State of Texas: ‘Remarkable request’ as Texans get involved in elections in other states

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday rejected a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton asking the Court to throw out presidential election results in four other states.

The lawsuit challenged results in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Wisconsin and Michigan. It said changes made by those states before the election skewed the results. Joe Biden won in each of those states.

The Court denied the Texas motion, saying the state did not have standing to bring the lawsuit. “Texas has not demonstrated a judicially cognizable interest in the manner in which another State conducts its elections,” read the order from the Court.

Paxton, a loyal ally of Trump, faces a 5-year-old indictment on felony securities fraud charges and is reportedly being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for bribery and misuse of office.

“I’ve had no discussions with anything about… anything like that,” Paxton said.

EXCLUSIVE: Texas AG Ken Paxton answers questions about whistleblower allegations

On Wednesday, Trump intervened in Paxton’s lawsuit, which is now backed by 17 other states, each won by the president.

There has been no evidence that widespread voter fraud impacted the 2020 presidential election.

“I think this is important, not just for this election,” Paxton said in an interview. “This isn’t just about Joe Biden and Donald Trump, this is about the future of our elections.”

Paxton’s lawsuit was a failed attempt to get the Supreme Court to delay a Dec. 14 deadline for state electors to report election results and to remedy the “unconstitutional” elections.

“That is a remarkable request to make of a federal court, particularly a very conservative federal court that has been very protective of state’s rights in history,” said David Coale, a Dallas-based attorney.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Paxton’s election lawsuit diverts attention from his own legal challenges while appealing to the strong support Trump maintains among Republicans, but comes at a cost to the electoral process.

“It’s an absurd exercise,” Henson said. “When you’re pursuing politics to the detriment of institutions, I think it raises important questions and particularly when it seems profoundly self-interested.”

As Paxton worked to contest election results in other states, prominent Texas leaders are getting involved in another state’s big election. The January runoffs for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia will determine whether Democrats or Republicans hold the majority in that chamber.

Former presidential candidate Julian Castro joined rallies in support of fellow Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock in Georgia last week. Sen. Ted Cruz, Congressman Dan Crenshaw and Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West are all planning to make appearances to support GOP candidates in Georgia in the coming weeks.

“There’s a bond between Georgia and Texas,” West said. “We want to see a Georgia that enables us to keep a majority in the United States Senate.”

West said that “The Mighty Texas Strikeforce” is working to provide people and resources to help the Republican senate campaigns in Georgia. The Texas Democratic Party also plans to hold phone bank events for Georgia later this month.

Deadline for uninsured Texans to get health coverage

Tuesday is the deadline for open enrollment for the Affordable Care Act marketplace health plans.

The State Comptroller’s office indicated there were 18.4% of Texans without any kind of health insurance in 2019, which is twice the national average of 9.2%.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide the future of the Affordable Care Act, known as the ACA or Obamacare, some community groups in the Lone Star State are encouraging people to get coverage regardless.

“We want to make sure as many people as possible have that security, have that peace of mind, have health insurance, because it is so important for individuals, for their families to not have those unexpected medical expenses really harm them,” Aaron DeLaO, health initiatives director for social services non-profit Foundation Communities, said.

The Foundation Communities team believed anyone who signs up for one of the 71 available insurance plans this year will remain covered through 2021 regardless of what happens to the Affordable Care Act.

Austin musician Lesly Reynaga signed up for health insurance through the open marketplace.

“I was born and raised in Mexico, and I was very fortunate to have full coverage back home,” she said. “But when I moved to Texas, I was actually uninsured for quite a few years.”

“Preventative care has been a must for me,” she stated. “I continue to do my annual physicals, and I just, you know, feel very fortunate that I get to have that peace of mind that every year I get that screening done.”

Citing federal data, DeLaO said the average daily enrollment is up more than 20% statewide during this pandemic year, compared to last year.

Insurance markets vary by region, so different groups can help based on where you live. The federal sign up website is HealthCare.Gov.

Doctors say COVID-19 skeptics put Texans at risk

On Monday, the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services met for the first time ahead of the upcoming legislative session to discuss the state’s response to COVID-19, and the lessons that have been learned over the last nine months.

Senators on the state’s committee heard testimony from doctors across Texas about their experience with treating the novel coronavirus during the course of the pandemic.

