Abbott issued an order Sunday that suspended much of the state’s bail laws and banned the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes unless they pay cash bail. Those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.
The order was intended to keep violent criminals off the street at a time when officers and the public had enough to worry about, Abbott said, but it immediately drew rebukes from attorneys and Democrats who said it only kept poor people in jail. Several legal scholars and advocates questioned the constitutionality of such an order, and a legal challenge was expected.
On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.
“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention—but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.
Harris County’s misdemeanor courts have already been found in federal court to discriminate against poor defendants in past bail practices, and the judges are now under a federal order to release most low-level defendants on no-cash bonds. The misdemeanor judges said Tuesday they would not be following Abbott’s order, stating a federal court decree outweighs a governor’s order.
Until last month, Ted Stanford of McKinney was a programmer for a Nebraska-based software company providing voting machines for Collin County’s runoff primary elections. But after Gov. Greg Abbottdelayed those elections during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Stanford said his company laid off him and eight of his coworkers.
The 67-year-old received unemployment benefits years ago. So when he tried to file a new claim online after last month’s layoff, he was required to enter a PIN he couldn’t remember.
“At that point, it says call the unemployment office,” he said. “I bet I’ve called 50 times this morning, and I just keep getting a busy signal.”
That signal has become a familiar sound to Stanford and a historic number of Texans whose incomes were lost, cut or threatened as sweeping orders meant to prevent the virus’ dangerous spread uprooted household finances, entire industries and the economy as a whole. Yet as tens of thousands of Texans try to file unemployment insurance claims, they’re finding the Texas Workforce Commission’s phone lines jammed and website servers overloaded as the agency is swamped by the crush of sudden need.
State officials recognize the problems and are scurrying to fix them. Normally, the commission receives between 13,000 and 20,000 calls to its toll-free phone number on an average day. Last week, however, that number surpassed 1.5 million calls received in a 24-hour period, said Cisco Gamez, a spokesperson for the commission.
Not all of the calls reflect individuals trying to file new unemployment claims since some people might be calling to check on their application status.
“Just know that you’re not going to be denied your claim just because you’re having a hard time getting through,” Abbott said at a press conference Tuesday.
But those assurances — and state leaders’ scramble to beef up servers and increase staffing — are doing little to appease the anxiety of Texans who face mounting bills and housing payments, which were due Wednesday for most renters.
Last week, TWC repurposed 200 employees from another department to help take claims. State Rep. Erin Zwiener said the agency told lawmakers Wednesday it plans to transfer 250 more. Zwiener said that TWC is also partnering with two private call centers to add up to 350 additional operators.
“We’re trying to be fluid,” Gamez told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday. “We’re hiring to meet the demand.”
But many Texans who are eventually getting through say that their claims are being denied after being processed through a set of parameters that haven’t caught up to the myriad new circumstances people face in a pandemic that has changed virtually every aspect of life and the Texas economy in a matter of weeks.
Melanie Adams, a 49-year-old in Fort Worth who has a compromised immune system, had a string of chronic health emergencies that prevented her from working last year. But she finally secured a job as a cookware retailer at Williams-Sonoma, where she worked for five months before the company, like many retailers, laid off a large swath of its workforce.
She immediately started applying for unemployment and found a trick to avoiding a crashing website: File at 3 a.m.
Adams said TWC responded swiftly — with a denial. TWC said she did not qualify for benefits because she didn’t work enough prior to the health disaster.
“I was dealing with chronic health issues,” Adams said. “They are not lifting any of the standard procedures, they’re not making any exceptions for this crisis and there’s a lot of people falling through the cracks.”
More than 155,000 Texans filed unemployment claims the week ending March 21 — an 860% surge over the previous week and a number dramatically higher than the amount of people seeking relief weekly during the Great Recession between 2007 and 2009. That number reflects people who filed claims the same week that the state’s urban areas, and eventually Abbott, began shuttering bars and restaurant dining rooms.
The number of unemployment claims filed the week ending March 28 isn’t expected to be released until later this week. Those figures will show the number of people who filed claims after the state’s urban officials issued stay-at-home orders that shuttered even more businesses and barred Texans from leaving their homes except for essential trips like getting groceries, picking up prescriptions or seeking medical attention.
The numbers expected this week won’t include claims filed after Abbott issued a statewide order Tuesday that is largely similar in effect to those earlier local directives, even if he hesitated to give his order a familiar label such as a stay at home or shelter in place.
That order lasts through April and will leave schools closed until at least May 4.
When his 7-year-old daughter’s school district closed, Houston computer engineer Charles Roberts took off work because he is the only one in his house able to care for her. His employer assured him that his job will be there when he returns, but he won’t be paid during his time away. His unemployment claim was denied because he did not work enough in the months prior to filing.
Roberts said a representative for the agency gave him a customer service number to call for his unique situation.
“And lo and behold, that number has been busy since I got it … but I need something done,” Roberts said.
Mona Youngblood, 50, is a substitute teacher in Humble on a long-term assignment who said she will miss out on earnings because of an extended spring break and prolonged school closures.
“Being a substitute teacher is not like being certified,” Youngblood said. “They’re guaranteed to get paid. We’re not.”
But before filing for unemployment online, she went to the unemployment office March 23. At that time, officials were limiting the number of people in the office.
“You could see the dismay or disappointment on their faces,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood is among the lucky Texans who not only got through, but had her unemployment claim approved. She also likely qualifies for the direct payment that was part of the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act relief package. Youngblood, though, said those direct payments may still not be enough for everyone to stay afloat as society and the economy remain paralyzed to stop the virus.
“I’m not saying it’s all the government’s responsibility,” Youngblood said. “I’m thankful for what they are doing, but they could probably do more.”
The Texas Supreme Court has halted all evictions until at least April 20, but landlords are still posting notices to vacate and threatening to kick out renters after that moratorium expires. Some cities and counties have opted to ban evictions for even longer than that. But tenants are still worried about racking up late fees and having to back pay several months of rent when the state and city orders lift.
Congress’ relief package also allows for up to 180 days of grace to borrowers of federally backed mortgages. And it includes funding for many Americans to receive direct payments of up to $1,200 for individual tax filers. It also allows for an additional $600 per week on top of what the state of Texas pays per week in unemployment.
“The good news is the money is there,” Abbott said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Linda Gamble’s company had been doing well before it had to shut down because of guidelines to stop the spread of coronavirus. On Friday, two weeks after being laid off, Gamble, a cook, received her last paycheck.
“I have no rent money to be paid this month,” Gamble, of Houston, said. “Being a cook, you don’t make that much money. When I was laid off, you kind of don’t have savings to really fall back on if you’re living paycheck to paycheck.”
After losing her job, Gamble tried to file for unemployment, but the Texas Workforce Commission’s site crashed. Gamble ended up waking up at 2 a.m. just to apply.
But when she went online to check the status, Gamble’s application was denied. She was redirected to another site to appeal the claim, but she wasn’t able to successfully log in and appeal.
“It keeps saying my password won’t work or the information I’m giving is incorrect,” Gamble said. “The information I’m putting in I know is correct. When I ask for the password to be reset, nothing gets sent to me. I try and call, and all I get is a busy signal.”
All the people working in Gamble’s kitchen lost their job due to the coronavirus, she said. Gamble’s friend, who works for another employer in hospitality and lost her job before Gamble did, was also denied unemployment benefits.
