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Home | Tag Archives: governor greg abbott

Tag Archives: governor greg abbott

Almost all Texas businesses are allowed to open at 50% capacity, Gov. Abbott says

Gov. Greg Abbott announced his third phase Wednesday of reopening Texas businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing virtually all of them to operate at 50% capacity.

That is effective immediately, and there are “very limited exceptions,” Abbott’s office said.

Restaurants were already permitted to be open at 50% capacity. Abbott is allowing them to immediately increase their table size from six people to 10, and on June 12, they can ramp up their capacities to 75%.

Abbott’s latest order also brings news for professional and college sports that are played outdoors, letting the former shift from 25% capacity to 50% capacity at their stadiums and allowing the latter to resume for the first time, also at 50%.

“The people of Texas continue to prove that we can safely and responsibly open our state for business while containing COVID-19 and keeping our state safe,” Abbott said in a statement.

While the number of cases continues to rise in Texas, Abbott emphasized that the new cases are “largely the result of isolated hot spots in nursing homes, jails, and meat packing plants.” Those places made up more than 45% of the new cases over about the last week, according to his office.

The state’s focus on those hot spots has contributed to some of the largest daily case counts over the past week.

“On Monday, Texas saw its highest 7-day average of new cases since the pandemic began,” state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus, tweeted after Abbott unveiled the third phase Wednesday afternoon. “The data are clear — unfortunately, COVID-19 cases are moving in the wrong direction right now and we need to tap the brakes, not step on the gas.”

There is fine print to Abbott’s latest announcement. Amusement parks and carnivals are among the business that are allowed to immediately operate at 50% capacity — but only if they are in counties with fewer than 1,000 cases. Amusements parks and carnivals in counties with more than 1,000 cases can scale up to 50% capacity June 19.

And bars, which were previously capped at 25% capacity, can immediately go up to 50% as long as customers remain seated.

As he has done before, Abbott gives the state’s smallest counties permission to move more quickly in his latest reopening announcement. On June 12, any business in a county with 10 or fewer active cases that was previously open at 50% capacity can increase to 75%.

Texas has now had 68,271 coronavirus cases, including 1,734 deaths, according to the latest data Wednesday from the Department of State Health Services. Over 90% of the state’s 254 counties have reported cases.

As of Wednesday, there had been 1,150,868 tests conducted in Texas, the DSHS figures show. While testing has gone up, it is still regularly falling short of the 30,000 tests per day that Abbott had set for reopening the state.

Abbott has also focused on the positivity rate, or the ratio of confirmed cases to total tests. That figure, presented by the state as a seven-day rolling average, dropped from a high of 13.86% in mid-April to between 4% and 6% for most of May. In recent days, however, the figure has been on an upward trend, hitting 8.22% on Wednesday.

Abbott has said in recent weeks that Texans should anticipate temporary increases in the positivity rate as the state dispatches its surge response teams to the three kinds of hot spots: prisons and jails, nursing homes and meatpacking plants.

Another statistic that Abbott has prioritized is the daily number of hospitalizations due to the virus. That trend has not seen any major fluctuations in recent weeks, with the figure ranging between 1,400 and 1,800 most days. It was 1,487 on Wednesday.

Author: PATRICK SVITEKThe Texas Tribune

Gov. Greg Abbott is cracking down on cities’ enforcement of COVID-19 orders, but many already took a lax approach

A few days after Easter, the Police Department in Lubbock received a call from a concerned employee of a car dealership on the southwest side of the Panhandle town.

Management had continued to flout safety orders imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, part of an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the employee who said he was about to self-quarantine after coming into contact with personal protective equipment a customer had left in a traded-in vehicle.

It was the fifth time the city had received a complaint about the McGavock Nissan dealership in less than three weeks. The fire marshal’s office dispatched an inspector who confirmed that the dealership was not enforcing social distancing guidelines or sanitizing cars between test drives.

But the inspector issued no citation, instead passing along the information to “city hall for directive.”

The next day, on the opposite end of the sprawling state, police in the border town of Laredo were alerted to social media posts from two women, one doing nails and the other eyelash extensions, from their homes in violation of Abbott’s orders. Neither was a licensed cosmetologist.

Instead of issuing warnings or urging them to comply, as happened in Lubbock, Laredo police launched an undercover sting to catch the two women, resulting in their arrests.

As Texas now reopens at Abbott’s direction, under a much looser set of restrictions, a ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis of complaint data in a dozen cities shows these disparate approaches to enforcement — particularly among businesses — were incredibly common across the state.