“I’ve not done anything other than take care of severe and critical COVID since early March,” Parkland Hospital ICU Medical Director Dr. Matthew Leveno stated. “I was here for the first patient, that’s all I do.”

While therapeutics and other treatments have become more widely available, he said they’re still not enough.

“It is likely that Remdesivir and steroids are decreasing the number of patients, developing more severe disease. That said, there continues to be a significant subset of patients that will still deteriorate, to the point of needing mechanical ventilation,” Leveno said.

After treating patients for nine months, the virus still surprises him.

“I remain humbled and very frustrated by our inability to reliably identify the subset of patients that will eventually require mechanical ventilation,” Leveno said during Monday’s hearing.

COVID-19 vaccines to start arriving in Texas in less than 2 weeks, Gov. Abbott says

Despite these stories from the frontlines, there are still people who don’t accept the severity of the pandemic, some even calling it a hoax.

“By far the skeptics are the difficult, the most difficult,” Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Department of State Health Services, said. “I think we just have to be very plain in saying, ‘You’re wrong.’”

The skeptics have become an issue for the state, as they depend on the public to wear masks and continue prevention protocols until a vaccine is widely available.

“Your right to exercise your liberty, just like every other liberty, ends where it impacts me adversely, and for example that’s the reason we all drive on the same side of the highway. I mean, you’re not free to drive the wrong way on a road. It’s that simple,” Hellerstedt said Monday, addressing those who still don’t believe in wearing masks.

Going forward, the Texas Biomedical Research Institute said more education can overcome this skepticism.

“If we band together to educate our community better about scientific success and best practices, we’ll see an end to this in future pandemics,” Dr. Larry Schleisinger, the institute’s CEO, said.

For now, the state’s top doctor is calling on all elected officials and health authorities to relay the same message.

“I think one of the best things that we can do is simple declarative sentences and say, ‘It’s real. No one is making these numbers up. No one’s inflating the number of hospitalizations or death.’ It’s not in anyone’s interest whatsoever to do that, and that the people who are saying something to the contrary, are not telling you the truth,” Hellerstedt said during Monday’s hearing.

The committee also discussed COVID-19 vaccine distribution, with the first batch — 1.4 million doses— expected to arrive in about a week and a half. They also went over treatment options and analyzed data on COVID-19 tests, cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

For many legislators, the upcoming committee meetings will mark the first time they will go on the record with their opinions.

“There are senators from urban, rural and suburban areas, so I think you will get a sense of the different levels of concern, but that’s going to come through the prism of the politics of the situation,” Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said.

To date, Gov. Greg Abbott has taken the lead on managing the pandemic. Now, legislators will be able to take over and steer the future of the state’s response.

Henson said any changes could come with some partisan restrictions. He said data shows there’s a consensus among Democrats that the state should address this crisis with aggressive action, while there are stronger cross-currents among Republicans.

“It’ll be interesting to see just how much comes out, and given the unambiguous severity of the moment we are in, whether Republicans are willing to send a clear message to their constituencies that this is a significant crisis and their behavior should reflect that,” Henson said.

The Texas Senate’s Committee on Health and Human Services held its second hearing Tuesday, focusing on how COVID-19 has impacted Texans’ mental health.

And while kids don’t fall into the most vulnerable category for COVID-19 infection, they’re experiencing mental health issues at the same rate as adults.

It was an issue that began increasing even before the pandemic started, Cook Children’s co-medical director of Psychiatric Services Dr. Kia Carter explained.

“Sadly, we have seen the number of children admitted secondary to suicide attempt double over the past five years,” Dr. Carter told the committee via Zoom Tuesday, as all testimonies were heard virtually.

In September, Cook Children’s set a stark new record.

“We had the highest number that we’ve ever seen since we’ve tracked…37 youth who were admitted to our medical center due to suicide attempt,” Dr. Carter reported.

She says in recent months, the most difficult part for kids has been the isolation.

“They need that interaction, they need that teaching support, which we’ve seen a lot of our kids become hopeless, give up, not want to continue with virtual schooling, because it’s so hard for them to engage or interact or get the support that they need,” Dr. Carter explained.

Other emotional outlets have also been limited, which cuts down on coping mechanisms.

