State of Texas: ‘It’s about the voters’ – Lawmakers prepare to re-draw Texas voting districts

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Redistricting is set to take center stage when the third special session of the 87th Texas Legislature begins on Monday. Texas will gain two congressional seats following the 2020 U.S. Census. The battle to draw voting lines for those seats is already leading to a court case.

A federal lawsuit launched ahead of the battle over redistricting in Texas is an early political “Hail Mary,” according to a communication and political science professor.

“Rather than hoping the federal courts intervene, Texas Democrats need to hope that the U.S. Department of Justice, when they certify the maps, intervene,” Dr. Richard Pineda of the University of Texas at El Paso told KXAN on Tuesday.

According to federal court records, the lawsuit was filed Sept. 1 by Democratic Austin State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, San Antonio-area State Sen. Roland Gutierrez and the group Tejano Democrats.

“It is highly probable that redistricting in this session will be like redistricting in the past: focused on preserving incumbency and focused on preserving political power,” Eckhardt told KXAN.

The suit claims per the Constitution, the legislature is only allowed to take up redistricting in the first regular session following the census, not during a special session.

But Republican State Rep. James White of Woodville said the framers of the Constitution specifically wanted politically-charged state legislatures to be the ones to handle the drawing of congressional districts.

“To the folks that are talking about that, this is just Republicans talking about maintaining Republican control, it’s not about the politicians or the political class, it’s about the voters,” White said Tuesday.

Federal judge calls for ‘blessing of the governor’ and better solutions to Texas foster care crisis

A federal judge spent hours questioning and reprimanding Texas officials over an escalating crisis in the state’s foster care system, as hundreds of children are still sleeping in offices and hotels.

“I understand you are trying, but it’s not working,” U.S. District Judge Janis Jack told officials at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

Her comments were made in a hearing Tuesday morning — the latest development in the decade-long class-action lawsuit that ultimately brought the state system under federal court supervision. Judge Jack initially found the state had violated the constitutional rights of foster children and placed them in unsafe homes and facilities. She issued a list of reforms, and since then, has found Texas in contempt multiple times for not meeting those reforms.

According to a report released this week by the group of independent court monitors overseeing the federal lawsuit, 501 children spent at least one night in an unlicensed placement in the first half of this year alone. Some children spent more than 100 consecutive nights without a “proper” placement. The report found that 86% of these children were teenagers, and many of them require intense or specialized care, due to serious mental health needs or past trauma, that they likely weren’t receiving.

The report also noted Texas has lost more than 1,600 foster beds since January 2020, and DFPS officials have continually pointed to this loss of foster beds and treatment center closures as their reason for lacking placements for high-needs children.

“I’ll remind you, the state has closed these facilities because they were not safe,” the judge told DFPS Commissioner Jamie Masters. “I’ve watched your PR campaign that the court, COVID and, most egregiously, these children in your care are to blame.”

Judge Jack went on, “You have known for decades about the capacity crisis in the state for foster care children and not planned accordingly… Do something better for them, to keep them safe.”

Before her sworn testimony began , Masters noted, “I feel like anything I am going to offer will sound like an excuse.”

Judge Jack agreed and added, “I’m sure you have multiple excuses, but I don’t want to hear them right now.”

Masters told the court she didn’t regret any of the closures they had made. Still, she argued that oftentimes it’s more difficult than just finding a safe placement for the children, but rather finding the “appropriate” level of care.

“We have to fill that gap between our psychiatric hospitals and our RTCs [residential treatment centers],” she said.

At one point Masters told the court she had “failed these kids.”

Judge Jack and Paul Yetter, the attorney representing the thousands of Texas foster children, continually asked the Commissioner to admit that offices and hotels were not safe or appropriate alternatives. Ultimately, the judge called on the parties to all sit down and come up with “workable” solutions, outside the courtroom.

Then, she asked the attorneys representing the state for Gov. Greg Abbott’s blessing.

