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Newsclips - February 26, 2024

Lead Stories

NBC News - February 26, 2024

Democratic operative admits to commissioning fake Biden robocall that used AI

Steve Kramer, a veteran political consultant working for a rival candidate, acknowledged Sunday that he commissioned the robocall that impersonated President Joe Biden using artificial intelligence, confirming an NBC News report that he was behind the call. In a statement and interview with NBC News, Kramer expressed no remorse for creating the deepfake, in which an imitation of the president’s voice discouraged participation in New Hampshire’s Democratic presidential primary. The call launched several law enforcement investigations and provoked outcry from election officials and watchdogs. “I’m not afraid to testify, I know why I did everything,” he said an interview late Sunday, his first since coming forward. “If a House oversight committee wants me to testify, I’m going to demand they put it on TV because I know more than them.”

Kramer said he has received a subpoena from the Federal Communications Commission, suspected he might get sued by a half dozen people and said he could even face jail time, but that he would keep working in politics. NBC News has reached out to the FCC for comment. Kramer claimed he planned the fake robocall from the start as an act of civil disobedience to call attention to the dangers of AI in politics. He compared himself to American Revolutionary heroes Paul Revere and Thomas Paine. He said more enforcement is necessary to stop people like him from doing what he did. “This is a way for me to make a difference, and I have,” he said in the interview. “For $500, I got about $5 million worth of action, whether that be media attention or regulatory action.” Kramer said he came up with the idea for the hoax entirely on his own and that it had nothing to do with his client, Biden's long-shot primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn. Phillips had paid Kramer over $250,000 around the time the robocall went out in January, according to his campaign finance reports. Phillips and his campaign have denounced the robocall, saying they had no knowledge of Kramer’s involvement and would have immediately terminated him if they had known. Phillips’ press secretary Katie Dolan said in response to Kramer’s statement Sunday, “Our campaign repeats its condemnation of these calls and any efforts to suppress the vote.”

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CNBC - February 26, 2024

Billionaire-backed Koch network halts Nikki Haley campaign funding after South Carolina loss

Americans for Prosperity Action, the network backed by billionaire Charles Koch, is pausing its financial support of GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley’s campaign a day after she lost to former President Donald Trump in her home-state primary in South Carolina. AFP Action said it still endorses Haley for president but now its support will only come in the form of words — not cash. “Given the challenges in the primary states ahead, we don’t believe any outside group can make a material difference to widen her path to victory,” AFP Action CEO Emily Seidel wrote in an email to staff, first reported by Politico. “And so while we will continue to endorse her, we will focus our resources where we can make the difference.”

AFP Action declined to provide further comment beyond the staff memo. AFP Action closing its wallet is the next nail in the coffin for the former South Carolina governor who has taken a series of hits since the start of the election year. Along with AFP Action, billionaire Reid Hoffman has also stopped funding Haley’s presidential bid. Despite the setbacks, Haley has pledged to stay in the race through Super Tuesday on March 5. Her campaign said that AFP Action pulling funding has not changed that calculus and that it still has the resources to stay afloat. “AFP is a great organization and ally in the fight for freedom and conservative government. We thank them for their tremendous help in this race,” Haley’s campaign said in a statement on Sunday. “Our fight continues, and with more than $1 million coming in from grassroots conservatives in just the last 24 hours, we have plenty of fuel to keep going. We have a country to save.” AFP Action will instead channel its resources to finance Republican campaigns on the congressional level. It has so far endorsed five candidates running for Senate and 19 candidates running for House seats.

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USA Today - February 26, 2024

How a Texas social media law before the Supreme Court could upend the Internet

A half-century after the Supreme Court said no government can dictate what newspapers may publish, the high court will consider whether Texas and Florida can tell social media giants how to operate. On Monday, the Supreme Court will debate the fate of laws passed by those states to limit the ability of social media giants such as Facebook, YouTube and X to moderate content. Republican lawmakers in Texas and Florida argue that social media companies have been too quick to throttle conservative viewpoints. The trade groups representing the nation's social media companies, as well as the Justice Department, say the Supreme Court should strike down the state laws because they are an infringement on the companies' First Amendment right to free speech, consistent with the court's 1974 ruling that Florida couldn’t require a newspaper to publish replies to editorials. “Just as the government may not tell the Miami Herald which editorials to publish or MSNBC which interviews to broadcast, the government may not tell Facebook or YouTube which third-party speech to disseminate or how to disseminate it,” lawyers for the trade associations NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association wrote in a filing.

But Florida and Texas say social media platforms are less like newspapers and more like telephone and telegraph operators who are transmitting content generated by customers, not creating it themselves. “The telephone company, internet service provider, and delivery company can all be prevented from squelching or discriminating against the speech they carry,” Florida’s lawyers have told the court. “And so can the platforms.” A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit blocked enforcement of most of Florida's law in 2022. But the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit upheld the similar Texas law. That created a split in how appeals courts are interpreting the laws. At the moment, neither the Florida nor the Texas law are in effect while the high court reviews them. The case is just one of three the justices will decide in the next few months with potentially enormous consequences for the way Americans interact on the internet. The justices will hear arguments next month about whether officials in the White House and federal agencies violated the First Amendment when they leaned on social media companies to suppress what they considered misinformation about the election and COVID-19.

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KHOU - February 26, 2024

Victim advocates hope Audrii Cunningham's death will enact change in Texas law

Victim advocates are calling for change after 11-year-old Audrii Cunningham, of Livingston, was found dead in the Trinity River under US-59 nearly six days after she was reported missing. The man charged with capital murder in connection with her death, Don Steven McDougal, is friends with the family and lived in a camper behind the home where Audrii lived with several of her family members McDougal is an ex-con with a rap sheet that dates back to 2001. He's been arrested in Harris, Montgomery and Liberty counties numerous times over the last two decades. In 2007, McDougal was convicted of enticing a child with intent out of Brazoria County. This is an offense the state of Texas doesn't require those convicted to register as a sex offender.

Lawmakers and activists say its unfortunate we have to keep naming laws in honor of children killed, to protect other kids, but they are hopeful Audrii's case will enact much needed change. Andy Kahan, director of victim services and advocacy for Crime Stoppers of Houston, is actively pushing for change on this matter. "I've already been in touch with several state senators and state representatives who, like everyone else, was just horrified and dumbfounded that this wasn't already an offense that you had to register," he said. More than 25 pieces of legislation have been passed, backed by Kahan. Legislation drafted in the case of Cunningham should receive bipartisan support, with right language. "Enticing a child encompasses a variety of different actions. So, the language that we're going to have to specifically focus is where there is a conviction of enticing a child, where there's obviously a sexual notation to the offense, which was obvious in this particular case," Kahan said. In the meantime, Kahan encourages everybody to reach out to their local state representatives and state senators.

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State Stories

NBC News - February 26, 2024

First responders in a Texas town are struggling to cope with the trauma of recovering bodies from the Rio Grande

The crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border since last year has spilled over into the fire engines and ambulances of a small Texas town. First responders in Eagle Pass say they are overwhelmed and increasingly traumatized by what they see: parents drowned or dying, their children barely holding onto life after attempting to cross the Rio Grande. The emotional strain on firefighters and EMTs has grown so great that city officials have applied for a state grant that would bring in additional mental health resources for front-line workers. “It’s an unprecedented crisis,” said Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello. “It’s nothing close to what I experienced while I was on the line. It’s a whole different monster.” Firefighters say the first calls for help usually blare through the three stations in Eagle Pass while crews are still sipping their morning coffee, bracing themselves for what the day will bring.

Parents with young children might be near drowning or trapped on islands somewhere between the United States and Mexico, surrounded by the fierce currents of the Rio Grande. On some shifts, firefighters with the Eagle Pass Fire Department can spend three to five hours in the water, helping rescue migrants crossing the river or recovering their drowned bodies. “It’s something we’ve never gone through,” said Eagle Pass native Marcos Kypuros, who has been a firefighter and EMT for two decades. “It’s been hard having to keep up with that on top of everything else we take care of.” Eagle Pass has become ground zero in recent months for an unrelenting border crisis that is equal parts political and humanitarian. With hundreds of thousands of people attempting to cross the border illegally each year near Eagle Pass, city emergency personnel have increasingly been called upon to perform difficult and often dangerous rescues or to retrieve dead bodies, they said. They do this while juggling other emergencies in the city of 28,000 and throughout sparsely populated Maverick County.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 26, 2024

After heart attack, Ron Oliveira learns how to change his life at St. David's cardiac rehab

After a week of fun in Alaska, Ron Oliveira and his wife, Nelleen, were waiting to disembark from their cruise ship, but something didn't feel right to Oliveira. The former news anchor at KVUE had a lot of things on his mind: getting the rental car, crossing the border from Vancouver into Washington state and making the flight home. Then he threw up violently, he said, first thinking he was suffering from food poisoning. The chest pains kicked in as Olivera neared the United States border. Oliveira, 68, was having a heart attack. He survived, and the episode changed how Oliveira approaches eating and exercise. It started with intensive cardiac rehab at St. David's Medical Center once he returned to Austin.

That morning, Sept. 27, Oliveira and his wife drove to a hospital in Bellingham, Washington. The EKG confirmed he had a heart attack, and doctors needed to open up his blocked artery and insert a stent in an area just above where a previous stent was placed in 2012. Oliveira said he comes from a long line of family members who died early from heart disease. Growing up in Brownsville, his family dined on traditional Mexican food like rice, beans, enchiladas and tacos, and traditional American foods like Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and green beans. "It was good eating, but it was fatty," he said. And a lot of processed food. Because of his family history, Oliveira has been seeing a cardiologist since he turned 40 to monitor his heart and keep his blood pressure and cholesterol in check. He had tried to eat more healthfully, but it wasn't enough. St. David's main campus in Austin and its Georgetown hospital both adopted the Pritikin program, created by inventor Nathan Pritikin after having his own heart disease in the 1950s. St. David's began the program in August at these two locations and expects to roll the plan out to its cardiac rehab centers at its other hospitals soon. Often patients are fearful when they first come to rehab, said Laura Raymond, director of cardiovascular services at St. David's Medical Center, but rehab is designed to get them stronger physically as well as provide education on nutrition, exercise, medical treatments to reduce their cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as working with a psychologist on a healthy mindset. The plan is individualized to the patient.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 26, 2024

Austin office market has a glut of space, but experts predict it will eventually fill up

Every office market in the country now has way more office space than it needs. So pronounced Austin-area real estate expert Eldon Rude, as part of his 21st annual forecast event last week sponsored by the Home Builders Association of Austin. Just over 27% of office space in the Austin market was vacant at the end of last year, up from 21.8% at the end of 2022, Rude told about 700 industry professionals last week. Rude said Austin "has a huge amount of sublease space" (a sign of a slowing market). Rude said 5.5 million square feet of space was available for sublease by tenants who want to give it back to the market, up 41% from the last quarter of 2022. In Austin, one of the most notable examples is the more than 600,000 square feet of space that Facebook is seeking to sublease in a new 66-story tower at Sixth and Guadalupe streets, currently the tallest building on Austin's skyline.

