COVID Hospitalizations and Cases Remain Low
Hospitalization continue to decline. As of Monday, April 4th, there were 993 people hospitalized with COVID related illness. This continues to be the lowest rate since the beginning of the pandemic in April of 2020. New infections are also on the downward trend, with only 486 new cases reported by the state yesterday.
Another Spike in Migrants Expected
The Biden administration is planning to remove the requirement that bars migrants requesting asylum from entering the country, effective May 23rd. The policy barred an estimated 1.5 million potential migrants from entering the country, and was initially put in place as a precaution to stop the spread of COVID. Many, or most, of the 1.5 million people remained in Mexico, waiting for the reversal of the policy. Now that the policy will no longer be in place, state and local leaders are preparing for an unprecedented influx of migrants next month. A recently released Department of Homeland Security report says the number of new migrants attempting to enter the US “cannot be determined”, but did say that relative state and federal agencies should be prepared for as many as 18,000 encounters per day. In February of this year, 55% of all migrants were returned to Mexico due to the current policy. There were over 150,000 total encounters in February in all land ports along the US/Mexico border.
Priorities in Senate Interim Charges
Yesterday I sent to you all the list of interim charges issued by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick. The list of charges includes many of the Republican priorities that have received a great deal of attention over the last several months. The ones that will garner the most attention are the revision of tenure for university faculty, more input from parents regarding curriculum in public schools, improving public safety, enhanced funding to secure the border, and more changes to the way our elections are conducted and overseen. Lowering the crime rate was mentioned among several committee assignments, while the education committee will be busy reviewing faculty tenure and more oversight of the types of learning materials to which public students have access. The powerful State Affairs Committee has two separate charges relative to election reform, both of which seem to be leading to more state control over local elections.
Power Grid Threat by Russians
State regulators have become aware of Russian hackers searching the state power grid for the past several weeks for potential weaknesses in the grid. Areas of the grid that are susceptible to infiltration by the hackers could lead to disruptions in service. Russian hackers were successful in hacking into the operations of the Colonial Pipeline last year that triggered shortages and price hikes for gasoline on the eastern seaboard. Texas operates its own power grid, one of only three in the United States. The grid operator, ERCOT, is working diligently with the state Public Utility Commission in coordination with the federal government to monitor and diligently respond to any and all potential threats. All agencies are reluctant to share much information, saying they don’t want to give the hackers any additional information than they already have that could lead to a breach of the operations of the grid.
Foster Care Facility Still Under Investigation
A federal judge that has been tasked with overseeing the state foster care system for the past 11 years is skeptical of the initial state investigation that showed no evidence of human trafficking at The Refuge, a state contracted foster care facility near Bastrop. At a hearing last week on the latest lawsuits brought against the state on behalf of some of the children housed there, Judge Janis Jack said that her appointed court monitors have given the courts ample evidence of child abuse, sexual misconduct, and neglectful supervision at the facility. After allegations of trafficking became public in early March, Gov. Abbott ordered the DPS to conduct an investigation of the facility. That investigation showed no evidence of abuse or sexual assault. However, in addition to the findings of the court monitors, a commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services – the state agency charged with overseeing the foster care system – also testified she had no confidence in the DPS report. In response to the evidence at the hearing, Judge Jack has asked the federal court monitors to refer their findings to the US Attorney for a criminal investigation into the allegations, which include, in addition to human sex trafficking, the production of child pornography at the facility.
Lawsuit Against O’Rourke Moving Forward
Kelcey Warren, a Republican donor that has given millions to the Abbott campaign, is suing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke for comments made by O’Rourke on the campaign trail. O’Rourke claims that a $1million contribution to Abbott by Warren amounted to nothing more than a payoff, since O’Rourke claims Abbott’s handling of the power outages during the 2021 winter storm led to huge profits for Warren’s energy company, Energy Transfer Holdings. Warren filed a libel lawsuit in San Saba County, north of Austin, and O’Rourke has asked for a change of venue since Warren does not live in San Saba County. The hearing, now set for May 19th, is to consider O’Rourke’s request for the location change. San Saba County is mostly rural, and a very reliably Republican strong hold. Incidentally, it is also the home of actor Tommy Lee Jones.
A poll released by Texas Lyceum – a nonpartisan group dedicated to providing education on issues through community leaders – found a much closer race for Governor than has been indicated in other polls. The Lyceum poll, released yesterday, showed Abbott as the preference of 42% of respondents and O’Rourke was the choice of 40%, with 18% undecided.
Gov. Abbott has weighed in on an Austin area state House race, endorsing Justin Berry over former Austin city councilwoman Ellen Troxclair. Berry is an Austin police officer, and has been indicted by the Travis County District Attorney for alleged misconduct during the Memorial Day demonstrations related to the death of George Floyd. The newly created House district runs from western Travis County, through the Hill Country to include the areas of Marble Falls and Burnet. Abbott has also made six additional endorsements in open state House Republican runoffs, including Patrick Gurski from Galveston, Jamee Jolly in Plano, and Baron Casteel, the former mayor of New Braunfels.
The Republican runoff for an open House seat in Collin County has taken an ugly turn. The race pits Frederick Frazier, a former Dallas police officer against Paul Chabot, a retired Navy officer. Frazier, who has the endorsement of former President Trump, is accused of either stealing or destroying Chabot’s campaign signs. Accusations include Frazier and his campaign surrogates posing as public officials and then directing property owners to remove the signs due to code violations. The Texas Rangers, at the request of Chabot, have gotten involved, but no charges have been filed.
State House Speaker Dade Phelan has made a series of endorsements in open Republican state House runoffs. In addition to Casteel, mentioned above, Phelan has endorsed several other candidates including Elisa Chan in San Antonio, Caroline Harris of Round Rock, and Janie Lopez in Brownsville.
With the resignation of Democratic Congressman Filemon Vela of Brownsville, Gov. Abbott has ordered a special election to be held on June 14th. The election will be run under the current boundaries of the district, not the new districts for 2022 elections. The Democratic nominee for the current Vela district is current Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, who is switching districts for his reelection bid. The Republicans will make a strong push for this south Texas seat. Mayra Flores, a medical practitioner from Los Indios, is the Republican nominee and is already set to face Gonzalez for the seat in November. If she wins the special election, that sets up a race between two incumbent members of Congress in November.
With the primary election date behind us, and interim charges being released, more hearings are expected in the coming weeks.
The House Ways and Means Committee will hold its first interim hearing on April 21st to consider issues relating to the distribution and sale of e-cigarettes, property tax relief, and sales tax sourcing.
Other House committees such as State Affairs, Transportation, Economic Development, Environmental Regulation, as well as the Senate Committee on Border Security, have all posted hearings.
The schedule and details of all interim hearings can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov