AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Governor Greg Abbott will give his State of the State address Monday night, presenting his list of priorities to a statewide audience. But he’s been laying out some of those ideas throughout the month in a series of presentations across the state.
During an event Tuesday afternoon in San Antonio, Gov. Abbott pitched the idea of crafting legislation to provide civil liability protections to people operating businesses during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
He pitched this proposal after talking with construction workers and small business leaders during, what his office dubbed, a “listening session.”
Abbott said he will roll out more concrete details about some of these legislative proposals in the coming weeks. At this time, though, he floated one protection after saying business owners that “operated in good faith during the pandemic” face the threat of potential lawsuits for doing so. He said they “shouldn’t have their livelihoods destroyed by frivolous lawsuits.”
At The Polkadot Alley in Lubbock, store manager Kim Halsted spends a lot of time thinking about protecting her customers.
“(There are) so many small mom and pop businesses out there, we’re just trying to do our best and keep everyone safe while still being able to get out and shop and do the things that they need to do,” Halsted said.
Abbott also said he wants to continue building a strong workforce.
“We need to continue to do more to make sure that we provide the skilled training that’s needed in the multitude of jobs that either are or will be becoming available,” Abbott said.
Compared to other segments of the economy, construction has faired well, according to Texas Construction Association vice president of governmental affairs Jennifer Fagan.
“However, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t incurred you know, encountered our roadblocks and difficulties,” she added.
Fagan is working to ensure subcontractors get a seat at the table, so protections and opportunities trickle down to workers.
“Our members are the guys wearing the hard hats,” Fagan said. “They are the specialty trades, the skilled workers who are on site doing doing the work on these big, mostly commercial projects.”
“If we don’t have enough subcontractors, plumbers, electricians, mechanical skilled trades persons— if we don’t have enough of those type of people, then we can’t build the buildings for the new businesses that are coming here,” Fagan explained.
Additionally, the governor said state lawmakers should work toward identifying which regulations relaxed during the pandemic are “worth keeping” to “cut unnecessary red tape and unleash the full might” of the state’s economy. He specifically mentioned the rule allowing alcohol-to-go sales in Texas.
Abbott also mentioned the need to expand access to broadband services, saying it should become available in every zip code throughout the state.
Abbott promised to keep tapping into the Texas Enterprise Fund, a pot from which he can offer grants to businesses to incentivize a move to the Lone Star State.
Abbott also told reporters Tuesday the state would keep working to make rapid COVID-19 tests available to small businesses as a precautionary measure. Earlier this week, the Texas Division of Emergency Management announced an expansion of this program after a successful pilot program launched in December.
This event is the latest in a series of discussions Abbott has held ahead of his State of the State address, during which he’ll formally announce his legislative priorities. That address will be broadcast live statewide on Feb. 1 starting at 7:00 p.m. on Texas Nexstar stations.
Abbott voiced his support for oil and gas workers in Texas Thursday following a roundtable discussion with local experts.
The governor signed an executive order during his venture west that aims to bolster the energy sector, which has been hit by a supply glut, COVID-19, and some policies being put in place by the Biden Administration.
Specifically, the president’s executive order allows various agencies across the state to challenge federal ‘overreach’ in relation to oil and gas.
“The men and women who work in the energy industry produce the affordable energy that powers our lives and they are vital to the Texas economy,” Abbott said Thursday. “Texas is a pro-energy state, and we will not sit idly by and allow the Biden administration or local governments to destroy jobs and raise energy costs for Texas families. My executive order will help ensure that the federal government cannot take away the livelihoods of Texans who work so hard to provide our state and our nation with the energy we need.”
The executive order comes after President Joe Biden signed his own executive orders putting a 60-day hold on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. The president’s executive order falls in line with the climate change policy he ran on during the 2020 election cycle.
Relying on action and awareness to stop human trafficking
Delivery drivers, convenience store clerks and bar patrons are the latest targets by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in the state’s effort to tackle human trafficking.
TABC regulates businesses licensed to sell alcohol — its agents have regulatory inspection power and law enforcement power.
“Although we have a lot of good folks in the business, about 60% of all human trafficking is somehow connected to a TABC-licensed premise,” Gen. Bentley Nettles, the agency’s executive director said.
TABC has 225 agents covering 254 counties. The agency regulates 56,000 locations, Nettles said.
“Doesn’t take a lot of math wizards to realize that we are stretched pretty thin,” he said.