“I’m not interested in sanctions or putting feet to the fire anymore. I just want these children to be safe,” the judge said. “I think he shares that goal.”

New concerns about plan to protect Texas coast from hurricane damage

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed its final proposal of the Texas Coastal Study, often nicknamed the “Ike Dike” after Hurricane Ike devastated Texas’ coast in 2008.

The next step is approval from Congress, and then allocating funding. The current price tag on the entire project is pinned at nearly $29 billion, and would take 20 years to complete.

Jim Blackburn, a professor at Rice University and the co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, & Evacuation from Disasters Center, said Texas is lucky Tropical Storm Nicholas — which made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane — wasn’t a Category 4 or 5.

“Nicolas was a kind of a baby storm,” said Blackburn. “And it was scary, even being such a small storm. But it’s hard to imagine the force of a Category 4, Category 5 storm, and it would bring 25 feet of water up into Galveston Bay and into the Houston Ship Channel.”

He said it’s only a matter of time before another big storm, like Hurricane Harvey, hits our coast.

“We’ve been living on good fortune for a long time in the Galveston Bay Area. And we cannot depend on that for the next 20-30 years that we have got to get these defenses built,” Blackburn explained.

That’s exactly why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started working on the coastal spine project six years ago, after Hurricane Ike wreaked havoc on our state and was only a Category 2.

“The recovery costs for Hurricane Ike, which kind of is what stimulated this project to begin with, was over $32 billion. The price for Harvey, which happened more recently was $125 billion. So in essence, the $28.9 billion for this project pays for itself in one hurricane, one storm,” Dr. Kelly Burks-Copes, the lead project manager on the Coastal Texas Study explained.

She said the project ties “gray” infrastructure, like manmade floodwalls and levees and pumps, with “green” infrastructure, like restoring our natural ecosystems along the coast.

“The first piece of the plan is to put in a series of gated structures….they basically stay open most of the time, they just slide up and then when we’re ready to deploy, they slide down into place,” Dr. Burks-Copes said, “Then, use the ecosystem restoration on the backside to naturally provide additional resilience.”

Blackburn said he thinks the proposal is a good start, but won’t be enough, especially since climate change is causing more intense storms.

“Our statistics have not caught up with the reality of climate change. And so the Corps of Engineers considers categories four and five storms too rare to actually fall within their standard benefit-cost analysis format. So this kind of first-level of protection, this coastal spine will protect us against a Category 1 or 2 storm, but doesn’t really do a lot against a category 4 or 5 storm,” Blackburn explained.

Luke Metzger with Environment Texas explained climate change is causing these storms to intensify more quickly, and dump more water.

“When storms hit, you have a much greater chance of the storm surge that can cause the deadly flooding, you also have, because of the warmer atmosphere, we have more evaporation. And so there’s more water vapor that’s available to storms to hurricanes, so that when they hit, they can drop much more rainfall than they have historically,” Metzger said.

But Dr. Burks-Copes said the Corps of Engineers has to consider the return on investment when laying out the plan, and even in a large storm, will still provide some layer of protection.

“The Corps is mandated to look at the full range. So we looked at very small storms, just kind of rainfall events, all the way up to something we call the mega-storm, that 10,000-year event. And in all those instances, the features that we’re proposing reduce the risks significantly reduce the risks,” she explained, “Even in the event of a large storm, it may not reduce all of the risk, but it’s doing a really good job of bringing that risk way down.”

Even if the plan does get approved, Blackburn said we need to drive the urgency of climate change to Texans in the 20-year period it will take to build it.

“We need to do a lot better job of informing the public of the risk of climate change in these storms. In Texas, we don’t do a good job about talking about climate change,” Blackburn said.

Metzger added that Texans need to start reducing pollution, and consider smarter planning for our communities.

