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Around the Texas Capitol: Yet more elections, session questions, COVID-19 updates and more

By Lauren Spreen, Shayne Woodard and J Pete Laney
TAD Governmental Affairs

It seems the elections never end in 2020. First the primary elections in March, followed by a COVID-19 related delay in primary runoffs, and then a series of special elections. And the November general election is to come – but not before one more special election.

Meanwhile, school is underway (virtually or otherwise), the comptroller has released a report on state revenue for the last fiscal year, and state legislators are considering how to hold a session starting in January in the ongoing age of COVID-19.

That, and more, below.

Special election in Senate District 30

Gov. Greg Abbott has set Sept. 29 as the emergency special election date for Texas Senate District 30, which is home to 92 dairy producers, according to TAD’s interactive milk data map. The election will fill the seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Fallon (R-Prosper), who was named by Republican county and precinct chairs to replace former Congressman John Ratcliffe as the Republican nominee in Congressional District 4 on the Nov. 3 general election. Ratcliffe recently became federal director of National Intelligence. Early voting will be Sept. 14-25. Fallon has told Abbott he intends to resign effective Jan. 4, 2021.

Senate District 30 includes Archer, Clay, Cooke, Erath, Grayson, Jack, Montague, Palo Pinto, Wichita, Wise and Young counties and parts of Collin and Denton counties. According to the partisan index, Senate District 30 is 74.9% Republican.

The candidates are:

House members surveyed on reopening the Capitol

Texas House Administration Committee Chair Charlie Geren (R-Fort Worth) on Aug. 14 released results of a survey of House members regarding safety measures the House should take for the remainder of the pandemic. (Note the Capitol is currently closed to the public). Here are some of the results:

Do you favor or oppose temperature checks upon entry to the Capitol?

Favor – 87.18%

Oppose – 12.82%

Do you favor or oppose requiring face masks while in the Capitol common areas, committee rooms and public meeting spaces?

Favor – 82.76%

Oppose – 17.24%

Do you favor or oppose permitting outside public groups to reserve and use public spaces like committee rooms, the legislative conference center and members extension lounge?

Favor – 39.47%

Oppose – 60.53%

Under what circumstances do you believe the Texas capitol should be fully re-opened to the general public?

Written responses ranged from “yes” or “no” to “it should be open under current circumstances.” Here are the responses with the most support:

Gov. Abbott extends statewide disaster declaration for COVID-19

Gov. Abbott on Sept. 7 extended his disaster declaration for all Texas counties in response to COVID-19. Originally issued on March 13, the disaster declaration provides the state a variety of resources to effectively serve Texans as the state continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Texas Comptroller announces revenue for fiscal 2020 and August state sales tax collection

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Sept. 1 released totals for fiscal 2020 state revenues, in addition to announcing monthly state revenues for August (based on July sales).

“Yearly revenues were slightly ahead of our projections in the revised Certification Revenue Estimate (CRE) released in July,” Hegar said. “This was, in part, due to surprisingly strong July sales tax collections as Texans’ spending for home improvement projects increased while they spent more time at home both for teleworking and staycations, in lieu of leisure travel.

“Those July gains, however, were largely reversed in August, bringing actual collections closer to, but still ahead of, our estimate.”

For FY 2020 revenues:

The Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF) and State Highway Fund (SHF) both receive funding from oil and natural gas severance taxes. In November, the Comptroller’s office will deposit $1.13 billion in each of those funds, down from the $1.67 billion deposited in each fund in November 2019.

For August, Hegar said state sales tax revenue totaled $2.82 billion in August, 5.6% less than in August 2019. The majority of August sales tax revenue is based on sales made in July and remitted to the agency in August. Rising COVID-19 infection rates in July likely suppressed economic activity.

“State sales tax collections from all major sectors other than retail trade declined significantly from year ago levels, with the largest declines in the oil- and gas-related sectors,” Hegar said. “Collections from retail trade were up, as increased consumer spending on home improvements, home entertainment, distance learning and outdoor recreation in response to the COVID-19 pandemic spurred higher remittances from building materials, home furnishing, electronics and appliance, and sporting goods retailers. Retail trade tax collections were also boosted by online out-of-state vendors and marketplace providers who did not have tax collection obligations a year ago. Tax remittances from the information sector were depressed, as federal law in July began prohibiting sales taxation of internet service.

“Consumer spending was supported in July by enhanced federal benefits, which have since been reduced or expired. Consequently, further declines in sales tax revenue may ensue in the coming months.”

Total sales tax revenue for the three months ending in August 2020 was down 2.7% compared to the same period a year ago. Sales tax is the largest source of state funding for the state budget, accounting for 59% of all tax collections. The effects of the economic slowdown and low oil prices also were evident in other sources of revenue in August 2020.

Gov. Abbott announces procurement of over 1 million devices, Wi-Fi hotspots through Operation Connectivity

Gov. Abbott announced on Aug. 20 that the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in partnership with local education agencies, has procured more than 1 million personal devices and internet Wi-Fi hotspots as part of the state’s Operation Connectivity initiative. Financed by a previously announced $200 million allocation of Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding that was allocated to the TEA, and matched by school districts across Texas, the procurement effort will ensure that students attending a Texas public school will have both a device and connection to the internet throughout the 2020-21 school year and beyond.

Since March 2020, local education agencies and the TEA have contributed nearly $900 million to help close the connectivity gap among public school students.

State unemployment rate decreases

The Texas Workforce Commission on Aug. 21 announced that in July, Texas saw a decrease in the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate to 8%. July is the third consecutive monthly decrease and the lowest rate since March 2020 when the Texas economy was initially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas is below the national seasonally adjusted rate of 10.2%.

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