TABC is one of the state agencies directed by Gov. Abbott to slash its budget by 5% due to financial shortfalls spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. Nettles and his team hope training more civilians on the ground about the signs of trafficking will help fill in gaps, using January’s designation as Human Trafficking Month to raise awareness.
“We’ve only had about 17% of the distributors actually go through that training before COVID hit,” Nettles said. That training is critical to identifying trafficking victims or perpetrators.
“If you’re a convenience store owner, if you’re a bouncer, if you’re a server, ‘how do I recognize when maybe there’s a trafficker and a victim in my location?’” Nettles said.
Another effort to boost awareness was inspired by Abbott’s anti-trafficking initiatives. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, a few blocks from the Capitol, is featuring an exhibit with videos and artifacts to show the signs of trafficking and support survivors.
“We hope this exhibition inspires everyone to understand that as individuals we are not powerless to assist in the prevention of human trafficking,” museum director Margaret Koch stated. “One person can make a difference.”
The stories feature first-person accounts from survivors of labor and sex trafficking.
Allison Franklin is one of them. Abused as a child, she ran away from home, and lived on the streets as a preteen. She went home with a man who controlled her.
“I would engage in commercial sex work as well as distribution of drugs,” Franklin said. “Gang members would be ordered to kidnap me, rape me, beat me, force me into prostitution.”
“We moved money, we moved guns, we moved cars, we moved people, including grooming me to recruit other women to be trafficked as well,” Franklin said.
Nettles said removing people from dangerous situations is crucial.
“Look at the problem from a victim’s perspective, how we can solve it, and help to get them out of that lifestyle,” he said.
Beyond victim-focused solutions, Houston-based United Against Human Trafficking pushes for a multi-pronged approach. The organization works on prevention measures, training, outreach and wraparound case management services.
The group’s director of Donor and External Partnerships, Elaine Andino, said Texas’ major cities are riddled with labor and sex trafficking, estimating an average of 2,800 sex buyers in Houston daily. She estimates there are over 234,000 labor trafficking victims in the state, working in nail salons, serving as domestic servants, working in restaurants and farming in agriculture fields.
“We work very hard to increase penalties for buyers, we work very hard to equip people who are out fighting human trafficking, but really all of that could be taken care of, if the demand was reduced,” Andino said.
A non-partisan research and advocacy organization called Children at Risk, which works to address issues focused on youth, published a list of legislation its leaders believe will help tackle human trafficking. The bills range from measures creating harsher penalties for people caught trafficking to auditing of business supply chains to check for forced labor and adding trafficking prevention information in driver education courses.
The proposals filed at the Capitol thus far have come from both Democrats and Republicans and Abbott has shown support. He signed bills last session to combat trafficking and Texas First Lady Cecilia Abbott partnered with TABC in 2018 on trafficking prevention efforts.
Nettles hopes state lawmakers will close a loophole that allows establishments with revoked alcohol licenses to operate as “bring your own beer,” or BYOB, which TABC can’t regulate.
“Right now, we don’t know how many BYOB locations there are; we don’t know,” Nettles said, adding he wants jurisdiction over those locations.
This week, the Texas Department of Transportation held a virtual version of the training it launched last year to teach staff on how to spot this modern-day slavery.
The state’s homeland security strategic plan includes mentions of expanding operations to combat trafficking, enroll officers in specific training and continue public outreach.Texas truck drivers convicted on trafficking charges will lose their commercial driver licenses under federal rules implemented in 2019.
In Central Texas, a nonprofit refuge opened for trafficking survivors in 2018.
One idea to raise awareness is called the Texas Blue Sand Project. In Lubbock, people laid blue sand on the cracks of sidewalks as a way to get their neighbors’ attention.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888 or text “help” to 233733.
A high bar for proving racial profiling in Texas
Briana Nunn was on her way home with her children and her 13-year-old brother when she rolled past Willie’s Joint on Main Street in Buda. Nunn eventually spotted a police car behind her.
She made the first left onto Sequoyah Street, and so did the police car. The officer eventually turned his headlights to bright, Nunn said.
She continued driving toward her home, which is inside a neighborhood across the street from the Buda Police Department headquarters.
“The vehicle was driving at a very slow speed,” the officer, Connor Fleming, wrote in an email to his supervisor later that night. The posted speed limit on Sequoyah Street is 25 miles an hour, but Fleming didn’t indicate Nunn’s exact speed in his notes.
The officer claimed Nunn was “suspicious” to him because she was “slow rolling” through the neighborhood and that Nunn failed to signal a turn before she stopped at a stop sign. Nunn stopped at one more stop sign before turning into a driveway on Mandan Street.
