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Newsclips - February 8, 2023

Lead Stories

Associated Press - February 8, 2023

Biden in State of Union exhorts Congress: 'Finish the job'

President Joe Biden exhorted Congress Tuesday night to work with him to “finish the job” of rebuilding the economy and uniting the nation as he delivered a State of the Union address aimed at reassuring a country beset by pessimism and fraught political divisions. In his 73-minute speech, Biden sought to portray a nation dramatically improved from the one he took charge of two years ago: from a reeling economy to one prosperous with new jobs; from a crippled, pandemic-weary nation to one that has now reopened, and a democracy that has survived its biggest test since the Civil War. “Folks, the story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never, ever, giving up,” Biden said. “It’s a story unique among all nations. We’re the only country that has emerged from every crisis we’ve ever entered stronger than when we got into it.”

“We’re not finished yet by any stretch of the imagination," he declared. The backdrop for the annual address was markedly different from the previous two years, with a Republican speaker now sitting expressionless behind Biden and newly empowered GOP lawmakers in the chamber sometimes shouting criticism of him and his administration. As Biden, 80, prepares for a likely reelection bid, he sought to prove to a skeptical nation that his stewardship has delivered results both at home and abroad. He highlighted record job creation during his tenure as the country has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, and pointed to areas of bipartisan progress in his first two years in office, including on states’ vital infrastructure projects and high-tech manufacturing. And he said, “There is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important thing in this Congress as well." “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere,” Biden said. “That’s always been my vision for the country: to restore the soul of the nation, to rebuild the backbone of America — the middle class — and unite the country.”

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Texas schools are now shrinking after 20 years of growth, raising stakes in school choice rivalry

Texas public school enrollment has turned a corner after increasing consistently for about 20 years. It’s now expected to decline over the next decade, even as the state ranks as one of the fastest growing in the U.S. "We’ve added probably 75,000 kids a school year for the better part of 10 to 15 years," the state's Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a legislative hearing on Monday. "To put that in perspective, that’s sort of like an Austin ISD-sized school system just emerges from whole-cloth every single year.” That will now be changing thanks to decreased birth rates in the state, and the effects could be sharply felt by Texas public schools, which the state Legislature funds based on their average daily attendance.

The decrease is driven largely by Hispanic Texans having less children, said Lloyd Potter, director of the Institute for Demographic and Socioeconomic Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio. That demographic group for years had very high birth rates, he said, but it has slowed down significantly since 2007, although the rate remains higher than for other racial-ethnic groups. For the first time in his career, Potter said Texas’ birth rate in 2011 fell below the replacement rate — the rate at which enough people are being born for a naturally increasing population. Since then, the state’s population has grown instead through migration, which has been robust. “Now at the Morath household, we have four very young children. We are producing!” Morath joked at the hearing, drawing laughs. The phenomenon is not unique to Texas. Less diverse states such as those in the Midwest have been hit particularly hard, Potter said, and even larger, diverse states such as Florida, California and New York are affected. With fewer students, Texas schools would receive less state education funding. “You still need a teacher at each of those classroom and each of those campuses, and when you’re having enrollment declines, some school districts are going to have to really think hard about what campuses they’re going to keep open — and can they afford to keep them open,” said Bob Popinksi, policy director for Raise Your Hand Texas, the public education research and advocacy group backed by Howard Butt, CEO of H-E-B grocery stores. Texas’ enrollment growth in recent years has been driven by explosive growth in less than 100 suburban districts, Popinski said. Some larger districts have already seen decreases in enrollment, and corresponding budgetary problems.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, without evidence of disenfranchised voters, calls for new Harris County election

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday joined other GOP state officials in calling for Harris County to redo its November 2022 election based on claims that voters were turned away due to alleged paper ballot shortages, though Patrick admitted he has no idea how many voters were disenfranchised, if any. Patrick's comments at a Magic Circle Republican Women's Club event on Monday were first reported by the Texas Tribune. “How many people went to go vote that didn’t go back? We don’t know,” Patrick said at the event. “So we do need to have a new election.” A spokesperson for the secretary of state’s office told the Texas Tribune only a court order could force a redo of an election.

Asked how many voters Patrick believes were turned away and based on what evidence, Patrick's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Patrick's comments come a week after Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted a similar statement. Abbott, without citing any evidence or estimate of disenfranchised voters, claimed a Harris County ballot paper shortage was "so big it may have altered the outcome of elections" and "may necessitate new elections." In response to Abbott's claim, the Harris County elections office repeated the response it has offered since election night: that while some voting locations did run low on their initial allotment of ballot paper, "supplies of additional paper ballots were delivered to locations throughout Harris County on Election Day." An election post-mortem report from Tatum's office found 68 voting locations reported running out of paper, 61 of which received additional deliveries. At nearly one-third of the locations with reported shortages, election workers gave the county conflicting accounts with some saying they did not run out of paper. According to the report, "many of them provided confusing answers and some declined to speak after reportedly being advised not to do so by the Harris County Republican Party."

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Proposed Texas law could drive away Chinese immigrants who thrive in Texas

When Becky Cao finished college in California two decades ago and was looking to put her economics degree to use, she chose Texas, drawn by its business-friendly, affordable reputation. She and her husband, then both Chinese citizens with permanent U.S. residency, bought their first home in Richmond in 2009, started a family and became U.S. citizens. They found the corporate jobs they had sought, and thrived. But if Cao was entering the job market this year, she may not have considered Texas at all. Under Senate Bill 147, which the Texas Legislature will consider in the coming months and which Gov. Greg Abbott has said he would sign into law, many Chinese immigrants starting out in Texas wouldn’t be able to purchase property. The bill would bar citizens and corporations from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran from buying real estate in Texas.

SB 147 is part of a wave of bills being introduced in more than a dozen state legislatures aiming to curtail investment in the United States from nations considered an economic or strategic threat, according to media reports. Critics argue the bills are discriminatory, even dangerous – and say they also could have economic consequences. Texas business and community leaders worry the proposal could dissuade top talent in high-tech and healthcare fields from taking jobs in the state. Not only could that erode the vibrancy of Houston’s Asiatown or Katy’s Asian Town, they argue, it could diminish Houston’s standing as one of the most diverse cities in the country — a key marketing point — and dent Texas’ reputation as a business-friendly state. “Texas is supposed to be corporate friendly,” said Cao, now 40. She wonders what life would have been like had they been unable to quickly establish the financial foothold of home ownership. “It is just heartbreaking for many people around us now who hold permanent residency. There’s a difference between renting a house and owning a house. It’s a sense of belonging.” News of the proposed law sent a lightning bolt of outrage through Houston’s Asian American community in recent weeks, a community that includes an estimated 127,000 people who identify as Chinese, according to the U.S. Census. “As a permanent resident, if I want to buy another home, if we want to move up, this bill would stop us from doing that,” said Kevin Yu, a broker with Houston Elite Properties Team who has lived in the United States for 13 years. “And also because our business is growing, we were thinking of buying a bigger office and this could affect my ability to buy a commercial property, as well.” Over the past several years, Yu and his wife, Claire Liang, have established a thriving real estate business in southwest Houston, working with hundreds of Asian American clients every year. Yu estimates about 20 percent to 30 percent of his clients are Chinese citizens, and most are purchasing primary residences.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Border patrol agents plead for resources as Biden touts recent drop in illegal crossings

The top border patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley told a panel of lawmakers on Tuesday that Congress needs to act on immigration reform, or else the historic number of migrants crossing the southern border will become the norm. "It’s time," said Gloria Chavez, the chief patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley sector that has been the site of the bulk of the crossings, which topped 2 million for the first time last year. "If we don't have the right policies or consequences, the world is watching us and we’re going to continue to see these large migration flows from around the world entering here at our southern border." The hearing comes as the Biden administration has touted a 97-percent drop in illegal crossings in recent weeks under a new plan to allow asylum-seekers from certain countries to live and work in the U.S. for two years.

The plan allows up to 30,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the U.S. each month, provided they apply for entry via a phone app from their home countries. The administration has said as many as 30,000 migrants from those countries who cross the border illegally will be turned back to Mexico each month under a new agreement, as well. Texas and other GOP-led states are suing to stop it. Chief patrol agent Chavez did not advocate for specific changes, aside from repeatedly calling for more resources for border patrol, but urged lawmakers to "embrace change." "We really need to have that balance between immigration and border security, and get serious about that," Chavez said. "And we seriously need to find a solution, because we are — border patrol agents — we are the ones that enforce policy, your policy, that Congress puts out." It was among the most forceful comments from high-level border patrol officials, who carefully answered questions during a lengthy House Oversight Committee hearing that frequently devolved into the sort of partisan bickering that has kept an immigration deal out of reach. The hearing was part of the GOP-controlled committee's investigation of President Joe Biden's handling of the border, which Republicans blame for the surge in migration they say is endangering the U.S. The party is working to lay the groundwork for a possible impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - February 8, 2023

Texas reactions to Biden State of the Union address highlight partisan divide

Texas lawmakers left Tuesday night’s State of the Union address describing President Joe Biden’s speech as either an upbeat celebration of American persistence in the face of daunting challenges or a disconnected-from-reality attempt to paper over his many failures. The starkly different assessments broke along party lines. Republicans said the speech fell flat and was not promising for a potential Biden re-election effort. But Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, called it a solid showing for the man who will have the party’s 2024 nomination if he wants it. “Any big speech like this for any president is a chance to showcase their mettle,” Castro told reporters. “And I thought he passed with flying colors.”

Castro said Biden spoke to how the country has bounced back from the pandemic with the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years and outlined the path ahead on issues such as overhauling the country’s immigration system. Texas Republicans seemed to be listening to a different speech. Rep. Pat Fallon, R-Sherman, walked out clutching two pages of hand-written notes with the phrase “snake oil salesman” scrawled across the top. “It was 90 minutes of bald-faced lies,” Fallon said, adding more charitably that at least some parts qualified as mere “spin.” Fallon ticked through points he characterized as fundamentally dishonest. Biden touted falling gas prices while glossing over the fact that they remain far higher than when he took office, for instance. Fallon rejected Biden’s assertion that some Republicans are pushing to cut Medicare and Social Security, and he attributed the low unemployment rate to the fact that many Americans have given up looking for work. Fallon did appreciate Biden highlighting a young girl who survived cancer. Democrats embraced what they saw as a positive message. “Jobs are up, inflation is down and our economic plan is working for the American people,” Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, tweeted after the speech. “There is nothing we can’t do if we work together. Let’s keep building on this progress.”

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San Antonio Express-News - February 8, 2023

Feds: San Antonio contractor, city of El Paso improperly auctioned vehicles of 176 soldiers

Army Lt. Col. Lisa Dechent bought a top-of-the-line 2016 Chevrolet Silverado pickup when she was stationed at Fort Bliss in West Texas. While she was deployed to Afghanistan in June 2019, her then-partner drove the truck and got into an accident, and the El Paso Police Department had it towed to an impound lot. That September, one of two companies that the city contracted with to unload so-called “lien vehicles” — cars, trucks and SUVS deemed to have been abandoned at the city’s impound lot — sold Dechent’s pickup at auction for $6,200. She still owed $13,000 on her truck loan.

Dechent’s case prompted the Justice Department to investigate. Last week, it filed suit against El Paso and the two companies, one of them based in San Antonio, for auctioning off vehicles owned by at least 176 service members possibly in violation of the federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act. The law shields military personnel from certain legal actions by creditors. One of the law’s protections is that a person or company cannot enforce a storage lien on a service member’s vehicle during, or within 90 days after, the owner’s period of military service — at least not without a court order. In a phone interview, Dechent said she still didn’t know why her white truck — one of the Silverado Z71 series, with luxury trim features — was sold off. An internet search shows used trucks of that make and model selling for more than $35,000. “We bought it brand-new,” she said. Dechent, who has since moved from Fort Bliss to another military base and started a new relationship, could not recall the original purchase price. The lawsuit seeks to halt the illegal auction practices and recoup losses for Dechent and at least 175 others.

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Dallas Morning News - February 8, 2023

Scoring King: Lakers’ LeBron James passes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for NBA points mark

LeBron James got the first official statistic of his NBA career on a rebound. His next entry on the stat sheet was an assist. Even then, points weren’t the priority. They never were. Somehow, he became the most prolific scorer in NBA history anyway. It finally happened Tuesday night, the kid from Akron, Ohio, connecting on a stepback jumper to push his career total to 38,388 points and break the record that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held for nearly 39 years. James outstretched his arms after his 36th point of the night for the Los Angeles Lakers, threw both hands in the air, then smiled. Abdul-Jabbar rose from his seat and clapped. The game was stopped as members of James’ family, including his mother, his wife and their three children, took the floor for a ceremony recognizing the moment.

“It’s never gotten my juices flowing,” James told The Associated Press, when asked what the scoring record means to him. “I’m there now because I never, ever thought about it. The only thing I ever thought about was winning championships, maybe a couple MVPs, maybe defensive player of the year. But scoring championships and records, I’m telling you, that was never on my mind.” Abdul-Jabbar — a longtime Laker and one of many celebrities and sports stars who made sure they were there to see history — became the league’s all-time leading scorer on April 5, 1984 and wound up retiring in 1989 with 38,387 points. It was a record that some thought would last forever, with very few even coming close. Karl Malone retired 1,459 points behind Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant was 4,744 points shy, and Michael Jordan was 6,095 points away. James passed them all, then caught Abdul-Jabbar, too. The 38-year-old — who finished with 38 points in the Lakers’ 133-130 loss — did it in his 20th season. Abdul-Jabbar also played 20 NBA seasons. “You’ve got to give him credit for just the way that he planned to last and to dominate,” Abdul-Jabbar told TNT. And now, King James — a moniker he’s had since high school, when he was just a kid from Akron — is the NBA’s scoring king, with 38,390 points and counting. “A record that has stood for nearly 40 years, which many people thought would never be broken,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. Abdul-Jabbar held the ball aloft, then handed it to James, the ceremonial passing of the torch. They posed for photos with Silver, then with one another. James wiped away tears from his eyes, then addressed the crowd.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Texas lawmakers unveil bipartisan 'religious freedom' bills

Democratic State Rep. Salman Bhojani, one of the state’s first Muslim lawmakers, on Tuesday unveiled bipartisan legislation that he says will make it easier for Texans to exercise their faith. Joined by state Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Republican from Richmond, Bhojani described three bills that will clarify that all faith leaders can officiate marriages, stop state-mandated testing on religious holidays and expand the list of optional state holidays. “Religious freedom is one of the most important and fundamental rights guaranteed to us by our Constitution,” Bhojani said. “It’s more than just the right to worship; it’s the right to dignity and autonomy for every person.” Jetton, who is Christian, said the bills are steps toward improving religious freedom in Texas. Jetton and Rep. Charles Cunningham, R-Humble, were the only Republicans present at Tuesday’s presser.

The optional holiday and marriage bills, spearheaded by state Reps. Joe Moody and James Talarico respectively, were attempted in the last legislative session and passed out of the Texas House, but they failed to gain traction in the more conservative Senate. “A lot of these did pass through the House overwhelmingly with both parties involved, so I appreciate Rep. Bhojani for bringing us together today,” Jetton said. “I’m very interested in making sure this happens.” Bhojani said Tuesday he is hopeful about the bills' chances this session. “I’ve had great conversations with senators across the aisle,” he said, pointing out that Democratic Sen. José Menéndez was present at the news conference. "I look forward to championing this and having a partner in the Senate because this is an important issue, and it's bipartisan; that's what I really love about it." House Bill 1883 would forbid the State Board of Education from giving tests on a religious holy day, and House Bill 1882 would add to the list of optional state holidays to include: All Saints Day, Diwali, Eid al-Adha, Eid al-Fitr, Passover, Vaisakhi and Vesak. Currently, only Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday are included.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Remembering Jeff Blackburn: Texas attorney who exonerated dozens, exposed Tulia drug bust

In summer 1999, police in the tiny town of Tulia carried out one of the largest drug stings in West Texas history. Nearly 50 people were arrested, almost all of them Black, and several were quickly sentenced to life in prison. "Tulia's Streets Cleared of Garbage," the local newspaper declared. Convictions in the remaining cases seemed all but certain, even though they were riddled with inconsistencies. None of the defendants had drugs on them when they were arrested and the allegations against them hinged on the often-contradictory testimony of a single undercover police officer. So in a last-ditch effort, one of the defendants’ lawyers asked for help from a prominent young attorney in Amarillo named Jeff Blackburn. Over the next four years, Blackburn exposed one of the country’s most celebrated drug busts as a sham. Together with a team of lawyers and activists, he helped prove that the undercover officer was a serial liar. He secured early releases for dozens of the defendants and even convinced then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry to pardon them.