In addition, Internet search giant Google delayed moving into a 35-story building it has leased downtown, the sail-shaped building overlooking Lady Bird Lake. "There will be issues with office," Rude said. "Tech companies are going to have to find creative ways to get people to the office." But he added: "At some point, these buildings will fill up." Rude said he thinks that, ultimately, not as many people will be going back to work in their office cubicles, and will spend more time in suburban locations. And that, he said, "is a positive for those providing suburban housing." In its latest market report, for the fourth quarter, HPI Real Estate Services & Investments, an Austin-based commercial real estate services firm, said that despite layoffs in the tech sector, three of the largest lease transactions of the quarter were signed by tech companies.

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Houston Chronicle - February 26, 2024

Robert Slater to suspend congressional campaign, endorse Sheila Jackson Lee

Robert Slater, the longshot candidate challenging U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the upcoming March primary, said he will suspend his campaign Sunday and endorse the incumbent congresswoman. Slater, a Houston chef and businessman, faced long odds in the Democratic primary dominated by Jackson Lee, who has represented Texas' 18th Congressional District since 1995, and former City Councilmember Amanda Edwards. Jackson Lee led Edwards by a 43% to 38% margin among likely voters in a recently published University of Houston poll, while Slater garnered just 3% support. "I don't have the benefit of having 28 years of an incumbency and name ID," he told potential voters in a video posted to social media Saturday.

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KERA - February 26, 2024

People worry about housing costs and they want solutions. Why don’t politicians talk about it more?

Housing prices are up. Polls say Americans are worried and want elected officials to do something about it. And few politicians seem to be hitting the campaign trail with a pitch to be Congress’s housing problem-solver, at least in North Texas. Katherine Levine Einstein, a political science professor who studies housing at Boston University, said housing may first appear like a good issue — it’s broadly salient, several policy solutions have bipartisan support, and it’s a real issue affecting people’s lives. But there are challenges that make it less-than-ideal campaign fodder. “I can think of a number of compelling reasons why, if I were running for congressional seat, I might not choose to talk about housing,” Einstein said.

There are 33 candidates running for Texas’ three open Congressional seats this year. A review of their campaign websites shows just a handful mention housing among the issues they’re concerned about. That’s also true for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and the top Democrats vying to replace him. Some of the candidates don’t list any priorities, but most do. Where housing affordability shows up, it’s often in passing or as a general issue of concern. A few Democrats vying to replace Rep. Colin Allred, who is running for Senate, raise housing. The Democratic-leaning 32nd Congressional District covers much of northeast Dallas County and bits of Collin and Denton Counties. Most prominent is Brian Williams, an ER doctor, who calls for investing in affordable housing and fighting housing discrimination. Chris Ponayiotou says he’d “pressure [the] Federal Reserve” to drop interest rates, and use antitrust laws to prevent investors from “buying up large swaths of the housing market.” Zachariah Manning says he’d “ensure that our veterans and military have the healthcare, housing and funding needed.” Allred, in his bid for the Senate, says he wants to expand Medicaid to cover senior assisted living and to expand housing for homeless veterans. One of this opponents, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, notes the high cost of buying a home, but doesn’t offer specific solutions beyond “building an economy that works for everyone.” Brandon Gill, a Republican running the 26th Congressional District, opines that “housing is unaffordable,” but doesn’t include specific policy solutions. The district, which covers much of Denton County, all of Cooke County and some of Wise County, is heavily Republican and is represented by Michael Burgess, who is retiring.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 26, 2024

Alamo observing 188th anniversary of the siege, battle amid construction chaos

The Alamo is surrounded by scaffolding, temporary fencing and heavy machinery — signs of a complete makeover of the mission and battle site that’s well underway after a decade of planning. But despite the chaos, construction workers silenced their equipment and listened with reverence Friday, along with hundreds of spectators, as Alamo officials observed the start of a 13-day siege and battle that began 188 years ago. “As you can see, there is much construction underway,” Alamo Trust executive director Kate Rogers told the crowd, explaining the activity was all part of “the ambitious $550 million Alamo plan” being executed through a public-private partnership involving the state and city of San Antonio. The project seeks to tell the entire 300-year history of the site, dating to 1724, when flooding from a hurricane forced the Mission San Antonio de Valero to move to its third and final location. Tejano, Native American and African American perspectives will be included in museum exhibits.

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Houston Public Media - February 26, 2024

Houston Mayor John Whitmire says he wants to meet with Food Not Bombs amid lawsuits, ticketing

Houston Mayor John Whitmire wants to meet with representatives of Food Not Bombs in hopes of reaching an agreement on feeding unhoused people. Food Not Bombs is an organization that provides free meals to unhoused people. The organization has been active in Houston since 1994 and started operating outside of Houston Central Library in 2005. In 2012 the city introduced an ordinance that prevents the distribution of free food to more than five people on any property without permission. The law had never impacted Food Not Bombs' operations until last year. During that time, under former Mayor Sylvester Turner, the city issued a large number of citations to volunteers working with the program. At-Large Council Member Julian Ramirez commented on the law's effectiveness.

"One person convicted under that ordinance in 12 years is not an effective ordinance," Ramirez said. During Wednesday’s Houston City Council meeting, Whitmire said a legal position is needed to address the issue, "but I think we need to work with the advocates and see if we can accommodate their interest in feeding the homeless.” Last month, the organization filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that the enforcement of the 2012 ordinance was a violation of their First Amendment rights. A U.S. District judge ruled in Food Not Bombs' favor, requiring the city to stop issuing tickets to the group. Ramirez disagreed with the city's retaliation against Food Not Bombs. "The city intends to go forward with the trial in this case," Ramirez said. "I come down on the side of not criminalizing acts of charity like feeding the homeless." The city has designated a charitable feeding location at 61 Riesner Street, a police station, not far from the library. Mayor Whitmire said Food Not Bombs' operations have prevented residents from visiting the library. "I'll walk over to the library with you right now," Mayor Whitmire said. "It has deterred families from using the library. And city employees." Mayor Whitmire did not comment on when he plans on meeting with Food Not Bombs.

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NBC News - February 26, 2024

Texas man allegedly made $1.76 million from insider trading by eavesdropping on wife's work calls

A Texas man allegedly made $1.76 million from insider trading by eavesdropping on several of his wife’s work-from-home calls about a merger, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Tyler Loudon of Houston overheard his wife, a BP mergers and acquisitions manager, discuss the company’s acquisition of TravelCenters of America Inc. and bought 46,450 shares of the latter’s stocks ahead of the announcement on Feb. 16, 2023, the SEC said in a news release. Loudon’s wife wasn’t aware that her husband bought the stocks. Loudon, 42, sold his shares following the announcement, which led to a nearly 71% rise in TravelCenters’ stock, making him a profit of $1.76 million. “We allege that Mr. Loudon took advantage of his remote working conditions and his wife’s trust to profit from information he knew was confidential,” said Eric Werner, regional director of the SEC’s Fort Worth office.

The SEC filed a complaint against Loudon in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas accusing him of “violating the antifraud provisions of the federal securities laws.” Loudon did not deny the allegations against him and agreed to the entry of a partial judgment. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas also announced criminal charges against Loudon, according to a news release. Loudon pleaded guilty to securities fraud and agreed to forfeit the $1.76 million to authorities, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. He will be sentenced on May 17 and faces up to five years in federal prison, as well as a $250,000 maximum fine.

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Bloomberg - February 26, 2024

Texas Bitcoin miners sue Energy Department over data usage survey

The Texas Blockchain Council, an industry association for Bitcoin miners including Riot Platforms Inc., is suing the U.S. Department of Energy’s statistics unit over a mandatory survey on their power consumption. The inquiry by the Energy Information Administration is “an unprecedented and illegal data collection demand” against the industry, the group said in a statement dated Feb. 22. Riot, one of the largest Bitcoin miners in the state, made $71 million last year, in part from prepurchasing electricity for its operations and selling some of it back to the grid for a premium amid power shortages. In a response to the lawsuit, the EIA said in a court filing that it won’t enforce a requirement for the survey to be completed and will sequester data already collected.

Bitcoin miners accounted for as much as 2.3% of the nation’s total power demand in 2023, and even the 0.6% low end of its range represents the same amount of electricity usage for Utah, EIA estimated in a Feb. 1 report. The agency earlier said it aimed to better evaluate power consumption of the industry with the poll. While Bitcoin mining began in the US a decade ago, the country saw an influx of mining companies from the world’s previous mining hub China after the Chinese government banned the practice in 2021. A slew of mining companies went public in the U.S. and set up large-scale operations in energy-rich states such as Texas and Georgia. Collecting data from Bitcoin miners for their energy consumption has been difficult since some of the data, including locations of the sites and electricity rates, could be considered as proprietary by the miners. “The TBC, alongside industry partners, views this as a direct assault on private businesses under the guise of an emergency, lacking legitimate grounds and demonstrating clear political bias,” TBC said in the statement.

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Dallas Morning News - February 26, 2024

Republican grudge match could unsettle Dallas-area politics

The March 5 Republican primaries for the Texas House are defined by the pursuit of vengeance and vindication. Last week I wrote about how Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are backing slates of House candidates in dueling revenge tours. Paxton has endorsed the primary opponents of 20 Republican House incumbents who voted last May to impeach him. Abbott, who is backing candidates who support his school choice proposal, is backing at least 17 incumbents on Paxton’s target list. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is endorsing a GOP primary challenger to incumbent Rep. Morgan Meyer, a University Park Republican who leads the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. He is also chairs the Sustainable Property Tax Relief Select Study Committee.

What’s Patrick’s beef? He blames Meyer for not immediately compromising with the Senate on how to implement the largest property tax cut in Texas history. Last year, Meyer and House members pushed a plan that would achieve the $18 billion tax cut by replacing local tax revenue with state money, a strategy known as rate compression that was also embraced by Abbott. The Senate plan used rate compression but also featured raising the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $100,000, letting property owners reduce more of the taxable value of their principal residence. In July during the second special session, the House and Senate sent a compromise bill to Abbott that included rate compression and the higher homestead exemption. Abbott signed it into law, and Texas voters gave their approval in November. Patrick is miffed that the legislative process took so long, so he’s backing Dallas lawyer Barry Wernick against Meyer. The lieutenant governor rarely gets involved in House races, but this cycle he announced that he’s joining Abbott in supporting 11 House incumbents. Patrick is also backing challengers to incumbents. He’s running digital ads against Meyer on behalf of Wernick, and he’s supporting Republican David Covey against House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

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Houston Chronicle - February 26, 2024

Anthony Graves: A bad DA nearly cost me my life. Vote for a good one.

(Anthony Graves is the 138th exonerated death row inmate in America. He is a criminal justice expert, the author of “Infinite Hope: How Wrongful Conviction, Solitary Confinement and 12 Years on Death Row Failed to Kill My Soul.” He is also a motivational speaker.) I survived 18½ years in prison — 16 of those years in solitary confinement and 12 years on death row — for a crime I did not commit. It was all because a district attorney cared more about seeing me convicted than seeking the truth. My journey to hell and back began in August 1992. I was a few weeks shy of my 27th birthday when the police knocked on my door in Brenham, my hometown, and arrested me for a gruesome murder. I had an alibi witness, no connection to the crime, no motive and I maintained my innocence from the start. The person who actually committed the crime fingered me as his accomplice before recanting his lie — but the district attorney didn’t care about innocence or guilt. He just wanted to find some way to convict me. His zealousness was matched only by his reckless disregard for the truth. He built a case against me despite my innocence, and I was convicted and sentenced to death.

