No one doubts it was the Pentagon driving this, rather than the White House,'' said Carl Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, referring to the U.S. budget increases to create a stronger deterrent to any potential Russian attacks.

Wall Street Journal - December 11, 2018

Negotiators reach compromise on $867 billion farm bill

Congress is on track to pass a five-year farm bill this week that leaves out controversial proposed work requirements for food-stamp recipients, imperiling the support of some conservative House Republicans but opening the door for Democrats in both chambers to support the compromise bill.

For months, lawmakers have struggled to reconcile differences between the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, a mammoth piece of legislation that authorizes the food-stamp program for low-income Americans in addition to funding agricultural subsidies, crop insurance, research efforts and more. The Republican-authored House version of the bill tightened work requirements for food-stamp recipients; it passed the chamber along party lines. The Senate version omitted those provisions and passed with wide bipartisan support. The compromise bill, released online Monday night, doesn’t include the tighter work requirements, but retains measures from the House version of the legislation aimed at preventing fraud and duplication. The bill will cost $867 billion over 10 years, according to House committee staff. Roughly 80 percent of that funding goes toward food stamps. Rep. Mark Walker, R-NC, the chair of the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative House Republicans, said he is still deciding on whether to support the compromise legislation. He predicted roughly half of House Republicans will support the bill. But because the bill doesn’t include the work requirements, House Democrats are set to support it in large numbers. “I think we’re going to get almost all of the Democrats,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-MN, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee. The Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve its farm bill earlier this year, passing it 86-11, and the bicameral compromise is expected also to pass with broad support. “By working across the aisle, we overcame many differences to deliver a strong, bipartisan farm bill for our farmers, families, and rural communities,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. “It’s time to get the bill across the finish line as soon as possible.” Votes on the farm bill, expected for later this week, come in the midst of a trade dispute between the U.S. and China that has hurt American farms dependent on exports of soybeans and other commodities. Farm incomes are forecast to drop once again this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, extending a multiyear slump in the agricultural economy. “For the psyche of rural America this is a really good bill, with all the trade uncertainty that’s going on out there, commodity prices where they are, another double-digit drop in farm income,” said Rep. Mike Conaway, R-TX, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. “This is a real shot in the arm for rural America.” Among other elements, the farm bill will expand crop insurance coverage to new crops, including barley and hops, and legalize industrial hemp, a cannabis plant with a low concentration of psychoactive chemicals. It will expand family farm subsidies to include cousins, nieces and nephews.

State Stories

Houston Chronicle - December 10, 2018

Houston scientist Jim Allison presented Nobel

Jim Allison, the Houston scientist who identified and discovered how to unleash a brake on the immune system, was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Medicine Monday, the ultimate recognition of research that’s revolutionized cancer therapy.

During a ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden’s King Carl XVI Gustaf presented the prize to Allison, who shook his hand and then bowed, the first MD Anderson Cancer Center scientist ever to receive the now 118-year-old honor. “Your groundbreaking research has added a fourth pillar in cancer therapy,” Klas Kärre, a member of the Nobel committee, said in an introductory speech describing the achievement. “It represents a new paradigm for treatment, not directly targeting the cancer cells but rather releasing the brakes of the immune system, a landmark in the fight against cancer.” Allison, a native Texan who attended the University of Texas-Austin and plays the harmonica in two bands when not conducting immunology research, shared the award with Japan’s Tasuku Honjo, who discovered a second immune system brake. The discovery and unleashing of the brakes, known as checkpoint blockade therapy, finally realized the tantalizing promise of immunotherapy, which researchers had pursued unsuccessfully for decades. Although it doesn’t benefit all cancer patients yet, it has joined surgery, radiation and chemotherapy as a mainstay of cancer treatment. The therapy has produced cures in patients whose advanced disease was considered hopeless, particularly lung cancer and melanoma. The best known beneficiary is former President Jimmy Carter, who in 2015 said he felt he “had just a few weeks left” after he was diagnosed with melanoma that had spread to his brain. Carter is cancer free today thanks to treatment with checkpoint blockade therapy. The therapy is currently the subject of thousands of clinical trials, most all of them efforts to extend the benefits to more people. The 2018 Nobel is the first to recognize an achievement at once in cancer discovery and cancer therapy. Previous prizes for cancer research recognized either a discovery or a new therapy. Some 15,600 people, including the Swedish Royal Family and board members of the Nobel Foundation, attended the ceremony, which was streamed live on the Nobel Prize website. It was followed by a banquet and a party with local students, known as the Nobel NightCap. “Jim and I have experienced many occasions that have made us feel well rewarded,” Honjo said at the banquet, “such as meeting cancer patients who say their lives were saved by our therapies.” Speaking on behalf of himself and Allison, Honjo added, “the development of our discovery is just beginning, as currently only 20 to 30 percent of patients respond to the immunotherapy. … We encourage many more scientists to join us in our efforts to keep improving cancer immunotherapy. We sincerely hope this treatment will reach far and wide so that everybody on our planet can benefit from this evolutionary gift for healthy life.” The Nobel activities, which began last Thursday, will finish Wednesday.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Naval Air Station Corpus Christi could be re-named after Bush 41

The naval air station where former President George H.W. Bush earned his naval wings in 1943 could soon be renamed after the late president.

Nueces County commissioners are set to vote Wednesday on a resolution in support of changing the name of the N.A.S. Corpus Christi to the George H.W. Bush Naval Air Station Corpus Christi – a push that's making its way through Texas and Washington. Bush, the country's 41st president, died Nov. 30. He was 94. The former pilot joined the Navy when he was 18 and earned his wings at the N.A.S. Corpus Christi days before his 19th birthday. He was the youngest pilot in the Navy at that time, according to the Department of Defense. "Bush has huge ties to Texas throughout his political career, including making Texas his home," the resolution states. The Nueces Co, Commissioners court says it wants to memorialize his name at the location of his Naval training. While the resolution is only in support of renaming the air station, it doesn't come with any teeth – but U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Corpus Christi, is hoping a bill he's pushing through congress will make the change final, according to the Corpus Christ Caller Times. "I can't think of anyone that I would rather support than the 41st president of the United States, and it would be a great honor for us to do it, and for the family — I know the family would appreciate it," Nueces County Judge Lloyd Neal told the paper Monday. "I'm looking forward to helping (Cloud) do that."

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Despite law to force clarity, confusion over free-standing ERs persists

Fifteen months after Texas enacted a law to bring transparency to the state’s for-profit free-standing emergency rooms, many of the facilities continue to send mixed messages about insurance coverage that could expose unsuspecting patients to enormous surprise medical bills.

A Houston Chronicle review of websites representing the 52 free-standing emergency rooms in the Houston area shows a pattern in which many of the facilities prominently advertise that they “accept” all major private insurance. Some even list the insurers’ names and logos. But often tucked under pull-down tabs or at the bottom of the page is a notice that the facilities are outside the networks of those insurers, followed by a reassurance that under the Texas insurance code, network status does not matter in emergency treatment, implying patients needn’t worry about coverage. What the websites fail to disclose is that out-of-network status can result in insurance reimbursements far below the charges, leaving patients on the hook for the remainder of the bill — sometimes thousands of dollars. “The word ‘accept’ means something very different to them than to the consumer, and they know that when they write their websites,” said Stacey Pogue, senior health policy analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities. “They do not tell the rest of the story.” For example, many of the Houston-area facilities advertise that they accept Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, the state’s largest insurer. But the Chronicle’s review found that only five — about 10 percent — are in that insurer’s network. Those findings are consistent with a statewide report by AARP Texas, to be released Monday at a state Senate committee hearing, that found 77 percent of the state’s 215 free-standing emergency rooms said they “take” or “accept” Blue Cross and Blue Shield insurance, but were out-of-network. Free-standing emergency rooms defend their websites, describing concerns raised by advocacy groups and Texas lawmakers as manufactured outrage. “I don’t see a problem with saying they ‘accept,’” said Dr. Carrie de Moor, CEO of Code 3 Emergency Partners, a Frisco-based network of free-standing emergency rooms, urgent care clinics and a telemedicine program. She insisted that patients understand that accepting someone’s insurance is different from being in that company’s network. It may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but it can carry high costs, health policy experts said. Free-standing websites are technically correct when they cite state insurance code requiring insurers to cover emergencies regardless of network status, said Jamie Dudensing, CEO of the Texas Association of Health Plans, the state’s insurance trade group. That provision is in place to make sure a patient experiencing a life-threatening emergency does not have to worry about finding an in-network doctor or facility. But she cautions that covering emergency treatment is not always the same as footing the entire bill. A facility outside an insurance network is not bound by the negotiated reimbursement rates and has no limit on how much it can bill. Further, under a practice know as balanced billing, out-of-network providers can charge some patients for the portion of a bill not paid by insurers. In-network providers are prohibited from balanced billing. “They are twisting the language to make it seem like patients are always protected,” Dudensing said of the websites. “They are not.” The for-profit, free-standing emergency room got its start in Houston nearly a decade ago and ballooned into a health care phenomenon. The idea was to offer patients easy access to a fully equipped emergency room in their neighborhood and avoid lengthy waits at hospitals. Visits to free-standing emergency rooms now account for more than a quarter of all emergency visits in Texas, according to a report by the insurer UnitedHealthCare.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Houston executive pleads guilty to lying about lawmakers’ trip to Baku

