AUSTIN — Three of Texas’ 36 congressional districts are unconstitutional because of racial or political gerrymandering, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas ruled on March 10.

The judges ruled 2-1 that the districts’ boundaries, drawn by the Texas Legislature in 2011 and 2013, violate the U.S. Constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case called Perez et al. v. Abbott et al. mounted statewide and regional claims in South and West Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the Houston area under Section 2 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act and the Fourteenth Amendment. States that have a history of race-based voter suppression may be subject to judicial pre-clearance of redistricting plans under Section 2. The Fourteenth Amendment requires due process and equal protection under the law for all citizens.

The three congressional districts that were ruled unconstitutionally drawn were District 23, currently represented by Will Hurd, R-Helotes; District 27, Blake Fahrenthold, R-Corpus Christi; and District 35, Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.

The panel, composed of Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith, Chief District Judge Orlando L. Garcia and District Judge Xavier Rodriguez, did not suggest how those districts might be redrawn in a constitutionally acceptable manner. 

Judge Smith wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the panel lacked jurisdiction to rule on the case. He discussed the applicability of prior rulings made by higher courts that already have heard plaintiffs’ arguments. 

As of early Monday morning, March 13, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had not yet commented on the ruling or indicated whether an appeal is in the works.

Child protection bills move

Both houses of the Legislature last week passed bills to improve the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services in response to Gov. Greg Abbott's call for emergency action.

Tasked with protecting children, elders and people with disabilities from abuse, neglect and exploitation, the DFPS, part of the Texas Health and Human Commission, has attracted attention in recent years for inadequate funding and staffing to meet obligations. 

On March 1, the Texas Senate approved SB 11 by Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown. SB 11 would shift to private contractors the DFPS’s foster care management mission, but the state would remain the ultimate guardian over foster children. The bill also contains oversight and accountability provisions to enable close monitoring by the DFPS and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

On March 2, the Texas House approved HB 4 by Cindy Burkett, R-Sunnyvale, to provide additional support for family members who care for a child who has been removed from his or her home. Also approved was HB 5 by James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, to give the DFPS more autonomy by making it a separate agency with its own commissioner.

In passing HB 4 and HB 5, the House has taken “important steps toward providing better protection and care for children in terrible circumstances,” Speaker Joe Straus said.

Abbott declares disaster

Gov. Greg Abbott on March 11 declared a State of Disaster in the counties of Gray, Hemphill, Lipscomb, Ochiltree, Roberts and Wheeler after wildfires swept through farm and ranch land in the Texas Panhandle. 

“This week’s wildfires have had a devastating impact on a significant portion of the Texas Panhandle,” Abbott said. “Texans have always been resilient in their response to disasters and this time will be no different.”

Earlier last week, the governor granted a waiver to hay carriers and asked the USDA to accelerate the temporary suspension of grazing restrictions in affected areas.

Jobless rate is updated

Texas employers expanded payrolls in January, adding 51,300 seasonally adjusted nonfarm jobs, the Texas Workforce Commission announced March 10.

But Texas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained unchanged at 4.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Texas’ total combined labor force stood at an estimated 13,358,000 in January, a figure that reflects 12,697,100 employed individuals plus 660,900 unemployed people who are available for work and are looking for a job.

Sales tax revenue grows

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on March 2 announced state sales tax revenue totaled $2.4 billion in February, 4.4 percent more than in February 2016. 

“While tax collections from oil and gas mining remain subdued, receipts from telecommunications, construction, services and retail and wholesale trade increased significantly,” Hegar said. 

Perry joins Trump cabinet

The U.S. Senate on March 2 confirmed Rick Perry as 14th secretary of the United States Department of Energy. Founded in 1977, the DOE has nearly 14,000 employees. 

Perry served as chief executive of Texas from December 2000 to January 2015, making him the Lone Star State’s longest-serving governor.