Texas says popular cannabis extract, delta-8, is illegal, sending retailers scrambling

Three years after federal legislation removed the marijuana extract known as delta-8 THC from the nation's list of controlled substances, Texas health officials have put it on its own list of illegal drugs, sending a shockwave through the growing CBD retail industry across the state and making the substance, essentially, illegal.

Christine Perez, who manages the popular Austin CBD store Lazydaze+Coffeeshop, had no idea about the change until she saw the Texas Department of State Health Services notice on the agency's website on Oct. 15.

"I was very confused, as well as a bunch of other companies. It's like, 'What is going on?'" Perez said. "I really have no idea why [the state] would try to ban it, or the timing of it. We didn't hear anything about it from the state."

It was easy to miss.

As The Dallas Morning News reported this week, the state health agency placed a notice in the rule change publication, the Texas Register. The notice said delta-8 remained a controlled drug in Texas. Both the federal government and states can differ on what is a controlled substance by keeping separate lists. Still, word failed to get out to CBD stores that anything containing the substance, like candy or tincture oil, would be illegal to sell in Texas.

It became the top product for many dispensaries in Texas, as users say it produced the "high" effect of marijuana. The variant became popular after the 2018 Farm Bill changed the definition of "lawful marijuana extracts" and included any extract that has lower than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), including delta-8. THC is the active psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, responsible for the user's high.

Delta-8 was thought to be made legal in Texas nearly two years ago after Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 1325 legalizing any hemp product with less than 0.3% THC.

But last week, DSHS announced it had classified delta-8 as a Schedule I controlled substance, a category reserved for drugs that have no accepted medical use, such as heroin and LSD.

It's not the first time this debate over whether delta-8 was or was not a controlled substance in Texas has come up. As the DMN previously reported, Stephen Pahl, the Texas health department's associate commissioner for consumer protection, informed lawmakers during this year's regular legislative session that state law allows Health and Human Services Commissioner John Hellerstedt to object to federal drug schedules, including delta-8. Lawmakers had considered a bill making delta-8 illegal, but it failed to move forward after health officials informed them it had already been listed as a controlled substance by the state.

From the state's point of view, last week's announcement was merely a clarification.

"DSHS posted the clarification below on our website in response to recent requests from hemp growers who said that there was confusion in the industry about what was allowed in consumable hemp products," said Lara Anton, a DSHS spokesperson.

But to retailers, the notice seemed arbitrary and unfair.

"This is really out of nowhere. It's not based on science, it's not based on any real threat to Texans," Rick Trojan III, a board member of the Hemp Industries Association, said. "The whole thing is confusing for everyone involved. It sounds like DSHS doesn't even understand why they know what they're doing."

Trojan said he had not heard any "hemp grower" confused over the law.

Until that notice a week ago, several stores claimed the state had done nothing to notify them that delta-8 was illegal.

Lit Smoke & Vape, a CBD store in Allen, says it will not stop selling delta-8 until it is forced to.

Other stores, like Your CBD in Mesquite, did not know about the new guidance when asked by The Texas Tribune. An hour later, the company pulled delta-8 from shelves.

"It's still on our shelves until it's legally decided that it's illegal," a manager at Lit Smoke & Vape said. "Those people don't have any authority over the law. So until the law states that it's illegal then, no, we will continue to sell it. They tried to ban CBD two years ago and they got sued and it fell through. So it's going to happen again."

Last May, the Texas Legislature attempted to make delta-8 illegal, but the issued failed.

Multiple companies, including CBD American Shaman, have vowed to take legal action against the state.

In the meantime, many companies are wondering how the state will enforce the new guidance.

"DSHS can take enforcement action against licensees who sell consumable hemp products containing controlled substances. DSHS doesn't regulate possession of controlled substances," a DSHS spokesperson said.

Still, Trojan believes enforcement will be difficult.

"I have heard some sheriffs won't enforce. I have heard stores will be able to sell what they have," Trojan said.

This Plano family got evicted after the Texas Rent Relief program paid the wrong landlord

The night before he was evicted, Jared Brown was frustrated, sad and anxious. That last one was a new feeling for him.

"Usually, I'm the one with the answers, with the plans. Well, I don't have an answer. I don't know. This whole situation is just really screwed up," the 36-year-old Brown said.

He was scheduled to be evicted, even though the state had paid out almost $9,000 on his behalf to help his family keep their home. It felt "surreal," he said.

What he didn't know at the time was that the $1.9 billion Texas Rent Relief program had made an error, and his landlord was unaware he'd even applied for assistance.

So Brown was working at a furious pace, trying to sell some belongings online and pack up the rest of his stuff before the constables came in the morning to kick him out.

"It sucks, but there's nothing I can do but pack it up and move along," he said. "There's nothing I can do, no amount of yelling or screaming or anything I can do to make it stop."

Brown lived in a one-bedroom apartment at the Aspire Independence apartments in Plano for five years with his wife and their dog. A few years ago, his uncle moved in with them, along with his dog. The 63-year-old has severe disabilities that have rendered him unable to work.

The pandemic has been especially difficult.

Brown lost his job managing a restaurant early in the pandemic. His wife, Kayla, also lost her restaurant job.

A couple of months later, Brown's father died unexpectedly from chronic health issues. Brown became the primary caretaker for his mother, who also has disabilities and is largely homebound.

Brown has made some extra cash selling thrift store and garage sale finds on eBay, and there was unemployment insurance before it ran out. But that was only enough to cover food, gas, medicine and other basics, he said. The $845 monthly rent went unpaid for over a year.

"I tried saving for rent, but I just couldn't. There was no way," he said.

Kayla Brown has been looking for work as the economy recovers but hasn't found a job yet. Even though the unemployment rate has fallen significantly in Texas, it's still nearly 60% higher than it was pre-pandemic.

Jared Brown has been too busy with caretaking responsibilities for his mother and uncle to look for a job. He's had to navigate the legal and financial questions left after his father's death and help his mother sell her house, which she could no longer afford.

From breathing easier to "a nightmare"

When the Texas Rent Relief program opened in February, Brown applied quickly. A few months later, in June, the state told him it would send his landlord nearly $9,000 to pay his back rent.

He'd finally caught a break.

"I thought, OK, I can breathe a little easier, I don't have to worry about getting evicted next month," he recalled.

Then a Collin County constable knocked on his door.

"I had an eviction notice," Brown said. "The same day the funding was dispersed [by Texas Rent Relief], I got the eviction notice."

It was baffling. When he went to court in July, he said the landlord's lawyer had no idea he'd been approved for rental assistance. The judge said his paperwork to receive rent relief was in order — it checked out.

Brown left the court feeling confident.

In August, another court hearing was scheduled, but Brown says he never received the notice to appear, so the justice of the peace evicted him by default. By the time Brown found out that he'd lost his eviction case, it was too late to appeal.

"It's like a nightmare," said Kayla Brown.

On a September morning, the Collin County constables knocked on their door again. This time, it was to evict them.

A crew from the apartment complex went to work, carrying the family's belongings down the stairs and piling them on the grass. They hauled out furniture and lamps, boxes of books and kitchen items, black trash bags full of clothes — a growing pile of a life upended.

"Human error"

In the middle of the Browns' nightmare was a mystery: How could this be happening?

Ally Harris started working on Jared Brown's behalf after he received his eviction notice. She manages the eviction prevention program for Texas Housers, a nonprofit focused on low-income housing policy.

"When I started pursuing this case, I was certain at the time that it was a case of landlord fraud," Harris said. "Jared's landlord kept saying that they weren't paid and [the rent relief program] kept telling me that they were paid."

Harris soon learned the cause was much more mundane.

The landlord is a California-based private equity company, Clear Capital LLC.

Jeff McMullen, a vice president for the company, was equally baffled when reached by KERA the day after Brown was evicted. The company has been trying to work with all of its tenants throughout the pandemic to apply for rental assistance and avoid evictions, he said.

"We do it really reluctantly, it's not the outcome that we want," he said.

McMullen said the company had no record that Brown had applied. The rent relief program notifies landlords when their tenants apply for rental assistance. They have to agree to the terms of the program before the money is released, including that the renter no longer owes the back rent and will not be evicted.

Clear Capital was never notified that Brown had applied, nor had the company received any money to pay Brown's past-due rent.

"If there was a mistake, we want to make it right," McMullen said, but he was confident there wasn't.

After the eviction, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs began looking into the situation. TDHCA is the department charged with overseeing the state's rent relief program.

Eventually the department realized there'd been a mistake. The money was sent to the wrong landlord, a company based in Austin that has nothing to do with Brown's apartment complex.

"As much as we work to prevent and reduce potential mistakes, application processing has the potential for human error. In this case, incorrect information made its way into the application process," said Kristina Tirloni, a spokesperson for the department. "We wish it didn't happen."

The department is reviewing exactly how the error occurred and is working to get the $9,000 meant to help Brown returned to the program. But there is little the agency can do to help Brown and his family now.

Slipping through the cracks

The rent relief program's rules mean that Brown isn't eligible for that $9,000 anymore because he's already been evicted. Rental assistance funds can only be applied to the past-due balance of tenants who are still living in the apartment where they missed rent.

Harris, the advocate from Texas Housers, said it's impossible to know how many tenants have lost their homes because of clerical errors or even landlord fraud in the program, but she's heard of other cases.

"How do we remedy harm for tenants who have slipped through the cracks?" she said. "Right now, the policy just seems to be like, 'Well, that was an accident. That's an anomaly.' But those are still people."

Since the eviction, Brown and his family have been searching for a permanent place to live. They've been staying with his mother in the house she's sold. They're helping pack and will move soon.

"It's been an adjustment, a crazy adjustment," he said. "We're all doing as well as we can, you know?"

There was some good news recently.

After learning about the mistake at the rent relief program, Jeff McMullen from Clear Capital LLC said he wanted to help. He's working out a plan to make sure Brown and his family find a place to live. The company also has its legal team working with Brown to clear the eviction on his record.

Clear Capital has also started checking with rental assistance programs before evicting tenants in any of the six states where it owns rental properties, to avoid another situation like this.

In the meantime, Brown is trying to keep everything — and everyone — together. He said the whole process has left him feeling disheartened with a safety net that was supposed to support people like him who were struggling because of the pandemic.

"It just kind of leaves you feeling helpless, a little more untrusting of the agencies that are there [to help]," he said. "And just stressed, worrying about everything."

