State of Texas: Border, voting rights loom large as special session nears

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – This week, Governor Greg Abbott and former President Donald Trump visited Weslaco, Texas, to hold a news conference on border security. Abbott began by complimenting Trump on his border security efforts during his time in office, while simultaneously disparaging President Joe Biden’s border policies.

“Mr. President, things have changed so quickly and so dramatically under the Biden administration. It’s been amazing and disastrous,” said Abbott.

To support his claim that things have dramatically changed on the border during Biden’s time in the White House, Abbott cited several statistics regarding fentanyl and illegal crossings.

“The Texas Department of Public Safety alone has apprehended more fentanyl to kill every man, woman and child in the entire state of Texas. This is deadly, it’s dangerous,” claimed the Governor. “… if you just look at the year-over-year numbers, look at this May versus last May, the increase in people coming across the border who have been apprehended has gone up more than 800%.”

“The border has never been this way. We went from the best border we’ve ever had in the history of our country… it’s the best by far,” said Trump.

The former President went on the tout the accomplishments he claimed he achieved during his four years in office, including building 500 miles of wall after being sued for 2.5 years over his plans and decreasing the flow of fentanyl over the border to almost nothing.

On Wednesday, the same day as Abbott and Trump’s border visit, four Texas Democrats alleged that Governor Abbott is using the border wall for political posturing, instead of fixing the power grid, which still poses a significant threat to Texans’ safety.

“One of the things that’s important about Governor Abbott, and what we’ve seen in terms of his lack of leadership in the state, is it seems that every time that there is a crisis or a challenge that the state has faced, we deflect to the border,” said Jamarr Brown, a co-executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “Last year, and even now up to this point, we faced a ravishing and dangerous COVID-19 pandemic. And every time we saw cases go up, infections go up, we saw the governor go to South Texas and talk about the border.”

Representative Celia Israel, D-Austin, further emphasized that Democrats believe Abbott is playing to his base instead of concentrating on issues which are currently affecting Texans.

“Chief Nim Kidd and DPS and state resources are being activated right now for a political event, for political posturing. They put on their camo, take a hat, flip it backwards, get the action shot and demonstrate as if they are taking action. So, I lament that, and I am sad for that,” said Israel during the press conference.

Mike Collier, who is running for Lieutenant Governor in 2022, said fixing the power grid needs to be the primary focus of the special session, which begins next week on July 8.

“We came within five minutes of the state of Texas being without power for weeks [in February]. Imagine how many people would have died, a lot of people did die in the freeze. Now look at this heat wave in Portland – 115 degrees – just imagine if that hits here, and we can’t keep up, and we have to shut down the whole thing, and we stay shut down for weeks and weeks and weeks. That is a very real possibility. They need to get up here and fix this damn grid,” asserted Collier on Wednesday.

Collier went on to explain that even from a business standpoint, the power grid in its current form is detrimental to Texans. He justified this claim by telling how a CEO was thinking of moving their business to Texas but decided not to because there could be serious commercial implications if the power grid failed and they could not do business for several weeks, especially with their business competing in the international tech markets.

“We’re competing against the Chinese, their grid works. The Texas grid doesn’t. And that’s going to hurt job creation,” said Collier.

Lawmakers prepare to return to work in the special session

The special session begins next week, but it’s still not clear what’s on the agenda. Two seasoned political reporters shared their thoughts on what Texans might see in the coming weeks.

Scott Braddock, editor for the Quorum Report, and Bob Garrett, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, joined Josh Hinkle this week for a State of Texas roundtable to discuss what legislation might be included in the special session, how lawmakers are going to handle SB7, a bill to tighten voting rules in Texas.

Democrats broke quorum at the end of the regular session, preventing SB7 from passing. Braddock said Republicans also bear responsibility for failing to move the bill forward.

“Republicans had a tough time with it – if they all agreed on what the bill should look like, it would have passed months ago,” explained Braddock. “I mean, the Speaker, Lieutenant Governor and the Governor never got on the same page about what should be in the elections bill.”

Since walking off the House floor worked for Democrats during the regular session, there are questions of whether Democrats will simply not attend the special session, thereby preventing any legislation from being passed, including SB7.

In response to the Democrat’s ploy, Abbott vetoed Article X of the budget, which cut funding from the Texas legislature – lawmakers will still be paid, but staff will not. Garrett is unsure whether this will force Democrats to be present at the special session.  

“Maybe they raise the money nationally now that they’re national rock stars,” Garrett said, referencing the recent visit by a group of Texas Democrats to Capitol Hill. He expanded, saying “they will be vilified. They will be they will be attacked relentlessly. But they could get by, and really then it would be Republican staffers not being paid, and the Democrats are getting some national money to pay for their staff.”