With restaurants closed for dine-in service, prospects of finding a job in the near future are grim. Gamble anticipates receiving money from the federal stimulus bill, and she will continue trying to file for unemployment relief.
“They say on the news that nobody’s being denied unemployment, but yet they are denying us,” Gamble said. “It’s by the grace of God that they’re turning around and saying they can’t evict us, because where would I be?”
Stanford, the McKinney programmer, isn’t optimistic that the extra personnel and servers TWC is promising will adequately handle the influx of claims.
“I don’t think that’s going to be enough,” Stanford said.
Neither does Adams.
“There are millions of people in need right now,” she said.
Gamez said that as of last week, PIN numbers created before 2015 have been cleared. However, people who have tried incorrect PINs too many times or have overpayments on their accounts will still need to call. Gamez said TWC is reaching out to people whose PINs are revoked for other reasons.
As of Tuesday, Stanford still hasn’t gotten through the phone lines to reset his PIN number.
Full-time public school teachers across Texas are finagling digital setups to teach classes online, calling to check in on students and their parents, and volunteering to help hand out meals — all while knowing their salaries are secure.
That’s not the case for Jennie Minor, a substitute teacher for the Gregory-Portland Independent School District, who has no work and no indication she will be making money teaching again anytime soon. The substitute jobs she had lined up for the next month dried up after schools were closed to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. Her other part-time job caring for a sick older neighbor also vanished after he ended up in the hospital with breathing problems.
State leaders have encouraged school districts to continue paying hourly workers and support staff, including bus drivers, custodial workers, teachers aides and cafeteria workers, while schools are closed. But they have left the details on how much and how long up to individual school boards. And some employees, like a number of substitute teachers who depended on the pay to close financial gaps, are not seeing any money at all.
With schools statewide closed at least through May 4, there’s unlikely to be a return to normal this academic year. “I would continue to substitute in a heartbeat if they said we’re opening tomorrow,” Minor said. “I got my last check last week, and now I’m going to have nothing else.”
Many school boards have passed resolutions promising to compensate all staff according to normal pay and work schedules through the end of their closures. The state has promised not to change school districts’ funding as long as they keep teaching students remotely, allowing them to continue paying staff without losing money.
Substitute teachers typically aren’t paid unless they have an ongoing assignment, such as filling in for a teacher on medical leave, according to Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. But districts are using hourly staff for jobs like handing out packets of academic materials or driving to deliver meals during an unprecedented time.
“The guidance from [the Texas Education Agency] has been consistently that funding won’t be cut this year as long as districts complete the year in some form or fashion,” Baskin said. “There’s really no financial incentive or any other incentive to stop paying hourly wages.”
That’s a relief for Delano Howard, a custodial supervisor at an Austin ISD elementary school, who went in with his staff to disinfect the building the first day it was closed. Austin ISD paid them time and a half for that work, a decision many districts have made at least temporarily for support staff working during school closures. But the district is only paying substitute teachers who are working, continuing a policy from the regular school year.
Howard financially supports his wife, who is diabetic and has high blood pressure, and his other part-time job as a school basketball referee is impossible since all games have been canceled. “Trust me, if I even lose one day of pay, it affects me tremendously. God forbid a week. It would really cause extreme financial hardship for me and my family,” he said.
But for some hourly workers, school districts’ promises to continue paying them feel vague and precarious, subject to change as the school closures stretch on. “From a legal perspective, it is conceivable” that school districts could pull back on a commitment to pay hourly workers, Baskin said. “I just haven’t heard of a district wanting to do that.”
And districts don’t want their employees to find other jobs, which could lead to a shortage once schools open again. Magnolia ISD is planning to continue paying employees their regular pay for the rest of the school closure, including additional pay for those required to go into the school buildings.
But Amber Hand, a bus driver at Magnolia ISD in the Houston area, is still nervously attempting to secure other jobs as a backup with her commercial driver’s license. So far, she hasn’t heard back.
“A lot of us are kind of sitting here going, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to make it through this?'” she said. “Everything’s being left up to each individual superintendent, each school district. Nobody knows what to expect, if we’re going to get paid. A month and a half from now, I might not be able to pay my car note.”
Disclosure: The Texas Association of School Boards has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Texans seeking abortions caught in limbo during legal fight over state officials’ attempt to ban the procedure
Harris County judges stick with federal agreement on bail — not Abbott’s order
Paying rent another challenge for out-of-work Texans — and their landlords
[5 a.m.] It’s the first of the month, which means that for millions of Texans, the rent is due.
But much has changed since a month ago. Thousands of people have lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state. Many more have taken pay cuts. Now, renters who can’t pay and landlords who are losing rent money are both worried about how they’ll make ends meet.
Most evictions are halted across the state until at least April 20, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court order, but an eviction moratorium isn’t a cure-all. Tenants are still worried about racking up late fees in the meantime and having to back pay several months of rent when the state and city orders lift.
Landlords say they’re hurting, too. They have bills of their own to pay, which are jeopardized when people don’t pay rent on time. And both renters and landlords are waiting on help from the federal government. — Naomi Andu and Stacy Fernández
Texans seeking abortions caught in legal tussle between providers and state officials
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order March 22 barring any procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary.” Attorney General Ken Paxton subsequently declared that the order applies to any abortions not considered critical to protect the life or health of the parent, prompting a lawsuit from a group of abortion providers that’s already landed before a federal appeals court.
The state can still enforce its ban, according to the latest ruling. That’s left many Texans seeking an abortion in limbo about what to do next. — Alana Rocha
Harris County sticks with federal court agreement on bail, which conflicts with Abbott’s executive order
Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds.
A law professor overseeingthe Harris County decree advisedcounty officials this weekthat the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order. — Jolie McCullough
It’s the first of the month, which means that for millions of Texans, the rent is due.
But much has changed since a month ago. Thousands of people have lost their jobs as the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down businesses across the state. Many more have taken pay cuts. Now, renters who can’t pay and landlords who are losing rent money are both worried about how they’ll make ends meet.
Most evictions are halted across the state until at least April 20, thanks to a Texas Supreme Court order, but landlords are still posting notices to vacate and threatening to kick out renters after the moratorium elapses, Zoe Middleton of Texas Housers said.
“[Rent notices] change in tones, but they are all pretty insistent on the fact that rent is due and you will be not living there if you don’t pay,” said Middleton, the southeast director of the affordable housing advocacy organization.
Some cities and counties have opted to ban evictions for even longer than the Texas Supreme Court has ordered. Austin has instituted a 60-day grace period, and the Dallas City Council may follow suit. Earlier this month, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins halted evictions through May 18. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suspended them through the end of March and signaled she was prepared to extend the ban past April 20 if the state didn’t act first.
But an eviction moratorium isn’t a cure-all. Tenants are still worried about racking up late fees in the meantime and having to back pay several months of rent when the state and city orders lift.
Whether the Supreme Court, city councils and county judges can go beyond eviction moratoriums and forgive owed rent is unsettled, but that is likely beyond their authority. Austin City Council member Greg Casar said in a tweet that although “the City, by law, cannot waive rent agreed to in a private contract,” there are other remedies available.
“The new law buys everyone valuable time,” Casar tweeted, referring to Austin’s grace period. “In 60 days, some families will recover. Others won’t. That’s why we’re working on a big rental assistance program in coming days to support the new law [and] fight to ensure no one loses their home.”