How a doughnut-shaped district breaks up voters of color near Fort Hood, Texas and helps House Republicans

In the latest example of creative map drawing in Texas' redistricting sprint, Republican lawmakers have proposed redrawing the boundaries of one Central Texas state House district so that it is completely encircled by another.

"This strange-shaped doughnut denies folks their voting rights," Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, said of the shape of the districts. In the proposal, District 54 — home to Killeen and Fort Hood — is the doughnut and District 55 is the doughnut hole.

The doughnut district would be in Bell County, a traditionally red area that has trended blue in recent years as the diverse community around one of the nation's biggest military installations grows. The combined Black and Hispanic population of those older than 18 in Bell County is nearly equal to the white population of the same age group. Dividing the county into House districts that keep Killeen intact could yield a district that Democrats could win over the next 10 years.

Under the current House map, Killeen — whose residents largely voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020 — is kept together in District 54, which also includes the sparsely populated and safely Republican Lampasas County to the west. That district, which is currently represented by Republican state Rep. Brad Buckley, went for Trump by only 0.1 percentage points.

The new ring shape of District 54, which would split Killeen with District 55, would give Republicans a safer margin — nearly 7 percentage points — of voters who went for Trump.

"This harms the city of Killeen and is really, enormously problematic when you split a community of interest like the city of Killeen," Bledsoe said of the proposal. "The only motivation for chopping Killeen up is that [if they didn't], African Americans and Latinos would be able to elect the candidate of their choice."

In redistricting, a community of interest refers to a group that shares common concerns and could be similarly affected by lawmakers' decisions. These communities can be defined along demographic, economic or geographic lines.

While Democrats and civil rights groups are upset about the district, one of the county's two Republican representatives expressed more muted misgivings. Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, who represents District 55 — the inside of the proposed doughnut — acknowledged in an interview that Killeen should ideally be kept whole in the same district, but said doing so would likely help create a district where a Democrat could win. He added that Killeen should also be in the same district as Fort Hood, a change he supports from the new proposal.

An indigenous themed mural on the side of a tattoo parlor on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021 in Kileen.A tattoo parlor in Killeen. Credit: Sergio Flores for The Texas Tribune

"You know, that's politics," Shine said. "If the Democrats are running the show, they're going to try to write as many Democrat districts as possible. And when the Republicans are in control, they're going to do the same thing."

Shine also said he'd have preferred to keep the districts as they are, where he has more Republican voters, but he supported the proposal to help protect Buckley's district. In 2020, his district's voters supported Trump over Biden by a margin of nearly 26 percentage points — which would shrink to 10 percentage points under the proposed change.

"I don't cherish the fact that I have to give up some of my strongest Republican precincts to make it happen. But that's politics," he said.

Trump voter tells MSNBC it would be ‘disastrous’ if she lost her Obamacare coverage

Trump voter tells MSNBC it would be ‘disastrous’ if she lost her Obamacare coverage 2016 Trump voter Margaret Grassie talks with MSNBC (Screen cap).

Here’s what to watch for as Texas voters head to vote in the first midterm primaries since Trump took office

Here’s what to watch for as Texas voters head to vote in the first midterm primaries since Trump took office Voters wait in line during the 2012 Presidential election (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com

Buckley, who represents District 54, said the committee made the proposed map changes to account for population growth.

The doughnut-shaped districts were included in the most recent proposal approved by the House Redistricting Committee. The Legislature is in the midst of a 30-day special session to redraw political maps based on the census results, which found that 95% of Texas growth has been fueled by people of color. That draft can still change as it makes its way through the House and Senate before it is ultimately signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott. The House is expected to vote on the map Tuesday.

Republicans, who are in power in both the state House and Senate, have so far put forth proposals to redraw the House, Senate and Congressional maps that entrench Republican strength for the next decade and reduce the number of districts where eligible voters of color make up the majority.

Ken Wilkerson, a councilman at-large for the City of Killeen, called the proposal "a bold and uncloseted attempt to let Killeen know not only do we not matter, but they will see to it that The City of Killeen's collective voice will not be heard for at least another 10 years."

"This proposed map is an embarrassing, ridiculous example of what Texas legislators think of 153K people that do not look, live or think like the power brokers they associate with," Wilkerson, who is Black, added in an email to the Tribune.

In a committee hearing, Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, expressed concerns that the proposed map cracks communities of color in western Bell County, breaking up communities of interest and cracking communities of color in Killeen and the larger Fort Hood area.

Bell County districts have previously come under scrutiny for attempts to break up voters of color during redistricting.

A federal court in 2017 flagged nine districts in four counties, including Districts 54 and 55 in Bell County, where lawmakers diluted the strength of voters of color. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed most of the map to remain in place.

Considering the federal judges' previous ruling, Shine said he predicted challenges to the district map could "have some credibility."

The federal Voting Rights Act requires that "opportunity" districts — in which more than half of eligible voters belong to a racial minority group and are able elect their preferred candidate — must be drawn under certain conditions. The judges in 2017 found evidence of racially polarized voting and Black and Hispanic cohesion in Bell County elections, satisfying those necessary conditions for a coalition opportunity district where a combination of Black and Hispanic residents make up the majority.

But the federal court found that lawmakers split Killeen then to ensure both districts would remain Republican and voters would reelect their Republican incumbents. To make the current district in 2011, about 32,000 people from northern Killeen — two-thirds of whom were people of color — were removed from House District 54. They were replaced by 47,000 people from southwest Bell County, including Salado, which has historically voted Republican and has more white people than Killeen. These changes made it more difficult for Black and Hispanic people — who made up 70% of the population growth in Bell and Lampasas counties between 2000 and 2010 — in the district to elect their candidate of choice, the judges said.

"The evidence does indicate that mapdrawers … intentionally racially gerrymandered the districts to dilute the minority vote by moving minority population out of HD54 and moving Anglo population in, thus cracking and diluting the minority vote to ensure Anglo control over both districts," the ruling said.

The judges noted alternative maps would have created compact coalition districts — where a combination of Black and Hispanic residents make up a majority of the electorate and vote together — and kept the Black community in Killeen together. But those maps were not pursued.

For the first time in decades, federal law allows Texas to draw and use political maps without first getting federal approval to ensure the state is not discriminating against voters of color. The Supreme Court in 2013 gutted that federal preclearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act.

Since the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Texas has not made it through a single decade without a federal court admonishing it for violating federal protections for voters of color.

The new proposal in Bell County raises "a lot of red flags" about intentional discrimination and vote dilution that could be brought before a court, said Michael Li, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center whose work focuses on redistricting.

"It boggles the mind that they would yet again do this," Li said. "And by doing so, it has a huge impact on communities of color in Bell County, and Killeen in particular."

After staff members died from COVID-19, Waco ISD vows to keep mask mandate in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order

When Brittany Phillips Ramirez relocated her family back to her hometown of Waco over the summer, COVID-19 precautions at Mountainview Elementary School were foremost on her mind. And as the delta variant spiked, she even considered home-schooling her 6-year-old daughter because she worried that the school district might adopt a more relaxed approach when it came to students wearing masks at schools.

But shortly after classes began, the Waco Independent School District made a bold choice that surprised residents like Ramirez. It became one of about 70 school districts in Texas at the time to adopt a mandate that students wear masks while in school.

And it did so in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order barring public schools from requiring students wear masks.

"I was a little surprised," Ramirez said. "But when we heard about the mask mandate we were actually dancing around the house in circles. I am not kidding with you."

But as Susan Kincannon, Waco ISD's superintendent, explains, the decision followed the deaths of educators in the central Texas region. At the start of the pandemic, Waco lost 49-year-old Phillip Perry, the principal of its G.W. Carver Middle School, to the coronavirus.

Then when students returned for fall classes in August, two teachers in nearby Connally Independent School District died from COVID-19 complications: 41-year-old sixth-grade teacher Natalia Chansler and David McCormick, a seventh-grade teacher, who was 59.

"It's tough on a school community. It's tough on co-workers and on the campus. I just saw the tears of the co-workers and sadness that it brings," Kincannon said.

As the community dealt with the loss, Kincannon watched COVID-19 infections among faculty rise sharply during that first week of school. A member of Waco ISD's communications staff, administrative assistant Melissa Perry, because ill and eventually died of COVID-19.

Kincannon felt she had to take stronger actions despite knowing that the district could face a lawsuit from the state. So, she put a district-wide mask mandate in place.

Inline article imageEarly in the pandemic, Waco lost 49-year-old Phillip Perry, the principal of G.W. Carver Middle School, to the coronavirus. Credit: G.W. Carver Middle School

Originally, the superintendent wanted to comply with the governor's orders and leave the decision to wear masks, an individual one. But the loss and the coronavirus spike was too much.

"Cases began to pop really quickly those first three days. We saw 104 cases. Last year, it took us seven weeks to get to 100 cases," Kincannon said. "The second week of school we saw 285 cases. And so that decision to require masks really came about as a result of what we were seeing in our schools, and how quickly the cases were multiplying."

The personal loss felt by educators throughout Waco is hard to escape.

Sally Peavy, an art teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School, remembers hearing about the deaths of the two Connally ISD teachers this August while she was prepping her classroom for the beginning of the school year. She didn't know them, but it made her stop. Those teachers, she thought, had contracted the fatal disease doing the same thing she was at the time, just minutes down the road.

"I think there is a level of fear when you think about it a lot," Peavy said.

Rebekah Raabe, a special education teacher at Tennyson Middle School, said the deaths of colleagues made an impact.

"I think when it happens to somebody you know, it makes it a lot more real," she said.

As expected, the Waco district is now among about a dozen districts in the state facing a lawsuit for violating the governor's order against mandatory mask-wearing in schools.

On Sept. 27, attorneys for the state, appearing at a virtual court hearing in McLennan County, requested a temporary injunction on the mask mandates imposed by Waco, Midway, McGregor and La Vega school districts.

State District Judge Vicki Menard did not issue one but instead ordered a review of whether McLennan County is the right jurisdiction for the case.

The attorney general's office eventually dropped its lawsuits against the McGregor and Midway school districts. An attorney for Midway ISD informed the judge that masks were encouraged but there was no mandate. McGregor ISD officials said they did have a mandate but at the attorney general office's request, had decided not to enforce it.

"From a broader perspective, the district questions whether this provision (against mask mandates) is in the lawful use of the governor's authority," Kyle DeBeer, Waco ISD's chief of staff. "Clearly we have felt this way from the start or we wouldn't have instituted a mask mandate."

