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Coronavirus
Ashby, Nichols lead push for rural broadband expansion

Two East Texas legislators are leading the bipartisan group putting pressure on Gov. Greg Abbott to develop a plan to expand high-speed internet access across the state as the coronavirus pandemic has “exacerbated existing disparities.”

Rep. Trent Ashby of Lufkin and Sen. Robert Nichols of Jacksonville are the primary signers and authors of a letter sent to Abbott’s office Friday.

“Texas is well overdue for a state broadband plan, and we believe the state needs to begin the process of creating one immediately,” the lawmakers wrote.

Ashby and Nichols are rural Republicans, but a wide spectrum of legislators — 88 in total — signed the letter that says broadband internet expansion can’t wait until the 2021 session of the Texas Legislature.

“It’s more than bipartisan. I think there’s absolutely universal support of this expansion,” said Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who also signed on to the letter. “It is important that we continually highlight this and make sure it is at the top of the priority list, especially as we’re going into the next legislative session.”

Access to broadband internet has been a major issue across East Texas since long before the coronavirus pandemic, but the pandemic has amplified the divide between connectivity in rural and urban areas. Nichols and Clardy have spoken several times about internet connectivity during calls with the Nacogdoches County Chamber of Commerce.

“Broadband accessibility is one of the biggest obstacles East Texans face and have faced for years,” Nichols said. “Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even more essential that the state takes proactive steps toward developing this critical infrastructure.”

A representative for Ashby on Monday said that constituents of House District 57 have called his office about lack of broadband access more than any other issue during the pandemic.

“Texas’ lack of a statewide broadband plan leaves rural communities at a disadvantage,” Ashby said. “Many rural Texans do not have adequate broadband infrastructure, limiting their access to telework and other essential services, such as remote learning and telemedicine. At a time when remote work and learning are becoming more prevalent due to the coronavirus pandemic, high-speed internet access has never been more important.”

Abbott shuttered all schools in the state for the 2019-20 academic year in April, forcing districts to rely on virtual instruction and distance learning.

“We’re going to see more remote learning, not less,” Clardy said. “We’re going to see this as a critical part of how we do public education and also how we expand higher education. Everybody needs equal access to information. This is one of those things where everybody thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

Office workers around the state were encouraged or required to work remotely during the early days of the pandemic, and health care providers turned to telemedicine in many instances.

People who are less likely to have internet connectivity are poor, elderly, rural, speak English as a second language or have less education — and that hasn’t changed since the 1990s, said Larry Irving, the former U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for communications and information and former administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Irving spoke about the digital divide during a panel at this month’s Texas Tribune Festival.

“What’s gone from an inconvenience maybe and a problem has gone to, your life has changed dramatically if you’re not connected,” Irving said. “And we still have over 5 million households [nationwide] that aren’t connected because they’re rural and over 20 million households that aren’t connected because they simply can’t afford a connection.”

He said not being connected to the internet reduces people’s chances of social distancing, having good health, educating their children, finding a job and running a business. People, including the elderly, may have to go out to see a doctor or shop because they don’t have access to telemedicine.

About 25% of people over 65 years old don’t have access to broadband internet, Irving said.

“Who are the people in America who are most susceptible to this pandemic? Who are the people in America who we want to keep socially distant? They’re all senior citizens,” he said.

In 2019, the Legislature created the Governor’s Broadband Development Council to research barriers to broadband and study possible solutions. Abbott has also partnered with the Texas Education Agency to form Operation Connectivity, which has helped to provide mobile hotspots and e-learning devices for students and families transitioning to remote learning. The lawmakers praised those efforts, but stressed “we fear that rural communities are continuing to be left behind.”

“For example, Operation Connectivity’s plan primarily benefited those households with broadband infrastructure and/or cellular availability,” the letter said. “Many rural students live in areas where neither broadband nor cellular service is available. Students, families, and schools in rural communities without this critical infrastructure were left to address the situation on their own. It is also our understanding that the Governor’s Broadband Development Council is not charged with developing a state broadband plan, which is an important first step to closing the digital divide in Texas.”