The former president of a Houston-based nonprofit pleaded guilty Monday to lying to Congress about a 2013 trip to Azerbaijan by 10 U.S. lawmakers, including four House members from Texas, whose expenses were secretly funded by the Azerbaijan government’s oil company.

Kemal Oksuz, aka "Kevin Oksuz," 49, pleaded guilty to one count of devising a scheme to conceal material facts from the U.S. House Ethics Committee investigating questions that had been raised in a Houston Chronicle account of the lavish, all-expenses-paid trip to Baku, the Caspian Sea capital of Azerbaijan. The House panel eventually exonerated all 10 U.S. lawmakers who took the trip, saying they had been misled about its true sponsors and that they didn't "knowingly" break any law or House rules. Among those Oksuz allegedly misled about the trip were Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee and Ruben Hinojosa, a border district Democrat who has since retired from Congress. Two Houston-area Republicans also made the government-funded trip: U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, who is retiring next month, and former Congressman Steve Stockman, who was sentenced last month to a 10-year prison term in an unrelated fraud case. All but Stockman, who could not be reached for comment, told the Chronicle in 2015 that they had no advance knowledge that the state oil company had funded the conference. Poe’s office maintained that he contacted the House Ethics Committee to self-report the allegations initially raised in a Chronicle investigation. While the lawmakers denied prior knowledge of the state oil company’s involvement, investigators said there were ample signs of the conference’s true underwriter, including banners and placards with the firm’s logo. Photos and programs pointed to its involvement. About three dozen congressional staffers also attended the conference, which attracted widespread attention because of the involvement of top Obama administration officials and Azerbaijan’s interest in winning congressional support to avoid U.S. sanctions aimed at Iran, its partner in a multibillion dollar Caspian Sea national gas project. Oksuz acknowledged in his guilty plea Monday that he lied on disclosure forms filed with the Ethics Committee in advance of what had been represented as a privately sponsored congressional trip to an energy conference in Azerbaijan. According to federal prosecutors, Oksuz falsely represented that the trip would be underwritten by the Turquoise Council of Americans and Eurasians (TCAE), the Houston nonprofit which he led as president. The Turquoise Council ostensibly paid airfare and hotel bills for Poe, Jackson Lee, Stockman and Hinojosa and his wife. Those trips cost from $10,500 to $19,961, according to disclosures the four lawmakers filed with the House Ethics Committee.

Houston Chronicle - December 11, 2018

Lawmakers pledge crackdown on free-standing ER billing practices

Texas lawmakers on Monday vowed to crack down on the state's booming free-standing emergency room industry in the wake of a troubling AARP Texas survey and a Houston Chronicle story that both showed how some facilities are sending confusing messages to patients.

The AARP Texas survey showed that 30 percent of the state's 213 for-profit free-standing emergency rooms "appear to not comply fully with state disclosure laws," according to findings presented at a state Senate committee meeting in Austin. The statewide survey also found that 77 percent said they "take" or "accept" major health insurance plans but were actually outside the network for those plans. And when AARP asked the centers' staff directly, less than half were able to answer a "yes" or "no" question about health plan coverage. The survey was presented the same day the Houston Chronicle published a story about how 90 percent of the area's 52 free-standing emergency rooms are outside the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas network, leaving unsuspecting patients potentially vulnerable to enormous surprise medical bills. The story further said that while many of the Houston facilities prominently advertise on their websites they "accept" all major insurers, an admission that they are out of network can be more difficult to find. The back-to-back revelations come 15 months after a Texas law went into effect that mandated that the facilities disclose declarations including that they are an emergency room and charge facility fees, inform patients what insurance plans they accept and if they are part of those insurance networks. They are also required to include the warning that a physician may bill separately from the facility. Committee members on Monday voiced concern over the AARP findings and said they would consider stronger laws when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 8. "There was recognition that more needs to be done in both enforcing existing laws and to make new laws to protect consumers," said Blake Hutson, associate state director of AARP Texas, who testified at the hearing. He added that many seemed surprised at the breadth of the problem. "We need to do something about this," state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo, said at the hearing. Larry Taylor, a Republican senator from Friendswood, called the AARP findings disappointing and suggested getting tough. "Send a letter that you get into compliance or we're coming after you," he suggested during testimony.

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

Texas prisons to start 3D-printing dentures for toothless inmates

David Ford has teeth. They’re not real, and they’re prison issued. But the 58-year old wants you to see them, flashing a full smile at every opportunity. “I feel like I’m back,” he said.

The Harris County man waited four years before finally getting his dentures in November after a Houston Chronicle investigation revealed that toothless inmates in Texas prisons were routinely denied dental prosthetics and instead forced to gum their food or drink it, pureed in cups. But Ford’s new pearly whites could mark the end of an era for the state’s prison system. Starting in the spring, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice will no longer have traditionally molded dentures made for its inmates. Instead, they’ll become what’s believed to be the first corrections agency in the country to 3D-print them on site. “It sounds like a miracle,” said Michele Deitch, an attorney and criminal justice consultant who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “I’ve never heard of anything like it.” A speedier alternative to traditional denture-making, technicians at prisons across the state will use wands to scan the mouths of toothless inmates, then send off the image to a central location for 3D-printing, cutting down the process from months to weeks. The system will avoid the need to transport prisoners across the state and, though the initial purchase of the equipment is pricey, officials said the individual sets of dentures could be as little as $50 apiece. “I just want it done right,” said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who pushed officials for change after reading the Chronicle’s coverage. “It’s a shame that it got into this shape but I’ll be the first to say they’re doing a good job when they’re doing a good job.” The Texas prison system has historically struggled to deliver adequate medical care to its inmates. In 1974, an inmate injured by a 600-pound bale of hay launched a lawsuit that forced the prisons to reform. For years, the system provided dentures produced in-house through a vocational program for inmates. But that ended for unknown reasons in 2003 — around the time the prison system came out from under decades of federal oversight. Afterward, the availability of dentures fell sharply. In 2004, prison medical providers ordered 1,295 dentures. The following year, that number fell to 518 and then 258. By 2016, prison medical providers only approved giving out 71 dentures to a population of more than 149,000 inmates. By contrast, California — the next-largest prison system — gave inmates a total of 4,818 complete and partial dentures in 2016, according to state data there. Over the course of a year-long investigation, more than two dozen inmates wrote letters or spoke to the Chronicle to detail the problem. Some said they’d had all their teeth removed with the false promise of dentures to come. Others lost them over time, or came in with dentures that broke, only to learn that the prison system wouldn’t agree to replace them. Some filed grievances and request forms but were repeatedly denied, sometimes by staffers citing policies no longer in place, other times by dentists claiming they couldn’t get teeth unless they became underweight. The long-standing policy only allowed for dentures in situations of “medical necessity” — and chewing didn’t count. “Generally speaking, someone with no teeth should be offered dentures,” Dr. Jay Shulman, a Texas A&M University adjunct dentistry professor, said in September. “The community standard for dental care has not been applied to prisons.”

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

Report: Edwards Aquifer at greater risk with climate change, population growth

The Edwards Aquifer could be at risk in the next 50 years as a result of warmer temperatures and more frequent and severe droughts, compounded by population growth.

