Beto O'Rourke is still campaigning -- but for what?

The placid skies and balmy, springtime heat in South Texas made waiting outdoors tolerable on a recent Saturday this April. Around midday, about two dozen masked volunteers mingled outside the Webb County Democratic Party headquarters, pop music blaring in the background.

Most were waiting in a scattered, socially distanced line to greet Beto O'Rourke, the former U.S. Senate candidate who in 2018 gave Texas Democrats their best shot at unseating a statewide Republican official in decades. Each would get an opportunity to pose for a photo with one of the state's most prominent Democrats, who was wearing his usual blue button-up shirt, before heading out to another shift of block walking.

It had all the appearances of one of the hundreds of rallies O'Rourke held across the state early in his 2018 campaign for U.S. Senate, or during his ill-fated bid for president soon after. But this time, O'Rourke wasn't campaigning for anything — at least not explicitly. He told The Texas Tribune he mobilized his supporters to simply understand what issues matter to Laredoans and because Sylvia Bruni, the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party, asked O'Rourke in the aftermath of the 2020 elections to help with voter engagement after Republicans performed better than usual in South Texas.

"Sure enough, we called her back and said we'll make a plan to drive down to Laredo, we'll encourage volunteers to join us and encourage some volunteers to drive down," he said.

The midterm general election is more than a year away, but for O'Rourke, one of the most prominent Democrats in Texas, the grind of civic engagement never stops. Through his political organization, Powered by People, O'Rourke has been regularly hosting live and virtual events, whether it's a canvassing event in the political hotbed of South Texas or phone banking sessions on Zoom.

And it's not just events. O'Rourke has made himself visible during most of the biggest news stories in the state this year, raising questions about whether he's got his eye on the race for governor in 2022.

In the past few months, Powered by People has hosted "vaccination canvasses" in 17 Texas cities "in some of the hardest-hit zip codes in the state, helping those who might not have access to the internet, or a cell phone or who might not speak English, a shot at getting the shot," O'Rourke said in an email to supporters. O'Rourke activated his network during February's winter storm, reportedly raising more than $1 million for recovery efforts and organizing volunteers to knock on doors and conduct wellness checks for seniors. O'Rourke himself delivered water in his pickup truck, broadcasting his efforts on Facebook Live.

And he has been engaged in the current session of the Texas Legislature, specifically pushing back against House Bill 6 and Senate Bill 7, two Republican-backed election bills that would beef up voting restrictions, despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. O'Rourke was in Austin a few weeks ago to testify against HB 6 but wasn't able to after the chair of the committee that would have listened pushed back the hearing. He did testify against the Senate bill, calling it "unjust" and "undemocratic."

"You realize how important your vote is when someone's trying so hard to take it from you. And they wouldn't be working so hard to stop people from voting if those votes and voters weren't so important," O'Rourke said in a phone call with the Tribune.

When asked in an interview about his future, the former congressman from El Paso said working in politics and civic engagement "just seems like the most important work that I could ever be a part of."

But many, of course, see other motives. O'Rourke is frequently asked whether he plans to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott next year. His answer is almost always noncommittal. Earlier this month, he told a TV interviewer that he had "no plans" to run. When that generated a headline in The Dallas Morning News, O'Rourke reached out to the Tribune to clarify that "nothing I said would preclude me from considering a run in the future."

During O'Rourke's block walk along Alameda Drive in Laredo, one woman answered the door and immediately recognized the tall, slender man before her. She said Texas Democrats need to give Republicans a run for their money and then asked "So I heard you're running for governor?"

He told her he wasn't sure.

All his recent political activity begs the question: Is "Betomania" as potent in 2021 as it was when O'Rourke challenged Sen. Ted Cruz a few years ago?

Late in 2018, O'Rourke was attracting tens of thousands of people to some rallies. Even after he lost by less than three percentage points, he was a Democratic star. But then he struggled mightily in the presidential primary, dropping out in November 2019 after languishing in the low single digits in the polls.

A statewide poll released Sunday by The Dallas Morning News and the University of Texas at Tyler found that just 35% of registered voters view O'Rourke very or somewhat favorably, compared to 37% who viewed him very or somewhat unfavorably. The survey had a margin of error of 2.9%.

In January, Abbott's political strategist, Dave Carney, told Fox News that "I would certainly love to run against [O'Rourke]."

"The guy couldn't get elected dog catcher," he said.

Still, he remains a frequent Republican foil. This month, his vaccine efforts gained the attention of Texas' Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, whose office penned a letter warning Powered by People that collecting or sharing certain sensitive information while encouraging people to get vaccinated could be illegal. The letter, which Paxton's office released to the public, gave no indication that Paxton's office had any evidence that O'Rourke's group was breaking the law.

"It is essential that organizations like Powered by People follow state and federal law regarding the handling of sensitive and personal information," the letter stated.

Johnny Ruffier, chief of staff for the El Paso Young Democrats and president of the College Democrats at the University of Texas at El Paso, said there's still a lot of "goodwill" for O'Rourke.

But he said he doesn't know "if that same enthusiasm and energy is still there." El Paso is where O'Rourke cut his teeth in politics and where he ousted the city's longtime congressman.

"A lot of that excitement that he was a newcomer [in 2018] went away after the presidential primary. He also showed his moderate side, but he did build the infrastructure in Texas," said Ruffier.

Jen Ramos, a Texas Democratic Party executive committee member, said the party is focused first on identifying the issues that are the most important to voters, and then it will focus on candidates once the 2022 elections begin to heat up, possibly in the summer. She added that the political efforts by O'Rourke's Powered by People to build up a Democratic infrastructure in Texas are welcomed, whether or not O'Rourke chooses to run.

If O'Rourke does decide to run for governor, not taking him seriously, for whatever reason, would be a fatal electoral mistake for Republicans in battleground districts, according to Tyler Kraus, the chair of the Webb County Republican Party.

"Beto would be formidable opposition," Kraus said. "You have to take him seriously. The guy has a lot of appeal to a lot of people. And it would be a mistake to write him off."

And it's clear some enthusiasm remains for an O'Rourke gubernatorial candidacy. A private Facebook group named "Beto O'Rourke For Governor of Texas" was created in mid-February and it has more than 39,000 members.

"Texas is asking Beto O'Rourke to run for Governor of Texas! Please invite your friends and share this page," the group's description states. An administrator of the page did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats are watching closely. Optimism was high for the state party in 2020, with leaders hoping they could flip as many as eight congressional seats, win control of the Texas House and deliver the state for Joe Biden. It ended in disappointment, with President Donald Trump winning the state by six percentage points and Democrats making no net gains in the Texas House or U.S House.

Still, Democratic strategists say they believe their party has an upward trajectory in Texas — Trump won the state by nine points in 2016 and Mitt Romney won it by 16 in 2012. But they need to field strong candidates.

"We're still gaining traction, but it's slow. Sometimes one step forward, one step back or sometimes two steps forward, one step back. It's not a straight line deal," said Jeff Crosby, an Austin-based campaign consultant who assists Democratic campaigns in the state. "We don't have a weak candidate pool. But we do have some folks that are staring in the face of the reality of not being able to raise enough money to be competitive."

Democrats also see vulnerability in Abbott, who has had to manage the state through a pandemic and catastrophic winter storm.

"It's surprising, but the ERCOT stuff might be a bigger threat to Abbott than playing defense on the pandemic," said James Aldrete, a political communications consultant who once served as deputy press secretary to Ann Richards' campaign for governor.

But there are also many Republicans enthusiastic about running against O'Rourke. They warn that the shine is off him after his bid for the presidency. They gleefully point to his hardline stance against assault-style weapons like the AR-15 as an issue to use in a campaign against him.

During a presidential debate in 2019, O'Rourke famously — or infamously, depending on the observer — proclaimed, "Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47."

Was O'Rourke's comment about banning assault-style guns a fatal blow to his future in Texas politics?

"Texas is a pro-Second Amendment state, but I also think it's open for a lot more common-sense regulation," Aldrete said. "I think as your suburban vote grows, I don't know if that is a stance that disqualifies him at the least. I think the strength of Beto has always been that he is not manufactured. He's out there and you see him for who he is."

For those who showed up to canvass with him in Laredo, like Abimael Perez and Veronica Martinez, the excitement remains.

"I think he's a very charismatic person and if he runs for governor, I'm gonna vote for him. And I'm gonna support him," Perez said.

"For me, it's definitely his personality. I saw him with his skateboard at Whataburger and thought 'Yeah, OK, this dude's cool,'" Martinez added.

Marvin Scott III died in Texas police custody. His family will protest until the officers involved are arrested.

For the past four weeks, a group of up to 40 protesters has gathered outside the Collin County Jail nearly every night around 9 p.m. They hang signs, draw on the sidewalk with chalk and decorate the chain link fence, celebrating the life of Marvin Scott III, who died while in the custody of jail staff in March.

Consistently, their memorials have been taken down by county staff. But that doesn't deter his sister, LaChay Batts, from returning every day with other community members outside the jail in McKinney.

"We just do it again," Batts, 28, told the Tribune Sunday, her voice hoarse from chanting all day. "They want us to stop, to go away. We're gonna remain until the officers are arrested."

On March 14, Scott was arrested in Allen, nearly 15 miles from where he lived in Frisco, on a marijuana charge. Authorities said he had less than two ounces — a misdemeanor. The 26-year-old, who received a schizophrenia diagnosis two years ago, sometimes used the drug to self-medicate, according to the family's lawyer, S. Lee Merritt.

After Allen officers transported him to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital for what police called "strange behavior," he was taken to the county jail. There, officers restrained Scott, used pepper spray and covered his head with a spit hood, a controversial device meant to keep a person from biting or spitting on an officer. Scott became unresponsive late that night and was pronounced dead at a hospital.

Melinda Whittemore participates in a demonstration held by Next Generation Action Network at the Collin County Courthouse in…Melinda Whittemore participates in a demonstration held by Next Generation Action Network at the Collin County Courthouse in McKinney to demand justice for Marvin Scott III, who died while in custody at the Collin County Jail on March 14. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Though seven of the sheriff's officers have been fired after initially being put on administrative leave and another resigned while under investigation, the family and protesters say they don't plan to stop until the officers have been charged with a crime. The officers' names have not been publicly released. The Collin County Sheriff's Office, which operates the jail, said personnel information cannot be released due to pending civil service appeals.

The Texas Rangers are investigating Scott's case. Nearly a month later, the county medical examiner's office has not yet released an official cause of death.

The family hired a forensic pathologist to conduct a second, independent autopsy. During the March 23 press conference, the pathologist, Amy Gruszecki of American Forensics, said: "The physical struggle of the restraint as well as the possible asphyxia from the restraint would likely be causes of his death, and a negative autopsy, meaning no injuries, no blunt force trauma, is consistent with that."

During the press conference, Merritt said the Collin County district attorney had explained that he would need a cause of death and a medical examiner's report before he could decide whether to pursue criminal charges.

There has been an intense focus on police brutality during the murder and manslaughter trial for Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd in late May by kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes — which sparked protests around the nation. And on Sunday, police deployed tear gas against protesters who marched after an officer fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in Minnesota.

Scott's family said they did not receive any communication about his arrest and death until the next afternoon, when they received a text message from the medical examiner's office. Batts said the family has not yet seen the jail video related to his death. The footage has been provided to the Texas Rangers, said a representative from the Collin County Sheriff's Office.

Ashlyn Mitchell comforts LaChay Batts during a demonstration on March 18, 2021 to demand justice for Batts's younger brother…Christopher A. Williams-Watkins, center, leads a chant demanding justice in the Collin County Jail halls on March 18, 2021, …First: Ashlyn Mitchell comforts LaChay Batts during a March 18 demonstration. Last: Christopher A. Williams-Watkins, friend of Marvin Scott III, leads a chant demanding justice in the halls of the Collin County Jail on March 18. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Following a March 17 vigil at Towne Lake Park in McKinney, Batts and her family have stood outside the jail almost every night in hopes of calling attention to Scott's death and to demand justice and transparency. They hand out flyers during the protests, Batts said, and post about the rallies on social media.

What started as a group of up to 40 people has since settled to about 20 consistent protesters, said Elizabeth Michel, a community activist who joined the protests soon after learning about them online. She has been there almost every day since and has addressed the McKinney City Council and the county commissioner's court.

"My role is to support the Scott family and to amplify their voices however I can," Michel said. "The family has asked for those eight detention officers to be arrested. I will do whatever I can to expedite that."

Protesting for arrests, transparency

Batts said speakers like herself and her family share stories about her brother and list their demands during the protests.

"Today marks 30 days since Marvin was murdered, and we still haven't seen the tape. We still don't know the names of these officers," Batts said on Sunday. "[They] could be our neighbors, and we don't know."

For the first few nights, the protesters congregated near where inmates are brought into the jail. A week later, they arrived to find a new chain link fence surrounding their former protesting grounds, Michel said.