On the other hand, Braddock thinks that Democrats won’t “go nuclear right out of the gate” and refuse to appear at the special session, instead he thinks they might wait to break quorum until “things get really ugly at the Capitol.”

Braddock also said he believes top minds in the Republican party do not want to completely cut Democrats out of the process when it comes to SB7.

“They can’t just be heavy handed with the Democrats, they need their votes, or they at least need their presence to be there to be able to work on some of these things. And so, it’s going to be interesting to see if they can find that balance in an environment where Abbott is trying to appear as tough as possible on those same Democrats,” explained Braddock.

Besides SB7, Garrett believes we could see legislation around Critical Race Theory, social media censorship, transgender athletes in high schools, taxpayer funded lobbying, and bail reform.

Braddock added that interim charges just came out calling for lawmakers to examine the situation at the border and discuss how to fund border security. Interim charges are simply assignments for each chamber, and certain committees in each chamber, to study an issue and submit a report recommending the best course of action to address the issue. With interim charges being issued for border security, it signals that the Governor wants to work on this topic.

There are also questions of whether legislation regarding the power grid will be brought to the floor. Both Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Democrats have been pushing for more to be done to address concerns with ERCOT, but Abbott said that “everything that needed to be done was done when it comes to electricity in Texas.”

With a general election next year, Braddock pointed out that the dynamic between Abbott and Patrick on the topic of ERCOT is interesting.

“It’s interesting, for the first time that I can remember, you have Patrick more focused on an issue that’s probably more important in a general election than Governor Abbott. Abbott, who already has a declared challenger in his Republican primary, seems to be more focused on those red meat issues like the border, CRT, and things like that,” explained Braddock.

STAAR scores highlight tutoring need for Texas students

New STAAR data released Monday from the Texas Education Agency reveals that many students tested in 2021 slipped significantly in their academic proficiency compared to 2019, the last year the standardized test was administered.

The results show that the number of students not meeting grade level increased from 2019 across most subject areas and grade levels. Mathematics saw the largest decline in proficiency and districts with the highest percentages of students learning virtually saw the greatest degree of declines.

IN DEPTH: STAAR data spotlights widening academic achievement gaps in Texas schools 

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath warned the State Board of Education last week ahead of the data dump, calling the results “problematic” and saying the state will need to accelerate learning to catch up all scholars who are behind due to the pandemic.

The effects are being felt locally. At the Austin Independent School District, 30% of seventh graders did not meet standards for reading. That number jumped to 45% in 2021. The discrepancy was even more heightened for mathematics. In 2019, 44% of seventh graders did not meet expectations. That number jumped to 72% in 2021, meaning nearly 3 out of every 4 seventh graders were not understanding concepts appropriate for their grade.

NOTEThe following STAAR data, courtesy of the TEA, represents the percentage point change from 2019 to 2021 for all Texas students tested in reading and math. Math includes tests in grades 3-8 (inclusive of 3-5 tests given in Spanish), and the Algebra I EOC. Reading includes tests for reading (but not writing) in grades 3-8 (inclusive of 3-5 tests given in Spanish, and the English I and English II EOCs.

Among all students tested, there was a 4% increase in students that did not meet their grade level in reading compared to 2019 and a 16% increase in students that did not meet their grade level in math.

The percentage of students who approached, met or mastered their grade level material in both subjects all declined.

The results were also extrapolated to reflect the impact virtual/in-person learning had on subject mastery: The school districts which reported higher in-person student counts performed better on their STAAR tests than districts which reported higher numbers of remote learners.

For example, the districts that reported fewer than 25% in-person students for most of the year saw a 9% increase in students who did not meet their grade level for reading and 32% increase in students who did not meet their grade level in math.

In comparison, for districts that reported more than 75% of in-person students for most of the year, those numbers only increased by 1% and 9%, respectively.

There were positive exceptions, Morath reports, of school districts with high concentration of remote learners who performed satisfactorily. A “commission to study remote instruction” will investigate those outliers to see what additional investments can be made and what new policies can be implemented to create new best practices for virtual instruction.

Morath encouraged parents to get involved, read into their children’s scores and open a dialogue with school principals and teachers to find out what the best course of action is moving forward.

NEXT: AISD student enrollment continues to decline despite Austin’s growth 

“The data may be disheartening, but with it, our teachers and school leaders are building action plans to support students in the new school year. Policymakers are using it to direct resources where they are needed most. And parents can log into to understand how well each of their children learned this year’s material, and how to support the academic growth of their children moving forward,” Morath said.

Morath said that historically, across all grades, only 4% of students who are below grade level catch up in two years, on average. House Bill 4545, which passed during the 2021 legislative session, requires school districts to offer high performing teachers and tailored tutoring to any student who did not meet their grade level STAAR expectations.

