State of Texas: Tough questions about vaccines, STAAR tests and the Attorney General

State of the State

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Already 3.7 million Texas have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Department of State Health Services. The number will grow in the coming weeks, fueled in part by the expected approval of a third vaccine.

Despite the climbing numbers, many Texans are still waiting to receive their vaccines, including Anna Johndrow and her husband Don. They received their first dose, but struggled to schedule an appointment for their second dose. After weeks of trying, Anna and Don finally got an appointment for Friday.

“It’s that vacuum of information that has us particularly worried and concerned about the entire rollout,” Anna said. “We were fortunate but what about other people?”

Concerns like that are also hitting smaller Texas cities and counties. Although the Webb County vaccine hub in the City of Laredo Health Department received more than 18,000 doses, area Democrats argue the state should be sending more support. Laredo city council member Albert Torres Jr. said the city partially closed non-essential activities.

“The data showed that our actions worked, until of course, the governor took our powers away and instead provided a much more relaxed order that allowed for, for him in his mind, the best of both worlds, which was reckless,” Torres said.

On the other hand, Gov. Greg Abbott believes Texas is on the right track.

“Texas is doing such a good job across the entire state, increasing vaccinations and we are limited by what the federal government provides us,” Abbott said. “But we’re moving very swiftly through categories 1A and 1B.”

Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is expected to be approved by the FDA very soon. Dr. Sonaj Raj, a DSHS scientific advisor and vaccinologist, says although it has a lower efficacy rate than vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still effective at preventing hospitalizations. Plus, the single-dose vaccine could be easier to distribute.

“This is a more rugged technology more durable and stable, and what we’ve seen with Pfizer and Moderna,” Raj said. “So therefore, it does not require the same ultra-low temperature or frozen temperature conditions that currently we have seen with Pfizer and Moderna.”

The Texas Military Department sent mobile vaccination teams to five more rural counties: San Saba, Goliad, Sterling, Jeff Davis and Crockett. Because Monday is a federal holiday and there is inclement weather, the State Health Department warns there may be shipment delays.

In the meantime, Texans like Anna are looking forward to their turn to receive the vaccine so they can return to business as usual.

“I have a new granddaughter who is going to arrive in May,” Anna said. “And I would like very much to be able to be present at her birth.”

STAAR testing requirements waived for remote students

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Thursday defended his decision to administer the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — known commonly as the STAAR test — despite opposition from many teachers and parents who claim the on-campus assessments are unfair and unsafe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Without the STAAR test, the learning gap created by the pandemic may grow and the state will not know how to effectively support students falling behind, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath told the Texas Tribune.

“How do we know the grand changes we have to make to meet the moral obligation we have to our children?” Morath said.

However, due to logistical barriers, students who are learning remotely won’t take the STAAR test. That decision will be up to their families, Morath said.

High school seniors will have to pass the STAAR end of course exams in order to graduate, unlike last year when it was waived due to the pandemic. Former Austin ISD board chair and current state representative Gina Hinojosa is calling for the state to drop the requirement this year.

“Taking a test which has a sole purpose of comparing and sorting kids in schools, in districts is not appropriate right now,” Hinojosa said.

Round Rock ISD is using other data to assess their students’ performance, although the STAAR test is normally an important tool. Cathay Malerba, executive director of assessment and evaluation for Round Rock ISD, said not taking the STAAR test won’t prevent students from getting into special programs.

“We have a lot of different data points and obviously success in the classroom is first and foremost,” Malerba said.

Another issue school districts are facing is funding. The state has not yet decided if it will fully fund school districts for the spring semester, even while they are facing a decline in attendance, Commissioner Morath said.

Paxton grilled by state budget writers

State Attorney General Ken Paxton faced tough questions from Texas Senate budget writers this week.

When the Finance Committee reviewed Paxton’s proposed budget for the next two years, Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson (R – Flower Mound) expressed concerns about Paxton’s decision to spend $40 million for raises in the Attorney General’s office. Sen. Nelson said Paxton did so without legislative approval.

“If every agency did what yours did, General Paxton, we wouldn’t have a budget, we wouldn’t even need a budget,” Nelson said. “And it does not please me.”

Paxton conceded, telling Nelson “I wish we had done that one differently.”

The initial draft of the state budget would cut more than $80 million from Paxton’s requested funding.

But Paxton defended his initial request, which includes spending millions on outside lawyers for the state’s antitrust lawsuit against Google.

“Google has pretty much unlimited resources,” Paxton said, adding that he believes hiring outside lawyers is the best way to win the case. “If Google’s going to have the very best lawyers that know antitrust, we wanted to be able to compete on the same playing field,” Paxton told committee members.

Paxton fired several senior aides last year. He now faces a whistleblower lawsuit by some of those aides, who accuse him of accepting a bribe in return for helping a political donor.

Aid for nursing homes and rent relief

On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee discussed provisions and amendments to the latest COVID relief package in Washington, D.C.

The committee passed two provisions relating to the issues facing nursing homes. One funnels millions of dollars in Medicare funding to infection control training and programs. The other funds “strike teams,” which will send resources and personnel to understaffed nursing homes.