Cities and counties arrived at dramatically different interpretations of Abbott’s emergency orders. Austin, so far, has issued just two citations, while others like Laredo and Dallas have written hundreds of tickets, in addition to arresting a handful of business owners who defied orders to close. In one case, a smoke shop chain was cited 16 times in San Antonio but received only verbal guidance in Austin.

The erratic pattern foreshadows the struggles cities and counties now face as they interpret an entirely new set of regulations on reopening. That’s further complicated as enforcement has become a political hot-button issue across Texas and the U.S. Abbott, a Republican, has repeatedly changed his guidance as his party base grows more agitated.

Local officials say Abbott’s loosened regulations that limit the capacity of restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses at 25% — a cap that could increase to 50% next week — are also logistically tricky to enforce.

Until recently, Abbott appeared largely amenable to cities and counties interpreting his directives however they saw fit, deciding when to arrest or fine violators, warn them verbally, leave informational flyers or do nothing at all.

His first major emergency order provided for fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to 180 days or both.

Then, he changed his mind.

In recent weeks, Abbott and the state’s other Republican leaders have blasted local officials in Dallas and Houston for what they called overzealous enforcement of COVID-19 regulations, first zeroing in on Democratically led Harris County’s decision to fine residents for not wearing face masks, a penalty Abbott banned in his April 27 reopening order. The fights came to a head this month with the arrest of a Dallas hair salon owner who refused to shutter her business, an act of defiance that was supported by a right-wing group that launched a GoFundMe campaign a day before she reopened that raised $500,000 before it was disabled.

Abbott subsequently announced he would ban cities from arresting people for violating virus regulations and retroactively nullify any prosecutions. He also reopened hair salons sooner than expected.

Last week, the Texas District and County Attorneys Association issued guidance to prosecutors in response to Abbott’s changing directives. “If the governor is going to keep changing the tune he plays as he leads the state out of this pandemic, there is little incentive to put your own necks on the line to enforce an order that could be invalidated the next day.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said: “It’s just not enforceable. The second the political winds changed, he (Abbott) not only changed the rules, he left the local government and the local judges holding the bag. You just can’t trust that he’ll stand by the orders he makes in the future.”

In a statement, Abbott’s communications director John Wittman said: “Throwing Texans in jail who have had their businesses shut down through no fault of their own is nonsensical and the Governor will not allow it to happen. That is why he modified his executive order to ensure confinement is not a punishment for violating an order — however, fines and license suspension or revocation still apply.”

On Tuesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton upped the ante again, telling three of the state’s largest counties that their decisions to extend stay-at-home orders despite the governor’s decision to ease up were “unlawful and can confuse law-abiding citizens.”

But for all the outcry and focus on extreme enforcement approaches, the ProPublica-Tribune analysis has found that for every example of aggressive enforcement, there are far more instances of leniency — and in some cases a lax approach that placed workers at risk of contracting the virus.

Officials in cities defended their individual approaches, saying they have done what is best to protect their communities while having to enforce unprecedented and complex regulations.

Laredo police investigator Joe Baeza, the department spokesperson, said in an interview that it was necessary to arrest the two women offering beauty services, though prosecutors could no longer pursue charges after Abbott revised his order to ban arrests.

“Who answers when several dozen people get sick from the same nail service?” he asked, adding the first cases in the city were from community spread, not travel. “Those potential risks were there, and that’s the reason why the city took the proactive stance” of closing the businesses.

“We won’t know who was right and who was wrong until all this is over with,” he said.

Lives and livelihoods

As Texas experiments with reopening and public health officials warn that doing so could unwind any progress the state has made on COVID-19, many local officials say they are now taking a step back from policing virus regulations — including officials who had eagerly wielded the enforcement authority Abbott initially gave them.

The ProPublica-Tribune analysis of call logs and enforcement records in a dozen cities found that the municipalities had received more than 23,500 complaints from mid-March to the beginning of May, a period when the stay-at-home rules were more clearly defined.

In six cities — Houston, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso, Lubbock and McAllen — roughly 300 citations were issued from mid-March to the end of April, far fewer than the number of violations found. For every 20 violations ProPublica and the Tribune identified in these six cities, authorities handed out one citation.

Complete data for all six cities is not available for the first two weeks of May, when businesses were operating under Abbott’s relaxed restrictions. But San Antonio, which keeps up-to-date enforcement data in a public dashboard, provides a glimpse of what may be happening in other places.

