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Lege gets to work in fourth special session

The Texas Legislature, conceived as a part-time body to meet every other year for 140 days, is now in its record fifth session (counting the regular session). When the impeachment trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is included, legislators have been in Austin pretty much the entire year, as the Texas Tribune noted. While legislators are paid just $7,200 a year in salary, per diem payments – meant to cover their expenses while in Austin – have mounted. If the fourth special session goes a full 30 days, taxpayers will have spent $4.8 million keeping lawmakers in Austin.

The Senate quickly passed measures last week allocating $1.54 billion for segments of a border wall, a school finance bill that increases per-student funding, teacher retention bonuses for teachers and vouchers to parents who elect to send their children to private schools, the Austin American-Statesman reported.

Once again, the onus is on the House, which has been reluctant to pass a school choice bill. The measure, being strongly pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, is largely opposed by Democratic members and rural Republican legislators. On Friday, the latest plan was approved by the House Select Committee.

Voter turnout in amendment election was 14.4%

Voter turnout in the Nov. 7 election reached 14.4% of registered voters. The good news is that is the highest turnout for a constitutional amendment election since 2005, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. The bad news: well, it was just 14.4% of the electorate.

Voters approved all but one of the 14 propositions on the ballot, the lone loser being a bid to raise the mandatory retirement age for judges from 75 years to 79. Measures providing property tax relief and a boost in teacher retirement pay passed overwhelmingly.

Also receiving approval was Proposition 5, which establishes a $3.9 billion permanent endowment for research in eligible universities. Those include Texas State University, the University of North Texas, Texas Tech University and the University of Houston.

“We feel like we won the Super Bowl,” Texas State University president Kelly Damphousse told the Statesman.

TEA releases financial accountability ratings

The Texas Education Agency has released its 2022-2023 financial accountability ratings for Texas public schools, with 88% receiving a “Superior Achievement” rating. The rating system, established in 2001, “encourages school systems to improve financial resources to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instructional purposes.”

Only eight public schools and three charter schools received substandard achievement ratings. The eight public school districts receiving an “F” were Holliday, Ben Bolt-Palito Blanco, Keene, Priddy, Denver City, Tioga, Matagorda and Sunray ISDs. The three charter schools receiving an “F” were Education Center International Academy in Sunnyvale; St. Anthony School in Carrollton; and Texas Preparatory School.

Texas Medicaid recipients were victims of data breach

A data breach of a data file transfer company has exposed Texas Medicaid recipients, whose names and Social Security numbers were obtained in the hack. The breach occurred in late May when hackers obtained files being transferred using the MOVEit platform, The Dallas Morning News reported. A total of 67 million people in multiple countries had their personal information illegally obtained, including the Texas Medicaid recipients.

Anyone concerned about being affected by the hack can call UMass Chan, which was providing services directly to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, to find out. That number is 855-457-6006.

Millions offered for sustainable community forests

Texas A&M Forest Service is offering $16.65 million in grant funding to boost urban and community forest initiatives in communities throughout the state.

“The initiatives supported by this grant funding will prioritize communities and neighborhoods in areas of greatest need based on environmental and social data,” said Gretchen Riley of the forest service. “By focusing on these areas, we can ensure that the benefits of urban forestry are distributed where they can make the most impact.”

The funding comes from the federal Inflation Reduction Act. It is intended to help the state “expand its urban forest canopy, improve air and water quality, reduce energy consumption and enhance the health and well-being of residents,” according to the news release.

Grant applications will be accepted from Dec. 11 through Feb. 16, 2024. More information can be found at this link: https://texasforestinfo.tamu.edu/CFG/.

October rain reduces drought conditions

About half the state received above-normal precipitation in October, which reduced drought conditions to 65%, down 16 percentage points, according to Mark Wentzel, hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board. Central Texas and much of Deep East Texas have the most severe drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

“El Niño conditions, warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the eastern Equatorial Pacific, are in place and expected to persist into next year. El Niño typically brings Texas wetter and cooler-than-normal conditions during fall and winter. Those conditions are at least partially responsible for the improvements we saw in October,” Wentzel wrote.

Texas road fatality streak surpasses 23 years

On an average day for more than two decades, a dozen people have been killed on Texas roadways. That streak nearly ended in February on a day when Texas experienced just one traffic fatality, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. The streak of daily deaths on Texas highways has continued since Nov. 7, 2000, despite the state investing $17 billion in safety improvements through its 10-year plan.

“Each life lost means a family, neighborhood and community are impacted for a lifetime, and we take safety very seriously as we work to end this horrible streak,” said TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. “But it’s going to take all of us working together to get this done.”

Among those safety changes are wider pavement striping, rumble strips on centerlines to alert drivers when they cross over, and roundabout intersections. Drivers can make a difference as well by not operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs and fastening their seatbelts. TxDOT reports 48% of deaths on Texas roads come from people not buckling up.