State Capital Highlights

Drought, wildfire impact persists as big issues



Even with better-than-normal rainfall in many locales in the last quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012, lake and reservoir levels remain low and widespread concern about drought and wildfire remains high.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples on March 21 announced agricultural losses attributed to the 2011 drought had reached $7.62 billion. Texas AgriLife Extension Service economists said last year’s drought was the costliest on record for the state.

At a March 22 interim meeting of the House Natural Resources Committee, Drew DeBerry of the state agriculture department said the $7.62 billion figure does not include some $3.4 billion in timber losses, and that wildfires burned off the vegetation on more than 4 million acres of land.

With the threat of high winds and drought continuing, Gov. Rick Perry last week extended two disaster proclamations, one for drought affecting the state’s 254 counties and one for wildfire affecting 86 West Texas counties. Perry originally issued the drought emergency disaster proclamation on July 5, 2011, and the wildfire emergency disaster proclamation on Dec. 21, 2010.

There’s a State Drought Preparedness Plan for emergency responses to severe drought, but future, large-scale needs are addressed in the Texas Water Development Board’s 2012 state water plan. Graphs in the plan show the state’s population nearly doubling in the next 50 years and the water supply correspondingly decreasing. Recommendations six years in the making — the input of more than 400 people and 16 regional water development boards — are in place for new water conservation and management measures needed to deal with persistent drought conditions.

Included in the water plan is a Jan. 5 “letter to the people of

Texas” by Water Development

Board Chairman Edward G. Vaughan. “As the state continues to experience rapid growth and declining water supplies,” Vaughan wrote, “implementation of the plan is crucial to ensure public health, safety, and welfare and economic development in the state.”

Supreme Court to hear case

Monday through Wednesday of this week (March 26-28) the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Florida v. United States Department of Health and Human Services. The court is expected to render a ruling on the case in late June.

Texas is one of 25 states joining Florida in the case petitioning the high court to declare unconstitutional the national health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act < Protection_ and_ Affordable_ Care_ Act> of 2010. The states’ main objection stems from a mandate in the law that beginning in 2014 will require an individual to purchase health care coverage if their employer does not offer it.

Gov. Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and other prominent Republicans have expressed opposition to the law, asserting that it violates states’ rights and individual rights.

March 23 was the second anniversary of President Obama’s signing the act into law. The Austin-based, non-partisan Center for Public Policy Priorities published a paper on March 23 to point out a few things the law is already doing, such as:

– 7.5 million Texans no longer have a lifetime limit on their health insurance.

– More than 300,000 Texans under age 26 are allowed to stay on their parents’ policy.

– 3.8 million Texans with private insurance can get preventative care with no co-pay or deductible.

Texans asked to visit parks

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department last week reported a $4.6 million budget gap brought on by devastating wildfires, record drought and a corresponding decrease the number of state park visitors.

Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, launched an appeal on March 22, asking more Texans to visit the parks and help erase the budget deficit.

Texans are pitching in already. The agency reported it had received $1.4 million since early December through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation and contributions from a new program allowing Texans to donate to state parks when registering motor vehicles.

Nuclear waste disposal OK’d

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission on March 23 voted unanimously to approve rules allowing low-level radioactive waste from 38 states to be shipped to Texas and stored at an underground site in Andrews County.

Final approval must be granted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for shipments to begin.

ED STERLING the Director of Member Services at Texas Press Association.

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