Early on, San Antonio received a flood of calls and, in most cases, found that the subjects of most of these complaints were indeed violating the orders. In the first 10 days of April, officials found violations in 49% of complaints they received, and they issued citations in about 3.5% of cases.

But the numbers dropped dramatically in the first 10 days of this month when the state moved to partially open dine-in restaurants: not only were complaints down, but officials found significantly fewer violations, now only about 31% on average. They issued citations in only 1.8% of cases.

Law enforcement as well as fire and inspection officials in cities across Texas said in interviews that they initially prioritized educating residents and business owners about the importance of stay-at-home and closure orders, and that overall businesses and citizens have done a surprisingly good job of it.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said his city’s goal was always education, not punishment. “Punitive measures and forced compliance is ultimately not the way we’re going to battle this disease,” he said. “It’s going to be data and information and transparency so businesses and the public can make informed decisions about public health.”

Dr. Eric Toner, senior scholar and scientist at the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said there’s no way communities can enforce their way into compliance. “We don’t have enough police to give citations or arrest all the people who might not follow the guidance,” he said. “It requires leadership; it requires our elected officials getting on television and saying you really must do the following and here’s why it’s important to you.”

In Lubbock, officials checked in repeatedly on the Nissan dealership, but reports indicate management continued to ignore certain safety guidelines in place at the time.

The McGavock Nissan dealership in Lubbock on May 13, 2020. While the dealership was allowed to fully reopen nearly a month ago, city enforcement officials found it violated COVID-19 safety orders several times during the early weeks of the pandemic.
Mark Rogers for The Texas Tribune

In late March, inspectors found there were too many customers in the showroom. Management promised to comply and received no citation.

About a week later, the Lubbock fire marshal’s office paid another visit to the dealership after speaking with a worried partner of an employee who said that managers had instructed workers to ignore the fire marshal’s instructions and hide if an inspector showed up, records show.

According to city records, the inspector observed more than 10 employees on the sales side. Dealer principal Brent McGavock argued that he was allowed to have that many because the service department was considered an essential function.

“I don’t want anybody to get sick, I just want to make a little money through all of this,” McGavock told the inspector after mentioning that one employee in his San Marcos dealership had already tested positive.

He then boasted of his connections to a city councilman and local Congressman Jodey Arrington, whom he called his best friend, according to the report.

McGavock disputed the city’s account in an interview, saying the congressman was “an acquaintance” whom he grew up with and reached out to for clarification about the state’s orders.

The dealership’s director of operations, John Pate, conceded that it was still learning the rules when the city first determined it was in violation of state orders. But he said he was never told about the mid-April violation, which he called “bullshit” because the dealership had immediately closed the showroom and ceased test drives after receiving delayed clarification from the city.

McGavock said, “My reputation making a buck means nothing to me over the safety of the people that work for me.”

On April 14, after witnessing sales representatives taking test drives with customers, the fire marshal inspector submitted a report to the city’s business development director, Brianna Gerardi, who said she’s done everything she can to get repeat offenders to voluntarily comply. She even tried to get a local chapter of a state auto dealer association to convince the Nissan owner to follow the rules, but then the federal government expanded the list of essential businesses to include car sales.

“It’s such a complex issue,” said Gerardi, explaining the difficulty of implementing rules when they are constantly changing. “You are dealing with human beings and both their lives and their livelihoods.”

The business never received a citation.

Using discretion

In Houston, the state’s largest city with a population well over 2 million, Fire Chief Samuel Peña said his inspectors initially reserved the few citations they handed out for repeat offenders: businesses that refused to comply, including an adult entertainment store that claimed to be essential because it sold products that could be considered medical equipment.

In the early stages of the crisis, Peña’s inspectors might spend two to three hours responding to a single call, ping-ponging between businesses to determine whether a sporting goods store could remain open because it sold guns or a department store because it sold mattresses.

The Houston Fire Department fielded an average of 78 calls complaining of alleged violations each day in April, and it handed out 10 citations from March 18 to May 12.

“Look, on a personal level, I get it,” Peña said. “It’s these small businesses especially, that’s their livelihood. And that’s why we gave the inspectors the discretion to try to handle it at the lowest level and not go to the stick right away with a fine or any of the penalties.”

Houston has been taken to court over at least one of its enforcement decisions: shutting down a strip club that reopened under Abbott’s 25% rule, arguing that it was primarily a restaurant with added entertainment. The courts ultimately sided with the business.

