COVID Cases Falling Slightly, Hospitalizations Continue to Rise
New infections continue a steady, and slightly downward trend, with 5,660 cases reported by the state yesterday. This is down from the 9,300 reported one week ago. The rolling seven day average is now below 10,000 cases being reported each day. Hospitalizations are coming down slightly as well, after having been on the rise over the last several weeks. The state is reporting 3,452 people hospitalized with COVID illness. That is down very slightly from the 3,540 reported one week ago.
The Federal Reserve raised interest rates for the second straight month, sparking further fears of a recession and increasing pessimism among the business community. Last Wednesday the Fed increased its rate by three-quarters of a percentage point, following rate hikes in March, May, and June. The Greater Houston Partnership, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle last week, explained that these rate hikes will flow throughout the economy, causing higher interest rates on everything bought on credit. Needless to say, home mortgage rates and car loans will increase as well. Recent indicators show production and consumer spending have softened. Specific to Texas and the state budget, sales tax revenue is the single largest contributor to the state’s bottom line. Over 60% of state revenue is brought in by sales taxes. But on the positive side, unemployment remains low, and there is a general need in most sectors of the business community for more employees. The jobless rate for Texas in June was only 3.6%.
Nationally, the big box retailers such as Wal Mart and Best Buy have warned Wall Street investors that their August earnings reports are likely to be worse than expected, mainly because of changes in consumer spending habits. During interviews by both CEO’s last week, they voiced concerns that the ongoing inflation has caused consumers to concentrate and spend more on necessities such as food and gas, leaving less to spend on clothing electronics, and other goods.
Continued Heat, Drought, Wildfires
As July drew to a close, the state of Texas finds itself in drought conditions not seen in the last 10 years. According to the US Drought Monitor, 99.2% of the state is now experiencing drought conditions. The state has not been this dry since January of 2012 when 99.5% of the state was experiencing drought conditions. Extreme and exceptional drought – defined by crop loss and wildfire danger – is now covering 60% of the state. In Austin, 29 of 31 days in July were over 100 degrees, and we have had a total of 48 days of 100 degree temperatures so far this year. Austin received no measurable rain for the month of July, and has only received 11 inches of rain all year. According to our average, we should be at roughly 21 inches of rain received for the year.
On Friday, the state experienced 17 new wildfires igniting, and 10 are still considered to be active. According to the Texas A&M Forest Service, more than 6,900 wildfires have burned more than 600,000 acres since the start of the year. Currently, over 1,000 firefighters from 40 states are on the ground assisting the Forest Service and fire departments battle the ongoing wildfires. Burn bans remain in place in all but 30 of the state’s 254 counties.
The worst news of all is that no relief is in sight. After record setting temperatures have dominated since mid-May, the National Weather Service sees no change for the month of August. The weather pattern right now suppresses any chances for rain and exacerbates drought, as heat and high pressure will dominate the weather pattern for the foreseeable future.
Border Crisis Shifts North
Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser is asking the National Guard to be deployed in the District to help with the thousands of migrants arriving in chartered buses from Texas and Arizona. Bowser says the federal government must get involved to assist with aid and other humanitarian measures, a burden that has been so far undertaken by volunteer and local groups. Bowser claims the situation is reaching crisis level and is seeking to get the US military involved. The states of Texas and Arizona began busing migrants – only those desiring to do so, and paid for by each state – to try and help with the influx of migrants over the past several months. Many of the migrants are from Cuba, Central and South America, and Africa. So far, the Department of Defense has not commented on the request.
New York mayor Eric Adams in recent weeks has also publicly complained about the influx of migrants into his city that has put a strain on homelessness and other services. In response, Gov. Abbott has said that these two mayors should direct their concerns to President Biden and his open border policies. Furthermore, Abbott has invited both city leaders to come to the Texas/Mexico border to see first-hand what the border communities have been experiencing over the past several months.
Uvalde School Shooting
Two months after the horrific shooting at Robb Elementary, University Hospital in San Antonio has released the last of the survivors that was treated there. The 10-year old who was shot multiple times was discharged. She handed out roses to the waiting staff as she walked down the hallway exiting the hospital. She was one of 17 children who survived. A GoFundMe account has been set up to help with recovery costs, and so far has raised $104,000.
