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State hospitals, living centers pay increases

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My Five CentsOn Jan. 25, 1839 the official flag of Texas was adopted by the Third Congress of the Republic of Texas. It specified the look of the iconic Lone Star Flag that we know and love today. The colors were chosen to signify certain attributes: red for courage, white for purity and liberty, and blue for loyalty. The Texas flag is the only flag of an American state that previously served as a flag for an independent country.

Here are five things happening around your state:

Starting pay at state hospitals and state-supported living
centers increases

The Texas Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) announced it is increasing salaries and starting pay at state hospitals and state-supported living centers to combat staffing shortages and bring hospital beds back online. HHSC said there are 700 state hospital beds offline due to a shortage of staffers. The commission is hoping to recruit and attract workers, reduce vacancies, and bring more beds back online. There are approximately 1,805 openings in state hospitals and 2,137 openings in state-supported living centers. Registered nurses with three years’ experience could have starting salaries as high has $90,000 per year. Psychiatric nursing assistants and direct support professionals would start between $17.50 and $21.00 an hour depending on experience. Current employees are also receiving salary increases.

Bill filed to make
catalytic converter theft a state felony

Sen. John Whitmire and Sen. Carol Alvarado jointly filed Senate Bill 224 which seeks to increase the criminal penalty for catalytic converter theft. For the past several years, there has been a marked increase in thefts of catalytic converters. Even when thieves are caught in possession of stolen catalytic converters it can be difficult to prove the case. This bill seeks to increase the penalty for stealing catalytic converters to a state jail felony and makes it easier for law enforcement to charge those who possess catalytic converters unlawfully. The bill adds additional penalties for criminals who stole catalytic converters while in possession of a firearm. Criminals engaging in catalytic converter theft have become violent and there have been many stories from around the state of Texans being injured or killed during the theft. It is time to give law enforcement more tools to combat these violent crimes.

Senate committee assignments announced

This week Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick released committee assignments for the 88th Legislature. I was honored to be reappointed as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and remain a member of Senate Finance, Business and Commerce, Local Government, and Redistricting Committees. The Senate Finance Committee will begin holding hearings next week to start the budget process. Each state agency will come before the committee and discuss their appropriations request with the committee. Members of the committee will have the opportunity to ask questions and get further clarification on details of the budget before further deliberations begin.

Afghan soldier
arrested as U.S.-Mexico border has federal immigration charges dropped

Abdul Wasi Safi is a former Afghan special forces intelligence officer who worked directly with U.S. forces in Afghanistan. During the collapse of the Afghan government, he was unable to escape the country on any of the U.S. military flights out of Kabul. He became a target of the Taliban once they took over the country. He went into hiding for months before he trekked across countries and continents to make it to the U.S.-Mexico border in an attempt to join his brother who lives in Houston as a U.S. citizen. He was apprehended by federal authorities and charged with a criminal misdemeanor. He has spent nearly four months in a detention center, but now an assistant U.S. attorney asked the judge this week to dismiss the case against him in the interest of justice and the judge agreed. He will now continue on his journey toward asylum and will hopefully be released and reunited with his brother soon.

Jim and Margaret Perkins honored for higher education initiatives

This week it was my pleasure to honor Jim and Margaret Perkins on the Senate floor for all of their contributions to our communities, specific in higher education. This year, they were recognized with the 2023 Texas Higher Education Distinguished Service Award. Leaders from more than 100 institutions of higher education chose them for their work supporting East Texas students, institutions and communities. Starting in 2014, the Perkins worked with Tyler Junior College to establish a scholarship program for local high school graduates known as the “TJC Promise” which has supported hundreds of students pursue post-secondary education. Congratulations to the Perkins for this tremendous achievement.

Sen. Robert Nichols represents Senate District 9, which includes Polk County, in the Texas Legislature.

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Budget filed in both the House and Senate

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My Five Cents This week we celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He was a visionary leader and made an invaluable impact on our country.

Here are five things happening around your state.

Budget filed in both the House and Senate

Now that the members are sworn in and both the governor and lieutenant governor are sworn in, the legislature can begin the work of the people. The first step is the filing of the budget by both the House and the Senate on their respective ideas of what the budget should be.

This week, Rep. Greg Bonnen and Sen. Joan Huffman each filed their versions of the budget in their respective chambers.

The senate budget, Senate Bill 1, includes $15 billion for additional property tax relief, including $3 billion to increase the homestead exemption to $70,000, fully funding public education, $3 billion in additional funds to invest in the state’s mental health resources, $600 million for school safety initiatives, $500 million for Gulf Coast Protection District projects, and much more.

This document highlights the priorities of the legislature. The process of building the final budget takes weeks of committee hearings and deliberations between the Senate and the House and will likely take most of the session to complete. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the budget for the next biennium.

Houston Astroshonored in Senate

This week, the Senate hosted the Houston Astros to celebrate their World Series championship. Members of the team were honored with a resolution on the Senate floor and they also brought the World Series trophy.

The Astros defeated the Philadelphia Phillies in six games to win their second championship. The final game of the series was played at Minute Maid Park in Houston last November. The series was also notable for having the first World Series no-hitter since 1956.

A combined effort from four Astros pitchers achieved the feat in Game 4. Congratulations on an amazing season and World Series win.

TxDOT makes $250 million availablefor transportationalternatives

TxDOT announced the agency is making $250 million available for sidewalks, bike lanes, shared-use paths, and other projects to enhance walking and biking transportation options across the state. The federal funding is aimed at reducing the number of pedestrian and bicyclists’ fatalities, which have risen in past years.

The funding will help communities plan and build walking and biking infrastructure. TxDOT is hosting virtual workshops to help municipalities and organizations as they apply for this funding. To learn more, visit https://www.txdot.gov/business/grants-and-funding/bicycle-pedestrian-local-federal-funding-programs.html.

State parks celebrating 100 years

This year is the Centennial Celebration of Texas State Parks. To commemorate 100 years, every state park will host at least one special event in 2023.

In January, many state parks in North Texas and on the coast are hosting fishing events for kids. There is also a photo contest with a new theme for each season of the year. Participants have the chance to win a State Parks Pass, a $100 H-E-B gift card and more. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is also hosting a new traveling art exhibit that features more than 30 Texas State Parks.

Thirty notable Texas artists were commissioned to create works celebrating parks across Texas. The exhibit runs in Austin from January 7 to April 30 and will then travel to several museums later this year and next year. It will be on display in Tyler in 2024.

There is also a commemorative book that highlights the collection and is available online to purchase. For more information on events happening at parks near you, visit www.TexasStateParks.org/100years.

DETCOG helps challenge federal broadband map

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission released a broadband coverage map that suggests most of Deep East Texas has access to broadband. Members of the Deep East Texas Council of Governments have encouraged the community to challenge the maps, as they are misleading and do not accurately reflect the reality of broadband access, especially in rural areas.

The map was compiled by using data from internet service providers in the area. The coverage map will help determine how much funding states receive from the federal government for broadband projects. It’s important that the maps accurately reflect access in the state. Challenges can be issued based on whether if a provider denies your request for service, has a waiting list longer than 10 days, or requires extra fees for installation.

For more information, to see the map, and to verify and challenge coverage areas, go to https://broadbandmap.fcc.gov/home.

Sen. Robert Nichols represents District 3, which includes Trinity County, in the Texas Legislature.

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Bite-sized commentaries

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Chris MetitationsSo this week for my scrawling on this page, I’m trying a different approach with things.

Our esteemed friend Gary Borders, the award-winning newspaperman and essayist, is the current curator of the weekly Capitol Highlights column, courtesy of Texas Press Association.

In the column, Borders follows a great tradition of breaking down current stories of statewide interest into brief bits of news. Read any of Borders’s weekly columns, and you’ll have a working knowledge of important issues facing Texans on any given week.

In following that sterling example (no pun intended…Borders’s predecessor is named Ed Sterling) I’ve decided to take the same approach with news stories that have stuck out to me but marinated in some of that Chris Edwards special commentary sauce you’ve grown to love (well, all three of you who read my rantings).

So here goes. This may be the only time I do this, but then again, it might just stick.

AG wants more power to prosecute election crimes

Last week, it was reported that Attorney General Ken Paxton wants more power to prosecute election crime, and several bills in this current legislative session would give it to him.

Although no evidence of widespread voter fraud has been found, Paxton has been actively pursuing election-related crimes since he took office in 2015.

How about a bill signed into law forbidding anyone under federal criminal indictment from serving as AG?