The agency will also be working with school districts throughout the summer to provide “rigorous instructional materials, additional teachers support, help wherever appropriate to expand learning time, and targeted tutoring.”

Gov. Greg Abbott waived grade promotion requirements for the 2021 STAAR tests, but students were still asked to report to campus to take it so the state could determine the effects of the pandemic on the school year.

Balloon safety measures move slowly after deadly Texas crash

This week, Patricia Morgan looked up to the sky above her son’s Colorado home to see a hot air balloon.

“On the side it said: ‘Bucket List,’” she said. “That was on my daughter’s bucket list.”

Morgan remembers her daughter and granddaughter as the daredevils of the family, which is why they boarded a hot air balloon in Lockhart, Texas on a July day in 2016.

ORIGINAL STORY: 16 killed in hot air balloon crash near Lockhart

“It’s no longer the same,” she cried.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by: Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016 (Courtesy of Patricia Morgan)

This month marks five years since Morgan lost both women in the deadliest hot air balloon crash in United States history. They were two of the 16 people, including the balloon pilot, who were killed in a fiery crash.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the pilot was “as impaired as a drunk driver” when he flew the balloon into a power line. They said Alfred “Skip” Nichols had taken a mixture of prescription medications such as Prozac, Valium and oxycodone.

Morgan joined forces with federal lawmakers to push for changes to the way balloon rides are regulated.

In the fall of 2018, U.S. Representative Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) both worked on bipartisan legislation to require medical and physical exams for commercial balloon pilots, similar to what’s required for commercial airline pilots.

The legislation passed, but as the five-year anniversary of the crash approaches, Morgan is frustrated to see the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) hasn’t put any rules or regulations on the issue into practice.

“The FAA has delayed and delayed, even after the law, which I thought was explicit. They now claim they need a regulation before they can do anything,” Rep. Doggett explained. “Just a spirit of indifference.”

The NTSB is an independent government agency, which investigates accidents and crashes. They also make safety recommendations to the federal agency that regulates the aircraft industry, the FAA.

Just a few months ago, the NTSB submitted brand new safety recommendations targeting hot air balloons and other paid passenger operations, such as vintage aircraft flights and parachute jump flights. They asked the FAA to consider requiring more oversight into the safety management of these operations.

IN-DEPTH: Hot air balloon crash history in Texas

At a board meeting in March, the NTSB said “these operations, which carry thousands of passengers for compensation or hire each year, are not held to the same maintenance, airworthiness, and operational standards as air carrier, commuter and on-demand, and air tour operations.”

A spokesperson for the FAA sent KXAN documents acknowledging the latest NTSB recommendations. The document states it “will assess the feasibility of these safety recommendations.” It said the agency would provide an update by the end of the year.

“When we first started working and looking into this, we realized the FAA was slow,” he said.

Patricia Morgan's daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016. (Photo provided by Patricia Morgan)
Patricia Morgan’s daughter and granddaughter, Paige and Lorilee Brabson, pictured on the hot air balloon ride that ultimately claimed their lives in 2016 (Courtesy of Patricia Morgan)

Representative John Cyrier (R-Lockhart) lives about four miles from the crash site and represents the area at the state legislature. He said there wasn’t much he could do to make change here in Texas, since the industry is regulated at the federal level.

Cyrier is an airplane pilot and flight enthusiast himself, so he said he knows how important physical competence is to being a pilot. He said he was “shocked” in 2016 to find out there weren’t requirements already in place for balloon pilots.

“When you do hear of other accidents that are very similar, it’s another reminder that people have lost their loved ones,” he said.

Less than a week ago, five people died in a hot air balloon accident in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Officials said the balloon hit the power line — separating the balloon-like part of the vessel, called an envelope, from the gondola where passengers stand. Bystanders captured video of the envelope as it floated in the sky after the crash, and KXAN’s media partners in Albuquerque report one man even tried using a fire extinguisher to help put out the basket when it was on fire.

The FAA spokesperson told KXAN the pilot in the Albuquerque crash did have a medical certification, like the 2018 legislation would require. Authorities are still investigating this crash.

“I don’t know how many more lives may be lost, because they have delayed and ignored the recommendation of the National Transportation Safety Board,” Doggett said.

He emphasized the medical certification was “just the start,” but urged the FAA to take action on the latest NTSB recommendations, as well.

“It was just like re-living the accident all over again,” Morgan said, noting the similarities in the two crashes — aside from the state-of-mind of the pilot.

“That angers me, because nothing gets done,” she said. “Unfortunately, I just don’t think FAA understands the horrific impact this has on everybody: all the families, the victims, everybody involved in the balloon industry. I continue to say, ‘The FAA shirks their responsibilities,’ and the NTSB has been on them for years and years and years. Still to this day, nothing’s getting done.”

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