Officers guard the driveway into the jail while demonstrators gather at the Collin County Jail to demand justice for Marvin …Officers guard the driveway into the jail while demonstrators gather at the Collin County Jail on March 26. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

So they began decorating the fence with cups that spelled out Scott's name or "Justice for Marvin," and placing flowers and teddy bears nearby — only to see everything removed every night. Last week, the fence was moved even further from the building to keep protesters away from the staff parking lot as well.

A spokesperson told the Tribune in an email that the sheriff's office respects the right to peacefully protest and established a zone to do so. There have been "some instances of vandalism and property destruction" though the protests have been peaceful, the spokesperson said.

In addition to physical barriers, Michel said that several sheriff's office vehicles have circled the area and flashed the high beams of their headlights on the group. At one point, sheriff's employees told protesters they were unlawfully assembled, she said.

"There's a big sign on the fence that says designated protest," Michel said. "I'm like, 'You told us to be here, and now you're telling us to move again.'"

"They definitely didn't expect us to still be out there," she added. "They expected this to die down and go away. And we're not."

Marvin Scott III's mother, LaSandra Scott, prays at the end of a demonstration outside of the Collin County Jail. People gat…Marvin Scott III's mother LaSandra Scott prays at the end of a demonstration outside of the Collin County Jail. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

For Black community members, family is at stake

Kamona Nelson, one of Batts' hairstyling clients, said that while she never met Scott, she knows through his sister that he had a happy spirit. The 39-year-old said she has been protesting with the family since the first day, only missing a few nights here and there.

"I have two Black sons," she said. "Not only am I standing for the family, but I'm standing for my kids."

Nelson said her family moved to McKinney more than three years ago, and she said she was shocked to hear negative things about Collin County law enforcement after hearing that the city was one of the top places to live in the state.

A few years before, in 2015, McKinney police responded to a report of teenagers scaling a fence to enter a private pool party. An officer pointed a gun at the teens and detained a Black girl by throwing her to the ground and pressing his knee into her back. She was ultimately released back to her parents with no charge filed. The incident sparked national outrage and prompted additional protests on its five-year anniversary.

Nelson said that when they first moved to McKinney, three police officers stopped one of her sons, then 15, as he walked home because he happened to fit the description of someone "tall, big and Black" that they were looking for, she said, though they eventually let him go.

Renee White, left, holds up a fist in front of the barricade of eight police cars as Elijah Lyons, Marvin Scott III's 9-year…Renee White, left, holds up a fist in front of the barricade of eight police cars as Elijah Lyons, Marvin Scott III's 9-year-old nephew, leads a chant repeating Marvin's name at the Collin County Jail on April 3. Credit: Shelby Tauber for The Texas Tribune

Nelson has brought her sons, now 15 and 17, to the protests a few times, and said the experience has been "surreal" for them — she said her boys were shocked that an incident like this could happen so close to home. Nelson said she has had a very different experience standing with her friend's family compared to when she marched for George Floyd last summer, where she never had any interactions with police.

"It seems like there is a lot of injustice, as if we are doing something wrong," she said of the way officers have treated protesters. "That, I don't understand — why the family is being treated the way that they are."

Batts said having Nelson and so many other community members stand with her family has given her family strength.

While the protests cannot bring Scott back, Batts said they will continue to protest "so this doesn't have to be somebody else's brother."

Parents sue local school district in Texas for keeping mask mandate after governor's decision

A group of parents are suing the Katy Independent School District, calling its continued requirement for masks in schools unconstitutional and a violation of Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order from last month that lifted the statewide mask mandate, among other COVID-19 safety restrictions.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by a Houston attorney for parents Bonnie Anderson, Jenny Alexander, Doug Alexander, Heather Calhoun and Stephen Calhoun, takes issue with the district's safety protocols for in-person schooling, specifically its requirement that students wear masks in hallways, buses and other common areas.

When Abbott announced his executive order, he did not address the ways rescinding the mask mandate affected public schools. In a later interview with radio host Chad Hasty, Abbott said he expected the Texas Education Agency to leave the decision to require masks up to local school boards.

The agency's updated mask policy has allowed "local school boards have full authority to determine their local mask policy," according to its website. In public planning guidance, the agency also recommends the use of masks.

Under Katy ISD's policies, students who don't comply with the mask policy will be moved to online school and aren't allowed to participate in other student activities. Those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing masks must notify the school nurse and have documentation from their medical provider, according to the policy.

The lawsuit also argues under the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education that forcing students to switch to virtual school is a form of "separate but equal" discrimination.

The Supreme Court case's ruling focused on segregation between Black and white students in public schools and discrimination on the basis of race.

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say attending school in person can be relatively safe, if schools can contain the community spread of COVID-19 and follow safety procedures — including the universal and correct use of masks.

Jared Woodfill, the attorney who filed the lawsuit, said the district's mask policy is illegal.

"You don't create a policy that is geared around a minority," Woodfill said of the fraction of students and teachers who are at risk because of health conditions.

"You don't shut down and force 99.9% of the people to wear a mask all day long," he added.

Katy ISD responded to the lawsuit with a statement that it is complying with the agency's public planning recommendations.

"Katy ISD continues to follow the Governor's Executive Order GA-34 and comply with the Texas Education Agency's Public Health Planning Guidance," said the statement, obtained by Fox 26 Houston.

The lawsuit cites multiple international studies that show children are at low risk from COVID-19 and that masks do not prevent the spread of the virus. Although children are infected at lower rates, they are capable of spreading the virus to at-risk family members, and children with disabilities, who are immunosuppressed or who have other health conditions are still at high risk for severe symptoms from the virus, according to the CDC.

In the past, the TEA has opted against mask mandate enforcement in schools. Last November, the Tribune reported that North Texas-area Peaster ISD chose not to mandate masks as required, despite being in a county with more than 20 active cases. The agency said it would not take action because the concerns from parents "appear to be local in nature."

Texas Senate advances bill limiting how and when voters can cast ballots, receive mail-in voting applications

Senate Republicans on Thursday cleared the way for new, sweeping restrictions to voting in Texas that take particular aim at forbidding local efforts meant to widen access.

In an overnight vote after more than seven hours of debate, the Texas Senate signed off on Senate Bill 7, which would limit extended early voting hours, prohibit drive-thru voting and make it illegal for local election officials to proactively send applications to vote by mail to voters, even if they qualify.

The legislation is at the forefront of Texas Republicans' crusade to further restrict voting in the state following last year's election. Though Republicans remain in full control of state government, Texas saw the highest turnout in decades in 2020, with Democrats continuing to drive up their vote counts in the state's urban centers and diversifying suburban communities.

Like other proposals under consideration at the Texas Capitol, many of the restrictions in SB 7 would target initiatives championed in those areas to make it easier for more voters to participate in elections.

The bill — deemed a priority by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — now heads to the House for consideration after moving rapidly through the Senate. Just two weeks after it was filed, a Senate committee advanced it Friday. That approval followed more than five hours of public testimony, largely in opposition over concerns it would be detrimental to voters who already struggle to vote under the state's strict rules for elections.

While presenting the bill to the Senate, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes said the legislation "standardizes and clarifies" voting rules so that "every Texan has a fair and equal opportunity to vote, regardless of where they live in the state."

"Overall, this bill is designed to address areas throughout the process where bad actors can take advantage, so Texans can feel confident that their elections are fair, honest and open," Hughes said.

In Texas and nationally, the Republican campaign to change voting rules in the name of "election integrity" has been largely built on concerns over widespread voter fraud for which there is little to no evidence. More recently, Texas Republican lawmakers have attempted to reframe their legislative proposals by offering that even one instance of fraud undermines the voice of a legitimate voter.

But Hughes was met by fierce opposition from Senate Democrats who took turns arguing the legislation would make wholesale changes to address isolated — and rare — incidents of fraud at the expense of voting initiatives that were particularly successful in reaching voters of color.

"As I see this bill, it's a pure case of suppression. There are some things in here that are really offensive," said state Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston. "This hurts to the core."

The bill originally limited early voting hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., curtailing the extended hours offered last year in Harris County and other large counties where voting ran until 10 p.m. for several days to accommodate people like shift workers for whom regular hours don't work. The bill was rewritten before it reached the Senate floor to allow for voting only between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m.

But those hours will still prohibit the day of 24-hour voting Harris County offered last November. The legislation would also outlaw the drive-thru voting set up at 10 polling places in the county for the general election.

While questioning Hughes, Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado of Houston referenced an analysis by Harris County's election office that estimated that Black and Hispanic voters cast more than half of the votes counted at both drive-thru sites and during extended hours.

"Knowing that, who are you really targeting?" Alvarado asked.

"There's nothing in this bill that has to do with targeting specific groups. The rules apply across the board," Hughes replied.

In defending the portions of the bill that target Harris County's initiatives, Hughes in part pointed to the limitations he claimed drive-thru and overnight voting presented for poll watchers' oversight, characterizing them as the "eyes and ears of the public." Poll watchers are not public watchdogs but instead inherently partisan figures, appointed by candidates and political parties to serve at polling places. And poll watchers did have access to observe drive-thru and 24-hour voting last year.

If passed into law, the legislation would broaden poll watchers' access at polling places, even giving them power to video record voters receiving assistance in filling out their ballots if the poll watcher "reasonably believes" the help is unlawful. That provision has drawn particular concerns about possible intimidation of voters who speak languages other than English as well as voters with intellectual or developmental disabilities who may require assistance through prompting or questioning which could be misconstrued as coercion.

The collection of civil rights organizations that have warned the bill could lead to disenfranchisement of voters of color and voters with disabilities did see one of their most prominent concerns addressed in the version of the bill passed by the Senate.

Texas allows people looking to vote by mail based on a disability to request a ballot for an individual election or apply once for ballots in every election in a calendar year. Originally, the bill would have required voters citing a disability to provide proof of their condition or illness, including written documentation from the Social Security Administration or a doctor's note, to qualify for the latter. Hughes endorsed an amendment by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, to nix that requirement, citing the "confusion" it had created and feedback from advocates for people with disabilities.

But Republicans rejected more than a dozen amendments offered by Democrats to strike other portions of the bill, clarify language on how local elections officials could make vote by mail applications available to voters seeking them, and an amendment that appeared to affirm the right to vote.

Just before the Senate's vote to advance the bill, state Sen. Royce West, of Dallas, criticized Republicans for not listening to Democrats' concerns about how the bill would harm communities of color represented by senators of color — all of whom are Democrats — who have faced a legacy of suppression when it comes to voting.

"I hope that one day you hear us — not only hear us but listen to us," West said. "Passage of this bill tonight makes clear that on these issues you have not understood our plight in this country."

SB 7's prohibition on sending vote-by-mail applications to voters who haven't requested them comes after a pandemic-era election that saw a significant increase in votes cast by mail as voters tried to keep safe from a deadly virus. Other Texas counties proactively sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, but Harris County came under Republicans' scrutiny for attempting to send applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible. The Texas Supreme Court ultimately blocked that effort.

Texas Republicans' attempt to prevent a repeated attempt echoes efforts in other states, including Georgia where Republican lawmakers recently passed a similar prohibition. After voters of color helped flip key states into Democrats' column.during the presidential election, Republicans have channeled their myth that the election was stolen into legislative pushback in state Capitols across the U.S.

Hughes rejected Texas Democrats' inferences throughout the debate that his bill is part of a national push from his party. He noted aspects of the SB 7 carried over from failed legislation proposed during the 2019 legislative session.

"If we focus on the provisions of this bill — not what the feds are doing but what's in this bill and Texas elections — we'll have to agree these are provisions that will apply across the board, they're consistent, they're fair," Hughes said.

But Democrats pointed to the focus on increased voting regulations in diverse, urban areas as proof. Beyond the restrictions targeting Harris County, the legislation would also set specific rules for the distribution of polling places in only the handful of counties with a population of at least 1 million — most of which are either under Democratic control or won by Democrats in recent national and statewide elections.

"It's a strange, strange coincidence that all of these laws are being filed right now," West said. "That's all I'm saying."

Texas AG Ken Paxton refuses to release messages about attendance at pro-Trump rally before Jan. 6 insurrection

The Texas attorney general's office is attempting to withhold all messages Ken Paxton sent or received while in Washington for the pro-Donald Trump rally that devolved into a riot at the U.S. Capitol.

Several news organizations in Texas have requested copies of the attorney general's work-related communications. The Texas Public Information Act guarantees the public's right to government records — even if those records are stored on personal devices or online accounts of public officials.

After Paxton's office refused to release copies of his emails and text messages, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, The Austin American-Statesman, The Dallas Morning News, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Antonio Express-News are working together in an effort to obtain the documents and review Paxton's open-records practices.

The news outlets discovered that Paxton's office, which is supposed to enforce the state's open records laws, has no policy governing the release of work-related messages stored on Paxton's personal devices. It is unclear whether the office reviews Paxton's email accounts and phones to look for requested records, or whether the attorney general himself determines what to turn over without any outside checks.

