Texas

Stimulus Reports Detail Job Creation

Reports from the first recipients of Recovery Act funds were released on October 15th. Though they detail just a tiny sliver of the Recovery Act pie—less than two percent of the total, in fact—the initial reports provide insight into the reporting process and the benefits Texas can expect to see from its share of the Recovery Act. The reports were released via Recovery.gov and show a net benefit of almost 31,000 jobs created or saved nationwide due to the contracts that make up this fraction of Recovery Act funds. Texas saw a benefit of almost 1,100 jobs from a variety of small business contracts, engineering projects, and more.  Details from each of those reports are available on Recovery.gov.

The available data will expand throughout the month as we see more reports on contracts, grants, and loans that have been received so far. By the end of October, reporting on just over a third of the Recovery Act—or about $275 billion—will be complete. Entitlement spending and tax relief, which combine to make up more than 65 percent of the $787 billion in the Recovery Act, will not be subject to these reporting requirements, meaning the final job numbers may be underreported. Last month, the White House Council of Economic Advisors estimated that the Recovery Act had created or saved one million jobs so far. Initial estimates when the law was signed put the eventual total at 3.5 million, including 269,000 in Texas, and a great deal of those jobs will be created in the education and construction sectors.

Amid Health Care Debate, Texas Continues to Lead Nation in Uninsured

As the debate about how to fix America’s broken health care system rages on, Texas hangs in a more precarious position than any other state. According to a report released last week by the Census Bureau, Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the nation, with more than 25 percent of Texans living without health insurance. In other words, of the 46 million people in America who are uninsured, 13 percent of them live in Texas despite the fact that the state makes up only 7 percent of the county’s population.

The numbers make clear the importance of the current health care debate, as the question of whether Congress is able to pass meaningful health care reform will have deep implications in our state. Texas Impact and others in the faith community have been working to bring about the necessary changes to ensure accessible and affordable health care, and you can catch up with the resources included below.

Evaluating the Health Reform Bills from a Faith Perspective

Conference Call with President Obama and Faith Community

Faith and Health Care Reform: Conference Call With Jackson Day & Jack Glaser

If you are ready to take action, call your representatives in Congress [click here to find your legislators in DC], write a letter to the editor of your local paper, sign the Faith Inspired Vision Statement, or get in touch with Texas Impact staff for more ideas on how to get involved.

Federal Stimulus Dollars Helping Texas Prepare for Disasters

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will bring more than $290 million to the State Energy Conservation Office to help Texas increase energy efficiency and introduce renewable energy technologies around the state. There is a portion of that amount, however, that will be allocated for a project that has nothing to do with solar installations, energy audits, and the like. Instead, the funds are a part of a program aimed at improving the nation's energy emergency preparedness by helping states strengthen their energy infrastructures against hurricanes, floods, and other disasters.

In Texas, where the initiative is called the Energy Assurance Program, SECO will partner with the Public Utility Commission, Railroad Commission of Texas, and a number of other state entities and utility providers to update and improve the State of Texas Emergency Management Plan (EMP). The total amount Texas will get from the Recovery Act for the purpose of enhancing the EMP and ensuring "quick recovery and restoration from any energy supply disruptions" is $2.5 million. SECO and its partners will use the funds to run simulated exercises, provide new training to staff, and more.

Flu Season and Houses of Worship

We have already highlighted concerns about a more intense flu season this fall and how Texas is preparing, but like many issues, flu has additional implications for faith communities. For starters, houses of worship are gathering places for large groups of people, and the breadth of their outreach includes many people belonging to populations like the elderly and poor who are more vulnerable to flu. Therefore, they can and should take note of the measures available to them and their communities. Some congregations are already grappling with practical and even theological issues related to flu.

One resource comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which released a set of recommendations for houses of worship and other community organizations to consider (PDF). Some religious leaders have encouraged their followers to refrain from sharing the same cup when taking communion, for example, and to include announcements during services that encourage their members to take basic precautions to avoid spreading flu, such as washing their hands regularly and staying home if they begin to feel ill.  Faith communities can also direct their members to this website or others like it so they can find the nearest medical provider offering flu shots. It is important to note that no authorities have indicated that it may be necessary to cancel services because of flu fears.

Texas Prepares for Flu Season

This week, the federal government released a report detailing the possibility of a long and dangerous flu season this year. The warning comes two months after the WHO declared a global pandemic of the novel H1N1 strain of flu, previously known as swine flu. While pandemic levels of infection are possible but not probable, the State of Texas is preparing for the possibility of higher rates of flu contraction by taking an approach to preparation and response that is similar to the way it addresses extreme weather events.