Because of a district attorney, my death was scheduled twice. Because of a district attorney, as I’ve written before, I will forever be known not only as Anthony Graves, grandfather, father and son, but as United States Death Row Exoneree 138. Voters in Harris County like me will begin the process of choosing our next district attorney during the March 5 primary election and the Nov. 4 general election. Incumbent Kim Ogg faces candidate Sean Teare in the Democratic primary. The winner will take on Republican Dan Simons, who is running unopposed, in the fall. Since my exoneration, I’ve become an advocate for criminal justice reform to prevent similar abuses of power. Here’s what a DA can do to make our communities stronger and safer. We need a district attorney committed to ending the damage that mass incarceration has done to communities, keeping families together and restoring stability to individuals. You shouldn’t be locked up — lose your job and be kept from your family — because you smoked a joint or missed a court date for a minor offense. To prevent wrongful convictions, the district attorney must ensure their office’s conviction integrity unit is well-resourced, staffed by seasoned attorneys and that it is truly independent. It should report directly to the district attorney.

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County Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 26, 2024

Houston Community College ends nursing associate's as statewide shortage looms

Houston Community College has shuttered its associate degree program for students training to be registered nurses, according to state licensure documents. The Texas Board of Nursing listed the closure as voluntary, effective Dec. 31. The Associate Degree Nursing program, or ADN, had been operating with “conditional” approval as of last April — a designation that means it didn’t meet state standards for three years. “HCC takes pride in the ADN program’s legacy,” college officials said in a statement. “This challenging decision to close the program reflects our adherence to the highest nursing education standards.”

Officials confirmed the closure in the statement, which was attributed to HCC. The decision came after 57 students who were required to take a licensure exam were not able to because “there were no available testing sites in Houston and the surrounding areas,” they said. The program, which has been operating since 1979, will now focus on graduating those 57 students and secure them a testing location, according to the statement. “In collaboration with the Texas Board of Nursing, this decision marks our proactive stance in adapting to healthcare education’s evolving needs, with a commitment to innovative nursing education solutions,” the statement reads. Licensure passage rates had plummeted in HCC’s associate’s program since 2018, according to board data. Almost 94% of students passed the RN exam that year, but by 2022, only 49% passed.

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 26, 2024

UH education professor suspends course in protest of HISD's rigid lessons

A University of Houston education professor stopped teaching his course last week in protest of his student teachers' placements in Houston ISD schools, where he said the "scripted curriculum" used in HISD classes made it impossible for them to complete their assignments. Alberto Rodriguez, a distinguished professor of science education at the University of Houston College of Education, informed students in his "Science in the Elementary School II" course of the decision in a Feb. 14 email.

"I regret to inform you that I am suspending my teaching of this course in protest of the impossible school placements to which some of you have been assigned," Rodriguez wrote. "I feel it is unethical and unprofessional for me to continue teaching this course when you have been placed in school settings that make it very challenging for you to complete field-based assignments as expected in the effective preparation of teachers." University of Houston spokeswoman Shawn Lindsey said the college immediately assigned another faculty member, who teaches the other section of the course, to Rodriguez's class, ensuring the course continued uninterrupted. Lindsey declined to say whether Rodriguez, who is tenured at the university, would face any disciplinary action, saying they do not comment on personnel matters. "As districts across the state and nation have moved to varying degrees of curriculum autonomy, our teacher education program works to ensure our student-teachers gain valuable, authentic classroom experiences," Lindsey said. "We teach our student-teachers to work within a district’s curriculum guidelines just as they would in the real world, and our student-teachers remain able to practice skills a successful teacher needs — such as keeping students engaged, checking for understanding and adapting as needed."

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National Stories

Politico - February 26, 2024

Hidden in Trump’s big South Carolina win: A not-so-small problem for him in November

Donald Trump’s trouncing of Nikki Haley on her home turf Saturday put on full display his dominance across the demographic spectrum of the GOP. It also put to rest whatever lingering beliefs there were that this primary may still have some drama left in it. Here was Haley, the first candidate to get Trump in a head-to-head matchup, and she could not deliver, neither in moderate New Hampshire nor her home state. But Trump’s effortless win in the Palmetto State — he visited just three times in recent weeks, four if you count a fundraiser — was as much of a demonstration of his total control of the party as it was South Carolinians’ repudiation of Haley. “It’s a testament to how red South Carolina is as a state,” said former Republican Gov. Mark Sanford. “It’s a testament to people being squeezed at lower socio-economic levels … and wanting something different.” And Haley, he said, “probably didn’t mind the home fires as full as she should have.”

It’s hard to find a GOP demographic that doesn’t love Trump. If you really need more evidence of Trump’s dominance over the Republican Party — well, South Carolina had it in spades. A majority of every age demographic picked Trump over Haley. Men and women both backed Trump. Voters across all income ranges backed him, and he only narrowly lost college graduates while dominating among those without a college degree. Trump has a weak spot. It’s GOP primary voters who believe President Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election — which he did — or who think Trump would not be fit for the presidency if convicted of a crime. A large majority of those voters were with Haley. Her problem is that they were just over a third of the overall electorate in both questions.

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Politico - February 26, 2024

A shutdown is approaching. Biden and Johnson’s lack of relationship isn’t helping.

President Joe Biden and House Speaker Mike Johnson have virtually no relationship. The two men holding the most powerful elected positions in the country have rarely talked. They don’t know each other. They are decades apart in age and miles apart in political philosophy. Their lack of a meaningful relationship — let alone any relationship at all — has contributed to political friction and standstills over the past few months. But it’s putting an additional strain on the nation’s government this week, as both Biden and Johnson barrel toward another government funding deadline on Friday and into a third year of war in Ukraine as the underfunded country fights off Russia. The White House has not taken Johnson up on his request for a one-on-one meeting but the two are likely to square off Tuesday when the four congressional leaders meet at the White House where the president plans to discuss both the supplemental and government funding.

In the lead up to the meeting, there have been few signs of affinity developing between the two. For Ukraine funding, the Biden administration is engaged in a public pressure campaign to effectively shame Johnson into allowing a vote on the floor. For government funding, the White House is working with Democratic allies who control the Senate ahead of a potential standoff with the GOP House. “It does matter that there’s not a more robust relationship,” said longtime appropriator Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). The administration, he argues, got used to the Democratic-controlled House often quickly approving its priorities in 2021 and 2022. Now, Cole said, “that’s not going to happen. And that’s a mistake and they need to get past that… We’ve gotta get to the point where they can talk to one another.” The theory that Washington D.C. best works on interpersonal relations is a bit of a glamorized and outdated view of politics. One doesn’t need to have tight friendships with lawmakers in order to win their votes.

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Washington Post - February 26, 2024

How Libs of TikTok became a powerful presence in Oklahoma schools

Far-right activist Chaya Raichik splits her time between California, where she’s registered to vote, and Florida, where she often travels. But the place where she arguably is having the biggest impact these days is Oklahoma, a state she’s visited only once. Raichik, who operates the social media account Libs of TikTok, has amassed an audience of millions on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, largely by targeting LGBTQ+ people. Last month, Raichik was appointed to the Oklahoma Library Media Advisory Committee by Republican schools superintendent Ryan Walters, a former history teacher who has been called “the state’s top culture warrior” for his opposition to teachers unions and other conservative targets, including LGBTQ+ students’ rights. Since her appointment, Raichik has sought to pull books depicting gay and transgender people, as well as sex education, from public school libraries, saying she has found “porn” in various districts.

But her growing role in the state has drawn greater attention since Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old nonbinary student, collapsed and died the day after a Feb. 7 fight in a girls’ bathroom at Owasso High School in suburban Tulsa. Family members said Benedict had been bullied for months for being openly nonbinary. Owasso Police Lt. Nick Boatman said Friday that Benedict did not die as a result of physical trauma, according to preliminary information from the medical examiner, and that the department is awaiting the results of toxicology testing to determine the cause of death. Benedict’s parents have questioned that conclusion. Meanwhile, gay rights supporters in Oklahoma and elsewhere have continued to blame the fight for Benedict’s death and to accuse Raichik of bearing some responsibility for the fight. On Thursday, Oklahoma City Councilor Sean Cummings (D) lambasted Raichik for stoking anti-LGBTQ+ hatred in the state, saying she has “blood on her hands.” And Matt Bernstein, a 25-year-old LGBTQ+ content creator in New York who has been targeted by Raichik, said: “I’m just hearing constantly how Chaya Raichik specifically has caused a rift in the experience of being a queer high-schooler in America.” As Libs of TikTok, Raichik has been blamed for sparking bomb threats, property damage, shooting threats, written and verbal harassment and other forms of violence against individuals, hospitals and schools across the country — including in Oklahoma, according to GLAAD, a nonprofit LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

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VOA - February 26, 2024

Consumers pushing back against price increases — and winning

Inflation has changed the way many Americans shop. Now, those changes in consumer habits are helping bring down inflation. Fed up with prices that remain about 19%, on average, above where they were before the pandemic, consumers are fighting back. In grocery stores, they're shifting away from name brands to store-brand items, switching to discount stores or simply buying fewer items like snacks or gourmet foods. More Americans are buying used cars, too, rather than new, forcing some dealers to provide discounts on new cars again. But the growing consumer pushback to what critics condemn as price-gouging has been most evident with food as well as with consumer goods like paper towels and napkins. In recent months, consumer resistance has led large food companies to respond by sharply slowing their price increases from the peaks of the past three years.

This doesn't mean grocery prices will fall back to their levels of a few years ago, though with some items, including eggs, apples and milk, prices are below their peaks. But the milder increases in food prices should help further cool overall inflation, which is down sharply from a peak of 9.1% in 2022 to 3.1%. Public frustration with prices has become a central issue in President Joe Biden’s bid for re-election. Polls show that despite the dramatic decline in inflation, many consumers are unhappy that prices remain so much higher than they were before inflation began accelerating in 2021. Biden has echoed the criticism of many left-leaning economists that corporations jacked up their prices more than was needed to cover their own higher costs, allowing themselves to boost their profits. The White House has also attacked “shrinkflation,” whereby a company, rather than raising the price of a product, instead shrinks the amount inside the package. In a video released on Super Bowl Sunday, Biden denounced shrinkflation as a “rip-off.”

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Washington Post - February 26, 2024

Russia looms over yet another Trump presidential campaign

In February alone, Donald Trump encouraged Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” to NATO allies that do not contribute sufficiently to the military alliance. He refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin for the death of Alexei Navalny, 47, a Kremlin critic who died suddenly on Feb. 16 in a Russian penal colony — instead likening himself to Navalny, arguing they were both political prisoners. And in a Fox News town hall Tuesday evening, he praised Russia for being “a war machine.” “They defeated Hitler,” Trump declared, apparently referring to the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. Since announcing his first presidential campaign in 2015, Russia has followed Trump like an unshakable thunder cloud. The former president has repeatedly expressed a fascination with Russia, lavished praise on Putin and refused to stand up to the Russian president on a range of issues — from interfering in the 2016 presidential election to invading Ukraine almost exactly two years ago.

