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Fayette County

Maybe rural counties don’t want hospitals

That’s what the evidence says.

The voters of Fayette County have spoken, and they’ve said that they don’t need a hospital in this rural community of 322,000 people, one hour southeast of Austin — or at least not enough to pay for it. In a landslide vote Thursday night, county residents overwhelmingly rejected a proposition to create a taxing district for St. Mark’s Medical Center in La Grange, which would have kept the deeply indebted hospital open for the foreseeable future. As the polls closed, it was clear that the idea of propping up the institution with public money didn’t have a snowball’s chance in Central Texas. The final tally was 1,360 for, 5,600 against.

“I’m very proud of the grassroots effort that stood against the taxes,” Deborah Frank, the chair of Fayette County’s Republican Party and a member of Concerned Taxpayers of Fayette County PAC, told the Observer Friday. Her group swiftly mobilized an opposition campaign against the proposition after it was put on the ballot in April, holding public meetings and distributing yard signs reading “NO NEW TAXES.” Their message: People here are already taxed enough and shouldn’t be forced to bail out a private institution simply because it’s made what they see as bad financial decisions.

Voters apparently took the message to heart.

The resounding loss is expected to push the 65-bed hospital, which is at least $14 million in debt, even closer to financial collapse. And it comes at a time when the headwinds against rural hospitals in Texas are especially strong.

Across the state, roughly 20 rural hospitals have shuttered since 2013 — casualties of low patient volumes, stingy Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates, and the burden of operating in Texas, which has more uninsured people than any other state. Seventy-five more are at risk of closing down.

One point to note: I have no idea where that “rural community of 322,000 people” figure comes from. Fayette County had 24,554 people as of the 2010 Census, and while it’s been growing over the past few decades, I’m pretty sure it hasn’t grown that much since then. I don’t live in La Grange and I don’t know anything about St. Mark’s Medical Center, so maybe it was a fiscally sound decision to not try to prop it up with a taxing district. I do know that if I lived in La Grange and faced the prospect having to travel 20 miles to Smithville or 26 miles the other direction to Columbus to find an emergency room, I’d be a little concerned about the risks to my health going forward. But hey, at least their taxes won’t go up.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

Rural Dems

They still exist, and they’re making some noise.

Trish Robinson was dropping off supplies for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts in Liberty County, about 40 minutes from Houston, when a handful of people scowled at her left-leaning political T-shirt.

David DeLuca, head of the Fayette County Democrats, said he recently introduced himself to a Republican volunteer poll worker, but the woman declined to shake hands.

And during a Tyler County town hall hosted by Senate hopeful Beto O’Rourke on a recent Friday in February, multiple people thanked the Democrat for coming to the Republican stronghold.

[…]

As a result, many of the remaining rural Democrats say they’re leery of making their political views public.

Now, as national and state party leaders talk a big game about a blue wave this November, some Democrats in rural East and Central Texas say they’re working to overcome a drag on local momentum ahead of the primary: stigma.

[…]

Something changed after Trump’s election. Through social media, Democrats in rural areas began finding each other and organizing in small but meaningful ways. County chapters have dusted off their welcome signs and other Democratic-leaning groups have emerged, both publicly and privately.

Robinson said she began the Liberty County Indivisible chapter after reading the handbook published by its national founders, which gives guidance on anti-Trump grassroots political organization.

“That sort of fed into what I believe and how I felt, and what I wanted to do,” she said. “Liberty County [Democrats] need to know there’s options for them, too. We shouldn’t always have to leave the county to feel like we belong or have a purpose or can speak up.”

She began with a Facebook post, and then held meet-ups at local restaurants. Sometimes, only one person showed up. But “if one person comes every time, I feel like that’s progress,” she said. The group has since grown to about 40.

This isn’t exactly profound, but the main thing these folks can do is believe that their votes matter, so that they actually do show up and vote in November. Dems have made big gains over the past several cycles in the big urban and suburban counties, but there are a lot more small and rural counties, and the steady degradation of the vote in those places has largely canceled those gains out. Compare the 2012 and 2012 Presidential results on a county-by-county basis sometime – it’s a thousand votes here and a thousand votes there, but in a state with 254 counties that can really add up. This is basically what the Beto strategy is all about: Narrow the margins in the unfriendly places enough so you can bridge the remaining gap in the big counties.