Grand Prairie resident Vincent Garza said people will need more time to pay rent. Garza was a week into his new job as a graphic designer for a screen-printing company before he got laid off. Soon after, his girlfriend’s realty job dried up.
The money they have saved will barely be enough to pay this month’s rent. He’s hoping his apartment complex will reduce his rent temporarily or let him roll over missed payments to future months once the job market stabilizes.
“I heard the neighbors the other day arguing about not having money either, so people are having trouble paying their rent for sure,” Garza said.
Sandy Rollins, executive director of the Texas Tenants’ Union, said she’s hopeful the governor will implement the same 60-day grace period Austin has on a statewide level as soon as possible or that other cities will take action to follow suit.
Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond to a request for comment.
Texans in need of assistance can apply for nonprofit or government rent assistance programs, but the timeline on when that money will come through can vary.
Even with an evictions moratorium, landlords can still post notices to vacate and file with the court. The Supreme Court’s order means the process is frozen at that stage until at least April 20. Until a tenant loses an eviction hearing and is removed by a constable, which won’t happen until April 27 at the earliest, the tenant can remain in the home.
“Texas is an extremely landlord-friendly state. Tenants deserve basic rights and basic protections in the name of fairness and right now in the name of public health,” Rollins said.
But landlords say they’re hurting, too. And they have bills of their own to pay, which are jeopardized when people don’t pay rent on time.
Amariah Olson, who co-owns and manages rental property in Dallas, said layoffs have started to hit his tenants hard. Because his property provides affordable housing and “probably the majority of the tenants live month to month without any savings,” Olson said he expects to see a significant impact on his residents.
In anticipation of the financial blow, Olson said his company has deferred its utility payments and is already considering letting staff go. The federal or state government needs to take responsibility for shutting down jobs and pay rent to multifamily property owners, he said.
“It really hasn’t hit hard yet, but it’s a looming monster up ahead that’s definitely going to start to impact the multifamily industry over the next one to two months, pretty severely,” Olson said.
Other property managers say they’re trying to be flexible.
Mike Francis, who runs a property management company for single-family homes in greater Austin, said his goal is “to keep [residents] in the property and reduce their stress.”
“If they’ve been affected by the COVID issue in any way, shape or form, then we’re flexible in letting them tell us what they can do,” Francis said. “Pretty much whatever they’re asking for, we’re doing all we can to accommodate their request.”
Those requests include payment plans, rent deferment and, occasionally, rent forgiveness.
The Texas Apartment Association is encouraging landlords and property managers to make payment arrangements with people affected by the coronavirus crisis and to waive late fees, association President Mark Hurley said. His company has reduced rent by 10% for all tenants through April.
The most important thing, Francis said, is that tenants be proactive in reaching out to their landlords early so they can form a plan together. Jenkins, the Dallas County judge, echoed this sentiment.
“All evictions [are] halted but pay what you can and work out a plan if you can’t pay your contractual obligation,” Jenkins tweeted. “Show grace to one another. Both of you are hurting.”
Both renters and landlords are waiting on help from the federal government.
The recently passed $2 trillion stimulus package allows property owners to defer federally backed mortgages for 90 days — if they halt evictions and late fees for that period — but the relief doesn’t address other kinds of mortgages.
But Rollins said there’s no guarantee that landlords will pass that relief on to tenants.
As for the promised $1,200 stimulus check, some won’t receive it: Anyone claimed as a dependent — which applies to most college students and many elderly and disabled people — is out of luck. For those who are eligible, it’s unclear when the one-time payment will make it to them or how long it can stretch.
Two days before the rent is due, managers for Damaris Sevillano’s public housing unit in Baytown have said nothing about how they’ll handle rent collection.
Sevillano, who lost her income because of the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn’t expect a rent cancellation, but she is pulling for management to relax its policies so tenants have more time to put together their rent check. One-time federal stimulus checks are still weeks out, and without a change to rent policy, Sevillano worries late fees will eat up the bit of money she’ll have left over for her family of four.
“It’s a little bit scary waiting for the government check right now that’ll come in two or three weeks,” Sevillano said. “A lot of our concern is that if you don’t pay your rent on time, they’re going to start charging fees. That can actually make it more difficult for people to pay.”
Heather Artrip, an out-of-work single mother of two sons, is facing down the prospect of a high-risk pregnancy in the middle of a pandemic.
The 30-year-old Austin woman lost her job as a server two weeks ago when city officials shuttered bars and restaurant dining rooms to limit the spread of the new coronavirus.
She wants to look for a new job, but doctors have deemed her pregnancy high risk. “I have a grade two prolapse. My uterus could fall out,” Artrip said. “I’d have to be bedridden for the majority of my pregnancy.”
Artrip’s plans to end the pregnancy were thrown into question when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared that abortions wouldn’t be considered essential procedures as local officials and medical professionals race to manage an expected onslaught of COVID-19 patients.
The day before her scheduled procedure, Artrip’s clinic called to cancel. She’s just one of potentially hundreds of Texans whose reproductive health decisions have been cast into uncertainty as the ongoing battle between abortion providers and Texas’ top officials plays out in the courts. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas has already canceled 261 abortions, KUT reported last week.
“It is definitely a terrifying place to be, in this purgatory. It’s very uncertain, and the roller coaster of emotions is extreme,” Artrip said.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order March 22 barring any procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary.” Paxton subsequently declared that the order applies to any abortions not considered critical to protect the life or health of the parent, prompting a lawsuit from a group of abortion providers.
On Monday, a federal court sided with those providers and temporarily blocked state officials’ attempted abortion ban. But on Tuesday, an appeals court overturned that decision. For now, that means the state can still enforce the ban, pending additional litigation. Attorneys on both sides of the legal battle have been directed to submit arguments to the same appeals court for further review.
This has taken a toll on Artrip. She still intends to end the pregnancy, but now she isn’t sure where or when it will happen. “I became so desperate that I tried to induce my own miscarriage, which in hindsight is incredibly dangerous,” she said.
Abortion providers argue that Texasofficials’ ban on the procedure reflects political opportunism and not genuine concern for conserving medical resources.
Just 3%of Texas abortions were provided at hospitals in 2017, according to the reproductive rights research organization the Guttmacher Institute. Abortions do not require extensive personal protective equipment because few health care workers are present for the procedure, providers said, and clinicians generally do not use the N95 masks that are needed to treat COVID-19 patients and have been in short supply nationwide.
“The Texas Attorney General’s enforcement threats are a blatant effort to exploit a public health crisis to advance an extreme, anti-abortion agenda, without any benefit to the state in terms of preventing or resolving shortages of PPE or hospital capacity,” abortion providers argued in their lawsuit.
A number of other states, including Ohio, Iowa, Mississippi, Alabama and Oklahoma, have made similar moves to restrict abortion access during the escalating pandemic, though Texas’ order was among the strictest. Federal judges in Alabama and Ohio blocked those states’ bans Monday.
The federal judge in Austin whotemporarily blocked enforcement of the ban wrotethat Paxton’s interpretation of the order “prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable.”
Meanwhile, Artrip says she’s looking at options across state lines. She’s been cold-calling abortion clinics in New Mexico and Arkansas.
“I am 100% pro-choice. I also would like to have a third child at some point,” she said. “Right now is not ideal considering we are experiencing a global crisis, a pandemic.”