Blackburn’s work in Tulia helped set the stage for more than a decade of reforms to Texas’ criminal justice system that remain transformational nationwide. As founder of the Innocence Project of Texas, he exonerated dozens more people and, in the process, convinced lawmakers to do everything from improving evidence requirements in criminal cases to increasing compensation for the wrongfully convicted. On Tuesday, the man once called the “trouble-makingest lawyer in West Texas” died of kidney cancer at age 65. In a series of interviews leading up to his death with a Houston Chronicle reporter, Blackburn reflected on the changes that Tulia spurred and insisted that the work was much bigger than any one person. “I really dislike the notion of people going, 'Here was this extraordinary guy or person, and that’s how things happened,'” he said from his home in Taos, New Mexico, where he lived out his final days with friends and family. “I’m an ordinary lawyer.” Any other conclusion, Blackburn said, is “essentially discouraging regular people to take up the cause.”

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Associated Press - February 8, 2023

Texas man jailed in Dallas monkey case says he'd do it again

A 24-year-old man now linked to an unusual string of crimes that kept the Dallas Zoo on the lookout for missing animals told police that after he swiped two monkeys from their enclosure, he took them onto the city's light rail system to make his getaway, court records show. Davion Irvin also said he loves animals and that if he's released from jail, he would steal more, the documents said. Irvin, who remained jailed Tuesday on $25,000 bond, was arrested last week after asking questions at a downtown Dallas aquarium about animals there. He is charged with six counts of animal cruelty and two counts of burglary. An attorney listed for Irvin in court records did not respond to a request for comment.

Irvin told police that on the night of Jan. 29, he waited until dark, jumped a fence to get onto zoo grounds, cut the metal mesh of an enclosure and took the two emperor tamarin monkeys, according to arrest warrant affidavits . He then got on the city's light rail before walking to the vacant home where he said he kept his animals. Acting on a tip from the public, police found the monkeys named Bella and Finn on Jan. 31, the day after they were discovered missing, at the empty home in Lancaster, a Dallas suburb about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the zoo. Multiple cats and pigeons were also in the home, in addition to dead feeder fish and fish food that had disappeared from a staff-only area of the zoo earlier in January but wasn't reported stolen at the time, affidavits said. Irvin has been charged in two of the odd events over a span of several weeks at the zoo and is linked to another, police said. In the taking of the monkeys, Irvin faces one count of burglary and six counts of animal cruelty — three for each monkey. He also faces a burglary charge in relation to the escape of a clouded leopard named Nova, who was discovered missing Jan. 13. A cut was found in her enclosure, and the zoo closed as a search was launched. She was found later that day near her habitat.

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Dallas Morning News - February 8, 2023

23 North Texans indicted in $3.5 million fraud case

Twenty-three North Texans have been arrested and charged in what federal authorities describe as a money-laundering conspiracy totaling more than $3.5 million. The alleged fraud took place between July 2019 and December 2020, according to the indictment released Tuesday by U.S. Attorney Brit Featherston. Those indicted are accused of generating money through romance scams, business email compromises and unemployment insurance fraud.

Some received fraudulent loans through two popular programs created to help small businesses survive the COVID-19 pandemic – the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program, according to the indictment. The COVID-19 loan programs were ripe for fraud because the applications were purposely simple so that small businesses on the brink of collapse could quickly get access to emergency funding. The federal government flagged more than 70,000 loans totaling over $4.6 billion in potentially fraudulent PPP loans. According to the indictment, the people charged opened multiple bank accounts at various financial institutions to conceal their fraud, with some using fake business or individual names to open accounts. The case was being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Frisco Resident Agency. If convicted, each defendant faces up to 20 years in federal prison. They appeared this week before a federal magistrate.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Abbott asks for federal disaster aid after tornadoes ripped through parts of Texas, south Houston

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday asked the White House to declare a federal disaster in areas of southeast Houston that sustained more than $4.2 million in damage from tornadoes last month. A presidential disaster declaration would open more forms of recovery aid to people whose properties and livelihoods were affected by the storms. In a letter to President Joe Biden, Abbott said recovery from the damage caused by the Jan. 24 tornadoes "requires robust, comprehensive action by all levels of government." He asked for the disaster to be declared in Harris, Jefferson, Liberty and Orange Counties. The decision to make the request was made after the state reviewed disaster reports it received in days following the storm.

A report included in Abbott's request said there were five damaging tornadoes in southeast Texas that occurred on Jan. 24. The largest one, an EF-3 with peak wind of 140 mph, touched down in Houston and caused caused an 18-mile path of destruction in parts of Pasadena, Deer Park and Baytown. On the same day, an EF-2 tornado touched down in Liberty County, near Nome, and ripped a roof from a home, according to the report. Another EF-2 touched down in Orange County, damaging or destroying homes near Orangefield before crossing into Louisiana. Another two EF-1 tornadoes developed in Jefferson County and Orange County, according to the report. The state reported that 673 homes were damaged by the tornadoes, and that of those, 71 were destroyed. The report notes that many of the destroyed homes were in medium-income neighborhoods, "where survivors struggled to rebuild, make mortgage payments or pay rent in a market lacking affordable rental resources." If the White House grants the request, residents of the four counties would be eligible for counseling, unemployment, legal and other forms of assistance, as well as small business loans, Abbott said.

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Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Gov. Greg Abbott expands crackdown on TikTok use by state employees, contractors

Two months after banning TikTok from state-issued devices, including on college campuses, Gov. Greg Abbott followed up on Monday with a more detailed security plan to further crack down on the popular social media application. Under a 9-page security plan, state employees and contractors would be barred from conducting state business with devices that have TikTok on them, such as personally owned cell phones. That includes barring the ability to access voicemails and emails. Further workers or contractors could be denied entry from "sensitive" locations if they have TikTok or another prohibited technology on their personal devices. “The security risks associated with the use of TikTok on devices used to conduct the important business of our state must not be underestimated or ignored,” Abbott said.

The governor's move continues a nationwide push by politicians who warn that because TikTok’s parent company is based in China, the vast amount of data the company collects on its users could ultimately be accessed by the Chinese government and used for espionage. TikTok, launched internationally in 2017, is owned by ByteDance, a Beijing-based company. It is now estimated to have 1 billion users worldwide and has been downloaded more than 200 million times in the United States. More than 60 percent of the app's users are under 30 years old. "We're sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed TikTok bans — policies that will do nothing to advance cybersecurity — beginning to impact universities' ability to share information, recruit students, and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications, and more," TikTok spokesperson Jamal Brown said in a statement to the Houston Chronicle. While Republican lawmakers have been among the most vocal critics of TikTok, the Biden administration has also been concerned. Late last year, FBI Director Chris Wray told lawmakers that the Chinese government could use the app to influence users or control their devices.

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County Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 8, 2023

Houston to host third gun buyback event, a chance to sell unwanted guns with 'no questions asked'

Residents who wish to dispose of their firearms will have another opportunity to do so in exchange for a gift card at Houston’s third gun buyback event Feb. 18 at Deussen Park. On Monday, Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis and Mayor Sylvester Turner announced details of the upcoming event during a press conference in front of the recently unveiled “Stop Gun Violence Mural” at Worthing Early College High School in Sunnyside. The city and county each have dedicated $1 million in federal funding to purchase unwanted firearms from residents with “no questions asked.” The previous two buybacks, which took place in July and October last year, saw unexpectedly large turnouts and brought in more than 2,000 guns.

“Those were 2,000 guns that will never be used in a crime, an accident or a suicide,” Ellis said. “We can’t bring a life back, but we can buy a gun back and make sure it never falls into the wrong hands and causes harm to someone. So, please do as much as you can to help make our community safer by spreading the word about this, our third gun buyback in Harris County.” The Feb. 18 event will follow the same procedures as the previous ones: participants will be given gift cards worth $50 to $200, based on the type of gun surrendered and whether it still is functional. The buyback starts at 8 a.m. Due to long lines and staffing shortages at the first two buybacks, organizers will provide more lines and more workers this time to improve efficiency, Turner said. Officials also highlighted that they will not accept privately-made firearms, or “ghost guns,” which became an issue during the first buyback when a man sold 60 3D-printed firearms that he made himself. Criminal justice researchers say there is little evidence buybacks have any effect on reducing violence, noting they often take in old guns residents may no longer want in their home.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 8, 2023

Bexar County officials challenge school districts to find ‘best practices’ in mental health services

Bexar County commissioners approved more than $6.7 million in federal pandemic-recovery funds for mental health services at four school districts and urged administrators and county staff to measure and compare results. The allocations of American Rescue Plan Act funds Tuesday for the school-based programs are just over $1 million for the Edgewood Independent School District, $4.5 million for the Northside Independent School District, $476,000 in the Somerset Independent School District and $690,000 for the Southside Independent School District.

Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores, a former educator who represents southern and westerns portions of the county, said school mental health services are “one of the main projects that I have been pushing for” in the wake of pandemic-related stress to address problems such as childhood trauma and depression that often aren’t diagnosed, sometimes with tragic outcomes — addiction, violence or suicide. “I’m excited to get our students the help that they need,” Clay-Flores said. The county previously directed funding for similar programs in the San Antonio, South San, Harlandale and East Central independent school districts. Commissioners asked the school districts and staff with the county’s new public health division to apply metrics, compare results and learn from mistakes and successes to find the best ways of serving children and families. Commissioner Tommy Calvert said “it almost blows my mind” to see how school districts have embraced on-campus counseling — a practice they shunned when he took office in 2015. But he said the districts need to be thoughtful in the implementation of their respective programs. Agreements for the funding expire at the end of 2026. “These are valuable resources that don’t come along often,” Calvert said of the federal outlay.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 8, 2023

Tarrant County leaders to create election fraud unit

Tarrant County is getting an election fraud investigation unit. County judge Tim O’Hare, Sheriff Bill Waybourn and District Attorney Phil Sorrells will hold a press conference 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Sherif’s Office Administration building to discuss its creation. O’Hare has long discussed the possibility of creating an election integrity officer position that would look into election practices and instances of voter fraud, though audits of Tarrant County’s elections have come back clean.

The person in that position, if approved by the Tarrant County commissioners court, would report to O’Hare, Waybourn and another commissioner. The position has yet to be discussed by commissioners. The timeline for the unit’s formation will be discussed during tomorrow’s press conference, a representative for the sheriff’s department wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram. Efforts to increase public confidence in Tarrant County’s election have been ongoing since 2020. Before the midterms this past year, elections administration Heider Garcia invited members of the public out to the elections office to participate in a mock election to test voting machines. Tarrant County was one of four Texas counties to participate in an election audit ordered by former president Donald Trump. Sorrells told the Star-Telegram Tuesday afternoon that the county receives lots of complaints about election fraud and its top officials want to make sure elections are fraud free. Elected officials can’t be trusted if you can’t trust the elections, he said. A representative for O’Hare couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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Dallas Morning News - February 8, 2023

Dallas County commissioners unanimously support critical race theory education

The Dallas County Commissioners Court passed a resolution on Tuesday supporting the teaching of comprehensive Black history. The unanimous approval of the resolution comes as many around the nation debate Florida’s recent ban on an African American history course in high schools and the movement to end the teaching of critical race theory. The resolution denounced “the unrealistic attack on Black history lessons based on politically motivated attacks on critical race theory.” Commissioners agreed that systemic racism negatively affects the health, welfare and economic opportunities of nonwhite people in Texas and should be studied in public schools and universities.

The resolution states the county’s position on critical race theory, but does not include any further action. Critical race theory is an academic framework that probes the way policies and laws uphold systemic racism. But conservatives have given a new connotation to this theory, saying that it teaches children in public secondary schools to believe they are inherently racist. Commissioner John Wiley Price, who brought forward the resolution, said public policy over the years has embedded racist actions, including redlining in Dallas neighborhoods and health and transit disparities. “Remnants of that policy still exist today,” Price said. The debate over how to teach Black history flared up in recent weeks after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis denounced the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American Studies course. The College Board’s Advanced Placement program gives high school students the opportunity to take college-level courses and earn college credit through an exam. DeSantis’ administration tried to block the course last month, saying the course is “inexplicably contrary to Florida law and significantly lacks educational value.”

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City Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 8, 2023

Godley city council member arrested outside city hall

Godley city council member Jennifer Thompson was arrested Tuesday evening shortly before the council’s first meeting since mass resignations triggered the shutdown of city hall. A video posted to a Facebook group from an anonymous user and provided to the Star-Telegram by multiple residents at Tuesday’s meeting shows Thompson sitting in the back of a Godley police car in front of city hall. Interim police chief Matthew Cantrell said Thompson faces charges of tampering with government records. He would not elaborate. Thompson has served on the council since May and is being held at Johnson County Jail in Cleburne.

Residents packed the council chambers for the first meeting in a month. An agenda wasn’t posted for the last meeting scheduled in January, rendering the council unable to meet under the Texas Open Meetings Act, which requires local governments to post agendas 72 hours in advance. Two special called meetings couldn’t meet the quorum requirement because Mayor Acy McGehee and council members Jan Whitehead and Maryann Matthews didn’t show up. As residents shuffled into the building, a sign still hung on the door telling residents that city hall was closed due to a staffing shortage. Thompson’s seat was the only one empty on the council bench. And in the room, there was palpable anger over the state of the Johnson County city of less than 2,000 residents. The council heard from seven people in its public comment segment at the beginning of the meeting. “We have a serious lack of transparency in this city,” one resident said. “Your silence has spoken volumes,” another resident told the council. At one point, McGehee got up and yelled at a resident when the crowd became restless, with some claiming that a woman who was criticizing council member Michael Papenfuss had spoke longer than her allotted time.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 8, 2023

If embattled Councilman Clayton Perry runs again, he’ll likely have a fight on his hands

Whether District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry will seek re-election this spring — despite facing charges of drunken driving and hit-and-run — remains a mystery. What’s clear is that if he does put his name on the May 6 ballot, he will likely face at least two challengers, both of whom the three-term councilman appointed to city boards in recent years. Retired engineer Joel Solis has filed to run for the District 10 seat on City Council, making him the first to officially throw his hat in the ring. Solis, 62, was one of 18 people who sought the appointment as the Northeast Side district’s interim representative when Perry took a leave of absence following a Nov. 6 car crash that led to the charges against him.

Solis said he has lived in and around District 10 for most of his life, except for 12 years when he and his wife were Washington, D.C, residents. They returned to San Antonio nearly two years ago. “It is time to acknowledge that we do have problems in District 10,” Solis said. “If we’re able to acknowledge it, I think I am the best candidate going forward to make the changes to make District 10 competitive for investment as well as for new industry.” Before Solis declared his candidacy on Tuesday, District 10 was the only seat without an official candidate for the May election. Candidates have until Feb. 17 to file for the council races. Solis is on the city’s Building Standards Board, a seat Perry named him to in December 2021. Attorney Marc Whyte, 42, hasn’t announced his candidacy, but he is inching closer to running in District 10. Perry appointed Whyte to the city’s Zoning Commission in 2019. That same year, Perry also said he wanted Whyte to take his place on council if he opted to step down to campaign for county commissioner in Precinct 3 in North Bexar County. Perry, however, decided to remain on council.

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National Stories

Politifact - February 8, 2023

PolitiFact: Fact-checking President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address

After a year when Americans struggled with high inflation, gasoline prices and continued political division, President Joe Biden aimed for a sense of economic relief in his State of the Union address, his first to a divided Congress. He stressed themes of hope and possibility and stressed unity. “Let’s finish the job,” he said more than once. Biden’s warnings about what some Republicans in Congress want to do on Medicare and Social Security led U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to shout, “Liar!” PolitiFact fact-checked that point and several others from Biden about the health of the economy, the infrastructure law and an assault weapons ban. “Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset. I’m not saying it’s the majority.” House and Senate Republican leaders say they don’t support this, but at least one senator has broadly floated the idea. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., released a plan in 2022 that stated “all federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.”

The proposal does not specifically say Medicare and Social Security would be phased out, although both programs were created generations ago through federal legislation. Scott’s plan is a policy document that he is promoting again for his 2024 re-election. But it doesn’t have widespread support among his party, and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, in 2022 said it would not be part of the Republican agenda. Some House Republicans have left open the possibility of changing the programs, including raising the eligibility age. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., suggested in August that Congress approve Social Security and Medicare on an annual basis rather than an automatic entitlement. But House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Jan. 29 during a CBS “Face the Nation” interview that cuts to Social Security or Medicare are “off the table.” “I stand here tonight after we’ve created, with the help of many people in this room, 12 million new jobs — more jobs created in two years than any president’s created in four years.” Biden is correct about 12 million jobs created, but his comparison with previous presidents is Half True. In raw numbers, Biden did oversee greater job growth than any post-World War II president’s first or second term in office. However, this achievement comes with some asterisks. Population growth skews the calculation, with Biden benefiting from a larger population. Measured by percentage increase from the time the president took office, which reduces the impact of population size, Biden rates in the middle of the pack.

