AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Jan. 3 announced the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s approval of their request to allow churches and religious organizations to receive the same public assistance available to other nonprofits aiding in Hurricane Harvey relief efforts. 

FEMA’s Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide previously offered assistance to private non-profit organizations, including zoos, performing arts centers and museums, and excluded facilities established or primarily used for religious activities. The revised policy is in force for any major disaster declared on or after Aug. 23, 2017.

Abbott and Paxton sent a letter to President Donald Trump in September urging him to authorize this assistance.

“When Harvey moved across the Texas Gulf Coast, churches across the state opened their doors to those in need,” Abbott said. “Churches and other houses of worship continue to play a vital role in the ongoing recovery effort, and their ability to receive the same assistance available to other nonprofits should never have been in doubt. I thank FEMA and the Administration for their commitment to helping Texans and the churches that have helped their communities throughout the recovery and rebuilding process.”

“FEMA’s policy change averts the federal government violating the constitutional rights of those who continue to play a vital role in helping Texans get back on their feet after Hurricane Harvey,” Paxton said. “Many churches and other houses of worship suffered damage from Harvey, and now they can seek FEMA assistance so they can continue serving their communities.”

Oaths are administered

Now-former Texas Supreme Court Justice Don R. Willett, nominated by President Trump and approved by the U.S. Senate to fill a vacancy on the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and James Davis Blacklock, Willett’s replacement on the Texas Supreme Court, both were sworn in on Jan. 2.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht administered the oath to Willett, who served more than 12 years on the Texas Supreme Court. Willett will take his place on the Fifth Circuit, the New Orleans-based federal appellate court with jurisdiction over appeals from U.S. district courts in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

Gov. Abbott swore in Blacklock, who he appointed to succeed Willett on the state’s high court. Prior to the appointment, Blacklock served as the governor’s general counsel.

2017 revenue is reported

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Jan. 3 reported that state sales tax revenue totaled $2.75 billion in December, 12.3 percent more than reported in December 2016. 

“Double-digit growth in sales tax revenue was fueled by collections from oil- and gas-related sectors as well drilling and completion continued to rebound, but growth in tax receipts was notable across all major economic sectors, including retail trade and restaurants,” Hegar said.

Total sales tax revenue for the three months ending in December 2017 was up 10.2 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Sales tax revenue is the largest source of state funding for the state budget, accounting for 58 percent of all tax collections.

Revenue from other major taxes on motor vehicle sales and rentals, motor fuels and oil and natural gas production also rose in December 2017, according to the Office of the Comptroller.   

For example, motor vehicle sales and rental taxes totaled $414.3 million, up 16.1 percent from December 2016, and vehicle purchases to replace cars damaged by Hurricane Harvey continued to boost those tax collections, the agency noted.

Also, motor fuel taxes, at $303.7 million, were up 4.9 percent from December 2016; and oil and natural gas production taxes, at $396.4 million, were up 73.4 percent from December 2016.

Abbott issues proclamation

Gov. Abbott on Jan. 5 proclaimed January 2018 to be Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

“The State of Texas will not tolerate the inhumane practices carried out by coercive and manipulative criminals. We provide serious penalties for human traffickers, and we continuously look for ways to better serve the victims,” Abbott states in the text of the proclamation.

Abbott urged Texans “to learn more about the risks and indicators of human trafficking and to do their part in helping end this atrocity.”

Former first lady dies

Rita Crocker Clements, a force for decades in the Republican Party, died Jan. 6 at her home in Dallas. She was 86.

Clements was first lady of Texas twice, serving alongside her husband, Gov. Bill Clements, from 1979 to 1983, and again, from 1987 to 1991. Gov. Clements died in 2011 at age 94.

Mrs. Clements was noted for her role in renovating the governor’s mansion in Austin, for her service on the boards of several major corporations and as a member of the University of Texas System Board of Regents.