The following is State Capital Highlights for the week of September 18-22:
Paxton acquitted on all impeachment counts
Ken Paxton has been reinstated as Texas Attorney General after the Texas Senate on Saturday acquitted him of charges of bribery and misuse of office. Only two Republican senators joined the 12 Democrats in voting to convict him of some of the 16 charges heard by the Senate, with four other charges dismissed by the Senate, The Dallas Morning News reported.
“Today, the truth prevailed,” Paxton said in a statement issued immediately after the verdict. “The truth could not be buried by mudslinging politicians or their powerful benefactors.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presided over the impeachment trial, scolded the House for voting overwhelmingly for impeachment of the embattled attorney general in late May. House Speaker Dade Phelan responded that Patrick was “confessing his bias.”
“The inescapable conclusion is that today’s outcome appears to have been orchestrated from the start, cheating the people of Texas of justice,” Phelan said.
Paxton is not out of legal hot water yet. He faces a trial in March on an eight-year-old indictment for securities fraud. He is also the focus of a federal probe into his relationship with developer Nate Paul that led to some of the impeachment charges.
Out-of-state firefighters head to Texas
As drought and high temperatures continue to contribute to wildfires in Texas, more than 1,400 firefighters from 38 states and territories have arrived this year to help with response, the Texas Tribune reported. The number of wildfires that the Texas A&M Forest Service responded to in July and August skyrocketed to 163 in July and 501 in August, far above the average since 2005 of 103 in July and 151 in August.
“Drought development and the number of consecutive 100-plus degree days has contributed to critically dry vegetation across much of the state, which is supportive of wildfire activity,” said Erin O’Connor, program specialist for the Texas A&M Forest Service. “With current conditions, we have wildfires that are more complex and show extreme fire behavior, hold heat longer and require more time and effort to suppress.”
As of Sunday, the service reported six active wildfires, most of which are nearly contained. Recent rainfall has lowered the state fire level from 4 to 3.
There are currently 215 counties with burn bans in place. Luckily, widespread rainfall in the Hill Country, North and East Texas and much of the Rolling Plains is reducing the risk.
TEA delays release of 2023 accountability ratings
The Texas Education Agency is delaying the release of A-F district and campus accountability ratings for about one month. The ratings were to be released on Sept. 28. The postponement allows for re-examination of “the baseline data used in the calculation of progress to ensure ratings reflect the most appropriate goals for students,” the news release said.
The delay is a result of further study being made into the impact of the pandemic on student progress.
“Maintaining high expectations helps guide our efforts to improve student learning and support,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “The A-F system is designed to properly reflect how well our schools are meeting those high expectations, and the adjustments we are making this year will ensure it continues to serve as a tool for parents and educators to help our students.”
New COVID-19 boosters now available
A new vaccine booster for COVID-19 is now largely available, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending all people over the age of six months get the new shots as the number of new COVID cases and hospitalizations increase across the state, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
“There’s a lot of thought that COVID is over, but…we’ve seen over the last few weeks an increase in cases, hospitalizations and death,” said Dr. Brian Metzger, medical director of infectious diseases at St. David’s HealthCare in Austin. “While it’s not nearly what we were seeing, … there’s still a significant burden of illness. We can’t ignore it.”
The CDC noted the immunity garnered from the original vaccination, like other seasonal illnesses such as the flu, wanes over time. After a year, the antibodies produced by the vaccine “have waned enough that you really aren’t protected to where you were before,” Metzger told the Statesman.
August was fourth hottest and driest on record
This comes as no surprise to those of us living through it, but August in Texas was the hottest and driest in Texas since records began being kept in 1895, according to Andrew Weinberg, geoscientist with the Texas Water Development Board.
At the end of the month 76% of the state was in drought, up 27 percentage points from the end of July. Storage in the state’s water supply reservoirs is about 69% of capacity, more than 13 percentage points below normal for this time of year.
The hopeful news is that El Niño weather conditions should bring cooler and wetter weather to the state this fall and winter. That should ease drought conditions across the state before the end of the year.
Lost Maples ranked as having best fall foliage
The leaves will begin to change in coming weeks, and the Statesman reports a Central Texas natural area has been ranked as having the best fall foliage in the country. Lost Maples Natural Area in Vanderpool, about two hours northwest of San Antonio, garnered the top spot from New York Travel Guides, a digital travel publication.
Lost Maples boasts 2,000 acres filled with bigtooth maple trees, which display brilliant colors most autumns. It also features 10 miles of hiking and 30 campsites with water and electricity. Park officials recommend visitors reserve passes online to guarantee entry.
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, Lufkin and Cedar Park. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.