Texas Press Association
Capital Highlights — Patrick lays out legislative priorities
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick outlined his goals for the upcoming legislative session, calling them “general concepts,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.
With an estimated $27 billion surplus, the Legislative Budget Board voted last week to boost the Legislature’s spending capacity by 12.3% — the largest increase allowed under the state constitution. But that still leaves the Legislature having about $14.5 billion in the piggy bank above its spending limit.
Consequently, property tax reduction is one of Patrick’s priorities. He is calling for a hike in the homestead property tax exemption from $40,000 to $60,000, as well as an expansion of personal property exemptions for businesses, the Statesman reported.
Other priorities include strengthening the state’s power grid, boosting border security and law enforcement measures, such as increasing pay for sheriffs and a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for anyone who uses a gun while committing a crime.
Patrick stressed that the Legislature has the ultimate say.
“So much of what I’m laying out today is not specific, because it’s really up to the members to write the bills in the Senate and the House,” Patrick said. “It’s good that the Legislature is back. We have an extraordinary opportunity, like we have never had before, to chart the future of the state of Texas.”
Rainy Day Fund, highways get boost from oil, gas revenues
A significant amount of the state’s current surplus is coming from oil and gas industry tax revenues, with the latest contribution being $7.3 billion split equally between the Rainy Day Fund and the State Highway Fund. A 2014 constitutional amendment mandates that 75% of oil and gas tax revenue that exceeds the amount collected in 1987 be split evenly between the two funds.
“Revenue from the oil and gas industry is what’s in the Rainy Day Fund, accounts for billions to the State Highway Fund, and contributes to state funds that pay for schools, universities, and first responders,” Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Wayne Christian said.
Report: Private border wall could collapse
A U.S. Department of Justice report kept secret for more than a year and produced by the global engineering firm Arcadis concludes a private border wall along the Rio Grande in Hidalgo County is in danger of collapsing if the area receives extreme flooding.
The report, obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, concludes the wall built by Fisher Industries doesn’t meet basic international building code and industry standards. Its foundation is far shallower than previous border walls built by the federal government.
The feds reached a settlement with Fisher Industries last May requiring that the fence be inspected quarterly, that bollards be removed, and that a gate be maintained to allow for the release of floodwaters.
An attorney for Fisher Industries said the company “strongly disagrees” with the report. However, several civil engineering experts say the settlement ignores the report’s conclusions. Alex Mayer, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the agreement overlooks what he termed the wall’s flawed design, as pointed out by the report.
“It just shows the shoddiness of the whole effort. It worries me even more,” Mayer said.
The two news organizations spent 15 months trying to obtain the Arcadis report, which confirms their earlier reporting about the privately built wall’s potential flaws.
Texas traffic congestion increased in 2021
Delays on the state’s most crowded roadways grew last year, though they are still below pre-pandemic gridlock levels, according to the latest study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. The institute has conducted the study annually since 2009.
This year’s “winner” for most gridlocked stretch is Houston’s West Loop, which held onto the title it garnered the previous year. Rounding out the top five of roadways one might consider avoiding if possible are the Woodall Rogers Freeway in Dallas; Interstate 35 in Austin; and Houston’s Eastex and Southwest Freeways.
Researchers say traffic delays cost a ton of money in lost time and wasted fuel – more than $3.8 billion on the state’s busiest road sections last year, though that is about 10% lower than pre-pandemic levels.
Delays are not confined to the state’s largest cities. Gridlock affects areas of all sizes, according to the institute, which has compiled a complete list of 1,860 road segments in 23 urban regions across Texas. The list can be found at mobility.tamu.edu.
Lawmakers sign NDAs to get Uvalde info
A half-dozen Texas lawmakers signed nondisclosure agreements to obtain investigative records from the Texas Department of Public Safety concerning the May shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that have thus far been kept secret from the public.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde, was one of the six. Others include Sens. Royce West, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Paul Bettencourt, and Reps. Dustin Burrows and Tracy King, according to the DPS. Most of the agreements were signed in June or July.
Since the shooting, which killed 19 students and two teachers, parents and others have fought for investigative records that might explain the failed law enforcement response at the school. A coalition of media outlets, including the Statesman, have sued seeking the public release of information from DPS.
COVID-19 cases rise in state
The number of COVID-19 cases in the past week in Texas rose to 21,026, with 43 deaths reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. That is more than double the number of new cases reported the previous week. There are 1,750 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout the state — also an increase, 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.