Emma Platoff contributed reporting.
Disclosure: KUT and Planned Parenthood have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Editor’s note: If you’d like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey’s column, click here.
When Anderson County told residents not to assemble in groups with more than 10 people, officials got some pushback from churches. County Judge Robert Johnston said that was partly because residents wanted to meet on Sundays like they always have, but it was partly because they don’t have a way to meet online. “A lot of this county has no internet service,” he said.
Many jobs can’t be done from home. That often includes work that could be done remotely — if only the computers and networks were available. And it’s a particular problem in rural Texas, which lags far behind the rest of the state in access to the internet that many urban and suburban Texans take for granted.
It’s a problem in metropolitan areas of the state, too, but for a different reason: Computers and broadband are expensive.
At times, not having broadband is just an inconvenience. It would be nice to have Netflix or Hulu, maybe, but not essential. But when the people running your city or county tell you to stay home and work from there, or when the schools close and offer classes only online, internet access becomes a necessity.
Most of the state’s households — 94%, according to a preliminary report from Connected Nation Texas, a nonprofit focused on broadband access and adoption in the state — have access to at least a minimum level of broadband internet. That’s about a half-million households without access, according to Jennifer Harris, the organization’s state program director; about 440,000 of the Texas households without access to broadband are in rural Texas.
Access just means internet access for someone who wants it. The numbers on how many Texans actually have broadband are much lower. Only 65.6% of Texas households have adopted broadband, Harris said, citing numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The other 34.4% includes rural, suburban and urban Texans — anyone with access to broadband who doesn’t subscribe to it.
That leaves around one Texas household in three without a connection to the communications network that makes it possible to work from home — if your job even allows it — or to take part in online education being offered since the pandemic shuttered the state’s public schools. We’re 38th among the 50 states in broadband adoption.
Some of the solutions are creative. WesTex Connect, an internet service provider in Abilene, has set up free Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots next to football stadiums, at the Abilene Convention Center, in Clyde, in Merkle, at the Farmer’s Co-Op Gin in Stamford and next to a lumberyard in Stamford. More are on the way, the company says, for anyone with schoolwork to do, bills to pay, whatever requires internet access.
It’s great that the company is doing that, and a shame that it’s needed. Commerce and public education depend on internet access right now. In normal times — remember normal times? — someone without internet or a computer at home can go to a public library to get online. That’s true in cities and in small towns.
At the moment, internet is a necessity, a requirement for anyone who wants to stick with public health advice to stay at home, and also needs to get an education or work from home — not to mention paying bills, ordering groceries, catching up with friends and seeking entertainment.
The digital divide is not a new story, but it’s newly pertinent at a moment when real interactions among people are limited and virtual interactions are vital.
Some of this is about access. There are places — the woods of East Texas and the empty expanses of West Texas — where internet and even cellphone service are unavailable. Most of those are rural.
More of it is about adoption in places where access to broadband is available but where, for a variety of reasons — high prices, personal preferences, whatever — Texans aren’t connected to the virtual network that makes it possible for a social culture to weather a sudden, shocking change in how we talk and interact.
The pandemic has moved Texas online for education, commerce, health care and entertainment. But relying on that broadband network to keep us stitched together while we stay at home to keep the new coronavirus at bay leaves about a third of the state’s households at an unsustainable social distance.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order.Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.
And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.
On Tuesday, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges would not comply with Abbott’s recent executive order andwill continue to follow practices solidified in a federal court agreement that allow for theautomatic release ofmost misdemeanor defendants without collectingbail payment.
Before a lawsuit that spurred that agreement, the release of jail inmates accused of misdemeanors relied heavily on cash bail. Those practices were found unconstitutional in federal courts for discriminating against poor defendants, prompting a consent decree last year. Now, many Harris County defendants are required to be released on no-cost, personal bonds, where conditions like drug tests and regular check-ins can be imposed.
Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.
In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.
“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”
A law professor overseeingthe Harris County decree advisedcounty officials this weekthat the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.
“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.
Abbott said in the interview Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked on the order for days to ensure it met “constitutional muster.”
As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, local governments have moved to shrink the number of people in jails — an environment prime for the spread of disease — for fear that an outbreak behind bars could overwhelm local hospitals. In the Harris County jail, one inmate had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday and dozens more were symptomatic, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.
But asHarris County officialsmulleda large-scale release of inmates, Abbott issued his order.
“Releasing dangerous criminals makes the state even less safe … and slows our ability to respond to the disaster caused by COVID-19,” he said at a news conference Sunday, referring to the sometimes fatal respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The order was praised by some law enforcement, with Houston’s police union president saying a mass release of “violent felons” to the streets would make it harder for officers already overburdened by the pandemic. But it drew instant rebuke from criminal justice reform advocates, defense attorneys and Democrats — who questioned the governor’s authority to interfere with judicial actions and the constitutionality of the order.
“This order puts low-risk detainees in high-risk environments that could easily mean death,” said a statement by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
On Tuesday, Hidalgo announced an upcoming order to release up to 1,000 inmates accused of felony-level crimes who were being held in jail because they could not afford their bail amount. She said her order would be in line with Abbott’s order, and only apply to those accused of nonviolent offenses and who had no violent criminal histories.
But in the misdemeanor courts, most criminal history is not considered in the rules that determine if a defendant is released on a personal bond. As part of the federal court agreement, a large majority of low-level defendants must be released without having to pay bail quickly after arrest. Those accused of certain crimes, like domestic violence, or who were arrested while already out on bond or on probation, would not be released on an automatic personal bond and instead have to wait for a court hearing. The rules were put into place after the county’s cash bail practices were regularly slammed for being unconstitutional.
After Abbott issued his order to restrict personal bonds, Harris County prosecutors quickly began filing motions to the judges to deny personal bonds for people suspected of misdemeanors because of their criminal history, according to a letter written by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the lawsuit.
The letter, sent to Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, affirmed that the judges — who are being watched by a federal court monitor for seven years — would not comply with Abbott’s order to prohibit release on personal bonds those currently accused of low-level crimes because of a violent conviction in their past. Ogg’s office did not immediately respond to questions Tuesday.
“Please end the knee-jerk motions to deny personal bonds, in violation of [the federal court case] and the Constitution, which at best are a waste of everyone’s time, and at worst knowing, repeated assertions of baseless arguments,” Van Fleet wrote to Ogg.
Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.
During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.
“States that have adopted ‘stay-at-home’ policies or even some that use ‘shelter-in-place’ are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential services and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”
The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.
The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.
The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”
In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”
“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”
For over a week, Abbott has resisted calls for a statewide shelter-in-place order, leaving the decision up to local officials. In recent days, they have acted to put most of the Texas population under such orders.
Hours before Abbott’s news conference, the leaders of the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association released a letter to the governor saying the “time has come” for a statewide stay-at-home order.
“We urge you to implement this strict measure to prevent widespread illness in Texas,” the letter said.
Last week, 65 out of 67 Texas House Democrats called on Abbott to issue such an order.
After Abbott’s announcement Tuesday, state Rep. Chris Turner, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus, issued a statement saying the governor’s news conference “was confusing at times, but we believe it amounts to a step in the right direction.”
“By ordering all activity — apart from seeking or providing essential services — to cease or be conducted via telework, Gov. Abbott has essentially created a statewide stay-at-home order,” said Turner, of Grand Prairie. “This can serve as a good baseline for counties that had none in place, even if it is less than what other counties have already done.”