Paxton is now facing some of the most intense public scrutiny of his career. The Republican attorney general is reportedly under federal investigation for allegedly abusing his office to help a campaign donor. He also led a failed attempt to overturn the presidential election, joining with other GOP attorneys general in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate swing state victories by Democrat Joe Biden.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Attorney General said the agency follows the Texas Administrative Code, which specifies how long agencies have to hold on to records but is distinct from the open records law. He did not answer reporters' questions about whether Paxton is given free rein to determine which of his communications are public and which are confidential under these rules.

The Washington trip

On Jan. 6, Paxton spoke at the pro-Trump rally in Washington. Appearing with his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, the attorney general touted his unsuccessful legal effort to overturn the presidential election.

"What we have in President Trump is a fighter," Paxton told the crowd of Trump supporters. "And I think that's why we're all here. We will not quit fighting. We're Texans, we're Americans, and the fight will go on."

Members of the crowd, stirred up by false claims of voter fraud, later stormed the Capitol, fought with riot police and threatened lawmakers.

Five people died in the violence, including a Capitol Police officer.

Paxton later falsely blamed the violence on antifa, a left-wing, anti-fascist movement, and claimed Trump supporters weren't responsible for the insurrection. Federal prosecutors have charged more than 300 people in connection with the riot and alleged that some have ties to white supremacy groups. FBI Director Christopher Wray said investigators found no evidence that members of antifa attacked the Capitol.

Amid a massive FBI investigation into the Capitol riot, the public has been eager to understand why and how their elected officials attended the rally. Paxton has refused to release his communications about the event, which could illuminate his real-time reaction to the riot, who booked him as a speaker for the rally and who covered his travel expenses.

As Texas attorney general, Paxton oversees an office of lawyers who determine which records are public or confidential under the law. Any government body in Texas, from police departments to the governor's office, must seek the agency's approval to withhold records from the public.

The Houston Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News have requested all of Paxton's messages from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11. Lauren Downey, the public information coordinator at the Office of the Attorney General, said she didn't need to release the records because they are confidential attorney-client communications.

Downey sought confirmation from the agency's open records division, arguing the messages included communications between the attorney general's executive leadership and its criminal prosecution division to discuss litigation, as well as texts between Paxton and a lawyer in the attorney general's office regarding "legal services to the state."

The open records division has 45 business days to issue a ruling on whether the communications should be open to the public. That decision is pending.

James Hemphill, a lawyer and open records expert who serves as a board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said the records described by Downey appear to fall under confidential communications. But it's odd, he added, that Paxton would have no other routine emails or texts during that six-day time frame that could be released.

"It would seem unusual for every single communication made by any kind of lawyer to be subject to attorney-client privilege," Hemphill said, cautioning he hasn't seen the records himself.

Downey also told the Chronicle that the attorney general's office does not have any written policy or procedures for releasing public documents stored on Paxton's personal devices or accounts.

No responsive records

The Morning News filed several other requests for Paxton's communications regarding his Washington trip, including messages sent over encrypted apps.

The agency said there were no public records that fit that description. When the newspaper asked for Paxton's communications with his senior adviser and an executive assistant who usually plan official travel, Downey said, yet again, there were no records to release.

"The (Office of the Attorney General) did not coordinate or pay for General Paxton's trip to Washington D.C., in early January. Thus, our office has no information responsive to your request," Downey said.

Paxton has not answered questions about who paid for his trip.

In a recent legislative hearing, the attorney general did not directly answer questions from state senators about whether he spent any taxpayer money on the travel.

"I didn't spend money personally," he said. Paxton added he had official business in Washington D.C., the week of the rally, when he met with federal officials about a Medicaid program.

"I had a state purpose," Paxton said. "The next day I had meetings at the White House. ...That's how I spent most of my time."

Paxton's agency has released other top staffers' communications related to the trip.

First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster also traveled to Washington D.C., that week in January, according to calendars and travel documents The Morning News obtained through public records requests. The state paid for Webster's travel.

The agency released some of Webster's emails and texts from that month, including logistical planning for the Washington trip.

The Utah trip and more

In other recent instances, the responses from Paxton's agency raised questions about the attorney general's own record-keeping practices.

For example, The Morning News requested communications from Utah about the attorney general's trip to that state last month during the winter power outages in Texas.

In response, Utah officials released a screenshot of a few texts exchanged between Paxton, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes and a third unnamed individual discussing their plans. The messages were taken from the unnamed individual's phone, not Reyes' or Paxton's.

When the newspaper made the same request to the Texas attorney general's office, officials turned over a copy of the screenshot that Utah provided — not one of the exchange on Paxton's device.

Downey said Paxton provided the record, but she did not answer questions about how Paxton searched his accounts or whether anyone in the office confirmed the results of the records search.

"The Office of the Attorney General is in full compliance with the Public Information Act," Downey said.

A Morning News reporter also texted a work-related question to Paxton's cellphone in February and the newspaper later requested all text messages related to state business sent to that number on that same day.

The Texas Attorney General's office said there were no messages. When asked why the Morning News reporter's text wasn't turned over, a spokesperson suggested they did not need to keep it.

"Unsolicited and unwelcome text messages to personal phones do not fall under the records retention law," said Alejandro Garcia, the attorney general's communications director.

Sarah Swanson, general counsel for the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, said state agencies are responsible for adopting their own records-retention schedules. But if texts are exchanged while conducting state business, Swanson said those messages are considered government records and might need to be kept for an "appropriate amount of time," depending on an agency's policy.

Garcia did not answer follow-up questions about how they determine which text messages are unwelcome or unsolicited.

But the agency's own rules include a clear warning: Don't destroy any records subject to public information requests.

Lawmakers are seeking common ground on DACA, but comprehensive immigration reform will be a challenge for Democrats

When Juan Paul Flores Vazquez was about 4 years old, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with his aunt for what he thought was just a trip to a circus in California — "El Circo de Kiko," inspired by "El Chavo del Ocho," a popular Mexican television sitcom that began airing in the 1970s.

But instead of being away from his hometown of Mexicali, Mexico, for only a few hours, he stayed to reunite with his mother, who had already crossed the border. He has been living in the country for almost two decades.

Flores Vazquez now lives in El Paso. The 22-year-old is only one of about 105,500 participants in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program living in Texas. The Obama-era program with a degree of bipartisan support allows people brought into the country as children to avoid the threat of deportation.

"For the past four years, the DACA program has been under attack, so it's been a lot of stress and trauma for me. And now I'm in a border town, so I have to be extra careful about Border Patrol," Flores Vazquez said. "But I'm still hopeful."

For many DACA recipients and undocumented immigrants living in the United States, Joe Biden's electoral defeat of Donald Trump last year was a hopeful sign. It meant the end of the time in office for a president who was openly hostile to immigrants — and the arrival of one who had promised to push for a path to citizenship for people like Vazquez.

But Biden's election has provided no easy answers. Despite Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, the U.S. Senate filibuster stands in the way of comprehensive immigration reform. With just 50 senators who caucus with Democrats and 60 votes needed to break a filibuster, the party in control has limited options: They can change the Senate rules, a move that might not have sufficient support among their members. Or they can compromise to bring Republicans along, which would likely require significantly scaling back ambitions.

As the Texas Republican delegation in Congress shows, there are certain immigration issues that Texans in Congress from both parties have expressed a willingness to work on, such as DACA, which may have a better shot at being passed into law.

The influx of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border also complicates the prospects of passing any meaningful immigration reforms because of the rhetoric from Republicans depicting the influx as a "crisis."

"Fear-mongering rhetoric is not going to allow us to see our immigration system in a humane way, and that is required for us to have the robust infrastructure that the U.S. Citizenship Act provides," said Tannya Benavides, an organizer with the South Texas-based No Border Wall Coalition, during a news conference Friday. "We can't equate people to a tidal wave, to a crisis or anything that dehumanizes migrants that are coming through our ports of entry. That is not going to help us make the case for the robust infrastructure that we need."

On Inauguration Day, the Biden administration unveiled the U.S. Citizenship Act, a framework of sweeping immigration reforms that aim to clear employment-based visa backlogs, protect workers on visas from exploitation and establish a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, among other goals. The Biden administration also preserved and fortified the DACA program through an executive order the same day.

In early February, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, reintroduced the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which hasn't progressed through Congress since. The legislation would provide temporary legal status to unauthorized immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as minors. Durbin and Graham tried to get the DREAM Act through Congress in 2017 and 2019, to no avail. Durbin has repeatedly tried to pass the DREAM Act since he first introduced it in 2001.

A few weeks later, Congressional Democrats officially introduced Biden's immigration proposal into Congress through two companion bills in the House and the Senate — HR 1177 and SB 348. Neither has made much progress, either.

A ruling by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen of Houston on whether the DACA program is lawful is also expected soon. That could change the sense of urgency on finding a legislative fix for DACA and possibly on reforming the nation's widely criticized immigration system.

"My family is very hopeful. I know my tía — the one who brought me into America — is super hopeful. She's always sending me articles and being optimistic," Flores Vazquez said.

Texas Republicans have come out against Democrats' calls for comprehensive change. That's an issue because of the filibuster.

Democrats were able to pass a massive coronavirus relief package through the Senate with no Republican support because of a parliamentary procedure known as reconciliation, which allows for simple majorities to bypass a filibuster and approve certain bills related to the federal budget. But immigration bills are unlikely to benefit from that same rule, so without a rule change, Democrats would need to gain the support of 10 Republicans to push a bill through.

"The margins are so slim, but one of the things that makes reform possible is that immigration is very high on the administration's agenda. That makes a difference," said Doris Meissner, senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute and the director of the institute's U.S. Immigration Policy Program. "But people in Congress who are proponents of immigration reform have also signaled they are interested in any win."

Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said there is "very little broad-based support" within the Republican Party for any kind of "legalization" program — a top priority for the Biden administration. She added that now is a ripe time for immigration legislation of any kind because "the further away that it is from upcoming elections, the more likely there is a chance that enough legislators will be willing to take the risk."

Texas Republicans have shown few signs that they will jump on board for Biden's first proposal. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, called the legislation "unconstitutional, dangerous and misguided."

"Bottom Line: It's clear that today's Democratic Party has been so radicalized that they are intent on prioritizing people here illegally ahead of the safety of Americans. President Biden's policies are not the immigration reform Americans desperately need," he said in a press release in late February.

In an opinion piece for the Daily Caller, U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, called Biden's executive actions an "immediate mockery of our immigration system," arguing that rollbacks of the stringent Trump-era immigration policies signal to the world "that America's immigration laws were simply made to be broken."

Perhaps the biggest concern among congressional Republicans in Texas is border security. U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, who co-chairs the Congressional Border Security Caucus, shared a Fox News article about a mother whose son was killed by an undocumented immigrant in 2002, slamming Biden for his planned deportation moratorium.

"Our Angel Families know firsthand the tragic consequences that come with open, unsecured borders and unenforced immigration laws," Babin wrote. Biden "should pick up where Donald Trump left off and continue securing our southern border - our lives depend on it."

However, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, undocumented immigrants have the lowest felony arrest rates in Texas when it comes to violent, property, drug and traffic crimes, compared with legal immigrants and native-born citizens. The study analyzed a combination of criminal history and immigration status data provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Another staunch advocate for border security is freshman U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, who represents a congressional district with more than 800 miles of Texas-Mexico border.

"I've made my way around the district over and over again to speak with Border Patrol agents, sheriffs, local law enforcement officers, nonprofits, ranchers, farmers and local elected officials to just try to understand it all," Gonzales told The Texas Tribune in a phone interview. "I believe that if you have this broad package that just tries to do everything, it is doomed to fail, and nothing will happen. Thats why we haven't had success."

Gonzales said he thinks the best approach to immigration reform is not comprehensive, but rather piece by piece and targeted.

"I do think there's an appetite for immigration reform if we do it in the proper manner. This issue is very divided, but if you try to answer things one by one, it just all comes to part. And I think one of those things is to start with plussing up resources for our Border Patrol agents, especially with what they're dealing with right now," he said.

Gonzales introduced his first piece of legislation in early February, targeting border security. It would double funding for "a grant program that allows local law enforcement to augment border patrol efforts at the southern border," from $90 million to $180 million for each of the next few budget years. A portion of this increased funding would be for the procurement of technology and equipment like sensors, communications equipment and drone technology.

But Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Gonzales' favored incremental approach isn't always a good thing.

"I think incrementalism is a bad thing if it gets in the way of viable comprehensive reform, but it can be a good thing if there's no chance of getting comprehensive reform," Heyman said. "Comprehensive immigration reform is a profound political decision. It's a classic case of choice, and once they make that choice, then they can figure out whether incrementalism makes sense."

For Texas Democrats, a pathway to citizenship for all noncitizens is a key priority.

"Now more than ever, a path to citizenship should not only be part of our economic recovery but also be a bipartisan priority," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, said in a statement to the Tribune.

Texas Republicans have largely scoffed at attempts to help undocumented immigrants eventually gain citizenship. U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, has tweeted that it would be "a slap in the face to millions of immigrants that did it the right way."