So having local candidates to vote for, even in uncompetitive districts, helps. Having the statewide candidates remember that these places exist helps, too. I don’t pretend to know when Dems might be able to truly contest these places, nor do I know what issues might hasten that day, but I believe the Republican Party is doing its best to marginalize itself, and the effect that has will not remain limited to the cities and the suburbs. In the meantime, let’s run candidates in races we can win – city councils and school boards and the like – and put some resources into figuring out how to make common cause and gain ground with voters in the small and medium-sized cities in these counties. I believe the opportunities are there, and we’ve taken the important first step of showing up. Let’s keep it going.

The history of the Chicken Ranch

Chron columnist and Texas historian Joe Holley writes about an attempt to put a marker by the site of the infamous Chicken Ranch.

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

Rumors spreading round that Texas town

It’s been 43 years since KTRK-TV’s crusading consumer affairs reporter (“Slime in the ice machine!!”) rolled into town with a cameraman to bust the unassuming, little country brothel that had flourished just beyond the city limits for more than a century. Zindler’s over-the-top theatrics not only resulted in the demise of the brothel – and the reporter’s own beat-down at the hands of the local sheriff, Big Jim Flournoy – but also set in motion the media cavalcade featuring Larry L. King’s famous “Playboy” article, the subsequent Broadway musical and the movie version starring Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds. “‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ remains one of the most infamous brothels ever to operate in the United States, if not the world,” says Jayme Lynn Blaschke, author of the newly published “Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch: The Definitive Account of the Best Little Whorehouse.”

The front parlor of the rambling, old frame house ended up in Dallas in 1976, reconstituted as a combination disco and chicken-themed restaurant on Greenville Avenue. “Lots of men showed up thinking it was still a brothel,” a former waitress told Blaschke. The owners hired Miss Edna, the Chicken Ranch’s last madam, to act as hostess, but she couldn’t draw the (fried) thigh and breast trade the way she could in La Grange. The restaurant lasted less than a year.

Back in Fayette County, a Waco used-car salesman named Mike McGee acquired the Chicken Ranch property in a 2009 swap with a Houston businessman. “I didn’t know what I got when I traded for it,” McGee told me by phone earlier this week.

What he got were the ruins of an old house surrounded by mesquite, huisache and prickly pear on a gravel road less than a mile off state Highway 71. Vandals, the weather and the travails of time have done their work, and by now the house is too far gone to restore. Last month McGee began the process of applying for a state historical marker at the suggestion of the local tourism board. “There’s so much interest in the Chicken Ranch, they wanted a place they can send people to, so they can look at something,” he said.

A few influential folks were not pleased, said Blaschke, who helped McGee with the application. “I’d say 45 percent of the population think it’s part of Texas history, and they should exploit it,” he said from his office at Texas State University, where he’s director of media relations. “Another 45 percent don’t give it any never mind. And maybe 10 percent of the population just about spews blood out of their eyeballs if you even mention it.”

Among the more adamant opponents – and the most influential – is longtime County Judge Ed Janecka, whose Czech ancestors settled the nearby community of Dubina in the 1850s.

McGee and Blaschke have withdrawn the application for a historical marker due to Judge Janecka’s opposition, which makes sense because Janecka would have to approve it. They may try again another time, and I hope they do. I don’t live there and it’s none of my business, but I think this is an interesting and worthwhile piece of history that ought to be remembered. I understand that some of the locals are still sensitive about this, and I can’t blame them. Maybe it would be best to wait, out of consideration for the folks who do remember the place and don’t want to be reminded of it. I do hope that someday there will be a plaque or some such to tell visitors and others who are curious that on this spot once stood the most famous brothel in Texas, if not America.

Disaster declaration made

From the inbox:

HoustonSeal

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office today confirmed that President Obama has approved the governor’s request for a federal disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, Harris and Parker counties. The action paves the way for federal recovery assistance to begin flowing into the Houston area.