While a vaccine specific to the H1N1 flu will not be available to states until mid-October, Texas already has 2.5 million courses of flu vaccines on hand and another 800,000 hopefully on the way from the national stockpile. Those vaccines can be used to protect from both types of flu. While anyone can get the regular vaccine and officials have assured the public that there are enough supplies for everyone that wants the shot, the H1N1 flu vaccine will be administered first to priority populations like school-age children, people with chronic health conditions, and pregnant women. The Texas Education Agency and the Department of State Health Services will work with school districts and other entities to determine when closures and other preventative measures are necessary, and officials continue to encourage people to stay home if they begin to feel ill.

DSHS is also operating Texasflu.org, which contains information for health care providers, employers, families, and others. To find out where you can get a flu shot, click here.

Update: Recovery Act Funds Continue to Flow

Interested in knowing where Texas stands in its implementation of its share of Recovery Act funds? How the state stacks up to others around the nation? The timeline for all Recovery Act expenditures? If so, check out Texas Impact's latest report on those and other issues involving the Recovery Act.

Though the Legislature opted to not take proactive steps to institute planning and accountability measures, Texas Impact continues to track Recovery Act funds, state agency actions, and national developments.  Stay tuned all year for Recovery Act updates, links, and success stories.

Post-session Wrap-up: The Legislature and the Recovery Act

Legislators began the 81st Legislative Session with the knowledge that an unprecedented influx of federal money was coming, and Texas Impact was there from the beginning, urging the Legislature to take proactive steps that would increase the likelihood that this windfall would provide the maximum benefit to the state. House Gallery

At issue was how best to ensure that funds from the Recovery Act would be spent not just in a transparent manner, but in a way that was transformative as well. Now that the session has ended, we can summarize and assess the Legislature's response to the $15 billion in federal stimulus funds, not to mention the hundreds of billions in additional federal dollars that will be available in the form of nationwide competitive grants. In short, the Legislature failed to take proactive steps, opting to end the session without enacting any special measures to accommodate such an extraordinary amount of federal dollars and without passing a single piece of significant legislation related to implementing or tracking Recovery Act funds.

Continue reading for more about the Legislature's actions in full.

 

In the House, Speaker Straus facilitated the creation of a Select Committee to act as the House’s eyes and ears with regard to the federal stimulus funds. That committee, led by Representative Jim Dunnam, proved to be a valuable resource for keeping the entire body informed about Recovery Act details. Beyond that, however, little to no action was taken to adjust to the state’s new financial situation in the midst of the economic downturn. The Senate did even less, with any discussion of how to handle Recovery Act funds going on behind closed doors. Only one piece of significant legislation dealing specifically with implementing and tracking Recovery Act funds was filed during the session. That bill—HB 4263—passed out of committee before being rolled into HB 2942, which made structural changes to state government, and it went on to pass the House unanimously before dying in the Senate.

When it came time to make the state’s budget for the biennium, the Legislature’s plan for those funds became clearer.  Coming into the session, legislators had planned on tapping the state’s Rainy Day Fund in order to cover a $4 billion budgetary gap, but they quickly saw the Recovery Act funds as a way to leave the RDF untouched in order to use it in 2011, when the structural deficits created in 2006 will be even worse than they are now. Wherever there was an opportunity to supplant state funds rather than supplement them with federal stimulus money, legislators chose to do so. So instead of local school districts receiving extra funds to avoid teacher layoffs and improve education, they will not see the increases that federal officials intended. This strategy of supplantation will save the state some money in the short term, but it will result in stagnant funding for education, Medicaid, and other vital services.

Certainly people across the state will see some tangible benefits from the Recovery Act. The Department of Housing and Community Affairs will scale up its Weatherization Assistance Program, for example, as it was granted more than $300 million to help homeowners increase efficiency. Texans will see tax breaks, extended unemployment benefits, and increased amounts in their food stamp accounts, just to name a few changes.

Those benefits will come with a host of missed opportunities, though. Texas Impact long supported the implementation of temporary measures that would have dealt specifically with the Recovery Act funds. The state could have benefited greatly from having some way to define goals, strategies, and performance measures that would have gone a long way towards ensuring that Texas’ share of these funds is used wisely. Just as important as the $15+ billion the state has already received will be the hundreds of billions of dollars in competitive grants for which state and local governments around the nation will be vying. While most of those other states have taken proactive steps in this regard, entities in Texas—especially those in rural and poor areas—will be at a distinct disadvantage thanks to a dearth of coordination, planning, and resources.

Texas Impact will continue to monitor the state’s handling of Recovery Act funds and work with legislators and state agencies as they look for best practices.

Recovery Act Accountability Bill Moves Forward

[Update: To see video of the discussion and passage of HB 2942, click here.]
[Update II: For more media coverage on the bill, click here.]
[Update III: HB 2942 unanimously passed its final reading in the House and will now go to the Senate.]
With Texas already getting approximately $16 billion in federal stimulus funds—not to mention the opportunity for state, local, and private entities to access much more that that amount in competitive grants contained in the Recovery Act—the House took an essential step towards ensuring that Texas implements its share of those funds in transformative and transparent ways. HB 2942 passed its second reading in the House on Thursday night, and it will be ready to be finally passed and sent along to the Senate on Friday.
A bipartisan group of legislators—Representatives Dunnam, Crownover, Gattis, Turner, and Coleman—came together to create the bill, which would make some permanent and temporary changes to the way the state spends and tracks its money. Among the provisions included in the bill is the creation of the Recovery Act Accountability Board, which will define performance measures, create public-private collaboration, and help agencies look for opportunities to combine funding and functions related to the Recovery Act, among other duties.

