Texas

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[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.

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.

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.

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