“These climate change impacts will be exacerbated in central Texas’s rapidly urbanizing regions, as increasing impervious cover will affect water quality and rates of runoff and recharge,” stated the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,656-page report released by the federal government. Officials in California, Florida and other coastal states are increasingly concerned about heat, sea levels and severity of storms in a warming world, said Doug Melnick, the city of San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer. But San Antonio, too, is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, Melnick said. Already, extreme floods in San Antonio have prompted authorities to redraw flood maps and demolish homes, includes those along Salado Creek on the East Side that were ravaged by a 1998 flood and others along Barbara Drive on the North Side that were damaged by a 2013 deluge. “We’re seeing discussions as we speak, statewide and nationally, about adjusting 100-year and 500-year flood zones,” Melnick said. “That’s going on now, and that really is the direct result of climate change.” Officials of the Edwards Aquifer Authority are preparing to quantify the potential impact of climate change on the severity of droughts in the region. But the authority said it would be “premature” to predict “a degradation of habitat for species of concern,” an outcome projected in the National Climate Assessment released last month. Studies have found that conservation measures adopted in 2012 “are enough to maintain spring flows that are critical to the habitat” of fountain darters and other endangered species, “even if a drought as severe as the 1950s was repeated,” EAA General Manager Roland Ruiz said. “What is more probable is that these conservation measures would need to be implemented more frequently to maintain critical spring flows in a warmer climate,” he said. For homeowners, that would mean more frequent limits on lawn watering. San Antonio currently is under year-round watering rules, which allow sprinkler use any day before 11 a.m. and after 7 p.m. San Antonio’s 1947-1957 drought was surpassed in intensity by a 2008-2014 dry spell, according to the new federal climate report. “What made 2011 so bad was the long streak of record-breaking temperatures,” Ruiz said. “If not for having a moderately wet 2010, this drought would have rivaled the 1950s drought.”

San Antonio Express-News - December 11, 2018

Female political candidates eyeing bids for 2020, fueled by midterm victories

Even on a rainy Thursday night in the busy weeks before Christmas, nearly two dozen women crowded into a country club meeting room here, fired up about the possibility of running for office.

Democratic recruiters report that about 100 women attended similar “Candidate 101” classes across Texas last week. The party is searching far and wide for potential candidates as Democratic leaders look to capitalize on momentum from the November midterm election, when women claimed a greater share of political power in Congress than ever before. The 102 women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November represent 23 percent of House members. Women will hold 38 of the 181 available seats when the Texas Legislature convenes in January — about 20 percent. “I think there’s more work to be done for increasing diversity so everybody has a seat at the table,” said Pooja Sethi, who is Indian and who worked as a fundraiser for several Austin-area Democratic candidates. She wants to see more South Asians in the Texas Legislature. “The future is bright.” Slightly more than 1 in 10 women attending introductory campaigning classes already know what office they want to target, such as city council or the local school board, a post on the State Board of Education, a Texas House seat or the U.S. Congress, said Kimberly Caldwell, program director of Annie’s List, which recruits, trains and endorses female Democratic candidates. Roughly half the attendees told Annie’s List organizers they are exploring their options, and roughly a third of the women said they want to learn so they can help someone else. Last week, 39 women joined a Candidate 101 training in Arlington. Another 43 met in Houston, as did 21 women in Cedar Park, a suburb of Austin. “It’s really designed to be a small first step. It’s really just getting yourself into the pipeline,” said Caldwell. That’s what some 220 women did by attending training meetings in Houston, Dallas, Tarrant County and San Antonio after the women’s marches of January 2017, held to protest Donald Trump’s election as president in 2016. “There was this desperate sense of, ‘What do I do? What do I do? I’m not OK with what happened,” recalled Caldwell. Republican women have had a tougher time making inroads in political office. Of the 38 women who won Texas state legislative races, just nine were Republicans. “The Trump effect is more of a factor than Hillary Clinton,” said Nancy Bocskor, director of the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at Texas Woman’s University and a former Republican fundraiser. “Those women just didn’t whine about, ‘Oh my gosh the world is falling apart.’ It was, ‘I am running for office.’ And they learned how to run for office and a lot of them ran good campaigns.” Some of the struggle for Republican women is they are not as aggressively recruited as Democratic women, said Bocskor. In part, that’s because Republicans eschew identity politics in favor of looking for candidates with broad-based party views, she said. “We need to change, but does anyone want to embrace change?” Bocskor said.

Star-Telegram - December 11, 2018

Ex-frat president at Baylor gets no jail time in rape case as judge accepts plea deal

A judge accepted the controversial plea deal for a former Baylor University fraternity president accused of sexual assault, granting Jacob Walter Anderson no jail time, according to a representative for State District Judge Ralph Strother. He will not have to register as a sex offender.

Strother made the decision on the deal at an 8:30 a.m. hearing in Waco on Monday. Anderson, 23, of Garland, was accused of raping a 19-year-old student, referred to as Donna Doe in court documents, at a Phi Delta Theta party in 2016. He was arrested, expelled from the university and, in June 2018, indicted on four counts of sexual assault. On Oct. 15, Anderson was offered a deal that would result in probation and counseling but no jail time, sparking declarations of outrage and protests in the community. Under the deal, Anderson agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge of felony restraint. In exchange, the district attorney’s office agreed to dismiss the four sexual assault charges he was indicted on. The deal includes a recommended three years of deferred adjudication probation, a $400 fine and psychological, alcohol and substance abuse counseling for Anderson, according to a representative with the McLennan County district attorney’s office. Anderson has waived any right to appeal the ruling, according to the McLennan County district clerk’s office. Those granted deferred adjudication probation typically do not have the conviction placed on their record if they do not violate any of the conditions of their probation. In a statement from the district attorney’s office sent Monday, the prosecutor handling the case, Hilary LaBorde, said she believes the sentence imposed by Judge Strother was the best outcome given the facts in the case. “Conflicting evidence and statements exist in this case making the original allegation difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” the statement read. “As a prosecutor, my goal is no more victims. I believe that is best accomplished when there is a consequence rather than an acquittal. This offender is now on felony probation and will receive sex offender treatment, a result which was not guaranteed, nor likely, had we gone to trial.” LaBorde’s statement also cautioned those upset about the agreement to consider their source of information. Any lawyer can issue a statement, but taking a statement and proving the truth of its contents beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury, when a complaining witness is subject to cross examination, is a different task entirely, the statement said. “Given the claims made publicly, I understand why people are upset,” the statement read. “However, all of the facts must be considered and there are many facts that the public does not have. In approving this agreement, Judge Strother had access to all the statements that have ever been made by all people involved and agreed that the plea agreement offered was appropriate in this case.”

Star-Telegram - December 11, 2018

Time to allow the Ten Commandments in Texas classrooms? One state lawmaker thinks so

State Rep. Dan Flynn of Van wants to make sure that any Texas teacher who wants to display the Ten Commandments in his or her classroom may do so. That’s why he filed House Bill 307 that says school officials — particularly school board trustees — cannot prevent copies of those commandments from being posted “in a prominent location” in classrooms.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Flynn. “If a teacher wants to put it in her classroom, she should be able to do it just as if she wanted to put up Halloween, Thanksgiving or any other decorations. “I think it’s a good list of disciplines that young people would find very meaningful to them.” Public displays of the Ten Commandments have sparked legal battles in the past. And this one likely will too, if Texas lawmakers approve it during the upcoming legislative session that begins Jan. 8. “It’s unconstitutional,” said Bob Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at the George Washington University Law School. “The government is limited in its ability to display religious messages. “You couldn’t have a banner hanging across the entrance to City Hall that says ‘Jesus saves.’ That would be the government invoking religion,” he said. “That’s what really is going on here with the Ten Commandments. Schoolchildren are subject to being a captive audience for particular government messages.” Tuttle said the fact that Flynn’s bill makes displaying the Ten Commandments optional — not required — is not important. “It’s a statement of what it’s like to live your life in the company of God,” he said. “It’s appropriate for congregations. ... But I do not believe that it’s something I want the state trying to explain.” Flynn has unsuccessfully proposed this measure in past legislative sessions. He noted there are monuments — such as the one on the Texas Capitol grounds — that are dedicated to the Ten Commandments. The one in Austin, that features the commandments carved into Texas Sunset Red Granite, was erected by the Fraternal Order of Eagles of Texas in 1961. In November, voters in Alabama approved a constitutional amendment allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed in government buildings and schools. When asked if this could spark a legal battle, Flynn said: “I don’t know why it should. It’s just allowing teachers to put something in their room that is about good values.”

Dallas Morning News - December 11, 2018

Developer backs out on buying historic Dallas Morning News campus after Amazon HQ2 bypasses Dallas

A development group is dropping plans to purchase the historic Dallas Morning News building in downtown Dallas. An affiliate of Dallas developer KDC and investor Hoque Global signed a contract in October to pay $33 million for The News' more than 7-acre former campus on the southwest side of downtown.

The developers pitched the property at Young and Houston streets as a site for Amazon's sought-after second headquarters project. But Amazon decided last month to bypass Dallas, one of 20 finalist cities, and split its $5 billion investment between Washington, D.C., and New York City. The developers exercised a clause that allowed them to cancel the purchase of The News property from parent company A. H. Belo Corporation. The contract with KDC and Hoque Global gave the buyers an inspection period through Dec. 14 and the right "to terminate the agreement at any time and for any reason" before then. "We are disappointed that this transaction will not close as anticipated, and A. H. Belo will work with its broker to actively market the property beginning now," Katy Murray, senior vice president and chief financial officer, said in a statement. A. H. Belo disclosed the contract termination in a regulatory filing Monday morning. KDC officials and Hoque Global CEO Mike Hoque declined to comment. The 69-year-old former newspaper offices and printing plant has been empty since last year when The News relocated its offices to the historic Dallas Public Library building on Commerce Street downtown. The property at 508 Young Street is next door to the Dallas Convention Center and across the street from a rail transit hub at Union Station. The News building was designed by noted architect George Dahl and is considered a candidate for redevelopment. The property is one of the largest development sites in downtown Dallas, with the potential for several million square feet of construction. KDC is one of Texas' biggest developers, specializing in corporate office campuses and mixed-use projects, including the $3 billion Legacy West development in Plano. Hoque Global has investments in multiple downtown-area properties. The company has operations in the restaurant, hospitality, event planning, technology, logistics and transportation businesses.

Dallas Morning News - December 10, 2018

Lubbock has seen more snow so far this season than Denver, Salt Lake City and Milwaukee

A weekend winter storm that dumped snow across the country covered Lubbock with 10 inches Saturday. The storm made a mess in Lubbock, and the city’s police and fire rescue crews responded to more than 60 car crashes over the weekend, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

It's more than some cities with snowy reputations have gotten so far this season, according to the National Weather Service. As of Dec. 9, both Detroit and Milwaukee had snowfall totals of 6.8 inches. Minneapolis have seen 7.3 inches, and Denver and Salt Lake City have each recorded 7.7 inches so far in the back half of 2018. The one-day total was more than Lubbock typically sees for an entire year. On average, the city records 8.2 inches per year, according to the National Weather Service. During meteorological winter, which is recognized as December through February, Lubbock gets 6.5 inches on average. The most snow Lubbock has recorded in a 24-hour span was 16.3 inches from Jan. 20 to 21, 1983. The winter blast didn't end in Lubbock when the snow stopped falling. At 15 degrees, the city had the coldest temperature in Texas on Monday morning. But by afternoon, the temperature had climbed to 50 degrees, melting most of the snow. Once it made its way through Lubbock, Winter Storm Diego took a toll in other parts of the country. Some cities in North Carolina and Virginia received as much as 18 inches of snow over the weekend, according to the weather service. The storm is responsible for three deaths and left hundreds of thousands of homes in the Southeast without power, according to The Weather Channel.

Associated Press - December 11, 2018

Texas school district's enrollment drops after mass shooting

A growing number of students are leaving the Houston-area school district where 10 people were killed in a mass shooting in May. Enrollment at the Santa Fe public school district has dropped by more than 4 percent this year, according to attendance figures obtained by the Houston Chronicle .

About 200 fewer students are attending the rural suburban district's schools this year compared to the 2017-2018 school year. Half of the loss comes from Santa Fe High School, where authorities say a 17-year-old student fatally shot 10 people. The district's enrollment decrease isn't an anomaly, as many other schools victimized by shootings have experienced similar exoduses. Frank DeAngelis, the former principal at Columbine High School in Colorado, estimated that nearly 20 percent of students didn't return to the school after two teenage shooters killed 13 people in 1999. "A lot of it was really the parents. They were concerned," DeAngelis said. "We did have students who were given the opportunity by our school district to go to other schools. A lot of kids were home-schooled because coming back to the building traumatized them." But the Santa Fe district is also dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Roughly 23 percent of students at the high school had their homes flooded or lost access to basic necessities following the devastating storm last year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. District spokeswoman Patti Hanssard said some families in the community still haven't been able to return to their homes. But only one of the six districts in Santa Fe's immediate area saw an enrollment decline. Santa Fe officials have acknowledged that the mass shooting may be the motivation behind many students leaving the district this year.

City Stories

Dallas Morning News - December 10, 2018

Dallas ISD stumbled through bus launch, but leaders say they're turning a corner

Dallas school district officials promised a better busing system if voters shut down a beleaguered agency mired with corruption. But as Dallas ISD wraps up its first semester in the transportation business, growing pains continue.

The new department remains without a director. Better software is needed. And parents continue to be frustrated over missed buses, long commutes and poor communication. District leaders acknowledge that the launch has been bumpy but said most major issues — such as late buses — are subsiding. "It was a challenge in six months to start a $50 million operation and hire 1,000 people to perform that," said Scott Layne, deputy superintendent of operations. "I'm not making excuses. We should have done a better job. I realize that. But I do feel like we've turned a corner. We're definitely making progress." The latest kink came in recent weeks when DISD had to backtrack from a move to consolidate stops. The effort upset surprised parents who didn't have a chance to give input before the change was announced. The plan was to have a common hub stop for children enrolled in many choice schools, magnet programs and collegiate academies — all key district initiatives aimed at boosting academic performance and luring families back to DISD from charter schools. "That would have moved my son's stop to a location twice as far" away from home, Aren Cambre said. "That would be very difficult for my family, to lose our support network of the neighborhood school. I had cautiously hoped for a better system from DISD."

Dallas Morning News - December 11, 2018

Dallas mayor says Trump administration's proposed 'public charge' rules would harm city's immigrants, economy

The city of Dallas is taking a stand against proposed changes by the Trump administration that could make it more difficult for some immigrants to obtain some visas or green cards.

The proposed changes would redefine how the government determines whether an immigrant is deemed likely to need public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid. In public comments submitted to the federal government on behalf of the city, Mayor Mike Rawlings argued that an overhaul of the so-called “public charge” test could have a “deleterious impact” on Dallas’ immigrant community, economy and public health. Rawlings wrote that immigration laws are “largely the domain of the federal government." But in Dallas, Rawlings wrote, “many thousands” of people “could be chilled from accessing health care, nutrition, housing assistance, and other supports that make families and our city as a whole healthier and stronger.” The result of the rules, the mayor wrote, is that local groups could “be forced to shoulder the cost of addressing the harm caused by this rule and of its negative economic and public health impacts on Dallas residents.” The Department of Homeland Security announced the proposed regulatory changes in September. Public charge rules allow immigration officials to weigh against applicants the likelihood that they'll use governmental assistance such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare Part D and certain housing programs. The proposed changes would change the standards the government uses to determine whether an immigrant is likely to become a “public charge.” The proposal also affects immigrants seeking an extension of their stay in the U.S. Monday marked the deadline to file public comments on the proposed changes. Nearly 190,000 had submitted comments as of Sunday night. Some Dallas-area nonprofit leaders have voiced concerns about possible effects of the changes. Dallas Area Interfaith leaders said some immigrant families have already withdrawn from programs for their U.S.-citizen children, even though the citizen children should face no restrictions.

National Stories

Washington Post - December 10, 2018

‘There was no Plan B’: Trump scrambles to find chief of staff after top candidate turns him down

After announcing the exit of his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, and being turned down by his pick to replace him, Nick Ayers, Trump found himself Monday in an unexpected predicament — scrambling to recruit someone to help run the executive branch of the federal government and guide the administration through the political tumult and possible legal peril ahead.

