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State Capital Highlights

By Gary Borders

Turnout drops in recent election

Voter turnout in the midterm elections again dropped statewide, with just over 45% of registered voters either casting ballots early or at the polls on Nov. 8. Republican candidates continued to hold a hammerlock on statewide positions, with incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott handily winning a third term over challenger Beto O’ Rourke.

The Texas Standard reported turnout in the state’s largest counties was well below 50% and lower than the record 2018 midterm turnout. Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, said he wasn’t surprised at the relatively low turnout.

“Usually, it’s hard to get Texans to vote in midterm elections. We saw a sizable increase in 2018 and then a big bump in 2020, but it’s starting to look like the 2018 and 2020 numbers were basically an aberration,” he said.

In Harris County, turnout dropped from 52% in 2018 to 43% this year. 

Dallas County saw turnout plunge from 57% in 2018 to 44% this year, while in Tarrant County turnout was 47%, down from 57% in the last midterm.

“The turnout in this election was abysmal. It was way too low. And so, voters need to understand that if they don’t participate in the process, then their ability to control what happens in Austin is limited,” Rottinghaus told the Texas Standard. 

Lawmakers: Get tougher on polluters

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies, has concluded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality needs to make frequent polluters more accountable and increase the possible fines companies can face.

The commission consists of 10 legislators and two members of the public. The Texas Tribune reported the sunset commission called for state lawmakers to pass legislation next session that would increase the penalty levels for industrial polluters from $25,000 per day to $40,000. 

“I think people wanted to send a message that we were cognizant of the burden upon industry while also recognizing the importance of increasing the penalty after this period of time so that the TCEQ has the power and the tools to actually enforce compliance with its rules,” said Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, and a member of the commission.

The sunset commission’s recommendations will be considered during the next legislative session, which begins in January.

Dry October leads to drought level increase

A fairly dry October, except in West Texas, led to an increase in drought levels to 75% of the state, up 14 percentage points from the end of September.

Dr. Mark Wentzel, hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board, wrote that months of drought have adversely affected surface water resources and are now beginning to affect ground water resources as well. 

For example, the Edwards Aquifer’s water level has dropped 35 feet to its lowest level since the 2011 drought. Storage levels in the state’s water supply reservoirs are at 68% of capacity — 13 percentage points below normal for this time of year.

“It’s too far out to say with certainty, but spring 2023 may be our next best chance for drought relief,” Wentzel wrote.

Houston business convicted of workers’ comp fraud

A Houston-area business has been convicted of  a first-degree felony in a worker’s compensation scheme.

Sehgal & Sons Enterprises was convicted of concealing payrolls by having two separate payroll accounts but only reporting the smaller account to Texas Mutual Insurance Company. The company was fined $300,000, according to the Texas Department of Insurance.

“Concealing payroll is a scheme companies use to get lower workers’ compensation insurance rates, and that’s fraud,” said Debra Knight with the Department of Workers’ Compensation.

More than $355 million in public safety grants

Gov. Greg Abbott last week announced more than $355 million in public safety grants, covering a variety of programs, including victims’ services, anti-human trafficking efforts, and law enforcement support. The funding is a combination of state and federal dollars.

The money will go to provide bullet-resistant vests, homeland security, to combat human trafficking, border security and about a dozen other programs.

“This crucial grant funding will further bolster organizations and agencies as they work around the clock to ensure justice for victims of crime, protect against threats, prevent human trafficking, and support statewide emergency infrastructure, among other critical public safety initiatives,” Abbott said. 

Whooping cranes spotted on Texas coast

First sightings of the endangered whooping crane have been reported along the Texas coast, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reported.

Janess Vartanian, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, says that on Oct. 21 a pair of whooping cranes were the first to arrive this season on Matagorda Island. Most will arrive in and around the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in December. 

Whooping birds, according to TPWD, are the tallest, rarest birds in North America. The current population is estimated at about 543 birds. They migrate this time of year 2,500 milers from northern Alberta, Canada, to the Texas coast. 

COVID-19 cases drop below 10,000

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University in Texas dropped to 8,955, along with 32 deaths. The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations stayed steady, with 998 reported across the state as of Sunday.

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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