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Elections bill passes House along party lines

The Texas House approved an elections bill Friday along party lines with 21 Democrats declining to participate. The bill, slightly different from previously passed Senate legislation, now heads a conference committee that will negotiate a final version.

The measure passed after House Democrats largely ended a second walkout that broke quorum. The Austin American-Statesman reported the bill would ban drive-thru and 24-hour voting, add ID requirements to mail-in ballots, and give greater leeway to partisan poll watchers’ ability to observe both polling places and vote counting.

Republicans supported the bill as a means to reassure voters that elections are fraud-free. Critics called it an attempt to suppress voting among minorities and other groups that tend to support Democrats.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, said the bill was inspired by former President Trump’s claim the election was stolen.

“This bill was never about election security or voter integrity. It was always about using the big lie to justify restricting access to the ballot box,” Turner said.

COVID-19 cases drop in Texas; hospitalizations, deaths rise

The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Texas dropped 14% last week when compared to the previous week, to 107,489. However, 1,351 deaths in the state were reported by the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University, up 44% from the previous week.

The Texas Department of State Health Services reported 13,735 lab-confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospitals, an increase of 6% from the previous week. The number of hospitalizations is approaching the all-time high of 14,218 reached in mid-January.

A number of hospitals have reported all intensive-care unit beds are filled. DSHS reported only 325 available ICU beds statewide as of Sunday. People under the age of 50 are being admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in the largest numbers since the pandemic began in early 2020.

Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Division of Emergency Management have announced openings of several COVID-19 therapeutic infusion centers to provide Regeneron’s monoclonal antibodies to COVID-19 outpatients throughout the state. Visit meds.tdem.texas.gov to find a site near you.

Meanwhile, the pace of vaccinations has increased as the delta variant spreads, with an average of more than 80,000 vaccine doses reported daily during the past month. DSHS reports 13.6 million Texans are fully vaccinated, which is 46.6% of the state’s population.

$1.4 billion in summer food benefits

Texas families with children who have temporarily lost access to free or reduced-price school meals can receive electronic food benefits under a third round of grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) covers the summer months and provides a one-time benefit per eligible child. It can be used in the same way that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program cards work to buy groceries. The program is administered by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

“As children across the state start going back to school, we’re thankful we can provide this added benefit so Texans can provide nutritious food for their families,” said Wayne Salter, HHS Deputy Executive Commissioner of Access and Eligibility Services.

Eligible families will receive the summer P-EBT benefits in the fall. Visit hhs.texas.gov/pebt or call 833-442-1255 to learn more.

Dust in the wind equals hazy skies

If the skies seem unusually hazy lately, even as temperatures approach the century mark in much of the state, the answer lies to the east — and we’re not talking Louisiana.

Every year about this time plumes of dust make their way from Africa’s Sahara Desert to America. Non-scientists call it rain dust, according to an article on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s website.

Summer storms in the Sahara kick up about 180,000 tons of dust into the atmosphere each year, causing some problems for folks with asthma or other chronic lung conditions, according to Weslee Copeland, TCEQ’s senior meteorologist.

“The dust does degrade air quality when it’s here,” he says. “Most of the time it falls within the moderate range of EPA’s Air Quality Index, which means most healthy individuals will not be affected, but those who are more sensitive may experience some respiratory effects.”

The dust has one beneficial attribute: It generally suppresses the formation of tropical storms and hurricanes, though it did not prevent Hurricane Ida from hitting Louisiana Sunday as a Category 4 hurricane, on the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Pay-to-play requirements eased under new law

Texas taxpayers who challenge a state tax assessment or are denied a refund should find it easier to take their cases to court under measures passed during the regular legislative session.

State Comptroller Glenn Hegar pushed a bill that took aim at “pay-to-play” rules that forced businesses and individuals to pay tax bills under dispute before taking them to court to seek a refund.

Under HB 2080, taxpayers who disagree with a tax bill can now take their cases to the State Office of Administrative Hearings without first paying the disputed taxes.

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: gborders@texaspress.com.

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