In any White House, the chief of staff is arguably the most punishing position. But in this White House — a den of disorder ruled by an impulsive president — it has proved to be an especially thankless job. The two people to hold the job were left with their reputations diminished after failing to constrain the president, who often prefers to function as his own chief of staff. Three members of Trump’s Cabinet who have been discussed inside the West Wing as possible chiefs of staff — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer — each signaled Monday that they were not interested in the position. Considerable buzz has centered on two other contenders. Rep. Mark Meadows, R-NC, noted his interest in the job by issuing a statement saying that “serving as Chief of Staff would be an incredible honor.” “It is not something I have been campaigning for,” Meadows told reporters Monday on Capitol Hill, adding that his phone “blew up” after the Ayers news broke. “The president has a good list of candidates. I’m honored to be one of those.” And acting attorney general Matthew G. Whitaker, who traveled with Trump to Kansas City, Mo., last week , is seen by the president and his allies as a loyalist. But Trump’s advisers and aides cautioned that there was not yet a front-runner. Although aides said the president is committed to finding a replacement for Kelly before the Christmas holiday, they said he has been vacillating — casting about in all corners for potential picks and frustrated by news coverage depicting his White House as a place where talented people do not want to work. In a flurry of private conversations with family members, friends and staffers, Trump has been crowdsourcing various names to solicit feedback, according to people who have spoken with him. In turn, some of those names have wound up in media reports as candidates for the job. Among the people seen as contenders, in addition to Meadows and Whitaker, are David N. Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager and an outside adviser; White House counselor Kellyanne Conway; Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor and former Trump transition chairman; Energy Secretary Rick Perry, a former Texas governor; Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania; and Wayne Berman, an executive at the investment firm Blackstone and a veteran Republican operative.

Washington Post - December 11, 2018

Two years after #Pizzagate showed the dangers of hateful conspiracies, they’re still rampant on YouTube

A year after YouTube’s chief executive promised to curb “problematic” videos, it continues to harbor and even recommend hateful, conspiratorial videos, allowing racists, anti-Semites and proponents of other extremist views to use the platform as an online library for spreading their ideas.

YouTube is particularly valuable to users of Gab.ai and 4chan, social media sites that are popular among hate groups but have scant video capacity of their own. Users on these sites link to YouTube more than to any other website, thousands of times a day, according to the recent work of Data and Society and the Network Contagion Research Institute, both of which track the spread of hate speech. The platform routinely serves videos espousing neo-Nazi propaganda, phony reports portraying dark-skinned people as violent savages and conspiracy theories claiming that large numbers of leading politicians and celebrities molested children. Critics say that even though YouTube removes millions of videos on average each month, it is slow to identify troubling content and, when it does, is too permissive in what it allows to remain. The struggle to control the spread of such content poses ethical and political challenges to YouTube and its embattled parent company, Google, whose chief executive, Sundar Pichai, is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill on Tuesday amid several controversies. Even on the House of Representatives YouTube channel that is due to broadcast the hearing, viewers on Monday could see several videos peddling conspiracy theories recommended by the site’s algorithm. “YouTube is repeatedly used by malign actors, and individuals or groups, promoting very dangerous, disruptive narratives,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “So whether it is deliberate or simply reckless, YouTube tends to tolerate messaging and narratives that seem to be at the very, very extreme end of the political spectrum, involving hatred, bias and bigotry.” YouTube has focused its cleanup efforts on what chief executive Susan Wojcicki in a blog post last year called “violent extremism.” But she also signaled the urgency of tackling other categories of content that allow “bad actors” to take advantage of the platform, which 1.8 billion people log on to each month. “I’ve also seen up-close that there can be another, more troubling, side of YouTube’s openness. I’ve seen how some bad actors are exploiting our openness to mislead, manipulate, harass or even harm,” Wojcicki wrote. But a large share of videos that researchers and critics regard as hateful don’t necessarily violate YouTube’s policies. The recommendation engine for YouTube, which queues up an endless succession of clips once users start watching, recently suggested videos claiming that politicians, celebrities and other elite figures were sexually abusing or consuming the remains of children, often in satanic rituals, according to watchdog group AlgoTransparency. The claims echo and often cite the discredited Pizzagate conspiracy, which two years ago led to a man firing shots into a Northwest Washington pizzeria in search of children he believed were being held as sex slaves by Democratic Party leaders. One recent variation on that theory, which began spreading on YouTube this spring, claimed that Democrat Hillary Clinton and her longtime aide Huma Abedin had sexually assaulted a girl and drank her blood — a conspiracy theory its proponents dubbed “Frazzledrip.”

Washington Post - December 11, 2018

44 Former Senators: We are former senators. The Senate has long stood in defense of democracy — and must again.

Dear Senate colleagues, As former members of the U.S. Senate, Democrats and Republicans, it is our shared view that we are entering a dangerous period, and we feel an obligation to speak up about serious challenges to the rule of law, the Constitution, our governing institutions and our national security.

We are on the eve of the conclusion of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the House’s commencement of investigations of the president and his administration. The likely convergence of these two events will occur at a time when simmering regional conflicts and global power confrontations continue to threaten our security, economy and geopolitical stability. It is a time, like other critical junctures in our history, when our nation must engage at every level with strategic precision and the hand of both the president and the Senate. We are at an inflection point in which the foundational principles of our democracy and our national security interests are at stake, and the rule of law and the ability of our institutions to function freely and independently must be upheld. During our service in the Senate, at times we were allies and at other times opponents, but never enemies. We all took an oath swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Whatever united or divided us, we did not veer from our unwavering and shared commitment to placing our country, democracy and national interest above all else. At other critical moments in our history, when constitutional crises have threatened our foundations, it has been the Senate that has stood in defense of our democracy. Today is once again such a time. Regardless of party affiliation, ideological leanings or geography, as former members of this great body, we urge current and future senators to be steadfast and zealous guardians of our democracy by ensuring that partisanship or self-interest not replace national interest. Max Baucus, D-MT, Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), Richard Bryan (D-Nev.), Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Max Cleland (D-Ga.), William Cohen (R-Maine), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.), John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), David Durenberger (R-Minn.), Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Bennett Johnston (D-La.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Paul Kirk (D-Mass.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), David Pryor (D-Ark.), Don Riegle (D-Mich.), Chuck Robb (D-Va.), Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), Mark Udall (D-Colo.), John W. Warner (R-Va.), Lowell Weicker (I-Conn.), Tim Wirth (D-Colo.)

New York Times - December 10, 2018

Targets of sanctions hire lobbyists with ties to Trump to seek relief

On a July evening, Trump administration officials and allies, including the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, gathered with investors atop the Hay-Adams hotel overlooking the White House for a cocktail reception featuring a short presentation by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s special envoy to the United States.

An invitation for the reception billed it as an opportunity to learn about “the role Africa plays in gaining access to critical minerals, such as cobalt” and to discuss “the strategic relationship” between the United States and the nations of Africa. In fact, the reception was part of an aggressive $8 million lobbying and public relations campaign that used lobbyists with ties to the Trump administration to try to ease concerns about the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, whose government was facing threats of additional sanctions from the Trump administration for human rights abuses and corruption. The lavish cocktail party was one example of a lucrative and expanding niche within Washington’s influence industry. As President Trump’s administration has increasingly turned to sanctions, travel restrictions and tariffs to punish foreign governments as well as people and companies from abroad, targets of those measures have turned for assistance to Washington’s K Street corridor of law, lobbying and public relations firms. The work can carry reputational and legal risks, since clients often come with toxic baggage and the United States Treasury Department restricts transactions with entities under sanctions. As a result, it commands some of the biggest fees of any sector in the influence industry. And some of the biggest payments have been going to lobbyists, lawyers and consultants with connections to Mr. Trump or his administration. “People overseas often want to hear that you know so-and-so, and can make a call to solve their problem,” said Erich Ferrari, a leading Washington sanctions lawyer who said he has tried to disabuse prospective clients of such notions. It is a perception that matches up with the pay-to-play mind-set that defines politics in many parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the former Soviet states. As politicians and executives from those regions have increasingly been targeted by sanctions, they have sought to apply that approach — backed by huge sums of cash — to navigating Washington, lobbyists and former government officials say. This has been encouraged, they say, by the willingness projected by Mr. Trump and his team to make deals around sanctions and tariffs exemptions. Previous administrations had worked to wall off politics from those processes, which are supposed to be overseen primarily by career officials and governed by strict legal analyses.

