Both Texas legislative chambers spent part of the week referring bills to committees. Now that many committees, though not all, have completed their organizational meetings, the session’s pace should pick up as they begin hearing bills.
Abbott Lifts Mask Mandate, Allows Businesses to Open at 100% Capacity
On March 2, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his latest executive order, GA-34, lifting the state’s mask mandate and increasing capacity for businesses and facilities in the state to operate at up to 100% capacity, if they choose. These changes are effective March 10. While Gov. Abbott acknowledged COVID-19 has not disappeared, he noted in his announcement that recoveries, vaccinations, reduced hospitalizations and Texans practicing safe protocols make it clear that he believes the state mandates are no longer needed. More details on how this latest order affects previous disaster related orders can be found in the text of GA-34.
Disaster Response Continues for Counties
Additionally, Gov. Abbott, along with the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), re-requested an additional 32 counties be added to the federal Major Disaster Declaration for Individual Assistance. To date, FEMA has approved 126 Texas counties in the Major Disaster Declaration. Texans are urged to complete the TDEM State of Texas Assessment Tool to help the state and emergency management officials identify and understand damages that have occurred during the recent severe winter weather. Residents without internet or with limited connectivity can call 844-844-3089.
Save Our Seniors Initiative in 26 Texas Counties
Gov. Abbott, TDEM, Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Military Department announced the Save Our Seniors program, launching in 26 participating counties. This initiative strives to ensure more seniors receive the COVID-19 vaccination across the state.
USDA Designates Disaster Counties
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has issued a disaster designation for 23 counties in response to the severe winter weather that impacted the state in February. USDA is reviewing production losses in all remaining Texas counties and may add more counties in the future. Gov. Abbott requested this designation last month.
The designation makes federal assistance, such as emergency loans, available to agricultural producers who have suffered losses in the designated counties and in contiguous counties.
The designated counties include Cameron, Duval, Hidalgo, McLennan, Starr, Webb and Zapata. The contiguous counties are Bell, Bosque, Brooks, Coryell, Dimmit, Falls, Hill, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kenedy, La Salle, Limestone, Live Oak, McMullen, Maverick and Willacy.
Billions in COVID Funds for Texas Counties Approved by U.S. House, Stalled in Senate
After the U.S. House of Representatives approved President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan (ARP) largely along party lines, the act is now stalled in the U.S. Senate as Democrats make last minute adjustments.
The $1.9 trillion legislation maintained the $350 billion in direct aid to states, county, tribal and equivalent governments. Included in the $350 billion is direct funding for counties, but the specific amount for counties may change between the House and Senate versions. At the time of publication, the Senate draft version of the ARP reduced direct funding to counties from $65.1 billion to $60.1 billion. The Senate draft also changes the timeline for funds be distributed. Where the House version sends all funds in a lump sum, the Senate proposal sends 50% of the funds within 30 days, followed by the remaining 50% within 365 days. The Senate also differs from the House in placing a firm date to expend all funds by Dec. 2024. The House placed no deadline to use the funds. Under the House version, Texas will receive nearly $5.6 billion in new relief funding. An approximate county-by-county breakdown of funds can be found here. One key restriction placed on accepting APR funds is that the governmental entity may not reduce taxing rates and use APR funds to replace that revenue. The APR funds are intended to address circumstances related to the pandemic, and not enact tax policy changes. Attempts by members of Congress to expand the acceptable use of the state and county funds to include expenses related to the Texas Severe Winter Storms (DR-4586-TX) Disaster Declaration have been met with resistance and are in doubt, according to our Senate sources.
Additional delay comes as Senate Democrats negotiate within their caucus, and with the White House, over the income ceiling that individual and joint filers must be under to receive a $1,400 stimulus check. The expected compromise will cap eligibility at $80,000 for individuals and $160,000 for joint filers. The House version had previously capped eligibility at $100,000 individual and $200,000 joint. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has been pushing for a vote by the end of this week to avoid a gap in enhanced unemployment benefits extended in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, passed at the end of last year. Once passed, the House and Senate will have to reconcile the changes made in the Senate before being sent to Biden for his signature.
A full analysis of the ARP can be found here.