State of Texas: ‘Fasten your seat belt’ — Redistricting battle moves from the Capitol to the courtroom

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The lines have been drawn. Texas lawmakers approved the new voting maps for congressional and statewide elections. But the battle over redistricting is not done yet.

“For those of you paying attention to the redistricting process, fasten your seat belt,” State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) said. “This ride is going to get fast and furious.”

Even before Texas lawmakers made the final vote over the congressional voting lines, groups representing Hispanic and Latino voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging the maps. The lawsuit claims the redistricting plan discriminates against Latino voters.

“Only in Texas can you grow your state, by 95% of all your growth coming from a minority, but yet minorities don’t benefit from the increased political representation in the halls of Congress,” Martinez Fischer said.

The lawsuit is expected to be the first of several against the plan, claiming the redistricting maps discriminate against voters of color.

But despite the legal challenges, the lines approved by the legislature are already influencing next year’s primary field.

This summer, State Rep. Michelle Beckley announced plans to run for Congress in District 24 in the Dallas area. But the final map turned that district into a Republican stronghold. Beckley, a Democrat, cited “extreme gerrymandering” as a reason for abandoning her campaign.

In central Texas, long time Democratic congressman Lloyd Doggett announced he would move to run in the newly-formed District 37. He could face former congressional candidate Julie Oliver, who announced she formed an exploratory committee, in the Democratic primary.

District 37 is one of two added in Texas after the 2020 Census. The district boundaries cover most of west and central Austin.

Doggett’s decision opens up the race for the District 35 seat. That district connects east Austin to San Antonio, following a narrow path along Interstate 35 between the two cities.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio) reportedly pushed to have his home drawn into District 35, potentially boosting his own possible run for Congress.

Martinez Fischer said he has not decided whether to launch a congressional campaign, but he says he’s definitely considering the possibility.

“It doesn’t take a lot of political genius to make me part of the conversation,” he said, noting that his home is just outside the district under the current map. He added that he wants “fair representation” for San Antonio in Congress and cited relationships he has built in the Austin area while serving in the Texas Legislature for 20 years.

“All of the indicators tell me that I need to take this very, very seriously,” Martinez Fischer said of a potential run.

He will likely not be the only Democrat running in the District 35 primary. Austin City Council member Greg Casar announced he formed an exploratory committee to weigh a possible run. Austin State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez has told reporters that he’s also considering whether to run.

The filing deadline for the primary is December 13.

Lawmakers approve plans to spend billions in federal relief funds

One of the nearly 200 bills headed to the governor’s desk at the end of this special session, Senate Bill 8 lays out how Texas will spend $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief. More than $7.2 billion will go to the state’s unemployment insurance fund.

But that won’t solve all of the issues that resulted from a record number of Texans applying for unemployment benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission during the pandemic.

“I’m over here worried about like how I’m going to keep the lights on, you know,” Steve Smith said. He’s been trying to get a hold of someone at the TWC for months.

“I got somebody who said, ‘Okay, I’ve put in a ticket, somebody should be contacting you.’ It took them like a month and a half to finally call me, and I missed the phone call,” Smith said.

The TWC processed 948% more unemployment claims in 2020 compared to 2019.

“We saw about eight years worth of unemployment insurance claims; there’s really no precedent for that kind of level of claims,” James Bernsen with the TWC explained.

To respond to the massive spike, the TWC added contract call centers and revamped its website.

But the $7.2 billion won’t be going toward extra permanent staff. It’s acting as a bandage.

“It, first of all, replenishes that money that we borrowed from the federal government, pays that loan back. And it also gets us back to the stable level — the floor of money that we’re required by the law to have,” Bernsen explained.

He said if they didn’t do this, the state would have to tax businesses more to replenish the fund.

With Texas nursing homes facing a staffing crisis, state lawmakers also earmarked hundreds of thousands of dollars to try and help. One part of Senate Bill 8 provides the Health and Human Services Commission with additional funding for staffing needs in these homes: $200 million in grant funding for nursing homes and $178 million in grant funding for assisted living facilities.

“They’re going to use these funds for things like recruitment bonuses and retention bonuses; to be able to pay for hero pay and incentives — all those things necessary to be able to compete in these hyper-competitive markets,” said Kevin Warren, President and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association (THCA), which advocates for skilled nursing facilities.

Warren said the funding was needed now more than ever, as other federal relief doled out last year at the start of the pandemic began to run out.

THCA partnered with another advocacy group, LeadingAge Texas, to survey more than 200 nursing facilities and more than 30 assisted living communities. It found 100% of the facilities polled had vacant Certified Nurse Aide (CNA) positions. 94% had unfilled Licensed Vocational Nurse positions, and 90% had unfilled dietary, laundry, and housekeeping positions.

70% of the responding facilities reported they “cannot compete with other employers” to fill the positions. 63% reported they had no applicants for the spots. The majority of the facilities reported relying on double shifts and overtime more than they had to a year ago.