New York Times - December 11, 2018

Facing delay, Theresa May delays Brexit vote in Parliament

Britain’s embattled Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday postponed a critical parliamentary vote on her proposal for Britain’s departure from the European Union, a humiliating retreat that left the country’s economic and political future uncertain, and revealed her tenuous hold on power.

British lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on Tuesday on the agreement Mrs. May had reached with the bloc for Britain’s withdrawal, or Brexit. In changing course so late, Mrs. May has left the country without any clear way forward after an agonizing battle over an issue that has gripped British society for nearly three years. The question facing the United Kingdom remains as straightforward — and yet as divisive — as it was when a small but clear majority of voters called for breaking with the European Union: Is it possible to have a smooth and orderly divorce from Europe that will not cause a sudden break in all political and economic ties, and also spare the British economy? The answer, for now, seems to be a resounding no. And the country’s future is as uncertain as ever. But the opposition to her plan is also a rebuke to Mrs. May herself. After years of talking the talk of a hard-liner, insisting that no deal was better than a bad deal, Mrs. May showed up with a compromise that seemed to anger everyone on all sides of the debate. While a strong prime minister with reserves of political capital might also find it impossible to escape the political quicksand that is Brexit, Mrs. May has few allies even among her own party and is facing constant speculation that she could confront a no-confidence vote. She is hanging on only because her party cannot agree on an alternative. In this reality, no plan and political paralysis means Britain could be staring at a hard break on March 29. That would mean that suddenly, in one dramatic moment, Britain’s time would run out and it would lose much of its economic and political links to Europe. Banking, trade, travel, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — all would possibly change overnight.

CNN - December 10, 2018

Trump concerned about being impeached, sees it as a 'real possibility,' source says

President Donald Trump has expressed concern that he could be impeached when Democrats take over the House, a source close to the President told CNN Monday. The source said Trump sees impeachment as a "real possibility." But Trump isn't certain it will happen, the source added.

A separate source close to the White House told CNN that aides inside the West Wing believe "the only issue that may stick" in the impeachment process is the campaign finance violations tied to former Trump attorney Michael Cohen's payouts to Trump's alleged mistresses. Impeachment talk has ratcheted up in recent days following a blockbuster filing from prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. In that filing, prosecutors directly alleged for the first time that Cohen was being directed by Trump when he broke the law during the 2016 presidential campaign. Democrats are suggesting Trump committed an impeachable offense and could be sent to prison when his term in the White House is over. The incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Nadler, said Sunday the allegations, if proven, would constitute "impeachable offenses." Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said Monday Trump could be indicted after he leaves office. Cohen first made the allegation in court in September that he was directed by Trump to make the payments to the two women, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Prosecutors endorsed the allegation in a sentencing document for Cohen on Friday, in which they said Cohen should receive a "substantial sentence" for the crimes he committed, which included campaign finance violations for the payments to the two women, tax fraud and lying to Congress. White House officials, at the moment, still don't believe special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into possible collusion will result in impeachment. Officials are also comforted by their belief that the campaign finance issue is not seen as enough to galvanize bipartisan support for impeachment. Another separate source said Trump remains confident at this point that, while he could be impeached in the House, he doesn't believe he would be convicted in the Senate as the GOP remains in control there. The campaign finance issue tied to the alleged mistresses is not viewed as having the firepower to trigger a bipartisan vote for conviction and removal in the Senate, the source said. These beliefs about the politics at play in impeachment proceedings are based on what White House officials believe Mueller has on Trump right now. It's still unclear exactly where else the special counsel's probe could go.

CNN - December 10, 2018

Macron promises minimum wage hike in response to violent protests in France

French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that the minimum wage will be raised and that new taxes on pensions would be scrapped as he responded to weeks of violent protests which have challenged his leadership.

In a televised address to the nation, Macron said the violent protests –– which have morphed from a grassroots movement against fuel tax hikes to disparate demonstrations against his presidency –– have been "unacceptable" and "will not be in any way indulged." But he proposed several social reforms, including an increase in the minimum wage by 100 euros ($113) a month beginning in January 2019 that will not cost employers extra and a promise that overtime hours will not be taxed. Macon also remained defiant and said he would not reinstate the wealth tax but will fight tax fraud. The reforms are expected to cost the government between $8.1 billion and $10.1 billion, Oliver Dussopt, France's secretary of state to the Ministry of Public Action and Accounts, told French television station BFM. While Macron conceded that much of the anger that protesters feel is "just" and that people had "legit concerns," he condemned the violence which arose during the protests -- including cars being set afire and property vandalized. "No anger justifies attacking a policeman or pillaging a public place or shop," he said. "When violence breaks out, freedom is lost." Macron added that the discontent comes from "40 years of malaise" but acknowledged his government has not been able to respond to it properly in the 18 months it had been in power. He said he assumed his responsibility for that. "We are at a historical changing point in the history of our country," Macron added. "Through dialogue, respect, commitment we will succeed ... My concern is only you, our only battle is for France." On Monday morning, as Macron met trade unions and business leaders ahead of tonight's much-anticipated national address, French students took further action. There were disruptions in up to 120 schools across the country -- including 40 schools completely blockaded by students -- a spokeswoman for the Education Ministry said. The students were demonstrating against the government's recent education reforms, including changes to university admissions, which they say will be more selective. Macron is expected to call for national unity this evening in the wake of "gilets jaunes" -- or "yellow vests" -- protests that saw 1,709 people held in custody following the most recent weekend of demonstrations.

CNN - December 10, 2018

ICE arrested 170 potential sponsors of unaccompanied migrant children

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 170 potential sponsors of unaccompanied minors who were in government custody from late July to late November, according to numbers released on Monday.

Of those arrested, 109 — about 64 percent — had no criminal record but were suspected of being in the US unlawfully, and 61 — about 36 percent — were classified as "criminal aliens," according to ICE. The arrests stemmed from background checks done by ICE for the Department of Health and Human Services on potential sponsors for unaccompanied children. HHS is responsible for the care of migrant children who enter the US illegally until they can be released to family or a suitable sponsor is found. During the approximately four-month period, background checks revealed that about 80% of all potential sponsors were undocumented. The San Francisco Chronicle first reported the numbers. In April, the Department of Homeland Security and HHS signed an information sharing memorandum on unaccompanied minors for the purpose of providing "HHS with information necessary to conduct suitability assessments for sponsors from appropriate federal, state, and local law enforcement and immigration sources." In September, CNN reported that ICE arrested 41 people who had come forward as sponsors for minor children in government custody and, at the time, an ICE official said 70% of those arrests were for immigration violations. It was the first time ICE confirmed it was arresting potential sponsors of children in government custody for potential immigration violations. The individuals could have been the children's parents or family members, and they also could have merely been fellow members of the homes of adults who applied to care for the children as they fight for a legal right to stay in the US. Undocumented children who arrive in the US by themselves will often seek to be placed with relatives who may also be living in the US illegally. The Trump administration has described this process as a circumvention of law in order to exploit more lenient policies for children, even labeling it the "smuggling" of children. But, advocates who work with the children and the attorneys who represent them say many of these children are fleeing extremely dangerous situations in their home countries and have legitimate claims to stay in the US that could take years to pursue. Family and friends already in the US can provide stable homes for them as they pursue those avenues of legal status, immigration advocates believe.

Politico - December 10, 2018

Pelosi, rebels discuss limiting her time as speaker to four years

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and a group of House Democratic rebels are discussing a proposal to cap her time as speaker to four years, a move that could clear the way for the California Democrat to clinch the gavel in the coming days.