For now, district officials say they have no intention of dropping its mask mandate which they believe has helped keep the virus at bay. Two weeks after the mask mandate was imposed, the district went from 285 COVID-19 cases to 93. By the fifth week of school, the number of COVID-19 positive cases were the lowest that had been.

Beyond that, district officials have been pleased with the support and faith in what they are doing that they have felt from students' parents.

"It's a responsibility that I take very seriously. We've lost employees along the way. And it's been very sad to watch," Kincannon said. "It's not something I ever thought I would have to deal with as a superintendent. It's been a long haul since this began."

Ted Cruz and John Cornyn opposed a debt-limit increase that will stave off economic catastrophe -- but backed previous borrowing hikes

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas blasted his fellow Republicans this week for the role they played in allowing Democrats to temporarily increase the debt ceiling, keep the government from a first-ever financial default and avoid economic chaos.

"I wish Republicans hadn't blinked," Cruz said Thursday from the Senate floor just before the chamber voted to allow more borrowing until December. "We shouldn't have done that."

But his comments — and his party's lockstep opposition to extending the borrowing cap in the face of widespread financial calamity — belie the role Republicans have played in contributing to the country's $28 trillion deficit.

No Republican senator voted to raise the debt limit Thursday. But Cruz's fellow Texan, Republican Sen. John Cornyn joined 10 other members of the party to allow that debt ceiling vote to come to the floor. That move staved off a potential worldwide economic collapse — and allowed Republicans to avoid being blamed for such a calamity without having to actually vote in favor of the increase.

And while they voted against Thursday's increase, Cruz and Cornyn have routinely supported more government borrowing when Republicans held the White House.

Cornyn opposed the debt limit adopted by the Senate in 2013 but voted in favor of Congress raising the ceiling in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2015.

Cruz routinely opposed increases throughout the Obama administration. As a freshman senator in 2014, he famously filibustered a debt-ceiling increase bill in exchange for deficit reductions. But a cloture vote ultimately allowed the bill to pass.

Yet both senators voted in favor of debt-ceiling increases throughout the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax cuts bill and the annual budget bill.

The debt ceiling functions like a credit card limit for the American government. Officeholders can — and regularly do — raise that limit in order to accommodate exploding deficits brought on by increased spending. That happened after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the creation of new entitlements and the passage of tax cuts, and as the nation weathered expensive crises like the Great Recession and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Failing to raise the current debt limit could set off a stock market crash, and economists project apocalyptic worldwide fallout.

Usually, Americans rarely notice when Congress raises the debt ceiling, given how routine it has become over the years. But when it becomes a point of contention like this week, it can overpower all other politics of the day.

The newest debate came as Democrats are proposing trillions of dollars in new spending over the next decade. Even before the Senate voted, both the White House and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced they would move quickly to make a debt-ceiling increase law. The GOP aim was to make Democrats raise the debt limit on their own, even though the current deficit includes debts from GOP-approved policies and bills.

Cornyn opposed increasing the debt limit this week because it's tied to a $3.5 trillion spending bill to fund Democratic priorities.

"Well I know it shocks everybody that politics is involved in anything that happens here in Washington D.C., but obviously the Democrats have an agenda that we don't agree with, and why would we facilitate that agenda by raising the debt ceiling for example as long as we know they can do it by themselves, which they can," Cornyn told Gray television news affiliates on Thursday.

Both parties have a history of politicizing such action. Democrats did it in 2006. Then, Democratic senators like future Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden voted against increasing the debt limit as a form of protest to the Bush-era Iraq War and tax cuts. Even so, the measure easily passed through the Republican-controlled chamber.

In 2011 and 2013-14, the Obama administration dealt with a series of debt-ceiling fights, later dubbed "the budget wars" when Republicans returned the favor after taking control of the U.S. House.

The government previously came so close to default that an analysis from Moody Analytics shows the 2011 and 2013 crises have cost the U.S. economy up to $180 billion and 1.2 million jobs. Following the crisis in 2011, the S&P stock index downgraded the U.S. in the exchange for the first time in history.

Democrats mostly backed off of the debt ceiling as a cudgel during the Trump administration and passed a debt-ceiling increase during the Trump era with comparatively little fanfare.

And while no Republicans supported the latest increase, Cornyn and some of his fellow Republicans directly helped get the bill through legislative hurdles required for the final vote to happen.

Cruz took to the floor just before the vote, decrying Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership and blaming increased spending measures dating to the Bush administration.

"In the game of chicken, Chuck Schumer won," Cruz said of the Democratic Senate majority leader, adding that backing off was a "strategic mistake by our leadership."

He went on to blame both parties for the explosion of debt, and included some of his own votes for spending to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, he took care to excise the Republican-passed 2017 tax cuts from any culpability for the deficit, though such assertions contradict expert economic calculations.

Cruz told reporters Thursday that the 2017 tax cuts reduced what families, small businesses and farmers had to pay the government while helping to lower unemployment.

"And the very next year, federal tax revenues did not go down, they went up," he said. "And so the tax cuts did precisely what they were designed to do, which is get people back to work and help job creators create jobs."

But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Brookings Institution think tank both issued reports in recent years stating otherwise, that the 2017 tax cuts reduced revenues, specifically among corporate taxes.

Initially, Republicans this week intended to force Democrats to use an obscure process called reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling without GOP support, but Democrats refused to have full ownership of the matter.

By Thursday, McConnell had backed off that hard line.

Instead, Republicans could have just avoided a filibuster — and the 60 votes needed to overcome one — and let the bill go to the floor and pass with only Democratic votes. The aim was still to avoid any Republican fingerprints on raising the debt ceiling, even as they backed off of the filibuster threats.

But on Thursday night, Cruz forced his Republican colleagues to go on the record over whether to allow a vote on the debt ceiling by calling for a recorded vote.

It was a move that brought a return to an old dynamic that had faded during the Trump presidency: McConnell, Cornyn and other leaders in the Senate backing a bill, only to have Cruz disrupt the plan by forcing Republicans to vote for something they may privately wish to pass but have no interest in publicly supporting.

In the world of congressional vote whipping, party leaders in both chambers often cast votes that may have private support among rank-and-file members but are unsavory in practice.

As for Cruz, he argued that Democratic efforts to spread responsibility for raising the debt ceiling likely worked.

"So why are we facing a crisis? If for 10 months, Democrats could have done this anytime they wanted, why didn't they?" Cruz said on the Senate floor. "Well, because there are at least some Democrats who realize drowning the nation in debt and spending in taxes is not popular back home. The voters don't like it."

Texas has raised $54 million in private donations for its border wall -- and almost all of it came from this one billionaire

An out-of-state billionaire who has previously bankrolled attempts to defend controversial immigration laws is responsible for nearly all the donations to Gov. Greg Abbott's $54 million border wall fund.

A member of one of America's richest family dynasties, Timothy Mellon, contributed nearly 98% of the fund's total donations when he donated $53.1 million in stock to the state in August, according to public records. Mellon is the 79-year-old Wyoming-based grandson of banking tycoon and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

Before Mellon's donations, Abbott's private fundraising campaign had stalled at about $1.25 million around mid-August, two months after its launch — a drop in the bucket for a project with a price tag estimated in the billions of dollars. But on Aug. 27, a state website that tracks donations to the crowdfunding effort said the fund had jumped to nearly $19 million. By the end of the month, it had topped $54 million.

The donations have since stalled again.

Mellon did not respond to multiple requests for comment made to his company, New Hampshire-based Pan Am Systems, and a marketing firm that handled publicity for his 2015 autobiography.

Abbott declined to comment.

Mellon does not appear to have close ties to Texas. But he was a top donor to the reelection campaign of former President Donald Trump, who made building a border wall a top priority, and has previously donated money to defend legislation targeting immigrants.

In 2010, he gave an unsolicited $1.5 million to the legal defense of an Arizona law that required police to determine the immigration status of people suspected of being in the country illegally, according to The Washington Post. Critics said the law would lead to racial profiling. The law was challenged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down parts of it but left intact the section allowing officers to ask about immigration status.

Last year, Mellon gave $20 million to America First Action, the main super PAC supporting Trump's reelection. Since 2018, he's donated $30 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the House GOP super PAC, and he gave $30 million to the Senate Leadership Fund, which tries to elect Republicans to the U.S. Senate, in 2020.

Mellon has not donated to Abbott, but he gave $2,500 to Republican gubernatorial challenger Allen West when West ran for Congress in Florida in 2012. Mellon ramped up his political donations in 2018.

While he overwhelmingly supports conservative campaigns and Republicans, Mellon also gave to two Democrats: U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in 2018 and former U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii for her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Ocasio-Cortez's campaign later said it did not solicit the donation and would return it.

Mellon has taken heat for using offensive stereotypes to describe Black Americans in his self-published autobiography.

In the 2015 book, Mellon wrote that after the Great Society programs of the 1960s, which were intended to tackle poverty and racial injustice, Black people "became even more belligerent and unwilling to pitch in to improve their own situations," according to The Washington Post.

He also called social safety net programs "slavery redux."

Mellon is the chair of Pan Am Systems, a privately held transportation and freight holding company. In the 1980s, he founded a rail company called Guilford Transportation Industries. In the 1990s, he rebranded the company after buying the brand of bankrupt Pan Am Airways.

Forbes estimated Mellon was worth almost $1 billion in 2014, and last year the magazine estimated the Mellon family was worth $11.5 billion.

Abbott's crowdsourced wall

Abbott, a two-term Republican, has made border security his top priority this year as he seeks reelection next year and is fighting off challenges from his right. Abbott has blamed the Biden administration for an increase in migrants at the border.

In March, Abbott deployed state military and police resources to the border to help federal authorities enforce immigration law. In June, he announced a state of disaster in 34 counties that were seeing large increases in migrant crossings and he unveiled his plan to build a state-funded border wall, picking up where Trump left off.

The Texas Legislature has approved nearly $3 billion over the next two-year budget cycle toward border security, with about $1 billion going to the governor's office for grants, including $750 million dedicated to construction of a border wall.

Texas is already paying $25 million for a nearly 2-mile concrete barrier along State Loop 480 in Eagle Pass. Portions of the federal border wall started by the Trump administration, and put on hold by the Biden administration, ranged from $6 million per mile to $34 million per mile for construction. Abbott's office said it has identified 733 miles of border that may need some type of barrier.

While the state displays the aggregate of private donations to the border wall on its website, it does not readily provide the names of individual donors, despite a commitment from Abbott early on that the crowdfunding effort would have "transparency and accountability."

