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Farmer’s Almanac predicting a white winter

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082522 capital highlightsThe Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting January will bring significant snowfall to the state.

Capital Highlights
By Gary Borders
Texas Press Association

As Texas gets at least a temporary reprieve this week from the heat, with a nice round of rain blanketing much of the state, the Old Farmer’s Almanac is predicting January will bring significant snowfall to the state.

The periodical, founded in 1818, develops its extended forecast “using a 204-year-old mathematical formula focused on sunspot activity, planet positions and tidal actions of the moon.” The almanac’s website claims its forecasts are 80 to 85 percent accurate.

Since the secret formula was first developed by David Young, an astronomer and mathematician who was the almanac’s first editor, only seven people have been hired to develop the weather predictions.

A meteorologist for the National Weather Service interviewed by the Austin American-Statesman casts a skeptical eye on the almanac’s methods and predictions.

“There is little to no scientific evidence that sunspot activity and the position of planets have any impact on our weather and our climate,” Keith White said. “A lot of the statements they use in terms of what they expect over the course of a season are very broad and can be applied kind of subjectively by people.”

Neither the Almanac nor the weather service are predicting another Winter Storm Uri, which resulted in the deaths of at least 246 people in Texas in February 2021.

New CEO hired for ERCOT

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which drew scathing criticism for the massive power blackouts during Uri, has a new chief executive officer. The hiring of Pablo Vegas was approved by the Public Utility Commission, which oversees ERCOT.

Vegas currently serves as executive vice president of NiSource and group president, NiSource Utilities. He succeeds interim CEO Brad Jones on Oct. 1.

After Uri, most of ERCOT’s board resigned and its CEO was terminated. A number of reforms and protective measures have been implemented since Uri, though critics question whether the grid can withstand another storm of Uri’s magnitude.

TEA releases 2022 accountability ratings

The Texas Education Agency last week released the first A-F school accountability ratings for the first time since 2019, due to two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results show some improvement in grades, with 396 districts, or 33.1 percent, receiving an A rating. That was up from 301 getting the top grade in 2019.

Conversely, 16 districts got a failing grade, up from 14 in 2019. Among individual campuses, 2,356, or 27.9 percent, received the top grade, up from 1,750 in 2019. The number of campuses that received an F totaled 188, less than half the 402 schools that failed the accountability ratings in 2019. The ratings are based on three domains: student achievement, school progress, and closing the gaps.

Visit TXschools.gov to find grades for all campuses and districts. Users can search for schools using an address and compare schools as well.

Norris films PSAs for IWatchTexas program

Chuck Norris, the actor best known for “Walker, Texas Ranger,” has filmed a public service announcement to publicize the IWatchTexas community reporting system. The partnership between communities and law enforcement is designed to make it easier for the public to report suspicious activity, from school safety-related threats to criminal acts or terrorism.

IWatchTexas is not designed to report emergencies, which should still be reported by calling 911. It is one of several initiatives taken after the Uvalde school shooting in May, which killed 19 students and two teachers.

In the PSA, Norris concludes by saying, “Whether it’s criminal acts, terror threats, or someone wanting to harm children, if you see something, say something, and help keep communities in the great state of Texas safe.”

Job surge continues in Texas

For the ninth consecutive month, Texas set new non-farm employment records, with 13.513 million Texans at work.

The state has added 736,700 jobs since July 2021, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. The jobless rate is now at 4.0 percent, its lowest reading since February 2020 — just before the pandemic shuttered businesses across the state.

“The decrease in the unemployment rate and growth in jobs is a testament to our innovative and resilient Texas employers,” said TWC Commissioner Aaron Demerson.

The most growth was in education and health services, which gained 14,300 jobs over the month. The lowest jobless rates in metropolitan statistical areas were recorded in Amarillo and Austin-Round Rock, both at 3.1 percent. The highest rate among MSAs at 8 percent was in McAllen-Edinburg-Mission.

Anti-drunk driving campaign under way

With school underway and the Labor Day holiday approaching, the Texas Department of Transportation has launched its Drive Sober No Regrets campaign, with stepped-up law enforcement efforts to arrest drunk drivers.

The state saw more than 25,000 DUI-alcohol related traffic crashes last year, resulting in 1,100 fatalities and 2,560 serious injuries, according to TxDOT.

COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations drop

The number of COVID-19 cases during the past week in Texas dropped to 59,059, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, a drop of 18.7 percent. The number of deaths reported stood at 223, up slightly from the previous week. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 3,018 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations as of Sunday, nearly even with last week’s count.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Texas gas prices lowest in nation

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081822 capital highlights

By Gary Borders
Texas Press Association

While gas prices nationwide dropped below $4 per gallon average last week, the state boasts the lowest prices in the country at an average of $3.49 — 50 cents below the national average, according to AAA Texas.

“Retail gasoline prices in Texas fell for the eighth consecutive week,” said AAA Texas spokesperson Daniel Armbruster. “While gas prices will likely keep dropping in the near term, it is unclear how long the trend will last. Demand for fuel jumped seven percent across the U.S. this week and regional fuel supplies fell by around three percent.”

Drivers fueling up in College Station are paying the most on average at $3.72, while those in the Brownsville-Harlingen area have the cheapest fuel at $3.19, according to a report by KWTX-Waco.

Voter registration deadline is Oct. 11

Eligible Texas voters must be registered by Oct. 11 in order to cast ballots in the Nov. 8 general election, according to Texas Secretary of State John Scott.

“Even though we’re still two months away from the voter registration deadline, it’s never too early to make sure you’re registered, update your registration information if you need to, and prepare yourself to vote in the upcoming election,” Scott said.

Texas law requires eligible voters to be registered 30 days before Election Day. Since the 30th day before Nov. 8 falls on a Sunday, prospective voters have two extra days to register this year.

Voters can visit the state’s official voting website — VoteTexas.gov — for more information.

Drought conditions now into sixth month

By the end of July, drought conditions covered 97 percent of the state, up 11 percentage points from the end of June, according to Dr. Mark Wentzel, hydrologist with the Texas Water Development Board. July was drier and warmer than normal, a familiar refrain in 2022.

Storage in the state’s reservoirs is at 71 percent of capacity, which is 13 percentage points below normal for this time of year, Wentzel wrote. Still, the current drought is not as severe as the one Texans endured in 2011 for most of the state. However, South Texas is faring worse than it did in 2011 since it started the year with its water supply reservoirs already well below normal.

More state resources mobilized for wildfire threats

On Friday alone, Texas A&M Forest Service firefighters responded to 15 new wildfires that burned 540 acres. There are five active wildfires throughout the state, the largest being the Pine Pond Fire in Bastrop County, covering an estimated 700 acres and just 35 percent contained as of Sunday.

The Texas Division of Emergency Management at the direction of Gov. Greg Abbott has deployed additional strike teams, consisting of 32 firefighters and 10 engines.

“Communities across the state continue to be impacted by dangerously dry conditions that could lead to further spread of wildfires,” said Abbott said.

Burn bans are now in place in 224 Texas counties, out of 254 total.

Scammer posing as TDI employee

If someone calls claiming to be a Texas Department of Insurance employee offering to meet at one’s home to discuss insurance needs, it’s almost certainly a scam. That’s according to a TDI news release, which notes the agency only calls people who ask for assistance.

The agency’s fraud unit received a report from a person who was contacted by someone claiming to be a TDI employee and offering to come over and review insurance needs.

“The individual who received the call did the right thing by not providing any personal information and contacting us,” said Chris Davis, head of TDI’s Fraud Unit. “This may have been an attempt at identity theft or other crime.”

Anyone needing help with an insurance issue or suspecting insurance fraud can contact the TDI help line at 800-252-3439.

All state oil and gas records now online

Have you been wondering about that working pumpjack in the strip-mall parking lot in Longview? (Yes, there is one.) The Texas Railroad Commission has recently completed placing all historic oil and gas production records online.

The RRC database covers oil production dating back to 1931 and gas back to 1937. More than 1,300 rolls of microfilm containing about 2.2 million images in the RRC’s central records were digitized.

“This is a significant undertaking and a historic moment for the Commission,” Matthew Herzon with RRC, said. “Not only does it give the public quick and easy access to the information, but it can also save staff time that’s spent researching for public information requests. Requesters can now get historical production information with the click of a mouse if they wish, and our staff can devote time for other tasks.”

COVID-19 cases dip slightly

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas in the past week dipped slightly to 72,715 with 194 new deaths reported, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 3,174 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sunday, a slight drop from the previous week.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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Drivers urged to be alert as school begins

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081422 capital highlights

By Gary Borders
Texas Press Association

Millions of Texas children are heading back to school this month, as early as this week in some districts. The Texas Department of Transportation urges drivers to be especially alert and focused when driving in school zones and near bus stops.

Drivers are further reminded that a new Texas law requires drivers to stop and yield to pedestrians in crosswalks, according to TxDOT. The Lisa Torry Smith Act is named after a young mother killed in Missouri City in a crosswalk as she walked her son to school. The driver received a $50 fine for failing to yield, according to numerous media reports.

Now it’s a crime punishable with up to two years in prison.

Ex-trucking owner charged with insurance fraud

The former co-owner of Bill Hall Jr. Trucking in Bexar County has been indicted in Travis County for fraud in an alleged scheme to get lower workers compensation insurance premiums by concealing payroll reports. A Texas Department of Insurance news release said the plot allowed the company to avoid more than $9 million in premium payments.

Francis Hall, the former co-owner along with her husband, was previously convicted of murder in 2016 for knocking her husband’s motorcycle off the road in 2013 with her Cadillac Escalade as she chased his lover, who was in another vehicle, on the same stretch of Loop 1604 in San Antonio. She claimed it was an accident, and the jury gave her the shortest possible sentence in that case. She was released two years later in 2018, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

Fraud investigators with TDI claim that between 2009 and 2016, “Hall allegedly provided false payroll information to Texas Mutual Insurance Company and concealed payroll reports to get lower insurance premiums on their extensive gravel hauling business.”
If convicted, Hall could face life in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. She is currently free on bond.

Wildfire dangers continue in dog days

As the summer heat and dry conditions persist, so does the danger of wildfire. The Texas A&M Forest Service reported 10 active wildfires across the state as of Sunday. The largest fire at 3,323 acres in Throckmorton County was 90 percent contained. The Big Sky Fire in Gillespie County had consumed 1,459 acres and was also 90 percent contained.

Burn bans are now in force in 225 Texas counties, according to the forest service. Only El Paso County and a portion of neighboring Hudspeth County are not under some level of drought throughout the entire state.

Health center grants available for underserved communities

The Texas Department of State Health Services is seeking grant applications for $20 million dedicated to health centers in areas where resources are scarce and access to adequate health care can be challenging. The funding came from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, and the Texas Legislature approved funneling it to federally qualified health centers (FQHC).

“Federally Qualified Health Centers are a valuable support for people who need essential medical care but live in areas where resources are scarce and access can be challenging,” said State Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville. “Once they are up and running, they operate without local or state financial support. These grants are intended to bridge the gap between start-up cost and full certification to enable the program to expand in Texas.”

Open enrollment is available until Dec. 31 or until program funding is exhausted. More information is available on the DSHS website: dshs.texas.gov.

Travel industry eligible for COVID-19 grants

More funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act will soon be headed toward entities tied to travel and tourism which were adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes arts entities, according to the Texas Commission on the Arts.

The program, operated by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development & Tourism, provides one-time grants of up to $20,000 to eligible Texas businesses and non-profits that experienced an economic loss due to COVID-19. The $180 million dedicated to the grant program to aid in the recovery of Texas tourism, travel and the hospitality industry was authorized in the last regular legislative session.

More information can be found here: https://tinyurl.com/3244psej.

New COVID-19 cases up slightly

The number of new COVID-19 cases in Texas during the past week rose slightly to 78,845, with 244 deaths reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University. DSHS reports 3,490 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations, a slight drop from the previous week.

DSHS also reports 17.9 million Texans are fully vaccinated, or 60.6 percent of the state’s population, while 7.3 million have received at least one booster shot.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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DSHS gets nearly 15,000 monkeypox vaccines

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080422 capital highlights

By Gary Borders
Texas Press Association

The Texas Department of State Health Services has received and distributed 14,780 doses of the monkey pox vaccine to local health departments and DSHS regional offices. Another 27,000 doses could be made available by the Strategic National Stockpile.