Trump’s reticence to forcefully confront Russia and his regular adulation of Putin have long raised the question: With Trump, why do “all roads lead to Putin?” as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) memorably asked in 2019 during a contentious Cabinet Room meeting. His latest round of pro-Russian cheerleading raises the same query — but now against a dramatically changed backdrop. The Russia-Ukraine war is entering its third year, with no signs of abating. Putin critics are calling the death of Navalny — who had survived a previous Russian attempt to poison him — a murder. And under Trump’s leadership, the Republican Party has drifted in a remarkably isolationist direction on foreign policy, with House Republicans currently holding up much-needed aid to Ukraine. “His buddy-buddy — whatever it happens to be — affection with Putin is dangerous — to our transatlantic alliance, to NATO, to our support of people fighting for democracy in Ukraine,” Pelosi said. “The Navalny assassination is something that is so startling and so blatant, and to see the former president’s comment about it just continues us on the path of: What is his connection to Russia?” Pelosi added. Both Russia experts and some Trump confidants say the answer is far more straightforward than some of the existing theories, including the theory that the Russians have damaging material — known as kompromat — on Trump and are using it to blackmail him.

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Alaska Beacon - February 25, 2024

With bipartisan action, Alaska House votes to increase public school funding formula

The Alaska House of Representatives ended days of deadlock with an unusual bipartisan triumph late Thursday, voting 38-2 to authorize a major increase in the state’s funding formula for public schools. “I’ve been around for a few years, and tonight really is a historical night. We have flipped the script of a major omnibus bill by doing it early in the session,” said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham and a House member since 2007. “We came together: Republicans, Democrats, independents, nonpartisans, and we got something done,” said Rep. Mike Cronk, R-Tok. The $680 increase to the state’s base student allocation, contained in the version of Senate Bill 140 that passed the House on Thursday night, is the largest nominal bump in state history. It’s also somewhat of a disappointment for education advocates, because it’s less than half of the $1,413 increase needed to make up for inflation since 2015.

“Six hundred eighty dollars is the bare minimum. It should be much higher. But it’s remarkable to see,” said Rep. Genevieve Mina, D-Anchorage. In Juneau, where the local school district has been facing a multimillion-dollar deficit, the increase likely isn’t enough to forestall school closures, said Rep. Sara Hannan, D-Juneau. “In the best-case scenario, we close only a couple schools,” she said. Schools are also likely to close in Fairbanks, said Rep. Ashley Carrick, D-Fairbanks. The bill contains some, but not all, of the education provisions sought by Republicans and Gov. Mike Dunleavy, which disappointed Republican members of the House, but not enough for most of them to vote “no.” Reps. David Eastman, R-Wasilla, and Mike Prax, R-North Pole, were the lone votes against the final bill.

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Georgia Recorder - February 25, 2024

GOP lawmakers ready to ease limits on hospital construction, set aside Medicaid expansion for now

A long-awaited health care proposal from House leaders would ease health care business regulations in some cases, but the measure is just as notable for what it does not do: expand Medicaid. Instead, the bill calls for a new commission that would be tasked with advising the governor, lawmakers and the state agency that administers Georgia’s Medicaid program on issues related to the access and quality of health care available for the state’s high number of uninsured residents. It also raises the cap on the state’s rural hospital tax credit program to $100 million a year, up from $75 million. But mostly, the measure focuses on the state’s certificate-of-need rules. It would, for example, allow a new acute care facility to open in a rural county if they meet certain requirements, such as agreeing to serve as a teaching hospital and serve as a trauma center. Easing the program’s rules for rural hospitals was a sticking point last year.

New or expanded psychiatric or substance abuse inpatient programs would also be allowed to sidestep the restrictions, so long as they have an agreement with a nearby hospital. That proposed change is a nod to the state’s continued push to improve access to mental health treatment. “It’s like working a Rubik’s Cube. When you figure one part of it, there’s another part of it that’s got to be worked,” said the bill’s main sponsor, Swainsboro Republican Rep. Butch Parrish. “But I really think this is a great step forward in trying to move health care in this state ahead and provide better health care all across the state to folks so we have better access to quality health care for everybody, no matter what your ZIP Code is.” The proposal, though, was seen as a sign that this would not be the year that Georgia expands Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. This year’s legislative session had started with chatter after GOP leaders showed interest in an Arkansas-style model of expansion, which uses federal funds to purchase private plans for its low-income residents. Any proposal was expected to be tied in some way to changes to the certificate-of-need rules, similar to a deal passed in North Carolina last year.

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Newsclips - February 25, 2024

Lead Stories

Associated Press - February 25, 2024

Trump wins South Carolina, easily beating Haley in her home state and closing in on GOP nomination

Donald Trump won South Carolina’s Republican primary on Saturday, easily beating former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in her home state and further consolidating his path to a third straight GOP nomination. Trump has now swept every contest that counted for Republican delegates, adding to previous wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Haley is facing growing pressure to leave the race but says she’s not going anywhere despite losing the state where she was governor from 2011 to 2017. A 2020 rematch between Trump and President Joe Biden is becoming increasingly inevitable. Haley has vowed to stay in the race through at least the batch of primaries on March 5, known as Super Tuesday, but was unable to dent Trump’s momentum in her home state despite holding far more campaign events and arguing that the indictments against Trump will hamstring him against Biden.

The Associated Press declared Trump the winner as polls closed statewide at 7 p.m. That race call was based on an analysis of AP VoteCast, a comprehensive survey of Republican South Carolina primary voters. The survey confirmed the findings of pre-Election Day polls showing Trump far outpacing Haley statewide. “I have never seen the Republican Party so unified as it is right now,” Trump declared, taking the stage for his victory speech mere moments after polls closed. He added, “You can celebrate for about 15 minutes, but then we have to get back to work.” South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary has historically been a reliable bellwether for Republicans. In all but one primary since 1980, the Republican winner in South Carolina has gone on to be the party’s nominee. The lone exception was Newt Gingrich in 2012. Trump was dominant across the state, even leading in Lexington County, which Haley represented in the state Legislature. Many Trump-backing South Carolinians, even some who previously supported Haley during her time as governor, weren’t willing to give her a home-state bump. “She’s done some good things,” Davis Paul, 36, said about Haley as he waited for Trump at a recent rally in Conway. “But I just don’t think she’s ready to tackle a candidate like Trump. I don’t think many people can.”

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Austin American-Statesman - February 25, 2024

Here's why young voters in Texas have a quieter voice than older ones in elections

When it comes to elections, older residents have more power in deciding the outcomes of races up and down the ballot. At least that's what a snapshot analysis by a leading Texas political number cruncher shows of the first few days of early voting for the March 5 primaries. Let's take a look at the recent findings from Derek Ryan, an Austin political consultant who for the past several election cycles has taken a deep dive into the numbers behind the numbers on who actually votes. He breaks down the data by separating voters into sundry buckets, such as first-time voters, recidivist voters, voters who always vote in one primary or another, voters who toggle between the primaries depending on who's running for what, and so forth. But the age buckets are perhaps the most eye-catching thus far for the first 2024 contests. The biggest bucket on the Republican side, according to the early trend, is filled with voters who have already reached their 70th birthday. In fact, just a whisker under 47% of the earliest of the early voters were 70-plus. Next come voters 50 and up, and that bucket had almost 40% of the voters.

In layman's terms, just about 87% of the early GOP primary voters qualify for just about every discount and perk available through AARP. If we round up slightly, about nine out of 10 of those voters were alive when Richard Nixon was president. A cynic might say: "There's no surprise there. Republicans have had a lock on the gray-haired vote since forever." Perhaps, perhaps not. So what about voters on the Democrat side? Spoiler alert: That age bucket is not exactly made up of the Gen Z and millennial demographics. In fact, the blue side of the ledger pretty much tracks that of the red. Voters north of 70 years old actually accounted for a slightly larger share of the earliest Democratic early vote, with nearly 48%. The number for those 50 and older was 36%. The 30-49 age bucket for the Democrats was 12%, which was just fraction above for Republicans. And both parties were scarcely, if at all, raking in votes from people in their 20s or younger. For Democrats, it was 4%; Republicans managed a paltry 2.3%. So let's boil it all down to the basics. For voters in their 20s or 30s, and perhaps even their 40s, the same people who have made all the rules — from the time those younger voters left the maternity ward to when they trotted off to college, or the military, or the full-time job market or down the aisle — are still the ones driving much of the rule-making for what those voters' grownup options are out here in the real world.

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NBC News - February 25, 2024

Fewer grievances, more policy: Trump aides and allies push for a post-South Carolina 'pivot'

A growing chorus of top advisers to Donald Trump is urging him to fixate less on personal grievances and instead focus on hitting President Joe Biden and unifying the Republican Party. The attempt to turn to broader themes comes as the campaign looks ahead to Super Tuesday and the general election, according to nine top Trump aides and allies who spoke to NBC News. Trump’s commanding win in South Carolina over Nikki Haley is yet another illustration of an undeniable political reality: Trump will be the GOP nominee. “There is no question that after Saturday there will be a pivot, because there needs to be,” said a top adviser to the former president. “There is a mindset from our perspective that she [Haley] can do whatever she wants. She can do whatever, we don’t care.”

The adviser said the goal is to focus on bringing the Republican Party together after a fractious primary, but the person conceded that flashes of Trump’s trademark pugilistic style and tendency to go off-script, especially when discussing his growing legal woes, will stick around. “We are not going to totally be able to move away from what is going on in his personal life,” the adviser said. “It’s going to be happening every day, and he is a fighter and will talk about it. Everyone understands that.” While Trump retains a commanding lead in polling for the Republican race, a potential general election matchup with Biden — where voters may be less interested in his personal grievances — remains tight, according to NBC News polling. That attempted pivot was evident in Trump’s South Carolina victory speech, which did not mention Haley once, took shots at Biden and openly touted a GOP unity message. Trump is notoriously hard to wrangle, and he rarely sticks to the script. It’s unclear whether he will be willing, or able, to carry out a reset. But two people involved in conversations around the potential pivot said the topic has been under discussion in internal campaign deliberations. One of those people, who doubts Trump has the discipline to execute on it, said the idea is to make the campaign “more about issues and less about personality.”

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Wall Street Journal - February 25, 2024

A Christian oil billionaire upended Texas politics—and is coming for Washington next

Drilling for oil made Tim Dunn, a self-described activist Christian, into a billionaire. His second act has been pumping money to Texas Republicans intent on pushing their party to the right. His third act, he hopes, will be pulling off something similar on a national level—preferably during a second Trump administration. Brooke Rollins, a former Trump domestic policy adviser, pitched Dunn in 2021 on a new think tank, America First Policy Institute, with a mission to perpetuate Trump-era policies for generations to come. The West Texas oilman, whose efforts in his home state have been both successful and polarizing, responded with both enthusiasm and money. “He’s a visionary,” said Rollins, who previously worked with Dunn building a political think tank in Texas. “His ability to build organizations and structure and culture is so incredible. I’ve relied on him more for that than his funding.”