ProPublica and the Tribune found certain industries showed up in complaint call logs again and again. Many of them, like grocery and hardware stores, were open because they had been deemed essential though callers alleged they weren’t requiring customers to stay 6 feet away from one another. Call centers were particularly prevalent, but the ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis could find no citations issued against any of the companies.

In El Paso, home to 19,000 call center workers, managers did their best to hide glaring safety and social distancing violations from enforcement officials, according to city complaint reports, as well as interviews with more than a dozen employees and their loved ones. Supervisors instructed employees to hide, flee their workspaces and spread out when inspectors arrived.

At the Alorica East call center, the company’s largest site in North America, employees said management was dismissive about safety concerns during the early weeks of the pandemic. The company only began implementing social distancing and other protective guidelines after employees said management told them workers tested positive. Neither the company nor the El Paso health department would confirm those cases.

Still, as of last week the company had a training class that exceeded the 10-person gathering limit and an estimated 200 to 300 employees coming in every day, according to an employee who continued working from the office until Tuesday, when the call center temporarily shut down.

The Alorica East call center in El Paso on May 7. Employees said management only began implementing social distancing and other protective guidelines after workers tested positive in April.
Jordyn Rozensky for The Texas Tribune

“There’s always someone ready for us to be replaced,” said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous because of fear of retaliation. “For the most part, we all know where we stand as employees for that company.”

Alorica spokesperson Sunny Yu said prior to the shut down, the majority of the site’s 1,000 employees were already working from home, which allowed remaining staff to practice proper social distancing. Yu also defended the company’s response to the pandemic, saying Alorica was early to adopt safety measures including temperature checks, masks and virtual meetings.

Despite more than 295 complaints about Alorica and a handful of other El Paso call centers, as of last week fire marshal inspectors had not cited violations during their repeated visits. El Paso enforcement officials say they lack the authority to do so under Abbott’s orders, which state essential businesses “should” follow federal health guidelines rather than “shall.”

“Tired of it”

Lubbock Assistant Fire Marshal Michael Jones, who has worked on developing the city’s enforcement strategy, says the city knew calculating and implementing occupancy rates would be a challenge as the governor began to allow certain businesses to open at limited capacity starting May 1. Because the department does not have enough employees to figure out exact occupancy loads for every business, the city instead created instructions for business owners to determine it themselves.

“There’s no way you can be at all 8,000 to 10,000 businesses to calculate them, so you have to figure out a way to get them close enough to where they’re in compliance,” Jones said.

Since Abbott began loosening restrictions and businesses started to reopen, Peña, Houston’s fire chief, said his department has stopped issuing citations altogether, though the volume of complaints remains high. Instead, it is focusing on education. “It started getting very muddy,” he said of the governor’s changing stance on enforcement. “We’re not going to expend city resources to enforce an order that’s not going to be backed up.”

In the early stages of pandemic response, Peña said the city required more than 220 firefighters to quarantine at the same time because of potential exposure to COVID-19. That number is down to 34, but he’s worried it could begin to climb back up.

Toner of Johns Hopkins also cautioned that progress could be easily unwound as businesses start opening doors and some semblance of people’s previous activities resumes.

“People are antsy and people are tired of it and they need to work because they have no money so now is the time for leaders to, I think, stand up and say … now is not the time to give up.”

Signs of frustration were clear in San Antonio early this month, when a police officer found a sports bar open for business on Cinco de Mayo. About 50 people were crowded inside, according to the city’s enforcement data. None were social distancing, and none wore masks.

The officer gave the owner a citation. He said he’d accept the ticket and fight it in court.

He could no longer afford to remain closed, he said.

Laredo, which had issued 12 times the number of citations for violating stay-at-home orders as San Antonio, a city several times its size, has now significantly dialed back its enforcement in light of the shifting state direction. The city had created a task force of roughty 75 people to enforce the stringent stay home orders. A few weeks into Abbott’s scaled-back orders, that number was 15.

Last weekend, officers even gave the green light to mariachi groups, who asked if they could take jobs to sing serenades on Mother’s Day, when their services are in high demand across the city. Officers gave them the go-ahead, as long as they performed outside and respected the city’s COVID-19 10 p.m. curfew, which remains in effect through the end of May.

The city had one more recommendation, one they could no longer enforce with fines: that anyone in a mariachi group not singing wear a face mask.

Chris Essig contributed to this report.


This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Gov. Greg Abbott issues 8 executive orders aimed at stopping potential mass shooters

Gov. Greg Abbott has issued eight executive orders in response to the El Paso and Odessa-Midland mass shootings that happened just weeks apart, his office announced Thursday.