It’s a trend reflected nationwide, as well: a similar national survey found 99% of nursing facilities reported staffing shortages. Many of the homes worried the shortages would cause them to close. The latest federal labor statistics show nursing homes across the country lost hundreds of thousands of employees during the pandemic.

“We would not be here today — I would not be sitting here today — if we did not have a devoted staff,” said Doyle Antle, the Executive Director at Buckner Villas in Austin.

Still, Buckner Villas has not been immune to the staffing troubles posed by the pandemic. He said some staffers had to make difficult decisions about their employment based on the safety of their families and the residents.

He said they plan to funnel as much of the money they receive from the state as they can, straight to their staff.

FULL COVERAGE: KXAN investigates coronavirus in Texas nursing homes 

“The CNA, the caregiver, the front-line caregiver is the lifeline of our ability to provide care, and that’s where we are hurting the most,” Antle said.

“The relationship is strained because there is not enough of me, to take care of all of you. Then, I start feeling like a failure, and I’m diminished. It gets to be overwhelming,” explained Lori Porter, Founder of the National Association of Health Care Assistants (NAHCA). “There are easier ways to make a living, so we have to do something to address the pay equity for CNAs across America, and Texas as well.”

Porter praised the state’s legislature for taking this step towards retaining the current “care-force,” as she calls it, with Senate Bill 8. Still, she hopes to see some of the money used to educate and support new CNAs coming into the profession as well.

In fact, NAHCA decided to launch a new program to offer more training and services to incoming CNAs than is currently required for licensing. The National Institute of CNA Excellence will be offered in Texas starting in January before it expands to other states.

“CNAs have never had a home before; somewhere they can belong,” she said. “But more importantly, CNAs in Texas will have the opportunity to learn from true subject matter experts.”

Currently, federal regulations only require CNA training programs consist of 75 hours of education, including at least 16 hours of supervised practical or clinical training. The National Institute of CNA Excellence would provide longer virtual training and sessions with experts across the country, free to the students. Then, they would match and place students with facilities, in an effort to create a longer-lasting workforce and provide CNAs with more resources to succeed.

Porter does not know whether any of the earmarked federal dollars will be able to be used to fund the institute, but she said they are working with THCA and LeadingAge Texas on its creation.

“Given an opportunity and a pathway for caring for another human being, we are all surprised at how many are still willing to do that,” she said.

Regulators push power companies to prepare for freezing weather

The Texas Public Utility Commission on Thursday approved new mandatory weatherization rules for power plants. It’s a response to the deadly winter storm blackouts in February.

Commissioners determined they needed to take this action now, with winter just around the corner.

Texas experienced widespread blackouts during February’s winter storm. The power outages have been blamed for more than 200 deaths statewide, according to official state data.

Similar power outages during a winter storm in 2011 led to recommendations to better protect the power system against extreme cold. Those recommendations were not made mandatory at that time.

After the February storm, state lawmakers passed legislation to require power plants to take steps to protect against extreme weather. But the specifics of the rules, and enforcement, falls under the PUC. The commission regulates utilities in Texas.

The PUC is now requiring power plant operators to implement key recommendations contained in the report made after the 2011 storm. They’ll also be required to fix “known, acute issues” that resulted in the blackouts this year. Power companies have to submit a report to regulators laying out their plans to prepare plants for winter weather. The deadline is December 1.

This is phase one of the weatherization plan. Phase two will happen after ERCOT and the State Climatologist finish a weather study. The PUC expects that study will lead to a “comprehensive, year-round set of weather emergency preparedness reliability standards.”

The PUC rules do not address the issue of how freezing temperatures affected the supply of natural gas to power plants. The PUC does not regulate natural gas suppliers. That authority is on the Texas Railroad Commission.

Texas State Guard accused of ‘fat shaming,’ inconsistent weight rules

A high-ranking officer with the Texas State Guard was given the boot, because she was deemed too heavy, emails show — even though other members in the same physical shape or heavier were allowed to stay, a KXAN investigation found.

“I don’t understand why they’re kicking out people that gained weight?” said Lt. Col. Cendy Brister-Antley. “Are we suddenly less intelligent, because we gained weight?”

After nearly 13 years in the Texas State Guard, Brister-Antley was booted from her volunteer desk job, emails show, because of her weight. A nurse and administration officer, she joined because she felt it was a calling and duty to serve our state.

“I was only the second female to be a regimental plans and operations officer,” she said.

From providing emergency and disaster relief to patrolling the border, the Texas State Guard is a non-combat volunteer force, without law enforcement authority, whose motto is: “Texans Serving Texans.”

Now, Brister-Antley, a Georgetown resident, feels the State Guard isn’t serving her and other overweight service members. She reached out to KXAN saying she was “fat shamed” and forced out. She’s pushing for a policy change, accusing the State Guard of selectively following its own rules.

KXAN met Brister-Antley outside of Camp Mabry in Austin, which is home to the Texas Military Department and the Texas State Guard, where she used to work.

“We didn’t get paid for it,” she said, noting for a time she drove five hours one way to Midland just to volunteer her time.

“So, my question is: Why are they kicking out volunteers?” she asked.