To establish broadband across the state, the lawmakers want the governor to establish a timeline with clear goals to measure progress. They are asking the governor to create regional plans that “incorporate unique challenges across the state” that also “support existing planning entities.” They also want state plans to encourage collaborations across government entities, evaluate existing assets and institutions to support the deployment of broadband, and assess future needs for access across the state.

The lawmakers said 44 other states and Puerto Rico have enacted plans to develop broadband infrastructure. They said the development could be supported by funding from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and while the federal guidance for the use of the funds is unclear, other states have used them to plan for broadband.

“Texas should consider leveraging this or other funding to jump start the planning process,” the letter said.

The letter builds on steps Nichols took last session when his Senate Bill 14 became law. The bill allows electric co-ops to use existing easement to deploy broadband internet.

“The idea with SB 14 was to lower barriers to providing broadband in rural areas where cooperatives already have easements for electric service and where they can already place the necessary fiber,” Nichols said. “I believe it’s time for the Legislature to take action to bridge the gap and figure out a way deliver on the broadband access that all Texans deserve.”

The governor’s office didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the letter.

The Texas Tribune contributed to this story.


Coronavirus
featured
Chamber hopeful next aid package will succeed

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is hopeful that a deeply divided Congress will compromise and deliver another round of coronavirus relief before the end of the month, a regional director for the national business group said Tuesday.

“We’re hoping that now that the House is there we’ll be able to find a path forward but time is running out,” said John Gonzales, director of the Southwest-South Central Regional Office for the U.S. Chamber.

Members of the House returned to the nation’s capital Monday, four days after Democrats scuttled a GOP-driven recovery bill in the Senate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday the House will remain in session until lawmakers deliver another round of COVID-19 relief. Her remarks came around the same time Gonzales was addressing the local Chamber of Commerce.

“We are committed to staying here until we have an agreement, an agreement that meets the needs of the American people,” Pelosi said on CNBC.

The federal government’s fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

“We need your help getting them across the finish line. Continue to reach out to your members of Congress and your senators and let them know we need additional assistance,” Gonzales said.

Agreement that relief is needed has won bipartisan support in Washington, but the sticking point has been how much cash to pour into recovery. Republicans in the Senate offered a $650 billion measure last week, but the 52-47 vote fell well short of what was needed to overcome a filibuster. Democrats have refused to accept any proposal less than $2.2 trillion.

Pelosi’s comments came as moderate Democrats, many from areas won by President Donald Trump four years ago, signed on to a $1.5 trillion rescue package endorsed by the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of about 50 lawmakers who seek common solutions to issues.

The plan contains many elements of COVID rescue packages devised by both House Democrats and Republicans controlling the Senate, including aid to schools, funding for state and local governments, and renewal of lapsed COVID-related jobless benefits.

“We all need more relief. I think we all need more targeted relief at a minimum,” Gonzales said.

Congress has been deadlocked on what to do about another round of coronavirus aid since historically massive relief packages passed earlier this year. That inaction, Gonzales said, is having negative effects on businesses. Around 4 million small businesses have already exhausted funding received through the Paycheck Protection Plan, meant to keep workers on payroll while businesses were shuttered or at reduced staff. The restaurant industry is on pace to lose more than $240 billion by the end of the year without additional relief, Gonzales said.

“The longer Congress is paralyzed by inaction the more storefronts on Main Street will close,” Gonzales said. “That’s what we’re calling the cost of inaction.”

Talks between Pelosi and the Trump administration broke down last month and there had been little optimism they would rekindle before Election Day. And last week, Senate Democrats scuttled a scaled-back GOP coronavirus rescue package.

Pelosi has maintained a hard line in negotiations and has been at odds with White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. She orchestrated passage of a $3.4 trillion COVID rescue package back in May, but the effort was immediately dismissed by Senate Republicans and the Trump administration.

Tuesday’s remarks, said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill, don’t mean that the speaker is adopting a more flexible position. She instead seems to be signaling continued determination to press ahead and won’t adjourn the House without an agreement with the administration.

Success is by no means guaranteed and many people on Capitol Hill remain very skeptical that an agreement between the White House and Democrats is likely before the election. Sen. Ted Cruz and others have predicted that no “meaningful” legislation will pass before Election Day.