The idea is part of a broader deal being floated that would limit the time all House Democratic leaders can serve, including Pelosi's two longtime lieutenants, Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina. The plan would be a dramatic shift for Pelosi, who has refused to put an end date on her tenure as she works to reclaim the speakership. Under the terms of the deal, Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn would be able to serve three terms with an option for a fourth term if they can win the support of two-thirds of the caucus, according to multiple Democratic sources. The effect would be retroactive, meaning the two terms the trio ruled in the majority from 2007 to 2011 would count against their tenure. The potential deal comes after days of private talks between Pelosi and a group of more than a dozen rank-and-file House Democrats who have publicly opposed her bid to be speaker. Pelosi overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination for speaker during caucus leadership elections a few weeks ago. But she still remains short of the 218 votes she needs to win the gavel during a House floor vote on Jan. 3. Pelosi can lose 17 Democratic votes and still become speaker. Currently, around 20 Democrats are on record vowing to vote against her on the floor. The California Democrat is looking to peel off a handful of those rebels, and allowing a term-limits proposal to move forward could be the price she pays for any such deal. Hoyer and Clyburn, Pelosi's fellow septuagenarians, would almost certainly oppose such an effort. Hoyer told reporters he‘s “not for term limits“ while walking into the House chamber on Monday night. Pelosi and her detractors are also considering a plan to impose term limits on committee chairs, but that part of the deal is still fluid, according to Democratic sources with knowledge of the talks. A deal on term limits for committee chairs could be agreed to separately and at a later date, they said. Pelosi has not agreed to any of the proposed changes and the parameters of the deal could still change, the sources cautioned.

Politico - December 11, 2018

‘I wasn’t asking for permission’: GOP women put leaders on notice

The already meager ranks of female House Republicans had just been further decimated in the midterms when Rep. Ann Wagner was readying a play to head the party’s campaign arm — in the hopes of leading a recovery.

Wagner was indisputably well-credentialed for the job: The Missouri Republican had just won in a competitive district. She had experience raising money as finance director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as past success helping Republican women win campaigns. A band of supportive lawmakers stood ready to vote her into the position. But there was one major problem: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t want her leading the NRCC. The California Republican called Wagner to express his preference for a far less prominent male lawmaker, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, according to three sources familiar with the conversation. Wagner could have defied McCarthy — some lawmakers and aides thought she’d win if she would have — but she realized doing so would create tension and would be counterproductive as the party tried to pivot toward 2020. Wagner decided not to run. “The leader had a different plan,” was all Wagner would say about her decision. Some House Republican women are frustrated that their male counterparts aren’t taking the party’s problem with women seriously. After brutal midterm elections — in which suburban moms broke heavily from Republicans to back Democrats, and the number of GOP female lawmakers shrank from 23 to 13 — Republican women are telling their overwhelmingly male colleagues that if they don’t solve their women problem they won’t win back the majority. Several Republican women are preparing their own plans to help their female colleagues, support women candidates and woo suburban women just in case nobody listens. Wagner, for example, is about to relaunch a “suburban caucus” in the House. The group will craft an agenda aimed at winning back suburban women by promoting issues like paid family leave and child care tax credits. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, also announced last week she would leave the NRCC for which she recently recruited a record number of GOP women to run. Instead, she’ll be building her own political operation helping those very Republican women win in primaries. “I am going to keep pointing out to my colleagues that we are at a crisis level for GOP women,” Stefanik said in a recent interview. “This election should be a wake-up call to Republicans that we need to do better … We need to be elevating women’s voices, not suppressing them.” In interviews with POLITICO, Republican women were divided about whether GOP leaders and their male colleagues were getting the message. In one of his first moves as NRCC chairman-elect, for example, Emmer told a reporter Stefanik’s idea to help female candidates in primaries was “a mistake.”

Reuters - December 11, 2018

U.S. military ends search for five Marines missing off Japan

The U.S. military ended a search on Tuesday for five Marines missing in the sea off Japan since two Marine Corps aircraft were involved in an accident during an air-to-air refueling exercise on Dec. 6.

The five missing crew of a KC-130 Hercules refueling plane were officially declared deceased. “We know this difficult decision was made after all resources were exhausted in the vigorous search for our Marines,” Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell Maury, commander of the U.S. Marine Corps’ (USMC) Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron, said in a statement. “Our thoughts are heavy and our prayers are with all family and friends of all five aircrew.” Two marine pilots flying an F/A-18 Hornet jet fighter and the five crew members onboard the KC-130 Hercules went missing in waters about 320 km (200 miles) off the Japanese coast following what U.S. officials have said may have been a mid-air collision. One of the two Hornet pilots found by search and rescue teams died. The other was injured. U.S. and Japanese ships and aircraft did not, however, locate the crew of the Hercules. Both aircraft flew from the USMC’s Iwakuni air station in Japan. The accident added to a lengthening list of U.S. military aviation accidents around the world in recent years. The spate of incidents has prompted Congress to hold hearings to address concern over the toll on personnel and equipment taken by continuous combat operations, deferred modernization, lack of training, and aging equipment.

Reuters - December 10, 2018

Reluctant U.S. Supreme Court on collision course with Trump

The U.S. Supreme Court’s reluctance to take up new cases on volatile social issues is putting it on a collision course with President Donald Trump, whose Justice Department is trying to rush such disputes through the appeals system to get them before the nine justices as quickly as possible.

That tension could come to head in 2019 if the court continues to avoid cases that the Republican president’s lawyers are aggressively trying to bring to the justices. The court’s 5-4 conservative majority includes Trump appointees Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. While Trump has suffered a series of setbacks in lower federal courts since taking office last year, he has collected major victories at the Supreme Court. Most notably, the court in June upheld in a 5-4 ruling Trump’s travel ban targeting people from several Muslim-majority countries, with Gorsuch casting a pivotal vote, after lower courts had blocked the policy. But since Kavanaugh joined the bench in October after a bitter Senate confirmation fight, the court has declined to take up appeals by conservative-leaning states seeking to deny public funds to women’s healthcare and abortion provider Planned Parenthood, while postponing action on a dispute over federal employment protections opposed by Trump’s administration for gay and transgender people. At the same time, the administration has been seeking to leap-frog more liberal-leaning lower courts to get cases on divisive questions over immigration, transgender rights and the U.S. census before the justices more rapidly. “The court seems to be in go-slow mode at the moment when it comes to big cases. The court appears content to focus on meat-and-potatoes cases rather than blockbuster ones,” said Kannon Shanmugam, a lawyer who regularly argues cases before the justices. Trump has frequently railed against the lower courts, especially the liberal-leaning San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that have ruled against him in some major cases including the travel ban. In a setback to social and religious conservatives who strongly support Trump, the high court on Monday declined to take up appeals by Kansas and Louisiana to deny Planned Parenthood public funds under the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor. Three of the court’s five conservatives voted to hear the matter, but with conservatives Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts declining to join them they fell a vote short of the required four needed to take up a case. Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas accused his colleagues of ducking the case because of its controversial nature. Last week, the court put off action in another divisive case involving whether federal employment law outlaws discrimination against gay and transgender people. There are three appeals on the issue begging attention from the court, but the justices have not yet acted.

Associated Press - December 11, 2018

Some Trump allies starting to worry about investigations

President Donald Trump’s intensifying legal troubles are unnerving some of his fellow Republicans. Despite his brash stance, they believe the turmoil has left him increasingly vulnerable as he gears up for what is sure to be a nasty fight for re-election.