The disease causes a serious skin rash with painful lesions and appears to be spreading through direct contact with the skin or saliva of an infected person. The disease is preventable by avoiding skin contact with someone who has the disease.

“Risks include having sex, kissing or hugging someone with monkeypox or sharing cups, utensils, bedding or towels with them,” according to DSHS.

Through July 29, a total of 5,189 monkeypox cases have been reported nationwide, with 351 of those in Texas. While certainly painful, monkeypox is very rarely fatal.

Commuting times show increase in state

When it comes to commuting to work in Texas, two items stand out. Nearly 90 percent of Texans travel alone to work, and it takes longer to get to where one’s going these days.

According to census data analyzed by the Texas Demographic Center, the number of commuters who from 2015-2020 spent up to an hour on the road getting to work stood at 17.2 percent, up from 15.7 percent from 2010-2015.

More than 95 percent drove a car, truck or van to work, while a scant 1.3 percent used public transportation, excluding taxis. Folks who walked to work totaled just 1.5 percent of all Texas commuters.

‘Urban heat islands’ exacerbate summer temps

It’s been hot out there this summer, and cities are recording record temperatures. The Texas A&M Forest Service notes that developed areas often experience higher temperatures than rural areas.

“Areas in these microclimates of a highly developed city, known as urban heat islands, can be up to 20 degrees warmer than surrounding areas that are more rural, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science,” according to the news release.

Mac Martin, with the forest service, noted planting or saving large expanses of trees in urban areas can go a long way toward cooling temperatures. Mature trees can release hundreds of gallons of water vapor daily through their leaves, cooling the air. Shaded areas can be between 20 to 45 degrees cooler than peak temperatures in unshaded expanses of concrete.

Five Texas courthouses get restoration grants

The Texas Historical Commission has announced $22.5 million in grants to five counties to aid in preservation and restoration of their historic courthouses. Four of the counties — Hall, Kimble, Upshur and Wise — received construction grants for full restoration. Comanche County received a planning grant that will be used to prepare for a future full restoration.

“We are thrilled to partner with these communities on these critical historic preservation projects,” said THC Executive Director Mark Wolfe. “Their dedication to their historic courthouses will pay economic and quality of life dividends for decades.”

Throughout the state, 104 counties have received grants from the THC program, with $350 million allotted to fund the full restoration of 78 courthouses and smaller grants to assist with planning and emergency needs given to another 26 counties.

Despite rain, fire danger remains high

Scattered rain in the upper Texas Panhandle, the Upper Gulf Coast and East Texas have lessened the fire danger somewhat in those areas, but the risk remains high with temperatures hovering above 100 degrees. There were 14 active wildfires as of Sunday, the largest still being the Chalk Mountain Fire in Somervell County, covering 6,746 acres and 53 percent contained, according to the forest service.

With 224 counties now under burn bans, officials are urging landowners to be extra vigilant about preventing fires. The Austin American-Statesman reported a spate of fires in Central Texas in recent days.

“We just want people to have a hyper sense of awareness,” Hank Jones, Williamson County Fire Marshal, told the Statesman. “We are so dry just this week alone we had a fairly large grass fire in Jarrell caused by a truck that blew a tire and when the rim hit the asphalt it created a spark that had 20 to 30 acres burning.”

Cedar trees can especially cause problems in Central Texas because they drop needles underneath that can quickly ignite. Homeowners are urged to consider limiting the use of cedar trees around their houses.

New COVID-19 cases drop in Texas

The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Texas dropped in the past week to 72,653, with 154 deaths reported, about even with the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at John Hopkins University.
The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations rose slightly to 3,624 across the state, according to DSHS.

The BA.5 variant is now prevalent in Texas and elsewhere but seems to have less serious effects, especially for people who have been fully vaccinated and boosted, according to health officials.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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Walking billboards promote pedestrian safety

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072822 capital highlightsThe invasive emerald ash bore has been confirmed in two additional counties this month, according to the forest service.

By Gary Borders
Texas Press Assocaition

If you happen to visit a high-traffic area in one of the state’s larger cities, you might come across some folks wearing sandwich boards, such as one sees during tax season or mattress sales. The Texas Department of Transportation has adopted this marketing device to promote its “Be Safe. Drive Smart” pedestrian safety campaign this month.