Despite receiving honors and praise for her intellect, she was let go because her body mass index was too high, records show. At the time, she was 5 feet 8 inches tall and weighed 263 pounds. The State Guard calculated her BMI, which is used to determine obesity, as 40. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies anything above 30 as obese. A BMI of 40 or greater is considered “severe,” according to the CDC and triggers an automatic honorable discharge, according to State Guard policy.

“If they marked your BMI down as 40, you signed up for the [Texas State] Guard, you knew what you were getting into and what the rules were,” said KXAN investigator Matt Grant. “Why shouldn’t you have been discharged?”

“Because,” replied Brister-Antley, “it was not 40 BMI.”

Brister-Antley points to the CDC’s online calculator widget, which shows her BMI was actually 39.98. The State Guard “rounded up” to 40, she said. If her BMI was marked below 40, she would have been allowed to stay and receive weight loss counseling, according to policy. 

“I was not given an opportunity, per their own policy, to get on their medical weight loss program,” she said, still frustrated more than a year later. “I was told, ‘Your [BMI is] 40, you’re out.’”

Brister-Antley was honorably discharged in February last year, records show. 

“It is with no great pleasure that I must enforce the physical fitness standards that we have adopted moving towards the State Guard of tomorrow,” wrote Brig. Gen. Joe Cave in an email. “You are encouraged to evaluate your personal health situation, and it is hoped that I can soon welcome you back into the State guard family. Your intellect and advice will be sorely missed, but I hope for only a short period.”

The Inspector General of the Texas Military Department investigated and agreed with the dismissal but found at least one other State Guard member “not in compliance” with weight rules at the same time yet “allowed to remain active” anyway.

Some senior officials had concerns about the policy, which was developed in 2018, according to internal emails obtained by KXAN. In one, a deputy commanding general wrote “inaccurate scales” were reportedly being used and complained about “inconsistencies” in how and when the weight policy is enforced.

Cendy Brister-Antley photographed during a weigh-in at the Texas State Guard (Courtesy Cendy Brister-Antley)
Cendy Brister-Antley photographed during a weigh-in at the Texas State Guard (Courtesy Cendy Brister-Antley)

The fact the policy is not “generally” being enforced, he said, led to some officials voicing concerns about “the perception of targeting” of some members.

“Make sure the rules are applied across the board to everyone and be transparent about it,” a command sergeant major wrote a month after Brister-Antley was discharged.

Since January of last year, 13 State Guard members statewide were discharged due to weight, officials said. However, a list of BMI for members from February 2020, which Brister-Antley obtained and gave to KXAN, show at least 15 members with a BMI of 40 or above, suggesting more should have been discharged under the policy.

“I do feel it’s discrimination,” said Brister-Antley.

KXAN asked the State Guard how many members are receiving weight loss counseling. Officials would only say the number “fluctuates” every month. Since it started tracking the data a year ago, the highest month was last November with 214. The lowest was this past September with 113, officials said. KXAN asked for additional month-by-month data but did not receive it.

State Guard officials did not respond to KXAN’s questions about the emails, the accuracy of its scales, why some members who were not in weight compliance would have been allowed to stay or why Brister-Antley’s weight was “rounded up.” Instead, the department defended her ousting, saying it was “in accordance” with policies that ensure the Texas Military Department is “always ready.”

“All service members are held responsible for maintaining compliance with his/her component requirements, policies and regulations, in order to ensure that the Texas Military Department is always ready and always there to support the citizens of Texas when called upon,” officials with the Texas Military Department said in a written statement.

The State Guard’s top leadership have defended the policy writing that this “wellness program” is necessary to “take care of our most important resource, our people.”

“The health and fitness of the individuals compromising the Texas State Guard directly impacts our ability to effectively respond to state and local emergency situations,” an email sent to all members in 2018 read. “A common, visible indicator of health and wellness is a person’s weight as compared to height.”

Members who don’t meet weight standards are given two years to “work toward compliance,” the email said.

The policy was changed last June to eliminate that two-year timeframe to lose weight. It now says members with a BMI under 40 “may continue service in TXSG if they continue to make satisfactory progress in losing weight.”

KXAN checked and found the Department of Public Safety, which is responsible for statewide law enforcement and vehicle regulation, does not have any such weight requirements.

“DPS does not have a requirement for weight for commissioned personnel,” said DPS spokesperson Ericka Miller.

The Army National Guard and Air National Guard, which are military reserve forces, require members meet physical fitness standards as set by the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force “based on an individual’s respective age category,” military officials said.

“BMI is not necessarily a requirement or issue unless it affects their readiness,” said Army spokesperson Maj. Matthew Murphy. “For instance, we have some members who are competitive body builders. They would not meet BMI standards, yet they are fit.”

Texas State Guard officials would not say if Brister-Antley would be welcomed back, which is something she hopes will happen. She says her weight has no impact on her ability to do her job.

Right now, the only thing heavy, she says, is her heart.

“This is my opportunity to serve,” said Brister-Antley. “Everybody gives back in their own way and this is mine.”

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