Some Texas schools would be required to hang 'In God We Trust' signs under measure nearing passage by lawmakers

"Some Texas schools would be required to hang "In God We Trust" signs under measure nearing passage by lawmakers" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The Texas Legislature is on the verge of approving a new law that would require some public schools and universities to display the phrase “In God We Trust" in prominent places inside all campus buildings.

Under Senate Bill 797, authored by Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, any school that had a poster or framed copy of the phrase, which is the official national motto, donated to it would be required to hang it in “a conspicuous place in each building of the school."

SB 797 has already passed the Texas Senate. The House gave preliminary approval for the bill Monday, passing it on a voice vote. An attempt to amend the bill to restrict the size of displays to just over 1 square foot failed. The bill is expected to get final approval Tuesday and, because no amendments were added to the bill on the House floor, head to Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bill sets specific rules about the display of the phrase, saying the poster or frame “must contain a representation of the United States flag centered under the national motto and a representation of the state flag." It also says the display cannot contain any other words, images or information.

The measure is in line with several that have progressed through the Capitol this year pertaining to education or patriotism. Lawmakers are also nearing passage of a bill that would ban teaching — or accepting donated materials pertaining to — critical race theory in public and open-enrollment charter schools. Other measures advancing in the final days of the session would require schools to teach “informed American patriotism" and require any professional sports teams with contracts with the state government to play the national anthem before the start of a game.

Rep. Tom Oliverson laid out the “In God We Trust" bill at a House Public Education Committee hearing early this month, saying the bill would avoid creating “conversation" for school superintendents if they wanted to put up a sign with the phrase. He said they could defer the action to state law.

“It actually makes the conversation simpler, easier for a school district to be able to do, as opposed to just sort of the current statute, which is they can put it up if they want to," Oliverson, R-Cypress, said. “But then there's a whole conversation that ensues."

While representatives for the Texas Faith & Freedom Coalition and the Republican Party of Texas registered and testified in support of the bill, representatives from the League of Women Voters of Texas and Texas Impact registered their opposition.

Karen Brooks Harper contributed to this story.

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Jobless Texans say Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to end federal unemployment benefits will worsen their already dire situations

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Since she lost her job as a customer service coordinator at a department store, Mary Baker has cut down on everything she can to make ends meet while she searches for a new job. The San Antonio resident has unsubscribed from cable, stopped paying for some of her medications and cut down significantly on her air conditioning. But her roughly $3,000 monthly unemployment payments still don't stretch far enough.

And they're about to get smaller.

Baker is one of the many jobless Texans who will lose a significant portion of their unemployment benefits in June as they continue trying to get back on their feet in a state still recovering from the pandemic.

In an effort to connect unemployed people with work instead of unemployment assistance, Gov. Greg Abbott said on Monday that Texas will opt out of all federal unemployment assistance programs after June 26, including an extra $300-per-week federal benefit Congress approved earlier this year. Abbott also is planning to withdraw from Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides aid to gig workers, self-employed people and others who aren't traditionally covered by unemployment insurance. That June 26 cut-off for Texans comes months earlier than many expected when Congress authorized or extended programs to run as late as early September.

For Baker, that means she'll likely have to stop buying her insulin, and cut back on groceries next month.

"When I heard Abbott's announcement on the TV the other night, I got a knot in the pit of my stomach because I just don't know how I'm going to make it work," Baker said. "I can't just go take a $12 an hour job. That's going to stop the unemployment, but it's still not going to pay my bills."

Critics of Abbott's move say tens of thousands of desperate Texans shouldn't have to choose between scrambling to find a job in the next few weeks or living with $1,200 less getting deposited into their bank accounts every month. Many jobless Texans say they are still facing difficulties reentering the workforce and are relying on federal unemployment to get by.

Abbott's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The unemployment rate in Texas was 6.9% in March. That is far below the record-high rate of 12.9% for April 2020, when much of the state's businesses were shut down. But it is more than double the record low of 3.4% in June 2019. The April 2021 state unemployment rate is expected to be released Friday.