Conservative operatives regard the new group as one of several organizations attempting to assemble an “administration in waiting.” Rollins’s group boasts an in-house roster of Trump loyalists—including Larry Kudlow, Kevin Hassett and Keith Kellogg—available to fill key administration positions. Dunn is one of many wealthy Republicans jockeying to influence a second Trump administration in accordance with their own political agendas. Besides giving directly to the candidate—Dunn donated about $5 million to Trump’s political-action committee late last year—some of them have funded a handful of new pro-Trump think tanks dedicated to that task. In addition to America First, Dunn has provided funding to the Center for Renewing America, run by former Trump budget director Russell Vought, and America First Legal, led by former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller. As nonprofits, none of the three groups are required to disclose who is donating to them, and how much. As Dunn sets his sights on Washington, he will be armed with an even bigger bankroll. In December, he agreed to sell the oil company he runs, Midland-based CrownRock, to Occidental Petroleum in a $10.8 billion deal. Dunn owns about 20%. Dunn has said he believes America was founded as a Christian nation. He likes to cite Scripture and has worked for a decade to construct an exact replica of Moses’ Tabernacle in West Texas, using materials imported from the Middle East. Allies say his faith informs his politics, but he is not a theocrat. Dunn calls himself a proponent of self-governance. In addition to property-tax reductions, he supports securing the Texas border and changing the way incentives are provided to solar and wind power companies.

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State Stories

Dallas Morning News - February 25, 2024

Texas county declares state of emergency ahead of solar eclipse

A small Texas county issued a state of emergency this week as it prepares for a surge in tourism ahead of the total solar eclipse in April. Bell County officials say they expect severe traffic congestion, fuel shortages and strains on first responders, hospitals, food, grocery stores and the cellular network beginning days before the April 8 eclipse. Officials predict the county’s population of 400,000 to double — or even triple — as people flock to Texas to glimpse the rare phenomenon. County Judge David Blackburn said at a press conference Wednesday the emergency declaration will help the county plan, prepare for and respond to the eclipse and coordinate with the state if needed.

“In order to protect the health, safety, and welfare of both residents and visitors, Bell County has determined that extraordinary measures must be taken in the form of a local disaster declaration,” the county said in a news release. As part of the declaration, property owners are required to register with the Bell County Emergency Management Office if they plan to host parties with more than 50 people. Owners must provide the county a site layout and ensure guests have adequate bathrooms, waste disposal and wastewater solutions. Registration will provide public safety officials and first responders with information when roads and highways are congested, the county said. The eclipse will carve a path of totality through Texas, plunging many cities into total darkness for several minutes when the moon passes between the sun and Earth. Millions of Americans will travel to witness the event, with many coming to Texas, according to Great American Eclipse.

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The Hill - February 25, 2024

O’Rourke supports campaign to vote ‘uncommitted’ in Michigan Democratic primary

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) is supporting a campaign asking Democratic voters to vote “uncommitted” in Michigan’s presidential primary, if they are unhappy with the way President Biden has handled the Israel-Hamas war. “I do think it makes sense for those who want to see this administration do more, or do a better job, to exert that political pressure and get the president’s attention and the attention of those on his campaign so that the United States does better,” O’Rourke said in an interview with the Michigan Advance. O’Rourke, who unsuccessfully ran for president in 2020 and later endorsed Biden, is visiting Michigan on Saturday as part of his book tour, the outlet noted.

Abdullah Hammond, the mayor of Dearborn, Mich., recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times arguing that his community has been “haunted” by the scenes from Gaza, where Israel has launched a counteroffensive against militant group Hamas after it killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took more than 200 hostage. Israel’s counteroffensive has resulted in nearly 30,000 deaths in Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hammond said he cannot support the genocide happening. “It is for that reason that I will be checking the box for ‘uncommitted’ on my presidential primary ballot next Tuesday,” he wrote. O’Rourke said he supports Hammond’s campaign, joining Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and former Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), the Michigan Advance reported. “I agree with the aims and the goals. We should have a ceasefire, there should be a return of each [and] every single one of those hostages [taken by Hamas], there should be an end to this war and there should be a negotiated solution to Palestinian statehood,” O’Rourke told the outlet. “All of that needs to happen, and I share the concern that the United States is not doing close to enough to bring those things to pass.”

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Texas Public Radio - February 25, 2024

Federal judge questions Texas 'hubris' over foster care

In a federal court hearing where the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was accused of among other things medical negligence and obscuring its own statistics on children in unsafe placements — Judge Janis Jack appeared insulted that the state had recently filed a motion to nullify substantive portions of the court’s oversight. “To have the hubris to file a motion for relief is just beyond me,” she said at the conclusion of the hearing. She will determine the fate of that motion in June. Lawyers for the state argued in the Feb. 13 filing that it has shown a good faith effort to comply with the federal court's orders — often showing more than 90% compliance in some areas. In a statement, the department said the state has spent $100 million, that its caseworkers were better trained with lower caseloads and that investigations occurred more rapidly.

“These improvements are clearly documented and have resulted in the state’s compliance with all remedial orders. We believe now is the right time to narrow the scope of this litigation by moving for relief on a subset of remedial orders the state feels strongly it has fully satisfied,” said Patrick Crimmins, a DFPS spokesperson. The court had already certified compliance in two of the 12 orders it sought to vacate. But Jack is currently weighing contempt fines over Texas' lack of compliance in numerous other areas. There are a total of more than 50 court orders upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018. And Friday's hearing saw new allegations from plaintiffs' attorneys and from Jack that the state was both hiding logs of serious incidents and manipulating its own statistics for children without placement (CWOP). These are youth who are housed in hotels or state-leased houses staffed by a rotating case of staff members, contractors and security guards, rather than foster homes or treatment centers.

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Valley Central - February 25, 2024

‘Great sadness’: Last sugar operation in Texas to permanently close

The last remaining sugar operation in Texas, located in the Rio Grande Valley, is set to permanently close after 51 years of business. Rio Grande Valley Sugar Growers Inc. announced that numerous water shortages in the area and lack of support from the U.S. State Department are forcing the decades-long business in Santa Rosa to close its doors. The recently completed harvest and milling season of growing and processing sugarcane into raw sugar will be RGVSG’s last. “For over 30 years, farmers in South Texas have been battling with Mexico’s failure to comply with the provisions of the 1944 Water Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico that governs water sharing between the two nations on the Colorado River and the Rio Grande Valley,” the company stated. “RGVSG Inc. has no choice but to close its doors.”

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Texas Monthly - February 25, 2024

What does religious freedom mean in Ken Paxton’s Texas?

The borders of Ken Paxton’s vision of religious freedom became a little clearer this week when the attorney general sued Annunciation House, an independent Catholic immigrant ministry in El Paso. Claiming suspicions of “alien harboring, human smuggling, and operating a stash house,” on February 7 Paxton demanded the respite center’s documents regarding the identities and services rendered to the immigrants. Annunciation House asked for more time to seek counsel on whether any of the documents could legally be withheld. Paxton refused, so the migrant-aid group sued Paxton; now Paxton is suing Annunciation House to revoke its state license. In describing Annunciation House, Paxton’s press releases use the term “nongovernmental organization” (NGO), the term used most commonly to describe international relief agencies such as those that partner with federal governments and the United Nations. This is a specific word choice. There’s no technical difference between an NGO and a nonprofit organization in the United States, but on the far right, where Paxton generates votes and campaign funds, there’s a big difference in connotation. NGOs are big, liberal, global actors.

Nonprofits are the do-gooders next door, and they are often religious. The irony, of course, is that it doesn’t get much more next-door or religious than Annunciation House. Its website reads like a testimony at a Wednesday night prayer service: “the Gospel calls us all to the poor and . . . the life and presence of Jesus in the Gospels is so completely in relation to the poor.” “From my perspective, it’s incredibly frustrating to see politicians who regularly justify their actions based on their faith to then persecute those who use the same rationale to do things they don’t like,” said Stephen Reeves, executive director of Fellowship Southwest, a missions and advocacy group affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Reeves spent years as a lawyer with the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, working to preserve the special place of religion in the United States. Paxton’s intentions are explicit, Reeves said, and instructive as to the kind of hostility religious organizations in Texas can expect if their expressions of religion aren’t in favor with the attorney general’s office. ??“It’s really trying to scare religious nonprofits into not following the dictates of their faith.” And if Paxton will go after a Catholic organization, there’s no reason to think he won’t also target one of the many Protestant border missions, many of which Fellowship Southwest supports, that have responded to a need in a way that they felt their faith demanded. “They feel very called by their faith—by what they understand Jesus telling them to do in the world—which is to serve migrants,” Reeves said. (Paxton’s office did not respond to an interview request by the time of publication.)

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Texas Monthly - February 25, 2024

Can a Texas Democrat get elected on gun control?

Given his often testy relationship with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, the leader of the upper house of the Texas Legislature, it’s understandable that Roland Gutierrez, a Democratic state senator, felt especially uncomfortable when he couldn’t control his emotions in Patrick’s presence. Days after the May 2022 mass shooting in Uvalde, which falls within Gutierrez’s sprawling district, the state senator found himself in Patrick’s office, pleading for at least some small step toward gun control. Gutierrez had recently signed a nondisclosure agreement that allowed him to view police body cam footage of what he could only describe as kids being “mutilated.” One image in particular, of a little girl whose face was shot off, being dragged out of a classroom, was seared into Gutierrez’s brain. The Democrat felt hopeless—but he was also livid. He wanted big, sweeping reforms to curb future gun violence. But he told the lieutenant governor he’d settle for something much smaller: a proposal to raise the minimum age to purchase certain semiautomatic weapons from 18 to 21.

When Patrick flatly refused that request, Gutierrez realized that reminding his colleagues—at every opportunity—that the state had done little to prevent these children’s deaths was a futile act. Perhaps he could have more impact in Washington. “I am running for the Senate because we absolutely need an assault weapons ban in this nation,” Gutierrez recently told a group of about forty Democrats at a campaign event in Leander, north of Austin. “We are broken in this space and must demand real change on this issue.” Gutierrez is one of nine Democrats vying for the party’s nomination to challenge Republican senator Ted Cruz in the November general election. More than any of his opponents in the primary, he has made gun control a central tenet of his campaign. Even if he loses, he says, he will never stop pushing for the legislative reforms demanded by Uvalde parents. “I will advocate for those people for the rest of my lives,” he said. Making guns a central issue in a campaign wouldn’t be as big a risk for a national Democrat, but many in Texas have long believed it’s a toxic issue here. In 2014, Wendy Davis, a Democratic state senator challenging Greg Abbott for governor, posed for a photo with a shotgun and announced she supported an “open carry” law—which would have allowed Texans with handgun licenses to wear pistols on their hips while in public. Davis believed that backing gun rights was necessary to win a statewide election in Texas. (She lost her race by twenty percentage points and later said she regretted the position she took on guns.)

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Texas Observer - February 25, 2024

‘It’s the South’: Harris County sends 15 times more Black men to Death Row than white

Of the 21 people from Harris County most recently sentenced to death, all but one was a person of color, according to a report released today by the nonprofit Texas Defender Service (TDS). The report found that 15 death sentences were handed down to Black men since December 2004—three of which have since been overturned. Four were given to Hispanic men, one to Ali Irsan, a Jordanian immigrant, and only one to a white man. The county’s imposition of the death penalty in the 21st century is dubbed both “arbitrary and capricious”, with staggering racial disparities in sentence severity, in a report by TDS, a nonprofit legal and advocacy group dedicated to stemming the flow of “mass incarceration and excessive punishment.” TDS released the report on the anniversary of the 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned the death penalty for Duane Buck, a Black Harris County man who was condemned to die after jurors heard racist testimony.

