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Capital Highlights

Ice storm wreaks havoc in much of state


Residents in Central and Northeast Texas are still cleaning up after a winter storm last week snapped power lines and tree limbs, causing widespread power outages, canceled flights, and damage to homes and vehicles.

At its peak, nearly 400,000 Texas households were without power, according to poweroutage.us. As of Sunday, that number had dropped to 62,456.

The outages were due to downed power lines, not by problems with the state’s power grid. The Texas Railroad Commission said the state’s natural gas supply also held steady, with natural gas utilities reporting no service issues during the storm.

Airports in the state’s metropolitan areas reported several hundred flight cancellations because of icy conditions. Many schools in the Dallas area and around Austin were closed for the entire week.

The Texas Department of Insurance offered some advice to homeowners dealing with damage caused by fallen tree branches landing on vehicles and homes. That includes taking photos of the damage before moving the tree; making temporary repairs, and contacting your insurance agent as soon as possible; and saving all receipts for labor and repair materials to be reimbursed. 

While the danger from last week’s storm has largely passed, the Texas Department of State Health Services provided advice for future winter events, urging people to use extreme caution with electric generators and heaters that produce carbon monoxide.

Generators should only be used outdoors, at least 10 feet away from buildings. Outdoor grills, camp stoves, and other heaters that produced carbon monoxide should only be used outside. Carbon monoxide is an odorless and colorless gas that can cause death.


Fentanyl test strips backed by lawmakers

Test strips that would determine whether pills, powders, or other forms of drugs are laced with deadly fentanyl might be legalized, if a bipartisan group of lawmakers have their way. 

The percentage of overdose deaths tied to fentanyl has risen to 97%, according to a report in the Austin American-Statesman. Gov. Gregg Abbott has ended his opposition to legalizing the strips, and several nearly identical bills have been filed in both the House and Senate as a result. 

“They deserve action, action that will save other innocent families from the devastation they have suffered,” Abbott said in January. “And they will get that action this session.”

Legislators are also considering measures to increase the penalty for manufacturing or delivering fentanyl even in small amounts to a third-degree felony. Right now, it is a state jail felony.

Meanwhile, the state comptroller’s office is being pushed to speed up distribution of more than $1 billion in funds from the Opioid Abatement Settlement Fund, intended to mitigate the fentanyl crisis. The money comes from settlements with opioid manufacturers and distributors.

“We’ve somewhat sacrificed expediency in getting dollars out the door,” Hegar said. “We have to create a system that treats everybody fairly and everybody understands the process.”

DSHS data indicates 1,569 Texans died of a fentanyl-related overdose last year, according to the Statesman report.


State parks continue centennial celebration

Texas state parks turn 100 years old in 2023 and are celebrating with a host of events. This month includes several celebrations in North Texas, East Texas, Huntsville, and San Antonio, including a variety of events marking Black History Month.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation is partnering with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and H-E-B for the celebrations, with the grocery chain donating $1 million to help the parks system engage Texans to discover and enjoy their state parks. 

For more information on the celebration, including community events, the history of Texas State Parks and how to make a day visit or overnight reservation, visit the Texas State Parks 100 Years website at TexasStateParks.org/100years.


Housing cost burden examined

The Texas Demographic Center has used census data to examine housing cost burdens in the state. That is when a household spends more than 30% of its monthly income on housing costs, including rent or mortgage payments, utilities, and other costs.

The center concludes that counties with the highest percent of households dealing with housing cost burdens are in the so-called Texas Triangle along the Austin-San Antonio corridor, as well as some border counties. 

The study found that nearly half of Texas renters – 1.7 million — spent more than 30% of their income on housing costs from 2017-2021, with a median monthly housing cost of $1,146. Among homeowners, 21% experienced housing costs burden during the same period, with median monthly housing costs of $1,747.

Texas ranked 10th in median gross rent from 2017-2021. Hawaii was the most expensive state, followed by California.


Texas company hopes to bring back dodo bird

A Texas company is hoping to bring back the long-extinct dodo bird, along with the wooly mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, according to a Statesman story.

Colossal Biosciences, with offices in Austin, Dallas, and Boston, is using gene-editing technologies to restore extinct animals. 

The dodo bird, closely related to the pigeon, went extinct in 1662 in its native Mauritius, an island nation located in the Indian Ocean. It was wiped out due to human settlement and ecosystem competition.

The company was founded in 2021 to work in the field of de-extinction and combatting climate change. It recently announced an additional $150 million in new funding.

“Being able to recreate something that is functionally similar to an extinct species that's as prevalent in people's minds as the dodo is hopefully going to create a little bit of enthusiasm for thinking about consequences of human cost extinctions,” Beth Shapiro, a paleogeneticist with the company, said.


New COVID-19 cases, deaths rise

The number of new cases of COVID-19 in Texas during the past week rose to 38,947, more than 15,000 from the previous week, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

The center reported 400 deaths in the state, also a marked increase. Officials reported  2,142 lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations, down a few hundred 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: gborders@texaspress.com.


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