The Texas Workforce Commission didn't answer how many people are currently receiving the federal benefits. But according to data compiled by University of Texas at Austin economics professor Julia Coronado, approximately 344,000 Texans were receiving assistance through the PUA program as of April 30.

Abbott's decision comes amid a wave of Republican governors announcing plans to cut benefits in order to encourage people to return to work and after pressure from business groups. In his announcement, Abbott said there are more than a million job openings in Texas, and many employers across the state are hiring for jobs that pay well above the minimum wage of $7.25.

Abbott said there are nearly 60% more listed jobs open in Texas today compared to February 2020. According to the Texas Workforce Commission, approximately 76% of posted jobs pay more than $11.50 an hour, and 2% of posted jobs pay around the minimum wage.

But multiple Texans on federal unemployment said that those numbers don't tell the full story.

Jobless Texans told The Texas Tribune they're desperate to return to work, but they haven't had any luck when applying to multiple jobs every month. For some, one month isn't enough time to apply for and find a job, and others say that the income from the available jobs at places like retail stores and restaurants just isn't enough to pay for their rent, food and other expenses.

Labor economists said it's unclear how Abbott's decision will immediately affect unemployment or the return of people back to work. More people may seek out food assistance, free health care and temporary housing, or they may be motivated — or forced — to find a job.

"We would expect some people who have been on the fence about going back to work to take the leap," said Belinda Román, an assistant professor of economics at St. Mary's University. "However, there are those who simply will not (be) able to return to the labor market for any number of reasons, and this type of change can only make it more difficult for them during the hot Texas summer."

In Marble Falls, Glen Bird, a former driver for Uber and Lyft, said he has spent the pandemic getting a college education to improve his future job prospects and trying to start his own small business making theatrical costumes and props. But without the federal unemployment assistance, he said the future of his business is in jeopardy, and he has no idea how he is going to keep the bills paid starting next month.

"I've got a month to just try to figure out what I'm going to do because since I'm an independent contractor on unemployment, it's not a case of 'I'm just losing the $300 federal benefit,'" Bird said. "After June 26, I'm going to be without any source of income, unless I can drum something up really fast."

Bird, a 40-year-old, said he recently started studying theater at Texas State University to help him get a job teaching theater or working as an artistic director. He said he also recently rented a small one-room office, which he was planning to use as a space to make and sell costumes and props before he learned Abbott was withdrawing from federal unemployment assistance.

"I hear all the time about how Texas supports small businesses," Bird said. "By cutting off the pandemic unemployment insurance early, that's putting me in a spot now where I'm going to have to start chasing my tail again, not only to pay bills, but to keep the rent paid for my new office space. And that's going to be less time I'll have available to invest in trying to grow this into a business."

Some Texans are also struggling to find a job that accommodates their child care responsibilities, especially if their children are learning virtually or need to be home-schooled. Other Texans still have fears of going back to work in-person and catching COVID-19 themselves or spreading it to their high-risk friends and family members.

Gabrielle Mcginnis, a server and bartender in San Antonio, said she has had to home school her son, who has autism and is non-verbal, when he faced difficulties learning remotely. She said she'd like to get a job working from home, but she's been unable to find one that pays enough to cover her bills and works with her son's schedule.

"I'm definitely getting less on unemployment compared to when I was working. I've had to cut back a lot and just make do with what we got. We're not starving, but our quality of life has gone down for sure," Mcginnis said. "Next month, it's gonna be really bad because my partner just got laid off from his job, too. I'm not really sure what we're gonna do."

Mcginnis said she's gone back to being a bartender for one night a week, but she said customers can be rude and she is now looking for other opportunities. While she is vaccinated, she said she is still nervous about getting sick and infecting her vulnerable family members with the coronavirus, not all of whom are vaccinated yet.