Pedestrians account for one in five traffic fatalities in the state. Last year, 5,366 traffic crashes involving pedestrians occurred, with 841 people killed. TxDOT is using the highly visible sandwich boards to remind both drivers and pedestrians to follow the rules of the road and watch out for each other. The boards are being worn by members of TxDOT’s street teams.

“Only 1 percent of traffic crashes in Texas involve pedestrians, yet pedestrians account for 19 percent of all roadway deaths,” said TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. “That’s because pedestrians lack the protective equipment — airbags, seat belts and bumpers — common to vehicles. To keep our most vulnerable road users safe, we urge motorists to always be on the lookout for people walking. Pedestrians also have the responsibility to be aware of their surroundings and follow the rules of the road.”

July 31 deadline for newborn enrollment in TTPF

The deadline to open a Texas Tuition Promise Fund college savings account for a child younger than 1 year old is July 31, according to the state comptroller’s office. Participants can lock in 2021-2022 tuition and fee prices for their loved little ones at Texas public colleges and universities by establishing an account by then.

The comptroller’s report states: “According to the 2020 edition of Sallie Mae’s Higher Ambitions: How America Plans for Post-secondary Education, planners save two times more for college than non-planners. Planners are also more likely to start investing for college when their child is young, which is associated with less expected student loan debt.”

Contributions to what are known as 529 plans, such as TTPF, are partially exempt from the federal gift tax. Up to $16,000 annually ($32,000 for married couples) can be given without triggering the gift tax.

Wildfire risk remains high across state

As the nearly statewide drought shows no signs of abating, wildfire danger continues to spread across the state. The Chalk Mountain Fire in Somervell County and the 1148 Fire in Palo Pinto County caused local officials to urge residents to evacuate. Several lakefront homes were destroyed around Possum Kingdom Lake last week as a result of the 1148 Fire, which involved 457 acres and was about 50 percent contained as of Sunday, according to the Texas A&M Forest Service.

There were 16 active wildfires across the state, the largest being the Chalk Mountain Fire involving 6,705 acres. It was 10 percent contained as of Sunday. A total of 215 counties in Texas now have burn bans in place.

Tree-killing beetle spreads to more counties

The invasive emerald ash bore has been confirmed in two additional counties this month, according to the forest service. The invasive wood-boring pest is now confirmed in 11 Texas counties, with the addition of Morris and Rusk counties. It has killed millions of trees across 35 states since its arrival in the United States 20 years ago.

“The pest is a major threat to urban, suburban and rural forests as it aggressively kills ash trees within two to three years after infestation,” said Demian Gomez, with the forest service.

Counties where the emerald ash bore has been detected have their ash timber and lumber quarantined to prevent the spread of the pest. The beetle was first detected in Texas in 2016 in Harrison County. Since then, EAB has been confirmed in Bowie, Cass, Dallas, Denton, Marion, Morris, Rusk, Wise, Parker and Tarrant counties.

State again shows large job gain

Texas added 82,500 nonfarm jobs in June, the largest gain this year. The state again set new employment highs, as total nonfarm employment reached. 13.43 million, according to the Texas Workforce Commission.

“This type of sustained economic success is only possible when employers and job seekers have maximum opportunities to reach their full potential, and TWC works hard to support those opportunities,” Bryan Daniel, TWC chairman, said.

Jobs in the oil and gas industry led the increase with 4,900 new jobs, while the construction sector lost 3,000 workers. The state’s unemployment rate dropped a tick to 4.1 percent, down from 4.2 percent in May.

Nearly 90,000 Texans have died of COVID-19

Approximately two-and-a-half years after COVID-19 began to sweep the country, nearly 90,000 Texans have died as a result of the disease, according to Texas Department of State Health Services, with more than 6 million cases reported since 2020. The BA.5 variant is now causing most of the infections, with a rolling seven-day average of 11,905 cases reported daily. The number of lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations on Sunday in Texas totaled 3,454, according to DSHS, which is up slightly from the previous week.

Gary Borders is a veteran award-winning Texas journalist. He published a number of community newspapers in Texas during a 30-year span, including in Longview, Fort Stockton, Nacogdoches and Cedar Park. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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