Texas’ largest county also remains the state’s deadliest when it comes to capital convictions. A quarter of all Texans sent to death row since 1973 came from Harris County, the report found. If the county were a state, it would rank only behind Texas in terms of funneling people onto death row. Since the death penalty was reinstated here in 1976, nearly three-quarters of the people Harris County courts sent to death row were persons of color—and more than half were Black. Today, nearly 44 percent percent of Harris County residents are Hispanic, 27 percent are white and only 20 percent are Black, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The bulk of the past 21 death sentences, the report found, were imposed between 2004 and 2018. (The report looked only at standing newly imposed death sentences, not at defendants who were resentenced after appeals). “As shown by our review of Harris County’s history and modern practices, racism continues to impact the criminal legal system in general—and the administration of the death penalty in particular—in Harris County. This is unacceptable,” the report states.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 25, 2024

An Austin lawyer pushed progressive reforms on DA Joe Gonzales. Here’s how he responded.

For five years, Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales and his top deputy kept up a wide-ranging, private conversation with an Austin-based legal reform group over how to advance a controversial agenda to keep people accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes out of court and out of jail. In text and email exchanges that only recently became public, Gonzales, First Assistant DA Christian Henricksen and Jessica Brand, a Harvard-educated former public defender, explored ways to reduce bail and avoid formal prosecution of people arrested for trespassing, vandalism, car burglaries, marijuana possession and similar offenses. A review of more than 400 pages of personal emails obtained under the state’s public records laws, along with a smaller volume of text messages, shows that Brand sent Gonzales and Henricksen lengthy proposals for overhauling probation, doubling down on drug treatment and anti-violence efforts, and pushing alternatives to traditional policing, prosecution and incarceration.

Brand urged the DA to revamp and reenergize a unit that reviews old cases for wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct. She recruited Gonzales to join other DAs in filing a friend-of-the-court brief opposing the execution of a Killeen man convicted for his role in the 1999 murders of two youth pastors. After Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill that outlawed abortions and issued a directive restricting gender-affirming care for transgender youth, Brand helped write public statements for Gonzales opposing the governor's actions. Brand, founder of the Wren Collective, a progressive consulting firm whose stated goal is to "dramatically decrease the legal system’s footprint in this country" and reduce incarceration, also offered the DA advice on dealing with the media, sometimes drafting news releases and talking points and offering to call reporters on his behalf. It's unclear how much Brand's advice influenced Gonzales, a Democrat who ran for office on a reform platform and was already inclined to do much of what she proposed. But the relationship, which was first disclosed by KSAT last month, has become a potential political liability for Gonzales, now 13 months into his second term.

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San Antonio Express-News - February 25, 2024

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton takes aim at San Antonio bar The Lucky Duck over weapon law

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has set his sights on a San Antonio bar he says violated state law by prohibiting police officers from carrying a weapon into the establishment. Paxton this week sued Le Bajec Le LLC, which does business as The Lucky Duck at 810 N. Alamo St., asking a court to impose penalties and issue a ruling that prevents it from continuing to break the law. The River North-area bar “has shown a continued disregard for state law, which is prejudicial to the state’s interest in protecting the public from criminal activity and harm,” the suit says. Lucky Duck principal Michael Bajec denied the allegations.

“Unfortunately, we cannot comment because we have not been served or made aware of this lawsuit, other than to say we have never denied a peace officer due to them carrying gun,” he said Friday in an email. Since at least 2022 — the year Lucky Duck opened — until now, Paxton alleges it has restricted entry to “off duty peace officers” who are authorized to carry a weapon. The first time it happened was July 10, 2022, when San Antonio police officer Joel Zulaica was barred from carrying his weapon into the establishment, the suit alleges. Zulaica went so far as to show bar staff the section of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that says establishments serving the public may not prohibit a peace officer or special investigator from carrying an authorized weapon on the premises. That prompted Paxton’s office to write Bajec “to secure a commitment to comply with the law.”

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San Antonio Express-News - February 25, 2024

Woman suing Texas over abortion ban is moving her embryos out of state in wake of Alabama ruling

An Austin woman who is suing Texas over its abortion ban is moving her frozen embryos out of state, fearing the state could seek to ban in vitro fertilization in the wake of an Alabama ruling. Amanda Zurawski, 36, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said she was denied an abortion after she experienced pre-term heath issues because doctors could hear a faint heartbeat. She developed a life-threatening case of sepsis and it was then that doctors performed an emergency induction abortion. She spent three days in the ICU battling the infection, which caused one of her fallopian tubes to permanently close. Her doctors warned against carrying another pregnancy, so she decided to freeze her embryos and use a surrogate to start a family, she told NBC News.

Now she’s signed the papers to transport the embryos out of Texas, fearing the state could follow the lead of Alabama, where the state Supreme Court recently ruled that embryos are considered people under state law. The ruling holds that anyone who destroys an embryo could be held liable. Moving her two frozen embryos is costing her thousands of dollars in what is already an expensive and unpredictable fertility process, NBC reported. To protect her chances to start a family, she did not say where she is transferring her embryos. “I don’t want them in a state where a similar ruling could very likely take place,” she told NBC.

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Austin American-Statesman - February 25, 2024

Will Texas State Board of Education bend farther to the right? Here are 3 races to watch.

Three Republican members of the State Board of Education are facing well-funded primary election challenges by opponents with ultraconservative ideologies, setting the stage for a possible tilt farther to the right for the 15-member state panel that sets education standards. The outcome of the March 5 primary races — and ultimately the general election in November — could place a hard-line conservative majority on the Republican-dominated board, which sets curriculum for schools in Texas. Of the seven state education board offices up for grabs, three have contested Republican primary races. The winners of these primaries will face the Democratic candidate in November. In District 10, which encompasses parts of the Hill Country, Williamson County and areas south of Dallas, incumbent Tom Maynard is being challenged by Round Rock school board member Mary Bone and Daniel “DC” Caldwell, who is running in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.

In District 11, a small region in the Fort Worth area, 20-year board veteran and former teacher Pat Hardy is being challenged by Brandon Hall, who has worked in ministry services. In the North Texas-based District 12, incumbent and former textbook publisher Pam Little faces three Republican challengers: Chad Green, a McKinney school board member; Jamie Kohlmann, a real estate agent and former education analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation; and Matt Rostami, an eye doctor. Aside from its primary responsibilities of setting curriculum standards and reviewing and adopting instructional materials, the state board approves charter schools, oversees the Texas Permanent School Fund, sets graduation requirements and reviews the rules to certify educators. In the coming years, the board is expected to roll out a new list of approved instructional materials and will revise the social studies and math standards, called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Any major changes in the makeup of the state board would probably have an effect on its curriculum decisions for all Texas students, said Jacob Kirksey, a Texas Tech University education professor. The board next year will approve a new social studies curriculum — a process that in 2022 became so divisive over several issues, including adding information about the LGBTQ Pride movement and the history of racism in the U.S., that those decisions were punted to 2025. “There’s going to be a lot of opinions about what goes into those based on the partisan leaning,” Kirksey said.

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Dallas Morning News - February 25, 2024

Rep. Colin Allred invites Dallas doctor who fled state for abortion to State of the Union

Dallas obstetrician/gynecologist Austin Dennard, who had to travel out of state for an abortion after learning her fetus had a severe, lethal birth defect, will attend President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address. U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, invited her to the March 7 speech, joining Democrats across the country in putting abortion access at the heart of their 2024 campaign messaging. Dennard said Texas women are being denied basic rights under state laws so restrictive that providers are scared to utter the word “abortion,” even when discussing options for patients with medically complicated pregnancies. “It’s a disaster-relief situation now with providing standard medical care for women in pregnancy,” Dennard told The Dallas Morning News.

Another Dallas-area woman, Kate Cox, also will attend the speech as the guest of first lady Jill Biden. Cox unsuccessfully sued Texas for permission to end her pregnancy after receiving a lethal fetal diagnosis. Allred is the frontrunner in a crowded Democratic primary, with the winner to face Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in November. Allred has touted his support of federal protections for abortion access and the right to interstate travel for health care. Allred praised Dennard’s willingness to speak out so other women aren’t forced to leave their states under similar circumstances. “I am so inspired by Dr. Dennard’s bravery and her resilience in the face of Texas’s cruel abortion ban,” Allred said in a statement. “No Texas woman should have to endure the hurdles that Dr. Dennard did to get the life-saving care she needed.” Cruz was asked about Cox’s invitation when it was announced last month and said the White House engages in “extreme and dishonest rhetoric” on abortion.

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KXAN - February 25, 2024

Is Texas’ medical billing transparency law working? KXAN investigates

Bernadette Moore remembers the frustrations. Bernadette Moore filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office after not being able to get an itemized bill last year. (Courtesy Bernadette Moore) All she needed was an itemized bill after a vein surgery last August in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “They just gave me the runaround. I mean, nothing. I got bounced around to seven different people at one point. I was on the phone weekly,” she explained. Moore said she is part of a health-sharing ministry where patients get reimbursed, but an itemized bill is required. “I remember crying to them on the phone — ‘I cannot get ahold of this.’ I’ve never had this much problem receiving an itemized bill,” Moore said. In November, she filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

“I have requested an itemized bill … at least 20 times. As of Sept, that is a TX state law, that businesses must give an itemized bill,” she wrote in her complaint. Through the Texas Public Information Act, KXAN obtained five itemized medical billing complaints sent to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office since September 2023. That’s when the law went into effect requiring hospitals and other health providers to give patients an itemized invoice before sending bills to collections. Senate Bill 490 also requires itemized bills be written in terms the patient understands and include medical codes and prices. The invoice can be issued electronically through a patient portal. “It’s important for consumers to have more transparency in health care,” said State Rep. Caroline Harris Davila, R-Round Rock. “It has become so convoluted, so complicated, and it really shouldn’t be because when it’s complicated, people may put off care. They may make poor decisions about their health care. ” Harris Davila knows every detail of the itemized billing law — she wrote the companion House bill. The legislation only applies to health care facilities and hospitals but does not apply to doctors or federally-qualified health centers. The Texas Health and Human Services Commission is overseeing the rollout of the law and compliance. Since the law went into effect in September, the agency received two complaints that are pending investigation. These complaints are separate from what the Attorney General’s Office received. Late last year, HHSC posted draft rules online and gathered informal comments from two providers including clarification needed on language of the law and concerns about the costs of providing itemized bills. Harris Davila said her office would reach out to the providers with concerns.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram - February 25, 2024

Jennifer Danley Scott: Raise lawmaker pay to get more women to run for Texas Legislature

(Jennifer Danley-Scott is a faculty member in residence at the Center for Women in Government, part of the Jane Nelson Institute for Women’s Leadership at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.) In 2020 and 2022, talk of a “blue wave” in Texas pushed out discussion of gender parity in our government. This was disappointing. The share of women holding judgeships decreased to just under 40%, and in the Legislature, it’s 29.8% Our government is grappling with increasingly complex issues, and our laws are better when they’re informed by life experiences that vary across genders, cultures and backgrounds. Research in the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities demonstrate the positive impact of diverse representation — it helps identify more problems and it scrutinizes proposals from more vantage points. We should see more women running for office and winning. Texas women are active politically. They vote. In the 2020 presidential election, 6.3 million Texas women voted, compared with 5.6 million men. Media attention on women candidates is generally plentiful and positive. Political parties are supporting women candidates.