"My mother is elderly, and she's high-risk. My son is high risk. I want to go back to work, but how can I replace them if something happens to them? I can't," Mcginnis said. "So I would rather struggle a little bit than lose people that I care about deeply. Like to me, it's not even a question."

After working to start his own business while taking classes during a pandemic, Bird said he wants to push back against the narrative that people on unemployment are lazy. He said the federal aid has been a lifesaver that allowed him to remain financially stable while he survives the pandemic and works to recover.

"We're on unemployment because we were unable to work due to this pandemic. It's not like we were fired from jobs, where we weren't doing a good job. It was a case of 'This was meant to keep people financially secure and stable during a time where businesses are closing, because of the pandemic where people have lost their jobs,'" Bird said.

Disclosure: Lyft, St. Mary's University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Attorney General Ken Paxton unblocks nine Texans on Twitter after lawsuit claiming he violated First Amendment rights

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has unblocked on Twitter the nine Texans who sued him after they say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the social media platform.

In a lawsuit filed in April, a group of Texans said being blocked from viewing Paxton's tweets from his @KenPaxtonTX account was a violation of the First Amendment because it limited the rights of people to participate in a public forum and access statements made by the public official.

The ACLU of Texas and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University represented the Texans in their lawsuit. According to their statements from a Thursday press release, Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans in the "ongoing lawsuit challenging Paxton's practice of blocking critics from his Twitter account."

Paxton has also "blocked many other individuals from the @KenPaxtonTX account based on their viewpoints," according to the lawsuit. The plaintiffs had asked Paxton to unblock them and everyone else who was blocked from the @KenPaxtonTX account "based on their viewpoints," but it's unclear if people not named in the lawsuit have been unblocked.

Lyndsey Wajert, a legal fellow with the Knight First Amendment Institute, said while Paxton has unblocked the nine Texans, the case has not been dismissed.

Paxton's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said multiple courts have recognized that government officials who use their social media accounts for official purposes violate the First Amendment if they block people from those accounts on the basis of their viewpoints.

"We're pleased that attorney general Paxton has agreed to unblock our plaintiffs in this lawsuit and are hopeful that he will do the same for anyone else he has blocked from his Twitter account simply because he doesn't like what they have to say," Fallow said in a statement.

Kate Huddleston, attorney for the ACLU of Texas, said the ruling is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen whether Paxton will unblock other Texans. She said it shouldn't take a lawsuit for Paxton to comply with the Constitution.

"Attorney General Paxton cannot prevent Texans from exercising their First Amendment rights, including their right to criticize his policies and qualifications in their responses to his tweets," Huddleston said in a statement.

Texas facing crisis because of how Republicans set up coronavirus vaccination system: report

Despite spending hours trying to get a vaccine appointment, Wanda Davis still doesn't know when she'll be able to see her children again. The 81-year-old has been trying to get a vaccine so she can leave her Kingsland home, about 60 miles outside Austin, and safely visit her family. But it hasn't been easy.

She said she doesn't have internet access at home, and she has had trouble navigating the computers at the local library. When she called multiple pharmacies, none had appointments available. After calling her local pharmacy, she is finally on a waiting list. But she still doesn't know when she'll get the vaccine.

Davis said the unorganized system has created obstacles for vaccine access, especially for elderly Texans without internet access. She thinks local officials need to do a better job providing information about where vaccinations will be offered and what days people should sign up for them.

"Out here in the country, we don't really have newspapers, so how are we going to get the information? Well, they could call us. They could put it on the radio," Davis said. "They could put it on TV, like specifically in your town, 'You can sign up for this on this day between these hours.' It would be helpful."

Davis is among an unknown number of Texans facing challenges trying to book a vaccine appointment through a time-consuming process that inherently favors people who have easy access to internet and transportation. The situation is contributing to inequitable access for many people in the state — including Black and Hispanic Texans — who are at a higher risk of dying or experiencing severe symptoms from COVID-19, experts and local officials said.