Outside of Mellon, the fund received more than 12,100 individual donations as of Sept. 14, totaling about $1.3 million. The median donation was $50.

That level of fundraising is more in line with a similar crowdfunding attempt by Arizona lawmakers 10 years ago to raise private money for constructing a fence on the Mexican border. That effort received about $270,000 in three years, according to The Arizona Republic.

During the Trump administration, a nonprofit called We Build The Wall, which included his former political adviser Steve Bannon as a board member, raised $25 million for a border wall. Bannon and Brian Kolfage, the group's leader, were accused by the federal government in August 2020 of looting the charity for personal gain. Bannon was later pardoned by Trump.

Tax benefit

Tax experts say Mellon's decision to donate stock instead of cash could yield a tax benefit for the billionaire.

Normally, a person has to pay taxes on profits made on their investments when they are sold. But investors who donate stock to charity avoid paying a tax on the earnings on their investment and get a tax deduction for the full amount of stock.

"It's common to give stock that's increased in value because they can get rid of the gains and they can deduct the donations," said Lloyd Mayer, a professor at Notre Dame Law School.

Such donations are usually made to nonprofit organizations. But under the tax code, a charitable contribution to a state would likely be tax-deductible if it is "made exclusively for public purposes." Some people, for example, get tax deductions for donating money to cut the federal debt.

The only hurdle is ensuring the money is only used for public purposes.

"In the case of [a] border wall, presumably built upon public land, I think it'd be hard to argue there are private purposes," said Lisa De Simone, an accounting professor at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

But Mayer said such donations raise questions about undue influence by wealthy donors on governmental policymaking.

In June, Tennessee billionaire Willis Johnson offered South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem $1 million to help pay for a state National Guard's deployment to the border to aid Texas' efforts to catch people crossing illegally. The state's soldiers were then sent to the Texas border.

"The thing that's controversial about these kinds of donations is whether they're distorting government priorities. If government collects money in taxes and the government — Legislature and governor — decide how to spend it, they're setting their priorities based on the political environment," Mayer said. "But if you open it up to donations, you're handing what the government should spend their money on to wealthy donors."

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin's McCombs School of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

'God’s will is being thwarted': Texas hard-liners seek more partisan control of elections -- even in solid Republican counties

Michele Carew would seem an unlikely target of Donald Trump loyalists who have fixated their fury on the notion that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

The nonpartisan elections administrator in the staunchly Republican Hood County, just an hour southwest of Fort Worth, oversaw an election in which Trump got some 81% of the vote. It was among the former president's larger margins of victory in Texas, which also went for him.

Yet over the past 10 months, Carew's work has come under persistent attack from hard-line Republicans. They allege disloyalty and liberal bias at the root of her actions, from the time she denied a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump network One America News entrance to a training that was not open to the public to accusations, disputed by the Texas secretary of state's office, that she is violating state law by using electronic machines that randomly number ballots.

Viewing her decisions as a litmus test of her loyalty to the Republican Party, they have demanded that Carew be fired or her position abolished and her duties transferred to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Election Administrator Michele Carew listens to public comments on her possible termination as Election Administrator during…Carew listens to public comments on her possible termination during a Hood County Election Commission meeting on July 28 in Granbury, Texas. The commission voted 3-2 against her termination. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

Republican politicians and conspiracy theorists continue to cast doubt on the election process across the country, particularly in areas where President Joe Biden won. They have demanded audits in states like Arizona, where the results of a Republican-led review in Maricopa County confirmed Biden's victory. They have also moved to restrict voting in multiple states, including Texas, which passed sweeping legislation that has already drawn lawsuits alleging the disenfranchisement of vulnerable voters.

Last week, Trump issued a public letter demanding an audit in Texas. Hours later, the Texas secretary of state's office announced that it had begun a "comprehensive forensic audit" in four of the state's largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Biden won three of the four.

But Hood County stands out nationally and within Texas because it offers a rare view into the virulent distrust and unyielding political pressure facing elections administrators even in communities that Trump safely won. The county also represents the escalation of a wider push to replace independent administrators with more actively partisan election officials, said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Going back to the 2020 election, by and large, we saw election officials at the state and local level stand up to and resist efforts by Trump supporters to overturn the results," said Kimball, who is also a ballot design and voting equipment expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab. "And now this seems to me like part of the next move: Remove officials and put in somebody else who's more to their liking."

Kimball said such efforts can be dangerous given the power of elections administrators to control the number and location of polling places, the use of mail-in ballots and compliance with state and federal laws. In Mesa County, Colorado, for example, elected County Clerk Tina Peters, who has fueled the false narrative that Trump's victory was stolen, allowed an unauthorized individual to copy the hard drives of voting machines, according to a lawsuit against Peters filed by the Colorado secretary of state's office. Sensitive security information, including passwords, later appeared on far-right media sites and on social media, the lawsuit states. Peters' attorney has denied that she did anything wrong.

Carew's case is particularly troublesome because it "smells of political bullying" and reflects a wider rift in Texas among different factions of the GOP that has grown more pronounced since the election, said Carlos Cascos, a Republican who served as secretary of state for two years under Gov. Greg Abbott before leaving in 2017.

"They're in power, they get somewhat cocky and they start eating their own. That's what I'm seeing happening with the Texas GOP," said Cascos, who this year helped form the Texas Republican Initiative, a group that was created to combat intraparty attacks led by former GOP Chairman Allen West, who is now running for governor.

Similar fissures have cropped up in Hood County, where far-right conservatives who preach allegiance to Trump have split with more establishment-aligned Republicans in demanding that Carew's duties be placed under elected County Clerk Katie Lang, who has espoused Trump's stolen-election theory. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

She frequently shares "Stop the Steal" and "Impeach Biden" memes and videos, including those produced by Blue Shark Media, a popular local far-right Facebook and YouTube show that has claimed the presidential election was stolen, vigorously opposed mask mandates and repeatedly called for Carew's ouster. The show's founder is Mike Lang, her husband, who as a former state representative chaired the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Aside from saying that she would abide by the Constitution, Katie Lang declined to talk with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune about how she would approach elections management if given the role. Mike Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

The attacks have confounded Carew, 47, whose job is nonpartisan, but who has voted in Republican primaries for the past 11 years, according to public records.

Stress now invades her sleep, waking her up at night as her mind replays the barrage of accusations against her, she said in a recent interview.

"I had no idea what I was getting into."

County Clerk Katie Lang listens motions for a two week suspension without pay after a vote allowed Election Administrator Mi…Lang called the July 28 meeting to discuss whether to terminate Carew. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

"God's will is being thwarted"

The heart of the argument against Carew is as basic as the way she numbers voter ballots.

Hood County represents a growing number of areas that have begun shifting from electronic-only machines to more secure hybrid models, which provide paper ballots and are intended to help guard against fraud. A new state law requires all counties to move to voting systems that produce paper ballots by 2026. Like many elections officials in the state's largest counties, including nearby Tarrant and Dallas, Carew uses the machines to randomly number ballots in accordance with guidance from the Texas secretary of state.

But critics such as Laura Pressley, a self-proclaimed elections expert and favorite of hard-line Republicans in the county, accuse Carew of purposefully ignoring an obscure provision of state law that calls for paper ballots to be consecutively numbered starting with one. Pressley argues that ballots cannot be audited without such numbering, enabling the possibility of election fraud. She has stopped short of claiming any wrongdoing in Carew's handling of the 2020 election.

"Our elections are the representation of free will, and if we can't trust that our free will is being represented legally and accurately, then God's will is being thwarted," Pressley, a failed Austin City Council candidate turned critic of electronic voting machines, told county commissioners in April. Dave Eagle, a county commissioner and critic of Carew's, invited Pressley to speak at the meeting.

The push for consecutive numbering has become so potent in Hood County that commissioners in May asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the dispute.

The pending decision could put Paxton, a Trump supporter who unsuccessfully sued to overturn presidential election results in battleground states, at odds with the Republican-led secretary of state's office. The office has defended Carew, arguing in a July letter to Paxton that electronic voting systems must number ballots randomly so as not to violate privacy rights. It also has said that the consecutive numbering provision was intended for paper ballots, not electronic voting machines.

As state and local officials battle over how to number ballots in Hood County, experts worry that Texas' constitutional numbering requirement is outdated and doesn't reflect a broader shift toward protecting voter privacy.

J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert at the University of Michigan, said that over the years states have outlawed the numbering of ballots, adding that "Texas' policy is at the other extreme."

Colorado law explicitly states that paper ballots cannot be marked in any way that allows for voter identification. Numbering of Election Day ballots is not allowed in Illinois or North Carolina, and election laws in states including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and New York don't call for the numbering of ballots.

"Where I really worry is for voters who feel socially vulnerable for one reason or another, because they are themselves members of minority groups or are in the political minority," Halderman said. "They are going to be the ones most worried that, 'Oh gosh, the people running the election can figure out how I voted,' and that can deter people from voting at all or being less likely to cast a dissenting vote."

The law dates back to a time when legislators believed that numbering ballots and voter lists would allow for easy identification and help to catch fraud. Over the years, the law was challenged by candidates who worried that it could dissuade voters from participating in elections; by 1947, the League of Women Voters was pushing for a secret ballot in Texas.

"The Texas system originally was devised so that, in case of an election contest, any voter's ballot could be identified and the court could determine whether it had been changed," stated a 1947 McAllen Monitor editorial supporting the shift toward more privacy at the ballot box. "But this precaution is so little needed in contrast to the far more prevalent danger of checking up on timid voters that the cure has done more harm than the original malady."

Since then, historians have pointed to the numbering system as a facilitator of election fraud. Douglas Clouatre wrote in his book "Presidential Upsets: Dark Horses, Underdogs, and Corrupt Bargains" that George Parr, a longtime political boss in South Texas, used numbered ballots, in combination with poll lists, to identify and bribe voters to choose Democratic candidates and reject Republican ballots. Parr's scheme is credited with helping John F. Kennedy win Texas in 1960.

Seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and is not required to conduct effective election audits.

"In an audit you're counting the ballots in a particular precinct to see if they match the totals that you've already got, and so the order of the ballots doesn't matter as long as you are counting all of them," said Kimball, the ballot design expert.

"Injecting chaos"

A 14-year veteran of county elections administration, Carew left a job in Aransas County on the Gulf Coast to be closer to her ailing parents, children and growing grandchildren in north Texas.

