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News Brief: Texas Voting Bill, Naomi Osaka, Hurricane Season Threat

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It was a busy few days in Texas.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Yeah, it was. The Texas legislature ended its session as required on Sunday night without passing a bill that changed election rules as Republicans wanted. That bill would limit ways to vote and also make it easier to overturn democratic elections. Democrats said their objections were ignored and so they walked off the House floor. That blocked all business because there was not a quorum. The Republican governor, Greg Abbott, then responded with an attention-grabbing threat, kind of reminiscent of Donald Trump, on Twitter. He said he'll prevent the legislature from being paid. He also plans to call a special session to try to pass that bill again.

INSKEEP: Let's talk this through with Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin, the capital of Texas. Ashley, welcome back.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the governor's threat. He said he would veto the legislature's budget. What does that mean?

LOPEZ: Well, the governor of Texas, just like many other governors, has the power of a line-item veto. And, you know, he in particular has until June 20 to veto parts of next year's fiscal budget. But that budget begins in September. And the legislature, including the agency and the people who work there, that means they'll be completely funded until then. So there's not really any sort of immediate effect on the legislature's pay then. And what we're talking about here is lawmakers get about $600 a month from this part of the budget. But the people who this would really affect are those who are employed full time by the legislature. And that includes a lot of, like, these lawmakers own staff.

INSKEEP: I guess presumably Republicans as well as Democrats would suffer. And this is something that Abbott didn't actually do. He said he was going to do and that he wants this special session in the meantime. How are Democrats responding?

LOPEZ: Well, some Democrats are questioning whether it's constitutional for the governor of a state to defund a part of the state's government, especially because the legislature is obviously part of the system of checks and balances we have here in Texas. A lawmaker here in Austin, Donna Howard, said in a statement that eliminating a part of the government to her is akin to creating like a monarchy in the state. Howard said during a recent press conference that Democrats only broke quorum and left the Capitol before that big vote on a voting bill because it was really the only tools available to them. She says Democrats decided to draw a line because there was an onslaught this year of bills that were pretty politically extreme.

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DONNA HOWARD: There was so much going on this session. It was a continual effort on our part to try to push back on some of the most egregious legislation that I have ever seen come to this Capitol.

LOPEZ: And, of course, Democratic lawmakers are raising concerns about what this would mean for the folks who work for them, especially when so many people are coming out of a tough financial year because of the pandemic.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note, the other thing that's happening is this special session, it seems. Republicans do have the majority. They were blocked momentarily, but they can come back if the governor calls a special session. How would that work?

LOPEZ: Yeah, and he definitely plans on calling a special session. He said that a couple times. And, you know, I don't know if folks remember when back in 2013 a Texas lawmaker here - her name is Wendy Davis - filibustered for 13 hours a bill that would restrict abortion access. And if folks remember, she was actually successful in running out the clock and a bill did not pass. But the governor at the time, Rick Perry, called a special session and an anti-abortion bill was eventually passed and signed into law during that special session. So it's presumably going to work like that again.

INSKEEP: Could Democrats try to run out the clock again?

LOPEZ: Yeah. I mean, it's harder during special sessions because, you know, if you remember, the reason that abortion bill eventually passed in 2013 and why it's going to be harder for Democrats to stop a voting bill next time is that special sessions tend to be focused on just a few issues. So it's easier for those pushing the legislation to not run into the same kind of time constraints the next time. Ultimately, this is going to be much harder for Democrats to stop what's coming down next time.

INSKEEP: They don't have the votes. Ashley, thanks.

LOPEZ: Yeah, thank you.

INSKEEP: Ashley Lopez of KUT in Austin.

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INSKEEP: One of the world's top tennis players, the No. 2 player in the world, is taking a break from the court.

KING: She says she had to because she didn't want to talk to the media. Naomi Osaka was fined for skipping a post-match news conference. Under pressure to not do that again, she withdrew from the French Open. She said it was for the sake of her mental health. In a statement, she talks about living with anxiety and also past episodes of depression.

INSKEEP: USA Today columnist Christine Brennan joins us once again. Christine, welcome back.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: What did you think about as this story unfolded and then as Osaka gave her reasons why?

BRENNAN: I thought about we have an athlete who is 23 years old, who's on the top of her game, has won four grand slam tournaments since the U.S. Open, her first in 2018, Steve. She's worth an estimated $55 million just - she made that just last year alone. And that's a lot. And she is now with this statement telling us about the long bouts of depression that she suffered, that she says anyone who knows me knows I'm introverted and anyone who's seen me - this was her statement on Twitter and Instagram yesterday - anyone who's seen her at the tournaments will notice that I'm often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety. She says she's not a natural public speaker and gets huge waves of anxiety before she speaks to the media. So I think what we're seeing is a young person who is very talented and very popular and has made great statements about Black Lives Matter and then masks she was wearing last year to honor the victims of police brutality at the U.S. Open. She's done so much. But obviously, as we found with other athletes, Steve, there's so much we don't know about them. We think we know them. We really don't.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned other athletes. Does this feel like a widespread thing to you, that whether the person makes $55 million or not, they're a human being and they may have troubles that we don't see?