People are rational when deciding to run for office, and pay and workload may be institutional barriers. Women responding to our survey were more likely than their male colleagues to identify the cost of running for office and the work of caring for family as impediments that initially kept them from running; women also identified missing work as a problem. These concerns in turn affect which offices attracted candidates. Women aspiring to higher office in our survey generally listed county office, judicial office or Congress; very few mentioned the Legislature, a natural step up from local office. In our survey, 50% of the women who marked caring for family as a barrier ultimately ran for and won city office, with 38% choosing county office and 12% choosing judicial office. The women concerned primarily about missing work similarly ran for county (51%), city (31.5%), and judicial (17%) offices. County and judicial positions are local campaigns where officeholders serve locally and receive professional pay. Why might these and other women avoid the Legislature? It’s rational. In Texas, we designed a Legislature with two disadvantages: We pay extremely little and expect a lot of work. This is not the case with other elected offices. The Texas Association of Counties shows full-time county officials are paid anywhere from $40,000 to $198,000 a year. They work in their home county without constant travel to the Capitol. Women are better represented in these offices, especially as clerks and treasurers.

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Houston Chronicle - February 25, 2024

Texas says adios to El Niño. But what is La Niña and how will it affect our weather?

El Niño, the warming of tropical waters in the eastern Pacific that has brought wetter and cooler weather to Texas, appears to be losing its influence in the atmosphere. Forecasters think it will weaken more in the spring, and they give its counterpart, La Niña, a 55% chance of returning this summer. Texas summers are always brutal, but if La Niña — which tends to produce warmer and drier weather for us — persists strongly over fall and winter, like it did from 2020 to 2022, we could see summer-like heat linger into October, above-normal warmth in winter and little to no rain relief at the end of the year. What is La Nin~a exactly?

Don’t think of El Niño and La Niña, which are naturally occurring climate patterns, as storms or weather events that affect a specific area at a specific time. Instead, meteorologists say you should think of them as much broader phenomena, like the way road construction in one part of town can have ripple effects on traffic across a whole city. Because the world’s oceans make up nearly three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, it shouldn’t be surprising to know that temperature shifts in the Pacific — the world’s largest ocean — can have an outsized influence on the planet’s weather.For La Niña to develop, for instance, sea surface temperatures off the Pacific coast of South America along the equator become cooler than normal, which then significantly alters tropical rainfall and disrupts atmospheric circulation patterns. The ripple effects end up redirecting the paths of mid-latitude jet streams. These circulating rivers of air not only steer storms across the United States but also keep cold air penned up north. When La Nin~a is strong, it tends to push the jet stream farther north away from Texas. As a result, polar air remains corralled up north and unable to encounter tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico. We typically depend on that confrontation of cold and warm air over Texas to produce storms and beneficial rain across the state.

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Houston Chronicle - February 25, 2024

Houston-area farmers are facing more extreme weather. Here's how they're adjusting to climate change

Charlie Sherrard worked carefully, tucking a straight row of miniature sprouted broccoli into the loose soil of a planter at Sunnyside's Hope Farms on a recent February afternoon. Sherrard, the urban farm's lead gardener, has labored with other farmers and gardeners for weeks to reset crops that struggled after January's multiday freeze followed by a swing to rainy warmth. Repurposing the miniature broccoli was one of their final acts of recovery. "It survived the freeze, but will not do well in the field right now because it's getting too warm," Sherrard said. "So instead of getting rid of the broccoli I'm allowing it to flower and to be an early pollinator, because a lot of the other flowering plants won't be blooming until March or so." After a recent uptick in freezes, hot droughts and floods, many Houston-area farmers have been forced to get creative. Small farms used to rotating their crops have shifted what they plant and how much they expect to lose as a changing climate keeps them on their toes.

While some of the Sunnyside farm's diverse fruits and veggies made it through the most recent cold snap that started Jan. 15, others struggled. "We're starting to see a rebound of the crops that work fine with cold," said Gracie Cavnar, founder and leader of Hope Farms. "It's always a challenge in Houston because you've still got warm season crops growing in the winter. And they're productive, and then all of a sudden, they're wiped out, so it takes your productivity down by like 50%." Cavnar said farmers can try to steel themselves against freeze damage, harvesting some crops early and covering others, but that labor does not always pay off. And this year, since her farmers expected the freeze to be shorter than it was, she said they "didn't get as aggressive with protection." Still, since Winter Storm Uri in 2021 kicked off far more frequent freezes than in past decades and the last two years swung from lengthy droughts during scorching summers to increased flooding fears, local farms have adjusted to the extremes.

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Dallas Morning News - February 25, 2024

Texas commercial property foreclosure filings are soaring

Commercial property foreclosure filings in Texas have more than doubled in the last year. Texas had 463 commercial foreclosure filings in the 12 months ending with January, according to a new report by Attom Data Solutions. Texas ranked third nationally for commercial foreclosures with 56 filings last month — a 143% year-over-year increase in the number of properties red-flagged for foreclosure by lenders in January. Nationwide, commercial foreclosure filings were up 97%.

“This uptick signifies not just a return to pre-pandemic activity levels but also underscores the ongoing adjustments within the commercial real estate sector as it navigates through a landscape transformed by evolving business practices and consumer behaviors,” Attom Data CEO Rob Barber said in a statement. California, New York and Texas lead the country in January commercial property foreclosure postings, according to Attom Data. The number of commercial property foreclosure filings in Texas is at the highest level in Attom Data’s decade of tracking. Texas commercial foreclosure filings were at a low point in 2018 when only 120 properties were threatened with forced sale by lenders. Texas commercial foreclosure postings began growing during the pandemic and hit new highs in January.

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County Stories

Fort Worth Report - February 25, 2024

Tarrant Health director addressed misconduct allegations in letter before resignation

Tarrant County Public Health Director Veerinder Taneja’s response to three allegations leveled against him by newly hired county administrator Chandler Merritt are revealed in public documents newly obtained by the Fort Worth Report. The county released a Feb. 2 termination notice Merritt sent to Taneja and Taneja’s written response dated Feb. 3. In the notice, Merritt laid out three issues he wrote “created an irreparable level of distrust in your ability to satisfactorily perform the duties of your position.” Merritt was appointed to the job following the retirement of 35-year administrator G.K. Maenius in September. Democrat Alisa Simmons was the sole vote against his appointment, citing her preference for another candidate.

Maenius’s resignation occurred after significant turnover on the Tarrant County Commissioners Court. County Judge Tim O’Hare and two other new commissioners joined the court last year following the retirement of longtime County Judge Glen Whitley. Both Whitley and Maenius were involved in Taneja’s 2014 hire. Neither responded to requests for comment about the new documents. Merritt’s allegations against Taneja pertained to HIV tracing policy revisions, COVID-19 testing contracts and staff complaints in an internal human resources report. He cited six violations of the civil service rules and placed Taneja on administrative leave pending a final decision. Taneja disputed the allegations and questioned why Merritt immediately jumped to possible termination when Taneja had never been subject to discipline before. “I’m thankful for the collaborative efforts that our community pulled together to address the challenges,” he said. “I’m honored that I got to lead a great team of passionate and dedicated public health professionals. We served our community with integrity, honesty and compassion. I will forever cherish the love, respect and friendship they bestowed upon me. I wish my team and the Tarrant County community the best in health as I look forward to the next chapter in my life.”

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City Stories

Houston Chronicle - February 25, 2024

'Offensive' text message could tip scales in race for Harris County GOP chair

Harris County Republicans will decide March 5 whether to give incumbent party chair Cindy Siegel a second term or instead choose her challenger, businessman Bobby Orr. A text message from Orr shared widely on social media in late January is gathering some backlash. Orr calls the party establishment a “small click of mostly women who this is their life.” Orr goes on to say in the text that they “don’t do s--- other than get together at Magic Circle Republican Women, other women’s clubs and at HCRP gatherings.” Orr added that these party members will “crash” Harris County, then the whole state. “I have been around them,” Orr wrote in the text. “You would never recruit any of them to work with you.”

Some women in the local party are “ticked” by the texts, according to Siegel, a former Bellaire mayor who was first elected party chair in 2020. She likened Orr’s comments to Hillary Clinton’s remark in 2016 that maligned former President Donald Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” “I think he showed an arrogance and, quite frankly, a contempt for all the work of hardworking Republican men and women who are out there from all walks of life who believe in the party,” Siegel said. Orr said, his mission is to win elections. And if his methods offend people, so be it. “I’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelet,” Orr said. “I probably shouldn’t have said what I said, but there’s one thing I can tell you for sure — it probably will not be the last time I say something like that, so just fasten your seat belt.” Orr’s supporters in the party include conservative activist Steve Hotze, former Harris County Republican Party chair Gary Polland and the parent advocacy group Spring Branch Pipeline. But others were offended by the text, such as Rolando Garcia, a Siegel ally who represents Senate District 15 on the State Republican Executive Committee. “What an odious little man. What an embarrassment,” Garcia posted on the social media platform X. Siegel’s campaign has racked up numerous endorsements: the “C” Club, the Kingwood Tea Party and around a dozen current and former elected officials, including state Sens. Paul Bettencourt and Brandon Creighton and Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey.

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Dallas Morning News - February 25, 2024

Historic Inwood Theatre in Dallas is ‘temporarily closed’

The historic Inwood Theatre is “temporarily closed” after its landlord, Inwood Village, posted a lockout notice on the front door. The notice says the theater’s lease was terminated on Feb. 19 because of a default. A notice on the theater’s website and a call to the theater confirm the closure. “Thank you for calling Landmark’s Inwood Theatre. The Inwood Theatre is temporarily closed. Sorry for the inconvenience,” an automated message says. The Inwood opened in 1947, making it one of the oldest movie theaters in Dallas. Its art-deco exterior has remained largely unchanged even as the surrounding neighborhood has grown in the last 77 years. The theater lobby’s underwater-themed mural was painted by Dallas artist Perry Nichols.

The theater underwent extensive renovation in 2005, reviving its murals and recognizable marquee. The renovation brought in new screens, seats and carpeting. In 2008, the theater reimagined its first-floor auditorium as a screening lounge complete with couches, ottomans and loveseats, , according to the theater’s website. The upgrades came after movie chain Landmark Theatres took over the location in 2003, when Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s 2929 Entertainment bought the company. The Inwood changed hands again in 2018 when the Cohen Media Group purchased Landmark. Since then, the company has closed several theaters across the country, including Houston’s historic River Oaks Theatre in 2021. The closures have come at a time of uncertainty for the movie theater industry, which was hit hard by the pandemic. The number of movie screens in the United States has decreased by around 3,000 since 2019, CNBC reported in February 2023.

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National Stories

NBC News - February 25, 2024

Nazis mingle openly at CPAC, spreading antisemitic conspiracy theories and finding allies

Nazis appeared to find a friendly reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. Throughout the conference, racist extremists, some of whom had secured official CPAC badges, openly mingled with conference attendees and espoused antisemitic conspiracy theories. The presence of these individuals has been a persistent issue at CPAC. In previous years, conference organizers have ejected well-known Nazis and white supremacists such as Nick Fuentes. But this year, racist conspiracy theorists didn’t meet any perceptible resistance at the conference where Donald Trump has been the keynote speaker since 2017. At the Young Republican mixer Friday evening, a group of Nazis who openly identified as national socialists mingled with mainstream conservative personalities, including some from Turning Point USA, and discussed so-called “race science” and antisemitic conspiracy theories.

