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Capital Highlights: What’s happening in Texas

By Gary Borders

Speaker open to resort-style casinos in state

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, told The Dallas Morning News and other media outlets that he is open to bringing resort-style casinos to Texas. But don’t expect to find slot machines in 7-Eleven stores if casino gambling is legalized. 

“What I don’t want to see is to walk into every convenience store and see 15 slot machines,” Phelan said. “I want to see destination-style casinos that are high quality and that create jobs and that improve the lifestyle of those communities.”

The gambling industry is preparing for another strong push to bring gaming to one of the few major markets that doesn’t allow it. But other state leaders seem more hesitant, including Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who said in December that he “doesn’t see any movement on it.”

Gov. Greg Abbott has softened his once-strong opposition to legalized gambling, echoing Phelan’s support for casinos that also feature golf courses, luxury hotels and other amenities. 

The Morning News report said the Dallas-Fort Worth area would be a top location because of its strong convention and tourism industry, as well as access to major airports.

House rules allow Democrats to chair committees

New House rules adopted in the first week of the legislative session allow the appointment of Democrats to chair certain committees, despite being in the minority in that chamber. The Texas Standard reported that was a victory for Phelan, who defied Republicans wanting to ban Democrats from holding chair positions.

In Phelan’s first speech after being reelected speaker, he talked about the importance of both parties working together. 

“After watching Congress attempt to function last week, I cannot imagine why some want Texans to be like D.C.,” Phelan said, referring to the protracted battle over electing a U.S. Speaker of the House.

Another provision is aimed at stopping legislators from skipping sessions to break quorum by levying fines every day they are absent without leave. During the 2021 session, House Democrats left Texas for 38 days in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to block passage of a slate of voting restrictions.

Wildfire danger returns to state

A series of dry cold fronts sweeping through the next week bring the potential of increased wildfire risk to parts of the state, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service. On Jan. 11, the service responded to five requests for assistance on wildfires that burned more than 740 acres across the state. The largest of these was the Cellers Hill Fire in Throckmorton County. 

As of Sunday, the only active blaze was the 23-acre Grub Hill Fire in Wise County, which was 90% contained.

Currently, 69 counties are under burn bans.

Prisoners launch hunger strikes over solitary confinement

A large-scale hunger strike protesting the state’s solitary confinement practices began last Tuesday, with about 300 people in Texas prisons reportedly participating, according to the Texas Standard. The prisoners are protesting the state’s practice of placing inmates in solitary indefinitely. 

Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas at Austin, said prisoners have gone on hunger strikes to push the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to meet months-long demands for change. Besides ending indefinite solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing, the prisoners want to move to a behavioral-based system rather than a status-based system. Under the latter, prisoners can be placed in solitary simply by being labeled a gang member, not necessarily for breaking any rules.

“I do believe that it is something that the agency should take a very hard look at, whether there are ways that they could be approaching this issue that are both safe and more appropriate,” Deitch told the Standard.

From La Niña to El Niño? Possibly

The 2022 drought didn’t turn out to be as severe as that of 2011, but it still caused widespread economic damage to crops and livestock, as well as shrinking water-supply reservoirs. As the state heads into 2023, Dr. Mark Wentzel, hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board, is among forecasters predicting an end to the conditions that resulted in reduced rainfall and warmer temperatures for the last few years. 

“The National Weather Service is expecting that La Niña will dissipate, and then, possibly by the summer to next fall, we might actually be in El Niño conditions, the opposite to La Niña. And those conditions (could) actually bring Texas a wetter and cooler winter than is normal,” Wentzel wrote.

The most severe drought now is centered in the Texas Hill Country, in Kendall and surrounding counties, and in the extreme northern boundary of the Texas Panhandle. Drought conditions have ended in East and Southeast Texas. 

Wentzel wrote he expects “some easing” of drought conditions this spring.

Wildlife vaccine bait airdrop underway

The Texas Department of State Health Services has renewed its battle against rabies along the Texas border by airdropping vaccine bait from planes leaving Edinburg, Del Rio and Alpine.

“Our goal is to vaccinate wildlife, with target species being coyotes and gray foxes, along the border to maintain herd immunity and to keep past variants from being reintroduced or new variants from entering Texas,” said Dr. Susan Rollo, director of the Oral Rabies Vaccination Program. “We will be delivering vaccine baits to 18 counties this year.”

About 814,000 oral rabies vaccine baits will be dropped in the 29th year of the program. 

COVID-19 cases rise slightly

New cases of COVID-19 in Texas in the past week rose to 35,632 with 148 deaths, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. DSHS reported 3,427 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients in Texas hospitals, also an increase.

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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