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The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 6.8% in January, down a tick from December’s 6.9% rate but double the record low of 3.4% in May 2019. It is unclear what effect the mid-February winter storm had on employment, when power outages swept the state and many roads were impassable. We’ll find out next month.
What is certain is that state lawmakers must grapple with a revenue shortfall as they build a biennial budget, since sales tax revenues are down from the previous year. The state comptroller’s office announced February sales tax revenues totaled $2.68 billion, down 7.5% from the same period last year.
Sales taxes account for most of the state’s revenues. Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced in January that the state was running a $1 billion deficit for the current budget. Hegar estimated state budget writers will have an estimated $112.5 billion in revenue available for the next two-year budget, which is nearly $500 million less than the total current budget.
Hegar said the forecast could change due to uncertainties such as the continuing effect of the pandemic, oil and gas revenues and how quickly the state’s economy rebounds as the state fully reopens.
Abbott, Patrick spar over PUC, ERCOT
The market monitor for the Public Utility Commission has revised its claim that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas overcharged power companies by $16 billion during the winter storm, saying last week that the actual amount is $4.2 billion.
Gov. Gregg Abbott has made legislation relating to correcting any ERCOT billing errors an emergency item. In a highly unusual move, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick showed up at a state senate committee hearing to question the lone remaining member of the PUC — new chair Arthur D’Andrea. Patrick on Friday night called on Abbott to replace D’Andrea after he fills the other two vacancies on the PUC. Patrick also said Abbott should intercede to “correct” the pricing error.
Abbott quickly — and tersely — responded to Patrick, saying that, as a former Supreme Court justice and former Attorney General, the governor’s legal view is that he does not have “independent authority to accomplish the goals you seek,” which is why he made the issue an emergency item for the Legislature to consider. This saga is far from over.
Parts of Texas still face drought
Despite record snowfalls in much of the state, precipitation in February was below average, which led to an increase in the area of the state affected by drought. Dr. Mark Wentzel, a hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board, said rain during April, May and June will be crucial. The expected breakup of the La Niña weather system in April could bring a return to normal amounts of rainfall in May and June, Wentzel wrote.
He noted that there will be pockets of drought almost always in such a vast state. Right now, the United States Drought Monitor shows 62 percent of the state is in some stage of drought, with the most severe areas located in parts of the Panhandle and the Rio Grande Valley. Only 10.8 percent of the state’s area has normal rainfall conditions, primarily in Northeast Texas.
COVID-19 vaccines steadily rising across state
With another 800,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines arriving in Texas this week, more than 5.2 million people have received at least one dose, and 2.78 million are fully vaccinated — about 9.5% of the state’s population. The latest shipment is down from the 1 million first doses delivered last week, which included the first large batch of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Last week the Texas Department of State Health Services announced that vaccinations have been expanded to people over 50 years of age. Previously, school and child-care workers were added to the Phase 1B list, which also included people over 65 and those with underlying medical conditions.
“We’ve seen a remarkable decrease in the number of hospitalizations and deaths since people 65 and older started becoming fully vaccinated in January,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner. “Expanding to ages 50 to 64 will continue the state’s priorities of protecting those at the greatest risk of severe outcomes and preserving the state’s health care system.”
COVID-19 cases, deaths continue to drop
The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Texas dropped again last week to 31,916 — down 26% from the previous week. A total of 1,117 deaths were reported, down 35% from the previous week. To date, there have been 2.7 million cases in the state since the pandemic began, with 46,366 deaths, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.
Hospitalizations of confirmed COVID-19 patients also continue to decrease, with 4,219 patients currently in Texas hospitals, according to TDSHS. That’s down 14% from the previous week and 70% lower than the record high of 14,218 hospitalizations in mid-January.
Texas young lawyers launch website honoring iconic women in legal history
The Texas Young Lawyers Association this week launched an online site intended to educate students about women in our nation’s legal history who have fought for equality and civil rights, and who have helped shape American culture. The project is designed to give Texas high school teachers an effective tool to teach students about such iconic women as Rosa Parks and Susan B. Anthony. The site can be accessed by anyone at: iconicwomen.tyla.com.