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New York Times - February 8, 2023

How U.S.-China tensions could affect who buys the house next door

After a Chinese billionaire with plans to create a wind farm bought up more than 130,000 acres of Texas land, some of it near a U.S. Air Force base, the state responded with a ban on such infrastructure projects by those with direct ties to China. Now, a Republican state senator is proposing to broaden the ban, seeking to stop Chinese citizens and companies from buying land, homes or any other real estate in Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott announced his support last month: “I will sign it,” he wrote without equivocation on Twitter. His endorsement underscored just how important foreign land ownership, particularly by Chinese buyers, has become as a political issue, not just in Texas but across the country.

Tensions have been rising between the United States and China over a range of issues, including international trade, recognition of Taiwan and the war in Ukraine. On Friday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken abruptly canceled a planned weekend trip to China — the first by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018 — after the discovery of what U.S. officials described as a Chinese surveillance balloon drifting over the American heartland. (On Saturday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down the balloon off the coast of South Carolina.) The geopolitical strain has fueled calls for a more aggressive approach to Chinese investments in the United States with an eye on security. “We don’t want to have holdings by hostile nations,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said in a news conference last month. Gov. Glenn Youngkin of Virginia made it part of his State of the Commonwealth speech soon after, urging lawmakers in his state to prevent “dangerous foreign entities” tied to the Chinese government from purchasing farmland. Chinese owners have very slowly expanded their holdings in U.S. agricultural land in recent decades, but the increasingly hostile political climate has made the topic a rising concern, with at least 11 states considering some form of new legislation related to foreign ownership of farmland or real estate, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Associated Press - February 8, 2023

China says it was smeared in Biden State of the Union speech

China says it was smeared in U.S. President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address that repeatedly mentioned competition between the two countries. China does not fear competing with the U.S. but is “opposed to defining the entire China-U.S. relationship in terms of competition,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing Wednesday. “It is not the practice of a responsible country to smear a country or restrict the country’s legitimate development rights under the excuse of competition, even at the expense of disrupting the global industrial and supply chain," Mao said. China will defend its interests and the U.S. should work with it to “promote the return of bilateral relations to a track of sound and stable development," she said.

Mao's comments came against a background of raging disputes over trade, Taiwan, human rights and access to advanced technologies. Biden mentioned China and its leader, Xi Jinping, at least seven times in his address Tuesday night, focusing mainly on how the U.S. was increasingly prepared to compete with Beijing while also seeking to avoid conflict. “I’ve made clear with President Xi that we seek competition, not conflict," Biden said. “I will make no apologies that we are investing to make America strong. Investing in American innovation, in industries that will define the future, and that China’s government is intent on dominating," he said. Biden said his administration is “committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world." However, he also warned that “if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country," a pointed reference to the shooting down on Saturday of a suspected Chinese spy balloon that had traversed the continental United States.

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CNN - February 8, 2023

3 former Twitter executives to testify Wednesday at House hearing over handling of Hunter Biden laptop story

Three former Twitter executives are testifying Wednesday at the House Oversight Committee over Twitter’s decision to temporarily suppress a New York Post story regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop, in what’s set to be the first high-profile hearing for the new Republican majority investigating President Joe Biden’s administration and family. House Oversight Chairman James Comer – a Kentucky Republican who has launched a broad investigation into the Biden family’s business dealings – is probing the social media giant in the wake of Twitter’s new owner and CEO Elon Musk releasing internal communications from Twitter staff about the decision to temporarily block users from sharing the New York Post story in the closing weeks of the 2020 presidential election campaign season. The hearing is the first time that Twitter’s former Deputy Counsel James Baker, also a former top official at the FBI, will speak publicly since Musk fired him in December.

Musk himself has suggested that the internal communications released as part of his so-called “Twitter files” show government censorship, suggesting Twitter acted “under orders from the government” when it suppressed the laptop story. The “Twitter files” have fueled Comer’s belief that the government may have been involved in the suppression of the story. “We basically want to know what the Twitter policy was with respect to how they determined what was disinformation,” Comer said. “We want to know what role the government played in encouraging Twitter to suppress certain stories and certain Twitter accounts. We want to know if and how much tax dollars were spent from federal agencies to Twitter because that’s kind of what we look into – tax dollars.” CNN has previously reported, however, that allegations the FBI told Twitter to suppress the story are unsupported, and a half a dozen tech executives and senior staff, along with multiple federal officials familiar with the matter, all denied any such directive was given in interviews with CNN.

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Ohio Capital Journal - February 8, 2023

Ohio public schools under attack as lack of accountability allows Nazi homeschooling scandal

Public education is in the crosshairs of book-banning, speech-censoring bullies, and private school zealots draining public school dollars. Missing in the DeSantis shuffle and campaigns to privatize education is any correlating interest in how the vast majority of publicly educated students in this country learn, develop, grow, and achieve. Some 90% of Ohio kids attend public schools. Their districts are routinely starved for funds, teachers, equipment, and sound facilities. But the educational welfare of those students is not what motivates Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman’s education agenda. What drives the Lima Republican is political control. He wants it over education policy without interference from Ohio voters or the Ohio Board of Education members they elected.

That’s why he’s pushing to transfer most of the duties of the board to an unaccountable, unelected political appointee in the governor’s office with Senate Bill 1. Huffman’s disdain for public accountability and oversight in education was evident when he downplayed the explosive news of Nazi homeschooling in Ohio. His concern was less about Ohio children being reportedly indoctrinated with racist, antisemitic, and homophobic curriculum and more about political fallout. “I hope, frankly, that people will not try to take some political advantage or policy advantage,” said the Senate leader who hopes to take political advantage over education policy. Nothing to see here, he implied when asked about the Ohio-based homeschooling network purportedly disseminating neo-Nazi propaganda and hate-filled lesson plans to a flourishing online community of like-minded Nazi parents.

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Inside Higher Ed - February 8, 2023

The new conservative playbook on DEI

When Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, announced plans last week to defund diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the state, he was joined on stage by political activist Chris Rufo, who has made a career out of questioning the purpose of DEI programs. Among other things, Rufo helped craft new model legislation recently released by the Manhattan Institute to guide states seeking to defund DEI initiatives at their public universities—a playbook that DeSantis appears to be largely following. Florida’s proposed legislation is expected to be considered in March when state lawmakers convene. At a press conference last Tuesday, DeSantis said that defunding DEI programs—which he called “hostile to academic freedom”—will make them “wither on the vine.”

While proponents of DEI programs see them as necessary to counteract bias against underrepresented students and employees, many in conservative circles subscribe to DeSantis’s belief that DEI initiatives serve as a liberal smokescreen designed to shame whites and conservatives while imposing a radical left-wing orthodoxy. When the Manhattan Institute released its model legislation in mid-January, Rufo touted it on Twitter as a way for state lawmakers to put an end to DEI programs at public institutions. “We’ve developed a playbook for state legislators to abolish DEI bureaucracies and restore colorblind equality in public universities. The truth is simple: red states should not subsidize racialist ideology, bureaucratic capture, and the destruction of their public academies,” Rufo tweeted. (He did not respond to recent requests for comment from Inside Higher Ed.) The new model legislation has four stated proposals: to abolish DEI bureaucracies; to end mandatory diversity training; to curtail “political coercion”; and to eliminate identity-based preferences. Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow and director of constitutional studies at the Manhattan Institute, who co-authored the model legislation, said its goal is to shut down DEI offices in a way that doesn’t impinge upon academic freedom, primarily by targeting resources to such programs rather than dictating what is taught in the classroom. “This is about the structures and systems that have arisen in the last decade, and especially in the last few years, that have enforced and indoctrinated what I’ve called an illiberal ideology, racialist thinking, treating people based on their identity, teaching people to think about different levels of privilege and guilt, and all of that sort of critical studies or whatever you want to call it,” Shapiro told Inside Higher Ed.

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Newsclips - February 7, 2023

Lead Stories

Bloomberg - February 7, 2023

Biden to address nation under shadow of China, debt tensions

Joe Biden will speak to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday evening against the backdrop of renewed tensions with China and a brewing showdown with House Republicans over raising the federal debt ceiling. The downing of a Chinese surveillance balloon that is hampering efforts to improve ties with Beijing and the specter of a US default that threatens to wreak havoc on the US economy will have investors, diplomats and lawmakers looking for reassurance as the president juggles two challenges with international ramifications. The president is also expected to highlight the accomplishments of his first two years in office — including his landmark climate and health law and infrastructure package — and chart his vision for the year ahead in the State of the Union, according to White House officials.

Biden stayed at Camp David over the weekend and into Monday afternoon to work on the speech with a team of senior advisers, and White House officials said he will likely be making changes until it is delivered. “I want to talk to the American people and let them know the state of affairs,” the president told reporters Monday. “What’s going on, why, what I’m looking forward to working on from this point on, what we’ve done, and just have a conversation with the American people.” Biden aims to use the address to test drive his 2024 campaign message in front of tens of millions of voters who will be watching on television and begin chipping away at polls that show most voters disapprove of his presidency. The president has yet to officially announce his reelection run, but in recent weeks he has used a sharper tone against Republicans at a series of campaign-style events, painting them as extreme and out of touch with Americans’ concerns. Biden plans to call for a minimum tax on billionaires and quadrupling the levy on stock buybacks, items that stand little chance of passing through the divided Congress but could resonate with the public. Biden will also nod at the “economic anxiety” many Americans are facing while also explaining how his policies will improve their situations, White House economic adviser Brian Deese said Monday.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Mayor Kirk Watson says City Manager Spencer Cronk's job will be evaluated after power outage crisis

Less than a week after an ice storm left tens of thousands without power and sparked public outrage, Austin leaders say they will closely examine the city's response to the crisis — including the peformance of City Manager Spencer Cronk. On Monday, city officials said Cronk would be evaluated by the City Council this week as part of a closed session during Thursday's council meeting, with Cronk's termination being considered as one potential option. Cronk has worked for the city since early 2018. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson told the American-Statesman that a review of Cronk’s job performance is a critical part of restoring public trust in the operations of city government. “To all our Austin citizens who are furious about the ongoing power outage, you’re right,” Watson said. “There must be accountability.”

Cronk said in a statement that he will "respect and honor the mayor and council's role to ask questions, gather information and consider decisions in the best interest of the city. My focus and attention remain 100% on supporting city departments and marshalling resources to continue power restoration and debris cleanup, and to continue providing assistance and aid to residents and businesses who need it." On Monday afternoon, more than 19,000 Austin Energy customers were still without power. Austin Energy said Sunday that it could take until the end of week to get everyone fully restored. City officials had previously said they would evaluate the city’s response to the winter storm, including conducting an after action report. City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, along with three other council members, on Friday had called for an audit of Austin Energy's response to the storm and the utility's plan for managing tree limbs around power lines. "It is our duty to take charge when challenging times in our community happen," Kelly said last week. "During the February 2023 freeze, our community needed answers and didn't receive them. This is why it's important that we make an effort as a step forward to answer the call of so many Austinites."

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Texas economy a mixed bag: Service sector grows; factory activity slows

The Texas economy is once again a mixed bag: The state's factory activity slowed in January, and its retail outlook worsened, but its service sector rebounded, according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Productivity declined and demand for new orders remained anemic in the state's manufacturing sector, according to business executives responding to the Texas Manufacturing Survey Outlook. “The manufacturing sector in Texas continues to oscillate between below-average growth and no growth, while avoiding outright contraction despite several months of declining orders,” said Emily Kerr, senior business economist at the Dallas Fed.

On the positive side, "the employment index remains a bright spot, moving up in January and continuing to signal above-average hiring," Kerr said. The anonymous Dallas Fed surveys received feedback from 417 manufacturing executives Jan. 17-25. Based on responses, the January index for general business activity, which measures broader business conditions, remained negative but moved up 12 points to minus 8.4 The new orders index was negative for the eighth month in a row — suggesting a continued decrease in demand — though it moved up from minus 11 to minus 4. Companies trying to hire workers are still facing challenges. “A majority of Texas firms continue to report they are understaffed and note that a lack of applicants is the primary hiring impediment,” Kerr said. “When asked how the availability of applicants has changed over the past month, more firms noted an improvement than a worsening for the first time since we first began asking this question in June 2021. So we’re perhaps starting to see some signs of relief in labor market tightness.” But a number of manufacturing executives reported that recruiting new workers remains difficult. "After implementing a minimum wage of $15 per hour, we assumed that our applicant pool would increase. That hasn’t been the case," a respondent in food manufacturing said. "We are still trying to fill open positions that have been open for months. We routinely have interviews set, only to have no-shows from applicants."

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 7, 2023

Bill filed to legalize online sports betting in Texas

Lawmakers filed bills Monday to legalize online sports betting in Texas, the latest push by state legislators to expand gambling in Texas. Legalizing sports betting in Texas would require voter approval of a constitutional amendment. Plano Republican Jeff Leach and Brenham Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst filed a bill that would allow people to vote on sport wagering and an accompanying bill outlining how gambling would be established. “I am proud to partner with Senator Kolkhorst in filing this important legislation,” Leach said in a statement. “It will serve to promote freedom and liberty in Texas and protect our citizens from the illegal and increasingly dangerous sports betting market that preys on unsuspecting consumers, including minors, putting their personal and financial information at great risk.”

The legislation was met with support by the Texas Sports Betting Alliance, whose partners include the Dallas Cowboys, Dallas Stars, Dallas Mavericks, FC Dallas, the Texas Rangers, Texas Motor Speedway, BetMGM, DraftKings and FanDuel. Dallas Cowboys Owner Jerry Jones said a legal and regulated sports betting market is best for Texas. “It will give Texans the ability to decide for themselves if they want this activity safely regulated or continue to be conducted in the shadows by out-of-state betting platforms,” Jones said in a statement from the Sports Betting Alliance. Ray Davis, the Texas Rangers’ managing partner and majority owner, said fans have been betting on sports for years. “It is time for sports betting to come out of the shadows so we can engage fans in an area where they are already spending time and money while enhancing the fan experience,” Davis said in a statement from the Sports Betting Alliance. The Alliance announced in November that former Gov. Rick Perry is serving as a spokesperson for the group, advocating for mobile sports betting in the state. Twenty lobbyists are registered to represent the Sports Betting Alliance, Texas Ethics Commission records show. Sports betting is allowed in 33 states, according to the American Gaming Association. Three others have legalized it, but sports betting isn’t operational.

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State Stories

Raw Story - February 7, 2023

Fort Bend U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls reports cybercriminals stole more than $150,000 from his campaign

Another Republican congressman — one of former President Donald Trump’s top supporters — has lost gobs of campaign cash to cyberthieves. The re-election campaign of two-term Republican Rep. Troy Nehls of Texas reported that someone on July 7 made an “unauthorized” withdrawal from its campaign account, according to Federal Election Commission records reviewed by Raw Story. The money went to an outfit listed as “Misty J Productions,” although there’s no evidence in federal campaign or corporate organization records that such a firm exists. Total amount taken from the Nehls for Congress committee: $157,626. “There was an unauthorized wire transfer initiated through fraudulent means on our campaign account,” Nehls spokesman Taylor Hulsey confirmed to Raw Story. The Nehls campaign indicated in federal records that it has so far recouped $137,626 of the lost money.

Nehls’ office declined to answer specific questions about the fraud incident, including the status of any criminal investigation and whether a perpetrator has been identified. Hulsey did not elaborate on what steps the congressman’s campaign committee has instituted to defend against additional theft attempts. “We are unable to comment further as all information has been submitted to the FBI for criminal investigation,” Hulsey said. The FBI, which does not generally comment on open investigations, did not respond to a request for comment. Nehls himself is a former law enforcement official, having served as the sheriff of Fort Bend County, Texas — immediately southwest of Houston — before voters elected him to Congress in 2020. Willie Sutton once said he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.” Cybercriminals and check trawlers have increasingly targeted political campaigns, which often accumulate big money quickly but lack security measures that adequately safeguard their hauls. Nehls is hardly alone in his financial misfortune. Federal records reviewed this month by Raw Story also indicate that former Rep. John Katko, a Republican who until January represented a congressional district spanning Central New York, was hit on Christmas Eve with $14,000 worth of “fraudulent bank debits.” Katko, who recently joined Washington, D.C., lobbying firm HillEast Group, according to Politico, did not respond to messages seeking comment. But in a Jan. 30 letter to the FEC, the Katko campaign stated that the lost $14,000 “was related to fraudulent checks processed thru the committee bank account” and that “the committee is working with the bank to retrieve the funds. This fraud was external and not caused by committee personnel.”

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Washington Post - February 7, 2023

Harry Whittington, Texas lawyer shot by Dick Cheney during 2006 hunt, dies at 95

Harry Whittington, the prominent Texas lawyer and Republican operative whom Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot with a 28-gauge shotgun during a 2006 quail hunting trip, leaving over two dozen birdshot pellets lodged in his body, died Feb. 4 at his home in Austin. He was 95. A caregiver at his home, speaking with his wife’s permission, confirmed the death but did not cite a cause. The shooting of Mr. Whittington — and the circumstances of how the incident was disclosed — became a major scandal as well as joke material for late-night hosts early in George W. Bush’s second term as president. Historians noted that Cheney was just the second vice president to shoot someone while in office — the other being Aaron Burr, who in 1804 shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel.

Mr. Whittington and Cheney, acquaintances who had met only a few times, were hunting that February with the U.S. ambassador to Switzerland on a 50-acre South Texas ranch owned by the Armstrongs, a wealthy family with deep ties to the Republican Party. It was dusk. Mr. Whittington was looking for a downed bird in tall grass. Cheney, about 30 yards away, spotted a bird and fired — spraying 200 birdshot pellets at Mr. Whittington, who fell to the ground with wounds to his face, neck and chest. “All I remember was the smell of burning powder,” Mr. Whittington told The Washington Post in 2010. “And then I passed out.” Secret Service agents and a doctor traveling with Cheney rushed to treat Mr. Whittington, who was transported to a nearby hospital, where he suffered a mild heart attack. Though Bush administration officials, including the president, were informed of the shooting shortly afterward, Cheney declined to release information until the following day, when the ranch owner — apparently at the vice president’s urging — contacted a reporter at the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Texas Senate Finance Committee tackles budget, state agencies' requests

After winter storms slowed business at the Capitol to a crawl, the Senate Committee on Finance on Friday restarted its work, sifting through state agency budget requests. Committee members heard a variety of requests from the Veterans Commission, Library and Archives Commission, and the Commission on the Arts along with wish lists from the offices of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Many of the agencies that will be shepherded through the Finance Committee in the coming weeks will take time to explain their additional requests not included in the Senate's current base budget — Senate Bill 1 — as well as field questions from lawmakers on any issues facing the agency that might require a legislative remedy.

One recurring concern for several state agencies is recruiting and retaining employees, for which they're asking for additional money. Those requests come on top of a proposed $1.8 billion in the budget for an across-the-board pay raise for state employees. The chair of the Finance Committee, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, will lead budget meetings throughout next week as the $188 billion biennium budget continues taking shape. Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear that his office is not immune to retention and recruitment problems experienced in other state agencies before fielding senators' questions on border issues and opioid abatement funds. The Senate's current 2024-25 budget proposal gives the attorney general's office $1.3 billion — a $7.8 million decrease from the current budget, according to the Legislative Budget Board — with more than $47 million going toward salary adjustments.

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Utility Dive - February 7, 2023

Texas wind energy freeze-out shows need for better resource adequacy, says NRG VP

The underperformance of wind energy during a Feb. 1 winter storm in Texas compared to its effectiveness during winter storm Elliott in December demonstrates the need for energy systems to be resource adequate in all scenarios and create a market for reliability, says an industry official. Travis Kavulla, NRG’s vice president for regulatory affairs, said the difference in performance had more to do with uncontrollable meteorological factors than anything else. The Feb. 1 storm froze turbines and caused available wind capacity to drop as low as approximately 1,600 MW out of a total installed capacity of almost 37 GW, according to the Electric Reliability Council of Texas’s fuel mix tracker.

In comparison to the Feb. 1 storm, Kavulla said, December’s winter storm Elliott initially arrived in Texas with significant wind and little precipitation, allowing wind turbines to produce great amounts of energy while many gas and coal power plants failed. State senator Tan Parker, R, Tweeted a photo of ERCOT’s data on Feb. 2 and said, “Texas can’t thrive on a wind and solar-only energy future. When we need it most, wind and solar can’t deliver enough to make a significant difference. Oil and gas will continue to be the main energy source for our state and nation for the foreseeable future.” When asked about how wind’s performance on Feb. 1 was politicized by opponents of renewable energy, while its performance in December was politicized by proponents, Kavulla said, “That’s definitely the emanation that I perceive in the rhetoric, and to your point, it’s an unfortunate one.” “Elliott showed up in Texas with lots of wind and very little precipitation,” he said. “The wind showed up in grand fashion, and if it had not been there, there would have been blackouts. That emphasizes the need for a robust resource adequacy scheme in Texas, which it does not currently have, because it’s not wise to rely on wind like the system was doing on Dec. 22.”

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Dallas Morning News - February 7, 2023

Texans on State of the Union guest list underscore messages on abortion, guns, immigration

A Texas woman who said she nearly died from a bacterial infection because doctors could not legally perform an abortion even though the fetus was no longer viable will be a guest in First Lady Jill Biden’s box for President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address tonight. Amanda Zurawski and her husband, Josh, are examples of Americans whose lives have been greatly affected in Texas and more than a dozen other states that have effectively banned abortion. Additional restrictions are in the works in many of those states in wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, a Dallas case that established federal abortion rights protections a half-century ago. Biden and other Democrats have been strongly critical of the actions still being taken in those states, typically run by Republican lawmakers, so having a guest who endured heartbreak and hardship under those restrictions as a guest in the first lady’s box is not surprising. Biden has vowed to do all he can to preserve access to abortion.

Presidents routinely have guests who underscore key issues they bring up in State of the Union speeches, and Zurawski’s story illustrates the difficulties patients and physicians face in miscarriage and maternal health care after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs vs. Jackson in June. Other White House guests include the parents of Tyre Nichols, the ambassador of Ukraine, the still-recovering Paul Pelosi, the man who stopped the gunman in the Monterey Park shooting and a Holocaust survivor. Also getting a coveted seat inside the U.S. House chamber for Biden’s speech is Dallas Democratic Mayor Eric Johnson, thanks to an invitation he got from a former Republican colleague of his in the state Legislature. “We were deskmates in the Texas House,” said Rep. Lance Gooden, R-Terrell, “but more noteworthy than our friendship is the fine job he’s doing for the citizens of Dallas.” Johnson thanked Gooden for the invitation and “his continuing partnership on issues that affect our mutual constituents.”

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Dallas Morning News - February 7, 2023

Gov. Abbott announces plan to ban TikTok on all state-issued devices in Texas

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday a statewide plan to ban TikTok on state-issued devices. “Texans, especially our state agencies and employees, must be protected from having sensitive information shared with the Chinese Communist Party,” he wrote on Twitter. “We cannot ignore this security threat.” The model plan, released with Monday’s announcement, outlined objectives “to protect Texas’ sensitive information and critical infrastructure from potential threats,” including banning TikTok and preventing the download of the app (and other prohibited technologies) on state-issued devices, such as cell phones, laptops, and tablets. It also calls to prohibit employees or contractors from conducting state business on devices with TikTok or the other banned technology.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources developed a plan for state agencies on managing personal and state-issued devices used to conduct state business. Each agency will have until February 15, 2023, to implement its own policy to enforce this statewide plan. This announcement comes about a month after he ordered state agencies to ban the use of TikTok on government-issued devices. Texas was one of nearly 20 states addressing cybersecurity risks presented by the platform. Multiple Texas colleges and universities responded by ordering employees to immediately remove TikTok from all state-issued devices. They later blocked students on campus Wi-Fi from accessing the app. Shortly after those calls to action, members of the U.S. Congress introduced legislation to ban TikTok across the nation, citing concerns the Chinese government is gaining access to critical information through the app. The bill’s sponsors said the new legislation would seek to protect Americans from foreign adversaries who might try to use TikTok to gather sensitive data and spread propaganda.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Bridget Grumet: Homeless outreach is personal for those who left the streets

The power was out all day at Pamela Bryant’s house. But she still had hundreds of people to feed. “I got a generator with a lamp, and got the fireplace going, and we were working,” Bryant told me when I caught up with her Wednesday afternoon. In an impressive feat in any home kitchen — let alone one on backup power — Bryant and her team of volunteers cooked 350 hamburgers, packaged them with snacks and bottled waters, and boxed them up for delivery to three of the South Austin recreation centers serving as emergency shelters during last week's ice storm. Citywide, 544 people stayed in cold weather shelters Wednesday night, up from 411 on Tuesday and 290 on Monday. “I try to do my part,” said Bryant, known to everyone as Miss Pamela. The founder of the Walking by Faith Prison Ministry, Bryant once struggled with drugs and lived on the streets. Now she works to help those who are still there. She tries to show them there is a way forward.

She tells them, “When you see me, you see you.” In a normal week — one without a historic ice storm — Bryant would be visiting homeless encampments around Austin, handing out hot meals and homemade desserts as well as delivering compassion and hope. “That’s when they talk to me, with some banana pudding or peach cobbler in hand,” she said, smiling. Last week, though, Bryant was visiting those same camps, urging people to flag a Cap Metro bus and ask for a ride to the shelter intake center. When I visited one of those encampments with Bryant a few days earlier, during last weekend’s point-in-time count of Austin’s homeless population, the winding village in the woods off East Riverside Drive had about 70 residents. When Bryant returned Tuesday, she said, she saw only a handful of folks — a promising sign that many had gone somewhere safer. “Go to shelter and be warm,” she told those who were left. “It’s not going to do nothing (outside) but get cold.”

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Dell Technologies to lay off 6,650 workers, about 5% of global workforce

Round Rock-based tech giant Dell Technologies said Monday that it will lay off 6,650 workers, or about 5% of its global workforce, as the company prepares for an expected economic downturn. As of last year, Dell had 133,000 total employees, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The company has said it has about 13,000 employees in the Austin metro area. The company did not immediately provide details as to where the cuts would happen, or how many of the job losses would be in Central Texas, but did say it would affect teams around the globe. If the 5% figure were applied to the local workforce, that would equate to about 650 Central Texas workers. In a statement, the company said external hiring has been paused since June and spending has been reduced to "navigate a challenging global environment."

"Dell continuously assesses our business to ensure we’re set up to deliver the best innovation, value and service to our customers and partners. This is especially important as economic uncertainty has continued," the company said. "We have further opportunity to drive efficiency through department reorganizations, which has resulted in a reduction of team members across the globe. This is a difficult decision that was not made lightly, and we’ll support those impacted as they transition to their next opportunity." Dell Technologies' stock price dropped after the layoffs were announced. It was down about 3% in Monday afternoon trading. In a memo to employees, Jeff Clarke, Dell Technologies' co-chief operating officer, said the cuts were made in an effort to “stay ahead of downturn impacts.” He said the company has already made some cutbacks, such as allowing less business travel, freezing external hiring and reducing spending, but he said more needs to be done. “Unfortunately, with changes like this, some members of our team will be leaving the company,” Clarke said. “There is no tougher decision, but one we had to make for our long-term health and success.”

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Houston Chronicle - February 7, 2023

Aldine ISD mom demands resignations after 6-year-old reportedly sexually assaulted on school bus

The 6-year-old had been acting differently for months, but it wasn’t until the first grader came home from school without a backpack that the mother learned of the horrible ordeal her child had endured. A bus driver told her an older student had tossed the backpack out the bus window. When officials at Aldine Independent School District and the child’s elementary school reviewed security footage of the bus ride, they discovered – and ultimately told the mother – that the child had been sexually assaulted by another student. The Houston Chronicle does not identify reported victims of sexual assault without their permission. The mother, accompanied by community activists, spoke on Monday, explaining that officials found evidence that the child had been subject to repeated sexual assaults on the bus ride home for at least three months.

The child’s mother and the advocates called for the resignations of several officials in the Aldine ISD transportation department and at the child’s school, saying they failed to protect the child from harm and notify the mother of the assaults as soon as they happened. They also questioned why the district allowed elementary age children to ride the bus with significantly older students. Security video showed the 6-year-old student at Lola Mae Carter Academy in northwest Houston being lured to the back of the bus en route by at least one middle schooler who sexually abused the child. The mother said the older student told her child the assaults were a game and not to tell anyone or the 6-year-old would “lose the game.” The child endured sexual assaults on several occasions before the mother was notified last week of what officials had discovered, according to the activists. “The details … of this investigation are so horrific,” said community advocate Quanell X at a news conference Monday outside Aldine ISD’s transportation building. He gestured to the nearby yellow vehicles, explaining that the assaults happened “over and over and over again for months on the back of one of these school buses.”

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Austin American-Statesman - February 7, 2023

Thunderstorms coming to Austin on Tuesday likely to stall power restoration efforts

Just as Austin has been trying to get its lights back on after ice storms last week, another round of thunderstorms expected to start Tuesday afternoon is likely to stall already struggling power restoration efforts. The forecast from the National Weather Service calls for heavy rainfall in the Hill Country and the Austin area on Tuesday with the passage of a cold front. The expected damaging winds from the strong to severe storms and possible lightning could be enough to put power line workers on cherry pickers in danger and exacerbate ongoing outages across the city. Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent on Monday cited the pending storms as one of the factors forcing the utility to push its full restoration date to Sunday. "But impending rain, wind and thunderstorms this week could further complicate our efforts," she said.

The weather service forecast for Austin on Tuesday includes patchy morning fog and a 70% chance of rain, with thunderstorms possible after 3 p.m. Daytime temperatures could climb to a high of 72, which is several degrees above normal. Balmy south-southeast winds could become gusty northeast winds of up to 20 mph. "Scattered to numerous showers and scattered thunderstorms are expected ahead and along the frontal boundary," the weather service said in a bulletin Monday. "Locally heavy downpours are expected mainly along and east of Highway 281," which runs north-south through Burnet and Blanco counties just west of Austin. "The weather will get bad, but we'll be out working," Craig Brooks, Austin Energy's field operations manager, told reporters Monday. "We'll continue to work long hours — these guys are working 16-hour days. They're a long way from home; some of these guys are coming from as far as Louisiana, Alabama. ... We're in the business of getting the lights on."

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Houston Public Media - February 7, 2023

Texas legislature wants to double its investment in student mental health resources

A handful of Texas' top leaders have pledged to make mental health a priority for the 2023 legislative session that began in early January, including Governor Greg Abbott who made it a point in his recent inaugural address. "We will not end this session without making our schools safer," said Abbott. "We must prioritize protecting students and staff. We must provide mental health services to students who need it. Parents must know that their children are safe when they drop them off every morning." The 88th Texas legislative session is on the heels of the high-profile school shooting in Uvalde that killed 21 people last May — a crisis that has put pressure on lawmakers to enact school safety policy reform. The approach by top Republicans has focused on school security measures to investing in youth mental health resources, while leaving out gun restrictions that some in Uvalde are backing. Last June, about a month after the shooting, Texas committed over $100 million to school safety expenses, such as bulletproof shields, trainings for law enforcement and silent panic alert technology to be installed at schools.

About 10 percent is going to mental health — further funding legislation passed in 2019 that responded to the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston. Click here for more inDepth features. Senate Bill 11 is what some mental health advocates have called a historic piece of legislation in 2019. A statewide partnership called the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium was formed, which allows pediatricians who might have limited training in behavioral health to consult with psychiatrists at 12 medical schools in Texas. These schools and community mental health providers are also working to expand training opportunities to increase the number of child psychiatry experts in the state. The bill also set up a telemedicine network that helps schools connect with mental health care providers. Only about half of Texas school districts are part of the program so far. The program might expand significantly in the next few years. First drafts of the appropriations bills show the Texas House and Senate more than doubling the funding for the Consortium — $280 million over the next two fiscal years.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 7, 2023

Bud Kennedy: How did the Super Bowl get its name? Here’s the Dallas history

The Super Bowl didn’t start here, but the name did. It all started with a 7-year-old girl bouncing a toy ball. Sharron Hunt was the girl. Her dad was listening one day in 1966 when she played with the new toy sensation that year: a Wham-O Super Ball. Her dad was the late Lamar Hunt of Dallas, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs pro football team. At their home on Orchid Lane in Dallas, Sharron made up a singsong chant as she bounced the little ball high off floors and walls: “Super Ball!” (Bounce.) “Super Bowl!” (Bounce.) “Super Ball!” (Bounce.) “Super Bowl!” At the time, Lamar Hunt was working on a pro football merger and a new championship game.