BRENNAN: Absolutely. Another name that comes to mind is Michael Phelps, the great Olympian. He's 35 years old now. He's retired from competitive swimming. And over the last year or so, he's made this his focus, mental health issues, talking about his own problems and difficulties over the years while we were all cheering him on and have no idea what was going on behind the curtain, so to speak. The difference here is Naomi Osaka is at the top of her game right now. She's not retired. And she's coming forward. I don't remember in my career, Steve, any athlete stepping away for this reason at literally the top of her game. And so I think what it gives the world is an opportunity to have, once again, sports taking us to an important national and international conversation that we otherwise might not, as a society, engage in, you know, because of the popularity of Naomi Osaka, because of her fame and the cross section of people who are drawn into that discussion. And I'm guessing this will be another example of that. She will lead us to a great conversation and hopefully help others, even as, of course, we, everyone, is cheering for her, of course, to take care of herself first.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, how are other athletes responding?

BRENNAN: Tennis players, as you might expect, have come out in force. Billie Jean King - it's incredibly brave, she said, that Naomi Osaka has revealed her truth about her struggle with depression. And Martina Navratilova saying, as athletes, we are taught to take care of our body and perhaps the mental and emotional aspect gets short shrift. She said, we are all pulling for you. That was Martina Navratilova about Naomi Osaka.

INSKEEP: Christine, come back and see us.

BRENNAN: I look forward to it. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: Christine Brennan of USA Today.

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INSKEEP: The Atlantic hurricane season starts today.

KING: Last year, there were 30 named storms. That's the most ever. The World Meteorological Organization, which names the storms, actually ran out of names, you might remember, and started using Greek letters. Officials with the National Hurricane Center and FEMA are urging people along the East and Gulf Coast to get ready for this season. Here's the head of FEMA, Deanna Criswell.

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DEANNE CRISWELL: Last year was a record season. We don't know what this season's going to be, but it just takes one storm.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen is with us from Miami. He may well be covering some of those hurricanes if and when they come. Greg, good morning.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, so we just heard it said by the head of FEMA, we don't know what this season is going to be, but is there some general expectation?

ALLEN: Well, yes. We don't think it's going to be quite as busy as last year. You know, last year, we had these La Nina conditions in the Pacific, which helped produce the most named storms ever. This year, La Nina has ended. But NOAA says we should still expect as many as 20 named storms. That's more than average, but that would be a third less than last year. But like Deanne Criswell said, a single storm can bring devastation, so people have to get ready.

INSKEEP: So let's talk about the aftermath of a storm, which is something that FEMA and others seem to be more focused on - not just surviving the landfall but what comes afterward, why focus on that?

ALLEN: Well, you know, I think a good point is that last year, the National Hurricane Center says 46 people died from direct causes in a hurricane, you know, like winds or flooding. But actually, more people, 51, died afterward from indirect causes, so that's this new focus.

INSKEEP: What are indirect causes?

ALLEN: Well, those are things like heart attacks, vehicle accidents, electrocution and carbon monoxide poisoning. That last one, carbon monoxide poisoning, is getting a lot of attention. Hurricane Laura wrecked the electrical grid in southwest Louisiana last year, as you'll recall, leaving communities without power for weeks. Fourteen of the deaths after the storm were from carbon monoxide poisoning from unsafe use of emergency generators. The day after the storm at a news conference, Lake Charles Police Chief Shawn Caldwell said five deaths occurred in a single household, and he had a message for anyone using a generator.

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SHAWN CALDWELL: Guys, keep it away from your home. Don't put it anywhere near a covered awning, a porch, a garage. Chain it to a tree if there's one left out in the yard. But don't let a generator cost your life.

ALLEN: You know, National Hurricane Center director Ken Graham says it's becoming clear that forecasters and emergency managers have to pay more attention to threats after the storm, including the use of these generators.

KEN GRAHAM: In the last four years, we've lost more people to carbon monoxide poisoning after the storm than we have storm surge.

ALLEN: You know, that's Ken Graham. He says storm surge remains the biggest threat to lives and property in a hurricane. But in the last four years, seven people have died from storm surge and at least 39 from carbon monoxide poisoning.

INSKEEP: Is this really something the government can work against other than warning people of the danger?

ALLEN: Well, that's a good question. You know, the National Hurricane Center is going to put a new emphasis in its advisories on generator safety. But, you know, the problem is few people pay attention to the National Hurricane Center warnings after a storm has passed when they're all using generators. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has its own generator safety campaign. It says anyone having a generator should have carbon monoxide alarms with battery backup in their homes. But, you know, in the study, the vast majority of homes where there have been fatalities, alarms weren't present, so, you know, it's a continuing struggle.

INSKEEP: You have hurricane warnings, tropical storm warnings. You need to have a generator warning at some point, I guess.

ALLEN: Yeah, that's right.

INSKEEP: NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks.

ALLEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.