That driveway was her home.
“Getting a little nervous, I come to my house. I park, I get my kids out and then he’s driving slow,” Nunn said. The officer drove past her home and cut the block, she said. “He comes around and then he parks and he’s just watching us.”
Cell phone video Nunn recorded that night shows a patrol unit parked at an intersection two doors down from her home. The officer turned off his headlights and never left his patrol car, she said.
It was around 10 p.m. and a dimly lit streetlight shined down into the intersection where the officer parked. The video showed Nunn’s property was not lit at all.
“I get scared, I get terrified. My kids are scared. My little brother is 13, so he completely understood what was happening,” Nunn said. “I called 911 to see what was going on and the 911 operator was completely rude. She told me ‘This is not a reason to be calling.’ And, I called multiple times because he still was not leaving.”
Fleming later told his supervisors in an email that he ran Nunn’s license plate, and it came back registered to an address in Austin. The officer told his bosses since the address was out of town, he thought Nunn was a burglary suspect and decided to park and watch her.
Nunn estimates Officer Fleming surveilled her home for at least a half-hour or longer. Fleming’s email to his bosses disputes that timeline. Fleming wrote that the entire encounter – from the time he first saw Nunn’s car until he left her home – spanned 16 minutes.
The internal investigation found the officer never approached Nunn to find out what was going on. Nunn said she thought about walking to Fleming’s car to ask him what he wanted with her.
“But then I thought, ‘I could get shot just for walking in the dark up to a cop car.’ It could easily happen to me. That is the only reason I didn’t,” she said.
Hays County dispatchers eventually connected Nunn with Fleming’s supervisor, Sgt. William Kuykendall. While on the call, Nunn said she mentioned to the sergeant the reason she was in fear was that she is Black and that she felt the reason Fleming targeted her was “racially motivated.”
That’s when everything changed.
“The moment that I said I’m Black and being followed, he snapped,” Nunn said. “I never said that anyone was racist, I never said the cop was racist or trying to intimidate me — I just said ‘I’m being followed and I’m scared and my kids are scared’ and he got upset. He was extremely upset, and he refused to help me at that moment.”
Kuykendall, Nunn said, told her she shouldn’t bring race into the matter. “He was giving me no solution. He just told me at the end of the conversation, ‘If you have an issue, you can go make a formal complaint.’”
So she did, the next morning at the Buda Police Department. It took more than two weeks for the department to finish its internal affairs investigation, finding Fleming did not commit any policy violations and that Nunn’s racial profiling complaint was “unsubstantiated.”
Nunn’s complaint was the only one filed against the department between 2016 to present, according to police department records.
“The only statement I will make at this time is that, regarding Briana Nunn is, I ordered an internal investigation that did not reveal any evidence of racial profiling as Ms Nunn alleged,” Buda Chief Bo Kidd wrote in a June 2020 email (listed below) to KXAN.
“The Buda Police Department takes allegations of racial profiling very seriously. We strive for transparency and excellence in our day-to-day interactions with the public and in our internal operations. After conducting a thorough investigation, we concluded there was no evidence of racial profiling in this case. However, we are always striving to do better as an organization and we take citizens’ concerns and complaints very seriously. As Police Chief, I can say it is incredibly important to this Department that we have the confidence and trust of the community we serve.” – Chief Bo Kidd, Buda Police.
Fleming never responded to messages sent to his police department email.
The department’s internal investigation ended with a finding noted as “Unsubstantiated,” according to the report.
“There is no evidence to support the claim Ofc. Fleming was harassing Ms. Nunn or acted in a bias manner. Although Ms. Nunn was alarmed by Ofc. Fleming being parked on a public street near her home for an extended period, this is not a policy violation, nor were any criminal acts committed,” Buda Police Captain Brandon Hale wrote in his report closing in the investigation.
Texas’ racial profiling law requires all Texas law enforcement agencies report the number of racial profiling complaints received each year to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, also known as TCOLE. Those reports are supposed to include the outcome of those investigations.
Like what happened in Buda, departments investigate those complaints in-house through internal affairs departments.
In 2019, records KXAN obtained from TCOLE show no Texas law enforcement agency substantiated any complaints. The state’s largest law enforcement agency, the Texas Department of Public Safety, reported 24 formal racial profiling complaints in all of 2019.
DPS records show none of the 24 complaints resulted in any disciplinary actions, according to records provided to KXAN under an open records request.
TCOLE publishes racial profiling reports on its website each year for every law enforcement agency in the state. That report contains a column showing the number of racial profiling complaints for 2019, the latest data available.
