COVID Hospitalizations and Cases Remain Low
As of Monday, March 21st, the number of people hospitalized in the state with COVID related illness was the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic. On Monday, there were 1,425 people hospitalized, which is the lowest number since April of 2020, when the state was averaging nearly 20,000 new cases per day. The state over the last 7 days is reporting an average of about 200 new hospitalization per day. Case numbers remain low as well. Yesterday, the state reported 1,285 new cases.
Supreme Court Hearing on State House Map
The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday regarding a challenge to the state House district map brought by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC). MALC contends that the districts drawn to represent Cameron County violate the “county line” rule in the Texas Constitution. The county line rule states that “a county with sufficient population for exactly one district must be formed into a single district”. Furthermore, the constitution goes on to stipulate that if a county has surplus population over what is the target population for one House district, the second district should be joined with a contiguous county. The House map that was passed last year – and is now in effect for the 2022 elections – created three districts that have at least part of Cameron County in their districts. MALC argues that due to the population of Cameron County, there should be no more than two House districts in the county.
In addition, in the defense of the House map, the state Attorney General’s office argued that the redistricting process will have to take place again during the 2023 session. The reasoning is that the constitution requires the legislature to draw districts during the first regular session after the census numbers are received. Due to COVID related delays, the legislature did receive the census numbers until after the regular session, and the new districts were drawn in a special session last fall. Therefore, according to the defense put forth by the AG’s office, the MALC arguments are irrelevant since new districts will have to be drawn and a substantial population shift will have occurred by next session.
No one in state leadership has indicated that the redistricting process will once again occur in the 2023 session, and no preparations are in place at this time.
Senate Committee Shakeup
With the retirement of some key members of the Senate, the Lt. Governor has made some changes to key assignments and chairmanships. With the retirement of Senator Larry Taylor of Friendswood, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick has named Senator Brandon Creighton (R, Conroe) as the new chairman of the Senate Education and Higher Education committees. Creighton is currently the chair of the Higher Ed Committee, and that committee will now be a subcommittee as part of the full Education Committee. Patrick also replaced Taylor’s spot on the Senate Finance Committee with Senator Bryan Hughes (R, Mineola), who also chairs the Senate State Affairs Committee. The new Vice-Chair of the Finance Committee is Senator Chuy Hinojosa (D, McAllen), who replaces Senator Eddie Lucio (D, Brownsville) who is not seeking reelection. Lucio was also replaced on the Sunset Advisory Commission – the joint committee that conducts routine reviews of all state agencies – by Senator Nathan Johnson (D, Dallas).
More Troubles at Child Welfare Agency
Allegations of criminal activity surfaced last week regarding a facility in Bastrop that contracts with the state to house abused children. These allegations, at a facility called the Refuge, resulted in legislative hearings in both the House and Senate, and a report was discussed where a current facility employee alleged neglect and sexual abuse of two girls housed in the facility. The report also made allegations of human trafficking. After the report surfaced, the Department of Public Safety immediately began an investigation and initially have concluded that there is no evidence of sexual abuse or trafficking. After the allegations were made public, and during the DPS investigation, the agency director sent texts to a former employee of the agency that were critical of federal district judge that oversees the state foster care system. The foster care system has been under federal review for the past decade. The judge was made aware of the texts and the agency director has resigned. In addition, there was extensive testimony before both committees doubting the competence of the child welfare agency to oversee the facility in Bastrop. Child welfare advocates say the DPS investigation was not sufficient, and have demanded a more thorough look into the facility and the agency. This situation has become the topic of debate in the Governor’s race, and both legislative committees promised further hearings into the topic.
Disaster Declaration for Wildfires, Tornadoes
Wildfires have burned more than 58,000 acres throughout the state, killing one person and destroying dozens of homes and businesses. On Monday, Gov. Abbott issued a disaster declaration for 11 counties, ranging from west of Fort Worth up to the Panhandle. The one fatality was a sheriff’s deputy in Eastland who was killed as she was trying to rescue people trapped in their home. At least 50 homes have burned, and hundreds of families have been forced from their homes that are in the potential path of the fire. High winds and exceptional drought conditions have fueled the fires.
On Tuesday, another 16 counties in the state were placed under disaster declaration status after a series of tornadoes ripped through communities from the Austin area, through east Texas and then towards the Oklahoma border north of Dallas. The National Weather service reported over 20 tornadoes impacting homes and businesses. There was one death reported in Grayson County in north Texas.
The disaster declaration allows state and local officials to exercise emergency powers to preserve life, property, and public health, and provides state and federal resources that can address relief from storm damages.
US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a stop in Austin on Wednesday, where she affirmed her support for Congressman Henry Cuellar. The Laredo Democrat is in the fight of his political life, forced into a runoff with progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros. The two were virtually tied after the March 1st primary election. Cuellar’s reelection bid is tainted by an FBI raid of his home and office in January. Pelosi said she supports her incumbents and will make no exception here. Cuellar also has the support of the Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the 2nd ranking Democrat in the US House.
Congressman Filemon Vela, a Democrat from the Rio Grande Valley who did not seek reelection in 2022, announced yesterday that he will leave office early to take a job with a lobbying firm in Washington, DC. He did not give a specific time for his resignation, only saying he would resign in the coming weeks. This will create the need for another special election to fill his unexpired term.
Former Democratic US Senate candidate and former Houston city councilwoman Amanda Edwards announced yesterday she is running for mayor of Houston. Edwards served on the Houston city council from 2016-2020, and ran for the Democratic nomination to challenge US Senator John Cornyn in 2020. She finished 5th in a 12-candidate field. MJ Hegar was the eventual Democratic nominee that was defeated by Cornyn in 2020. Edwards joins state Senator John Whitmire and former Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins in the mayoral field. This group will grow, as the election for mayor of Houston is not until November of 2023.
Democratic Lt. Governor candidate Mike Collier continues to grow his impressive list of endorsements. Last week, he secured the endorsements of 17 state House members. Earlier this week, he announced the endorsements of several African-American leaders from Houston and Harris County. State Senator Borris Miles, County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, County Attorney Christian Menefee, Council member Letitia Plummer, and Houston ISD trustee Kathy Blueford Daniels have all thrown their support to Collier in the Democratic runoff for Lt. Governor against state Rep. Michelle Beckley.
With the primary election date behind us, and the House having released its interim charges, more hearings are expected in the coming weeks. The Senate is expected to release a full list of interim charges soon.
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. The schedule and details of all interim hearings can be found here: https://capitol.texas.gov