Legislative Interim Updates, July 28
- Federal Stimulus Package Continues to be Negotiated
- Pfizer Secures Federal COVID-19 Vaccine Contract for 100 Million Doses
- States Getting Pressure from Feds to Reopen Schools
- Texas Comptroller Projecting $4.6 Billion Shortfall for FY 2021
- U.S. Census Bureau Survey Data Highlights COVID-19’s Disparate Impacts on Texan
- State’s HHSC SNAP Incentive Study Group Begins Work on Pilot
- Senator Judith Zaffirini Hosts “Distanced but not Isolated: Maintaining Mental Health During the COVID - 19 Pandemic.”
In the news
Complete the 2020 Census
Provisions for the next round of federal stimulus spending continue to be negotiated in the Senate in what Senate Leader Mitch McConnell is calling CARES 2. As the additional $600 unemployment benefit period draws to a close this week for nearly 3 million Texans, negotiations between Democratic and Republican Party leaders as to the cost and scope of the next stimulus package are projected to be around $1 trillion. The Trump administration has supported the implementation of a payroll tax cut and a second stimulus check, but senate republicans worry that doing both may be too costly.
After the first week of negotiations, an agreement was reached to establish financial assistance to schools, funding toward testing and tracing, and favoring a second round of stimulus checks over a payroll tax cut. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin confirmed the stimulus check in CARES 2 will match the stimulus check in the first Cares Act, a $1,200 one-time payment to all Americans who earn less than $75,000, including $500 for each dependent. Republican lawmakers are also set to propose a flat unemployment benefit of $100-$200 per week with benefits lasting through the end of the year. As the moratorium on evictions set by the Cares Act expired July 24, Republicans are set to repeat this figure, or even extend it.
On Wednesday, July 23, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Department of Defense announced a $1.95 billion contract with Pfizer to develop 100 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. This contract also gives the federal government the ability to acquire an additional 500 million doses as part of the “Operation Warp Speed” initiative launched by the Trump administration in May.
If the vaccine is successful and receives EUA or licensure, the HHS would begin nationwide delivery in the final quarter of 2020. More importantly, the Pfizer vaccine would be available to all Americans at no cost. To date, the federal agency has announced up to $1.2 billion in support of AstraZeneca’s candidate vaccine, with the first doses scheduled to be delivered as early as October 2020. An additional investment of $483 million has been made in support of Moderna’s candidate vaccine scheduled Phase 1 trials in March. Finally, the HHS has also reached an agreement totaling $456 million with Johnson & Johnson for its candidate vaccine that is scheduled to begin Phase 1 clinical trials sometime this summer.
Currently, Pfizer still needs to complete a large Phase 3 clinical trial to show the efficacy of the vaccine. The $1.95 billion investment in Pfizer is the latest news on the ongoing efforts to quickly and safely release a COVID-19 vaccine.
As the new school year approaches, state lawmakers are facing a difficult decision between reopening school facilities and risking exposure to students, faculty and staff, or keeping doors closed to millions of children.
Pressures from the federal government are pushing states toward full reopening, but as many as 39 states are still recording growing COVID-19 caseloads. This growth has prompted many school districts to announce that they would rely mostly, if not exclusively, on online learning platforms. The standard of 5% daily infection rate set by the CDC to effectively control the spread of COVID-19 has become the accepted metric for school districts to safely return to normal operation.
Here in Texas, school systems will be able to temporarily limit access to on-campus instruction for the first four weeks of school. After the first four weeks, a school system can continue to limit access to on-campus instruction for an additional four weeks, if needed. To ensure that all Texas students have access to their virtual classroom, Governor Abbott, Lt. Governor Patrick, Speaker Bonnen, Senate Finance and House Appropriations Committee Chairs announced that the State of Texas will allocate $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the purchase of eLearning devices and home internet solutions to enable remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic for Texas students that lack connectivity.