Michele Carew, Election Administrator of Hood County, faced calls for her termination by local officials and members of the …Carew Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

Having grown up in Weatherford, just 25 miles away, Carew said she was proud to be running elections in Hood County. She had garnered nothing but praise from Republican leaders in Aransas County who tapped her in 2015 to be their first elections administrator.

"I can't imagine anyone not giving anything but A-plus as a grade. She's that good," Ric Young, the Aransas County Republican Party chair, said in an interview. "People have to realize her credentials are impeccable and she knows what she is doing."

More than four decades ago, Texas lawmakers passed a measure allowing counties to create an independent administrator position. Aimed at insulating elections administrators from political pressures, the law calls for them to be appointed by a bipartisan elections commission rather than by county commissioners. Elected officials are prohibited from directing the activities of administrators.

In proposing the legislation, lawmakers said the move was a step toward professionalizing elections, but they made such a switch voluntary. Of the state's 254 counties, about half — which make up roughly 80% of registered voters — have appointed an independent elections administrator. The others are run by elected local officials, usually county clerks, who are also expected to avoid partisanship.

"There has been a consistent trend in Texas to move toward the fairer, less politicized administration of elections," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. "In the last year, we are starting to see people try to reverse that in ways that are discouraging."

Across the country, elections officials are increasingly feeling pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair democratic elections process, according to a June study issued by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The study, which interviewed more than three dozen elections administrators, found that 78% believe misinformation and disinformation spread on social media has made their jobs harder, with more than half saying the position has become more dangerous.

In a September news release announcing a lawsuit challenging Texas' new elections law, the Brennan Center pointed to the negative effects it would have on elections administrators. In direct opposition to measures that made voting easier in Houston, the state's largest city, legislators banned drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting across the state. They also banned the unsolicited distribution of applications for mail-in ballots to eligible voters, such as the elderly, and created new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

"These new penalties are one example of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers," the statement said. "Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs."

Texas' new voting restrictions, a recent push by GOP activists to seize control of local party precincts and efforts to delegitimize the elections process in places like Hood County could have a greater chilling effect that drives out a generation of independent elections administrators, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration.

"This is an incredible delegitimization of American democracy when it comes right down to it," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. "It is a security threat that is injecting chaos and partisanship and doubt into our election system."

Carew entered Hood County in the summer of 2020, when Trump was already raising the specter of election fraud. Deep-seated divisions among the local Republican Party had already started to form with the selection of the next elections administrator.

A five-person commission that hires and fires elections administrators in the county was split between Carew and another candidate, Zach Maxwell, who had previously served as chief of staff to Mike Lang. According to his resume, Maxwell had never been employed by a county election office, but Katie Lang, who sits on the commission, said she believed he was committed to elections and praised his work ethic.

Republican County Judge Ron Massingill argued that the county needed someone with experience to deal with an expected "turbulent" presidential election. He eventually sided with the Hood County Democratic chair and the Republican county tax assessor in a 3-2 vote to hire Carew in August 2020, making him a target of hard-line party leaders who have framed the decision as a betrayal.

County Commissioner Dave Eagle speaks during the public comments of the Hood County Election Commission special meeting that…Eagle, a critic of Carew's, speaks during the July 28 Hood County Election Commission meeting. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

In one of her first presentations to the commissioners court a month before the election, Carew asked them to approve a $29,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for items that included election supplies, voter education material and mail-in voting support. She told them that the grant gave elections officials discretion when using the money.

Eagle, an artisanal cheesemaker and former Tea Party leader, questioned the more than $350 million the nonprofit organization had received from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, saying the social media company had stifled conservative voices on its platform.

"This is just one more assault, in my opinion, by the progressive left to completely destroy this election cycle," Eagle said during the meeting. He argued that by giving to nonprofits, private donors were attempting to sway local elections in favor of Democrats, and pointed to a lawsuit seeking to prevent counties from accepting such grants. The suit was later dismissed after a U.S. district judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the grants.

Hood County commissioners voted against the grant, which was accepted by 101 other Texas counties, including 85 that voted for Trump. Texas Republican lawmakers have since passed legislation that would require written consent from the secretary of state's office for private grants exceeding $1,000 to election departments, arguing that they seek to tilt the balance of elections in favor of Democrats.

Days after the November election, Blue Shark Media alleged voter fraud in the national election and said voters should not accept the results. Mike Lang, the former state representative, and his co-hosts praised local elected officials, including Eagle, Katie Lang and Constable John Shirley, a former high-ranking member of the far-right paramilitary Oath Keepers, for attending a "Stop the Steal" rally in front of the county courthouse.

"Those are your GOP Republicans that they're for Trump, they want Trump in there. They're not part of the establishment that are like, 'Oh, no, Trump's not going to win,'" Lang said during a show posted on Nov. 8.

He did not raise concerns about the management of the local election. But since then, the show has repeatedly attacked Carew, even resurfacing her failed request for the nonprofit grant and calling it nothing more than an attempt to draw unsolicited mail-in ballots.

"We need to not only look at who we elect, but we need to look at who our elected officials hire," Lang said during a show that month.

Calls for Carew's ouster

The demands for Carew's ouster have grown so vigorous that critics have threatened political action against Massingill, the county judge, for his support of the elections administrator.

Massingill, who is quick to point out that he is a recipient of Trump's Order of Merit for loyalty and service to the Republican Party, said the attacks on Carew from his own party are unwarranted.

"I don't think it is fair. I really don't. She is following the law," Massingill said in an interview. "We want somebody in that office that is neutral and unbiased. We can't have the Democratic Party or the Green Party or the Republican Party telling her how to run the election."

Days before an April commissioners court meeting, Blue Shark Media aired an episode calling for Carew's removal. The show had spent months criticizing Carew for a host of perceived slights, including her connection to the League of Women Voters, which honored Hood County and 53 others for their "outstanding" election website. Critics in the county have argued that the voter education and advocacy group is biased because it called for Trump's removal from office after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In another example that Carew was not ideologically pure, the show's hosts pointed to a report that she had denied Christina Bobb, a former Trump administration official who works for One America News, access to a private training held at a conference of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's largest election system vendors, filed a defamation lawsuit against the network and Bobb in August, alleging "false and manufactured stories about election fraud." The lawsuit stated that Bobb crossed "journalism ethical lines" by raising money through a nonprofit to fund a partisan review of its voting machines in Arizona's Maricopa County. Bobb and OAN did not respond to requests for comment.

In a two-and-a-half minute report that aired in March, Bobb said that she was able to attend the first day of the conference after identifying herself as a member of the public.

On the second day, Carew, then the president of the state association, barred Bobb, saying she attempted to attend an elections certification training that was not open to the public or to members of the media. Carew said Bobb failed to inform organizers that she was a reporter. She said the Katy-based National Association of Election Officials, which puts on the training that costs several hundred dollars to attend, asked her not to allow Bobb inside.

"She was dishonest with us as to who she was with," Carew said.

But for Mike Lang, the incident was further evidence of Carew's bias.

"The fact is that Michele Carew, the president of the association, kicked her out, and is that election integrity and transparency? Not a bit," he said during a Blue Shark show in April.

Two months later, Blue Shark obtained an application that Carew submitted for a position in Travis County. The application, they said, suggested that Carew was committing fraud because she stated that she was still working for Aransas County.

"How can you have any type of integrity or honesty when you can't fill out an employment application?" Mike Lang asked on a June 21 show as he displayed portions of the application.

Carew, who said she applied for the job after months of attacks in Hood County, told ProPublica and the Tribune that she mistakenly submitted an older version of her standardized employment application. She said she was shocked to learn that critics had gone as far as to track down the application.

"Let's have a commission meeting and let's find another elections administrator," Lang said during the June show in which he demanded that Massingill take action against Carew.

Despite concerns from some Republican precinct chairs about a lack of evidence, the Hood County Republican Party Executive Committee in July passed a resolution threatening a social media campaign against Massingill if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

"The resolution makes several big claims, but only uses hearsay to back them up," Mark Shackelford, a precinct chair, wrote in internal Hood County GOP emails obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune. Shackelford later told ProPublica and the Tribune that he believed that without more robust evidence the resolution would be perceived as sour grapes within the county. "And it was," he told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in an email.

When Massingill refused, Katie Lang, the vice chair of the elections commission, stepped in and called a meeting. Aside from opponents, the meeting drew poll workers, election judges and former officials in Aransas County who defended Carew.

In the end, the elections commission voted 3-2 not to terminate Carew, marking the same split as when it hired her to be the elections administrator. David Fischer, Hood County's GOP chairman who along with Lang voted to fire Carew, said the vote had not ended the effort against her.

The next step, Fischer said during the meeting, should be for the commissioners court to schedule a vote to dissolve the office and place elections under Lang. The move would make the office more accountable to the county's majority Republican voters, said Fischer, who declined an interview request.

Commissioners have not said whether they plan to abolish the position.

In the meantime, Eagle and Pressley have continued their claims that Carew is flouting the law. In August, the pair addressed City Council members in Granbury, the largest city in Hood County, where Eagle advised them against contracting with Carew for its November 2021 election.

Instead, Eagle told officials, the city should hire a private company to run its election.

"I felt alone"

Carew has struggled to withstand the personal attacks and the accusations that she violated the law. She worries she has grown less trusting and more cynical.

Michele Carew, Election Administrator of Hood County, faced calls for her termination by local officials and members of the …Carew Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

"I felt alone to tell you the truth," she said in an interview. "The worst part was being dragged through the mud over something they don't know what they're talking about."

Carew said she has tried to find solace in discussions with other elections administrators, the only people who really know what she has been going through.

She feels as if she's somehow let them down. That her experience in Hood County has overshadowed more than a decade of service as an elections manager. And she worries that she will only be known for the claims lodged at her by those trying to remove her from the role.

But Carew is sure of one thing. She has already told her husband that Hood County will be her last elections administrator position.

"I don't feel like I am the same person I was a year ago," Carew said. "This county has ruined me."

Carla Astudillo contributed reporting.

Disclosure: Facebook, Texas Secretary of State and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Texas county officials call election audits an unnecessary partisan ploy while voicing confidence in 2020 results

Texas officials from three of the four counties whose 2020 elections are being audited by the secretary of state's office said Friday the development is an unnecessary partisan move aimed at sowing doubt in the results.

Harris, Dallas and Tarrant County officials maintain that their 2020 election results were accurate, echoing a state election official's assertion earlier this year that the election was "smooth and secure." Collin County officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

"The conspiracy theorists who want to come up with all these ways or reasons why this election wasn't right — they might very well find something else [to doubt]," said Republican Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley. "It's time to move on."