Other Democrats had a harsher reaction to Abbott’s news conference, with the state party saying his “mismanaged response to the coronavirus epidemic has endangered Texans.”
Turner and others did express concern about Abbott’s decision to include religious worship as an essential service, leaving open the possibility of large gatherings at churches. At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.
“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.
There has been controversy, particularly in the Houston area, over church closures in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Pastors are in court challenging a stay-at-home order that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a week ago that restricts churches to online-only services.
To that end, Abbott’s latest executive order supersedes “any conflicting order issued by local officials.” At the news conference, Abbott said local officials can still issue more stringent restrictions than the statewide standard as long as they do not conflict with that standard.
There are at least 3,266 coronavirus cases in Texas, including 41 deaths, according to the most recent figures from the Texas Department of State Health Services. The cases are spread across 122 of the state’s 254 counties.
There have been 42,992 tests done in Texas, according to the latest numbers.
“We’ve come too far to falter now,” Abbott said at the news conference, where he was joined by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen. “We have made tremendous strides, but we have not yet reached our destination. … Together, we will persevere through this for another month.”
Disclosure: The Texas Hospital Association has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott is set to update the public on the state’s efforts to combat the pandemic. Abbott will be joined by a slate of state officials, including Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath.
Watch the address live from the state Capitol on Tuesday starting at 2 p.m. Central time.
In normal times, an N95 face mask would cost a big corporation a buck or less — particularly if it ordered a million of them.
But these aren’t normal times, and the pitch from industrial supplier Hatfield and Company to sell as many as2million masks to a major U.S. oil company last week wasn’t your typical offer. The Texas-basedsupplier wanted $6.3 million for a minimum order of 1 million masks, with an option of buying 2 million for nearly $13 million, sales documents and interviews indicate.
At a time when the new coronavirus is rapidly spreading across the country and health care professionals are desperate for these face masks — which filter out at least95% of airborne particles— to protect sick people and themselves, critics say a price like that smacks of profiteering and price gouging by someone in the supply chain.
“You’re not just marking it up like 50 cents. This is highway robbery,” said an industry salesperson familiar with Hatfield and Company’s pitch, who is not authorized to speak the media and requested anonymity. “It’s just disgusting to me.”
Hatfield and Company said it did not mark up the product excessively nor engage in price gouging, telling The Texas Tribune that its own supplier set the “terms and conditions” for the sale. The company declined to identify the supplier or quantify how much it stood to profit, citing its contractual agreements.
Brad Lindeman, the Beaumont-based Hatfield and Company salesman listed as the contact for the proposed sale, said in a brief telephone interview Sunday that the company had access to an undisclosed quantity of the N95 masks that are stored in warehouses all over Texas and other states.
“There are some in Houston, Dallas, Florida and you know, I guess you would say spread out all over,” Lindeman said. “The inventories are constantly moving so it’s kind of hard to explain exactly what the quantities are.”
Lindeman said a “group of doctors” has the masks but did not elaborate. He cut off an interview with a Tribune reporter after a couple of minutes and declined further comment.
On Monday morning, Hatfield’spresident and chief operating officer, Scott Beeman, said the masks were provided by a reseller the company had not worked with before. He added that the resellerimposed a minimum order size of 1 million masks and that its costswere reflected in Hatfield and Company’s quotation to the oil company.
Beeman declined to identify the reseller and said he had “no way of knowing… the veracity of the statement that [Lindeman] was told regarding a doctor or a consortium of doctors owning or having access to this material.”
“I cannot release any information about our supplier; we do have a written quotation from that company,” Beeman wrote in an email. “We will be willing to disclose that to the State’s Attorney General and/or to the head of Purchasing for our customer, so that they can both verify that there was no ‘price gouging’ involved in our pricing to the customer.”
Beeman added that Hatfield’s profit margin was “historically low for our company and was priced that way in the spirit of cooperation.” He didn’t reveal the company’s profit for brokering a sale of the masks.
The company, based in the Dallas suburb of Rockwall, does not stock N95 face masks as part of its normal line of products, Beeman said. The company sells engineering products such as filtration devices and valves for clients in the oil and gas sector, auto industry and to refining and power companies, according to a Bloomberg profile. Beeman said they found a supplier for the masksat the request of a customer who wanted them immediately.
Demand for protective equipment like masks has soared since the outbreak began, exacerbated by the disruption of overseas supply chains and a flood of purchases from panicked civilians. The U.S.surgeon general has told the public to save the N95s for health care professionals who need them — “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS!” he tweeted in February — but demand has pushed prices for the masks to $10, $12 or even $15.
Entrepreneurial and civic-minded Texans — from amateur seamstresses to a chocolate factory owner — have begun churning out protective equipment for health care providers. And Gov. Greg Abbott has told potential suppliers “we’ll cut you a check on the spot.”
The manufacturer Lindeman identified as the originalsource of the masks — Minnesota-based 3M, one of the largest manufacturers of N95s — did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment. Its chief executive officer, Mike Roman, has encouraged federal and state officials to crack down on price gouging and said the company has not and will not increase the price it charges for the masks “being used to help address the pandemic.”
Under the state’s price-gouging laws, it is illegal to charge “exorbitant or excessive” prices for necessities during a disaster, and Attorney General Ken Paxton has said he won’t tolerate people and businesses using the pandemic to profit.
“No one is exempt from price gouging laws in Texas, and those who violate the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act will be met with the full force of the law,” the attorney general’s office tweeted.
The state last week sued a Houston-area company trying to auction more than 750,000 masks online, with listings as high as $180 for a package of 16. Price-gougers in Texas can face civil penalties and be required to reimburse consumers.
The Texas price gouging law applies to items considered to be a “necessity” during an official emergency, like food, medicine and construction tools. Abbott declared a disaster on March 13 due to the coronavirus, and President Donald Trump declared a federal emergency that same day — two weeks before Hatfield and Company offered its price quoteto the oil company.
Consumers and small businesses can sue under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act if they believe they’ve been the victims of price gouging, and recover up to three times their damages and attorneys’ fees. They and large corporations, like the oil company Hatfield was trying to sell masks to, can also complain to the attorney general, who has broad powers to sanction profiteers.
Without knowing all the details about the transaction and the suppliers,experts say it’s impossible to know whether Hatfield and Company’s offer, or one further down the supply chain, would amount to price gouging.
The statute doesn’t define what level a markup has to reach in order for it to be considered “exorbitant or excessive.”
But a price of over $6 a mask struck professor emeritus Richard Alderman — director of the University of Houston’s Consumer Law Center — as high given that the masks, according to numerous online offerings and published reports, could be obtained for a dollar or lessbefore the outbreak began.
“If the costs of materials or doing business went up substantially, that, to me, would be a mitigating factor. But… start with just looking at whether that price is excessive or exorbitant,” he said. “And for me, six times normal cost — that’s 600%. I view that as excessive and exorbitant — something that they can only do because of the emergency situation.”
Health care and medicalsupply executives suggest there’s now a booming gray market of personal protective equipment filled with middle men and fake products, and stoked by desperation from health care providers already running low on the gear. Governorshavesaid states are bidding against one another, driving up prices, and state attorneys general have reported being inundated with complaints about exorbitantly priced items like hand sanitizer and masks. More than 30 state attorneys general urged online marketplace operators to crack down on profiteering behavior last week,
But experts say the line between supply and demand forces and price-gouging can be hard to define.