TCOLE’s data contains multiple reporting errors in the information some agencies reported to the state. For example, the data shows the El Paso County Constable Precinct 7 Office had 299 racial profiling complaints in 2019.
When contacted by KXAN, the constable’s office confirmed it’s not had a single racial profiling complaint “in years,” according to Deputy Constable Mark Brammer. The 299 number would be the number of traffic stops made in an entire year, the office confirmed.
The next-highest number of racial profiling complaints behind DPS is the Houston Police Department, which reported 18 complaints in 2019. None of the 18 were sustained and no officers were disciplined, the department reported.
Of the 22 agencies reporting racial profiling complaint data to TCOLE that did not appear to have reporting errors, TCOLE records show 106 total complaints. Not one of those 106 resulted in disciplinary action against an officer.
The reasons are complex.
“It’s exceedingly difficult to know whether or not a police officer harbored a racial animus toward a particular class of people prior to the stop. Without any sort of corroborating evidence that that person is in fact a racist — and that’s very, very hard to figure out,” said Dr. Brian Withrow, a Texas State University professor and racial profiling expert.
Withrow was with DPS for 13 years, starting as a State Trooper and working his way up to a Bureau Manager.
Although DPS had the highest number of complaints, the agency conducts hundreds of thousands of traffic stops across Texas each year.
“Not a lot of complaints, so that may indicate to me there isn’t a lot of racial profiling going on,” Withrow said.
“But, remember, the Texas Department of Public Safety is primarily focused in rural enforcement and they don’t do a whole lot of enforcement in cities where there are larger minority populations,” Withrow explained.
Texas law has created a high bar for proving whether racial profiling has happened in a single traffic stop, which is typically where a complaint originates. The hurdle is the way the state defines racial profiling, according to Withrow: “If an officer initiates an enforcement action based solely on the basis of race.” That means investigators must prove the accused officer is “a racist,” Withrow said.
Finding a reason to initiate a traffic stop isn’t hard, Withrow said, pointing out that a violation such as failing to signal or not staying in the center of a lane provides enough legal justification for a traffic stop.
“All the officer needs to do is say ‘I observed that person rolling through a stop sign, so I initiated a traffic stop because it’s against the law to do that.’ I’m entitled to do that; indeed, I have responsibility to do that. So, that makes the case exceedingly difficult to prove.”
Withrow acknowledged research shows most racial profiling complaints don’t meet the definition of “racial profiling.” Withrow believes most departments now take formal, written complaints seriously. But, he said many departments, like DPS, warn the person filing the complaint of the penalties of perjury if any of the details aren’t true.
“There’s some evidence to suggest that that may deter people from actually initiating a complaint,” Withrow said. “Some people think that if they say ‘This is what I believe,’ that if it turns out that that’s not true that they’re going to be arrested for something even though that’s not what perjury really means.”
Still, Withrow said proving racial profiling takes more than looking at the race and gender statistics of an officer’s stops to determine whether an enforcement action contained any racial animus.
“There’s no test that can really look into the heart of a police officer and can tell whether or not they harbor discriminatory attitudes or prejudicial attitudes to one particular race or another,” he said.
“You really have to look more deeply at what, over time, that police officer actually does. If you look at what the police officer actually does versus what they say they do, or do not do, then I think you get a more insight into whether or not there may be an unconscious bias. Or, there may be a conscious bias that is being effectively hidden by that officer,” Withrow said.
A different vision: Castro criticizes state leaders
As Governor Abbott prepares for Monday night’s State of the State address, Texas Democrats are presenting a different vision for the state’s future.
In that version of the future, Julián Castro sees Texas becoming a blue state.
“I think what you saw happen in Arizona and what happened in Georgia in 2020, that’s the direction Texas is heading in,” said Castro. The former San Antonio mayor served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. Castro ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2020, but dropped out of the race before the Iowa caucuses.
He questioned how state leaders, particularly Governor Abbott, have handled the response to COVID-19.
“Governor Abbott made a big mistake early on in rushing to reopen the state before we had enough testing and contact tracing in place,” Castro said. He believes the response cost lives and jobs in Texas.
“35,000 Texans have lost their lives. So many people are still out of work because we didn’t have that strong leadership,” Castro said.
He believes that changing demographics as well as a desire for new leadership will benefit Democrats in Texas.
“I think people have recognized the shortcomings of the Republican party and where it stands today,” Castro said. “Especially during the Donald Trump era and also during the Greg Abbott era here in Texas.”
“They see that we can do a lot better,” Castro concluded.