“Texas must achieve several objectives to better protect our communities and our residents from mass shootings,” Abbott said in a statement. “I will continue to work expeditiously with the legislature on laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals, while safeguarding the 2nd Amendment rights of law-abiding Texans.”

Abbott’s eight executive orders:

  • Within thirty days of this order, the Texas Department of Public Safety shall develop standardized intake questions that can be used by all Texas law-enforcement agencies to better identify whether a person calling the agency has information that should be reported to the Texas Suspicious Activity Reporting Network.
  • Within thirty days of this order, the Department of Public Safety shall develop clear guidance, based on the appropriate legal standard, for when and how Texas law-enforcement agencies should submit Suspicious Activity Reports.
  • Within sixty days of this order, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement shall make training available to educate all law-enforcement officers regarding the standards that will be developed pursuant to Order No. 1 and Order No. 2.
  • The Department of Public Safety shall create and conduct an initiative to raise public awareness and understanding of how Suspicious Activity Reports are used by law-enforcement agencies to identify potential mass shooters or terroristic threats, so that the general public and friends, family members, coworkers, neighbors, and classmates will be more likely to report information about potential gunmen.
  • The Department of Public Safety shall work with the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board on ways to better inform schools, students, staff, and families about the importance of Suspicious Activity Reports and how to initiate that process.
  • The Department of Public Safety shall work with local law enforcement, mental-health professionals, school districts, and others to create multidisciplinary threat assessment teams for each of its regions, and when appropriate shall coordinate with federal partners.
  • The Department of Public Safety, as well as the Office of the Governor, shall use all available resources to increase staff at all fusion centers in Texas for the purpose of better collecting and responding to Suspicious Activity Reports, and better monitoring and analyzing social media and other online forums, for potential threats.
  • Beginning January 1, 2020, all future grant awards from the Office of the Governor to counties shall require a commitment that the county will report at least 90 percent of convictions within seven business days to the Criminal Justice Information System at the Department of Public Safety. By January 1, 2021, such reporting must take place within five business days.
  • This developing story will be updated soon.

Author:   – The Texas Tribune

Read related Tribune coverage

Governor Greg Abbott to Speak at Donald Trump’s Campaign Event with Ted Cruz

Gov. Greg Abbott said Wednesday that he will be speaking at President Donald Trump’s campaign event with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in Houston on Monday.

Trump’s campaign announced Monday evening that the rally would take place at the NRG Arena on the first day of early voting for the November 6 election.

The competitive U.S. Senate race pits Cruz against U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso.

The rally is set to begin at 6:30 p.m.

The governor announced his attendance while speaking at an event to accept the Governor’s Trophy following the University of Texas Longhorns’ recent win over the University of Oklahoma Sooners in the Red River Showdown Game.

Author: MATT ZDUN – The Texas Tribune

KTSM to Broadcast, Stream Friday’s Texas Gubernatorial Debate

KTSM TV, and their parent company Nexstar Media Group, announced Monday that they will host the only Texas gubernatorial debate between incumbent Governor Greg Abbott (R) and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez (D).

The broadcast/stream is set for Friday, September 28, 2018 at 6:00 p.m. MT.

The one-hour, statewide debate will air state-wide on Nexstar stations, in addition to broadcast partners, and select Telemundo stations and all radio stations in the state.

The debate will be held in Austin at the LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas. The debate will be moderated by Robert Hadlock of KXAN News in Austin. He will be joined by a panel of  local news anchors and journalists from across the state who will deliver questions to the candidates, including Julie Fine of KXAS NBC 5 news, Andy Cerota of KPRC 2 news, Steve Spriester of KSAT 12 news and Norma Garcia of Telemundo 39.

The questions will be focused on topical local/regional issues impacting communities across Texas and candidate-specific subjects.

Local viewers may access a live-stream of the debate online by visiting KTSM’s website.

Prospects For “Red Flag” Gun Law in Texas Plummet as Abbott Sees “Coalescence” Against It

The chances of Texas passing a so-called “red flag” law after the Santa Fe school shooting continued to drop Friday as Gov. Greg Abbott said he saw a “coalescence” against the proposal.

As part of his school safety plan released after the May 18 massacre, the Republican governor asked the Legislature to consider such a law, which would allow courts to order the seizure or surrender of guns from people are deemed an imminent threat by a judge.