Rice University Professor Utpal Dholakia said thoughtfully set prices should reflect how much customers value a product — and ethics aside, it makes sense that N95s would cost more “because consumers have a higher valuation for them at present.”
“Sure you want to take advantage of the higher customer valuation but you don’t want to exploit or abuse the customer, and especially when it’s something like” a global health crisis, said Dholakia, who teaches in the graduate business school.
According to sales documents provided to the oil company by Hatfield and Company, the cash price for a million masks was $6,310,000. If the oil company wanted to pay within 30 days, it would have to cough up another $100,000 — for a total of $6,410,000, according to the document.But the company could only use credit for one of the orders.
“The second order would need to be cash upon receipt of goods,” a Hatfield and Company salesperson wrote in a letter of terms to the oil company.
Read a March 27, 2020 letter of transfer sent from Hatfield and Company.
The company also offered to share “live video” showing the product in the warehouse, a provision that the industry salesperson with knowledge of the transaction found bizarre and unprecedented.
“That’s never happened,” the person said. “How do I know the video is real?”
The salesperson said whoever got a hold of the masks “found a way to make money and, you know, I mean, that is the American entrepreneurial way. I just feel like this is not the time to do it.”
Disclosure: The University of Houston and Rice University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Military to stop disclosing number of cases at facilities
Second death at Dallas senior-living facility
Military to stop disclosing number of cases at facilities
The U.S. military will stop reporting the number of COVID-19 cases on its bases and other command stations, multiple news outlets reported Monday.
The directive from the Pentagon comes as the number of cases linked to the military passed 1,000, ABC and CNN reported. The Pentagon cited security concerns for the order.
“We will not report the aggregate number of individual service member cases at individual unit, base or Combatant Commands. We will continue to do our best to balance transparency in this crisis with operational security,” Pentagon spokeswoman Alyssa Farah said in a statement.
The order includes El Paso’s Fort Bliss, which had reported seven cases as of Monday. The San Antonio Express-News reported that as of Friday, 28 “military personnel, dependents and retirees had tested positive, but that information was later removed.
“Cover-up is the worst damn thing you can do when you’re having [the] serious issue that we’re having today with COVID-19,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said, according to the SAEN.
A spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services the agency had a few reports from bases early on but “bases began testing on their own and we have not been asked for further assistance.” — Julián Aguilar
Second death at Dallas senior-living facility
[8:54 a.m.] A second COVID-19 death has been reported at the Edgemere senior-living facility in North Dallas. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Monday evening at a news conference. Jenkins added that there’s also 10 new cases of the disease at the Skyline Nursing Center, in the south of the city, and another case at the Reserve, a center in Richardson.
According to The Dallas Morning News, Jenkins on Sunday suggested that people should consider bringing loved ones home from these facilities, but he later clarified that is wasn’t an order, but a recommendation for those who have the resources to do so. —Juan Pablo Garnham
The race for the next speaker of the Texas House never really materialized. While members and news outlets focused on the slate of declared candidates hoping to succeed House Speaker Joe Straus, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen was working behind the scenes. In November, the Angleton Republican announced not only that he was running, but that he had shored up dozens more votes than needed to secure the job.
The anticipated drama of a field of hopefuls battling it out on Day One of the 86th Legislature might have fallen short, but having Bonnen at the helm of the House is sure to create some political theater within that chamber — and across the rotunda with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the Texas Senate.
Watch as we take you through Bonnen’s rise to power and what members have to say about his leadership style.
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WASHINGTON – In his farewell speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, retiring U.S. Rep. Ted Poe jokingly quoted an old adage from one of the most famous Texans ever.
“So this is where the cowboy rides away, Mr. Speaker,” the Houston Republican said. “Also, at the end, there is really no better good-bye than the words of Davy Crockett when he left Congress, when he said, affectionately: ‘You may all go to hell, I am going to Texas.'”
Poe and eight other members of the Texas delegation are set to exit their offices in Washington on Thursday. Together, they represent one-quarter of the state’sdelegation in the U.S. House and nearly two centuries of combined congressional experience. The departures include multiple committee chairmen and members whose tenures date back to President Ronald Reagan’s second term.
The Texas Tribune interviewed seven of the nine Texas members departing Congress and asked them to reflect on their time in Washington. U.S. Reps. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, and John Culberson, R-Houston, declined requests for interviews for this story.
For two departing members – Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Pete Sessions, R-Dallas – the stand-out moments of their tenures involved children making for surprisingly effective lobbyists.
Barton isthe delegation’s longest serving member, having entered Congress in 1985. A few years into his tenure in the late 1980s, he got a postcard from a little boy telling him that his older brother had recently been killed in a three-wheeled ATV accident in his front yard.
“I called his mother, got him on the phone and talked about it,” Barton said. “And as a consequence of that, I led the effort that resulted…The ATV industry entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department and took those three-wheelers off the market.”
Moments like that were amongthe best parts of serving in Congress, Barton said.
“You’re proud when you’re able to say ‘I helped that person,’” Barton said. “A congressman can be moved by an individual and can change the world for the better, and that’s an example of that happening.”
Sessions’ favorite memory came about a decade after the Dallas Republican came to Washington in 1997. Sessions was in the Oval Office with his son, Alex, who has Down syndrome.
“President [George W.] Bush said ‘Alex, how are you?’ and Alex said, ‘thank you for helping with the bill,'” Sessions recalled. “President Bush didn’t know a damn thing about it.”
The bill was one Sessions had been working on for families with disabled children who made too much money to qualify for Medicaid. Sessions wanted to give those families the ability to buy into Medicaid after he received a letter from a family with a son with Down syndrome and a severe heart condition. The family’s income was just above the maximum threshold to qualify for government assistance. The boy later passed away.
Sessions explained to Bush the bill that his son was talking about.
“He was so touched…and the president went and actually said to his staff ‘tell me what it is,'” Sessions said. “And they actually followed up with him and said ‘this would be a good idea.’”
In 2006, Bush signed the “Family Opportunity Act” bill into law. Sessions considers it his top legislative accomplishment.
A lack of civility
For two other Texas Republicans, the decision to leave office was made easier by Republican conference rules that limit chairmen from serving more than six years as the party’s top member on a committee.U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, who is finishing up his 16th year in Congress, is the current chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith has chaired three committees during his 32 years in Congress: ethics, judiciary, and science, space and technology – where he is currently term-limited.
“I face the bleak prospect of wandering the halls aimlessly,” said Smith. “I didn’t want to be in that position.”
Hensarling, Poe, Smith and U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, all decried and pointed to a growing lack of respect for opposing viewpoints as what has changed for the worst during their time in Congress.
“Judgements are made before you get to know someone,” Johnson, who has served since 1991, said in an email. “And reaching across the aisle is something you don’t see much of anymore.”
Smith said that the members of all parties should work harder to not “take another member’s name in vain.”
“Talk about the issues, not the person,” Smith said.
Poe shared a similar sentiment.
“There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing, absolutely nothing wrong with debating issues and getting excited about it,” Poe said. “But then, I mean specifically the lack of civility, it’s become personal and disrespectful of what we’re supposed to be doing up here in Congress.”
