Sterling: Storm preparations begin while state continues to battle COVID-19
AUSTIN — As Tropical Storm Cristobal moved north in the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula toward Louisiana, the weather system’s potential impact on East Texas grew and Gov. Greg Abbott on June 5 addressed the situation in a news conference.
Abbott said preparedness is the key in any hurricane season. He added that the Texas Department of Emergency Management and a roster of state agency departments, local responders and FEMA were ready. Meanwhile, he said, the state's ongoing efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 also continue and East Texas residents in particular should be extra mindful of both threats.
Cumulative figures posted June 6 by the Texas Department of State Health Services showed that some 74,978 people in Texas had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and 1,830 deaths resulting from the virus pandemic had been confirmed.
Officially, hurricane season started June 1 and will continue through Nov. 30. While Cristobal is not expected to generate hurricane-force winds, it may bring high winds, heavy rain and flooding.
State extends SNAP
The Texas Health and Human Services Commission will provide approximately $177 million in emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefits for the month of June in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Abbott announced June 4.
More than 900,000 SNAP households will see the additional amount on their Lone Star Card by June 12. The emergency June allotments are in addition to the $414.7 million in benefits previously provided to Texans in April and May, Abbott added.
Fomenters are warned
Gov. Abbott and Texas-based U.S. Attorneys John Bash, Erin Nealy Cox, Stephen Cox, and Ryan Patrick warned June 1 that individuals "who come to Texas from out of state to engage in looting, violence or other destructive acts in violation of federal law” would be subject to federal prosecution and transferred to federal custody.
"Today’s announcement will ensure there are harsh consequences for those breaking the law and that they will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law," Abbott said.
Ruling draws comments
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on June 4 commended the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for unanimously ruling to block a San Antonio federal district court order allowing all qualified voters to vote by mail.
“I applaud the Fifth Circuit for staying the federal court’s erroneous decision and preventing widespread mail-in balloting while the case proceeds," Paxton said.
Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, disagreed with the ruling, saying, “We find ourselves in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. Voters who are rightfully worried about the safety of in-person voting should have the option to vote by mail. The Constitution prohibits divvying up our rights by our age, gender or race and the Fifth Circuit decision of today would allow voters of a certain age different voting rights than the rest of us."
Party holds convention
The Texas Democratic Party conducted its first digital, online convention June 1 to June 6.
Over those days, the party took up a slate of issues such as vote-by-mail, education, textbook censorship, racism, religious freedom, LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights.
Virtual attendees participated in live panels, training and regular party business.
A virtual debate was held June 6 between state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, and former Air Force helicopter pilot M.J. Hegar. The two are in a runoff to decide who will face Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn in the November general election.
Cenotaph move opposed
State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, last week asked Gov. Abbott to halt the relocation of the Alamo cenotaph, a 60-foot-tall stone sculpture erected in 1939 to honor the defenders of the Alamo in the historic 1836 battle.
Under a $450 million plan to redevelop the historic zone approved by the state and the City of San Antonio, the cenotaph would be moved from Alamo Plaza to a spot by the Menger Hotel, a short distance away.
Biedermann, in a June 4 letter to Abbott, complained that the proposed site to relocate the cenotaph is outside of the Alamo battlefield footprint. Biedermann asked the governor to insist that the cenotaph remain in place. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment before the press deadline.
Revenue total droops
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on June 1 announced state sales tax revenue totaled $2.61 billion in May, an amount 13.2% lower than the total reported for the month of May 2019, marking the steepest year-over-year decline since January 2010.
Declines in sales tax receipts hit all major economic sectors except telecommunications services, Hegar said. The steepest decline was in collections from oil and gas mining as energy companies cut spending on well drilling and completion following the recent crash in oil prices, he added.
Also, Hegar said, business closures and restrictions and stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic spurred deep drops in collections from restaurants, amusement and recreation services, and physical retail stores. Those declines were offset in part by increases from big box retailers and grocery stores that remained open as essential businesses, online retailers and restaurants that could readily pivot to takeout and delivery service.
Ed Sterling is director of member services for the Texas Press Association.