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May 20

May 20, 2020 TML Coronavirus Update #48

Posted on May 20, 2020 at 3:10 PM by TML Staff

Urgent Updates


Will there be a TML Coronavirus Update tomorrow (May 21)?


No, the TML legal and legislative staff will be presenting tomorrow afternoon at the League’s “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Webinar: What You Need to Know.” The webinar is sold out due to technical limitations with 500 registrants. Absent any technical issues, the webinar will be recorded and made available at no charge. We’ll miss you, but don’t worry! We’ll be back on Friday, and then back on Tuesday after Memorial Day!


What’s the latest in the mail-in ballot controversy?


In addition to the pending state court lawsuits we’ve reported on previously, the Texas Democratic Party and others sued the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and Travis and Bexar Counties in federal court seeking to allow mail-in ballots for those afraid of contracting the virus.


The attorney general argued that the federal judge should wait to rule until the outcome of the state court proceedings, but the judge disagreed. He waxed poetic in a 74-page order that essentially allows any voter to do so by mail-in ballot. For example, the judge wrote that “the Court finds the Grim Reaper's scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis [unique] experience…Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person [instead of the current law allowing those over 65 or with a disability to do so]."


The attorney general issued the following statement in support of his immediately-filed appeal: “Mail-in ballots are vulnerable to fraud,” said Attorney General Paxton. “Two-thirds of all election fraud cases prosecuted by my office involve mail ballot fraud, also known as ‘vote harvesting.’ Allowing widespread mail-in ballots will lead to greater fraud and disenfranchise lawful voters. Governor Abbott already has made a temporary order expanding the early voting period for the July elections. In addition, local election officials have many other mechanisms available to them to ensure safe and fair elections, including sanitizing voting machines and areas and implementing social distancing.”


What restrictions have been imposed on the spending of federal coronavirus relief funds (CRF)? 


Texas cities are eligible to receive federal CRF funds in three ways thus far: (1) a direct allotment from the U.S. Treasury Department to cities over 500,000 population; (2) an application-based allotment from TDEM for cites in counties with less than 500,000 population; and (3) a county-optional sharing of its allotment for cities in a county of over 500,000 population.


The limitations on the use of the funds are as follows:


1. With regard to a direct allotment from the U.S. Treasury Department to cities over 500,000, those cities must use the funds in accordance with guidance from the Treasury Department.


2. With regard to an application-based allotment from TDEM for cities in counties with less than 500,000 population, those cities must use the funds in accordance with the guidance from the Treasury Department. IN ADDITION, the state has placed FURTHER LIMITATIONS in the Coronavirus Relief Fund Terms and Conditions document, which contains the following statement regarding the use of grant money allocated from TDEM to cities:


“The subrecipient agrees that a minimum of 75% of its allotment will be spent in the categories of medical expenses, public health expenses and payroll expenses for employees substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the public emergency. The remainder of the allotment may be spent in any of the categories provided within the Treasury guidance.”


The guidance from the Treasury Department lists several examples of permissible expenditures under the three categories prioritized in the terms and condition document. The other general categories of expenses for which only 25% percent of a city’s allotment can be spent are: (1) expenses of actions to facilitate compliance with COVID-19-related public health measures; (2) expenses associated with the provision of economic support in connection with the COVID-19 public health emergency; and (3) any other COVID-19-related expenses reasonably necessary to the function of government that satisfy the Fund’s eligibility criteria.


3. With regard to cities in a county over 500,000 population, the county may (but is not required to) share its direct allotment on terms agreed to by the county and the city. If the county does so, those cities must use the funds in accordance with the guidance from the Treasury Department and any agreement terms with the county.


As a reminder, the federal CARES Act requires any expenditure of coronavirus relief fund revenue to be spent only to cover expenses that were not accounted for in a city’s most recently approved budget as of March 27, 2020. In other words, regardless of expenditure limitations in the state and federal guidelines referenced above, the revenue can only go towards unbudgeted expenses paid by the city due to the public health emergency in connection with COVID-19.


Further Updates


Has the Public Utility Commission (PUC) issued any additional orders regarding utilities?


Yes. On May 14, the PUC voted to continue the suspension of disconnections for non-payment by vertically integrated electric utilities outside of ERCOT (namely Entergy, El Paso Electric, SPS and SWEPCO) and water and sewer utilities regulated by the PUC. 


Do the PUC orders apply to municipally-owned utilities?

No, but the PUC is urging MOUs to “review the Commission’s order on the direction given to IOUs when making their own decision regarding disconnections for nonpayment during the COVID-19 crisis” in a Q&A on its website. The League previously reported on this question here.


Where can I find archived issues of the TML Coronavirus Updates?


TML Coronavirus Updates are archived by date here and by subject here.