But even then, Abbott’s request for lawmakers to study the proposal drew the ire of some Second Amendment hardliners in the governor’s party, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick declared Tuesday that he has never supported a “red flag” law and suggested it would be dead on arrival in the Senate.

Abbott, appearing Friday at an unrelated news conference in Austin, was asked if he still wanted lawmakers to consider the idea in the wake of Patrick’s comment.

“If you go back and look at what I said in my plan, I suggested what the Legislature consider — whether or not the existing protective order laws in the state of Texas were adequate or whether or not they should be amended to add emergency risk protective orders,” Abbott said. “And it seems like there’s coalescence around the notion of not supporting what’s categorized as a ‘red flag’ law. What is important is … that we work together as a legislative body towards solution to make our schools safer and to make our communities safer.”

Abbott included red flag proposals in his school and gun safety plan after the issue was raised at a roundtable discussion in the week following the massacre in Santa Fe. In his plan, Abbott encouraged the Legislature to “consider the merits of adopting a red flag law” that would allow firearms to be removed from a potentially dangerous person after legal due process. In the plan, he claimed that protective orders restricting gun possession, like red flag laws, could have prevented the mass shootings in Sutherland Springs and Parkland, Florida.

On Friday, Abbott reiterated that his request for lawmakers to consider a “red flag” law was not meant to be a personal endorsement of the proposal. “That’s correct, and also as you know, I made that clear,” Abbott told reporters, alluding to June tweet where he told a critic he does not “advocate red flag laws” in his school safety plan, “only that is something the legislature can consider.”

The tweet came during a 12-hour Texas House hearing on potential red flag legislation, after the topic, and concerns of Abbott’s approval, gained sharp criticism from conservative groups and opposition toward any such law was written in the Texas GOP’s party platform.

In the plan, Abbott also asked the Legislature to evaluate whether existing protective orders that prohibit gun possession are sufficient. Currently, courts can notify Texans under certain protective orders, like those in domestic violence cases, that they cannot own guns or ammunition, but state law gives no guidance on how to enforce the prohibition.


Abbott to Trump: Steel and Aluminum Tariffs Will Harm Texas Oil and Gas

Gov. Greg Abbott urged President Donald Trump in a letter Thursday to reconsider his tariffs on foreign steel and aluminum, arguing the imported metals are vital to the growth of Texas’ economy.

In the letter, Abbott praised his fellow Republican for guiding the country to a time of increased job creation and thriving agriculture, technology and energy sectors by “modernizing our nation’s trade policies” to work in the United States’ favor. But Abbott also emphasized the necessity of foreign steel and aluminum to the continued growth of American oil and gas, which have an enormous footprint in Texas.

“Our country’s steel and aluminum workers are a vital part of the national workforce, and creating jobs in that industry must be a top priority,” said the letter. “But attempting to protect these jobs through the new tariffs could jeopardize the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Texans and other Americans employed in the oil and gas industry.”

Trump announced the steel and aluminum tariffs earlier this year, targeting some of the United States’ closest allies, such as the European Union, Canada and Mexico. The tariffs are designed to boost the domestic steel and aluminum industries, but critics have expressed worry about trade wars and other ripple effects.

The president has also repeatedly argued against free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement, which he says unfairly benefits the United States’ partners at its expense.

Abbott, a vocal supporter of Trump, has also spoken in the past about NAFTA’s necessity in advancing the economy of Texas. The state’s trade with Mexico surpassed $187 billion in 2017. Abbott wrote a letter on April 4 to a top administration official arguing that elements of NAFTA were vital to Texas.

The state accounted for more than $8.3 billion in steel and aluminum imports in 2017, more than twice any other state, according to the letter. Abbott said increasing the costs of imported steel and aluminum would hinder the U.S. oil and gas industry from surpassing its competitors and that Texas oil and gas accounts for more than twice as many jobs as the national steel and aluminum industry.

Protecting steel and aluminum jobs has been a large talking point for Trump since he first announced his candidacy.

“Our Steel and Aluminum industries (and many others) have been decimated by decades of unfair trade and bad policy with countries from around the world,” Trump tweeted in March. “We must not let our country, companies and workers be taken advantage of any longer. We want free, fair and SMART TRADE!”

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: MATTHEW CHOI – The Texas Tribune

After Santa Fe Shooting, Gov. Abbott Sees West Texas Mental Health Program as Statewide Model

A Lubbock-based program seeing success helping prevent at-risk students from committing violent acts is getting more attention after Gov. Greg Abbott touted it as a potential statewide model to reduce school shootings the day after a student allegedly shot 10 people to death at his a southeast Texas high school.