On the flip side, Poe and Johnson both said that the way Americans and the government treated veterans and military issues has improved during their time in Congress.
“During the Vietnam War, many Americans weren’t supportive of our military, and many of my fellow veterans…were treated with open hostility,” said Johnson, who spent nearly seven years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam’s infamous Hanoi Hilton. “I’m thankful that Americans have recognized how harmful that attitude can be, and that our troops and veterans today are treated with respect – regardless of political opinions.”
Aside from institutional improvements over his time in Congress, Hensarling jokingly said that the quality of the barbecue has improved at the weekly gathering of Texas lawmakers.
“The barbecue at the weekly Texas lunch is really good these days,” Hensarling said. “When I first came here we didn’t have Blue Bell – now we do. When I first came here, we didn’t have Collin Street Bakery Pecan Pies – now we do. An army marches on its stomach.”
On a more serious note, Hensarling said what’s changed for the better during his tenure is the ability to make law under the Trump administration, especially in his position as a committee chair.
“The founders made it very difficult to make law,” Hensarling said. “So when you do it, it’s a big accomplishment.”
Hensarling pointed to Congress rolling back some banking regulations passed in response to the 2008 financial crisis, and overhauling the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which is tasked with reviewing the national security implications of foreign investment in the United States.
“I’ve got a nice collection of signing pens that my children can fight over one day once I’ve assumed room temperature,” Hensarling said.
Hensarling also said that if he could change one thing about how Congress functioned, he would amend the U.S. Constitution to restrain federal spending to a percentage of gross domestic product. He said his “greatest fear” as he leaves Congress is the national debt. He characterized his tenure in Congress as fighting against increased federal spending – “clearly not successfully since the national debt has almost tripled on my watch – to which I’m greatly disturbed.”
Sessions, the chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee – a position through which he served at the pleasure of the speaker – said he wished he could’ve done more to control federal spending.
“It’s all rising because of our programs. We have social programs that we do not need,” Sessions said. “And I have been disappointed that I have been not been able to change those models better and that is the biggest regret that I have.”
Poe said the one thing he would change about Congress would instituting a requirement that Congress pass its budgets every year. This year marked the first time in a decade that Congress passed the Department of Defense budget on time. The story was similar for other agencies, while others are still being funding through temporary spending bills.
Poe told the Tribune that his top legislative accomplishment during his 14 years was the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, a 2015 bill that helped police fight human trafficking, as well as aided victims in their recovery.
But Poe’s favorite memory from his 14 years in Washington came when fellow Texan President George W. Bush was in the White House.
“I enjoyed driving my ‘98 Jeep Wrangler with a lift, flowmaster and six floodlights over to the White House when President Bush was president and I was able to park it on the driveway – not in the back, in the front,” Poe said. “President Bush didn’t seem to mind. Although before I left, I did leave a little Texas oil on the driveway of the White House.”
In terms of legislating, U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat who is retiring after 26 years in Congress, said he’s going to miss the fine art of negotiating with members on contentious issues, sometimes over longer periods than anyone expected.
“Typically, when members come to a committee…you’re full of vinegar, you want to sit and make your place,” Green said. “After a while you’ll realize that to be successful…you have to work across the lines. And I like that when at the end of the month or six months or maybe even years, you finally come together and say ‘this is what we’re trying to do.’”
But House rules do not inherently facilitate bipartisanship, leaving it up to the members of the majority party to actually involve the minority party in deliberations. In the House, minority members have limited capabilities to delay or block legislation.
Barton has served 20 years in the majority and 14 in the minority. He said that if he could change one thing about the House as an institution, he would give the minority party increased legislative rights, an interesting answer from a former chairman who spent most of his time in the majority. His first decade in Congress was spent in the minority, during which said he didn’t get a single vote on one of his amendments.
“In the House, the majority rules and it’s at the whim of the speaker and the committee chairman (to decide) how much influence the minority has,” Barton said. “My first ten years… I wouldn’t say it was tyrannical but it was very authoritarian. So we came in in ‘95 and claimed we were going to reform the process and we did to some extent, but over time immediate expediency almost always trumps (an) absolute, fair process.”
Contrary to Barton’s view, Texas’ three current departing chairmen – Hensarling, Sessions and Smith – all expressed frustration with the power the minority party wields in the U.S. Senate, specifically the filibuster. Hensarling called it “anti-majoritarian” and said it “stymied” Congress’ ability to pass law. Sessions said that the Senate filibuster and cloture process – a 60-vote threshold that limits debate in the Senate and can end a filibuster – “holds up this body.”
“It’s a little frustrating to watch the Senate, where one senator can basically stop any amendment or any bill, any consideration of any bill, just by picking up the phone in their office and voicing their objection,” Smith said. “Then that requires sixty votes in order for that bill or amendment to move forward. And getting sixty votes is a high hurdle that is seldom cleared.”
The departing Texas lawmakers all expressed excitement to be returning to Texas to spend more time with their families. Yetsome of them don’t expect to stop working.
“I’m not going to be sitting on the porch in a rocking chair with my favorite Dalmation sitting next to me,” Poe said.
He added, “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but it’ll be in Texas – get back to the promise land.”
After complaints have persisted for more than a year, a state board that oversees the Texas Capitol grounds will meet next week to consider removing a plaque that declares that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery.”
The Jan. 11 meeting comes more than a month after Gov. Greg Abbott called for it in a letter, which did not specify an agenda, to Executive Director Rod Welsh. This will be the Abbott-led board’s first meeting since March 2017, and Abbott’s letter came less than two weeks after Attorney General Ken Paxtonissued an opinion saying the panel is among those who have the authority to take down the plaque.
The meeting will take place three days after the start of the 86th Legislature. The new Texas House speaker and the lieutenant governor serve with Abbott on the board as co-vice chairs.
Momentum for removing the plaque has picked up steam in the past few weeks. Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the presumptive next House speaker, has called for its removal, saying the plaque was “historically inaccurate.” And in perhaps the most explicit call from a statewide official yet, Land Commissioner George P. Bushtweeted that “these displays belong in museums, not our state capitol.”
The push to remove the plaque began in 2017 after state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, wrote a letter to the Preservation Board asking for the removal of Confederate iconography from the state Capitol. He previously said that the Confederacy plaque, which is located outside of his Capitol office, “is not historically accurate in the slightest, to which any legitimate, peer-reviewed Civil War historian will attest.”
Johnson declined to comment on news of the agenda for next week’s meeting.
Disclosure: The State Preservation Board has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
WASHINGTON – When the next Congress begins tomorrow, the House will flip from Republican to Democratic control for the first time in eight years. For most of the Texans in Congress, it is likely to be a jarring transition.
“I know nothing but having a Republican from the White House all the way across the board,” said U.S. Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Lubbock Republican finishing up his first term. “This’ll be a great test of all of us, but especially my leadership – can I continue to be productive?”
Arrington is among eight Republican incumbents from Texas in the U.S. House who have only served in the majority and have no first-hand knowledge of what life was like in the chamber before Republicans won control in the 2010 wave. Of the 17 other Texas Republicans in the U.S House who have previously served in the minority, seven are leaving Congress after today due to retirements or lost re-elections.
It’s a similar situation for Democrats, who are welcoming four new members.Of the nine returning Texas Democrats, five have been around long enough to know what it was like to serve in the majority.
