Capital Highlights: State steps up DUI enforcement during holidays

By Gary Borders

The Texas Department of Transportation has kicked off its statewide “Drive Sober. No Regrets” drunk driving prevention program for the holidays. Throughout the month, TxDOT has released videos of people who deal with the daily consequences of driving while impaired, either as an offender or survivor. 

The stories and facts about drunk driving can be found at SoberRides.org. 

“It is our hope that these moving, first-hand accounts will encourage all of us to make the right choice and not ever drive after drinking or doing anything that can alter our judgment,” said TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. “We don’t want to turn a happy time of year into one that could be marked by tragic loss caused by someone’s poor decision to drink and drive.” 

During the December holiday season last year, there were 2,462 DUI-alcohol related traffic accidents, killing 93 people and seriously injuring 215. 

TEXAS TO DISTRIBUTE ADDITIONAL $123.3 MILLION IN ED FUNDING 

The state will invest an additional $123.3 million in federal funds provided through pandemic relief legislation. 

“The state of Texas remains committed to students and their success in our education systems — that includes ensuring parents have an option to send their kids to a high-quality charter school and providing direct support to families with children who have special needs,” Gov. Greg Abbott said. 

This final round of funding includes money for students with severe cognitive disabilities; charter school grants; financial aid for nursing students; short-term credential training for front-line health care workers; initiatives to improve student enrollment and retention; financial aid programs for higher education; cybersecurity enhancement; and aid for those seeking commercial driver license training. 

“For some of our most at-risk students, this significant new round of funding will prioritize getting families across Texas direct access to special education and other targeted supplemental services to support their children’s varied educational needs,” said Mike Morath, Texas education commissioner. 

USED VEHICLE PRICES AT RECORD HIGHS 

The average listing price for a used vehicle topped $27,000 for the first time, according to a report from Cox Automotive. A primary reason, according to a story in the San Antonio Express-News, is the relative scarcity of new vehicles because of supply-chain disruptions and an initial drop in demand when the pandemic struck. 

For example, Toyota stopped production at all its plants across North America and in Southeast Asia, except for its San Antonio factory. The company had hoped to return to full prediction in December but has again suspended work at some plants as a shortage of computer chips has stymied vehicle production. 

The spike in used vehicle prices has benefitted car owners looking to sell. 

“With the way the market is right now, I’ve seen people make money on their vehicles, especially with diesel. It’s crazy,” Zachary Gilman, a salesman at the Jordan Ford dealership in Live Oak, told the Express-News. 

MORE FUNDING FOR OPERATION LONE STAR 

The state’s Public Safety Office has awarded an additional $38.4 million in funding to cities and counties along the Texas-Mexico border for law enforcement efforts. That amount doubles the funding provided for those counties since last March. 

The funding is for specialized law enforcement equipment, labor costs including overtime, construction of additional communication towers and increased jail capacity and travel costs for law enforcement personnel from non-border counties that provide assistance. 

“This additional funding will strengthen our response to the border crisis and ensure our law enforcement and local partners have the resources they need to keep our communities safe in the federal government’s absence,” Abbott said. 

COVID-19 CASES SPIKE; OMICRON VARIANT SPREADS 

As Texans continue to navigate life during a nearly two-year pandemic, the number of new cases of COVID-19 rose during the past week to 51,479, an increase of 41% from the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. The number of new deaths dropped to 266, a decrease of 44%, however. Researchers have said that while the omicron variant is more contagious than the delta variant that sparked the last wave, its symptoms thus far are not as severe. 

The number of lab-confirmed hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients stayed at about the same level as the previous week, with 3,376 reported by the Texas Department of State Health Services. 

The number of Texans who are fully vaccinated stood at 16.36 million as of Sunday, which is 56.1% of the state’s population. In addition, 4.35 million of the state’s residents have received an additional dose, according to DSHS. 

STATE’S WORKFORCE SURPASSES PRE-PANDEMIC HIGH 

The Texas labor market exceeded the previous pre-pandemic high in February 2020 by hitting just under 13 million nonagricultural jobs in November, the Texas Workforce Commission reported last Friday. The adjusted jobless rate was 5.2% last month, down slightly from the previous month. 

“Reaching this milestone for job creation in Texas shows the strength of our economy,” TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel said. 

The Amarillo area had the lowest unemployment rate among Texas Metropolitan Statistical Areas at 3.1%, followed by the Austin-Round Rock MSA at 3.2% and College Station-Bryan at 3.5%. 

“Texas continues to reach unprecedented milestones thanks to our unwavering commitment to economic freedom and our young, skilled, growing, and diverse workforce,” Gov. Greg Abbott said. 

PUC APPROVES ELECTRIC GRID RELIABILITY MEASURES

The state Public Utility Commission last week voted unanimously to enhance both short-term and long-term reliability of the state’s electric grid through what it termed “major reforms” to the state’s wholesale electricity market. 

“In prior years, any single one of these changes would have been considered significant. Taken together, they are a generational shift in the Texas electricity market,” said Peter Lake, PUC chairman. “This (is) a move away from the crisis-based business model we have operated under for the past two decades. This new model centers on reliability.” 

Some of the major changes: 

• Changes in the mathematical formula used to 27% of the fatalities, with 127 incidents, according to TDI. Fatalities in the transportation and warehousing industries had the second highest, accounting for 20.4% with 96 people killed. Natural resources and mining recorded the third-highest number with 54 fatalities, or 11.5%. 

RAISING THE BAR FOR HIGHER EDUCATION 

The Commissioner of Higher Education said last week the state is raising the bar for higher education. In an address before nearly 200 higher education leaders, Harrison Keller released “an ambitious vision for higher education,” according to a news release from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. 

The updated strategic plan for the state’s higher education system includes: 

• Adding a new goal for 35- to 64-year-olds who need new skills to compete in today’s economy. 

• A broader range of postsecondary credentials of value to fit workforce needs. 

• The goal of students having no college debt or at least a low, manageable debt. 

• A greater focus on research and development to drive innovation. 

• Renewing the state’s commitment to advancing equity for all Texans to complete postsecondary degrees and certificates. 

Keller called the present time “the greatest opportunity since the end of World War II to make an impact in higher education.” 

“As we emerge from the global pandemic, we arrive at another defining moment in history,” he said. “In Texas, the window of opportunity is open for us to work together to advance and enhance this vision for higher education and enrich the lives of generations to come.” 

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: gborders@ texaspress.com. 

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