“We promote healthy ways to cope with stressors or difficulties. And a lot of that is kids participating in their sports, their activities, whether it be, and that’s all kind of been stripped away from them,” Dr. Carter said.

But there’s one positive of the pandemic — increased access to telehealth services.

“In our outpatient clinic, the numbers of no-shows decreased significantly when telehealth was offered,” Dr. Carter said. That’s why she, and other mental health experts, asked lawmakers to extend those services today.

“Extend the waivers temporarily through the end of session, give the legislature time to weigh this and extend them out, make them permanent,” Dr. Andy Keller, CEO of Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, testified to the state senators Tuesday.

They’re also asking lawmakers to consider increasing mental health funding overall this session for preventative measures and treatment options.

“We know that early identification, intervention and treatment is essential to prevent further complications of mental illness,” Dr. Carter said.

There’s also trouble with existing coverage.

“We get insurances denying a specific level of care saying that a child doesn’t need an inpatient level of care. We also get a lot of pushback about medication,” Dr. Carter said. She also asked lawmakers to consider giving mental health care providers more leverage with insurance companies.

The state senators also heard testimony from professionals regarding domestic violence, substance abuse and mental health in nursing homes Tuesday. The full hearing can be found here.

Campaign cash dash leads to in-person fundraisers amid pandemic

Texas lawmakers, fresh off hard-fought elections in November, rushed to refill campaign accounts before a moratorium on fundraising kicked in on Dec. 12.

More than 40 returning or recently-elected state lawmakers held in-person fundraising events in Austin last week, according to a list compiled by a lobbying group. The fundraisers come as Texas continues to record thousands of new coronavirus cases, and dozens of deaths, each day.

“(Lawmakers) want to top off their gas tanks and this is where they’re doing it,” said veteran lobbyist Bill Miller, who planned to attend at least one of the events at the Austin Club on Tuesday. “The Austin Club is the place to get gassed up.”

The events are primarily taking place at the Austin Club and in the lobby at 919 Congress and are typical of the weeks leading up to the legislative session. State lawmakers are barred from raising campaign funds during the period beginning one month before the legislative session and continuing through the month after it concludes.

Austin-Travis County is currently in Stage 4 of its COVID-19 risk assessment, which advises against gatherings of more than 10 people.

A manager for the Austin Club said masks are required during the events and that attendees are encouraged to socially distance. Capacity will not be capped, though the manager assured KXAN that the Austin Club has plenty of space to properly distance guests.

COVID-19 Wrap-Up: Following CDC’s lead, Austin Public Health adjusts quarantine recommendations

A representative for Moore Associates, which manages the Capitol Center at 919 Congress, said individual tenants are responsible for keeping guests safe. During a fundraising reception at the Lobby at 919 Congress Tuesday afternoon, KXAN observed masked attendees and a group that appeared to be smaller than 10 people.

The list of lawmakers holding in-person fundraising events in Austin last week included both Democrats and Republicans.

Republican state Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Democrat state Rep. Senfronia Thompson had dueling events planned at the Austin Club on Tuesday afternoon.

Presumptive House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Republican, participated in an in-person fundraiser at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin on Wednesday.

Some lawmakers, like Democrat state Rep. John Bucy of Cedar Park, are hosting outdoor fundraisers this week. Bucy’s event was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon on the patio at Ranch 616. Before the event, a campaign official said that guests would be socially distanced and masks would be required.

State Rep. James Talarico, a Round Rock Democrat, opted for a virtual fundraiser, knowing he likely won’t pull in the same amount of money as an in-person event.

“There are rules for those that are influential and powerful and wealthy, and then there are rules for everyone else,” Talarico told KXAN. “I refuse to jeopardize the health of our community or set a bad example just to get a few more campaign checks.”

Brandon Rottinghaus, an author and political science professor at the University of Houston, isn’t surprised to see returning and incoming lawmakers fundraising in the same ways they have in the past.

Texas legislators receive a salary of $7,200 per year for their part-time service, which is far-exceeded by living expenses in Austin for the 140-day legislative session.

Lawmakers often subsidize their official offices using campaign funds.

“Lawmakers know that there is a tremendous arms race in terms of the amount of money you need to raise to be able to compete in future elections, so they’ve got to put more hay in the barn when they can,” Rottinghaus told KXAN. “The gravy train doesn’t stop.”

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