Abbott prioritizing budget surplus, schools and power grid

At his inauguration last Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott emphasized that this legislative session will be centered on the state’s historic budget surplus, parental rights in schools and public safety.

Additionally, Abbott said in this session “we will build a grid that powers our state – not for the next four years, but for the next 40 years.”

The aforementioned topics, as well as meaningful property tax reform, are issues that actually mean something to Texans. Stick to this, legislators, and deliver for your constituents and leave the culture-warring nonsense to the cesspool of social media.

Keyboard culture warriors react to Pink Floyd

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of its legendary and mega-selling album Dark Side of the Moon, the band Pink Floyd changed its Facebook profile image to a prism outlining the number “50” and a rainbow color scheme inside of the zero.

The reactions to some of the band’s Facebook followers was nothing short of ridiculous, with some commenters making such solid gold replies as “are you going woke with rainbows, is there a straight flag, I want equal representation…” (yes, Facebook culture warriors are big fans of run-on sentences and bigotry).

Never mind the fact that the album’s iconic cover image features a rainbow color prism.

How exhausting it must be to have a knee-jerk reaction to turn everything into a political talking point as one’s super-power.

M&Ms replace “spokescandies”

In another example from the “everything’s a political talking point” frontier, Mars, the candy giant, announced on Monday that it is replacing its M&Ms “spokescandies” with the former Rentals keyboardist/former SNL cast member Maya Rudolph. This move came after right-wing criticism that the company’s anthropomorphic candies’ makeovers had gone too far.

For example, a new purple M&M was added to the roster, to represent inclusivity. The orange M&M was made to be an avatar for those struggling with anxiety.

So is Critical Candy Theory the new thing everyone should be up in arms about?

Santos continues to rankle

Embattled Empire State congressman George Santos (if that is actually his name) continued to draw controversy last week.

The newly sworn-in lawmaker has admitted to, um, reinventing large swaths of his resume, but in spite of that, he wound up with committee assignments, and insists he will only step down if the voters turn against him.

Recently video footage turned up of Santos as a drag performer. The silver lining here is that Saturday Night Live now has a fully formed comedic character that the show’s writers won’t even have to get that creative with in order to spoof.

Another good yearfor Dem Boys

Another 12-win season and respectable post-season showing from the Dallas Cowboys ended on Sunday with a fight-to-the-finish loss against the long-irrelevant San Francisco 49ers. Tough loss, to be certain, but it was a good season with an improved roster.

What are the haters and fans, alike, to do with their lives now?

Sullivan celebratesmilestone

Woodville icon and ace raconteur Fred Sullivan just celebrated a milestone birthday. If you happen to find yourself in downtown Woodville, drop on by Sullivan’s and wish Fred a most happy of happy birthdays.

If the world had many more folks like Fred in it, then the world would be a much kinder, more intelligent place.

Happy birthday, good sir!

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Legislative priorities laid out for session

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Trent AshbyBy Rep. Trent Ashby

As part of School Board Appreciation Month, I invite parents, teachers, and students to join me in recognizing our local School Board Members who have dedicated their time to serve our Texas students and communities.

With more than 5 million students throughout the State of Texas, these local leaders deserve our gratitude for their leadership and devoted service on behalf of our school districts, administrators, teachers, and students.

The School Board Appreciation theme for 2023 is “Forward, Together,” which, in my opinion, perfectly encapsulates our shared commitment to the success of our public schools and a brighter future for Texas students.

In my most recent column, I discussed the Comptroller’s announcement of the Biennial Revenue Estimate, which outlines funds available for the legislature over the next two years.

Against that backdrop, on Jan. 18, leadership in both the House and Senate filed a preliminary base budget, which will serve as a starting point for the legislature to begin budget negotiations. House Bill 1 and Senate Bill 1, reflect the priorities of each chamber and will be debated throughout the session to arrive at a final budget for the 2024-2025 biennium.

While the priorities for each chamber are reflected in the fine print of their respective proposals, there a quite a few similarities. Both chambers have proposed to spend roughly $130 billion in general revenue over the upcoming biennium, which is well below the constitutional spending cap.

Without wading too deep into budget minutia, I want to highlight some of the priorities that are clearly defined in each of the filed budget proposals.

For example, both versions dedicate $15 billion for property tax relief, including an additional $3 billion to buy down local school and property tax rates. This is welcome news, as skyrocketing appraisal values combined with record levels of inflation have shouldered too many Texans with an exorbitant property tax bill.

