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Capital Highlights: This week across Texas

By Gary Borders

Border security, tax relief and raises top list

For the Texas House and Senate, there is not much daylight between each chamber’s priorities in this year’s legislative session. Leaders say the focus will be on property tax relief, border security and employee raises. Preliminary budgets from both chambers were released last week, the Austin American-Statesman reported, with a record $288.7 billion budget for the next two years. The money in the budget is made up of $93.7 billion in federal funds, $130.1 billion in state general revenue funds, and $64.9 billion in other funds.

The tussle likely comes when lawmakers start spending a whopping $32.7 billion budget surplus sitting in the state’s coffers from the previous biennium.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick want to provide property tax relief to homeowners, with Patrick proposing raising the homestead exemption to $70,000 from $40,000. Both draft budget bills set aside $15 billion – almost half the surplus – for property tax relief.  

Increased funding for border security, public education and for raises for state employees are also in the draft budgets, which are likely to change several times before session’s end.

The Texas Tribune reported the preliminary budgets still leave more than $50 billion in state funds up for grabs. One of the biggest challenges is that state law and the Texas Constitution set limits on how much tax spending can increase between sessions.

Possible end to Confederate Heroes Day?

A 50-year-old state holiday honoring soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War is again the target of a lawmaker who wants to end the holiday. State Rep. Jarvis Johnson filed the bill, telling the American-Statesman, “This is not the look we want for our state anymore.”

Johnson has filed this measure before without success. Confederate monuments on public grounds have drawn complaints across the state, including the Texas Capitol.

The day is observed on Jan. 19, the birthday of Gen. Robert E. Lee. On occasion, the holiday celebrating slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King, which is held on the third Monday in January, and Confederate Heroes Day fall on the same day. 

“While (the King holiday) is a reminder that we are all created equal, how do we simultaneously celebrate an ideology that has been linked with oppression and supremacy?” Johnson asked.

Natural gas supplies held up during winter storm

The bout of sub-freezing temperatures blanketing much of the state a few days before Christmas sparked concerned for the state’s electric grid, which reached its highest peak for the entire year. But the grid held, and natural gas supplies to power plants were ample, state officials said.

The Texas Railroad Commission issued a press release saying, “There was ample natural gas supply to help the state’s electricity supply chain and keep Texans safe.”

The agency said it would continue to inspect natural gas facilities throughout the winter to ensure “infrastructure is hardened against extreme weather conditions.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October said the grid is still at risk of failure during extreme winter conditions, such as what happened in February 2021 with Winter Storm Uri.

Overhaul plan for power market gets initial approval

The Public Utility Commission last week approved a potential overhaul of the Texas electricity market in hopes of attracting private investment in new power plants, the Statesman reported. However, the Texas Legislature has ultimate approval. Critics say the plan is untested and could increase electric bills for consumers.

Abbott has already backed the plan, which is an effort to make the power grid, managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, more reliable. It is intended to encourage more private investment in “plants that can turn on and off quickly depending on need.”

If approved by legislators, the plan could take up to four years to implement.

Lawmakers highlight state’s fragile water infrastructure

 A bipartisan group of 38 state legislators have banded together to educate fellow lawmakers about water security issues, the Texas Tribune reported. Aging infrastructure and lack of funding have created water-supply problems across the state, particularly in rural areas. 

Last year there were more than 3,000 boil-water notices issued across the state because water quality was in doubt. Seven of the 10 water systems that issued the most notices were in rural parts of East Texas, the Tribune reported after analyzing data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. There have already been 79 boil-water notices in January.

The group is not advocating for any specific bills. 

“Water security is critically important to all Texans and our economy,” state Rep. Tracy King, who heads the caucus, said in a statement. “We must continue to innovate, invest and strategize long-term to manage our water resources efficiently.”

State’s newest historic site

The Texas Historical Commission’s latest historic site is 274 years old. Presidio la Bahia was the site of the Goliad Massacre in March 1836. More than 300 Texians were held inside the church before being executed by Mexican forces.

The presidio was established on that site in 1749 during the Spanish colonial period. The fort became the nucleus of the modern-day city of Goliad.

The Presidio underwent restoration in the 1960s under the oversight of renowned restoration architect Raiford Stripling of San Augustine. More than 33,000 people visit the Presidio each year, according to its website.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations drop

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas during the past week reported to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University was 26,996, down about a third from the previous week, with 270 new deaths, up from 148. The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state, according to the Texas Department of State Health Service, totaled 2,837, which was down 17% from the previous week. Readers should keep in mind that only reported cases are tallied. People who test positive with a home test kit likely are never reported.

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, Lufkin, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.

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