Whitley and officials in Harris also said they have not been told what the audits entail or what prompted them. They said they learned about them from a late Thursday press release sent by a spokesperson in the secretary of state's office. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said an audit can have many forms, but Harris County elections administrator Isabel Longoria said her office hadn't heard any details of what the state's plans are as of noon Friday. Longoria said the county has already confirmed the results of the elections several times.

"If people want to hear it again and again and again and again, that nothing's wrong — great," she said. "But at what point are you going to be willing to hear the truth, that nothing was wrong with the November 2020 elections?"

The secretary of state announced the "full forensic audit" in the counties hours after former President Donald Trump requested that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott add an election audit bill to this year's third special session of the Texas Legislature. Trump's request came even though he won the state's vote. Since his reelection loss last year, Trump has pushed baseless claims of voting fraud, including at a rally with supporters that preceded the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Tarrant County has traditionally been Republican, but Democratic President Joe Biden narrowly beat Trump there last year. Still, the secretary of state's office appeared to identify it as a Republican county Thursday.

Menefee said the timing of the audits' announcement just after Trump pressured the governor shows the audit is being done in "bad faith."

Abbott's office and the secretary of state's office have remained silent since the Thursday night press release announcing the audits. In Texas, the governor appoints the secretary of state, who serves as the top elections official. That position is currently vacant because Abbott has not named a replacement for Ruth Ruggero Hughs, who resigned after the Texas Senate refused to confirm her appointment.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, blasted Texas leadership for ordering the audit and said she would do "everything in her power" to stop it, though she and other Harris officials expressed confidence in the results.

"Every time we engage in a conversation about these false allegations, we're lending credence to the lie," she said. "Through all the court challenges the former president filed, through the legislation that passed unnecessarily under the guise of supposed fraud in this past legislative session — there's always something new because this is entirely politically motivated."

She called on lawmakers to oppose the audit, which she said is purely an attempt to appeal to Trump supporters.

"It's clear that this is part of a broader trend where state leaders around the nation are trying to compete on who can best curry favor from of President Trump, in order to control the extreme flank of their party," she said.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat, echoed Hidalgo's remarks.

"This is a weak Governor openly and shamelessly taking his orders from a disgraced former President. Governor Abbott is wasting taxpayer funds to trample on Texans' freedom to vote, all in order to appease his puppeteer," Jenkins said over text message.

Jenkins said in an interview that Dallas County will not resist the audit for now — but if the state asks for more than what the county thinks is suitable under the election code, he could see challenging it in court.

If Texas' process resembles anything like what recently occurred in Arizona's Maricopa County, the audit could take a while. According to news site azcentral.com, results reported Thursday from a monthslong audit in Maricopa that began April 22 and was done by hand confirmed what election officials reported in November: President Joe Biden won there.

The report was compiled by Cyber Ninjas, a contractor that received $5.7 million from pro-Trump groups to fund the audit, according to Cyber Ninjas CEO Doug Logan, who said the money would not influence the cybersecurity company's work. Some of the funding came from people within "Stop the Steal," the movement seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which hosted events leading up to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

For months, Texas Republicans have supported Trump's baseless claims of massive voter fraud, which culminated Jan. 6 when a pro-Trump mob scaled the U.S. Capitol and violently forced its way into the floors of the House and Senate in a failed attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election's results.

Whitley, the Republican Tarrant County judge, said in an interview that although he is confident in his county's election results, he's happy to comply with the state to quell any lingering doubts.

However, he said, a relatively small number of his Republican constituents have expressed skepticism in the results. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll from June that found few Texas voters actually believe voting fraud is common, with only 19% believing ineligible people frequently cast ballots. But Whitley doubts an audit proving the results were correct will change the minds of people who are already skeptical.

"Politics plays into everything. And so, probably, in every instance the losers are always going to be looking for reasons why they lost," Whitley said. "I believe very strongly in the integrity of the election process and Tarrant County."

In December, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who spoke at a Jan. 6 rally preceding the insurrection — unsuccessfully sued four battleground states whose election results helped deliver the White House to Biden. U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, filed a far-fetched lawsuit of his own, requesting that Vice President Mike Pence challenge Biden's legitimacy. The Texas Republican later appeared to propose violence after a federal court tossed it.

Abbott named "election integrity" one of his emergency items for lawmakers this year, though there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud. Republican lawmakers complied, pushing voting restrictions legislation as an effort to safeguard elections from fraud and to standardize election practices.

Earlier this month, Abbott signed into law a sweeping elections bill that increases early voting hours in smaller, mostly Republican counties but otherwise restricts how and when voters cast ballots. The sweeping new law further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties' ability to expand voting options.

This year's voting legislation was opposed by voters with disabilities, voter advocacy groups and civil rights organizations who say it will raise new barriers for marginalized voters, especially voters of color, who tend to vote Democratic. The law specifically targets voting initiatives used by diverse, Democratic Harris County, the state's most populous, by banning overnight early voting hours and drive-thru voting — both of which proved popular among voters of color last year.

"I think the message that Governor Abbott intends to sound is, 'We're not going to stop in our relentless pursuit to tip the balance of elections,'" Jenkins said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, pointed out in a statement that the four counties selected to be audited have a large proportion of Texans of color. He said he believes the audit will be used to argue for voter suppression, especially of voters of color. Martinez Fischer said that Republicans continue to "criminalize voters of color" just as lawmakers reconvene in Austin to redraw political maps for the next 10 years.

"We don't need a crystal ball to see what is coming next: Republicans will lie that Black and Brown voters are committing fraud and that district lines must change to be fair," he said. "Two big lies don't equal fair elections—it's just voter suppression and discrimination."

Disclosure: The Texas secretary of state and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Gov. Greg Abbott backpedals on pledge to shut down border crossings and blames Biden administration for confusion

Gov. Greg Abbott said on Thursday that he directed state troopers and the Texas National Guard "to shut down six points of entry along the southern border" at the request of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — then reversed himself shortly after, blaming the Biden administration for flip-flopping in its request for state help.

But a CBP spokesperson said the federal government — which operates ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border — had no plans to shut down any ports of entry.

"I have directed the Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to surge personnel and vehicles to shut down six points of entry along the southern border to stop these [migrant] caravans from overrunning our state," Abbott said in an emailed statement. "The border crisis is so dire that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection is requesting our help as their agents are overwhelmed by the chaos."

Renae Eze, Abbott's spokesperson, added that the state "is shutting down the ports of entry at the request of and in collaboration with CBP."

A few hours later, Abbott sent out a new statement saying that the Biden administration "has now flip-flopped to a different strategy that abandons border security and instead makes it easier for people to cross illegally and for cartels to exploit the border ... I have directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas National Guard to maintain their presence at and around ports of entry to deter crossings."

Dennis Smith, the CBP spokesperson, said after Abbott's initial directive that the agency had received no word from the federal government to shut down ports of entry.

"I couldn't comment on anything the governor said, I don't have any information on that," Smith said.

Abbott's statements don't specify who at CBP made the request for assistance or what form of assistance was requested.

DPS said in a tweet that CBP had asked for help in shutting down the Del Rio port of entry "and we prepared to do so. Our partners have advised us that shutting down ports of entry is no longer part of their strategy."

Abbott's announcement comes as thousands of asylum-seeking migrants — most of them from Haiti — are waiting under an international bridge in Del Rio to be processed to enter the country, according to Val Verde County Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez.

Though Del Rio has seen a sharp rise in migrant apprehensions this year, the sheriff said people have been arriving in unusually high numbers in recent days. On Saturday, he said, there were 2,500 migrants waiting under the port of entry bridge. By Thursday morning, that number had grown to about 8,400, he said.

Martinez estimated about 70% of the migrants were from Haiti, which has been struck by two recent tragedies: the assassination of the country's president in July, followed by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake in August that destroyed thousands of homes.

The migrants seeking to turn themselves in are being sent to wait under the bridge and are given a ticket to mark their turn to be processed, Martinez said.

"Border Patrol is overwhelmed," he said. "They just can't process them fast enough, so there's a backlog of these individuals underneath the bridge. They're not detained, they're just gathered there waiting their turn to get processed."

In August, federal agents recorded 5,196 encounters with Haitians in the Del Rio sector, a 25% increase from the previous month, according to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics.

"The Border Patrol is increasing its manpower in the Del Rio Sector and coordinating efforts within [the Department of Homeland Security] and other relevant federal, state and local partners to immediately address the current level of migrant encounters and to facilitate a safe, humane and orderly process," Smith said in an emailed statement. "To prevent injuries from heat-related illness, the shaded area underneath Del Rio International Bridge is serving as a temporary staging site while migrants wait to be taken into USBP custody."

Texas’ abortion ban prompts push in Congress to pass federal reproductive rights bill, while renewing filibuster feud

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House will vote on a reproductive rights bill when lawmakers reconvene in Washington this month, following the U.S. Supreme Court's refusal to block Texas' new six-week abortion ban.

The Women's Health Protection Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. Judy Chu of California, would guarantee a pregnant person's legal right to abortion and "permit health care providers to provide abortion services without limitations or requirements that single out the provision of abortion services." Though the proposed legislation is expected to pass the House with a slim majority, it faces unlikely odds in the Senate.

The bill is a direct response to the new Texas law that effectively bans abortions before most women are even aware they are pregnant. Legal and reproductive health experts argue the law's unique mechanism of enforcement, which invites the public to sue abortion providers and anyone assisting an abortion-seeker, effectively sidesteps a pregnant person's constitutional right to an abortion established in Roe v. Wade.

While Democrats hold a majority of 50 seats in the Senate, the bill would need 60 votes to break a potential filibuster — a Senate procedure allowing members to delay or prevent votes on proposed legislation. With only two Republican senators who have previously supported abortion rights, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, there is no indication Democrats would be able to pick up eight votes across the aisle.

The push by congressional Democrats to codify Roe v. Wade is the latest in the series of federal responses to bills enacted by the Republican-controlled Texas state Legislature that have renewed calls for filibuster reform.

Texas Democrats this summer lobbied Congress to pass a sweeping federal voting rights bill that would preempt attempts by state Republicans to pass a law that would restrict voting access. In June, the U.S. House passed the For the People Act, but without the support to break a filibuster, the bill died in the Senate. Earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a Texas bill that further tightens state election laws and constrains local control of elections by limiting counties' ability to expand voting options.

