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State Capital Highlights: January 4

By Gary Borders

Feds investigating meltdown at Southwest Airlines

Massive flight cancellations by Southwest Airlines during the Christmas holiday week are prompting the federal government to look into why thousands of travelers were left stranded across the country, along with huge piles of luggage in airports served by the beleaguered airline.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said his agency would examine what caused Southwest’s widespread cancellations, which began as a massive polar storm gripped much of the country a few days before Christmas. The airline was able to resume normal operations on Friday as another holiday weekend approached. The airline canceled  more than 15,700 flights since Dec. 22, according to The Dallas Morning News. Cancellations by other airlines were a fraction of that amount, according to published reports. 

“Because what we’re seeing right now, from the system and the flights themselves to the inability to reach anybody on a customer service phone line, it is just completely unacceptable,” Buttigieg told CBS early Wednesday. The Senate Commerce Committee also plans to investigate.

Southwest does not use the hub-and-spoke system relied upon by other major carriers, instead relying on a point-to-point system. That means even where planes were available, often crews and pilots were stranded in other cities.

RRC launches probe into Atmos service issues

The Texas Railroad Commission has launched an investigation of Atmos Energy’s gas distribution system, which left some Texans without heat during freezing weather just before Christmas. The company reported low gas pressure in cities across North and Central Texas, leaving some customers without heat. On Dec. 23, the Texas Tribune reported, Atmos asked its 2 million Texas customers to conserve gas use by lowering thermostats, not using gas fireplaces and any gas-powered appliances. 

Gov. Greg Abbott signed a letter ordering the railroad commission and the Texas attorney general’s office to investigate Atmos Energy’s “failure to prepare for the winter weather event last week.”

Leading up to and during the winter event, State of Texas agencies worked around the clock to mobilize resources and assist utilities in any way possible. At no time did Atmos Energy request assistance… It is apparent that Atmos Energy acted irresponsibly and was unprepared for the event,” the letter said in part.

Abbott pushes back on migrant bus criticism

Abbott has drawn criticism after a bus from Texas dropped off more than 100 migrants in freezing weather near Vice President Kamala Harris’ official residence in Washington, D.C. An Austin American-Statesman report noted the state has bused nearly 16,000 migrants to so-called sanctuary cities. Abbott tweeted a breakdown of how many migrants have been bused to cities outside of Texas. 

Thus far, 8,900 have been sent to Washington; 4,900 to New York City; more than 1,500 to Chicago; and more than 630 to Philadelphia. The governor has maintained in the past that the migrants have given permission to be bused North. The White House has called the move “a cruel, dangerous, and shameful stunt.”

“We’re providing relief to local communities overwhelmed by President Biden’s open border policies,” Abbott said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has so far stopped the Biden administration from eliminating Title 42, a federal rule enacted during by the Trump administration during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow the U.S. to return asylum-seeking migrants to Mexico or their country of origin.

TPWD opposes listing prairie chicken as endangered

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has reiterated its opposition to a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the lesser prairie chicken as endangered in some areas and threatened in others, citing “tremendous” voluntary collaboration with private landowners and industry to conserve the chicken’s habitat.

The federal designation will take place in January. It primarily affects Panhandle counties where the lesser prairie chicken is found.

“This decision jeopardizes decades of voluntary conservation efforts, increases regulatory burden and does not assure recovery of the species,” David, Yoskowitz, TPWD executive director, said.

$54 million in career, technical education grants

The Texas Workforce Commission has announced 152 grants totaling more than $54 million to various public community, state and technical colleges, as well as school district and charter schools across the state. The grants will be used to buy equipment to establish or expand programs that offer Texas students the opportunity to earn licenses, certificates, or post-secondary degrees in fields such as nursing, welding, automotive repair and dentistry.

“It’s important to identify high-demand jobs, but it’s critical to proactively commit resources to ensure Texans are ready to meet those workforce needs,” said TWC Chairman Bryan Daniel. 

COVID-19 cases remain steady in state

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas during the past week remained steady at 30,033, with 102 new deaths reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations rose slightly to 2,581, 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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