One member of the group, Greg Conte, who attended the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, said that his group showed up to talk to the media. He said that the group was prepared to be ejected if CPAC organizers were tipped off, but that never happened. Another, Ryan Sanchez, who was previously part of the Nazi “Rise Above Movement,” took photos and videos of himself at the conference with an official badge and touted associations with Fuentes. Other attendees in Sanchez’s company openly used the N-word. For several years, CPAC and its supporters have attempted to temper the most extreme fringes of the conservative movement, and have welcomed the continued debate between Trump and more moderate conservatives. This year, however, some attendees and former attendees have expressed frustration with the conference’s stronger association with Trump and his wing of the party. In one of the most viral moments from this year’s conference, conservative personality Jack Posobiec called for the end of democracy and a more explicitly Christian-focused government. While Posobiec later said his statements were partly satire, many CPAC attendees embraced his and others’ invocations of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

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Washington Post - February 25, 2024

As Trump continues to trounce Haley, she presses on as MAGA antagonist

She came in third in Iowa. She lost by double digits in New Hampshire. In Nevada — where Donald Trump’s name wasn’t on the primary ballot — Nikki Haley trailed “none of these candidates” by more than 30 points. On Saturday, Haley suffered another blow in the lopsided race for the Republican presidential nomination, losing to Trump by about 20 points in her home state of South Carolina. Yet she promised to press on. “In the next 10 days, another 21 states and territories will speak,” Haley said Saturday night. “They have the right to a real choice, not a Soviet-style election with only one candidate. And I have a duty to give them that choice.” As the last Republican candidate standing against Trump, Haley has drawn polarized reactions as she has become a vehicle for the deep discontent that some in the party feel about a Trump rematch with President Biden. More a symbolic reservoir for that sentiment than an obstacle on Trump’s path to the nomination, Haley has positioned herself as the leader of a vocal minority, saying Saturday that her roughly 40 percent showing “is not some tiny group,” but a sign that “huge numbers of voters in our Republican primaries” still want a Trump alternative.

Her decision to push forward, at least through Super Tuesday on March 5, has antagonized Trump and his allies and baffled plenty of political observers, who point out that there is little evidence she has a path to victory in a single state, let alone the primary as a whole. Her latest loss in South Carolina — where Haley served as governor for six years — ramps up the pressure on her to get out in the name of party unity, especially as she escalates her criticism of Trump. Yet even as the indignities of the primary season pile up for Haley, some supporters are happy to see her continue as the voice of the old-guard conservative wing of the GOP that Trump has cast aside and done little to court or placate as he moves into general-election mode. “Those of us from the Reagan wing of the party want her to stay in because we want to remind people we are still here,” said Eric Levine, a Haley donor. “We’re not winning without the Reagan wing of the party, and Nikki Haley represents that wing.” Further head-to-head contests between Haley and Trump are likely to underscore how thoroughly the former president has reshaped the party and overpowered its traditionalists. Polls in numerous Super Tuesday states show Trump well ahead, and Trump’s team expects him to clinch the nomination by mid-March.

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Politico - February 25, 2024

Haley isn’t dropping out. But the end may be near.

Even Nikki Haley is hinting her road may be coming to an end. Haley persisted through loss after loss in Iowa and New Hampshire and, now, South Carolina. And at least for the next 10 days, she says she is refusing to back down from a primary fight that looks all but over. But on Saturday, Haley signaled a wind-down could be in sight, committing only to keep running through Super Tuesday. Not only was she defeated in her home state, but her path forward has never seemed less clear. Even if it isn’t the proximate cause of her impending departure from the race, Donald Trump’s humiliation campaign against Haley looms over the primary. His recent taunts that she should “switch parties” and is “essentially a Democrat” threaten to further alienate her from the Republican Party’s base.

In the coming days, Haley will travel across the country at a feverish pace, hitting at least seven states and Washington, D.C., in what could be the final stretch of her campaign. She’ll make two stops each in Michigan, North Carolina and Virginia, while also stumping in Minnesota, Colorado, Utah and Massachusetts, and the campaign is expected to announce events in more states. And Haley is continuing to aggressively raise money, planning to hold at least 10 fundraisers in those 10 days, according to a campaign official granted anonymity to speak freely. But it could all come to an end right after that. On Saturday, Haley suggested that she isn’t necessarily committed to remaining in the race beyond March 5. “We’re going to keep going all the way through Super Tuesday,” Haley told reporters after casting her vote on Kiawah Island, inside a private, gated community. “That’s as far as I’ve thought in terms of going forward.” The list of states where Haley could make a splash between now and Super Tuesday is small. Even if she wins the Michigan primary, Trump will likely get the majority of delegates, which will mostly be awarded at a state convention next weekend. And while there are some Super Tuesday states with histories of nominating moderate Republicans in primaries, polls even there show Trump with a big lead. In Vermont, which has open primaries and where moderate, Trump-opposing Gov. Phil Scott has been the GOP nominee in four straight elections, a poll this week showed Trump leading Haley by 30 points.

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NBC News - February 25, 2024

Welcome to the housing market’s ‘new normal’ — 7% mortgage rates and all

Mortgage rates are high and housing inventory is tight, but some experts see the market’s deep freeze starting to thaw this spring. Homebuying started to pick up during and after the holidays. Existing home sales increased 3.1% from December to January, according to the National Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the inventory of unsold existing homes rose 2% from December to January, totaling around 1 million at the end of last month, slightly expanding buyers’ options. “While home sales remain sizably lower than a couple of years ago, January’s monthly gain is the start of more supply and demand,” NAR chief economist Lawrence Yun said in a news release Thursday.

“This might be the market’s first steps toward a ‘new normal’– a world where inventory remains rather scarce by pre-pandemic standards, but buyers are not exactly swarming the doorway of every open house like in 2021 and early 2022,” Zillow senior economist Jeff Tucker wrote in a blog post last week. “More revived supply should help meet the returning demand, and head off the risk of renewed overheating,” he said. For the last few years, limited housing inventory and low rates have put the housing market on ice. Many homeowners who’d otherwise be eager to sell have hesitated to shake off the so-called golden handcuffs of mortgage rates as low as 2% or 3%. That’s finally starting to change, experts say — even though rates are now much higher, climbing again past 7% in recent weeks. “Markets are just kind of recalibrating for the reality that the Fed is not going to cut interest rates right away,” said Greg McBride, Bankrate’s chief financial analyst. For many buyers and sellers alike, it’s beginning to sink in that “we’re not going back to three and four percent mortgage rates” anytime soon, he said. In many cases, lifestyle factors — like empty-nesters looking to downsize or growing families hunting for more space — are pushing people to move, rather than wait around for sweeter deals.

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Associated Press - February 25, 2024

Man guilty of killing transgender woman in hate crime trial over gender identity

A South Carolina man was found guilty Friday of killing a Black transgender woman in the nation's first federal trial over a hate crime based on gender identity. After deliberating for roughly four hours, jurors convicted Daqua Lameek Ritter of a hate crime for the murder of Dime Doe in 2019. Ritter was also found guilty of using a firearm in connection with the fatal shooting and obstructing justice. A sentencing date has not yet been scheduled. Ritter faces a maximum of life imprisonment without parole. "This case stands as a testament to our committed effort to fight violence that is targeted against those who may identify as a member of the opposite sex, for their sexual orientation or for any other protected characteristics," Brook Andrews, an assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Carolina, told reporters after the verdict. While federal officials have previously prosecuted hate crimes based on gender identity, the cases never reached trial. A Mississippi man received a 49-year prison sentence in 2017 as part of a plea deal after he admitted to killing a 17-year-old transgender woman.

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NPR - February 25, 2024

What could Biden's Israel-Gaza stance mean for his campaign? Michigan is an early test

Abbas Alawieh had planned to step away from politics this fall. He's a Democratic strategist who's worked with several progressive members of Congress. Then the Hamas attack on Israel happened that killed 1,200 people and took some 240 hostage, per the Israeli government. Israel's military response in Gaza has since killed nearly 30,000 people, mostly women and children, according to the ministry of health in Gaza. It may feel far away for some Americans, but Alawieh's city, Dearborn, has felt every death in Gaza deeply. It's home to one of the largest Arab American communities in the country. Alawieh started getting calls from cousins, friends and acquaintances in Michigan who'd barely expressed an interest in politics. "Those same people are reaching out to me right now saying, 'This is Biden's fault, what are we going to do to make sure Biden stops this?'" he said.

Just like that, Alawieh was pulled back into politics with an urgency he said he's never felt before. "Okay, so you have a community that is alienated, that Biden is alienating beyond what we can even capture in numbers," he said. So he and other progressive organizers in the Detroit metro area are trying to create those numbers. He's a spokesperson for the Listen to Michigan movement, the self-described "multiracial and multifaith, anti-war campaign" that's encouraging Democrats and Independents to show up to the polls for Tuesday's primary. But they're not getting out the vote for Biden, who Alawieh himself supported in 2020. They're urging voters to check the "uncommitted" box instead, as a way of protesting the Biden administration's handling of the Israel-Hamas war. "What we're saying is, first and foremost, we need a ceasefire, not some temporary thing," said Alawieh. "We're also saying, President Biden, you are losing people and have lost many people here in Michigan, key voters, where you need every vote you can get," he added. "And unless you take a different approach, you will be handing the presidency back to Donald Trump and his white supremacist buddies."

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Wall Street Journal - February 25, 2024

I read all 59 of Warren Buffett’s annual letters. These are the best parts.

Warren Buffett had an audience in mind for his latest letter to shareholders: his sister Bertie. Together with Buffett’s tribute to his late partner, Charlie Munger, the Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B 0.50%increase; green up pointing triangle chairman and chief executive’s references to his sister gave Saturday’s letter a familiar tone that would be unexpected in many corporate communications. But they were in keeping with a style Buffett developed over more than half a century of messages to owners of Berkshire shares. “In visualizing the owners that Berkshire seeks, I am lucky to have the perfect mental model, my sister, Bertie,” he wrote. Buffett went on to say that his sister is smart, sensible and nobody’s fool—but isn’t ready for a CPA exam and doesn’t consider herself an economic expert. “So,” the famed investor wrote, “what would interest Bertie this year?”

“The company has been searching for suitable acquisitions within, and conceivably without, the textile field. Although to date none has been successfully concluded, we continue to have an active interest in such acquisitions.” Dec. 2, 1966 (signed by Berkshire Chairman Malcolm Chace Jr. and President Kenneth Chace) Feb. 26, 1982: “Investors can always buy toads at the going price for toads. If investors instead bankroll princesses who wish to pay double for the right to kiss the toad, those kisses had better pack some real dynamite. We’ve observed many kisses but very few miracles. Nevertheless, many managerial princesses remain serenely confident about the future potency of their kisses—even after their corporate backyards are knee-deep in unresponsive toads.” Feb. 27, 1987: “Occasional outbreaks of those two super-contagious diseases, fear and greed, will forever occur in the investment community. The timing of these epidemics will be unpredictable. And the market aberrations produced by them will be equally unpredictable, both as to duration and degree. Therefore, we never try to anticipate the arrival or departure of either disease. Our goal is more modest: we simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.” Feb. 28, 1992: “It’s true, of course, that, in the long run, the scoreboard for investment decisions is market price. But prices will be determined by future earnings. In investing, just as in baseball, to put runs on the scoreboard one must watch the playing field, not the scoreboard.”

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