"Texas has been kind of the poster child for some really dangerous legislation this year. And so I think that a lot remains to be seen with what the Senate decides to do in terms of the filibuster," said Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat and cosponsor of the Women's Health Protection Act. "I don't know now exactly what the course will be. But I think there's a lot of discussion going on about how important it is to protect the constitutional rights of Americans."

Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, a proponent of filibuster reform and another cosponsor of the federal abortion bill, called on Congress to ditch the Senate rule following Supreme Court's ruling not to block the Texas abortion ban.

"Expand the court. Abolish the filibuster," Escobar tweeted.

Still, complete elimination of the filibuster seems unlikely. To scale down or abolish the procedure, Democrats would need to secure the support of all 50 members of their caucus. And despite increasing pressure from the left, moderate Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona openly oppose filibuster reform.

A spokesperson for Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's office told the Tribune that he "is opposed to nuking the legislative filibuster. And so are Democrat Senators Manchin and Sinema, whose votes [Senate Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer would need to be able to do it. So it's not happening."

Ahead of the Senate voting rights debate earlier this year, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters the administration was open to pursuing "new conversations about the path forward," regarding the filibuster but noted the decision was ultimately up to Congress.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats put forward a compromise voting bill known as the Freedom to Vote Act, a less sweeping amalgamation of policies from both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act. Following months of intraparty negotiations, it's unclear if the Democrats' pared down voting rights bill will weaken a potential Republican filibuster.

Despite ongoing partisan gridlock, Fletcher notes progress is not entirely out of reach for the Women's Health Protection Act.

"It's expected to pass the House and then the Senate remains less clear, but I think it's still possible," Fletcher said. "I mean, we have to keep working for it."

At least 45 districts shut down in-person classes due to COVID-19 cases, affecting more than 40,000 students in Texas

At least 45 small school districts across Texas have been forced to temporarily stop offering in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the new school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.

The shutdowns, which affected about 42,000 students as of Thursday, come as cases caused by the highly contagious delta variant have plagued administrators who hoped for a normal return to the school year.

Caseloads have left districts scrambling when many have said they have fewer tools at their disposal to combat the spread of the virus and have had to come up with their own strategies that can differ from district to district. Administrators are tasked with protecting students' and staff members' health, providing a quality education and staying open enough days to avoid tacking on extra days at the end of the school year.

"By far this is worse in terms of planning than last year," said Tim Savoy, spokesperson for Hays Consolidated Independent School District, which closed some classrooms. "There's no question about it. Last year we had a lot of tools at our disposal: We could require masks, and we could provide a virtual option that was funded. … [Then], the delta variant really kind of appeared and just exploded on us."

State data about the number of coronavirus cases in districts that have closed at least once during the school year thus far is incomplete — 19 have not reported any cases in students or staff to the state, while case totals in 22 districts have been suppressed by the state due to privacy policies. The list of public school closures in Texas is also incomplete, according to TEA. The agency is tracking closures informally based on media and district reports since districts are not required to report closures to TEA, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

From Aug. 23-29, there were 27,353 new positive COVID-19 cases among students in Texas public schools, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services, making it the biggest one-week increase in the entire pandemic. The state reports 51,904 cases among students and 13,026 among staff since the school year began. That's about 1% of the 5.3 million students enrolled in the state as of January.

Children's hospitals, which have been inundated with COVID-19 patients at levels never seen before during the pandemic, have also seen an uptick in patients as the school year is underway, said Dr. Corwin Warmink, medical director of emergency services for Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth.

"Every year when school starts, we expect a bump in volume [in our emergency room] — we planned for it, we scheduled for it," Warmink said at a news conference Wednesday. "In the regular year we'll see about 300 kids a day during this time. On Monday, we saw 601, an all-time record. ... At 600, we're physically unable to care for kids in a timely fashion."

Districts handle closures as a result of COVID-19 differently: Smaller ones tend to temporarily close all campuses, and larger ones close classrooms, grade levels and individual schools.

"Each week that the kids have been back, we've just seen those numbers increase dramatically, and that has been very stressful and very concerning to me," said Phil Edwards, superintendent of Angleton ISD, which has almost 7,000 students.

On Tuesday, Angleton announced it would close its campuses through next Tuesday, while still allowing extracurricular activities to proceed, and it is not requiring students to work remotely. Angleton ISD reported that as of Thursday, the district has more than 200 positive COVID-19 cases among students, employees and staff thus far this school year.

There are a number of factors at play that led to the district closing, Edwards said, such as staffing levels and the number of students who have quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure.

In Hays Consolidated ISD, 10% of the students in a group such as a class, grade level or school testing positive within one week triggers remote conferencing, a state-sanctioned form of temporary remote learning, for up to 10 days, Savoy said. Recently, five classrooms within the district closed down.

Under remote conferencing, schools are still able to count attendance, which the state uses to determine district funding. But the program isn't the same as a full-time virtual option, Savoy said. Senate Bill 15, which is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk, would fund virtual learning until September 2023 and give school districts the option to set up their own virtual programs. However, the legislation comes with a slew of caveats which could exclude many students of color.

Another tool districts relied on last year — the ability to require students to wear masks — is caught in back-and-forth legal battles after Abbott issued an order banning mask mandates in schools.

"Last school year, people had accepted that we were in a pandemic situation, and it was stressful, but everybody had the patience and understanding of the seriousness of it," Savoy said. "This year, because we were coming out of the pandemic and then it suddenly came back on us, people are tired and they're frustrated, and rightfully so, they're exhausted. And so people are more upset this year about the provisions that we are or are not implementing."

Despite receiving a recommendation from its local health authority to close all of its campuses, Leander ISD decided to stick with a group-centered approach in how it handles COVID-19 clusters. As of Friday, the district had more than 900 COVID-19 cases among students and staff and has moved about 20 elementary school classes and sixth graders at three schools to remote conferencing, said Corey Ryan, a district spokesperson. Ryan said that at the moment, it seems like the best option, as some schools in the district have seen very few or no cases, many students rely on services and protection at school that they can't access at home, and the district has staffing shortages.

"It's honestly a really tough balancing act for schools to do," Ryan said about deciding whether or not to shut down an entire district.

Teachers dying due to complications from COVID-19 is also a sobering reality for some districts. In Connally ISD, two teachers died in late August from COVID-19 within less than a week of each other. The deaths and an upswing in COVID-19 cases on campuses prompted the district to shut down all its campuses, said Jill Bottelberghe, the district's assistant superintendent of human resources.

"We are seeing people who have just one symptom and who are coming up positive, and it can be as simple as a runny nose, and then we have even had some who have been asymptomatic, and they come up positive but yet they have the ability to spread it to people who it may very much impact," Bottelberghe said.

The district is planning to resume classes Tuesday. Bottelberghe said the district is consulting with the local district attorney to see what the repercussions would be if it were to require masks and go against Abbott's order.

"Every day it seems like there's something new and a new challenge to overcome," Bottelberghe said.

Bill limiting abortion-inducing pills heads to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk to be signed into law

In the same week as one of the strictest abortion laws in the country went into effect in Texas, the state Legislature passed another bill that would restrict the procedure during the first term of pregnancy.

Senate Bill 4 remains identical to the version of the bill passed by the Texas Senate. Texas Democrats were unable to attach amendments to the bill, despite more than a dozen attempts, which means the bill will head straight to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.

The legislation would limit patients' access to abortion-inducing pills, preventing physicians or providers from giving abortion-inducing medication to patients who are more than seven weeks pregnant. Current law allows practitioners to give these pills to patients who are up to 10 weeks pregnant.

Notably, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set its guidelines in 2016 advising that abortion-inducing pills are safe to use up to 70 days, or 10 weeks, after initial conception.

These pills have increasingly become the most common method for women to terminate a pregnancy if they are aware of their pregnancy early enough. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research institute that supports abortion rights, 60% of women elect to take a pill over having surgery.

In an impassioned speech, Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, slammed the Legislature for continuously passing laws restricting access to abortion.

"I'm really tired of every single session, having to come here and debate one more obstacle to a woman having a right to choose what happens to her own body and her own destiny," Howard said.

"There have always been abortions. There always will be abortions. And the best thing that we can do is No. 1: help people to not have unwanted pregnancies in the first place."

On Wednesday, another bill banning abortions after six weeks, including in cases of rape and incest, went into effect in Texas. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to block that abortion ban after the American Civil Liberties Union filed an emergency request to prevent the enforcement of the legilsation.

The Court, in a 5-4 decision, outlined that its refusal to hear this particular ACLU claim did not mean the Texas law was constitutional. The six-week abortion ban can be revisited when another "procedurally proper challenge" is presented to the court.

"In reaching this conclusion, we stress that we do not purport to resolve definitively any jurisdictional or substantive claim in the applicants' lawsuit," the opinion read. "In particular, this order is not based on any conclusion about the constitutionality of Texas's law, and in no way limits other procedurally proper challenges to the Texas law, including in Texas state courts."

SB 4, will also ban abortion-inducing pills from being mailed in Texas. The Biden administration, last April, temporarily allowed the medication to be mailed due to the coronavirus when in-person doctor visits were not always possible or advised.

Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, said this measure was necessary because the FDA could make the change allowing mailing pills permanent.

"What we see in this bill are outdated medical recommendations being codified and access to medications being rolled back," Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said. "I hope in the future we will move forward on issues of women's safety guided by evidence."

Why “heartbeat bill” is a misleading name for Texas’ near-total abortion ban

Proponents of Texas' new near-total ban on abortions call it the "heartbeat bill."

The name references the point in time at around six weeks' gestation when the embryo's cardiac activity can first be detected by an ultrasound — which under the new law triggers a block on an abortion. But medical and reproductive health experts say the reference to a heartbeat at that stage of a pregnancy is medically inaccurate as an embryo does not have a developed heart at six weeks' gestation.

Still, the moniker has helped rally supporters around the law in Texas and nationwide where other states are considering similar legislation.

"The heartbeat is the universal sign of life," said state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, in May about the bill he authored. "If a Texan's heartbeat is detected, his or her life will be protected."

The Texas law, which went into effect Wednesday, defines a fetal heartbeat as "a cardiac activity or the steady and repetitive rhythmic contraction of the fetal heart within the gestational sac."

Dr. Nisha Verma, a physician who provides abortion services and a fellow at the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the activity measured on an ultrasound in early gestation is electrical impulses, not a true heartbeat.