While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with the goal of having students physically present in school,” the association has also stated that “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 should not be compelled to reopen against the judgement of local experts.” In the meantime, the CDC has released guidelines for school districts that are returning to full and partial capacity to ensure that the spread and transmission of COVID-19 can be managed as schools phase back into full capacity.
On July 20, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released a revised revenue estimate that projects a budget deficit of $4.58 billion at the end of the 2021 fiscal year. This marks a decrease from the $2.89 billion surplus originally projected in October 2019.
Hegar stated in a letter to state leadership that Texas will have $110.19 billion in general revenue, a decrease from the original projection of $121.76 billon. Hegar attributes this revised budget deficit to the impact of COVID-19 on the state economy; consumer spending makes up the largest portion of general revenue for the state. Hegar also attributes losses to the volatility of the oil market. The state also has an additional $8.8 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund to lean on in the event of crisis.
Hegar clarified for lawmakers that these projections are subject to change based on the continuation and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Texas is ready for a moderate recessionary period, consumer confidence must return to boost the economic outlook of the state in the foreseeable future.
Beginning April 23, the U.S. Census Bureau began conducting a weekly survey to measure the impact of COVID-19 on American households. The initial findings show massive losses in reported income and high rates of unemployment in some of Texas’s most vulnerable populations – households with children, non-college degree holders and communities of color.
Of the first survey, 47% of respondents reported losses of income since March 13, and an additional 41% expected to see losses continue into the next four weeks. Hispanic and Black respondents reported loss of income at a rate of 60% and 57%, respectively. White and Asian respondents have reported income losses of 41% and 44%. In this same time period, roughly 8.7 million Texans were unemployed. This number has now increased to 10.1 million in the eight weeks following the initial survey.
This sharp growth in unemployment has led to even greater disparity in the percentage of Texans with health insurance. Before the declaration of the pandemic, the health insurance rate in Texas was among the worst in the U.S at 18%. As of July 10, survey data has shown approximately 20% of respondents are currently uninsured.
The Health and Human Services Commission’s SNAP Incentive Study Workgroup has begun to look at ways that will provide low-income Texans with better access to affordable healthy food. We’re proud to announce Stephanie Luster, grants program officer with Methodist Healthcare Ministries was selected to serve on the workgroup.
The SNAP Incentive Workgroup, established through the passage of Senate Bill 1834, will assist HHSC with the study of existing programs that incentivize the purchase of Texas-grown fruits or vegetables under SNAP and, as applicable, provide input for the establishment of a pilot program.
Per capita consumption of fruits and vegetables from 1970-2017 shows a decline in U.S produce consumption beginning around the year 2000. This trend is directly correlated to steadily increasing rates of obesity throughout the U.S., a serious concern for health care providers treating food related illnesses. The SNAP benefits program is developing a broad outreach and incentive program to improve the eating habits of low-income Texans.
The Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Program offers a dollar-to-dollar match up to $30 maximum for the purchase of fresh fruit and veggies for all SNAP beneficiaries as well as various deals and bundles to make fruit and vegetables more affordable. The agency also offers a health incentive programthat allows SNAP participants to receive an incentive of $0.30 for every $1 of SNAP benefits spent on fruit and vegetables, capped at $60 per month per household. The SNAP program is continuing to expand and develop strategies to increase accessibility of healthy food options and increase business outlook of specialty crop producers in Texas.
On July 15, State Senator Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo) hosted a webinar that brought together a panel of statewide experts to discuss how to cope with anxieties and stressors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The panel included presentations from Dr. John Burrus, psychiatrist and CEO of Metrocare; Nelson Jarrin with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute and Sonja Gaines, Deputy Executive Commissioner at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Texans who are experiencing anxiety, stress or emotional challenge because of the pandemic should contact the statewide COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line. The support line has answered over 4,900 phone calls, and has talked with Texans from 159 counties.
On Wednesday, July 29, Senator Zaffirini will host another webinar, “Back to School? The ABCs of Covid-19." The event will address questions that parents and caregivers may have pertaining to their child going back to school.
For more information on health care research, policy or advocacy, please contact Chris Yanas at firstname.lastname@example.org.