“Nature-based infrastructure, installing things like rain gardens and green roofs and artificial wetlands, you know, those are things we can do, quickly, cheaply,” Metzger said. “And they won’t solve the whole problem, but they can definitely have a big impact in helping avoid some of the worst instances of flooding.”

Patients scramble for medical records after longtime Texas doctor abruptly retires

Seeing a physician during the pandemic is already challenging, but local patients say their longtime doctor suddenly retired, leaving them scrambling for medical records and prescription refills.

When Bill Eastman needed a refill this summer, he called the office of Dr. William Moran, whom he had been seeing as a patient for more than a decade.

“I called and tried to make an appointment, but the phone was disconnected,” said Eastman.

Dr. Moran is still listed as having an active license on the Texas Medical Board’s website. He reported to the board he’d been practicing medicine for 31 years.

Other patients showed up to his office for appointments in the weeks to follow and saw a note on the door.

The note posted to the door of Dr. Moran's office upon his retirement.
The note posted to the door of Dr. Moran’s office upon his retirement.

“Office is closed down due to Dr. Moran’s retirement,” the sign read. “Sorry for any inconvenience.”

The note included a phone number patients report as disconnected.

“Retiring without giving us any notice is very much unlike him,” said Eastman. “I don’t know what happened.”

Frustrated reviewers on social media detailed their struggle to get their medical records from the practice. One said Dr. Moran “abandoned his patients overnight.”

Patient Steve Oleson told KXAN he also needed an appointment to get a new prescription.

“We had no information at all,” said Oleson. “I was worried a little bit about him, whether he had some health issue or something.”

With patients hearing nothing, we tried to reach Dr. Moran as well.

We started at his Austin office on 35th Street, where a neighboring office told us they were told about his retirement, but the move was abrupt and happened in the span of a week. The office told us patients who are still seeking medical records should contact the custodian of records at this email address.

We tried to reach out via email but never got a response, so we called a cell phone number listed for the doctor.

A man who answered wouldn’t identify himself as Dr. Moran. When we asked about the retirement situation, the man said, “I’m not interested in talking to you about that, but thank you.”

The Texas Medical Board, which licenses physicians, requires them to notify the board within 30 days of retirement or relocation. A spokesperson for the board said Moran did notify them.

The building on 35th Street where Dr. William Moran's former office is located. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)
The building on 35th Street where Dr. William Moran’s former office is located. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

However, TMB also has requirements for doctors notifying patients. This includes posting prominent signage in their office at least 30 days prior to retirement. The board also requires doctors to notify patients where to get medical records. Board rules also state patients seen in the last two years should get a letter or email.

With regard to charges for medical records, fees shall not exceed $25 for 25 pages of paper records or 500 pages for electronic records, according to the Board. Other state and federal laws may apply in determining charges for medical records.

Eastman said he made a complaint about Dr. Moran’s abrupt retirement to the Texas Medical Board.

“If he tries to get in practice again, hopefully he won’t be able to,” said Eastman. “He does deserve to retire, just not the way he did it.”

More on the board’s enforcement process can be found here.

“If TMB receives a complaint and a violation verified following an investigation, TMB utilizes sanctions guidelines in disciplinary matters,” said a board spokesperson. “The potential sanction will depend on a number of factors including consideration of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances.”

The spokesperson added: “If a physician’s license is in an active status, they may still be subject to disciplinary action.”

Under the Texas Medical Board’s COVID-19 response, retired physicians in the state are being encouraged to reapply for licensure. This applies to those who the board placed on official retirement status in the last four years.

At this point, 47 physicians have reactivated their license under the COVID-19 disaster response process.

We also asked TMB if more physicians retired in the last 18 months than usual, due to the stress of the pandemic. The TMB spokesperson said we’d have to make a public information request for retirement numbers, but even then it would be hard to know the reason for each retirement.

“It would be hard to ascertain a reason for an increase in retired or non-renewed licenses, whether it was due to COVID, more physicians reaching retired ages or some other reason,” said the spokesperson.

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