Trump, ever confident of his ability to bend story lines to his will, mocks the investigations into his conduct as candidate and president as a “witch hunt” and insists he will survive the threats. But a shift began to unfold over the weekend after prosecutors in New York for the first time linked Trump to a federal crime of illegal hush payments. That left some of his associates fearful that his customary bravado is unwarranted. For some Republicans, the implication that the president may have directed a campaign finance violation, which would be a felony, could foreshadow a true turning point in the Republican relationship with him when special counsel Robert Mueller releases his report on the Russia investigation. “I’m sure there’s going to be a lot more that’s going to come out from the Southern District (of New York) and from, at some point, from the Mueller investigation as well,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the chamber’s incoming No. 2 Republican, said Monday. “What they’re implying there, obviously, is something I assume at some point the president will have an opportunity to respond to.” Thune continued, “Campaign finance violations are something that ... they are serious matters, but obviously it depends a little bit on how it gets treated.” As the legal drama plays out, political challenges that could threaten Trump’s re-election are piling up. Republicans are still coming to terms with their drubbing in last month’s House elections and looking for someone to blame. The departure of John Kelly as White House chief of staff has set off a disorganized search for a replacement who could stay in the job through the 2020 campaign. After Trump’s top choice, the vice president’s chief of staff Nick Ayers, passed on the job, few of the remaining candidates have political experience. Also, Democrats will soon take control of the House of Representatives, wielding subpoena power and potentially exploring impeachment proceedings. Meanwhile, financial markets have been jittery, in part because of Trump’s trade wars and concerns that higher borrowing costs could ultimately trigger a recession. Facing pressure from Mueller and an impending onslaught of Democratic investigations, Trump could hew even further to the right, catering exclusively to the base of voters he is concerned about losing, according to a Republican close to the White House who has consulted on the early re-election efforts. That instinct would echo the president’s double-down, scorched-earth response to the crises that hit his 2016 campaign, including the “Access Hollywood” tape about forcing himself on women, and could make it harder to woo the independent voters or disaffected Democrats he may well need. Could Trump face a primary election challenge from within his own party? He doesn’t seem concerned. The president is eager to unleash his re-election machinery and begin to collect pledges of loyalty from across the GOP to quell any hint of an insurrection, according to a campaign official and a Republican familiar with the inner workings of the campaign but not authorized to speak publicly. The Trump team has discussed the possibility of a challenge from someone such as outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich or Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake. A week after the midterm elections, Kasich traveled to New Hampshire for a public speech and private meetings with prominent Republicans. Flake, who has tangled repeatedly with Trump, isn’t making any personal commitment, but his feelings about a challenger are clear. “Somebody needs to run” against Trump, he said Monday. “I hope somebody does.”

Associated Press - December 11, 2018

Agency: Fear of returning home spikes at US-Mexico border

The number of people expressing fear of returning to their home countries when stopped at the U.S. border with Mexico has spiked, according to figures released Monday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

U.S. border authorities fielded 92,959 "credible fear" claims — the initial step toward asylum — in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up 67 percent from 55,584 the previous year. The "credible fear" claims accounted for 18 percent of all people arrested or stopped at the Mexican border in the latest period, up from 13 percent a year earlier. CBP publicly released the numbers for the first time as more migrants, many of them families and children from Mexico and Central America, seek asylum or other forms of humanitarian protection to gain entry to the U.S. The trend was highlighted by a caravan of more than 6,000 migrants, largely from Honduras, that arrived in Tijuana, Mexico, last month, many hoping to seek asylum across the border in San Diego. Commissioner Kevin McAleenan noted that most asylum claims are ultimately unsuccessful in immigration court and he renewed the Trump administration's call for Congress to address "these vulnerabilities in our immigration system." Judges granted asylum in 21 percent of their cases in the 2018 fiscal year. "These numbers reflect a dramatic increase in initial fear claims by those encountered on the border, which is straining border security, immigration enforcement and courts, and other federal resources," McAleenan said. CBP didn't say how many people it stopped passed the initial screening, or "credible fear" interview, but historically about three in four clear the hurdle. They are detained or released, often with ankle monitors, while their cases wind through clogged immigration courts. U.S. border authorities are increasingly telling asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, saying they are they are unable to process claims for everyone at once. The wait in Tijuana was about six weeks even before the latest caravan arrived. Initial fear claims at official crossings — the prescribed way to claim asylum — more than doubled in the last fiscal year to 38,269, according to CBP. Claims by people who crossed illegally between ports of entry rose 43 percent to 54,690.

NBC News - December 10, 2018

Supreme Court gives victory to Planned Parenthood in Medicaid case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left lower court victories intact for Planned Parenthood in a legal battle with states over access by Medicaid patients to the group's services.

The dispute did not involve abortion, but the action by the justices keeps a hot-button political issue off the docket. Three of the court's conservatives said the court should have taken the case. After an anti-abortion group released videos in 2015 that purported to show officials from Planned Parenthood talking about selling fetal tissue, several states immediately terminated Medicaid provider agreements with the group's affiliates. The videos were largely discredited, but the states involved said they found the allegations troubling. Medicaid patients in Kansas and Louisiana, two of the states that took action against Planned Parenthood, claimed the states violated Medicaid's requirement that patients must be free to seek their health care from any qualified and willing provider. They sued, and lower federal courts found in their favor, entering injunctions that ordered those states to lift their bans. In declining to take up the states' appeals, the Supreme Court's action on Monday leaves those lower court victories for the Medicaid patients in place. Planned Parenthood offers Medicaid patients vaccines, wellness examinations, screening for breast and cervical cancer, contraception services and pregnancy testing. But abortion is not offered, because federal funds cannot pay for them except in cases of rape, incest or life endangerment. The Kansas affiliate said it provides "essential medical care for hundreds of low-income Kansans each year." The states argued that the Medicaid law does not give individual patients the right to sue when health care providers are excluded. If a state acts improperly, they said, the law provides only one remedy: The federal government can withhold Medicaid funds from the states. "Allowing private enforcement destroys the careful balance Congress established between the states and federal agencies," lawyers for Louisiana told the court. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch said the court should have taken up the appeals because the issue of whether Medicaid recipients can sue is an important one. "These cases are not about abortion rights," Thomas wrote. "So what explains the court's refusal to do its job here? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that some respondents in these cases are named 'Planned Parenthood.'"

The Hill - December 11, 2018

Budget deficit soars in first two months of fiscal year

The country's budget deficit in the first two months of fiscal 2019, which began Oct. 1, was 50 percent higher than in the same period the previous year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, though the figure was inflated by timing.

In October and November, the federal government spent $303 billion more than it took in, compared to $202 billion in the same period of fiscal 2018, according to the CBO. Tax revenues were just 3 percentage points higher than the previous year, largely because of the GOP tax law, while spending surged 18 percent. CBO noted that the data was somewhat skewed, however, because of when certain payments were made due to weekends. Without the timing shift, CBO said, revenues would have increased $27 billion — just 4 percent — instead of $115 billion. That change, in turn, would have left the deficit increasing just $13 billion, about 6 percent more than the previous year. The federal debt and deficit have grown dramatically since President Trump took office, a product of the tax cuts, biparisan spending increases and ongoing growth in mandatory spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare. CBO has warned that if the debt continues to grow at the current level, it could lead to severe financial and economic consequences.

Wall Street Journal - December 11, 2018

U.S. and China kick off a new round of trade negotiations

The U.S. and China started the latest round of trade talks with a phone call involving Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He.

The three senior officials discussed Chinese purchases of agricultural products and changes to fundamental Chinese economic policies during the phone call, said people familiar with the conversation. They didn’t provide further details. As part of the trade truce reached between Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump, Chinese officials are also considering making changes to the Made in China 2025 plan, a state-led industrial policy aimed at enabling Chinese companies to dominate a number of industries such as artificial intelligence and robotics, said people familiar with the matter. The policy is a focal point of the U.S.’s complaints that Beijing engages in unfair trade practices that put foreign firms at a disadvantage to Chinese companies. China’s Commerce Ministry, in a brief statement, said the conversation—held Monday evening in the U.S., Tuesday morning in China—was meant to “push forward with next steps in a timetable and road map” for negotiations. Mr. Liu plans to travel to Washington after the new year, people familiar with the matter said. The call follows up the 90-day tariff cease-fire agreed to by Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping this month. U.S. and Chinese officials have said that Beijing has planned to announce purchases of soybeans as a goodwill gesture in the talks which are expected to conclude around March 1. During the negotiations, the U.S. said it won’t raise tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods to 25 percent from 10 percent, as it had planned to do on Jan. 1. By holding the phone call, both sides are suggesting a willingness to keep the negotiations from getting derailed by Chinese anger at the arrest in Canada at the U.S. request of a senior executive at China’s Huawei Technologies Co. The executive, Meng Wanzhou, is the daughter of Huawei’s founder, and the U.S. is seeking her extradition for allegedly misleading banks about the telecommunications equipment giant’s business in Iran to evade U.S. sanctions. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in remarks Tuesday that Beijing would firmly resist “acts of bullying that wantonly infringe upon the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens.” His spokesman later told reporters Mr. Wang was referring to all such instances, including Ms. Meng’s case. Still, state media and social-media censors have been careful not to stir up anti-U.S. sentiment, in an apparent effort to separate the Huawei issue from the trade negotiations. President Xi has instructed his lieutenants to follow through on the agreement he reached with Mr. Trump, according to Chinese officials.