Health care workers, teachers and child-care workers, long-term care facility residents, people 50 and older, and people 16 and older with certain medical vulnerabilities are eligible for the vaccine in Texas. But many of those people can't get a shot because they can't spend hours navigating the internet or waiting in line.

Vaccine appointments are often scheduled through a city's online portal or a pharmacy's website. Many elderly Texans struggling to navigate the decentralized system are instead resorting to calling local pharmacies or relying on friends, family or networks of volunteers to find them an appointment.

Some areas are offering vaccinations through drive-thru locations, which excludes many Texans who don't have access to their own vehicle. Even for locations that don't explicitly require a car, people still need to have access to transportation to get to their appointments, and they may have to stand and wait in line for long periods of time.

Pamela Rogers, a 70-year-old living in Austin, said she spent at least five to six hours every week for months looking for vaccine appointments, but a lack of familiarity with the internet and difficulty finding information on the city's website made the process frustrating and confusing.

After getting an appointment at UT Health Austin shortly after last month's deadly winter storm, she and her husband had to walk to their appointment after their car had a flat tire. Once she arrived, she said she faced long lines with no obvious location for people facing mobility issues to wait for the vaccine.

"There was no mention made at the table about low mobility at all, and I could tell there were several people in front of me who were not used to standing for 20 minutes," Rogers said. "People were struggling a lot. They're not looking out for people with low mobility."

Douglas Loveday, a spokesperson for The Texas Department of State Health Services, said people can call vaccine providers, local pharmacies or 211, the state's free 24-hour helpline, if they need help finding information about appointments and available doses. In many areas of the state, he said there are organizations helping people without internet access to connect with local providers to receive a vaccination.

"As supply ramps and more doses are allocated weekly to Texas, vaccine(s) will become available to many more providers across the state," Loveday said in an email. "There are now more than 7,000 enrolled providers in 238 of Texas' 254 counties. When (a) vaccine is available to all of them, it will be much more accessible to those now challenged to make and keep vaccine appointments."

Melissa Vannoy, a 43-year-old health care worker in Houston, said she became exhausted after trying to help her parents schedule appointments to get the vaccine. Neither of her parents are very familiar with technology, and she said she lost all her energy after facing difficulties trying to navigate the system and find information about when vaccines would be available.

"We need transportation. We need communication. Give us direct ways to do it, don't just give us the number," Vannoy said. "Give us locations. If you can give us locations and transportation to get us there, that would be great, instead of having to rely on looking for a ride and getting turned down for a ride."

Dr. Vivian Ho, a professor of health economics at Rice University, said many people who don't have a regular caregiver may not know how to access a vaccine. She said government officials need to take more aggressive steps to distribute vaccines equitably, such as mobile clinics and vaccination drives.

"Vaccination drives at houses of worship in low-income neighborhoods should be organized, because many of these facilities are well trusted by their surrounding community, and they eliminate transportation as a barrier to access," Ho said in an email. "Local officials should also work to open some vaccination sites that are available 24/7."

Chris Crookham, the interim program manager of Austin Public Health's immunization program, said Austin has an "equity line" for people experiencing difficulties with access to transportation, internet or other accessibility issues. People working the hotline help create accounts for callers through APH's vaccine registration portal and schedule appointments for them, he said.

Crookham said APH plans to start a partnership next week to vaccinate Meals on Wheels clients who are homebound, and they plan to expand it to help more people who don't have easy access to a vehicle or transportation if the initial launch is successful. APH also has a mobile vaccination program that is helping vaccinate people in senior living facilities, he said.

"We're not reaching 100% of the people that we need to," Crookham said. "We know that our demand in terms of call volume is still greater than the supply of staff that we have to answer all the calls, and I expect that to continue."

He expects that people 50 to 64 years old, who recently became eligible, will have an easier time navigating websites to schedule appointments. But he acknowledges that barriers for many Texans will remain persistent.

"I still expect us to have technological issues that we'll have to face," Crookham said.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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