Cobler: Public access to legislature remains up in air


When the Texas Legislature convenes Jan. 12, a key question is how the public will have access to its lawmakers during the pandemic.

State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton to issue an opinion about whether the Capitol building must be open during the legislative session. Further, should legislators be required to be in person during any debate and vote?

During the pandemic, many local and state elected bodies have switched to virtual meetings. The state Legislature, which meets in odd years, has been out of session this year. The Capitol building has been closed since mid-March, but the Texas State Preservation Board reopened the Capitol grounds last week.

Briscoe also asks of the attorney general, “Does the Legislature, any other Texas elected official, or any state agency have the power to close the Capitol to the public? If so, under what circumstances?”

An attorney general opinion does not carry the weight of law. Meanwhile, leaders in the Texas House and Senate are working on their rules of engagement. 

More COVID-19 vaccines on the way

More than 1,100 providers in 185 Texas counties will receive the COVID-19 vaccine during the second week of distribution, the Texas Department of State Health Services announced.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will deliver 460,500 doses of the vaccine manufactured by Moderna and 159,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to continue to vaccinate front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

“Adding the Moderna vaccine will dramatically increase the amount of vaccine that can go to rural areas and smaller providers because it ships in smaller quantities and can be stored longer at regular refrigerator temperatures,”  DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt said in a statement. “Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are safe and effective – both can confer protection against COVID-19, regardless of which vaccine you receive.”

The Moderna vaccine began shipping Sunday and is arriving this week in Texas at providers such as hospitals, freestanding emergency rooms, emergency medical service providers, pharmacies, local health departments, health centers and other clinics. For a list of providers, go to dhs.texas.gov.

In the first week of distribution, 110 hospitals in 34 counties received more than 224,000 doses of COVID-19. By the end of the month, more than 1 million vaccines will be distributed to a variety of providers, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference.

“It is a historic week in the Lone Star State as the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrive in our communities,” Abbott said.

Cyberattack blows back on SolarWinds

An Austin company is at the center of an investigation into a cyberattack on multiple federal agencies.

Various news sources have reported the hackers, backed by a foreign government, stole information from multiple agencies, including the Commerce and Treasury departments and Homeland Security. The cyber spies are thought to have gotten access by tampering with updates released by Austin-based SolarWinds, which provides networking software.

Since first being reported Dec. 13 by Reuters, the federal investigation has expanded beyond the SolarWinds breach.

SolarWinds was founded in Tulsa in 1999 and moved its headquarters to Austin in 2006, according to its website.  The company has more than 3,200 employees globally and about 320,000 customers in 190 countries.

In a Dec. 14 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, SolarWinds said it was unable to predict the financial damages the company would suffer. In the days after the attack was reported, SolarWind’s stock prices fell more than 15%.

The best Christmas ever

Christmas came early for two Texas institutions of higher learning.

Philanthropist MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, announced she was giving $50 million to Prairie View A&M University near Houston and $40 million to Texas A&M International University in Laredo. The two gifts are the largest in the history of both universities.

The money is part of more than $4 billion in donations Scott has made during the past four months to 384 organizations across all 50 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.

“This pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling,” Scott wrote in a Medium post. “Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires.”

Ruth J. Simmons, Prairie View president, called the unrestricted gift transformative.

“I was stunned and, for a time, speechless,” Simmons said in a statement. “At first I thought I had surely misheard the amount, and I asked them to repeat it; they clarified that it would be ‘$50, five zero, million.’”

Chris Cobler is a board member and past president of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. He welcomes email at ccobler@texaspress.com.