The 2023 Texas legislative session opened Jan. 10, with property taxes, gun control and the power grid expected to be among the top issues on the agenda.
The Texas Standard talked to political journalists Niki Griswold of the Austin American-Statesman and James Barragàn of the Texas Tribune to see what might be upcoming.
Griswold predicts the “so-called culture war issue” could take center stage, with a number of bills already filed regarding the rights of transgender children and their parents, as well as battles over what books should be made available to children in the classroom and libraries.
Barragan said the state’s predicted $27 billion surplus will attract a number of factions wanting a piece of that action. Gov. Greg Abbott has called for about half the surplus to be spent on property tax relief, while House Speaker Dade Phelan is pushing for more spending on infrastructure.
Griswold pointed out that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wields considerable power in the Legislature and is keenly interested in more fixes to the state’s electric grid.
The regular session will last 140 days, as set by the state constitution.
Ag agency: Climate change threatens food supply
A new report released last week by the Texas Department of Agriculture concluded climate change is a potential threat to the state’s food supply and could produce food insecurity. The report comes after a historic drought decimated crops and forced ranchers to sell the highest number of livestock in more than a decade.
The Texas Tribune reported the food access study, published by TDA and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, noted that “climate instability is strongly associated with water quality, soil degradation, droughts, fires, floods and other environmental disasters.”
The report was submitted to the Legislature on Dec. 31 and points to other factors that make it harder for Texans to access and afford food, such as wages not keeping up with inflation and lack of access to food in rural areas.
“The important takeaway here is that there are significant gaps that need to be addressed between what researchers calculate to be a living wage in Texas, the wages that Texans are actually receiving, and many of the poverty thresholds that determine eligibility for assistance programs,” the report says.
Abbott calls for action on ankle monitor violations
Abbott last week sent a letter to legislative leaders calling for legislation to create criminal penalties for parolees who cut off their ankle monitors.
That action comes in the wake of an October incident in which parolee Nestor Hernandez was charged with pulling a handgun and killing two hospital employees while visiting his girlfriend and their newborn child at Methodist Hospital in Dallas. He was shot by a Methodist Hospital police officer but survived and is now being held without bond on capital murder charges.
A few weeks later another parolee, Zeric Jackson, was accused of fatally shooting a man at his former girlfriend’s Dallas apartment.
“It is clear that the ankle monitors, a condition of their parole, were not effective in deterring or otherwise preventing these individuals from going on to commit violent crimes, resulting in three innocent lives being lost,” Abbott wrote.
Currently, there are no criminal penalties for a parolee cutting off an ankle monitor.
Beware of online phone scams
The Texas Department of Insurance is urging Texans, especially older adults, to beware of both phone and online scams. In 2021, more than 6,700 Texans over age 60 reported losing more than $159 million to fraudsters, TDI reports.
Some common scams:
· A caller offers to fix a non-existent computer problem or to renew a software or security subscription that does not actually exist.
· A caller purports to be a grandchild calling from another country and needing hundreds of dollars quickly.
· A call or email that says you have won a sweepstakes or lottery but requires you to pay thousands of dollars in bogus fees in order to claim the larger prize.
· Someone adopts a fake identity to gain affection and confidence, in hopes of eventually building a relationship that enable the scammer to steal money.
More information is available on the TDI website: tdi.texas.gov.
Emergency SNAP benefits again extended
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has again provided the state with more than $344.1 million in emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefits for the month of January, benefitting about 1.6 million Texas households.
The funds are distributed by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Each SNAP household will receive at least $95 in emergency allotments in addition to its regular allotment.
Since April 2020, the federal government has provided more than $9.3 billion in benefits to Texans through SNAP.
“We know these benefits will help families start 2023 with healthy and nutritious foods,” said Texas HHS Access and Eligibility Services Deputy Executive Commissioner Wayne Salter.
RRC unveils interactive map of orphaned wells.
Using federal infrastructure funding, the Texas Railroad Commission has launched an interactive map of orphan wells that have been plugged or are scheduled to be plugged.
The RRC received a $25 million initial grant in 2022 from the U.S. Department of the Interior as part of the federal infrastructure act. So far, 128 orphan wells have been plugged, with plans to plug about 800 more abandoned wells by the end of the fiscal year.
Another $318 million in federal funding may be available to plug orphaned wells, according to the RRC. You can view the interactive map at https://tinyurl.com/38tjm4wy.
COVID-19 cases rise in past week
The number of new COVID-19 cases in the past week in Texas rose to 39,019, with 131 deaths reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state also rose to 3,445, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.