Meissner, the former head of INS, said that finding a solution for the hundreds of thousands of so-called Dreamers in the U.S. is Congress' biggest shot at reforming anything.

"The DACA population has really become well known by legislators and people in the country overall. There is a strong public opinion factor here, particularly in favor of the DACA population, that they really should be allowed to have a long-term status in the United States, that they are a population that does contribute in important ways," she said.

In Texas, a coalition backed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn consisting of chambers of commerce, economic development leaders and institutions of higher education is calling on Congress to pass legislation to grant Dreamers permanent legal status.

"I'm encouraged by Sen. Durbin reintroducing the DREAM Act with the support of Sen. Graham, and we'll see if Republicans are serious about working together to provide permanent protection," Castro told the Tribune. "The American people across the political spectrum overwhelmingly support immigration reform, and Congress needs to deliver."

Gonzales said the DACA program "makes a lot of sense" to him, but he's wary of "common-sense" solutions being buried in a broader package that would not pass through the upper chamber.

"This is really ultimately all about the Senate, so that still remains to be seen," Meissner said. "And generally, there is not a very robust center anymore in our politics."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at El Paso 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.

Lawmaker pushes to allow concealed weapons in Texas public schools

Six years after Texas passed a controversial measure allowing licensed gun owners to carry concealed handguns on college campuses, one Republican state lawmaker is pushing to expand the law by allowing licensed adults to carry weapons in public and charter schools.

The bill's staunchly pro-gun author, state Sen. Bob Hall, sees the move as a logical extension of Texas' campus carry law, which passed in 2015 over the passionate pleas of Democrats, gun control advocates and some university officials who feared increased violence.

Hall's bill is one of several addressing school safety this session, with other lawmakers seeking to expand the state's school marshal program, which lets trained school teachers and support staff carry guns on campuses. Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed that program, and the Legislature has expanded it in previous years.

Guns took center stage in 2015, when the Legislature allowed licensed Texans to openly carry handguns in public and moved to 'harden' schools in the wake of mass shootings elsewhere, like the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting.

After stalling in a House committee, proponents scrambled to pass a watered down version of the campus carry bill — deemed a priority by the upper chamber — in the session's final hours. Critics who defeated the bill in previous years were stunned.

"We thought we had campus carry defeated," said Ed Scruggs, a board member and spokesperson for Texas Gun Sense, who watched the final debate from the House gallery. "It went through. … And I thought, 'OK, they've got that now, so maybe they'll be happy. But they've since pushed for more."

Texas lawmakers spent the 2019 legislative session debating how best to prevent another school shooting like the one at Santa Fe High in 2018, when a gunman killed 10 people and wounded 13 others. They ultimately passed a series of bills that, among other things, strengthened mental health initiatives for children and abolished the cap on how many school marshals can carry guns on public school campuses.

Hall, who co-authored campus carry, now wants to broaden the law to K-12 classrooms. His bill — which, as of March 10, had yet to be heard in committee — would allow licensed Texans, such as parents and teachers, to carry concealed handguns throughout public schools and open enrollment charter schools.

"Schools, known as a gun-free zone, might as well hang a neon sign saying, 'If you want to harm kids, come in here,'" Hall, R-Edgewood, said in an interview. "The more people there are who can protect, the safer our society is."

At least two major state teachers groups are already sounding the alarm.

"Schools are no places for guns," said Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association. "The only person at a school that should have a gun is a trained, professional police officer. … Very few school employees really believe they can … be any match for a suicidal, heavily-armed assailant who poses a surprise attack on a school building."

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement that the union has "opposed past bills on campus carry for higher education institutions, and we'll continue our opposition for any expansion of guns on our K-12 campuses."

When it was passed, backlash to campus carry was swift and intense. In July 2016, three University of Texas at Austin professors sued the state and the university, claiming campus carry would have a "chilling effect" on free speech in their classrooms. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 upheld the law, siding with the state in the long-running lawsuit. When campus carry went into effect at four-year universities in August 2016, UT-Austin students organized a sex toy-themed protest that garnered national attention.

But the outrage has largely quieted down, and it is difficult to identify tangible impacts on campus life. A 2017 review of gun-related incidents at the state's large research schools by the Tribune showed no sharp increase in violence or intimidation. Hall said the media and opponents of campus carry have exaggerated its consequences.

"The discussion [in 2015] was … all the kids will be playing cops and robbers and shooting each other, and that never happened," Hall said. "Allowing people to defend themselves in [gun-free] areas has not resulted in what the opposition predicted would happen. We haven't had shootouts on campuses."

Texas A&M University has had one incident since the law went into effect involving a gun being fired by someone with a license to carry, said Kelly Brown, associate vice president of marketing and communications at the school. The 2018 incident was an accidental discharge involving an employee, and no one was injured, Brown said. At UT-Austin, there were two instances in February 2018 in which a gun was left unattended on campus, according to The Daily Texan.

Lisa Moore, one of the UT-Austin professors who filed the 2016 lawsuit, said the impact of campus carry has been most visible on the mental health of university students, faculty and staff. Moore called the possibility of expanding the law to K-12 classrooms "heartbreaking and frightening."

"The day that campus carry went into effect, my students were noticeably more anxious," Moore, a professor of English and women's and gender studies, said in an interview. "With everything teachers have been through, it's actually cruel to create a situation where there could be loaded weapons in school classrooms."

A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency declined to comment, saying the state agency "does not comment on proposed legislation."

There are already hundreds of guns in Texas schools, many carried by law enforcement or school resource officers who patrol campuses. In 2019, lawmakers expanded the school marshal program, and there are now 252 marshals across the state, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.

Hall said his bill complements the school marshal program. Jason Villalba, the former state lawmaker who created the program in Texas, said he disagrees.

Villalba said he "can't imagine" either chamber taking Hall's bill up this session and said it is "not a serious piece of legislation." The legislator who authored campus carry, Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell, did not respond to questions asking whether he supported Hall's proposed expansion. Spokespeople for Abbott, who signed campus carry into law, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who championed the measure, did not reply to requests for comment.

"Senator Hall's bill … subverts the marshal plan, because it eliminates the safety provisions and protocols that are in place to ensure the safety of our children," Villalba said.

Several lawmakers this year are proposing expansions to the marshal program, including state Rep. Valoree Swanson, R-Spring, whose bill would allow local school boards to let their marshals carry concealed guns on their person instead of being required to keep them locked up. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, filed a bill that would give marshals immunity from lawsuits for any "reasonable action" taken to maintain safety.

Those measures — including one by Birdwell, the campus carry author — were approved by the Texas Senate in 2019 but failed to gain traction in the House.

Hall said his legislation has had "a fairly good reception" so far. Meanwhile, at least two lawmakers are taking aim at campus carry this year: Democratic state Reps. Rafael Anchía and Thresa "Terry" Meza filed measures that would grant public universities the ability to limit where guns are allowed on campus.

Scruggs worries gun rights advocates will continue chipping away at state laws that restrict firearms in schools.

"Last session we had a debate about unlimited school marshals, and they got that," Scruggs said. "They said that's what they needed to make schools secure, but that's not enough, and now they want more guns on campus."

Disclosure: The Texas State Teachers Association 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.

Oil and gas interests left to “self-regulate” in aftermath of winter storm as Texas politicians pile on to ERCOT

After being battered by withering criticism of its management of the power grid during last month's winter storm, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas saw several of its board members resign and fired its CEO. The chair of the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid operator, was forced to resign.

The political fallout from the long-lasting Texas power outages have hit both entities hard after Gov. Greg Abbott blamed ERCOT's leadership for the near-collapse of the electric grid and made its reform a legislative priority, and state lawmakers hammered the PUC for what they called a failure of oversight.

Yet politically powerful natural gas companies, along with their regulators, appear so far to have escaped the wrath of the governor and the Legislature.

From the natural gas wellheads in West Texas to the power plants that burn gas to generate electricity to the companies that deliver power to Texans, multiple systems failed during the storm and made what should have been a mild inconvenience into a statewide crisis, executives, regulators, lawmakers and experts said.

At the height of the crisis, nearly half the grid's total power generation capacity was offline as weather conditions caused failures in every type of power source: natural gas, coal, wind and nuclear.

"The entire energy sector failed Texas," Mauricio Gutierrez, CEO of NRG Energy Inc., a large Houston-based power generation company, said solemnly during his testimony last week to Texas lawmakers. "We must do better."

More than 25,000 megawatts of natural gas generation, enough to power 5 million Texas homes, went down, along with around 17,000 megawatts of wind generation, according to ERCOT. Natural gas is the largest source of generation on Texas' grid, especially during the winter. This season, the Texas grid was expected to rely on "thermal sources," which are mostly natural gas, for at least 80% of its power when demand is high, according to ERCOT's winter forecast.

Yet as lawmakers grilled agency heads and demanded accountability — and resignations — during two days of hearings last week, leaders of the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates natural gas production and transportation in Texas, were not asked to resign. Lawmakers spent relatively little time questioning natural gas production and transportation executives.

And few of the bills they filed in the aftermath of the outages seek to reform problems that the storm exposed in the way natural gas is produced, delivered and used to make power. The plunging temperatures froze machinery, created icy conditions that prevented crews from reaching trouble spots, and caused power outages that knocked out facilities like compressing stations that help deliver gas to power plants.

"There was a lot of shrugging and finger pointing to [electricity generators]," said Adrian Shelley, director of Public Citizen, a Texas consumer advocacy group. "There's not a clear fall guy on the oil and gas fuel side of things, in the way that ERCOT is taking the brunt of the responsibility on the transmission side. … I don't think that's entirely justified."

Energy executives and industry representatives testified last week that a lack of winterization throughout the natural gas supply chain, and a failure to ensure that power kept flowing to key parts of that chain when fuel was desperately needed, were key reasons that millions of Texans lost power for days in bitter cold.

"If we don't have a seamless gas and electric power system," said Curtis Morgan, CEO of Vistra Energy, an Irving-based power generation company, "what happened last week will happen again."

Oil and gas companies are big political donors

In Texas, the oil and gas industry's political influence — and its deep pockets — are legendary.

A Texas Tribune analysis of political donations shows that Abbott, who was quick to blame renewable energy for the blackouts last month, received at least $26.9 million from the oil and gas industry in the last two decades, more than 10 times what he received from the electric power sector, which gave at least $2.6 million to the governor over the same period.

Oil and gas interests have given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick at least $5.1 million since 2009, while the electric power sector has given him at least $708,000.

During and after the power outages, as elected officials hammered ERCOT, the PUC and the renewable power industry, the Railroad Commission and industry representatives mounted a public defense of the oil and gas industry.

Christi Craddick, chair of the Texas Railroad Commission, praised natural gas for its ability to deliver fuel to homes with gas-powered stoves, fireplaces and furnaces during the storm — but largely steered clear of the failures to deliver fuel to natural gas-fueled power plants — during her testimony to lawmakers last week.

And during an emergency agency meeting Feb. 17 — as millions of Texans remained without power or heat — Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian called the disaster a "perfect storm" and said "there's no single reason we're in this mess," but pointed toward renewable energy sources like wind and solar as the bigger problem, despite ERCOT data that showed the contrary.

"The takeaway from this storm should not be the future of fossil fuels, but the dangers of subsidizing intermittent, unreliable energy," Christian said.

Between Feb. 13 and Feb. 17, IHS Markit estimated that the state's natural gas production fell by nearly half due to frigid temperatures and power outages. ERCOT estimates that at least 9,000 megawatts of power outages were caused by gas supply issues, enough to power 1.8 million Texas homes.

The president of the Texas Oil and Gas Association, Todd Staples, also testified at last week's legislative committee hearings and listed several reasons why natural gas production declined during the storm, starting with the loss of power to oilfields and ending by acknowledging the weather-related mechanical issues that "may have been avoidable or might not have been avoidable."

He told lawmakers the industry is still assessing the causes.

During the House committee hearing, lawmakers asked Staples and natural gas pipeline companies to more aggressively prepare for emergencies.

State Reps. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, both complained that natural gas producers hadn't been adequately informed that they need to apply for designation as "critical" infrastructure to ensure power isn't cut to facilities necessary to deliver fuel to power plants during an outage. The responsibility to register as critical infrastructure falls to companies, according to Public Utility Commission rules.

"I understand [power plants] can't produce electricity without your gas," Geren said. "It's a big chicken and egg is what it is, but I don't believe the blame belongs solely on the [natural gas] pipes."

Geren and others directed industry representatives and executives to "get the word out." Democrats on the GOP-dominated committee complained that regulators were unlikely to step in and asked industry to make reforms.

"The temperature at the Railroad Commission right now is: 'We don't want to mandate weatherization. We don't want to mandate elaborate emergency plans. … We're going to let industry self-regulate,'" state Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, said during a committee hearing last week as energy executives and industry representatives were testifying.

"If you're going to self-regulate, at least given the current administration … my message to you is: Take the emergency planning seriously," Lucio said.

Can the Railroad Commission require winterization?

While Abbott called for winterization of power plants in the aftermath of the storm, some experts said he didn't go far enough and ignored natural gas infrastructure.

"The power plants certainly failed us and should be winterized, but the natural gas supply system also failed us and should be winterized," Michael Webber, an energy resources professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Tribune on Feb. 19.

"To say that the power plants need to be winterized, but not to say that the natural gas supply should be, is a way of pointing the blame to the power sector and not the gas sector," he said. "That's an important absence."

An Abbott spokesperson said the governor is treating all power sources equally as he pushes for reform.

"Power generation from all sources buckled under the harsh, freezing winter weather, including natural gas, coal, nuclear, wind and solar," Renae Eze said in a written statement. "Each of these power sources failed to fully produce because of inadequate safeguards. That is why the Governor has made it a Legislative priority to mandate and fund the winterization of Texas power infrastructure."

During another winter storm a decade ago, winterization was recommended for both power plants and natural gas supply; during that storm, natural gas supply shortages were a much smaller part of the problem than during last month's storm. The Legislature did not mandate winterization, and the power and gas industries have largely done upgrades voluntarily over the past 10 years.

Staples, in a statement provided to the Tribune, said the oil and natural gas industry is conducting a "top to bottom review" to determine the issues confronted during the storm and what improvements can be made. He said many companies are already sufficiently winterized and that power outages were a more significant problem.

"TXOGA is committed to developing meaningful policy suggestions to be fully responsive to the legislature," Staples wrote. "We look forward to supporting the legislature, Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker in their efforts to pass comprehensive reform that brings accountability this session."

Craddick agreed that power outages to oilfields were the main cause of the dwindling supply of natural gas during the storm — not the industry's failures to prepare for extremely cold weather.

"The oilfield simply cannot run without power, making electricity the best winterization tool," Craddick said.

The Railroad Commission's rules do not "expressly require winterization" of the oil and gas facilities it regulates, said agency spokesperson R. J. DeSilva.

John Hays, a longtime Texas oil and gas lawyer who has observed the Railroad Commission for decades, said that while the agency does not have a rule on its books to require winterization, it likely has the legal jurisdiction to make those rules because the commission has "very broad" authority over oil and gas production and safety.

During last week's legislative hearings, Craddick said the agency is "continuing to look at winterization and weatherization," without offering specifics. Later, responding to a question from state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, on whether the agency requires natural gas wellheads to be winterized, Craddick answered no and said, "We'll continue to work with companies to see what is realistic to do in Texas."

Consumer advocates said the agency could have — and should have — acted sooner to make sure natural gas infrastructure could withstand another winter storm. They cited a federal report that pointed to winterization of the natural gas supply as an area that should be addressed to help prevent power outages in Texas after the 2011 storm.

"These reports came out in 2011, and that was the time for the RRC to say, 'We're going to require this [winterization],'" said Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a new nonprofit organization in Texas focused on environmental and consumer issues at the Railroad Commission.

"They worked within their capability [during the storm]," she said, but "changes should have taken place 10 years ago."

Carla Astudillo, Mitchell Ferman, Reese Oxner and Megan Menchaca contributed to this report.

Disclosure: The Texas Oil and Gas Association, NRG Energy, the University of Texas at Austin and Vistra Energy 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 Gov. Greg Abbott ends statewide mask mandate and capacity limits on businesses

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that he is ending the statewide mask mandate and allowing all businesses to open at full capacity.

"It is now time to open Texas 100%," Abbott said from a Mexican restaurant in Lubbock, arguing that Texas has fought the coronavirus pandemic to the point that "people and businesses don't need the state telling them how to operate" any longer.

Abbott said he was rescinding "most of the earlier executive orders" he has issued over the past year to stem the spread of the virus. He said starting next Wednesday, "all businesses of any type are allowed to open 100%." He also said he was ending the mask mandate, though it was not immediately clear when that would go into effect. Abbott first instituted the mask requirement last summer.

The news is not entirely unexpected. Abbott said Thursday that his office was looking at when it could lift all statewide coronavirus orders and that he would have announcements "pretty soon." But it comes as the spread of the virus remains serious across the state.

The current trajectory of the virus has been difficult to measure in recent days due last month's winter storm, which forced many large counties to close their testing centers and not report any cases. Daily confirmed cases and deaths are clearly down compared to a statewide peak in January. Hospitalization data has been less disrupted, though, and has shown a consistent decline since late January.

Still, 59 new deaths were reported on March 1. And only 6.5% of Texans had been fully vaccinated as of Sunday, though Abbott has been optimistic that the pace will pick up as more vaccines are made available to Texas.

Experts say Texas is a long way from reaching herd immunity. Hitting the 70% to 80% level that many estimate is needed would mean vaccinating some 22 million people, or nearly 100% of adults in the state, according to census numbers. The vaccines are currently not approved for children under 16, who make up about 23% of the population.

Scientists do not yet know for sure whether or how well the vaccines prevent the spread of the virus, though some preliminary research has suggested that some vaccines might be able to do so to some extent.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that people who have received two doses of the vaccine continue to avoid crowds, stay at least 6 feet away from people who live outside their households, and wear masks to cover their nose and mouth.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease doctor, has repeatedly said that he does not know when Americans will be able to return to normal, but that they may still need to continue wearing face masks into 2022.

“Power companies get exactly what they want”: How Texas repeatedly failed to protect its power grid against extreme weather

In January 2014, power plants owned by Texas' largest electricity producer buckled under frigid temperatures. Its generators failed more than a dozen times in 12 hours, helping to bring the state's electric grid to the brink of collapse.

The incident was the second in three years for North Texas-based Luminant, whose equipment malfunctions during a more severe storm in 2011 resulted in a $750,000 fine from state energy regulators for failing to deliver promised power to the grid.

In the earlier cold snap, the grid was pushed to the limit and rolling blackouts swept the state, spurring an angry Legislature to order a study of what went wrong.

Experts hired by the Texas Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state's electric and water utilities, concluded that power-generating companies like Luminant had failed to understand the "critical failure points" that could cause equipment to stop working in cold weather.

In May 2014, the PUC sought changes that would require energy companies to identify and address all potential failure points, including any effects of "weather design limits."

Luminant argued against the proposal.

In comments to the commission, the company said the requirement was unnecessary and "may or may not identify the 'weak links' in protections against extreme temperatures."

"Each weather event [is] dynamic," company representatives told regulators. "Any engineering analysis that attempted to identify a specific weather design limit would be rendered meaningless."

By the end of the process, the PUC agreed to soften the proposed changes. Instead of identifying all possible failure points in their equipment, power companies would need only to address any that were previously known.

The change, which experts say has left Texas power plants more susceptible to the kind of extreme and deadly weather events that bore down on the state last week, is one in a series of cascading failures to shield the state's electric grid from winter storms, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune found.

Lawmakers and regulators, including the PUC and the industry-friendly Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, have repeatedly ignored, dismissed or watered down efforts to address weaknesses in the state's sprawling electric grid, which is isolated from the rest of the country.

About 46,000 megawatts of power — enough to provide electricity to 9 million homes on a high-demand day — were taken off the grid last week due to power-generating failures stemming from winter storms that battered the state for nearly seven consecutive days. Dozens of deaths, including that of an 11-year-old boy, have been tied to the weather. At the height of the crisis, more than 4.5 million customers across the state were without power.

As millions of Texans endured days without power and water, experts and news organizations pointed to unheeded warnings in a federal report that examined the 2011 winter storm and offered recommendations for preventing future problems. The report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation concluded, among other things, that power companies and natural gas producers hadn't properly readied their facilities for cold weather, including failing to install extra insulation, wind breaks and heaters.

Another federal report released three years later made similar recommendations with few results. Lawmakers also failed to pass measures over the past two decades that would have required the operator of the state's main power grid to ensure adequate reserves to shield against blackouts, provided better representation for residential and small commercial consumers on the board that oversees that agency and allowed the state's top emergency-planning agency to make sure power plants were adequately "hardened" against disaster.

Experts and consumer advocates say the challenge to the 2014 proposal by Luminant and other companies, which hasn't been previously reported, is an example of the industry's outsize influence over the regulatory bodies that oversee them.

"Too often, power companies get exactly what they want out of the PUC," said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas. "Even well-intentioned PUC staff are outgunned by armies of power company lawyers and their experts. The sad truth is that if power companies object to something, in this case simply providing information about the durability of certain equipment, they are extremely likely to get what they want."

Luminant representatives declined to answer questions about the company's opposition to the weatherization proposal. PUC officials also declined to comment.

Michael Webber, an energy expert and mechanical engineering professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said the original proposal could have helped in identifying trouble spots within the state's power plants.

"Good engineering requires detailed understanding of the performance limits of each individual component that goes into a system," Webber said. "Even if 99.9% of the equipment is properly rated for the operational temperatures, that one part out of 1,000 can bring the whole thing down."

Luminant defended its performance during last week's deep freeze, saying it produced about 25% to 30% of the power on the grid Monday and Tuesday, compared with its typical market share of about 18%.

In a public statement, officials said the company executed a "significant winter preparedness strategy to keep the electricity flowing during this unprecedented, extended weather event." They declined to disclose whether any of the company's generating units failed during last week's winter storms.

State officials are again promising reforms. Lawmakers have called on officials with the PUC and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the power grid that spans most of the state, to testify at hearings later this week. Gov. Greg Abbott has called on lawmakers to mandate the winterization of generators and power plants, and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he was launching an investigation into ERCOT and almost a dozen power companies, including Luminant. Separately, the PUC announced its own investigation into ERCOT.

Texas is the only state in the continental U.S. that operates its own electric grid, making it difficult for other regions to send excess power in times of crisis, especially when they are facing their own shortages, as they were last week. All other states in the Lower 48, as well as peripheral areas of Texas, are connected to one of two grids that span the eastern and western halves of the country.

Because Texas operates its own grid, the state isn't subject to federal oversight by FERC, which can investigate power outages but can't mandate reforms. Many energy experts say the very nature of the state's deregulated electric market is perhaps most to blame for last week's power crisis.

In Texas, a handful of mega-utilities controlled the distribution and pricing of the power they produced until two decades ago, when the Legislature shifted to a system where companies would compete for customers on the open market. Lawmakers said the change would result in lower power bills and better service, a promise that some experts and advocates say hasn't been kept.

But under this system, power companies aren't required to produce enough electricity to get the state through crises like the one last week. In fact, they are incentivized to ramp up generation only when dwindling power supplies have driven up prices.

Other states with deregulated power markets, including California, have made reforms and added additional safeguards after experiencing similar catastrophes.

"The fault on this one is at the feet of the Legislature and the regulators for their failure to protect the people rather than profits, the utility companies, rather than investing millions of dollars in weatherization that had been recommended in review after review of these kinds of incidents," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, a longtime Texas consumer advocate and environmental activist. "They have chosen not to do that because it would be too expensive for the utilities and ultimately to the consumers."

"We'll be opportunistic"

Three years after the 2011 storms, the Texas electric grid faced another major cold weather test when a polar vortex swept across the state. Freezing temperatures helped to knock out nearly 50 generating units at Texas power plants in the first week of 2014, bringing ERCOT perilously close to ordering rotating outages.

The event quickly faded from public attention because it was a near-miss that didn't actually leave people without electricity or heat. But because the state had come so close to blackouts, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, which has some authority to regulate power companies in the country, launched an investigation. The probe found similar problems to those that dogged the state after the 2011 storms, primarily equipment that failed to stand up to the freezing temperatures.

Despite the equipment failures that brought the electric grid to the brink of disaster, the polar vortex was a financial windfall for power-generation companies. In the months that followed the storm, some of the companies stressed to investors the financial benefits of the two days of cold weather and accompanying high energy prices.

"This business benefited significantly from increased basis and storage spreads during the polar vortex earlier this year," Joe McGoldrick, an executive with Houston-based CenterPoint Energy, said in a November 2014 earnings call. "To the extent that we get another polar vortex or whatever, absolutely, we'll be opportunistic and take advantage of those conditions."

The company did not respond to requests for comment.

Texas has relied on the principle that higher prices will spur greater power generation when the state needs it most, a structure that helps explain the persistence of blackouts, said Ed Hirs, a University of Houston energy expert.

In extreme weather events like last week's freeze, prices per megawatt jumped from an average of around $35 to ERCOT's maximum of $9,000.

Hirs said it's in the power generators' interest to "push ERCOT into a tight situation where price goes up dramatically."

"They are giving generators incentive to withdraw service," he added. "How else do you get the price to go up?"

Texans have already been hit with sky-high bills since last week's event, with some climbing as high as $16,000, according to The New York Times. At an emergency meeting Sunday, the three-member PUC ordered electric companies to suspend disconnections for nonpayment and delay sending invoices or bill estimates.

Power companies weren't the only ones that saw the 2014 event more as a success story than a sign of weakness.

ERCOT concluded that operators "handled a difficult situation well" and took "prompt and decisive actions" that had prevented systemwide blackouts. In the "lessons learned" section of its final report, the agency promoted the continuation of its winterization site visits, which are not mandatory.