The way the late Hunt often told the story, he jokingly told league owners, “My daughter calls it the Super Bowl.” Commissioner Pete Rozelle had another idea: “The Big One.” But Hunt’s nickname caught on. Three years and hundreds of headlines later, football’s “ultimate game” was officially named the Super Bowl. Sharron Hunt is now Sharron Munson of Dallas. She doesn’t remember the exact 1966 conversation. But she remembers how she was fascinated by college football’s Cotton Bowl. “I could never figure out why they called it a ‘bowl,’ ” she said. “I can remember thinking, ‘Cotton? Bowl? What does that have to do with football?’ ” Her older brother, Lamar Jr., had a new Super Ball. The hard, hyper resilient ball — made of the mysterious new polymer “Zectron” — was a million-seller soon after Wham-O introduced it for 98 cents at Christmas 1965. Their stepmom, Norma, soon gave Sharron her own Super Ball. She always made up rhymes, so she thought one up. According to Sharron, the next time Lamar Hunt saw his first wife, Rosemary, he told her excitedly, “Listen to what Sharron came up with!”

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Dallas Morning News - February 7, 2023

Texas scientists create fentanyl vaccine to combat opioid epidemic

To combat the fentanyl epidemic in the United States, researchers at the University of Houston have created a fentanyl vaccine that could help prevent overdoses. They aim to test the vaccine in a human trial within the next year. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that kills hundreds of Texans every year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. The vaccine will need FDA approval before people can use it. According to Johns Hopkins University, that process can take five to 15 years, and sometimes longer. The process can be sped up during a public health emergency where no alternate treatments exist. The first COVID-19 vaccines were created, tested and given emergency use authorization by the FDA in under a year. In a study published last year in the journal Pharmaceutics, the Houston researchers reported that their vaccine triggered production of antibodies against fentanyl in rats and decreased the amount of fentanyl in rats’ brains. The researchers’ vaccine received praise from Governor Greg Abbott, who visited the University of Houston last year to congratulate the team.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC. Once consumed, it enters the brain quickly, making it highly addictive. Fentanyl activates two brain pathways that release dopamine, a chemical that can cause feelings of pleasure and euphoria. Since fentanyl can be mixed into cocaine, methamphetamines and counterfeit pills, people can ingest it without knowing, leading to accidental poisoning and death. The Texas Department of Health and Human Services estimates that over 800 people died of unintentional fentanyl-related causes in 2020, and over 1500 in 2021 using provisional data. Doctors can prescribe maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine for those recovering from opioid addiction. These drugs are opioids, but they can reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. The effectiveness of these medications depends on how they’re made, the opioid being misused and access to the medications. Recovering patients can relapse after they leave treatment and are especially vulnerable to overdose deaths, said Colin Haile, a research associate professor at the University of Houston. “Clearly, the medications that we have to address opioid use disorder and overdose are not working,” said Haile, who led the team that created the vaccine.

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Dallas Morning News - February 7, 2023

Southwest Airlines lowers requirements for new pilots

Southwest Airlines will cut the number of turbine engine hours needed for new hire pilots in half, making it easier for regional airline pilots and others that have flown professionally to get on board. Dallas-based Southwest previously preferred pilots to have 1,000 hours of flying time on a turbine engine or a turbo-prop but told employees last week that it was cutting that number in half to 500 hours. The lower requirements come amid an industry-wide scramble for pilots, even though major airlines claim they have plenty. But that has left a shortage at regional airlines, which have been increasing pay and offering other incentives. The reduced requirements were first reported by The Wall Street Journal. “We’re having no trouble hiring, including having no trouble hiring pilots,” Southwest CEO Bob Jordan said during the company’s fourth quarter 2022 earnings call last month.

Jordan said Southwest hired almost 1,000 pilots in 2022 and plans to hire 1,700 more this year. There have been some training capacity issues, he said, meaning the company has been short on trained pilots to fly aircraft. However, if the company does want to hire 1,700 pilots this year, it will be in steep competition with every other airline in the industry. Unlike American, United and Alaska airlines, and Delta Air Lines, Southwest doesn’t use regional airlines. Southwest does have agreements with airlines, including Skywest Airlines, to recruit pilots. Southwest’s requirement change doesn’t ditch the FAA-mandated 1,500 hours for pilots to get their Air Transport Pilot certificate, but it does require time spent flying on a jet or turbo-prop plane. That essentially means new Southwest recruits will have had to fly for a regional airline, a cargo carrier or in some other professional capacity. Southwest Airlines Pilot Association President Casey Murray said the carrier needs more rigorous training for all new entry pilots. “Southwest said they are going to maintain the standards, but they need to train up all new pilots to meet the standards,” he said. Southwest is negotiating a new contract with pilots and is the only company among the big four airlines to not come to a tentative agreement with its 10,000-member pilot union.

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County Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 7, 2023

Former Harris County jailer indicted in 2021 death of inmate Jaquaree Simmons

A grand jury has indicted a former detention officer for his role in the death of Jaquaree Simmons at the Harris County Jail, nearly two years after staff found the 23-year-old lifeless in his cell. Eric Niles Morales, 28, has been charged with manslaughter in connection with the death of Simmons, according to court records. Forensic examiners determined Simmons died from blunt force trauma. The indictment alleges the jailer kneed Simmons in the head, struck his head against a door and dropped him on his head. Morales is 6 feet, 5 inches and weighs around 260 pounds, while Simmons was 5 feet, 4 inches and about 120 pounds, according to the Harris County District Attorney's office.

It is the first indictment of a detention officer in connection with an in-custody death at the jail, according to the district attorney’s office. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez fired 11 jailers and suspended six others during the investigation into the death, officials said. Morales is the only one charged so far. He was arrested Monday afternoon but court records did not indicate when Morales would appear in court. District clerk records show grand jurors declined to indict Morales of official oppression, a misdemeanor, in December after hearing evidence from prosecutors in the civil rights division. The evidence was unrelated to Simmons' death, officials said. Lawyers for Simmons' mother, Larhonda Biggles, who have sued the Harris County Sheriff's Office in federal court over the death, declined to comment on the indictment. In September, Biggles demanded to know who was being held responsible for her son's death. “It just gets worse and worse as it gets closer to the two years because I’m like, what, we are going to go two years and not know nothing?” Biggles said in the September interview. “We want to know. That’s all I’m asking – I want to know and I want somebody to be held accountable for what they did to my child.”

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City Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 7, 2023

Couple charged after 3 Carrollton students die of overdoses

Two fentanyl dealers accused of being involved in as many as 10 overdoses of North Texas middle and high school students, three of them fatal, have been federally charged, authorities said. Luis Eduardo Navarrete, 21, and Magaly Mejia Cano, 29, are charged via criminal complaint with conspiracy to distribute fentanyl, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Leigha Simonton announced. They were arrested at Navarrete’s home in Carrollton on Friday and made their initial court appearances Monday afternoon.

“To deal fentanyl is to knowingly imperil lives. To deal fentanyl to minors — naive middle and high school students — is to shatter futures,” Simonton said in a news release. “These defendants’ alleged actions are simply despicable. We can never replace the three teenagers whose lives were lost, nor can we heal the psychological scars of those who survived their overdoses. But we can take action to ensure these defendants are never allowed to hand a pill to a child again.” According to the complaint, Navarrete and Cano are accused of dealing fake Percocet and Oxycontin pills laced with fentanyl, commonly known as “M30s,” to multiple juvenile drug dealers, mostly students at R.L. Turner High School. The teenage dealers in turn sold the drugs to their fellow students at R.L. Turner High School and to younger students at Dewitt Perry and Dan F. Long Middle schools, authorities said. Nine students at those schools — ranging in age from 13 to 17 — suffered 10 overdoses, three of which were fatal, between September 2022 and this month. One victim, a 14-year-old girl who overdosed twice and suffered temporary paralysis, told law enforcement the pills she ingested came from juvenile dealers who obtained the drugs from Navarrete. She also confirmed she had purchased pills directly from Navarrete in the past.

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San Antonio Report - February 7, 2023

Once the insurgent, McKee-Rodriguez is still critiquing the city while seeking a second term

Near the end of a City Council briefing on the San Antonio Police Department’s strategy to combat violent crime, Jalen McKee-Rodriguez was about to turn over the microphone to a colleague when he suddenly changed his mind. “You know what — no.” He went on to add his sharpest criticism yet of a program that critics say resembles one in Memphis, Tennessee, where police officers were charged with murder in the beating of Tyre Nichols, a young black man who died from his injuries three days later. “No one here should feel reaffirmed about what we’re doing based on the presentation we heard here,” McKee-Rodriguez said. “We’re learning. We are in an important stage of growth, but we are not at the point where we’re putting our money where it should be to make meaningful [change to address] our societal flaws. That’s the point I’d like to make.”

Less than three months away from his first shot at retaining a seat that is prone to turnover, the moment encapsulated McKee-Rodriguez’s proclivity for standing on principle, even when doing so could leave him open to criticism. The 27-year-old former council aide defeated his former boss to become the first openly gay Black man to hold elected office in Texas. Since then, his willingness to speak up on sensitive issues like policing, abortion and gentrification has won him friends among the progressive groups that have grown increasingly powerful in local politics. “I look different than most elected officials. I’m more outspoken than most elected officials. … And the way that I operate is fairly different,” said McKee-Rodriguez, in an interview at his district office in the Claude Black Community Center last month. McKee-Rodriguez now faces critics who say that approach hasn’t helped him gain clout at City Hall, nor has it helped the East Side capitalize on San Antonio’s explosive growth. And as he gears up for city elections in May, a political action committee funded by business people and developers hopes to replace him with someone more aligned on their economic priorities.

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KXAN - February 7, 2023

Will people get relief money for power outage costs?

As the community calls for accountability, many people are also calling for help. Dozens have reached out to KXAN asking if the disaster declaration will include direct relief for families, and hundreds have written in about their struggles through the power outages. “We’re used to taking care of ourselves,” said Paul Hunt of northeast Austin. “And it was really difficult because we couldn’t take care of ourselves.” The lights are back on at the Hunt residence, but the family had to throw a whole fridge of food out – a bulk order they got delivered ahead of Paul’s wife Sheryl’s scheduled eye surgery. They’re both visually impaired. Travis County Judge Andy Brown’s Office said it’s still working out the details of declaration funding, and there’s no definitive answer on direct help for families just yet.

On Friday, we asked him and Mayor Kirk Watson if any of the money reimbursed through the disaster declaration could go to people who had to throw out food or were out of work because of the power outages. “My understanding is that yes that additional funding can help with things like you mentioned and other expenses,” Brown said, who also said additional resources provided through the Central Austin Food Bank will be included in the declaration. Mayor Kirk Watson added “One other example as I understand it can be used for… if somebody has some personal expenses meaning to their household as a result of needing to reconnect or hire an electrician some of that money can go towards those things as well.” Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent addressed the idea of money going to the utility’s customers as well, similar to the mayor’s sentiments. “We would like to see some funding go to assisting our customers. We know that – and if you’ve driven around the community – that customers’ houses have been impacted,” she said in a press conference Monday.

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National Stories

NPR - February 7, 2023

Santos took office one month ago and his New York district says he's got to go

Judy Ornstein, a voter in New York's 3rd congressional district, stood outside the congressional office of George Santos in Queens, N.Y., this week and made clear she wasn't happy with her new representative. She points to the name of the previous congressman, Democrat Tom Suozzi, still splashed across the building's awning. "Well it sure doesn't look like Congressman Santos office because it still says Suozzi all over it," she says. It's been three months since Santos won the election here. A full month has passed since he was sworn in. But many of his constituents on Long Island and in Queens say he's a no-show. Santos lied about almost everything before taking office, inventing much of his life story, faking his professional credentials and allegedly lying about where he got hundreds of thousands of dollars to fuel his campaign.

Now Ornstein says Santos just isn't doing the job. He hasn't been seen in the district and reaching him has been impossible. "I have tried twice to call his office about a matter that I actually need constituent service on; I have a tax question," she says. This is a stark contrast to the way lawmakers usually operate. For most House members, especially new ones like Santos, constituent services are a make-or-break priority. "Deliver results, results that they can see, results that they can smell so to speak," says Rep. Anthony D'Esposito, a freshman Republican from the neighboring 4th Congressional District on Long Island. D'Esposito says his office is now fielding calls from constituents in Santos' district "people that either can't reach [Santos] or don't want to, so we're happy to deal with that." According to D'Esposito, he's hearing one message from people on Long Island: Santos has to go. "Close to 80% of people polled think he should not be in office. It's been an absolute distraction at a time when we should be rolling up our sleeves and getting to work. Every opportunity that there is to do something good, he single-handedly takes the oxygen out of the room," D'Esposito says. The poll D'Esposito references was released on Tuesday by the Siena College Research Institute. It found even Republican voters who elected Santos want him to resign.

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CNBC - February 7, 2023

Judge suggests abortion might be protected by 13th Amendment despite Supreme Court ruling

A federal judge suggested Monday that the federal right to abortion — which the Supreme Court overturned last year — might still be protected by the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery. Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly posed that eyebrow-raising hypothetical in a court order in a criminal case against a group of anti-abortion activists charged with blocking access to an abortion clinic in Washington, D.C. Kollar-Kotelly’s order told prosecutors and defense lawyers to file briefs by next month on the questions of whether the Supreme Court’s ruling only addresses the issue of whether abortion is not protected by the 14th Amendment, and if any other provision in the Constitution “could confer a right to abortion.” Her order in Washington District Court could end up being an invitation to federal legal challenges on 13th Amendment grounds to state laws that sharply restricted access to abortion in some states after the high court’s controversial decision overturning its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade. The order was previously reported by Politico.

The 14th Amendment covers several rights, including citizenship rights and a prohibition against the government depriving “any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” That amendment’s due process clause was a keystone of the Supreme Court’s prior ruling in Roe v. Wade which first established the federal right to abortion. But Kollar-Kotelly in her order wrote that the 13th Amendment “has received substantial attention among scholars and, briefly, in one federal Court of Appeals decision” on the question of whether that section of the constitution could apply to abortion. A 1990 paper by a Northwestern University School of Law professor found that the 13th Amendment, with its prohibition against involuntary servitude, provides a textual basis for the right to abortion. “When women are compelled to carry and bear children, they are subjected to ‘involuntary servitude’ in violation” of that amendment,” wrote the paper’s author Andrew Koppelman, which was cited by Kollar-Kotelly in her order. In a 1995 ruling on a question of legal fees in a case that challenged Utah’s abortion law, a panel of judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said a district court judge was wrong to assign fees on the grounds that the arguments against the law, which cited the 13th Amendment, were frivolous. “Without expressing a view on the merits of the involuntary servitude argument, we hold that it is not frivolous,” the appeals panel wrote.

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NBC News - February 7, 2023

U.S. military failed to detect prior balloon threats, top defense official says

The commander overseeing U.S. forces in North America said Monday that Chinese balloon threats have gone undetected by the United States in the past, highlighting an “awareness gap” that needs to be resolved. Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, the commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command, better known as NORAD, and U.S. Northern Command, was asked at a briefing whether his command had been involved in tracking previous balloons and whether he could identify differences between the most recent case and other balloons dating to the Trump administration. "I will tell you that we did not detect those threats. And that’s a domain awareness gap that we have to figure out," VanHerck said. VanHerck, who made the remark after he provided an update on the recovery operations following the takedown of the Chinese high-altitude balloon Saturday, declined to provide more details. He later said that, in tracking the balloon across U.S. territory, the United States “utilized multiple capabilities to ensure we collected and utilized the opportunity to close intel gaps.”

A senior Biden administration official said Sunday that Chinese surveillance balloons had flown over the continental U.S. before — once in the Biden administration and at least three times during former President Donald Trump’s term, a discovery that was made after he left office. Military leaders and administration officials have not provided a precise timeline about previous balloon flights or details about exactly where the airships flew. And it remains unclear why the U.S. failed to detect some of the balloon flights until after the fact. Once officials concluded that the previously unidentified sightings were Chinese spy balloons, they chose to keep that determination secret to conceal from China how they had unmasked the balloon flights, said a U.S. official with knowledge of the matter. VanHerck said the U.S. military does not have authority to collect intelligence inside the U.S. but an exception was granted to monitor the Chinese airship. “In this case, specific authorities were granted to collect intelligence against the balloon specifically and we utilized specific capabilities to do that,” he said. VanHerck said the most recent balloon, which was similar in height to a 20-story building or over twice that of the 2022 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, carried a payload that was similar in size to a regional jetliner. He said the sheer size of the balloon and the payload played a role in the “decision-making process” to delay shooting it down until it was clear of land and over the Atlantic Ocean.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 7, 2023

Mark Davis: With spy balloon, Biden missed chance to show resolve on China

For some, the Chinese spy balloon saga was a silly distraction barely worthy of attention; for others, it was a shocking violation of U.S. airspace made worse by days of seeming inattention. Once the balloon over the skies of Montana became a headline on Wednesday, calls mounted for it to be immediately shot down. It soon became clear this was not going to happen. Stories percolated that President Joe Biden and the Pentagon were worried about potential damage from falling debris. That’s not an improper concern, but the path over and out of Montana contains millions of acres of virtually unpopulated wilderness. It is impossible to believe that there was no safe intercept point. Speculation ignited over other possible motivations for the foot-dragging, most notably a perceived Biden administration softness toward China. The administration can note in turn that the balloon was ultimately downed Saturday; critics can reply that shooting it over the ocean after its mission is completed is hardly the picture of crisp decisiveness.

