The Back MicThe Back Mic: Final Budget Lacks Federal Funding Amendment, Former Senator Steps Down as Dean, Democrats Push Back Over Unemployment Benefits

This week — the state budget is finalized, a former state senator opts to leave a University of Houston position, and a House Democrat weighs in on Abbott's unemployment benefit decision.
May 21, 2021
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Special Session Requirement for Federal Funding Stripped from Budget

The 2022-2023 budget has been finalized by the legislature’s conference committee, though language adopted by the House was left out that prohibited the disbursement of any federal COVID-19 funding until the legislature could act in either a regular or special session.

Texas is expected to receive nearly $30 billion in aid to the state and local governments and for infrastructure. The product of a late-evening push by Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) on budget night that withstood a lengthy point of order challenge, the legislature initially appeared to have secured a say on the use of that expected funding.

But the conference committee — a body in which five members of each chamber hash out the differences between their respective versions of legislation — nixed the amending language. That means the governor would be responsible for disbursing the federal aid dollars to their specified recipients.

On Thursday night, however, Governor Greg Abbott announced the appropriation of these funds would be taken up by the legislature during the fall special session already planned for redistricting.

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Kirk Watson Dismisses Talk of Campaign Run After Retirement Announcement

Former state Senator Kirk Watson (D-Austin) announced his intention to step down as the dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs at the end of May.

“Serving as the founding dean of the [University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs] has been a tremendous honor,” Watson said. “Despite the incredible challenges of launching so many efforts during COVID, we enjoyed tremendous progress and success. I’m extremely proud.”

In February last year, Watson announced the resignation from his state Senate seat to take the position.

His decision to leave the University of Houston stemmed from the year of remote work affecting his enthusiasm for the position, according to the Texas Tribune.

This instantly launched speculation that Watson was angling to run for public office again. With the 2022 statewide elections only 18 months away, Texas Democrats are already positioning candidates behind the scenes to challenge the slate of Republican incumbents.

Watson’s last statewide run occurred in the 2002 race for attorney general against then-Supreme Court Justice Greg Abbott. In that race, he raised $5 million but lost handily. Democrats see vulnerability in current Attorney General Ken Paxton after the criminal allegations levied at him last year by former top aides and the increasing likelihood of a serious primary challenge from Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Lambasts Governor Over Unemployment Benefits

Earlier this week, Governor Greg Abbott announced the discontinuation of the extra $300 per week federal unemployment benefits, citing an excess of jobs available to those unemployed. House Democratic Caucus chair, Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), took umbrage with the move, saying in a letter to the governor, “Your abrupt and unilateral decision to cancel more than 1 million Texans’ pandemic unemployment benefits is deeply concerning.”

Those unemployed will still receive the typical $600 per week amount provided by the state.

“I recognize that several other states have made similar moves in recent weeks, which likely prompted your announcement,” he continued, “[but], in several of those states, unemployment rates have returned to pre-pandemic levels.”

For a few months now, Texas’ unemployment rate has floated around 7 percent — substantially lower than a year ago, but over double its record low toward the end of 2019.

The discontinuation is set to take effect on June 26, but Turner asked Abbott to postpone that until the end of July. He also requested that Abbott use some of the incoming federal coronavirus dollars to help those unemployed return to the workforce.

“As you navigate next steps and how to best help our state’s unemployed residents return to the workforce,” he concluded, “I encourage you to engage members of the legislature [and other state officials] to fashion … an approach that provides needed support to unemployed Texans, helps businesses[,] and grows our economy now and in the long-term.”

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.