“Systemic understaffing and rampant infection control deficiencies created dangerous conditions that this virus just made worse,” Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) said. “To truly protect nursing home residents, we need to do much more in this committee.”

Republican lawmakers countered that the provisions were “too costly” and “rushed.” Instead, they supported an amendment that would make the money dependent on each state’s governor to ensure they report extensive data on nursing homes. However, the amendment failed.

On the state level, Texas is implementing a rent relief program due to the pandemic’s massive blow to jobs. The governor’s office announced the $1 billion program on Tuesday. Federal funding will be administered by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA).

Starting February 15, landlords and tenants can apply by calling 1-833-9TX-RENT (1-833-989-7368) Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. or online at TexasRentRelief.com.

To qualify for the program, households “at or below 80% of the area median income,” and demonstrate an immediate risk of homelessness among other criteria. Rachel Wirtz knows that risk all too well.

“I built a bed in my car and now I live in my car because rent is just too expensive to pay,” Wirtz said.

Applicants making below half of the area median income will be prioritized. Bobby Wilkins, executive director of the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, expects over 1 million Texans to apply.

“As far as who we are going to be able to serve certainly 10s of 1000s, maybe 80,000 households, it’s hard to say, because each applicant would have various amounts of back rent, we have a finite amount of money,” Wilkins said.

Applicants can ask for assistance for expenses dating as far back as March 13, 2020. El Paso landlord Demetrio Jimenez says he is grateful assistance can be backdated to a time when evictions were on hold.

“This certainly helped quite a few property management companies keep the doors open, as well as keep a lot of families from becoming homeless,” Jimenez said.

Failure to report racial profiling data

Every police chief, every sheriff — anyone who heads a law enforcement agency in Texas is now on notice: follow the state’s racial profiling reporting law, or else.

Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Executive Director Kim Vickers sent this letter out to every law enforcement agency informing them of the requirement to file a comparative analysis of racial profiling data with TCOLE by March 1. Vickers sent the letter the day after our interview with him in December 2020.

Just two weeks after our Failure to Report investigation uncovered more than 250 agencies never submitted any racial profiling data between 2016 and 2019, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement sent warning letters. Those letters serve as official notice to the heads of the state’s local and state law enforcement agencies if they don’t comply, they will be punished.

Our investigation also found TCOLE couldn’t produce a single comparative analysis from any department since the 2009 racial profiling law was modified and ordered TCOLE to collect those analyses.

“They’ve got until March 1st,” TCOLE Executive Director Kim Vickers told KXAN. “Any agency that has not yet reported, we’re sending them a certified letter that explains to them the steps that need to be taken, what they need to submit to us and by what time, and that there will be action taken if they choose to not do so.”

Those certified letters are going out this week, the director said.

Texas’ racial profiling reporting law

It’s illegal in Texas for a department to not submit racial profiling data and the comparative analysis. Chief administrators, as the statute calls them, could lose their peace officer license for “intentionally” failing to submit either set of records.

FULL INVESTIGATION – Racial Profiling: A Failure to Report 

The cities and counties where an offending agency is located could also be fined up to $5,000. TCOLE confirmed it’s never fined any government agency for failing to comply with the reporting components of the law despite our investigation finding it has happened hundreds — if not thousands of times — in the past.

If the 250 agencies that never submitted the traffic stop data were each fined the $5,000 maximum allowed under the law, those fines would total $1.25 million. TCOLE has not indicated it will pursue enforcement action against those agencies.

“The bottom line is, we weren’t doing exactly what we needed to do. It needed to have been addressed and so we took that opportunity to see where we could do it better and more effectively and that’s the steps we’ve taken,” Vickers said.

High bar: Proving racial profiling in Texas means first showing an officer ‘is racist’

The certified letter is the first step to TCOLE making its case a chief administrator intentionally failed to submit the required racial profiling reports.

“I think with the letters that we’re sending out, all the steps we’ve been taking to make sure we really understand what they need to do and what the consequences for not, we can make that case much easier,” Vickers told KXAN investigator Jody Barr.

“The thing that kind of makes that statute a little difficult at times for us to actually act on is it says: ‘intentionally.’ Which is a pretty strictly defined culpable mental state in the statutes. And we’ve got to be able to prove that intentionally before we start taking that action,” Vickers said.

If you’re looking for Texas’ annual racial profiling reports, they’re easy to find. Years ago, TCOLE created a website dedicated to archiving annual reports from every law enforcement agency in Texas, compiling them into downloadable spreadsheets by reporting year.

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At the beginning of our Failure to Report investigation, TCOLE’s website instructed law enforcement agencies to submit a “statistical analysis” of its traffic stops. Compared to what the instructions TCOLE’s posted to that same website today, those original instructions look more like a suggestion than something mandated by law.

“All agencies are REQUIRED to submit,” the updated TCOLE website now states. The is instruction is posted at the top of the page and highlighted in yellow.

The Texas Commission on Law Enforcement revamped its racial profiling reports web page in the weeks following KXAN’s investigation into how the agency’s failed to enforce the state’s racial profiling reporting law against Texas police chiefs and sheriffs. The page on the left is how the site looking on Dec. 3, 2020, the page on the right is how it looked a month later.