“I hope this leads to help for all of our residents who were impacted by the flooding, including our most vulnerable residents in the 17 apartment complexes in the Greenspoint area,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Many of these families have lost everything and they do not have the financial means to recover. They have a whole host of needs that include housing, transportation and more. I urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be flexible in its decision making regarding assistance for these residents.”

More than 1900 apartment units were damaged in the 17 complexes in Greenspoint. Approximately 200 of these units took in as much as six feet of water. In addition, hundreds of single-family homes in Houston along White Oak and Brays Bayous also suffered extensive damage.

Houston residents and business owners who sustained losses in Harris County can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or by a web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov.

The City of Houston has established a website to help residents navigate the disaster recovery process, which includes the latest information from FEMA, as well as ways to receive and give help following the flooding. Visit houstonrecovers.org for more information.

Here’s the Chron story. If you or someone you know has been affected by this flood, do be sure you get the help you need.

Also of interest for county residents:

The Harris County engineering department has opened a phone line for residents seeking information on permits and inspections they may need to rebuild flood-damaged homes.

Residents can call 713-274-3880 from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.

Depending on where residents live and the type of structural repair necessary, they might need an inspection and development permit from the county. County officials are encouraging people to call the number to sort out what steps they need to take.

Again, please get all the help you need, and take all necessary steps to protect yourself from unscrupulous operators who would try to cheat or deceive you in making repairs.

Early voting for special election runoffs has begun

EarlyVoting

It began yesterday, but I forgot to queue up a post in time to mention it. Here’s some relevant information for those of you who need to get out and vote in one or more of these runoffs.

For SD26 and HD123, here are the Bexar County early voting locations. The Bexar County Elections page is here as well.

For HD17, here are the early voting locations for Bastrop County, Caldwell County, and Lee County. The Bastrop County Elections page is here, and they already have Election Day voting locations up as well. Both the Caldwell and Lee pages have early voting and election day locations. As for Karnes County and Gonzales County, you’ll need to call the elections administrators for information, as you had to do for the January election.

For HD13, here are the early voting locations for Burleson County, Colorado County, Fayette County, Grimes County, Lavaca County, and Washington County. All of those pages also have Election Day locations, except for Fayette and Washington. I could not find information for Austin County, so call the elections administrator there for the scoop.

Googling around on the candidates’ names, I found basically zero new information since the original election, except for a couple of stories relating to the SD26 runoff. The only endorsements I found, as was the case in January, was from the Express News, which reiterated their choices from the first round.

In the Senate race, we recommend Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer to replace mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte.

The district will be in good hands regardless of who wins the showdown between Martinez Fischer and Rep. José Menéndez. Both Democrats who have been in the House since 2001.

But Martinez Fischer’s strong leadership ability unequivocally makes him the right choice for the Senate.

[…]

We strongly encourage voters to cast their ballots for former City Councilman Diego Bernal, who faces Republican Nunzio Previtera.

Bernal represented San Antonio’s City Council District 1 from 2011 until resigning late last year to seek the House seat. During his tenure at City Hall, Bernal showed courage by successfully sponsoring a highly controversial nondiscrimination ordinance that provided new protections for sexual orientation, gender identity and veteran status.

The 38-year-old Bernal also played a lead role in creating an advisory panel to study the future of Alamo Plaza. The city has failed to nurture the downtown asset, and Bernal’s efforts have revived hope for real improvements. This is an issue of statewide importance.

They also had a recent story about how Bexar Dems are dismayed by the negativity in the all-Dem SD26 runoff. Those of us who remember the SD06 special election from two years ago feel their pain. I figure turnout will be less than or equal to the first round, so if you live in any of these districts, your vote counts for a lot. There are no Dems in either HD17 or HD13, but John Cyrier and Carolyn Bilski are backed by the Texas Parent PAC, and Cyrier’s opponent in particular is aligned with the likes of Empower Texans, so even without a home team there’s still a rooting interest. I’ll keep an eye on the voting as we go. The Rivard Report has more.