Winterization efforts were paying dividends in the form of fewer generating units falling victim to cold weather, the report stated.

Federal regulators agreed. During a meeting of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners in February 2014, a month after the storm, a top-ranking official from NERC stated that the response showed "industry is learning [and] using the resources and tools available to improve their preparations and operations of the grid during a significant weather event."

But NERC's investigation exposed problems that would bring Texas to a crisis point last week.

In the 2014 report, NERC methodically laid out how power-generating equipment failed during the cold snap, detailing 62 examples that included frozen circulating water that caused a supply loss and moisture in the air causing valves to freeze. In all, those cold-related failures were responsible for the vast majority of lost power during the event, the agency found.

The incident also highlighted the need to improve winter performance of natural gas pipelines, which NERC found hampered the ability of gas-fired power plants to generate electricity. The agency declined to comment, saying it doesn't discuss investigations.

Natural gas and power generation are highly dependent on each other: Natural gas processing requires electricity, which may be produced in turn by burning natural gas.

Citing preliminary figures from ERCOT that show natural-gas-fired power plants performed worse than those fueled by other types of energy during this year's power crisis, energy experts say producers and distributors of that fossil fuel played a major role in the catastrophe.

Natural gas producers and pipeline companies in Texas are regulated by the Railroad Commission.

R.J. DeSilva, a spokesperson for the agency, declined to say whether it requires natural gas producers and pipeline companies to weatherize wellheads or pipelines. He noted that poor road conditions made it impossible for crews from natural gas companies to inspect wells and said some producers reported "the inability to produce gas because they did not have power."

Because so many homes are heated with natural gas, fossil fuel plays a much more central role in the winter than it does in the hot summer months.

"When all this began, millions of Texans wrapped their pipes to keep them from freezing, and the Railroad Commission didn't order — has never ordered — the gas companies, the gas producers and gas pipeline companies … to wrap their pipes to protect them from freezing," said Smith, the consumer advocate.

On Feb. 16, at least 4.5 million customers in Texas were without power

The operator of Texas' power grid is under investigation after a massive winter storm caused millions of residents in the state to lose power for days. Here's where Texans were most impacted during the worst of the outages between 10 and 11 a.m. Feb. 16.

Failed legislation

After days of scrambling to address the myriad crises that pummeled his city last week, former longtime state Rep. Sylvester Turner — now mayor of Houston, the state's largest city — had a message for his former colleagues.

"You need to dust off my bill, and you need to refile it," the Democrat said during a press conference Friday, referring to legislation he filed in 2011 that would have required the PUC to ensure ERCOT maintained adequate reserve power to prevent blackouts. "Because it's not about just holding hearings."

The state's deregulated market is to blame for the crisis, according to some experts who say the catastrophe shows that the system ultimately prizes profits over people. But some of the architects of the system are doubling down.

In a blog post published last week on the website of U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that the current disaster was worth it if it keeps rates low and federal regulators from requiring changes to the system.

"Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business," said Perry, who was governor from 2000-15 and presided over the early days of energy deregulation in Texas. "Try not to let whatever the crisis of the day is take your eye off of having a resilient grid that keeps America safe personally, economically, and strategically."

Perry, who returned to his job on the board of Dallas-based pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP after serving as energy secretary in the Trump administration, received at least $141,000 in campaign contributions from Luminant's former parent company, TXU Corp., between 2002 and 2009, when he was governor.

On Saturday, Turner warned about the soaring residential utility bills that Texans would be getting in the coming weeks. In 2012, when Turner was still a state representative, he wrote a letter to the then-chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, raising concerns about PUC rule changes that increased the price caps companies could charge for power to $9,000 per megawatt.

Those price caps remain the same today.

This time, Turner called on lawmakers to pursue substantive reforms that don't simply "scapegoat" ERCOT, referring to the increasing calls for an investigation into the council, including by Abbott. "You must include the Public Utility Commission in these reforms because they provide direct oversight over ERCOT, and all of those commissioners are appointed by the governor," Turner said.

In 2013, Turner attempted, unsuccessfully, to pass a measure that would have replaced the governor's appointees on the PUC with an elected commissioner. The same year, he tried to salvage a measure that would have increased the administrative penalty for electric industry participants that violate state law or PUC rules.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which audits state agencies every 12 years to determine how they can better function or if they should be abolished, recommended in 2013 that the PUC exercise additional oversight of ERCOT, including a review and approval of annual budgets and annual review of "PUC-approved performance measures tracking ERCOT's operations."

One of the recommendations called on the PUC to increase the administrative penalty to $100,000 a day per violation, stating that the $25,000 daily penalty "may not be sufficient for violations that affect grid reliability, which can cause serious grid failures, such as blackouts."

Lawmakers passed a bill during that year's legislative session that adopted many of those recommendations, but the change in penalties was left out. An amendment by Turner to restore the higher fee in the bill failed.

Another former Democratic lawmaker who now leads a major Texas city similarly tried and failed to pass legislation that would bring greater accountability to the state.

In 2015, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, then a state representative, authored a bill that would have required state agencies, including the PUC, to plan and budget for severe weather using state climatologist data.

"It would have forced state agencies to prepare for an event like what just happened and to account for that in their agency plans," Johnson said during a Thursday press conference addressing the crisis. "It was quite unfortunate, because we can't say that it would have prevented this situation but certainly may have."

Then, two years ago, facilities owned or controlled by utilities regulated by the PUC were exempted from legislation that requires the Texas Division of Emergency Management to "identify methods for hardening utility facilities and critical infrastructure in order to maintain essential services during disasters."

The bill's author, Republican state Rep. Dennis Paul, declined to comment. State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who co-sponsored the measure, said he did not know why the PUC was exempted.

"Demanding answers"

For the past two decades, consumer groups have fought without success for a larger role in how the state manages its power grid. Giving residents a stronger presence on the ERCOT board would have forced the agency to take the lessons of extreme winter storms in 2011 and 2014 more seriously, said Randall Chapman, a ratepayer attorney and longtime consumer advocate.

"It would have changed things entirely," Chapman said. "Residential consumers are the ones who have been through outages before. They are the ones with the broken water pipes, the ones freezing in their homes. They would be demanding answers."

Chapman said the groups were stymied when the Legislature agreed to reserve only a single seat on the ERCOT board for a representative of residential consumers. In comparison, eight seats, including alternates, are filled by representatives of energy retailers, power generators and investor-owned utility companies.

"Residential consumers need a stronger voice over at ERCOT," Morstad of AARP Texas said. "Decisions are made every week that affect the health and safety of millions of Texans. You need a strong voice there to call B.S. when companies aren't following through on winterizing or other things that are critical to reliability of the electric system."

In 2011, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar co-authored a bill while serving in the state Legislature that would have increased the size of the ERCOT board and allowed for more consumer representation. It didn't pass.

Hegar said the failures displayed in the last week once again bring the significance of representation to the forefront.

"As a result of this extremely unfortunate event where so many people were out of power and now have damage to their homes and their businesses, there needs to be a broader range of representation on the board and to bring those voices as we move forward in trying to decide what we want our electric grid to be," Hegar said.

Lexi Churchill and Perla Trevizo contributed reporting.

Disclosure: AARP Texas, the University of Houston, the University of Texas at Austin, CenterPoint Energy and the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts 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.

At least 10 deaths linked to Texas winter storm disaster

"Winter storm in Texas: At least 10 deaths linked to statewide disaster; Austin outages may last another day or more" 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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Here's what you need to know:

10 deaths linked to winter storm

[12:27 p.m.] At least 10 people have died in weather-related incidents across the Houston area, the Houston Chronicle reported earlier Tuesday.

At least one of those incidents was related to a motor vehicle accident, while others were tied to extremely cold weather brought by a massive winter storm, fires and suspected carbon monoxide poisoning, according to authorities in the area.

Authorities also found two dead people who were homeless, and suspected the cause of death to be exposure to the cold temperatures, though autopsies will confirm the official causes of death. — Cassi Pollock

Oncor, Austin Energy warn that more outages are expected

[7:58 p.m.]: Oncor, the state's largest electric utility company, warned its customers Tuesday that outages will continue after a request by ERCOT to further reduce its electricity load.

Oncor officials said in a tweet that a lack in generation of electricity means it won't be able to rotate additional outages.

“Customers, please be prepared for additional outages and stay weather aware due to an active Winter Storm Warning," ONCOR officials tweeted.

The utility, which serves more than 10 million customers, added: “While Oncor does not own or operate any electric generation, we are ready to deliver power as soon as it is available."

Austin Energy issued a similar warning to its customers in Central Texas and said customers who have been without power the longest could continue to be affected.

“As the situation allows, we're working to restore customers who have been impacted by the statewide outages the longest," the company tweeted at 7 p.m. local time. “Unfortunately, ERCOT is ordering us to shed more load tonight as demand on the grid increases, and those restored customers may again lose power. We are frustrated but we are working to meet our obligations to maintain the state's electrical grid." — Julián Aguilar

Texas Gas again asks customers to conserve energy

[8:38 p.m.] Texas Gas Service warned again late Tuesday that demand for natural gas is outpacing supply and urged customers to conserve energy as “it is going to take time for our suppliers to get their natural gas wells back online" according to a statement on the utility's website.

The company provides gas to the El Paso, Austin and Rio Grande Valley areas of Texas and has more than 670,000 customers. The plea comes after a statement issued Monday saying that its suppliers wells were freezing over and supply was limited. But, the company warned, that disruptions could continue even after the weather event due to precautions taken to get gas back online.

“Once the system is operating again, we need to visit each home to check for leaks and reestablish gas service. This makes the need for energy conservation even more important," the company states. — Julián Aguilar

Ag Commissioner warns freeze could hurt food supply chain

[2:28 p.m.] The state's top agriculture official is warning the winter storm and subsequent widespread power outages could negatively impact the state's food supply chain.

Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller called on Gov. Greg Abbott to prioritize gas and electricity to farmers and food processors, along with hospitals and first responders, so they can continue operations. Miller said ranchers and farmers have reported major disruptions as the cold weather impacts livestock, feed and agriculture products.

“In just one example, dairy operations are dumping $8 million worth of milk down the drains every day because the plants that process that milk don't have power," Miller said in a press release. “Grocery stores are already unable to get shipments of dairy products. Store shelves are already empty. We're looking at a food supply chain problem like we've never seen before, even with COVID-19." — Kate McGee

Austin power company warns outages may persist another day or longer

[1:26 p.m.] Austin Energy tweeted Tuesday afternoon that customers still experiencing power outages might be without heat for at least another day — if not longer.

“We want customers to know this [is] a dynamic situation + conditions are changing throughout the day," the account tweeted. “Customers should be prepared to not have power through Tuesday night and possibly longer."

The delays were, in part, expected. Jackie Sargent, the general manager for Austin Energy, said Monday afternoon that based on information from the state's grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, power could be out for consumers through at least Tuesday afternoon.

“We are aware of where our system is at, and we are operating with the constraints and the direction of ERCOT," she said. — Alex Samuels

Texas officials call for investigation into state's power grid operator

[1:04 p.m] Two of Texas' top elected officials called for legislation and investigations into the operation of the state's power grid after a massive winter storm caused millions of residents in the state to lose power for long spans during frigid temperatures.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday declared the reform of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas an emergency item for the 2021 legislative session. The declaration marks the issue as a top priority and allows lawmakers in the House and Senate to approve bills on the subject during the first 60 days of the session. ERCOT is a nonprofit that manages the grid used by about 90% of the state.

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours," Abbott said in a statement. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable."

On Monday, the state's electric grid operator lost control of the power supply while a massive winter storm delivered freezing temperatures across the state. Earlier Tuesday, ERCOT predicted that the number of outages across the state remains high, but was optimistic “that we will be able to reduce the number throughout the day."

The governor's announcement comes hours after Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan asked two committees in the lower chamber to hold a joint hearing later this month to review statewide power outages that have affected millions of Texas households during a massive winter storm. [Read more here.] — Alex Samuels and Cassandra Pollock

Cities across the state issue boil-water notices after power outages

[1:40 p.m.] Cities across Texas — including Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, Abilene and San Angelo — have issued boil-water notices or other water-related warnings to residents. Affected Texans should conserve water when possible, and boil water for at least two minutes and cool it before usage to kill harmful bacteria.

Due to low water pressure, freezing temperatures and limited power supply, many treatment centers and suppliers have been unable to provide adequate water flow across the state.

Fort Worth expanded a boil-water notice Tuesday morning to include more than 200,000 homes after numerous outages at treatment pumping facilities across its system.

Corpus Christi experienced a water main break, also affecting Calallen and Flour Bluff residents, and is under a boil-water order.

Abilene has shut off all water service after power outages affected all three of its water treatment plants, and the city doesn't know when the system will be restored again. Once back, a boil-water notice will be in effect.

Because of a water main break in San Angelo, city officials are urging residents to avoid nonessential water usage. Those in the PaulAnn neighborhood have been told to not drink the water at all.

