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State Capital Highlights: November 30

By Gary Borders

Changes urged in funding community colleges

A report submitted to state leaders ahead of the 88th legislative session’s opening in January urges lawmakers to develop “an innovative new model” to fund community colleges.

The Texas Commission on Community College Finance, established last year by the Legislature and consisting of 12 lawmakers, business leaders and community college leaders, offered three sets of recommendations for supporting the state’s strategic plan for higher education:

• Reward community colleges for positive student outcomes

• Increase affordability and financial aid

• Increase capacity at colleges to meet changing workforce needs

“We need a funding model for our 50 community college districts that is bold, strategic and fully aligned with our emerging workforce needs,” said Woody Hunt, a member of the commission and longtime business leader.     

The commission also recommended the state make community colleges more affordable by increasing financial aid provided by the state, more aid for dual-credit courses and supporting work-based educational opportunities, such as internships and apprenticeships. 

Under the state’s current system for funding community colleges, most revenue comes from tuition and property taxes levied by the college district. The state also contributes some funding. 

New power grid market draws skeptics

The state Public Utility Commission is proposing an untested structure for the state’s power grid after legislators ordered its overhaul in the wake of the 2021 winter storm. The Dallas Morning News reported the proposed “performance credit mechanism,” or PCM, “offers power producers a financial reward to have their plants available during times when Texans are consuming the most energy.” 

Some lawmakers are skeptical. State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, questioned why the PUC would create a new, untested market mechanism, according to The Morning News. In addition, a consulting firm hired by the PUC did not recommend the PCM.

The public and stakeholders have until Dec. 15 to submit comments on the proposal.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what the marketplace and people tell us,” Peter Lake said.

Feds provide disaster aid after storms

The federal government has approved a request by Gov. Greg Abbott for disaster aid for a dozen Northeast Texas counties hit by severe weather and tornadoes earlier this month. 

The U.S. Small Business Administration granted access to its loan program to businesses and residents in Lamar, Morris, Bowie, Camp, Cass, Delta, Fannin, Franklin, Marion, Red River, Titus, and Upshur counties.

“Northeast Texas residents and business owners will now have access to critical financial support as they rebuild, repair and recover from the physical damage and economic injury caused by this storm system,” Abbott said.

Applicants may apply online at disasterassistance.sba.gov or by calling 800-659-2955.

Search and rescue drone program proves useful

The use of drones by game wardens with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has helped to find two missing persons recently and assisted in the arrest of a man in East Texas wanted in a shooting and assault. Game warden Michael Hummert responded to a report of an elderly  man who had gone missing the night of Nov. 3. 

“The setting sun prevented us from locating him through usual means,” Hummert said. “The thermal drone picks up body heat, which is necessary to locate someone at night. With the cold creeping in, it was imperative to find him quickly.”

The Erath County sheriff’s department used cell phone records to determine a general location. Hummert mapped out a search area and located the man with the drone using a thermal scan and led to deputies to the location. A similar situation occurred nine days later in Bell County. Hummert again used his drone to locate the missing person. 

Heading farther east, another TPWD drone operator, Doug Williams, was called to assist authorities searching for a suspect who shot at and assaulted two people, then fled into the woods. Using another thermal drone, Williams found the suspect hiding in the brush during freezing weather. He was arrested and later treated for hypothermia.

“Empowering our division with the drone program in cooperation with Gear Up for Game Wardens donations creates a lifeline where there wasn’t,” said TPWD’s Lt. Matthew Bridgefarmer. “Game warden drone operators arrive first on scene to locate lost boaters and hikers. We search in the aftermath of natural disasters. At the end of the day, this program saves lives.”

No COVID-19 vaccine mandates for students

Abbott has told the Texas Education Agency and school superintendents that the COVID-19 vaccine cannot be mandated as part of school entry requirements. This overrides a recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control that added the vaccine to immunization schedules for adults and school-aged children. 

“Regardless of what the CDC may suggest, in Texas, the COVID-19 vaccine remains voluntary. Texas schools shall not require students to receive the COVID-19 vaccine for any reason,” Abbott’s letter to TEA and school chiefs said.

COVID-19 cases decrease across state

The number of new cases of COVID-19 reported in Texas during the past week dropped to 9,836, with 40 deaths reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations rose to 1,259 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients in Texas, 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: gborders@texaspress.com.

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