All told, most of the 36 U.S. House members representing Texas this year will be adjusting to the new power dynamic with no past experience to prepare them.
RepublicanU.S. Rep. Lamar Smith of San Antonio, who is retiring after entering Congress in 1987, has served in the majority and minority. Life in the minority, he said, is “a whole different world.”
House rules leave minority members with little means for pushing their agenda through. In the Senate, individual minority members have the power to delay or block legislation through “holds” or the filibuster. It is not the same case in the House.
“It’s a sobering experience,” Smith said. “Basically, you cast around 500 votes every Congress, and when you’re in the minority, you lose almost every single one of those. You’re on the losing side of almost every single one of those 500 votes.”
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, spent four years in the House majority from 2007-2011 and is one of thefive returning Democratic incumbents with experience in the majority. She said that the four returning Democrats with no majority experience and four incoming Democrats should be aware of the weight of majority power.
“The majority brings burdens of responsibility, of leadership and governance,” said Jackson Lee, who has served since 1995. “They should do whatever they can do to contribute to the governing of this nation.”
And as four additional Democrats with zero congressional experience join the delegation ranks after victories in November, the senior members of the delegation will be in a role of mentorship.
“I look forward to doing that,” Jackson Lee said. “And not in a manner of condescending, but in a way of saying ‘here are the ins-and-outs,’ particularly in the legislative process. I want them to be successful and there are many ways that they can achieve legislative success even in their first year.”
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat, who joined the House in 2013, is ready to no longer be in the opposition. Hesaid senior members have told him the job is a lot better in the majority.
“Everybody says it’s a lot happier and better,” Castro said. “Of course we’ll have a chance to focus on the issues that our constituents care a great deal about and be able to pass legislation easier.”
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, who was elected when the GOP won the House back in 2010, is bracing for how significantlylife is about to change for Texas Republicans.
“It will be really hard to continue with the legislative agenda that we’ve been so successful with,” the Bryan Republican said.
U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Austin, who entered Congress in 2013 and has only served in the majority said that he thinks that he can compromise with Democrats on issues while still “keep(ing) our core principles.”
“We want to be the majority of the minority,” Williams said. “What I mean by that is, we’re not gonna sit back…and play defense. There’s a lot of things we can move forward. I got friends on the other side.”
He added that “there’s opportunities out there to fix some things (and) if we just concentrate on ‘well, I’m gonna play defense and say no all the time,’ I think nothing’s gonna happen.”
To assert Democrats’ newfound power to bestbenefit Texas constituents, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said the four new Democrats – Colin Allred, Veronica Escobar, Lizzie Fletcher and Sylvia Garcia – need to focus on their first committee assignments.
“Those committee assignments are going to define your career here,” said Cuellar, who has served since 2005. “Hopefully we can get them on one of the committees that they want.”
For members of both parties, there’s an awareness that the current balance of power won’t be permanent. That represents opportunities for Republicans and warning signs for Democrats.
“Any time a new majority comes in, they think they’re going to change the world,” Cuellar said.
He stressed the importance of maintaining good relationships with other members of Congress, regardless of party.
“You don’t burn bridges because (today) you might disagree with somebody (and) tomorrow you might be working with them,” Cuellar said. “Just don’t burn bridges here. One of the most important things here in Congress is (to) keep your word…Especially in this partisan type of situation, you gotta keep your word.”
Gene Green, a Houston Democrat retiring after26 years – just six of which were spent in the majority – warned Democrats not to get comfortable.
“Don’t get used to it,” Green said. “The American people can take away that majority like they did in ‘94 and again in 2010.”
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Tomball, who has experience in the majority and minority, said “the goal is to recapture the majority, no matter who’s in the minority.”
“A lot of it’s about messaging, communication,” said McCaul, who has served since 2005. “You don’t have any authority. You have limited powers.”
In the meantime, retiring U.S. Rep. Joe Barton of Ennis, a Republican who has served in Congress since 1985 and spent 20 years in the majority and 14 years in the minority, has a blunt message to members of his party who are about to learn for the first time what life is like in the minority.
The biggest Texas Tribune stories in 2018 fell largely into two categories — one we expected and one we didn’t.
The expected one: the midterm elections, especially the fiery race between GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and his scrappy but unsuccessful challenger, Democrat Beto O’Rourke of El Paso. Our reporters based in Austin, Washington, D.C., and El Paso churned out around 150 stories on what became one of the country’s hottest races, and readers gobbled up the coverage. Of The Texas Tribune’s 10 most-read stories of the year, four were about the Cruz-O’Rourke race.
The surprise was President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, which led to the separation of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border and the placement of thousands of children in shelters in Texas. Readers wanted to do something to help. Our most popular story of the year was a list of organizations that were helping immigrant children who were separated from their parents.
Below are The Texas Tribune’s 10 most-read stories of the year, as of Dec. 17.
Samuels compiled a list of organizations that were working to help migrant children who had been separated from their parents. For example, the nonprofit organization RAICES provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrant children, families and refugees in Texas. This Texplainer became the Tribune’s most-read story of the year.
This story was about the first debate between Cruz and O’Rourke, which took place in Dallas at a time when polls showed a tight race. Formby, our Dallas bureau chief, and Svitek, a political reporter, wrote that O’Rourke “took a newly aggressive tack.”
This tool detailed what every primary voter needed to know: which elections were on the ballot and who was running, from the 18 Republican candidates for U.S. House District 21 (Chip Roy eventually won the seat) to the sole candidate for the Democratic race for agriculture commissioner (Kim Olson, who lost to Republican Sid Miller in November).
Our two key writers on the Cruz-O’Rourke race — Livingston, our Washington bureau chief, and Svitek, who is based in Austin — reported on election night that Cruz defeated O’Rourke in an unusually close U.S. Senate race. “This was an election about hope and about the future of Texas,” Cruz said that night, “and the people of Texas rendered a verdict that we want a future with more jobs and more security and more freedom.” O’Rourke, meanwhile, told his supporters in a nationally televised speech: “I’m so fucking proud of you guys.”
A federal jury in Houston found former congressman Steve Stockman guilty of misusing charitable donations to pay for personal expenses including a new dishwasher. Seven months later, he would be sentenced to 10 years in prison.
In 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas State Guard to monitor a federal military exercise. This story focused on comments made by former CIA director Michael Hayden on MSNBC’s Morning Joe podcast. Hayden said the move emboldened Russians to target elections.
This story was about the first poll that showed O’Rourke ahead of Cruz — 47 percent to 45 percent, according to the Ipsos/Reuters/University of Virginia poll of likely voters. A different poll released a day earlier showed Cruz 9 points ahead.
Yet another popular story about the Senate race; this one featured one of several polls that showed Cruz’s lead over O’Rourke narrowing. The UT-Tyler poll of likely voters said 47 percent would vote for Cruz and 43.4 percent would vote for O’Rourke.
“I try hard not to offend; I try harder not to be offended,” congressional candidate Dan Crenshaw tweeted after Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson made fun of his war injury. Crenshaw, who wears an eye patch, later appeared on SNL and got an on-air apology from Davidson. Crenshaw, a Republican, won his election to succeed U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Houston; he takes office in January.
Cannabis oil treatment was legalized for certain epilepsy patients in Texas in 2015. But fewer than 20 doctors in the state were registered to prescribe it. Samuels plans to continue following debates over marijuana legalization in the 2019 legislative session.