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Agencies blasted over wildfire oversight


State agencies and regulators were heavily criticized at a Texas legislative hearing for failing to communicate during the deadly Panhandle wildfires, the Texas Tribune reported.

The three-day hearing, held in Pampa, investigated the Smokehouse Creek fire and others that burned more than a million acres, destroyed hundreds of homes, killed up to 10,000 cattle and resulted in two deaths.

State Rep. Ben King, R-Canadian, chaired the committee and said the hearing was difficult but necessary.

“You may not like the line of questions or the tone of questions, but we are here for answers,” King told representatives of the state’s regulatory agencies last week. “It’s not a personal attack on you or your agencies, but it’s time for answers.”

Xcel Energy has acknowledged that a fallen power line ignited the Smokehouse Creek fire. The company hired by Xcel to perform safety inspections – Osmose Utilities Services – declined to participate in last week’s hearings.

Mike Hoke, with the Public Utilities Commission, said the agency doesn’t conduct inspections. Instead, it relies on the utility companies to hire its own inspectors. He said utility companies can hire whoever they wish to inspect utility poles with any oversight from the PUC.

The legislative committee is expected to publish its results and recommendations for any legislative changes by May 1.


First human case of bird flu in Texas detected

The first human case of avian influenza in Texas was reported last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. It came after contact with infected dairy cattle and is only the second case of a human being infected with bird flu in the United States.

“The risk to the general public is believed to be low; however, people with close contact with  affected animals suspected of having avian influenza A(H5N1) have a higher risk of infection,” the alert from DSHS said.

Symptoms can include a fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, fatigue, eye redness, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, or seizures. The alert urged health care providers who see someone who may have the virus to immediately contact their local health department.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the commercial milk supply is considered safe and that milk from infected cattle is being dumped.


State’s lawyer says immigration law maybe ‘went too far’

An attorney defending a new state law allowing law enforcement officials to arrest people who cross the border illegally told a panel of federal judges the law possibly “went too far,” The Dallas Morning News reported. The 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals previously halted enforcement of the law and is now hearing arguments over its legality.

“What Texas has done here is they have looked at the Supreme Court’s precedent and they have tried to develop a statute that goes up to the line of Supreme Court precedent but no further,” Texas Solicitor General Aaron Nielson said. “Now to be fair, maybe Texas went too far, and that is the question this court is going to have to decide.”

The U.S. Justice Department is arguing that Texas is trying to usurp the federal government’s authority to enforce immigration laws, while the state says it wants to work with the federal government.


State economy again expands faster than nation

The state’s economy continues to grow faster than the nation as a whole. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis indicates gross domestic product for Texas grew in 2023 at an annual rate of 5.7%, more than double the national average of 2.5%. The state also continues to lead the nation in job creation, adding almost 50,000 new jobs in February.

“Texas is again outpacing the nation in economic expansion and job growth thanks to the best business climate and the strongest workforce in America,” Gov. Greg Abbott said.

While Texas outpaced the national average for GDP growth, a few states posted higher percentage increases – Nevada, Utah and Idaho.


Distracted driving is deadly driving, TxDOT reminds

Driving the vast highways of Texas can become a bit tiresome, often with hundreds of miles before reaching one’s destination. But the Texas Department of Transportation is urging drivers to resist the urge to check that ping of the phone to read a text message or watch the latest social media video a friend sent.

TxDOT reported nearly 400 people died on Texas roadways last year because of distracted driving, and nearly 2,800 suffered serious injuries.

“Any loss of life is tragic, but imagine killing or seriously injuring someone else because you thought you could text and drive at the same time,” said TxDOT Executive Director Marc Williams. “When you’re behind the wheel, you need to be focused on only one thing: driving. Looking at your phone, eating or adjusting your music can wait until you’re safely parked.

Texting while driving is not only dangerous; it’s a crime to be caught reading, writing, or sending a text while driving, and can cost a driver a $200 fine. Many cities also outlaw the use of a handheld device while driving.


Internet subsidy fund is going broke

A federal subsidy that provided $30 monthly for internet service is about to run out of money, the Tribune reported. The subsidy was part of the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and helped 1.7 million Texas households save money on their internet bills. South Texas households had a higher-than-average rate of participation.

The subsidy funding is scheduled to run out in May. Congress has failed to act despite calls for the program to receive additional funding.

Some broadband advocates worry terminating the program could jeopardize future broadband investments.

“If we build the infrastructure but then all these people lose internet access, we are going to be taking one step forward and two steps back,” Kelty Garbee, executive director of Texas Rural Funders, a nonprofit focused on rural philanthropy, told the Tribune. “It is important to take a long view.”

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: gborders@texaspress.com.


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