So with wet balloon parts in the hands of U.S. analysts, what is the postscript for these few days that serve to remind us just how brash the Chinese can be in their thirst for American intel? Anyone familiar with global espionage history can credibly assert the basic fact that has held true since the depths of the Cold War, when our adversary was the Soviet Union: We spy on other countries all the time, and they spy on us all the time. But there’s a reason this constant dance of mutual spying usually lingers in the background of our daily lives; we don’t usually see blatant evidence of it floating above sensitive military sites. That is precisely what happened. The offending balloon was near a Montana base that holds nuclear missiles, so it was not unreasonable to expect jets to scramble and promptly destroy it. We did not need to see it on TV from Thursday morning until Saturday, and we did not need to hear hand-wringing about ground concerns as it floated from a remote corner of Montana into a remote corner of the Dakotas. And as frustrations neared a boil, the very last thing we needed was the gaslighting that all of this waiting was actually beneficial. An unnamed “senior Defense Department official” told Politico that allowing the balloon to complete its path across America “provided us a number of days to analyze [it and] learn a lot about what [it] was doing, how it was doing it, why [China] might be using balloons like this. We have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities. And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more.” Learning is great. We should all be fans of learning. But the problem here is what communist China has learned — that it may freely deploy an aerial device right in front of our upturned eyes, and we will do nothing until it finishes its mission.

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Newsclips - February 6, 2023

Lead Stories

Politico - February 5, 2023

DNC votes to shake up presidential primary calendar

Members of the Democratic National Committee overwhelmingly approved a dramatic shakeup of the party’s presidential nominating calendar Saturday morning, reordering what states will vote first in primaries and upending a century of political tradition. The new calendar — recommended by President Joe Biden and his advisers and approved by a majority vote of the DNC — elevates South Carolina to the first-place position in the primary calendar on Feb. 3, replacing the Iowa caucuses, which held the coveted perch for a half-century. Under the new schedule, New Hampshire and Nevada would jointly host their primaries three days later on Feb. 6, followed by Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27, two brand-new states added to the early window. But several hurdles remain to ultimately implement this calendar. Iowa, which has held its caucuses first since 1972, will fall out of the early nominating process altogether.

“We are overdue in changing this primary calendar,” said Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, who has led her state’s effort to join the early window for almost two decades. “No one state should have a lock on going first.” The DNC reopened the presidential nominating calendar earlier this year, under pressure from both inside and outside the party to diversify the voters who get to participate early in the process. In December, Biden recommended his preferred slate, giving a particular nod to states like South Carolina and Georgia that gave him a boost in his 2020 presidential bid. It also nearly eliminates any path for a potential Democratic primary challenge ahead of 2024 by elevating states that represent the president’s base of support. The vote comes on the heels of a rare joint appearance by Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in back-to-back speeches Friday night, previewing the likely 2024 ticket as the pair road tested campaign one-liners and themes of attack against the GOP.

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KXAN - February 6, 2023

Austin Energy expects to restore power to ‘nearly all’ customers by Feb. 12

Nearly 32,000 Austin Energy customers are still without power. The energy provider said that based on current information, it expects to restore power to nearly all remaining customers by Sunday, Feb. 12. “This estimation is based on the following factors: rate of restoration since the start of the storm, number of workers involved in the restoration process, a more complete damage assessment, and weather,” Austin Energy wrote in a news release. At a press conference, Austin Energy General Manager Jackie Sargent described this winter storm as “hurricane-level devastation.”

Sargent said they are worried upcoming weather conditions could complicate things even further. “As early as Tuesday forecast calls for rain, thunderstorms and wind gusts,” Sargent said. “The trees are compromised, and high winds could pose new issues.” Still, they said they won’t stop until all their customers have power. “We are now focusing on the most complicated restoration efforts. The smaller outages with unique damage,” she said. People like Sarah Rainwater and her husband Gordon said power couldn’t come soon enough after being in the dark for five days. “It’s just overwhelming and kind of just a letdown and disappointing and frustrating,” Sarah said. She said this storm has cost her and her husband a lot of money. “We had to throw all of our food out in the fridge, because that’s five days of no power to keep it stored properly,” Sarah said. Until power is restored, the Rainwaters said it’s hard to make plans and they feel their life is on hold. “We don’t know how much food we need to buy, should we leave, should we get a hotel,” Sarah said.

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Washington Post - February 6, 2023

Pentagon reports past Chinese surveillance balloons near Florida, Texas

The Defense Department has notified Congress of several previous incursions of U.S. airspace by Chinese surveillance balloons, with earlier sightings near Texas, Florida, Hawaii and Guam, U.S. officials said Sunday, as Republicans criticized the Biden administration for allowing a suspected surveillance balloon to track across much of the United States over the last week. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview that defense officials identified the locations in a discussion with lawmakers and staff on Saturday, disclosing for the first time that similar surveillance balloons had been spotted in U.S. airspace near the continental United States before. The existence of such balloons near Hawaii and Guam has been reported previously. Two such incidents were reported near Florida, while there was at least one each in the other three locations, Waltz said.

The defense officials said that several of those events occurred during the Trump administration, Waltz said. Officials had also said that during a news briefing with reporters on Saturday. The Defense Department was not specific about where in each state the previous incursions occurred, Waltz said. He added that officials did not say whether the balloons made it into U.S. airspace, which extends 12 nautical miles from the shore, or over U.S. territory, too. Fox News first reported the additional locations. The account, verified by two U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, adds to an issue that has become vexing for the U.S. government. One of the other officials, a congressional aide, said that the disclosure came during a phone briefing with congressional leaders and national security committees. The administration official briefing them said the other incidents had mostly been along or off the coast of the United States. Several former Trump administration officials, including former defense secretary Mark T. Esper, said they do not recall reports of such balloons reaching their level, raising questions about how they were handled at the time.

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Dallas Morning News - February 6, 2023

Migrant flows plummet across Texas-Mexico border. Is success for Biden’s policy in sight?

A month after President Joe Biden’s administration said it was expanding its humanitarian parole program for migrants from certain countries, Mexican officials warn it’s too early to claim success, even as the number of migrants reaching the border has plummeted. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Roberto Velasco, a top diplomat and chief of the North America bureau at the Mexican Foreign Ministry, highlighted the drastic drop — as much as a 97% decline — in the number of migrants journeying through Mexico from Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Haiti. Biden announced on Jan. 5 that the U.S. government is expanding humanitarian passage monthly for as many as 30,000 people from those four countries. But people from those countries who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally will be turned away.

Under the humanitarian program, the immigrants must have an eligible sponsor and pass a vetting process to come to the U.S. for up to two years and receive work authorization. Since Biden’s announcement, encounters across the southwest border with people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela dropped from a seven-day average of 3,367 per day on Dec. 11 to a seven-day average of just 115 per day on Jan. 24, according to the Department of Homeland Security. “The program has been very successful, but it’s too early to declare any kind of victory, because we’re facing a dynamic phenomenon,” Velasco said. “The countries of origin, the circumstances, the network of smugglers and their ability to constantly adapt to government policies — all are important factors to consider as we go forward.” Already, migrants from other countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, are on the rise, Velasco said. When Biden announced the immigration policy shift, Mexico agreed to take back 30,000 people a month who come to the U.S. border without proper documentation. That marks the U.S.’s growing reliance on Mexico in managing the northward flow of migrants headed to the Texas-Mexico border. Mexico’s role has expanded from a “sending” country to one “managing” global migration, said Adam Isacson, a security and migration analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America. “I think Mexico is pretty comfortable now in this role as co-enforcer for the United States,” a role similar to ones played by Turkey and Spain with migrant flows to the European Union, Isacson said.

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State Stories

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 6, 2023

Would a pay raise help solve Texas’ teacher shortage?

As school districts across Texas struggle to recruit enough teachers to staff their classrooms, state lawmakers are considering offering educators a pay raise in hopes of attracting more candidates to the profession. Teachers and the district officials in Fort Worth say they would welcome an increase in teacher pay. But there are other ways they say the state could attract more teachers and retain more of the experienced educators it already has — things like better benefits, more mentorship and support for new teachers, and a workload that doesn’t require them to spend hours in the evenings and on weekends grading papers and making lesson plans. “I think that (a pay raise is) a good step in the right direction,” said Stephanie Delgadillo, a science teacher at Riverside Middle School in the Fort Worth Independent School District. “But I think there’s also a lot of things that could be done that would create a happier environment for teachers in general.”

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, filed a bill last month that would give teachers an across-the-board raise of $15,000, as well as a 25% pay bump to school support staff across the state. During a Jan. 24 press conference with House Democrats, Talarico, a former teacher, said the pay raise was long overdue. Talarico said he struggled to make ends meet while working as a sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio. He saw other teachers at his school drive for Uber or sell plasma to try to pay their bills, he said. Talarico acknowledged that the amount of the pay raise Democrats are proposing would likely come down during negotiations with House Republicans. But Talarico said he’s already discussed the proposal with House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is also concerned about the state of the teaching profession. Talarico said he hadn’t yet discussed the proposal with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, but Abbott has said publicly that he hopes to use part of the budget surplus to provide more money to public schools and to teacher salaries. Low pay isn’t the only challenge that teachers have to contend with, Talarico said. He pointed to the constant threat of school shootings, historic learning loss following the pandemic and an escalating mental health crisis among students as other issues that teachers have to navigate. House Democrats will have other proposals to address those other challenges, as well, he said.

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KSAT - February 5, 2023

Texas man with over 100 warrants arrested for walking on road, impeding traffic

A Texas man was found with over 100 warrants after he was arrested for walking on the roadway and impeding traffic, according to authorities. On Friday, deputies responded to reports of the man in the 500 block of FM 1960 in Houston, according to Mark Herman, Harris County Constable, Precinct 4. Deputies located and identified the man as 54-year-old Kenneth English. Further investigation revealed that he had 103 open misdemeanor warrants out for his arrest. “Kenneth English was arrested and booked into the Harris County Jail for the open warrants. His court and bond information have not been set at this time,” said Constable Mark Herman.

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Houston Chronicle - February 6, 2023

In the span of weeks, Houston ISD walks backs several high-profile decisions after public backlash. Here's why.

Houston ISD has walked back a series of high-profile decisions after backlash from the community, a red flag experts say could indicate inadequate community engagement as the school system attempts to operate under the looming cloud of a potential state takeover. Within the last month, HISD has reversed a decision to relocate a program for students with profound special needs, reinstated a popular high school principal they attempted to fire and reconsidered plans to redraw trustee boundaries. While the reversals do raise concerns about possible shortcomings in communications, they also indicate a willingness from HISD administrators to change when stakeholders point out unintended consequences, some parents said. They fear that won't be the case if the Texas Education Agency moves forward with a takeover.

“All of these kinds of things are evidence of a school board working as it should. It provides an additional level of oversight and local accountability,” said Allison Newport, a parent in Shady Acres. “We probably wouldn't see those decisions being walked back with the TEA being the judge, jury and executioner.” About 50 parents, students and politicians turned out Thursday to protest the potential takeover at the HISD administration building, saying the B-rated district of 270-plus campuses has come a long way since TEA first ordered the takeover. While it was delayed by a court fight, a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling gave TEA the authority to move forward. The TEA is currently mulling the decision, but in theory, could replace the board with state appointed managers. HISD plans to file a motion for a rehearing, but has received an extension from the court until later this week. State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, described the takeover as “the worst” of Texas politics, calling it a slap in the face to educators, especially those who work in schools in low-income areas. “We know there are schools that are still struggling,” Wu said at the protest, “but we can’t fix centuries of discrimination in five years.”

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Austin Chronicle - February 5, 2023

Travis D.A. drops charges against one officer (of 19) in Eighth Street shootings

Travis County D.A. José Garza announced today, Feb. 3, that his office would drop the criminal case it had brought against Austin Police Detective Nicholas Gebhart for allegedly shooting 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala in the head with a lead pellet round, during Austin protests against police violence in May 2020. Gebhart was indicted Feb. 17, 2022, by a Travis County grand jury. Dexter Gillford, who leads the Civil Rights Unit within the D.A.’s office, explained that since then, “new evidence and information” has come to light that could “impair” the D.A.’s ability to successfully prosecute the case. Neither Garza nor Gillford would provide any information on the evidence that motivated them to drop the case. “What we can say,” Garza told reporters assembled at the Ronnie Earle Building Friday, “is that the evidence would have significant consequences for our ability to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Garza reiterated that dropping charges against Gebhart had no bearing on the criminal cases against 18 other APD officers – each, like Gebhart, charged with two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (one for raising their weapons, another for firing). Criminal defense attorneys Doug O’Connell and Ken Ervin, who represent Gebhart and many other officers, did not respond to inquiries from the Chronicle before publication. Gillford indicated that Ayala did not object to dropping the case against Gebhart. “Mr. Ayala has communicated to our office that he no longer wishes our office to proceed with this criminal case,” Gillford told reporters. Video of Ayala being hit and dropping to the ground circulated widely after the protests; his family said at the time he had suffered a skull fracture. City Council authorized a $2.95 million payment to Ayala, even though Ayala’s attorney Dicky Grigg never filed a lawsuit. In a deposition for a different civil suit, Police Chief Joe Chacon said body-cam footage showed Ayala throwing rocks at officers. Grigg did not dispute this, but said that when his client was shot, he was no longer a threat to officers. Chacon has not released the body cam footage, though it is within his power to do so. Grigg told the Chronicle that the D.A.’s office contacted him prior to their decision to drop the case so that he could relay the information to Ayala. “I talked to Brad and he said he was ok with it, because he is just ready to move on with his life,” Grigg said. “I was surprised by their decision,” Grigg continued, adding that he did not have any information about the new evidence Garza mentioned. “But it’s the D.A.’s decision to prosecute or not, even though I still feel that Gebhart shot Ayala.”

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San Antonio Express-News - February 5, 2023

TV host Esteban Solis arrested on DWI charge

San Antonio television host Steven Christopher “Esteban” Solis was arrested early Friday on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, the second time he’s been charged with DWI, according to Bexar County records. Solis was arrested just before 1 a.m. Details of his arrest were not immediately known. The 42-year-old is co-host of KABB’s “ Daytime with Kimberly and Esteban.” The lifestyle and entertainment show debuted in 2011 as “Daytime at Nine” and was rebranded in 2018 with its current title. Court records indicate that the television host was also arrested in 2006 on a DWI charge. He was sentenced to 50 days in jail. A second DWI offense is a Class A misdemeanor, with a maximum jail sentence of 12 months. The charge also carries a mandatory three-day jail sentence and a driver’s license suspension.

Solis has been in the national news during his stint on “Daytime,” appearing as the butt of a joke on John Oliver’s popular HBO program “Last Week Tonight.” In 2021, Oliver teased Solis for his “electrifying” small talk. Solis’ arrest comes in the wake of two other high-profile DWI arrests in San Antonio. On Jan. 27, then-KSAT-12 sports anchor Greg Simmons was charged with DWI after he was pulled over by a police officer who observed Simmons driving erratically and unusually slow on Evans. Simmons resigned from his KSAT position Monday. In December, District 10 City Councilman Clayton Perry was also charged with DWI in connection with an incident in which he allegedly caused an accident and left the scene. In November, Perry was arrested on a charge of fleeing the scene of an accident, a Class B misdemeanor, related to the same incident.

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Dallas Morning News - February 5, 2023

Sen. Ted Cruz says Biden was too slow to order downing of Chinese surveillance balloon

Sen. Ted Cruz on Sunday commended President Joe Biden for having “the guts” to take out a suspected Chinese spy balloon, but said the commander-in-chief waited too long to pull the trigger. “He allowed a full week for the Chinese to conduct spying operations over the United States, over sensitive military installations,” Cruz said during an appearance on CBS’ Face The Nation. Cruz said the delay gave China the opportunity not just to capture photographs but potentially also to intercept communications. He questioned whether Biden would have acted at all if not for extensive news coverage of the balloon and the ensuing public pressure to shoot it down. The whole episode telegraphed U.S. weakness, Cruz said. Those comments indicate Republicans aren’t likely to let go of the balloon quickly, as Biden re-works the China sections of his State of the Union address scheduled for Tuesday night.