I’m pleased to see that both chambers are prioritizing property tax relief in their base proposals, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to find additional solutions to help provide meaningful relief to Texas property owners.

I’m also pleased to report that House Bill 1 makes significant investments in public safety and criminal justice by dedicating over $17 billion to support the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, correctional officers, rural law enforcement, and bolstered border security efforts. I applaud the Texas House for prioritizing the brave men and women who help keep our communities safe.

Additionally, both chambers are proposing to make strategic investments in public education. As school districts across the state struggle with teacher shortages, learning loss, and countless other challenges that have arisen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, both chambers’ proposals feature a $36 billion investment to help address these challenges.

These resources will be used to increase teacher incentives, raise the basic allotment, enhance technological and instructional materials, and importantly, strengthen our school safety initiatives. Our public school classrooms are the bedrock of our communities, and ensuring our educators and students have the resources necessary to provide a quality learning environment is vital to the success of our children and the future of Texas.

As always, please do not hesitate to contact my office if we can help you in any way. My district office may be reached at (936) 634-2762. Additionally, I welcome you to follow along on my Official Facebook Page, where I will post regular updates on what’s happening in your State Capitol and share information that could be useful to you and your family: https://www.facebook.com/RepTrentAshby/.

Trent Ashby represents District 9, which includes Trinity County, in the Texas Legislature.

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Property tax cuts headline budget proposal

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012623 senate weekly

By Richard Lee
Senate correspondent

AUSTIN — The amount that homeowners can write off of the taxable value of their home before assessment would nearly double under the budget proposed by the Senate on Wednesday.

SB 1, filed by Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, would increase the homestead exemption from $40,000 to $70,000 at a cost of $1.8 billion for the state. Another $12 billion has been earmarked for further property tax cuts to be proposed in separate legislation.

This makes good on a promise made just one day earlier by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick as he was sworn into his third term in office.

“The Governor and the Speaker and the members, we’re going to find a way for long term property tax relief with the billions of dollars from this surplus, because you come first — it’s your money,” he said in his inaugural speech before thousands on the north Capitol grounds Tuesday.

Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott laid out property tax cuts as their top priority at Tuesday Inaugural Ceremony. They were also united on the subject of school choice, saying that this will be the session in which the state joins 30 others in passing some sort of choice program.

Though the legislation is still forthcoming, such measures typically allows parents to withdraw their students from public school and take the amount the state is spending to educate them to go to a private school. This plan has faced staunch opposition in the past, especially from small, rural districts who need every dollar they have.

Patrick said this session, the plan will ensure these rural schools are taken care of.

“The Governor and I will have a plan to protect those schools financially and to make sure those parents have choice also,” Patrick said. “We are going to pass school choice.”

Another issue both men raised in their inaugural addresses is electric grid stability. With the 2021 winter storm still fresh in the minds of lawmakers, there will likely be a bevy of bills aimed at ensuring the lights stay on in Texas no matter what.

Abbott praised last session’s efforts toward that goal.

“Last summer we set 11 all-time power generation records and last month, we weathered brutally freezing temperatures across the state all without any disruptions,” he said, “This session we will build a grid that will power this state, not for the next four years, but for the next 40 years.”

Patrick was more specific about plans for stability, saying that the state must incentivize dispatchable generation, like natural gas plants, in order to ensure there is plenty of electricity to meet the demands of one of the fastest growing states in America.

“We need dispatchable energy we can count on. We will add more megawatts of thermal generation and strengthen the grid,” he said.

Many of the priorities laid out by Patrick for the session are well-represented in the Senate draft budget released Wednesday afternoon. It includes $350 million for rural law enforcement, and $2.5 billion to create a university fund for institutions outside the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems. It would allocate $4.6 billion towards state border security efforts, more money for state hospitals and mental health services, and $228 million towards foster care reform.

Huffman, in her first session heading up the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement accompanying the release that the budget continues the conservative and sustainable spending policies that have left Texas in such an advantageous position. She also acknowledged that there is still much that could change between today and when a final budget, passed by both chambers, is presented to the governor for his signature.

“The base budget is a starting point, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to develop a conservative and sustainable budget that addresses our needs and strengthens our economy.”

The Senate reconvened Tuesday.

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