The Telemedicine Wellness, Intervention, Triage, and Referral Project at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center works to identify junior high and high school students most at risk for committing violence in schools and intervene before it happens.

At Santa Fe High School on Friday, police said 17-year-old junior Dimitrios Pagourtzis, armed with his father’s legally-owned shotgun and .38 revolver, killed eight students and two teachers and wounded 10 others. Pagourtzis, who had written about his plans in his journal but otherwise showed no obvious danger signs according to Abbott, has been charged with capital murder and remains in Galveston County Jail without bond, the school district said.

Abbott alluded to Tech’s program in a Friday tweet, saying “we want to use it across the state.”

But could it identify, and stop, someone like the alleged Santa Fe shooter?

Billy Philips, executive vice president for rural and community health at Tech’s Health Sciences Center, said he “was a bit surprised” to hear Abbott mention the program, which he said has seen success but is still being refined and perfected.

Philips said the project has found students at West Texas schools possessing notes, maps, threats and other evidence that they may have been planning a mass shooting. He said the screenings have helped avert violent incidents and got students the help they needed.

“The aim of it is really to provide just one more tool to be sure that our schools are safe,” Philips said. “To make sure that our kids have the opportunity to not worry while they’re in school, to create a peace about it so they can learn and grown and share ideas … things we all did when we were in school.”

The program launched in 2014, in response to a pair of mass shootings in 2012: A theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado that killed 12 people and injured 70 others and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. that left 20 children and six adult staff members dead.

The Criminal Justice Division of Abbott’s office funded the program with a $565,000 grant.

Through the program, at-risk students at 10 West Texas school districts who show aggressive or harmful behavior are identified and then screened for potential psychiatric services. Parents have to consent each step of the way. Students first receive two psychiatry sessions at school — in which they use laptops to video conference with a child adolescent psychiatrist working remotely — and additional psychiatric services are provided through the center’s clinic.

Since its launch, more than 400 students have been referred to the program, with 200 getting screened for anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation — and whether they’re prone to violence or violent thoughts. Those screenings can lead to psychiatric appointments and sometimes immediate hospitalizations and arrests for planning violent incidents like shootings, according to an April 30 brief that Tech’s Health Sciences Center published about the program.

In four years, the program has had 25 students removed from school, 44 placed in alternative schools and 38 sent to a hospital.

The project also measures success through changes in grades, truancy referrals and discipline referrals. So far,  Philips said, the program has seen a 37 percent drop in referrals for students who received services.

He said the program also helps the targeted schools amid a statewide shortage of mental health professionals. Philips said before the program, students would sometimes have to wait weeks to get an appointment to see a psychiatrist. Using telemedicine, “we can get those links in moments and those moments can be critical in some situations,” he said.

Philips said the program is looking to expand into five more school districts.

“We’ve got about a third of our kids in schools these days who are troubled by some form of mental illness either directly or because they live in a home environment where someone has trouble,” Philips said. “The services need to be there for them, the people need to be there that are trained to help with mental health issues. This is one approach that we use in schools that seems to be very effective.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

Author: MARISSA EVANS – The Texas Tribune

Abbott Officially calls Special Session, Allowing Lawmakers to Begin Filing Bills

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a declaration for a special session of the Texas Legislature Monday, formally inviting lawmakers back to Austin to pass “sunset legislation” that will keep several key state agencies open.

The long-awaited procedural move allows lawmakers to begin filing bills for the special session set to begin on July 18.

In addition to the formal declaration, Abbott also released a draft version of 19 additional items he plans to add to the special session agenda later on. Last month, Abbott announced that lawmakers would consider 20 total legislative items during the special session.

Lawmakers’ failure to pass “sunset” legislation during this year’s 140-day regular session forced Abbott to call the special session. Absent that measure, government agencies including the Texas Medical Board, which licenses doctors across the state, will have to shut down.

“With today’s proclamation, and with bill authors already lined up for all special session items, I look forward to working with the House and Senate to finish the people’s business,” Abbott said in a statement.

During the special session, lawmakers will return to several controversial issues that deeply divided the state’s Republican leadership, including a so-called “bathroom bill” that seeks to restrict which bathrooms transgender Texans can use. In his unofficial supplemental call, Abbott described that issue as “legislation regarding the use of multi-occupancy showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and changing rooms.”

