Legislature returns for special session

Brownwood Bulletin
Gary Borders

The Texas Legislature convened in special session last Thursday and GOP legislators introduced a fresh set of voting bills after Democrats blocked an earlier attempt during the regular session by walking out in May, preventing a quorum.

HB3 and SB 1 don’t include some of the more controversial measures that were in the previous bill, such as restricting voting on Sundays. KUT.org reported the new bills include new ID requirements for people voting by mail and banning local election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications that have not been requested by the applicant.

The measures, still largely opposed by Democrats and voting rights groups, also ban drive-through voting and extended hours during early voting. Those backing the new bills say those extended hours encourage voter fraud, though there is no evident of widespread fraud during the 2020 election. Republican lawmakers are pushing for a full House floor vote this week.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the topics to be considered during the special session the day before it opened. Besides the voting bills, they include:

  • Bail reform to “protect the public from accused criminals who may be released on bail.”
  • Border security with increased funding to support law-enforcement agencies and counties.
  • Social media censorship legislation to protect social-media users from being silenced by social media companies based on their viewpoints.
  • Restoring funding to the Legislature and legislative agencies that was vetoed by Abbott after the walkout.
  • Family violence prevention legislation to provide funding for education to middle school and high school students about dating violence, domestic violence and child abuses. Parents would have the right to opt their children out of such programs.
  • Youth sports measures to revive legislation passed by the Senate that bans transgender students from participating in UIL athletic competitions “designated for the sex opposite to the student’s sex at birth.”
  • Abortion-inducing drugs legislation that would prohibit providing such drugs by mail or delivery service.
  • Thirteenth Check legislation to allow a one-time supplemental payment of benefits under the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. 
  • Bills targeting “critical race theory” and restricting how current events and the country’s history of racism is taught in Texas public schools.
  • Appropriation bills targeting property-tax relief, protecting children in the state’s foster-care system and safeguarding the state from potential cybersecurity threats.

PUC ordered to improve electric reliability

Abbott also last week directed the Public Utility Commission to make major changes “to ensure the reliability of the Texas power grid,” the Houston Chronicle and other media outlets reported.

Abbott asked the PUC, which oversees the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, to improve maintenance on power plants and speed development of some transmission projects.

“The objective of these directives is to ensure that all Texans have access to reliable, safe, and affordable power,” Abbott wrote in a letter released last Tuesday.

In response, PUC chairman Peter Lake in a letter to Abbott expressed “wholehearted agreement with its contents.” Besides the widespread blackout during the mid-February storm, a heat wave in June prompted ERCOT, which maintains the state’s electric grid, to urge Texans to conserve electricity as usage approached peak capacity.

$4.1 billion more in school stimulus funds

Texas will receive another $4.1 billion in federal stimulus funding for its public schools, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it had approved the state’s plans for spending $12.4 billion that was allocated to the state. According to the Express-News, the top priority for the Texas Education Agency is bolstering the mental and emotional health needs of Texas students by expanding tutoring and other methods.

TEA estimates Texas students lost 5.7 months of learning during the pandemic school year. 

“The approval of these plans enables states to receive vital, additional American Rescue Plan funds to quickly and safely reopen schools for full-time, in-person learning; meet students’ academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs; and address disparities in access to educational opportunity that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic,” Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a news release.

Number of COVID-19 cases in state rises

At 12,426, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas increased 18% in the past week when compared to the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The number of new deaths in the past week dropped slightly to 151. Hospitalizations of lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients in the state were on the rise, with 1,927 currently in Texas hospitals as of Sunday, according to Texas Department of State Health Services.

The number of Texans fully vaccinated crossed the 12 million mark this week, DSHS reported. The rate of vaccinations in the state has slowed significantly in recent weeks, despite troubling reports of the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including papers in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: gborders@texaspress.com.