Biden told reporters Saturday that he had given the order to shoot down the balloon “as soon as possible” back on Wednesday, but the Pentagon decided the best time to do so was when the balloon was over water to avoid falling debris harming anyone on the ground. “They said to me, ‘Let’s wait till the safest place to do it,’” Biden said. China says it reserves the right to take further actions in response to the downing of the balloon and criticized the United States for what it said was an “obvious overreaction” and violation of international practice. In response to a question Sunday, Cruz said the United States should take diplomatic action against China on par with then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 closing of the Chinese consulate in Houston. He also reiterated his call for the release of Houston resident Mark Swidan. Cruz last week introduced a resolution calling for the Biden administration to prioritize efforts to secure freedom for Swidan, who has been detained by China since 2012. Cruz had urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken to press Swidan’s case during a scheduled visit to China but that trip was canceled amid the balloon furor. “If they want to demonstrate that they’re not bad actors, if they want to demonstrate that they can aspire to being a great nation, they should release Mark Swidan,” Cruz said of China. “Because great nations and great powers don’t hold political prisoners.”

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Dallas Morning News - February 6, 2023

Dallas Morning News Editorial: Texas agency that handles misbehaving judges needs boost from Legislature

A family court judge ordered two attorneys in her courtroom shackled to the jury box after they annoyed her. A district court judge danced in the courtroom to a vulgar song, then allowed the performance to be posted on social media. A justice of the peace issued arrest warrants for President Joe Biden and Dr. Anthony Fauci in opposition to COVID-19 and other policies. Sadly, the list of Texas judges who behaved badly last year goes on and on. After the State Commission on Judicial Conduct disposed of a record number of 2,229 complaints, 86 judges were sanctioned, suspended or voluntarily agreed to resign, according to the agency’s 2022 annual report. Complaints against two judges were referred to law enforcement. Texas should consider lending more support to this important state panel, preferably through administrative fees or fines. The commission says it’s understaffed and under-budgeted at a time when not only complaints are spiking, but also its responsibilities have been expanded.

Legislative mandates for faster resolution of cases took effect in 2022, as did a new rule that gave the agency authority to handle complaints against judicial candidates, instead of just officeholders. Most of the judges disciplined last year were cited for failing to comply with the law, incompetence, having an improper demeanor and for behaving in a way that “cast public discredit on the judiciary.” Texas voters too often choose these down-ballot public officials based on political party, not whether they’re actually qualified to be judges. That’s why the commission’s job of investigating complaints is an important backstop for the cause of justice. Last year, the 13-member board and 14-person staff streamlined their investigation process and cleared more cases than ever before. But that “high level of productivity is not likely to be sustainable given current staffing levels,” commission Chairman David Schenck warned in the report. That’s why the commission is asking the Legislature to beef up its $1.2 million annual budget, which comes from the state’s general revenue fund, by at least $275,000 to cover increased staffing and software costs. Disturbingly, $75,000 of that is needed to pay outside attorneys to defend the commission against two lawsuits because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has shamefully refused to do so, neglecting his office’s duty. We prefer when state agencies get some funding through the payment of fees or fines, rather than relying wholly on tax dollars. But the commission does need additional funds. Texas judges make important decisions every day in their courtrooms for tens of thousands of litigants, crime victims and defendants. The agency ensuring that those judges act ethically should have what it needs to fulfill its mission and protect public trust.

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Houston Chronicle - February 6, 2023

Houston Grand Opera receives $22M donation from Austin couple who are longtime patrons

Houston Grand Opera gave a name to the five-year period of unprecedented challenges the organization faced: COVEY. The name refers to the hurricane that flooded HGO’s home at the Wortham Theater Center in 2017 and COVID-19, which forced it to halt its programming and go digital. On Friday, though, Houston Grand Opera and Khori Dastoor, its general director and CEO, were in a celebratory mood with “a little skip in our step,” she said. HGO announced a gift of $22 million, the largest in the organization’s 68-year history. The benefactors: Sarah and Ernest Butler, two Austin-based opera fans who have been subscribers for 35 years and attendees for even longer. The announcement was timed after HGO's presentation of its annual Concert of Arias. The 35th annual Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers is always a big night for HGO, during which it celebrates the future of opera by presenting some of its rising talents.

At the conclusion of the program, the good news was made public. “The Butlers challenged us,” Dastoor said. “They asked us what we could do if we couldn’t use money as an excuse. What would we do with such an amazing gift?” Dastoor likened the couple to Norm from TV’s “Cheers,” patrons known by everyone inside the Wortham Theater Center. And she cited them as model subscribers, intrigued as much by opera’s future as its past. “They’re as excited about mariachi operas as Mozart operas,” Dastoor said. “They’re invested in a pleasurable experience as much for others as themselves. What they’ve done is expand access and inspiration for future generations. They don’t see this gift as being about them. It’s about others.” The Butlers are native Texans and Baylor University alumni. Sarah is a retired educator; Ernest a retired otolaryngologist. The couple was not on hand for the announcement Friday — they remain world travelers and were on a birding expedition out of the country. But as of this week, the Houston Grand Opera Studio -- an annual program that places young opera professionals within the company to study and perform -- has become the Sarah and Ernest Butler Houston Grand Opera Studio. Ernest Butler said in a statement that he and his wife “want to help this great company expand its mission and its reach throughout our region and beyond.”

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San Antonio Express-News - February 6, 2023

New Braunfels could use all land by 2035 and no more land to build on

The city of New Braunfels’ growth is so explosive it’s projected to run out of developable land within the city limits by 2035. That’s according to the 2022 State of the City report, which outlines budget needs and growth in the bustling city north of San Antonio along the busy Interstate 35 corridor. The report paints an urgent picture of the intense growth and development the city has experienced over the past decade and will continue to experience into the 2030s. The analysis shows that based on population trends since 2012 and the increased commercial and residential development that followed suit, “we determined that around the mid-2030s, we’ll be out of land” on which to build, said Jeff Jewel, the city of New Braunfels’ director of economic and community development. “New Braunfels will reach all of the available property within the corporate limits,” Jewel said. “That’s why we’re seeing so much development outside the city limits, in the county and the (extraterritorial jurisdiction).”

The city itself boasts nearly 25,000 total acres within its incorporated limits, according to city data. In 2016, about 33 percent of that acreage was undeveloped. Just four years later, in 2020, about 25 percent of the total acreage was undeveloped. As population continues to increase each year and commercial and residential building shows no sign of slowing, the city expects that in just 12 years, it will reach “buildout” — or the time at which there is no more green space, i.e., empty fields, on which to build new structures. “We (the city) said, OK, with this pace of growth and development, and if the consumption of land continues to go at this pace, we realistically think we’ll hit buildout” by then, Jewel said. So many people are wanting to move to New Braunfels because of its location along the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin, as well as its reputation and quality of life, said Troy French, a builder and owner of T.A. French Custom Builders. French said he builds around 50 homes a year, many for people who lived in Houston or Dallas and wanted the Hill Country lifestyle without being as far away as, say, Fredericksburg.

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KHOU - February 5, 2023

Teen was out on bond when he prompted lockdown at Houston high school last week, court docs say

One of the teens who was arrested in connection with an armed robbery and a lockdown at a Houston high school was in trouble before the incident last week, according to court documents. Mahamoudou Sylla, 18, was out on bond when he was arrested at his school campus on Thursday, authorities said. Houston Police Department investigators said Sylla was the robbery suspect who entered Wisdom High School and caused a chaotic scene in the school's auditorium. Houston police said they were watching a "very violent crew of individuals" when they robbed and shot a person at an apartment complex off Westheimer Road near Hillcroft Avenue around noon on Thursday. According to police, when they approached the group, one of them pointed a gun at an officer.

Officer R. Aguilar shot John Nsenguwera, 18, once, police said. He was taken to an area hospital with what police said were non-life-threatening injuries. No officers were injured. Mohamed Rasheed Robinson, 17, was arrested at the scene. Sylla managed to get away and got a ride back to school from a random driver, police said. According to Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, the driver just "thought he was giving a kid a ride back to the school," not knowing Sylla had been involved in the incident with police. When Sylla got back to the school, an administrator let him in and he went to the front desk where he used his school ID to scan in. Sylla then went to the auditorium where at least 100 students were, police said. The school was placed on lockdown once they found out he was on campus. A short time later, Sylla was taken into custody. Sylla is facing two aggravated robbery charges, both felonies, and a robbery by threat charge. Nsenguwera and Robinson were also charged in the officer-involved shooting incident, police said. Nsenguwera was charged with aggravated assault against a peace officer. Robinson was charged with robbery by threat. According to court records, Sylla was arrested in August 2022 after he and three other teens robbed a group at gunpoint near a shopping center on Bellaire Boulevard. The documents state they had also carjacked someone nearby. Sylla was charged with aggravated robbery of a deadly weapon in the case but was currently out on bond. According to police, the teens charged in the 2022 case were different than those who were charged in last week's robbery and shooting.

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Dallas Morning News - February 6, 2023

Richard Marcus, the last founding family member to run Neiman Marcus, dies at 84

Richard Cantrell Marcus, who as the last founding family member to run Dallas-based Neiman Marcus led the company at a time of a major expansion outside Texas, died Saturday at his home in Austin from complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease and Lewy body dementia. Marcus, the chairman and CEO from 1979 to 1988, was one of only three family members to be the retailer’s chief executive, succeeding his father, Stanley Marcus. The luxury retailer was founded in 1907 by Stanley Marcus’ father, Herbert Marcus Sr., and aunt Carrie Marcus Neiman, along with her husband, A.L. Neiman. “Richard was a power, a great contributor and a sweet man in the world outside of Neiman Marcus,” said Morton H. Meyerson, a longtime friend and former EDS and Perot Systems CEO. The Meyersons were in a couples group with Marcus and his wife, Susan Russell Marcus, and they took two-week hiking trips annually for more than 20 years.

Leonard Lauder, son of the Estee Lauder founders, said Marcus did everything with class. “Richard stepped into his father’s shoes and he did an equitable job,” Lauder said. “Everything he did was thoughtful and direct. There were no smoke and mirrors.” Marcus’ daughter, Catherine Marcus Rose, speaking for herself and her brother, Charles Marcus, said it was unusual for a father of his generation who also was a busy CEO to be “supportive, encouraging and respectful.” “My brother and I are extremely grateful to have had a father who was as encouraging and involved in our lives as he was in spite of his very full commitments to Neiman Marcus when we were growing up,” Rose said. “We always felt that he was our No. 1 cheerleader, and I understand he treated his work associates at the store, and in other endeavors, in the same way.” Former Neiman Marcus executive Billy Payton, who worked under both father and son and watched Marcus rise through the company, said Marcus cut his own path. “He was a people person and a great leader who was always growing our executive talent and ran the company during our largest expansion years,” Payton said. “I spent a lot of years watching Richard, and being Stanley’s son was a great asset, but it was also his biggest challenge.”

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 6, 2023

Kelley Shannon: Texans deserve stronger law ensuring public records are open

(Kelley Shannon is executive director of the nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which is dedicated to protecting First Amendment rights and enhancing the public’s right to know about government.) Fifty years ago, responding to public demand in an era of reform, Texas enacted a sweeping law ensuring the people’s right to know about their government. The Texas Public Information Act — originally known as the Open Records Act when it passed in 1973 — was one of the strongest transparency laws in the nation. It allowed Texans to hold their state and local governments accountable by obtaining all sorts of public records. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,” according to the law, born after the Sharpstown stock fraud scandal that gripped state government. Despite those bold words, the act has been eroded by subsequent legislation, court rulings and maneuvers by some government officials to sidestep it. In the current Texas legislative session, we, the people, must insist that lawmakers protect and strengthen the Public Information Act and maintain our state’s open government legacy.

The Texas Sunshine Coalition is doing exactly that. Sixteen diverse organizations are working together to push for bipartisan transparency legislation. The nonprofit Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is part of the coalition and was founded on the belief that access to public records allows everyone to scrutinize and speak up about government. The Sunshine Coalition aims to shore up the Public Information Act so that taxpayers can view “super public” information and other key provisions in government contracts; uniformly define “business days” to determine when governments must respond to public records requests, even on days of remote work; require that governments provide certain data to requestors in searchable and sortable spreadsheets; and restore public access to dates of birth in criminal-justice and political-candidate records. Another pillar for the coalition is to allow recovery of attorneys’ fees if a requestor must sue to get public information. A series of court decisions have made this extremely difficult by allowing governments to hand over documents at the last minute — after months of litigation — and avoid paying any of the requestor’s legal fees. Consequently, governments may be inclined to ignore or delay records requests. Meanwhile, the FOI Foundation of Texas works every legislative session to defend the Texas Open Meetings Act, the state’s other major transparency law that was expanded during the early 1970s reform movement. Its enforcement provisions must remain available to everyday citizens. That includes civil court action, when necessary, to prevent or compel an action by a government to ensure compliance with the open meetings law. The FOI Foundation weighed in on this provision with an amicus brief in court.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 6, 2023

With tax breaks locked in, will Samsung really build 11 more Austin-area semiconductor plants?

It took less than an hour during separate meetings in December for the Taylor and Manor school boards to grant final approval to Samsung for potentially billions of dollars in tax breaks over multiple decades if the chipmaker builds up to 11 new factories in Central Texas. The wait for Samsung to commit to any of those construction plans is going to be much longer, however — probably 10 years or more. That's because Samsung is among the companies that successfully locked in tax breaks for tentative, long-term projects just before the state's controversial Chapter 313 corporate incentive program — named after a section of the tax code — expired at the end of 2022.

Samsung spokesperson Michele Glaze said the company's willingness to move forward with the Central Texas factories will hinge on variables that won't be known anytime soon, such as market conditions and demand for its semiconductors years from now. The first of the 11 prospective plants wouldn't become operational until 2034 if the company opts to build it at all, according to Samsung's applications for the tax breaks, with the rest possibly coming online on a staggered schedule through 2042. The property tax breaks for the projects won't go into effect unless the company builds them. "No final decisions have been made," Glaze said. "These (Chapter 313) agreements are for potential, long-term planning purposes only." Two of the plants would be in Austin, where Samsung already has manufacturing facilities. Nine would be in Taylor, a city of about 17,000 in Williamson County where the company is in the process of building a $17 billion chip factory. Samsung received a Chapter 313 deal in 2021 for that facility, as well as other local and state incentives. If Samsung follows through with all 11 of the additional factories, it would be a staggering investment in the region by the South Korea-based semiconductor giant — totaling about $192 billion over the next couple of decades. The tax breaks would also be huge, weighing in at a combined $4.8 billion over the life of the agreements if all of the prospective plants are completed as described in the applications, according to an analysis by the American-Statesman. The analysis assumed no change in the school districts' tax rates far into the future, meaning the value of the incentives to Samsung would climb if the tax rates go up.

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KSAT - February 5, 2023

‘This is not free food!’: Over 250 people fight over discarded food at Austin H-E-B, constable says

A days-long power outage and a misleading social media post led to hundreds of people fighting over food at an H-E-B on the Southeast Side of Austin, according to Travis County Constable George Morales III. The misleading social media post claimed there was “free food” inside a dumpster at the H-E-B, according to Morales. He said the post led to over 250 people arriving at the H-E-B and filling carts with the discarded food. The influx of people also caused a gridlock of area roadways.

“The food is rotten and spoiled, and is unsafe to eat,” Morales said. “Our Pct 4 deputies and APD responded to roads that were gridlocked because of this false post. The area was cleared by our office. If you know someone that got food, let them know it is not safe.” As of Sunday, tens of thousands of families were still without power, according to Austin Energy’s outage map. This marks day five that many families have remained without electricity since last week’s ice storm. H-E-B disposed of the perishable foods that it was not able to keep at a certain temperature due to the power outage. This also led to the grocer not being able to donate the items to food pantries and food banks, Morales said. The ice storm brought on a multitude of outages across Austin and the state, many fallen trees and icy roadways and power lines. At last check, Austin Energy hasn’t said when the outages are expected to be resolved.

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 5, 2023

New $45M affordable housing project for Houston's homeless breaks ground in Midtown

A 149-unit development that will provide affordable housing for unhoused people broke ground this week in Midtown. The $45 million complex, being developed by the nonprofit NHP Foundation, is expected to open in May of 2024. The Houston region's main strategy for reducing homelessness is moving people into permanent housing, coupled with support services such as social workers, healthcare and employment resources. Since 2011, the region's yearly count of the homeless population suggests the strategy has been a success. Houston, Harris County and their partner organizations have reduced, by 64 percent, the number of people staying in shelters or in cars, tents or other places not meant for habitation in Harris and Fort Bend counties.