Abbott also wants legislators to take on school finance reform, school choice for special needs students and several local control measures.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott is plotting an aggressive approach to the upcoming special session of the Legislature, diverting from his above-the-fray style to try to see through an ambitious 20-item agenda. [link]
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced he was calling the Legislature back for a special session to address must-pass “sunset” legislation and 19 other measures. Here’s what Texans can expect ahead of July 18. [link]

Author: ANDY DUEHREN – The Texas Tribune

Abbott Plots Aggressive Approach to Special Session

Gov. Greg Abbott is plotting an aggressive approach to the upcoming special session of the Legislature, diverting from his above-the-fray style to try to see through an ambitious 20-item agenda.

The push came into public view Thursday, when Abbott’s office began announcing lawmakers who will take the lead on individual items — state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, and state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, intend to author legislation cracking down on mail-in ballot fraud, for example. Abbott’s office is working to line up similar pairs for all 20 items.

These are not the only preparations his office has been making for the special session, which begins July 18. Since its announcement, his staff has been privately meeting with a range of stakeholders to solicit their input and build support for the agenda.

“I think there clearly is a sense that they’re much more engaged,” said Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which met last week with Abbott’s staff.

People like Craymer note that it’s natural for the governor and his office to be more hands-on in the lead-up to a special session because the agenda is entirely of the governor’s making. But some also say the increased level of engagement is notable after a regular session in which Abbott faced some criticism for being absent from legislative battles.

Abbott sought to recapture the spotlight June 6 when he laid out his surprisingly lengthy special session call, asking lawmakers to take up everything from raising teachers’ pay by $1,000 to pre-empting local ordinance regulating trees on private land. He ordered legislators to first pass a series of bills that prevent some state agencies from closing.

People who have spoken to Abbott’s office in recent days say they realize the agenda is a heavy lift but are determined to get it done. Abbott’s staff, one of those people said, “are not walking into this unaware of the challenge.”

“The buzz is that they’ve called every trade association in town, they are visiting with people from across the state, visiting aggressively with folks in making sure that as much of this agenda as possible is passed during the special session in hopes that there’s not another,” said Luis Saenz, a lobbyist who used to work for Abbott’s office.

One trade organization Abbott’s office has met with is the Texas Building Owners and Managers Association, which represents commercial real estate throughout the state and has an interest in property tax reform. The group’s president, Brett Williams, said Abbott’s office walked him through all 20 items and left him with the impression that they are “trying to get the issues across the line.”

Abbott, for his part, has declined to say whether he is willing to call subsequent special sessions if lawmakers do not complete his checklist in their first 30 days. Technically, the special session is not even official yet — Abbott has not filed the proclamation that would allow lawmakers to start filing bills, and his office has not given any indication of when he may.

Regardless, Abbott’s office sees a number of sources for optimism once the special session gets underway: Without any must-pass bills — aside from the agency-saving measures — there is less potential for hostage-taking. It’s much harder for the House to get away with killing legislation in the Calendars Committee, which sets the daily agenda, when there aren’t thousands of bills flowing through it. And in general, the spotlight will be burning bright and hot on the 20 items with far fewer distractions.

Abbott’s massively funded political operation — his re-election campaign has a $34.4 million war chest and no serious opponent — will also be closely watching the special session. Sources say he and his office plan to make clear “who’s with him and who’s not” on his agenda for the special session, which will unfold with a few months until candidate filing begins for the 2018 election cycle.

What remains to be seen is whether the preparation will be enough to overcome the challenges that led to a special session in the first place: sharp differences on priorities between the House and Senate and, to a lesser extent, between the House and the governor. There have been few signs those tensions have thawed since the end of the regular session.

In a speech last week, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, jokingly compared Abbott’s special session agenda to a pile of manure while throwing cold water on multiple agenda items.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, meanwhile, has continued to present himself as Abbott’s eager partner at the top of the state government, all but pledging the Senate’s full support for the governor’s special session agenda.

“I’m glad we’re having a special session,” the lieutenant governor said in a radio interview Wednesday. “The governor and I are linked shoulder-to-shoulder on these issues.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Texas lawmakers will return to Austin in a month to take another swing at more than a dozen issues they couldn’t resolve during the regular legislative session. So what has changed? [link]
  • A review of Gov. Greg Abbott’s schedule during May provides a glimpse into the final stretch of the legislative session, where the governor tried in vain to bring together lawmakers to avoid a special session. [link]
  • Well before the current legislative standoff over public accommodations for transgender Texans, the political elements of the “bathroom bill” fight were falling into place. [link]

Author:  PATRICK SVITEK – The Texas Tribune

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