“My sense is the clock is running out,” said Senate GOP Whip John Thune of South Dakota. “I don’t see any intention or desire on the part of the Democrat leadership at the moment — regardless of what their members are saying — to cooperate and to work together on a solution. I think they feel like they’ve got the issue and they want to try and ride it in November.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.


Local
Council says no to tax increase

Shortly before choosing the lower of two property tax options Tuesday night, Nacogdoches City Council heard from one resident who spoke in favor of a higher rate.

“I came in here thinking this would be packed with people opposed to a property tax increase,” resident Sammie Smith said to the mostly empty room at the C.L. Simon Recreation Center. “I’m here to speak for the tax increase. The only complaint I have about it is I don’t think it’s enough.”

Smith, a Certified Public Accountant, has chided city leaders for the past three years regarding what he refers to as an “regressive, hidden tax” in the form of higher utility rates used to disproportionately prop up the city’s general operating fund, when it should be supported through property taxes, a method through which owners of more expensive properties pay more.

“I urge the council to stop increasing proprietary fund revenue to fund the general operation of the city,” he said. “You’re putting a significant funding effort on the backs of people who can least afford to to appease property owners who have valuable real estate.”

City Manager Mario Canizares, who arrived last month in the middle of budget season, had heard comments that the utility transfers were too high. Most cities transfer funds from utility revenue, since their resources and staff are used to provide them, but the question lies in where utility revenue ends and where support through property taxes begins.

“It doesn’t hurt every so often to have a thorough review with an outside firm,” Canizares told the council. “You don’t want a utility fund to have its own set of staff because that’s inefficient.”

Smith was the lone speaker in two public hearings on the budget and tax rate for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to set the tax rate at 61.6 cents per $100 of taxable value — a fraction of a penny above the prior year’s rate and equal to the no-new-revenue rate.

Concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on revenues, city staff originally proposed funding a trimmed down general revenue fund with a higher rate of 63 cents per $100 of value. At a public hearing last week, Canizares gave the council the option of going with the lower rate.

The city did receive three letters and an email opposing the higher rate.


Coronavirus
Pandemic lingers as summer turns to fall

As school buses roll mid-way through September, pandemic-weary East Texans said goodbye to what will be known as the COVID-19 Summer, but unfortunately, not to COVID-19.

“Getting back to normal and having events is something I know everyone is craving, and we have different holidays coming up,” says Amy Mehaffey, a city employee who is also serving as the spokeswoman for the County Emergency Management Office.

But it’s not that simple. The same governor’s order that requires masks in public spaces also requires the mayor’s approval for events planned within the city.

“We are filtering requests for events, and those goes to several city officials who vet a safety plan,” Mehaffey said. “The hope is we can ease back in to doing events — but not forget (the pandemic) is a real thing and it hasn’t gone away.”

A grim reminder of this came last weekend, when four more COVID-19 fatalities were added to Nacogdoches County’s death toll, now at 58, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Thirteen more cases were confirmed by the state on Tuesday. Active cases are estimated at 107, with 20 of those being treated at local hospitals, according to the SouthEast Texas Regional Advisory Council.

Active cases have dropped since early August, when they peaked at more than 400.

An estimated 3,400 Nacogdoches ISD students, just over half the district’s enrollment, have returned to face-to-face classes, though many are alternating days on campus to limit occupancy. NISD this week added a COVID-19 reporting link to its webpage, detailing the most recent reports of positive cases among students and staff.

Three positive cases reported on the site Tuesday included a Nacogdoches High student who was last on the campus Sept. 8, a Brooks-Quinn-Jones student last on campus Sept. 9 and a teacher who was last on the campus on Friday. This information can be found under the link titled “COVID-19 information” on the website, NacISD.org.

Similarly, SFA reports positive cases under the green “Open SFA” tab located at the university’s website, sfasu.edu. As of Tuesday, the site listed 48 active cases among students and staff, with 33 of those believed to have been present on campus while contagious. The university also has set aside 200 spaces for on-campus students who need to be isolated; nine of those are currently in use.

The local COVID-19 Call Center remains open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 468-4787.