AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 20 extended his state disaster declaration for 60 counties affected by Hurricane Harvey.

 “As Texans continue to recover from this storm, I want make it absolutely clear that the State of Texas will be there every step of the way. This disaster declaration extension will help ensure affected communities continue to get the resources they need to rebuild and return to full operation. Although the road to recovery will be long, Texas is fully committed to doing everything we can to assist those in need along the way,” Abbott said.

State disaster declarations must be renewed every 30 days for assistance to remain available, and Abbott said he would continue to renew the declarations as needed.

On Sept. 20, Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged President Trump to ensure that churches and other religious organizations are treated equally with other nonprofits and not excluded from Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funding for victims of the storm.

FEMA rules offer assistance to private non-profit organizations, including zoos, performing arts centers and museums, but facilities established or primarily used for religious activities are excluded, Abbott and Paxton said. The president, they added, has the authority to include churches and other houses of worship in FEMA’s definition of a “private nonprofit facility.”

TxDOT, through the website DriveTexas.org, provides a way for travelers to choose routes in, around or through hurricane-stricken areas of the state. TxDOT said that with more than 500 state roadway closures during the height of Hurricane Harvey, the DriveTexas.org website was visited more than 5 million times as drivers searched to check road conditions, find alternate routes and see closures on state roadways.

AG argues for Senate Bill 4

Litigators for the Texas Attorney General’s Office on Sept. 22 presented oral arguments in the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit for a stay of a district court order that blocked Senate Bill 4 from taking effect on Sept. 1. 

The Texas Legislature passed SB 4, known as the “sanctuary cities” bill, in May, intending to set a statewide policy of cooperation with federal immigration authorities tasked with enforcing federal immigration laws. The bill was passed with all Republican lawmakers voting in favor and all Democrats voting against.

SB 4 requires state and local law enforcement agencies to detain individuals pursuant to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement federal detainer program.

“Enforcing immigration law helps prevent dangerous criminals from being released into Texas communities. Supreme Court precedent for measures similar to Texas’ law make clear that Senate Bill 4 is entirely consistent with the cooperative system of government that the Constitution created,” Paxton said.

It could take months for a ruling on the constitutionality of SB 4 to be released. Meanwhile, parties to the suit next will present arguments pertaining to the district court’s injunction before the Fifth Circuit in November. 

Property return record set

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Sept. 21 announced his office returned a record $281 million in unclaimed property to rightful owners during the past fiscal year, breaking the previous record of $270 million returned in fiscal 2016.

While the comptroller's office has returned more than $2 billion to owners since the unclaimed property program’s debut in 1962, the state is currently holding more than $4 billion in unclaimed cash and other valuables, Hegar said.

The comptroller’s unclaimed property website, ClaimItTexas.org, enables individuals to search for unclaimed property and begin the claims process.

King to challenge Straus

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, filed papers last week to run for speaker of the Texas House of Representatives in January 2019.

King currently serves as chair of the body’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. First elected to the House District 61 seat in 1998, King is currently the 17th-most-senior member of the body.

Speaker Straus, R-San Antonio, unanimously elected to his fifth consecutive term as leader of the Texas House, has said he intends to run for the leadership position again. If he wins, he will have been elected speaker a record six times.

Insurance chief is named

Gov. Abbott on Sept. 21 appointed Kent Sullivan of Austin as Commissioner of Insurance for a term set to expire Feb. 1, 2019.

Sullivan is now in charge of overseeing the Texas Department of Insurance, the agency that regulates the insurance industry and protects consumers.

Sullivan, a partner at the Jackson Walker law firm, previously served as a justice on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, as first assistant state attorney general and as a state district court judge.