Gov. Abbott has been harshly criticized for attending a fundraiser in Huntsville in the aftermath of the shooting. Abbott has been criticized for not canceling the event — held on the afternoon of the shooting — and also for staying at the event for three hours while the response to the shooting was ongoing in Uvalde. Many had expected Abbott to head to Uvalde to assist in response efforts the day of the shooting, but he instead chose to attend a previously scheduled fundraiser for his gubernatorial campaign in the east Texas town. Abbott’s staff responded that he was in touch with President Biden, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, and law enforcement the day of the shooting while in Huntsville, and traveled to Uvalde the next day to confer with law enforcement and other officials.
Robb Elementary School Principal Mary Gutierrez has been reinstated to her job three days after being placed on administrative leave by the school district board. Gutierrez was initially placed on leave after the Special House Committee report pointed to several security lapses and an overall culture of complacency regarding security at the school. Gutierrez responded with a letter to the school board refuting the allegations, and also sent a letter to the Special Committee. After the letter was reviewed by the school board, her reinstatement was announced.
And finally, several news organizations have filed suit in Travis County against the Texas Department of Public Safety accusing the agency of withholding information regarding the shooting investigation. The New York Times, Washington Post, and all major news networks filed under the Public Information Act, saying the agency has selectively released information while holding back sensitive but pertinent data, which has been evident by their inconsistent and conflicting reports regarding the incident. State law dictates that all records for an agency are public, unless the agency cites a specific exemption as a reason for withholding information. DPS is claiming an exemption due to the ongoing investigation, but the plaintiffs argue there is no ongoing investigation since the shooter was identified, killed, and the local District Attorney is not conducting a criminal investigation.
Roe v. Wade
Attorney General Ken Paxton announced last week that his office stands ready to help all local prosecutors enforce the state’s new abortion ban. The AG’s office is only empowered to enforce the civil penalties associated with the new law, but Paxton says that because several local jurisdictions have said they will either not enforce the abortion ban or will not make it a priority, his office is available to assist with criminal proceedings in addition to the civil enforcement. The state’s new law – in effect after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade – makes it a felony to perform or induce an abortion. Pregnant women cannot be prosecuted under the new law. Paxton claims he has the right to prosecute criminal offenses based on the state’s original abortion law passed nearly 100 years ago, but that question has not been settled in court.
Harris County – the state’s most populous and solidly Democratic – will be one of four counties in the state that will undergo an audit of their elections procedures and results after the November elections. The audit will be conducted by the Secretary of State’s office. This will be the second audit in two years for Harris County, and the first conducted under the state’s new election law passed during the series of special sessions last fall. The Secretary of State’s office now has the authority to randomly select four counties after every even-numbered year election cycle for the audit process. Eastland, Cameron, Guadalupe, and Harris were the four counties selected for this year’s audit.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke continues his 49-day campaign tour of the state. Knowing that his previous comments regarding confiscation of guns will draw the ire of conservative voters, he seems to be softening his position on gun safety. At a recent stop in Hemphill, in deep east Texas, O’Rourke said he would have no problem allowing teachers to carry guns in their classrooms. When asked by an audience member, O’Rourke said the best solution is to have each community determine what is best for their needs. O’Rourke continues to call for more gun control, but said different solutions need to be looked at for each community and school district.
US Senator John Cornyn has tested positive for COVID. In a statement, Cornyn said he is fully vaccinated and boosted, and having only mild symptoms. He also said he will quarantine consistent with CDC guidelines and continue to work remotely.
The House Special Committee on Youth Safety will meet jointly with the House Homeland Security Committee on August 8th to discuss improving communication in disaster and emergency scenarios and the need to improve mental health services for students and all school related professionals. Later in the month, The House Public Health Committee will meet to discuss the impact of fentanyl related deaths. The Senate Health and Human Services committee will meet in August to discuss the impact the pandemic continues to have on health care workforce in our state.
The Senate Committee on Border Security will meet on August 10th in Eagle Pass to discuss the impact that Operation Lone Star is having on communities along the border.
The schedule and details of all interim hearings can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov