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Sen. Kolkhorst speaks on redistricting, vaccine mandates
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Sen. Lois Kolkhorst discussed topics ranging from redistricting to vaccine mandates when she stopped by Tuesday morning’s Victoria partnership meeting, organized by the Victoria Economic Development Corp.

The proposed Senate redistricting will transform Kolkhorst’s District 18, according to the Texas redistricting website. Kolkhorst also discussed Texas Proposition 6 and executive orders and bills related to COVID-19 vaccines.

If Senate redistricting goes ahead as planned, District 18 will lose portions of the Crossroads, Kolkhorst said.

Colorado, Jackson, Matagorda and Wharton counties would be transferred to District 17, according to the proposed redistricting map.

The Senate has passed the new Senate map, the congressional map and the State Board of Education map, Kolkhorst said. The House must now approve the senate map.

Kolkhorst also spoke about Texas Proposition 6, the Right to Designated Essential Caregiver Amendment.

“Prop six is this: Every person that goes into a nursing facility, an assisted living facility or a state supported living center has the constitutional right to appoint an essential caregiver,” Kolkhorst said.

Care facilities would not be allowed to deny access to the person named essential caregiver if the proposal passes. According to a House Research organization analysis, supporters of the bill say that it provides a balance between safety in the facility and ensuring residents continue to see loved ones. Critics say that limiting residents to a single caregiver could prevent other loved ones from seeing their family members before they die

Gov. Greg Abbott signed an executive order Monday preventing any entity in Texas from requiring vaccines for employees or customers, an order which Kolkhorst said she supported.

“The executive order he put out basically says that you have to observe the exemptions of medical, religious, but also conscience,” she said. “There will be a robust discussion about it.”

Kolkhorst said that while she does believe vaccines are great tools for people in certain age or risk groups, the executive order will allow people the right to forego the vaccine if they’re unsure of the effects of the vaccine on their bodies.

Kolkhorst touched on Senate Bill 968, which bans the use of vaccine passports in Texas. The bill was signed into law in June. Kolkhorst said it was one of the most difficult bills she’s ever passed.

“We’re not going to do that here,” she said. “It still allows businesses to do temperature checks and other checks, but we’re not going to create some sort of QR code where you scan to go and get access to places here in Texas.”

Hallettsville's clock tower rings again thanks to local ingenuity (w/video)

HALLETTSVILLE — This spring, James Steffek was having a cup of coffee at a local bakery when he ran into County Judge Mark Myers, who mentioned that the clock tower in the county’s 122-year-old courthouse was not working properly.

County officials had been working to restore the old clock tower, which had been out of commission for about four years, in time for the county’s 175th anniversary celebration in early April, but the industrial motor they’d installed was not up to the job.

“It was running very fast, in fact. It had the correct time right every 48 hours,” Myers said. “I was disappointed. We didn’t have a lot of money in it, but I thought we’d found a deal.”

After talking with Myers, Steffek, who has a decades-long background in engineering and electrical manufacturing, agreed to take a look. He soon assembled a team of a half-dozen volunteers who spent more than four months trying to restore the clock tower to its former glory.

“These folks are all local community folks that have been in industry all their lives — very knowledgeable people,” Steffek said up in the clock tower on a misty October morning. “We’re basically upgrading the system with something that will last the next 100 years.”

Repairing the clock tower, which still holds the original bell, manufactured at a Baltimore foundry in 1899, required all the ingenuity the team could muster. The volunteers had to overcome a number of obstacles, including waiting on couplings that were lost by FedEx en route from Belgium and gaining approval for the whole project from the Texas Historical Commission.

“It has been a real blessing to have these guys on board,” Myers said.

Now that the couplings have finally arrived, the clock tower could be restored to working order as soon as this week, though Myers said county officials are considering waiting to unveil the clock until the Festival of Lights in November.

Aside from the old bell, the gears, the round, translucent clock faces with cast-iron roman numerals around the perimeter, which are all original, much of the clock tower’s inner workings are barely recognizable from when the courthouse was built in 1899.

Originally, the courthouse’s clock and bell were powered by two sets of weights, which required a volunteer to manually crank them up at least once a week.

Sometime around the 1940s, that pendulum system was replaced by an electrical motor that powered the gear system for the clock hands and made the bell toll, said Doug Kubicek, a local historian and former teacher who has been heavily involved in the project. That motor powered the clock tower until recently, but it eventually gave out, requiring frequent repairs in its last decade of operation.

By the time the clock stopped working for good, it was nearly impossible to find the parts needed to get the motor and gear box working again.

“We couldn’t readily find anyone to rebuild the parts,” Steffek said. “We couldn’t find a new gear box of that type. So we embarked on looking at a way to go with a different system to upgrade the clock that would require a lot less maintenance and keep good time.”

After considering their options, the volunteers placed their faith in a step motor roughly the size of a toaster oven that now sits in the attic, just feet away from two of its much larger predecessors.

The new motor sends a pulse once a minute along the couplings to the gears at each clock face in order to turn the minute and hour hands and operate the bell. The motor is calibrated by a computer chip, which sets the time and adjusts the time forward and backward when daylight saving time begins and ends.

“It’s really going to take it into the 21st century,” Kubicek said. “It doesn’t require but once a month to go up and look at it.”

Acquiring all the parts for the new clock system involved some headaches. Transportation delays set the volunteers back several times, Steffek said. Making matters worse, FedEx lost a set of couplings while they were en route from Belgium to Missouri.

But the old bell, despite having sustained a small crack, still rings like it used to.

Growing up in Shiner, Kubicek grew accustomed to hearing the noontime whistle blow at Spoetzl Brewery, a daily occurrence that he said helped put the whole town in sync. Now, he will be able to hear the new bell at the courthouse from his current home, as will others who live and work around the downtown square in Hallettsville.

“It’s one of those constants that we grew up with, that multiple generations grew up with, that we can all identify with,” Myers said.

All told, the parts for the new clock and bell system cost under $10,000, Myers said, well under previous estimates. With all of the labor done by volunteers, costs were kept low — and Steffek said he even had to turn away others who wanted to lend a hand.

“That’s what this community is like,” he said. “If you need help with something, ask them. Chances are they’re going to pitch in.”

“It puts a big burden on employers”: Businesses face tough choices after Gov. Greg Abbott bans vaccine mandates
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Companies doing business in Texas now face new and complicated challenges after Gov. Greg Abbott this week banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates for all entities in the state — including private businesses — for employees or customers.

The ramifications for businesses could begin as soon as Friday, when companies that enter into contract work with the federal government will be required to have all employees vaccinated under orders from the White House.

This conflicts with Abbott’s ban on vaccine mandates, putting the many Texas businesses that receive federal contracts in a tough position: Comply with federal law and violate Abbott’s ban, or comply with Abbott and turn down business from the federal government.

In addition to federal contractors, President Biden has also announced that businesses with more than 100 employees must mandate vaccination against COVID-19 or require regular testing.

For Texas nursing homes, which have struggled during a pandemic that has ravaged their residents and decimated their workforce, a federal rule announced in August requires all nursing home employees to be vaccinated in order for their facilities to continue participating in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. If nursing homes instead comply with Abbott’s new rule, they could lose critical federal money.

More than 66,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, including 10% of nursing home residents during the first year of the virus.

“This harms Texans directly,” Karen Vladeck, an employment lawyer in Austin, said of the new order from Abbott. “I just think it wasn’t well thought out.”

Abbott’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

On top of prohibiting any entity in Texas from requiring vaccinations, Abbott’s order also lists several expanded exemptions. Vladeck and other employment lawyers said that this adds to the vaccine dilemma facing businesses in Texas. Under Abbott’s new rule, people may opt out of a vaccine requirement for medical reasons, including if they prove they have had COVID-19 in the past, despite scientists widely agreeing that this does not protect people against contracting the virus.

“The executive order’s medical reason language is a bit strange because usually you exempt people for medical reasons if they have a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott’s order is “meant to cover people who don’t want to get the vaccine because they believe, quite wrongly, that they’re completely protected by already having COVID.”

Abbott’s rule also allows people to opt out of a vaccine requirement if they prove they hold a deep personal belief against getting jabbed.

Any entity that fails to comply with Abbott’s rule could receive up to a $1,000 fine.

Abbott’s Monday order is a reversal from his position in August, when the Pfizer vaccine received final approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. At the time, Abbott’s spokesperson said that businesses had the option of mandating vaccination for employees and “private businesses don’t need government running their business.”

“It’s all about company choice in Texas, except now it’s come to something that they don’t like what the companies are choosing,” Vladeck said. “It puts a big burden on employers.”

Ted Shaw, president of the Texas Hospital Association, said Abbott’s move was political.

“Texas hospitals strongly oppose efforts underway to hamstring them from being able to require vaccination of their own staff, many of whom are at the bedside every day with children and adults who are vulnerable to COVID-19,” Shaw said in a statement. “This political action undercuts the central mission of hospitals, and patients and staff cannot be put at unnecessary risk. Hospitals have soldiered on for months at ground zero of this pandemic. As experts in healing and saving lives, hospitals must have the trust, respect and flexibility to mandate vaccines in their own facilities to protect the people of Texas.”

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also condemned Abbott’s action.

“I think it’s pretty clear when you make a choice that’s against all public health information and data out there, that it’s not based on what is in the interest of the people you are governing, it’s perhaps in the interest of your own politics,” Psaki said Tuesday.

Ray Perryman, an economist based in Waco, said Abbott’s decision is unhelpful for the state economy as it recovers from the economic impacts of the pandemic.

“This order will almost certainly cause confusion with conflicting requirements for many businesses,” Perryman said in an email to the Tribune. “From an economic perspective, it is not necessary and likely counterproductive.”

Two prominent Texas-based companies, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, already require employees to be vaccinated. Spokespeople for the two airlines told the Tribune that requirement won’t change despite Abbott’s new order.

“One of the hallmarks of capitalist economy is the ability of the private sector to make decisions without government intervention unless there is a legitimate public concern that needs to be addressed,” Perryman said. “It is difficult to see how forcing companies to expose their employees, vendors, and customers to greater risk of a deadly disease and fostering the spread and mutation of that disease brings a compelling public benefit.”

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee encouraged Texans to sue Abbott over the move.

“The Governor’s latest executive order banning private businesses from keeping their employees and customers safe is shameful,” Menefee said in a statement. “And we know that this is mostly a political bluster designed to create confusion and subject businesses to burdensome lawsuits, which can only slow down our economic recovery.”

The Greater Houston Partnership, a leading business group in Harris County, also denounced Abbott’s action.

“The governor’s executive order does not support Texas businesses’ ability and duty to create a safe workplace,” Bob Harvey, the group’s president, said in a written statement. “While the courts will likely decide the validity of this order, we encourage all employers to continue to promote the importance of vaccinations with their employees. Vaccinations are our path out of the pandemic, and the Partnership remains focused on supporting steps that lead to improving the rate of vaccination in our community.”

Abby Livingston and Karen Brooks Harper contributed reporting.