There are two main ways to secure permanent supportive housing — renting units from landlords, which takes less up front investment but is impacted by the local rental market, and building housing specifically for that purpose. The NHP Foundation, which has faced criticism from tenants in the past, is among the organizations helping build permanent supportive housing in Houston. It has also constructed and operated Temenos Place Apartments, which is dedicated to permanently housing and providing support services to people who've lived without homes. “With RoseMary's Place, NHPF hopes to help end chronic homelessness in Houston,” Neal Drobenare, the NHP Foundation's lead developer of the new development, said in a statement. “The stable housing and services provided will give residents opportunities to live happy and productive lives.” While the foundation's new construction for those without homes has been celebrated, an older affordable housing development it owns drew fire this past summer for poor conditions. Unlike RoseMary's Place or Temenos Place, Cleme Manor does not specialize in providing housing for those who were formerly homeless. The uproar over days long power outages, sewer backups and pest infestations at Cleme Manor led Harris County Commissioner's Court to approve a measure that attaches a condition to funding for RoseMary's Place: the NHP Foundation would have to agree to more frequent inspections, a stricter repair timeline and rights for tenants to organize without fear of retaliation, among other mandates.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 5, 2023

Fort Worth Star-Telegram Editorial: Name change for White Settlement Road on hold but still needed

In the summer of 2021, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker took a strong stance: It’s time for White Settlement Road to get a new name. After months of discussion and significant public input, it’s no longer a priority. An evaluation of possible names for the new bridges built for the Panther Island project — one of which stretches along the road in question — is on hold. What happened? It’s not entirely clear, but re-evaluating history is a touchy subject these days. A name change sparked some opposition, and while it presented as an opportunity to honor an important contributor to Fort Worth, there was never consensus about whom that should be. It’s a rule of politics: You can’t beat somethin’ with nothin’. Not that Fort Worth lacks worthy candidates: Two who were mentioned, civil-rights trail blazers Judge Clifford Davis and Opal Lee, deserve any honor we can send their way.

The road still needs a rechristening, even if now isn’t the time. Whatever you think of it, the name sticks out as an anachronism. No one would give a road (or, for that matter, a town) such a label today. It’s for White Settlement residents to decide whether or when to change the city name. But let’s be clear about what it represents. The name was affixed early in Tarrant County’s history, to distinguish the settlement near today’s Hawks Creek neighborhood in Westworth Village from nearby American Indian communities. It’s forever associated with the steady effort to drive native tribes off their lands. Fort Worth’s road may have once led to the town, but it no longer needs to carry its name. As Parker once noted, whatever historical value “White Settlement” may have for the town, it doesn’t apply the same way to Fort Worth. Complicating matters is the road’s importance to Fort Worth’s most vital development project for the next decade, Panther Island. Construction of the bridges that will cross the Trinity River bypass channel west of downtown prompted discussion of names.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 5, 2023

Bridget Grumet: For one night, homeless count sought those in the shadows

Bree Williams scoped out everything a week earlier. She scanned the alleyways and empty lots. She walked along the railroad tracks and peered over fences. “Honestly, I think about where would I sleep?” Williams, a project director at the nonprofit LifeWorks, told me around 3 a.m. Saturday, as a group of us trekked around East Austin in the drizzling rain, searching for people who often try not to be found. That was the task for hundreds of volunteers who fanned out across Travis County in the dark morning hours, conducting our community’s first point-in-time homeless count in three years. It was the first big test of how much the homeless population had changed in the upheaval of the pandemic — and how extensively the unhoused had hidden themselves in the wake of Austin’s voter-approved camping ban, even as an oncoming blast of wintry weather made their existence as difficult as ever.

Compiling the data from that one morning will be a weekslong project for the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, better known as ECHO. The federal government requires a point-in-time count, always conducted in the overnight hours, for communities to receive Continuum of Care funding, a source of more than $11 million in 2021 for Austin/Travis County programs addressing homelessness. The larger your homeless population, the larger slice of aid you can expect. Assuming you can find the people to count. Since Austin’s camping ban went back into effect in mid-2021, the city has cleared away many visible encampments and issued citations to more than 300 people. “Folks are going to be hidden,” Williams said, “given the fact that their existence is criminal now.” Felipe Ramirez didn’t realize that. He had arrived in Austin just five days earlier, looking for construction work, not knowing anyone or having anywhere to stay. We found him at quarter till 4 outside the Stop N Tote convenience store on North Pleasant Valley Road, where an awning offered reprieve from the rain and the floodlights announced anyone who might approach. “Where are you going to sleep tonight?” asked Shawndi Johnson, a LifeWorks program director. “Right here,” Ramirez, 50, answered.

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National Stories

Raw Story - February 5, 2023

CBS host busts Ted Cruz on term limit bill: 'But you're still running!'

CBS host Margaret Brennan asked Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) why he is not a hypocrite for sponsoring a bill to limit U.S. senators to two terms — even though he is running for a third term. "You introduced a bill to limit terms to two six-year terms in office for senators," Brennan told Cruz. "Why aren't you holding yourself to that standard? You said you're running for a third term."

Cruz insisted he was a "passionate defender of term limits." "But you're still running!" Brennan interrupted. "If and when it passes, I will happily, happily comply," Cruz insisted. "Are you running for president?" the host pressed. "I will be more than happy to comply by the same rules that apply for everyone," Cruz stated. "But until then, I'm going to keep fighting for 30 million Texans." "I think you heard me ask if you're running for president," Brennan said. "I'm running for re-election to the Senate," Cruz replied. "There's a reason I'm in Texas today. I'm not in Iowa. I'm in Texas and I'm fighting for 30 million Texans."

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Dallas Morning News - February 6, 2023

Here’s why it will be hard to stop Donald Trump in GOP primary

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ upcoming appearances in Dallas and Houston reflect his growing popularity with the nation’s grassroots Republicans. It’s also a harbinger of the challenges he’ll face in 2024 if he decides to seek the GOP nomination for president. Though one of the most well-known governors in the country, DeSantis’ biggest chore is to build political organizations in numerous states. That means pouring money, staff and volunteers into the early contest venues, as well as states later on the election calendar that could play a critical role in the nominating process. If the race was filled with first-time or weaker candidates, DeSantis’ job would be easier. But he’ll be in a bruising fight with former President Donald Trump, who will have the advantage of ready-made political organizations across the country. “It’s critical because you have got to have people on the ground,” said Republican political consultant Vinny Minchillo, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “The basic things that you need in any election is that you’ve got to turn out voters, you’ve got to have volunteers, and having a good operation in the state also makes donors feel better.”

Minchillo said Trump has the advantage because he’s a former president and has loyal supporters across the country. But he added that DeSantis is in better shape than the other candidates who don’t have his popularity. “For Trump and DeSantis it’s almost a non-issue,” he said. “Trump has certainly restarted the organizations that he had, and DeSantis, being the other top front-runner, is going to have no problem putting all of this together.” Still, Trump is the candidate to beat, particularly since he’ll have an easier time activating his grassroots organization. “You can’t build that kind of national infrastructure overnight,” consultant Matthew Langston said. With the GOP presidential primaries starting in less than a year, it’s critical that DeSantis and other presidential contenders begin building their fundraising and grassroots machines. The later a candidate waits, the more difficult it is to raise money and attract the best political talent.

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Houston Chronicle - February 6, 2023

Russia and China to drive the price of oil in coming week

The readjustment in global energy markets that comes as a result of Western pressure on Russia along with China’s growing appetite should be the main factors to watch this week in crude oil, analysts said. Convening only briefly, OPEC last week opted to stand pat on production quotas, while central banks started to ease back on aggressive rate hikes designed to dampen consumer inflation. While the former may be seen as something of a wait-and-see approach on the economy, the latter suggests that inflation is cooling off and interest rates are close to, if not at, their peak. Crude oil prices nonetheless were on the decline. Both Brent, the global benchmark, and West Texas Intermediate, the U.S. benchmark, flirted with declines of at least 2 percent on the week. For WTI, a late January move on $83 per barrel seems like a distant memory.

Phil Flynn, an energy analyst at Price Futures Group in Chicago, said oil traders might still be wary of the lingering possibility of a recession. Energy Department data showing domestic crude oil inventories are 4 percent above the five-year average for this time of year and weak manufacturing data are both cause for concern. “Having said that, China will see a big surge in demand and that should keep global markets tight,” he said. China, the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States, is rebounding from the draconian social restrictions imposed last year as a preventive measure to control the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. And as a major importer of crude oil, it stands to benefit from Western restrictions on Russian supplies, which may register as a net increase in global demand. “In China, this would be on top of the significant rise in demand we already expect as transportation usage rises and the economy adjusts to life without restrictions,” said Bill Weatherburn, a commodities economist at Capital Economics in London.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 5, 2023

Cynthia Allen: Biden strays from Catholic teaching on abortion, as he knows

It would be an understatement to say that President Joe Biden is prone to stating misleading things. Indeed, for many of his most ardent supporters, the president’s frequent gaffes and misstatements are almost a kind of endearment. That’s just Uncle Joe, they say, a sort of tacit approval of the absurd things he says and a subtle acknowledgment of the president’s apparent lack of awareness about it. But Biden’s response last week to a reporter who approached him about the position of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on using federal tax dollars to fund abortions wasn’t just misleading, it was flat out false. And he undoubtedly knew it. “Catholic bishops are demanding that federal tax dollars not fund abortions,” said a reporter from the Catholic news organization EWTN. The president interrupted: “No, they are not all doing that, and nor is the pope doing that.”

The reporter was referring to a recent letter the bishops sent to Congress in support of the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act.” It would prohibit the use of federal funds for abortions or for health plans that include abortion coverage. Biden is a Catholic, and even if he was unaware or misinformed about the conference’s position on this particular piece of legislation, he most certainly knows the position that the Catholic Church (and the pope!) hold on the matter. After all, it used to be his position. Once upon a time, Biden was a voice of moderation when it came to abortion. Early in his Senate career, he supported (albeit for a short time) a constitutional amendment to allow individual states to overturn Roe v. Wade. In 2006, he declared during an interview that he viewed abortion as neither a choice nor a right. “I think it’s always a tragedy,” he said. As recently as 2019, Biden supported the Hyde Amendment, the decades-old measure that restricted federal funding of abortion except in rare circumstances. But like so many politicians before him, he was for it before he was against it. And as a Democratic presidential candidate, the pressure on Biden to satisfy the demands of the most progressive elements of his party became so great that it superseded his long-held, and somewhat principled, beliefs about the nature of human life and the government’s role in protecting it.

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NPR - February 5, 2023

What's next in the saga of the suspected Chinese spy balloon

The balloon is down. On Saturday the U.S. military shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, after it had traveled across much of the U.S., capturing the attention of residents and the media alike. China said the balloon was a meteorological research vessel blown off course and expressed "strong dissatisfaction and protest" over its downing. Now the U.S. military is left to literally pick up the pieces of the wreckage, as diplomats and members of Congress express concern over the incident. Here's the latest: Top U.S. officials say they were able to learn about the Chinese surveillance balloon by tracking it across the country, and now they're hoping to learn even more by examining the pieces that remain after a fighter jet shot it out of the sky on Saturday.

In a background briefing on Saturday, two U.S. defense officials said they were working with the FBI and counterintelligence authorities to recover as much debris from the balloon as possible, including whatever equipment was onboard and "any material of intelligence value." A senior defense official said the administration has had several days to investigate what the balloon was doing and how — as well as why China might have sent it in the first place. "We don't know exactly all the benefits that will derive. But we have learned technical things about this balloon and its surveillance capabilities," the senior defense official said. "And I suspect if we are successful in recovering aspects of the debris, we will learn even more." Authorities said they may use uncrewed underwater vessels that can lift the structure up to the surface and place it on a salvage ship. Navy divers were also available. The debris splashed down in 47-foot-deep water, making the recovery effort easier than had been originally expected. China has denied that the balloon was used for spying and instead said it was conducting weather research. James Flaten, a University of Minnesota professor who works with NASA to teach students using high-altitude balloons, told NPR that it would be possible for a high-altitude balloon launched from China to reach the U.S., but added that China may not have had much control over its path at such high altitudes. "I'm not saying they're telling the truth," Flaten said, "I'm just saying that's a plausible story."

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Washington Post - February 6, 2023

Fears mount around ‘catastrophic’ abortion pills case as decision nears

Abortion rights advocates delivered a stark warning to the Biden administration’s top health official in a private meeting last week: It’s time to take seriously “fringe” threats that could wind up blocking abortion access across the country. Driving their anxiety is a Texas lawsuit brought by conservative groups seeking to revoke the decades-old government approval of a key abortion drug. The suit has been widely ridiculed by legal experts as rooted in baseless and debunked arguments. But in recent weeks, abortion rights advocates and some in the Biden administration have grown increasingly concerned that the case is likely to be decided entirely by conservative judges who might be eager for a chance to restrict abortion access even in Democrat-led states, where the procedure has remained legal since the fall of Roe v. Wade.

“It’s hard to really comprehend the full and terrible impact if what the plaintiffs have asked for in that case is actually granted,” Liz Wagner, senior federal policy counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during the meeting at a Virginia abortion clinic. “It would be catastrophic.” The case was filed in Amarillo, where U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, nominated by President Donald Trump and known for his conservative views on issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, could rule as early as this week. An appeal would land in the right-leaning Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, ultimately presenting the Supreme Court with another major abortion case less than a year after its conservative majority retracted the constitutional right to abortion. “Obviously we have people who are not fans of the administrative state on that court and also obviously people who are not fans of abortion,” Jenny Ma, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, told Becerra. “It’s a perfect storm.”

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Associated Press - February 6, 2023

Beyoncé emerges as Grammys queen; Styles wins album honor

Beyoncé sits alone atop the Grammy throne as the ceremony’s most decorated artist in history, but at the end of Sunday’s show it was Harry Styles who walked away with the album of the year honor. The Grammys spread its top awards among other artists, leaving Beyoncé off stage at the end of the night. But the superstar was a constant presence throughout the night, even when she wasn’t in the room, especially once she won her 32nd award and surpassed late composer Georg Solti in all-time wins. “I’m trying not to be too emotional,” the superstar said after her historic win as her husband Jay-Z stood and applauded her. The singer thanked her late uncle, her parents, Jay-Z and her children for supporting her. “I’m just trying to receive this night. I want to thank God for protecting me. Thank you, God.” The Grammys stage at the end of the night has eluded Beyoncé since 2010, when she won song of the year for “Single Ladies.” She added four trophies to her collection for her album “Renaissance.”

Styles was emotional accepting his album of the year award, saying he was inspired by everyone in the category. “A lot of different times of my life, I’ve listened to everyone in these categories. It’s so important to remember that there is no such thing as best.” The British singer-actor took home three awards Sunday. “It feels like validation that you’re on the right path,” said the singer backstage. “When we get in the studio and begin the record, we just make the music we want to make. It feels really nice to feel like ‘Oh, that’s the right thing to do.’” Jazz singer Samara Joy won best new artist, shrugging off challenges by such acts as Wet Led, Anitta and Maneskin. The New Yorker was virtually in tears when she collected the award and noted that her little brother was her date. “I’m so, so grateful. Thank you.” She has released two albums as a lead artist and also won the Grammy for best jazz vocal album earlier in the night. Veteran singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt shrugged off big-name rivals like Adele, Swift and Beyoncé to win the song of the year award. “I’m so surprised. I don’t know what to say,” a visibly stunned Raitt said, adding that the song “Just Like That” explores organ donation. It capped a night when Raitt won two other Grammys — for best Americana performance and best American roots song. A who’s who of hip-hop royalty took the stage for an epic, rousing 15 minute tribute to the genre’s 50th anniversary. The performance included Grandmaster Flash doing part of his seminal hit “The Message,” Run DMC, Chuck D and Flavor Flav along with Ice-T, Queen Latifah, Busta Rhymes and Nelly all taking the stage. It ended with everyone on the stage and LL Cool J shouting “multi-generational! Fifty years!” The performance was a crowd-pleasing moment for a ceremony that has long had a shaky history of not recognizing rap. Bad Bunny opened the show with a festive, high-energy performance that brought many of the audience including Swift who rose to her feet and danced near her table at Los Angeles’ Crypto.com Arena. Sam Smith and Kim Petras won best pop duo-group performance for their song “Unholy.” Petras said Smith wanted Petras to make the acceptance speech because “I’m the first transgender woman to win this award.”

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