State Capital Highlights

Panama Canal expansion: What will Texas do?



Plans are in the works for a Texas role related to the Panama Canal expansion project slated for completion in 2014.

Last week, the Texas Department of Transportation announced the formation of a “Panama Canal Stakeholder Working Group” whose members will give input on road, bridge and port construction here in Texas because of a projected increase in land and sea traffic enabled by the canal project.

“Preparing the state’s infrastructure for such an expansion, in terms of sea and land-based infrastructure, is crucial to accommodating this increased freight traffic,” said state Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

TxDOT said port, agriculture, trucking, manufacturing, government, oil and gas, and rail industries have been invited join the working group, and recommendations from it are due by year’s end. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a former state representative and former member of the Interstate Commerce Commission, will serve as chair, and plans are for the working group to meet monthly for the next six months.

Work is under way in the Panama Canal to open a new access lanes, build a third set of locks and deepen navigational channels, with more than $5 billion in funding coming from the U.S., Canada, United Kingdom, Japan, China, South Korea, most European countries and Israel.

Having reached its maximum sustainable capacity of ship traffic several years ago, the canal, which opened 100 years ago, was in need of the upgrades.

May 29: Big day for voters

Secretary of State Hope Andrade, Texas’ chief elections officer, on May 21 put in a reminder to voters that May 25 was the last day to cast a ballot early in the May 29, 2012, Primary Elections.

Preliminary results of the primaries should be available on May 30.

Voter turnout for presidential primaries in Texas, like this one, has long trended higher than for gubernatorial primaries and runoffs, but still is quite low.

Recent history shows that in the March 2008 Primary Elections, 10.68 percent of all registered voters voted in the Republican primary and 22.54 percent voted in the Democratic primary. In March 2004, 5.60 percent of registered voters voted in the Republican primary and 6.84 voted in the Democratic primary. And in March 2000, 9.70 percent voted in the Republican primary and 6.78 voted in the Democratic primary.

DPS says drive responsibly

The Texas Department of Public Safety on May 22 announced plans to increase surveillance over Memorial Day weekend “in an effort to keep drivers from endangering themselves and others.”

There was quite a bit to look out for last year during the Memorial Day weekend. State troopers arrested 518 drunken drivers and issued more than 6,000 speeding citations, more than 1,500 seat belt and child safety restraint tickets, and cited 842 drivers for driving without insurance, the DPS reported. Also, 280 wanted fugitives and 215 suspects with felony warrants were apprehended, 20 drug cases were opened and 11 stolen vehicles were recovered during the holiday.

Food, feeding are big issues

The House committees on Public Health and Human Services, whose responsibilities often intersect, met in a joint interim hearing on May 22.

Invited testimony was given by state agencies, charitable organizations and farmers in effort to identify policies to alleviate food insecurity, increase access to healthy foods, and encourage better nutrition within existing food assistance programs.

Topics ranged from how to eliminate “food deserts” and grocery gaps, encourage urban agriculture and farmers’ markets, increase participation in the Summer Food Program, to incorporating standards in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Celia Cole, director of the Texas Food Bank Network, discussed progress in feeding more Texans. She mentioned that not being able to afford a healthy diet remains a problem for many and “economic impacts of inadequate nutrition affect all of us.”

Cole testified to the beneficial work of public and private partnerships, such as Texans Feeding Texans, a program linking the Texas Department of Agriculture with growers and food banks.

Drought emergency continues

Gov. Rick Perry on May 21 renewed his emergency disaster proclamation that exceptional drought conditions pose a threat to some 170 of Texas’ 254 counties. The proclamation, which started in July 2011, states that conditions “continue to pose an imminent threat to public health, property and the economy.” Disaster proclamations are effective for 30 days and renewable as needed.

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

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