"When I use the stethoscope to listen to a patient's heart, that sound that I hear is that typical bum-bum-bum-bum that you hear as the heartbeat is created by the opening and closing of the cardiac valves. And at six weeks of gestation, those valves don't exist," Verma said.

"Flickering that we see on the ultrasound, that's super early in the development of a pregnancy, is actually electric activity. And the sound that we hear at that point is actually manufactured by the ultrasound machine," Verma added.

An embryo at six weeks' gestation is only about four weeks old, because the pregnancy clock starts at the parent's last menstrual period. Most people don't realize they are pregnant until after they have missed a period, two weeks after conception.

Doctors acknowledge that while the term "heartbeat" is not medically precise in early pregnancy, it is commonly used with patients to describe electrical or cardiac activity.

"I think that gets into a little bit of semantics," said Dr. John Thoppil, an Austin-area OB-GYN and president of the Texas Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Everybody knows embryos don't possess a fully developed heart, but that is what we're generally calling it, a 'detectable fetal heartbeat.'"

Anti-abortion groups and conservative leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have seized on the the imagery of a heartbeat when describing the law.

In a tweet, Texas Alliance for Life, an anti-abortion group based in Austin, posted a photo of its members with Abbott from the bill signing, holding up both hands to create a symbolic heart.

"Despite numerous legal challenges, The Texas Heartbeat Act, signed by pro-life @GovAbbott, went into effect today. We celebrate the lives of unborn children who will be protected from abortion as a result," the tweet said.

John Seago, legislative director for the anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life, argues that regardless of terminology, the law's intent remains the same.

"We can parse out what the scientific description is, but it's kind of like using the term unborn child instead of fetus, it's still the same biological reality. Trying to say, we're not using the most scientific, accurate terms, just like the unborn child versus fetus debate, that doesn't change the moral importance of that," Seago said.

Still, abortion rights groups and women's health advocates emphasize that the label is intentionally misleading.

"[Texas' abortion law] is intentionally written that way in order to evoke an emotional response. But what it is in reality is just a ban on abortion at six weeks' gestation, which is two weeks after a missed period. It's incredibly unconstitutional," said Aimee Arrambide, executive director of the statewide abortion rights group Avow Texas.

Similar "heartbeat bills" have been passed in other states but were eventually blocked by federal courts before going into effect. These bills are based on model legislation from Faith2Action Ministries, a Christian anti-abortion organization that defines a fetal heartbeat as a marker of "an unborn human individual."

Still, medical practitioners are concerned with the law's six-week time limit and its impact on individual patients.

"They're using what is actually a very imprecise term to kind of regulate and restrict health care and the practice of medicine. It's just not medically accurate to think that the way that we think of the development of the heart, it's just kind of picking an arbitrary time point, which they're defining as six weeks," Verma said. "Every patient sitting in front of us is different, which is part of why these one-size-fits-all laws can be really harmful."

These 666 new Texas laws go into effect Sept. 1 -- here are some that might affect you

"666 new Texas laws go into effect Sept. 1. Here are some that might affect you." was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Six hundred and sixty-six new Texas laws will go into effect this Wednesday. Debated, passed and signed during the 87th Texas Legislature, these laws include changes to public safety, health care and K-12 education.

Not every bill signed into law during the regular session will go into effect Sept. 1. Some bills went into effect as soon as they were signed. For example, Senate Bill 968, which banned “vaccine passports" in Texas, became law when Gov. Greg Abbott signed it in June. Other bills, like one that revises eminent domain negotiations between landowners and companies, will become law on Jan. 1, 2022.

The legislature is currently in its second special session, which Abbott primarily called to advance the GOP-backed voting restrictions bill. Lawmakers are discussing other topics, including changes to the bail system and limits on transgender Texans from competing on school sports teams. At least one more special session will be called this fall to address redistricting.

But in the meantime, here's a list of the new laws you should know:

Texas' 2022-2023 budget: SB 1 provides nearly $250 billion for Texas, with notable funds going toward public higher education. Abbott line-item vetoed the part of the budget that funds the Texas Legislature and the people who staff it — but lawmakers may restore funding during this summer's second special session.

Permitless carry: House Bill 1927 allows Texans ages 21 and older to carry handguns without training or a license as long as they are not legally prevented from doing so.

Abortion restrictions: SB 8 prohibits abortions as early as six weeks into pregnancy. In lieu of government enforcement, private individuals can sue abortion providers or people who assist abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat. Abortion providers are suing to block the law. Additionally, HB 1280 would outlaw abortion in Texas 30 days after any potential U.S. Supreme Court decision overturns Roe v. Wade.

Medical marijuana expansion: People with any form of cancer or post-traumatic stress disorder now have access to low-THC cannabis for medical purposes. HB 1535 is an expansion of the Texas Compassionate Use Program, which allows people with conditions such as epilepsy and autism to access medical marijuana.

Reducing barriers to SNAP: SB 224 simplifies access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for seniors and disabled people on fixed incomes. Eligible individuals can forgo enrollment interviews and have a shortened application process.

Funding the “1836 Project": HB 2497 establishes an “1836 Project" committee to produce patriotic Texas history materials, which will be distributed through channels such as when people receive driver's licenses. The initiative's name mirrors the “1619 Project," a New York Times publication examining U.S. history from the arrival of enslaved people.

Social studies curriculum changes: HB 3979 limits teachers from discussing current events and systemic racism in class. The bill also prevents students from receiving class credit for participating in civic engagement and bans teaching of the “1619 Project."

“Star Spangled Banner Protection Act": Professional sports teams with state funding are required to play the national anthem before games under SB 4.

Reducing pre-K class sizes: Prekindergarten classes are now capped at 22 students — the same maximum class size of other elementary school grades — under SB 2081.

New state employee retirement accounts: SB 321 enrolls new state workers hired after Sept. 1, 2022, in a cash-balance plan, which deposits a percentage of a worker's annual compensation in retirement accounts and is similar to a 401(k) retirement account. Currently, employees have defined-benefit retirement accounts based on employment position and previous salaries.

Shielding companies from car crash liability: HB 19 requires drivers of commercial vehicles — including Ubers, Lyfts and delivery trucks — to be found liable in court for causing a car crash resulting in injury or death before a case can be brought against their employer.

Active shooter alert system: HB 103 creates the Texas Active Shooter Alert System, which will notify Texans in the vicinity of an active shooting scene through their phones. The system can be activated by request of local law enforcement.

Police body cameras: HB 929 requires police officers to keep body cameras on during the entirety of active investigations. The law is named after Botham Jean, who was fatally shot in his apartment while eating ice cream by a Dallas police officer in 2018.

Banning unnecessary police chokeholds: Police officers are now prohibited from using chokeholds or excessive force during arrests unless necessary to prevent officer or bystander injury under SB 69. Officers who witness violations are required to report the incident.

Online ballot tracking system: HB 1382 creates an online tracking system for mail-in ballots and applications for mail-in ballots. The system will be run by the Texas Secretary of State.

Punishing cities who cut police budgets: If municipalities with a population of more than 250,000 reduce their police budget, HB 1900 allows the state to financially punish the cities by reducing sales tax revenues and preventing increases in property taxes.

Felony punishment for blocking emergency vehicles: HB 9 will make blocking access to a hospital or an emergency vehicle with its lights and sirens on a state jail felony. The bill was passed as a response to protesters being arrested for blocking ambulances during Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

Criminalizing homeless camping: HB 1925 makes camping in unapproved public places a misdemeanor crime that carries a fine of up to $500. Cities cannot opt out of the ban.

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Texas abortion law that bans procedure as early as six weeks set to go into effect after court cancels hearing, denies motions

A Texas law that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks is poised to take effect Wednesday, after a federal appellate court's rulings stymied efforts to block the law.

On Friday night, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals canceled a hearing planned for Monday, at which more than 20 abortion providers had hoped to persuade a federal district court in Austin to block the law from taking effect.

Providers have sued to overturn the law, which they say is the nation's strictest and would create what they call a "bounty hunting scheme" in allowing members of the general public to sue those who might have violated the law. The law, Senate Bill 8, would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a time frame, before many women know they are pregnant.

Late on Saturday, provider groups, including Planned Parenthood Center for Choice and Whole Woman's Health Alliance, filed emergency motions with the 5th Circuit, essentially asking it to send the case back to district court or for the appellate court itself to issue a stay that would temporarily block the law's enforcement.

The 5th Circuit denied the emergency motions Sunday afternoon.

"If this law is not blocked by September 1, abortion access in Texas will come to an abrupt stop," Marc Hearron, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents providers, said in a statement. The state's strategy, he said, has been to "circumvent the court system and the constitution itself," he said, in order to "push abortion out of reach for as many Texans as possible."

Kim Schwartz, director of media and communication for Texas Right to Life, an anti-abortion organization, said the group was "really excited" about the increased likelihood that the bill will go into effect Wednesday.

The 5th Circuit is considered one of the most politically conservative circuit courts in the nation.

Abortion providers and supporters have braced for SB 8 for months. Texas women could completely lose access to abortions for a time, warned Helene Krasnoff, vice president of public policy litigation and law at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"It's quite possible that it could create chaos and problems on the ground, including the closing of health centers," Krasnoff said.

Even if clinics stay open, the law could affect most of the abortions now being performed in Texas. Whole Woman's Health, which also provides gynecological care for women, said in a press release that 90% of the abortions they perform are after the six-week mark.

"To be clear: our health centers remain open, and Planned Parenthood providers will see as many patients as they can, as long as they can within the law. But without the courts stepping in, on Wednesday, Texans will be denied their constitutional right to abortion in violation of fifty years of precedent," said Julie Murray, senior staff attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Marva Sadler, one of the named plaintiffs in the abortion providers' lawsuit and senior director of clinical services for Whole Woman's Health, said the appellate decisions make it much more likely SB 8 will go into effect Sept. 1.

On Sunday, she said she was rushing to her organization's clinic in Fort Worth, where at least eight patients were seeking abortions before they become illegal.

Cancellation of the hearing "was definitely a surprise," Sadler said.

"I've been really focused on how things will look on Wednesday, when we have to start turning most patients away," she said.

Abortion opponents have celebrated the passage of SB 8, especially its provisions allowing private citizens a role in enforcement.

"The pro-life movement is very excited to have a part to play and to make sure SB 8 is going to be followed," said John Seago, legislative director for Texas Right to Life.

If the law goes into effect, clinics will follow it, said Krasnoff, with the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"If this law is not blocked, we are going to be complying with the law," Krasnoff said.

Disclosure: Planned Parenthood has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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