COVID Hospitalizations and Cases Remain Low, Most Areas Have Lifted Restrictions
Hospitalization continue to decline. As of Monday, March 28th, there were 1,152 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 398 new cases reported by the state yesterday.
Most cities in the state – and across the country – have repealed restrictive COVID policies that include the wearing of face coverings and limits on crowds and gatherings. Even Austin/Travis County have lifted all COVID related emergency orders. With the infection and hospitalization rates so low, masking in city and county facilities is now optional, with the exception of the federally controlled airport and in medical settings. Masking on school campuses in the Austin area are now optional as well.
Healthy Job Growth Reported
The Texas Workforce Commission reported the state added 77,800 nonfarm jobs in February, as the unemployment rate continues to fall, which now stands at 4.7%. This outpaces the January number of new jobs, which was just under 50,000. The prices at the pump may not be good news for consumers, but the higher oil prices give the state economy on overall boost, with the goods producing and services sectors showing the most growth. According to the Texas Oil and Gas Association, oil and gas production produced an additional 5,000 jobs in the state in February, which is the highest one month leap in 30 years. That industry employed 181,900 people last month, which is up 16% from the pandemic low of 157,000 employees in September of 2020. The previous high number of total nonfarm working employees in the state was 13 million, in November of 2019 before the pandemic. In February, the state recorded 13.2 million workers on nonfarm payrolls throughout the state. Texas saw a job growth rate of 0.6% in February, which outpaces the national rate.
State Population Growth Continues
The US Census Bureau released updated population estimates as of July of 2021 earlier this week. 169 of the state’s 254 counties grew in population form one year to the next. Five counties – Colin, Fort Bend, Denton, Williamson, Montgomery – all grew by more than 25,000 residents in one year. Kaufman County, southeast of Dallas, grew at the fastest rate of 8.57%, adding nearly 13,000 residents. Collin County, north of Dallas, had the largest raw population increase, adding almost 45,000 new residents. Dallas County had the largest decrease in population, losing nearly 28,000 residents. The Austin/Round Rock metro area is the fastest growing area of the state according to the census data. The overall area added more than 70,000 residents. Harris County remains the largest county in the state with 4,728,000 residents, with the next 4 most populous counties being Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis.
The state of Texas now has an estimated population of 29,527,941, an increase of 1.31% from 2020.
Huge Budget Surplus
According to the state Comptroller, the state will collect approximately $23 billion more in state funds over the current biennium that originally estimated. Estimates were understandably low due to the ongoing pandemic. But, the state’s recovery has exceeded expectations and now lawmakers will have a huge surplus with which to work when they convene in January. The legislature writes the state two-year budget every regular session. The current biennium runs through August of 2023, and already has $12 billion in surplus funds in the state’s Rainy Day Fund. With the estimates of additional revenue, the state could be looking at a revenue surplus of between $25 and $30 billion for the 2024-25 biennium. The question that will face lawmakers will be how to, or if to spend the surplus. There will be demands to provide property tax relief, to increase health care funding, to increase public and higher education funding, as well as the funding of special projects for members and their districts.
Foster Care Facility Still Under Investigation
After two oversight committee hearings last week, and a report by the DPS clearing the facility of wrong doing, the federally appointed monitors of the facility still say they have found ample evidence of abuse and human trafficking at the Refuge near Bastrop. The Refuge is a state contracted facility to house foster children that have been subjected to abuse and sex trafficking. After allegations surfaced two weeks ago, the DPS conducted an investigation wherein they found no evidence of abuse or trafficking. The federal monitors, appointed by the federal court overseeing the state foster care system, say that the report from DPS was premature. The monitors cited repeated managerial lapses that have led to putting the residents at risk. There has been no response from the DPS or the Governor’s office regarding the statements by the federal monitors. A court hearing is now scheduled for Wednesday before a federal district judge to discuss the allegations and to determine what steps need to be taken moving forward.
The Republican runoff for Attorney General continues to take a nasty tone. Incumbent Ken Paxton went on the attack over the weekend when he set up the website https://georgepbushfacts.com that accuses the challenger, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, of not being a true conservative and mishandling the distribution of Hurricane Harvey relief funds. For his part, Bush struck right back by setting up the website https://kenthecrook.com that blasts the incumbent for being under FBI investigation, allegations of abuse of power, and having an extramarital affair.
Recounts for two Texas House races confirmed the results from the initial counts were accurate in declaring the winners. In House District 64 in north Texas, challenger Andy Hopper lost to incumbent Republican Lynn Stucky of Denton by 88 votes on election day. The recount actually increased Stucky’s margin of victory to 94 votes. In House District 17, based in Bastrop near Austin, the third place finisher had requested a recount, even though he missed the runoff by 424 votes. After the recount, there was no substantial change in the results.
Gov. Abbott made three endorsements in Republican runoffs for state House seats yesterday. He endorsed Patrick Gurski in an open seat based in Galveston, Caroline Harris in an open seat in Round Rock, and incumbent Glenn Rogers who was forced into a runoff in his seat near Weatherford, west of Fort Worth.
One other endorsement of note. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Galveston attorney Joe Jaworski in the Democratic runoff for Attorney General. Jaworski faces Rochelle Garza for the right to face the winner of the Ken Paxton/George P Bush runoff in November.
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