Earlier in the afternoon, the House also passed Representative Pitts' HB 4583, which would establish a separate fund to hold all funds related to the federal Recovery Act. Also on Thursday, the Senate passed their own version of the Recovery Act fund in Senator Duncan's SB 2567.
Texas Impact has been working for measures like these since before the federal law was even passed in mid-February. As these bills and the process of implementing Texas' share of these funds move forward, Texas Impact will continue to be involved and keep its members updated.

Tracking the Texas Stimulus

As Texas Impact has reported, Texas has been lagging behind in many respects as far as the measures it has taken to effectively and transparently put its ARRA dollars to use. Yet some recent developments could potentially change the situation for the better. The first came during the House debate over the state budget for the next biennium, as we pointed out last week. Representatives filed a number of amendments directly related to the federal stimulus dollars, including one by Representative Sylvester Turner that creates specific performance measures and reporting requirements for every state agency that receives ARRA funds.

Now, in another piece of positive ARRA-implementation news, the Comptroller of Public Accounts has launched a new section on its website that allows Texans to see how money is being spent, where they can look for grants and contracting opportunities, and what impact the ARRA is expected to have on the state. Texas Impact has been calling for this and other measures to be taken since Texas first learned it would be getting billions of dollars from the federal government, so this is an encouraging development.

Will the ARRA Improve Public Education in Texas?

The question of whether Texas students will be better off than they would have been without ARRA funds is driving a number of current debates as legislators are deciding how to budget for the upcoming biennium. Already, at least two letters have been sent to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan—one from members of Texas' Congressional delegation and another from a number of school district superintendents—asking for more clarification on how Texas can spend ARRA funds allocated for education. Both of those letters express concern with how the Legislature has chosen to address the state's share of the money and asked the Secretary to issue further guidance that would direct the Legislature more clearly. The main issue causing dispute is the Legislature's handling of $3.2 billion meant to improve public education or, at the very least, ensure that the state is able to maintain its commitment to funding public schools. Of the billions of ARRA funds that were allocated to address shortfalls in school funding during the recession, it is this pot of money, known as State Fiscal Stabilization funds, that is raising the most questions from school districts. Their concerns stem from the Legislature's apparent intent to supplant rather than supplement current state revenue going to schools. Since Texas is not facing budget shortfalls as dire as some other states, it would have been able to maintain the level of funds going to schools across the state, even if it meant dipping into the state's substantial Rainy Day Fund. So, absent more stringent federal guidelines, that situation creates a choice for those legislators in charge of writing the state budget: pass the extra $3.2 billion down to school districts in addition to the state funds already going to education, or displace those state funds to be spent elsewhere or saved to avoid tapping the Rainy Day Fund. School districts and some legislators object to the latter option, as they would rather see the money be used to fund possibly transformative projects that go above and beyond what they would have been able to afford without the ARRA. Even as this and other debates continue, ARRA education funds are making their way to Texas already. (See below for an explanation of the three main allocations for education in the ARRA.)

Within the month, local school districts will see almost $1 billion in IDEA grants for special education and Title I grants to help poor students. The $3.2 billion in stabilization funds (which is actually $3.9 billion when a portion that is under the discretion of the Governor is included) that is raising so many questions will be available in a matter of weeks, as the Governor will be apply to apply for the initial two-thirds of the total allotment. The final third will be disbursed later this summer, and how we handle this first part could determine whether we receive the final portion after all, according to guidelines published by the Department of Education.

Item Purpose Amount for TX Status
Title I Grants Supplemental funding to improve performance of low-achieving students, especially in high-poverty districts $944.6 million total 50% of Title I, Part A funds ($472.3 million) will reach local school districts within the month of April. Guidance will follow by May 15th, and the remaining 50% of the funds will be released in the summer.
IDEA Grants Grants support research, demonstrations, technical assistance, technology and personnel development, and parent-training and information centers related to providing education to individuals with disabilities. $1.0093 billion total 50% of the funds ($504.65 million) will reach local school districts within the month of April. Guidance will follow by May 15th, and the remaining 50% of the funds will be released in the summer.
State Fiscal Stabilization funds New one-time appropriation intended to stabilize state and local government budgets and facilitate education reforms $3.9735 billion State applications for the first 67% of funds ($2.662 billion) are available and will be processed within two weeks of receipt. The remaining 33% will be released by September 30th, pending a more stringent application process to ensure states have used their original allotment in accordance with federal intent.

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