After a prolonged outage at a water treatment plant, Pflugerville issued a boil-water notice Monday night. Officials warned water might begin to run out and suggested collecting enough gallons for household members ahead of time.

Residents of Kyle and Buda have also been asked to suspend water usage after water suppliers lost power. Kyle is close to running out of water. — Marissa Martinez

McAllen is shipping its water to help nearby municipalities

[2:37 p.m.] The City of McAllen is shipping water from its municipal supply to some residents in nearby municipalities as power outages and sub-freezing temperatures have left some Texans in that area without.

City of McAllen spokesperson Xochitl Mora said the city has shipped water to Mission and Sharyland, though it's unclear how many residents are affected due to power outages or frozen pipes, or both.

It's unclear how long McAllen the water deliveries will last but Mora said as of Tuesday afternoon they were ongoing as long as that area remains affected by the winter storm.

As of Tuesday afternoon more than a third of about 315,000 Hidalgo County energy customers were out of power, the McAllen Monitor reported. An additional 39,000 in Cameron County were without power, as were about 3,011 in Willacy County, according to the newspaper. — Julián Aguilar

Natural gas provider warns of potential shortage for Austin, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley

[11:45 a.m.] Texas Gas Service, which provides natural gas to Austin, El Paso, the Rio Grande Valley and other parts of the state, warned Tuesday of potential natural gas shortages during the winter storm.

In an email, the provider said it had very few outages by Tuesday morning but urged users to conserve gas to prevent future shortages. It asked people to lower their thermostats and water heater temperatures and to seal gaps in doorways and window frames with towels. The company also asked residents not to do laundry and to close blinds and curtains to keep in heat.

"As of this morning, our suppliers of natural gas are experiencing freezing gas wells due to the duration of the extreme cold. This is impacting the amount of gas they are able to provide to us," the email explained.

"With below freezing temperatures forecast through the end of the week, we are planning for shortages and putting measures in place to keep gas service to our customers and critical facilities," the provider said. — Jolie McCullough

ERCOT: Some customers should have power restored this afternoon

[11:30 a.m.] The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the state's power grid, said Tuesday morning that the number of outages across the state remains high, but that it's optimistic "that we will be able to reduce the number throughout the day." Just after 9 a.m. Tuesday, the grid operator said on Twitter that additional wind, solar power and thermal power generators have indicated "that they expect to become available."

"But, the amount we restore will depend on how much generation is actually able to come online," ERCOT said.

The number of businesses and homes without power was reportedly around 4 million Tuesday morning. Temperatures across the state remained extremely low for Texas. It was in the teens in Houston and Austin and around 10 degrees in Dallas at around 9:45 a.m.

At around 11:30 a.m., ERCOT tweeted that power generation availability was improving in the state. In the previous hour, it said, it had directed local power providers to restore power to about 400,000 households. — Matthew Watkins

Phelan asks House committees to review statewide blackouts

[10:20 a.m.] Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan has asked two committees in the lower chamber to hold a joint hearing later this month to review statewide power outages that have affected millions of Texas households during a massive winter storm.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, requested that the House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees convene Feb. 25.

On Monday, the state's electric grid operator lost control of the power supply, leaving roughly 2 million Texas households without heat or other electric appliances. The operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, began implementing rolling blackouts early Monday that were intended to last less than an hour per each impacted area. ERCOT ordered those blackouts after announcing a winter record for power demand.

“We must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders about the factors that contributed to generation staying down at a time when families needed it most, what our state can do to correct these issues, and what steps regulators and grid operators are taking to safeguard our electric grid," Phelan said in a news release.

Here's how to help:

  • Dallas: Carl Falconer, president and CEO of the Dallas Homeless Alliance, said donations can be made to Our Calling, which is managing the city's shelter at the convention center.
  • Austin: Chris Davis, communications manager for Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, said people can find a list of ways to help here. These donations range from sleeping bags to monetary donations for hygiene and snack kits.
  • San Antonio: Katie Vela, executive director for the South Alamo Regional Alliance for the Homeless, said the organization's biggest area of need is volunteers to work the overnight shifts, especially those living in the downtown area who might be able to walk to the shelters. Vela also said the shelters are also in need of hot meals beginning Tuesday. People can find the list of shelters here.
  • Houston: Catherine B. Villarreal, director of communications for the Coalition for the Homeless, said people can donate to any of the organizations in The Way Home listed here.

Disclosure: Texas Gas Service and Oncor 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.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at

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Texas' grid operator warns rolling blackouts are possible as winter storm escalates demand for electricity

The nonprofit organization that operates Texas' power grid warned Sunday that it may be forced to impose rolling outages in the state on Monday and Tuesday as a major winter storm brings record low temperatures and causes massive demand for electricity.

Power reserves in the state were stable Sunday afternoon, but the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is anticipating the need to go into emergency operations from Sunday evening until Tuesday morning, said Dan Woodfin, senior director of system operations for ERCOT.

"During this fairly unprecedented cold weather event across the entire state, electric demand is expected to exceed our previous winter peak record set in January of 2018 by up to 10,000 megawatts," Woodfin said. "In fact, the peak demand on Monday and Tuesday is currently forecasted to meet or exceed our all time summer peak demand of 74,820 megawatts."

On Sunday, the grid set a new winter record for demand when it reached 69,150 megawatts between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Texans purchase their electricity from companies, cooperatives or cities, but ERCOT works with those utility providers to manage the flow of power to about 90% of the state.

If demand comes closer to capacity, ERCOT can declare a level-one, level-two or level-three energy emergency alert, which allows the council to use additional resources to respond to demand. According to ERCOT's alert steps, the organization can import power from other regions, request extra power from transmission companies and release generation reserves under these alerts.

Temporary power outages are a last resort and would generally only occur after other resources had been exhausted. Woodfin said outages would be more likely to occur on Monday and Tuesday, but there is "certainly a possibility" that something could change and they could occur Sunday evening.

"If the additional resources available during an EEA (are) still not sufficient to balance generation and load, and we still don't have enough resources to serve the demand, then we could have to implement what's called rotating outages … so that we've got enough resources to cover what's what's left," Woodfin said.

Outages typically last from 10 to 45 minutes for residential neighborhoods and small businesses, but the exact response would vary by transmission company, according to protocols for emergency alerts from ERCOT. ERCOT has only instituted three systemwide rotating outages in its history. The most recent one was more than 10 years ago on Feb. 2, 2011 in response to a blizzard affecting the state.

"We are experiencing record-breaking electric demand due to the extreme cold temperatures that have gripped Texas," Bill Magness, ERCOT President and CEO, said in a press release on Sunday. "At the same time, we are dealing with higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units. We are asking Texans to take some simple, safe steps to lower their energy use during this time."

The National Weather Service had issued a winter storm warning for every county in the state as of Sunday afternoon. Areas across the state are expected to see temperatures in the low teens, harsh wind chills and varying degrees of freezing rain and snow through Monday evening.

"The system could lead to major stress on the region's infrastructure as well as cripple travel," the National Weather Service said in an alert Sunday for south central Texas. "The coldest temperatures since 1989 will impact the region. Wind chill indices could fall to between 15 below zero to near zero late tonight."

In response to the storm, Gov. Greg Abbott issued a statewide disaster declaration Friday for all 254 counties in the state. He also deployed the Texas Department of Transportation, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Military Department and other agencies to assist with the storm response.

According to an Abbott press release, the White House issued a federal emergency declaration Sunday for Texas due to the winter weather after a request from the governor. The declaration allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide federal assistance and help with care and shelter statewide.

"I thank President Biden for quickly issuing a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas as we continue to respond to severe winter weather conditions throughout the state," Abbott said. "This disaster declaration provides Texas with additional resources and assistance that will help our communities respond to this winter weather."

ERCOT is urging households and businesses to reduce their electricity usage through Tuesday. Texans can reduce their electricity usage by turning down their thermostats below 68 degrees, unplugging lights and appliances, and avoiding use of large appliances like ovens and washing machines, according to a press release from ERCOT.

"The lowest temperatures Texas has seen in decades necessitate a shared response across the state, from households to factories," DeAnn Walker, chair of the Public Utility Commission of Texas, said in the press release. "Along with the tools ERCOT uses to maintain the reliability of the grid, common sense conservation also plays a critical role in our state's endurance of this challenge."

Along with conserving energy, state officials are strongly discouraging Texans from traveling on roads due to the dangerous driving conditions caused by the ice and sleet. In some areas, officials have said the roads are impassable, and road conditions are expected to deteriorate further as the storm gets worse in the state.

"Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion," the National Weather Service wrote in an alert Sunday for parts of Southeast Texas. "Prepare for power outages and have non-perishable food and water on hand. Do not travel unless it is an emergency. If you must travel, keep an extra blanket, flashlight, food, and water in your vehicle in case you become stranded."

Disclosure: The Public Utility Commission Of Texas 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.

Texas Republicans attack Biden's energy moves -- but experts say they could benefit the state

Surrounded by refineries and chemical plants that make up the Houston Ship Channel, the Republican leader of the U.S. House stood last week along what he called "one of America's success stories." A cadre of Texans in Congress flanked U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California to continue a campaign of criticisms they've lobbed at President Joe Biden's climate-focused agenda.

Biden's swift moves to combat global warming have brought equally quick criticisms from state officials that Texas oil and gas jobs are in danger. But their comments often ignore that there is a global push in the free market — not just from the White House — to limit reliance on fossil fuels. And their rhetoric belies the benefits Texas' oil and gas sector could see from Biden's early moves.

"Unfortunately, our economic bedrock of oil and gas is under attack by an administration that is bent on eliminating millions of jobs," said U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, one of seven Texas lawmakers who joined McCarthy last week in front of one of the busiest cargo ports in the world.

Even before Biden took office last month, Texas lawmakers had forecasted doom and gloom for the state's energy industry, projecting the sector's demise at the hands of the new president. And it hasn't been a strictly partisan battle: Even Texas Democrats have swiftly pushed back against Biden's early moves aimed at protecting the environment.

However, the percentage of jobs in the oil and gas industry had begun steadily declining, both in Texas and nationwide, long before Biden took office. In 2014, more than 2.5% of jobs in Texas were in the oil and gas, mining and quarrying industries, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. At the beginning of 2020 — before the coronavirus pandemic and a global drop in the demand for oil — the share of jobs in the Texas oil and gas field had fallen to about 1.8%.

A majority of Americans have said they are interested in a clean and safe environment. Their spending habits increasingly demonstrate that, which experts say poses a much larger threat to the Texas oil and gas industry than Biden does. And, in the short term, Biden's moves may help Texas, some say.

"Basically every executive action Biden's taken is good for Texas oil and gas," said Michael Webber, energy professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an order revoking a permit the Trump administration granted to a Canadian energy company behind the Keystone XL pipeline. The decade-old international energy project consists of a partially built system of pipelines that run from Canada into the United States.

A portion of the project has already been built through East Texas. The contract Biden yanked revolves around a proposed part of the pipeline that would stretch from Canada to Nebraska. Amy Myers Jaffe, managing director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tufts University in Boston, spent two decades working on energy issues in Texas. She said the construction jobs lost from the project's halt won't come from Texas.

"People have a sort of litmus test gut reaction to the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, but the reality is it's not likely to have an impact on Texas employment," she said.

That hasn't stopped Texas lawmakers from criticizing Biden. Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's first news release of the Biden presidency was titled: "With Keystone decision, Biden kicking Texas energy workers while they're down."

Biden also quickly signed an order directing the Interior Department to halt extending new contracts for 60 days to companies trying to extract fossil fuels on federal lands. That practice simultaneously generates billions of dollars in royalties and revenues for local and state economies throughout the country. Any existing oil and gas production on federal lands can continue — Biden's order only blocks new drilling on federal land.

But there is hardly any federal land drilled in Texas, so experts said the state is barely impacted by Biden's order. Instead, states like New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming, where there is substantial fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, will likely be directly affected.

"Texas production will not be affected. It might affect Texas companies who are active in those states," Webber said. "But it's a mixed bag, because if you make production more difficult in other states it makes production in Texas more favorable. It's one of those things where it's probably good for Texas — Biden's doing battle against Texas' competitors."

Katie Mehnert is chief executive of Ally Energy, a digital forum that lists energy jobs aimed at diversifying the industry, which in Texas is dominated by white men. She said how well Texas companies fare likely hinges less on Biden's orders and more on their efforts to provide lower carbon energy solutions — such as solar, wind, geothermal and other cleaner energy sources.

"It depends on how the business is positioned for the energy transition," Mehnert said.

Tim Latimer, chief executive of Fervo Energy in Houston, said many new jobs will be created as companies invest in "unprecedented amounts of construction" to meet the country's climate goals over the next decade and beyond. But economically, the transition will be tricky and messy.

"There will not be a one for one job replacement," he said.

Texas lawmakers have latched on to the negatives.

"2 days, 2 attacks on TX energy jobs," U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, tweeted during Biden's second full day in office.

Brady and Cornyn were joined by a chorus of their colleagues in the Texas congressional delegation criticizing Biden over energy jobs. And despite the yearslong decline of oil and gas jobs, four Texas Democrats in Congress joined Republican colleagues in criticizing Biden over energy.

U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, Henry Cuellar of Laredo, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher of Houston and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth objected to the president's order directing the secretary of the interior to halt new oil and gas leases on federal public lands and waters.

Fletcher represents western Harris County, where several major energy companies are located. On Thursday, she also objected to Biden revoking the pipeline permit "both on process and substance." She said in a virtual news conference she would have liked to see a "much more thorough process" before Biden reached the decision to kill the pipeline.

While the political back-and-forth among Texas politicians over energy has been aimed at Biden, private companies have for years been adjusting to shifting consumer behaviors and demands.

BP, one of the world's largest oil and gas companies, said in early 2020 it would cut the carbon content of its products in half by 2050. That's a timeframe and objective scientists recommend the world needs to strive for in order to avert catastrophic effects from severe climate and environmental damage.

ExxonMobil shareholders have pleaded since at least 2019 for the company to take action on climate issues. Outgoing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, whose company's delivery service leaves a massive environmental impact, created a $10 billion fund to fight climate issues.

And just last month, General Motors said it would phase out petroleum-powered cars and trucks and sell only vehicles that have zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. That was seen as a massive move by one of the world's biggest automakers that has for years made billions of dollars from gas-guzzling trucks, among many other gas-powered vehicles.

Pivoting to a focus on climate change is part of a larger global shift, Latimer said.

"But these trends don't start with or are caused by the Biden administration," Latimer said. "It's about what customers want, what young people want, what international corporations want. Everyone wants a new world that's focused on solving climate issues."

The ongoing shift to focusing on climate issues does not, however, spell the end of oil and gas.

"We're going to need fossil fuels," Mehnert said. "Medicines, chemicals, everything we touch, everything we have around us, is made from petroleum base."

Older and disabled Texans are demanding their home caregivers be vaccinated for COVID-19 -- But many workers don’t want it

Houston home health caregiver Rachel Fuentes is struggling between her need to stay employed and her fear of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Fuentes, 43, worries that her employer will make vaccinations mandatory, or that she won't find clients who will let her care for them if she's unvaccinated.

One of her co-workers, a 33-year-old, is already facing that reality: The assisted living facility where her client lives has said that if she's not vaccinated by May 1, she won't be allowed in.

Both women say they are more afraid of the injection than of catching COVID-19, which both say they have staved off by following safety protocols for a year.

"I don't know what's going to happen to me. Health care is all I've known," said the 33-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears backlash from people who know her and because she hasn't told the older man she cares for that she will probably have to stop caring for him.

Like other home health agencies across the state, the women's employers at Encore Caregivers in Houston are trying to navigate a growing dilemma: Their clients want home-based caregivers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but they fear that they soon won't have enough workers who are vaccinated to meet the demand.

"It's starting to rear its head," said Marilou Schopper, owner of Encore, which has more than 100 caregivers on staff. She said 10% of her staff has been vaccinated, and others have plans to be.

Home health and personal care aides help seniors and Texans with disabilities or debilitating illnesses to remain in their homes rather than move into a facility — which most prefer to avoid, according to government studies.

The caregivers are in the state's 1A priority group for front-line health workers but are struggling to get access to vaccines because most aren't affiliated with a state-approved vaccine provider like a hospital or nursing home.

In addition to lack of access, national surveys indicate that at least one-third are hesitant to take the vaccine, though those numbers appear to be decreasing, agency owners say. Researchers say that the main issues are distrust in the level of research on the vaccine and fear of side effects, among others.

Health experts and public officials widely agree that the vaccine is safe. Pfizer and Moderna reported their vaccines are 95% and 94% effective, respectively, at protecting people from serious illness, and while no vaccine is without side effects, clinical trials for both Pfizer and Moderna show serious reactions are rare.

A similar hesitancy issue is being reported among staff at nursing homes, where education efforts are underway to increase trust in the vaccine, according to reports.

As of May 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported some 300,820 personal care and home health attendants are working in Texas, not including those who are self-employed.

The majority of them, like Fuentes and her co-worker, are women of color, who have been disproportionately affected both by the virus and by its economic fallout.

Patient demand, however, may push more caregivers like Fuentes to overcome their vaccine fears if they have a hard time finding clients.

More than 300,000 Texans are getting care at home or in community-based settings through nearly 6,000 home health companies or through private pay or similar avenues, according to a November 2020 report by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

If home health agencies start losing clients because they don't have enough vaccinated health workers, they'll have to lay off workers, said Darby Anderson, vice chair of the Partnership for Medicaid Home-Based Care, a national advocacy group.

"How will you keep my family safe?"

The only thing fending off a crisis, operators say, is that most clients know there aren't enough shots to go around, so many aren't demanding that their caregivers be vaccinated. For now.

"The market is very quickly pushing me towards having COVID-vaccinated staff that I'm going to need to get out to [clients]," said Travis Boldt, director of operations for At Your Side Home Care in Houston, which has about 100 employees. "People are already asking me if I can guarantee that the staff is vaccinated."

That is certainly true at Atria Senior Living in Houston, which offers assisted living, independent living, memory care and short-term stays for seniors. Its parent company, which operates facilities across the U.S. and runs vaccination clinics for residents in partnership with CVS, set a May 1 deadline for employees and private duty aides to be vaccinated.

"The No. 1 thing residents and family members want to know is, 'How will you keep my family safe?'" said Kathleen Dixon, vice president at Atria Senior Living. "We believe our residents deserve to live in a vaccinated environment and our employees deserve to work in a vaccinated environment. It's the responsible thing to do for as many people as possible to be vaccinated, and this includes private and home health aides who serve our residents."

Lora Roberts' 84-year-old mother, who has advanced Parkinson's disease, has been getting hospice care in her Plano home for more than two years and is unable to leave the house to get the vaccine. Roberts is shopping for a new agency that can guarantee her the staff will be vaccinated.

"They come in and out of the home, they go from home to home and they also go from home to nursing home, where we've had a horrible pandemic," Roberts said. "They have not vaccinated their staff. They know I'm mad about it, and I'm looking at taking her out of there."

If the problem goes unchecked, agencies could lose money and be forced to either scale back their operations or close altogether, which would reduce options for home-based care and potentially push more older Texans into costly residential facilities, Anderson said.

The 33-year-old with the client in the assisted living facility knows that refusing the shot likely means scuttling a career she's been building since she was a teenager.

"I think it's cruel to make people choose between keeping their job and getting a vaccine I don't want to get," she said.

Hesitancy and demand

In a recent national survey of more than 100 home health providers by the Home Health Care News group, only 10% said there was "universal acceptance" of the vaccine by staff.

The problem is so troubling to the industry that Anderson's group recently launched a national education campaign called "Be Wise, Immunize" to bring public awareness to home care workers, including testimonials and a website.

Home health workers are mostly women of color, at least half of them live in low-income households, and most have high school diplomas or general equivalency degrees. Research has shown that vaccine hesitancy is higher among people in those demographics.

At Griswold Home Care in San Antonio, administrators surveyed the agency's 130 field staffers in December to find out how many of them planned to be vaccinated. Fewer than 50 said yes, said spokesperson Ryan McGuire, who said the agency is working to educate and encourage staffers to get the vaccine.

Their efforts, combined with a national trend toward increasing acceptance of the vaccine, seem to be working, he said. At the end of January, he said, more than 100 said they wanted to be vaccinated.

"More people they know are getting it, and they're getting a little bit more information," he said. "I think more people are coming around to it."

At Encore Caregivers, Schopper is collecting testimonials from her staffers who have gotten the vaccine in order to help sell acceptance to her staff. In other outreach, she is actively helping them get vaccination appointments through Houston and Harris County-based programs.

Some of her employees, like Rashidat Falore, didn't have to be told twice.

"I wanted to do it, at all costs, because I don't want to catch COVID," said Falore, 60, a Nigerian immigrant who takes care of an 87-year-old client. "You don't want to get infected and infect your client. That's no good. She is vulnerable."

The next challenge

Most home health workers do not have the same access to the vaccine as their counterparts in hospitals, which are authorized to get vaccine allocations and can vaccinate their own staff on site.

Instead, home health workers frequently must get their shots from public vaccination hubs or through scarce public health programs, an arduous process as demand for vaccines in Texas still far outpaces supply, said Rachel Hammon, executive director for the Texas Association of Home Care and Hospice.

"It's been unnecessarily challenging, and agencies have been fighting tooth and nail, in every way, trying to piece together places for their employees to go get vaccinated," Hammon said.

Boldt, the operations director for At Your Side Home Care, said his agency is trying to find a way to help workers get vaccinated, including potentially offering bonuses for time spent getting the shot.

"Getting them the vaccine is really going to be the ultimate solution," he said.

A simple solution, Hammon said, would be if qualified home health agencies were allowed to administer the shot to their employees and clients — like they already are allowed to do with flu and pneumonia vaccines.

A recent change in federal law appeared to open the door to authorizing home health agencies to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas, where they currently aren't allowed to do so, Hammon said. But agencies were notified last week by state health officials that they don't believe it preempts state law.

"It is unconscionable not to look for any possible way to allow for the mobilization of over 30,000 nurses to put shots in the arms of our most vulnerable Texans and the front-line workers who care for them every day," Hammon said.

A bill in the Texas Legislature would allow this, but it could take months to pass. The bill's author, state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said Gov. Greg Abbott should use his emergency powers and allow it temporarily through an executive order.

"Since the state's political leaders and medical experts are all in agreement that we must vaccinate all willing Texans against COVID-19 as swiftly and efficiently as possible, it should follow that we must do everything possible to make that happen — especially cutting away at red tape preventing health care providers from doing their jobs," Howard said. "An executive order from the governor is necessary to provide this temporary relief while the Legislature works to provide a permanent solution."

Meanwhile, home care workers like Fuentes and their employers are waiting to see what will happen in the next few months.

She has some time because her client, a frail 91-year-old, hasn't asked her to get vaccinated. But she knows that her choice to avoid the shot will, at some point, become a matter of deciding whether to stick to her guns or keep her job.

"I'll just work with the ones that are willing to work with me," she said. "I think eventually I will have to get it, but as long as I can push it off, I am."

Texas can't legally secede from the US -- despite popular myth

Simply put, the answer is no. Historical and legal precedents make it clear that Texas could not leave the Union — at least not legally.

The idea is most often raised by conservatives in the state who are angry over some kind of policy coming from the federal government — and the calls seem to become more frequent when a Democrat is occupying the White House. State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, filed a bill Tuesday to create a referendum election on whether Texans should create a joint legislative committee "to develop a plan for achieving Texas independence."

"It is now time that the People of Texas are allowed the right to decide their own future," he said in a statement announcing the legislation.

The bill doesn't appear to have much of a chance. And even if it did, experts say, Texas can't just secede.

"The legality of seceding is problematic," Eric McDaniel, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Texas Tribune in 2016. "The Civil War played a very big role in establishing the power of the federal government and cementing that the federal government has the final say in these issues."

Many historians believe that when the Confederacy surrendered at Appomattox in 1865, the idea of secession was also defeated, McDaniel said. The Union's victory set a precedent that states could not legally secede.

Some have pointed to Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union as an example. But it's important to note that the European Union is a loose association of compound states with preexisting protocols for a nation to exit. In contrast, the U.S. Constitution contains procedures for admitting new states into the nation, but none for a state to leave.

Yet the myth that Texas can easily secede persists, in part, because of the state's history of independence.

Texas declared independence from Mexico in 1836 and spent the next nine years as its own nation. While the young country's leaders first expressed interest in becoming a state in 1836, the Republic of Texas did not join the United States until 1845, when Congress approved the Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States.

This resolution, which stipulated that Texas could, in the future, choose to divide itself into "New States of convenient size not exceeding four in number, in addition to said State of Texas" is often a cause of confusion about the state's ability to secede. But the language of the resolution is clear: Texas can split itself into five new states. It says nothing of splitting apart from the United States.

In the years after Texas joined the United States, tensions over slavery and states' rights mounted. A state convention in 1861 voted 166-8 in favor of secession — a measure that was then ratified by a popular vote, making Texas the seventh state to secede from the Union.

After the Civil War, Texas was readmitted to the Union in 1870.

Yet even before Texas formally rejoined the nation, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that secession was not legal, and thus, even during the rebellion, Texas continued to be a state. In the 1869 case Texas v. White, the court held that individual states could not unilaterally secede from the Union and that the acts of the insurgent Texas Legislature — even if ratified by a majority of Texans — were "absolutely null."

If there were any doubt remaining after that, late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia set it to rest more than a century later with his response to a letter from a screenwriter in 2006 asking if there is a legal basis for secession.

"The answer is clear," Scalia wrote. "If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. (Hence, in the Pledge of Allegiance, 'one Nation, indivisible.')"

Matthew Watkins contributed reporting.

Editor's note: A version of this story originally published in 2016.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin 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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