TCOLE’s updated page also includes a warning of license sanctions and/or fines against the agency for failing to fully comply with the racial profiling reporting law.

The new website also contains a link to a 700-plus word how-to manual to instruct law enforcement agencies on how to perform a comparative analysis. The site also includes an example for departments to follow to ensure the analyses are performed and increase the chances of identifying racial profiling indicators.

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“We’re going to do the right thing. We always are trying to do the right thing and if we weren’t doing it exactly right before, then we’re going to fix it and that’s what I told you before that’s what we feel like we’ve done,” Vickers said.

Despite having a notice posted online for the past several years, TCOLE didn’t realize until our interview in December that the law required the agency to collect the analyses. Vickers said in that interview he’d make sure that oversight didn’t happen again.

The day after our initial interview with Vickers, he sent an email to every chief administrator in Texas, notifying them of the law requiring submission of the comparative analysis. In the weeks since then, TCOLE made the changes to its website.

The agency’s also working to detail a process of how to discipline chiefs and sheriffs who intentionally don’t follow the law in the future.

“We determine what we need to do is a lot like we do with noncompliance on training and the statutes are pretty clear on that. If a licensee does not get their training requirements by September 1st, there will be administrative action taken,” Vickers explained. “I don’t see this being a whole lot different than if there is noncompliance and our enforcement division verifies that noncompliance, there will be administrative action taken. The level of which depends on the circumstances.”

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The last time the nine-member commission met it voted to suspend 52 Texas peace officer and telecommunicators’ licenses over failing to complete the required continuing education mandate.

TCOLE Executive Director Kim Vickers is working on a process that would provide his agency’s enforcement division a path to begin license sanctions and potential fines for any Texas law enforcement agency that fails to comply with the state’s racial profiling reporting law. The deadline for traffic stop data and comparative analyses is March 1, 2021.

Vickers said the agency will take the same stance when it comes to making sure the state’s 1,600-plus law enforcement agencies that are required to file submit the reports by March 1 each year.  

“I believe that the message that should be there all along, ‘You’re responsible for this.’ This is statutory, this is something the legislature has deemed something that needs to be done to deal with the issue of racial profiling. The law says you will do this, and you’re expected to follow through on it and as the regulatory agency it is our job to ensure that it gets done and if not then look at what consequences are there with the accountability of it,” Vickers told KXAN.

In our initial interview, Vickers said TCOLE viewed itself as a partner of Texas law enforcement and considered enforcement an avenue of last resort.

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“But there comes a time when you’ve done everything you can to help them get to where they need to be, give them what they need to take care of it and if they choose to not do it, then they need to be accountable and that I hope that’s the message that they’re getting,” Vickers said.

“We’re going to help them get to where they need to be and then if they choose to not do so, they have no excuse if we come in and do take action against them, because we’ve done everything we can to help them do it right. We’re going to do the right thing. We always are trying to do the right thing and if we weren’t doing it exactly right before, then we’re going to fix it and that’s what I told you before that’s what we feel like we’ve done,” Vickers told KXAN.

Betting on gambling to beat budget deficit

Lobbyists are asking Texas lawmakers to take a chance on new gaming legislation.

While some lawmakers are looking for ways to save money on the state budget, others are asking their fellow legislators to consider casinos as a new source of revenue.

More than 50 lobbyists are coming to Austin to advocate for gaming legislation that would legalize casinos. Sheldon Adelson, the late CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, gave millions of dollars to Republican state lawmakers’ campaigns in the hopes of persuading them in favor of new gaming legislation.

“We could count that as a source of revenue in order to fund the services that we need,” said State Senator Royce West (D-Dallas).

Several gaming bills have been filed for this legislative session, including bills regarding the legalization of sports betting in Texas. Bills of this nature have earned widespread support in the past, but have never been made into law.

The state budget will be tight coming out of the pandemic, but the deficit is not as large as previously thought. According to State Senator Jane Nelson, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, the deficit is $946 million instead of $4.6 billion.

“It is a responsible budget that meets the essential needs of our state,” Nelson said.

State Senator Carol Alvarado (D-Houston) has been filing bills to establish a gaming commission in Texas for years.

“It’s been an uphill battle ever since I’ve been filing the bill since 2009,” Alvarado said.

Opposition typically comes from conservatives on moral grounds, says Texas Politics Project Director Jim Henson.

“Those who were skeptical of the social hazards that might be seen as attending gambling, you know, from gambling addiction,” Henson said.

As a rebuttal, Democrats show the attraction of other states where a gaming system is already established.

“If you go to Oklahoma, Louisiana, guess what license plates you see?” West said. “You see Texas license plates. In order to make certain that revenue stays in the state of Texas, it makes sense to me.”

In addition to casinos and gaming commissions, there is also a bill filed to legalize sports betting in Texas. Similar bills have failed in the past.

One of the most vocal and powerful opponents of gambling legislation is Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. He told radio host Chad Hasty that sports betting bills won’t see the light of day this session.

“It’s not even a bill you spend much time on, or even think about,” Patrick said.

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