en español: El Innovador de Texas
My office collected $1.32 billion in sales tax revenue in January 2004, a remarkably robust 5.9 percent increase compared with January 2003. We are now experiencing the highest fiscal year-to-date sales tax growth rate since July 2001. The state’s 2004 fiscal year began on September 1, 2003; sales tax revenue is up 5.0 percent compared with the same five months in fiscal 2003.
When I sent the cities and counties their sales tax allocations last November, I promised that “This year, the Grinch isn’t going to steal Christmas.” And that was exactly right. Like Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “It started in low. Then it started to grow.” This turnaround indeed “started in low.” We hit a low point last summer, when July collections shrank 4.6 percent compared with the same month of the previous year. But in August, the decline was only 0.5 percent. However, in September, sales tax collections “started to grow,” by 2.1 percent. They grew by 3.6 percent in October, by 4.3 percent in November, 8.7 percent in December and another 5.9 percent in January.
The economic expansion driving these gains is finally on track.
Already, several current measures of economic activity, in addition to sales tax collections, have begun to recover—such as the rig count and total non-farm employment in the state. The unemployment rate also is coming down. Last May, the unemployment rate hit a high of 6.8 percent. By December 2003, the last month for which we have data, it had eased some to 6.4 percent. My projection is that it will continue to fall slowly, so that the average unemployment rate during fiscal year 2005, which begins next September, will have slipped below the 6 percent mark.
Texas’ real gross state product grew by 2.7 percent in fiscal 2003, better than the 1.9 percent growth rate of 2002. For the 2004-05 fiscal biennium, I anticipate a 4.0 percent average annual growth rate, with 2005 expected to grow a little faster than this fiscal year. Our gross product growth will again surpass that of the U.S. by fiscal 2005.
And nine of the ten leading indicators, such as the Texas Stock Index, housing construction and new business incorporations, are pointing toward an economy that is gaining momentum.
Carole Keeton Strayhorn
Idling Texas polluters
When a convoy of big rigs hits the truck stop for the night, most of the drivers leave their trucks running to power heating, air conditioning and other appliances. That sends tons of pollution into the air—contributing to already dangerous smog problems in many Texas cities.
A Tennessee company, IdleAire Industries, has a hookup that provides electricity to rigs at truck stops. The system lets truckers save fuel, energy and, because their cabs aren’t vibrating from a running engine, it helps them sleep better.
The device is available at three Texas truck stops: the Travel Centers of America in Dallas, San Antonio and Baytown. IdleAire has agreements to install several additional systems around the state.
Drivers need to purchase a reusable window adapter that fits the system into the cab of their vehicles. They pay about $1.25 an hour for heating and air conditioning, telephone service, satellite television, the Internet and a movie service.
IdleAire Chief Operating Officer David Everhart said the Dallas and Baytown sites alone will save about 552,000 gallons of fuel and keep 4,500 tons of pollution from Texas skies.
For more information, contact David Everhart,
“TexBox” for travelers
Since April 2003, travelers in a few Texas counties have been able to get weather information, travel tips and information about local attractions courtesy of the new “TexBox” pilot program sponsored by Texas A&M University’s Texas Cooperative Extension and the Texas Department of Transportation.
The TexBox program placed computer kiosks offering travel and tourism information at safety rest areas in Hardeman, Gray and Donley counties. Two are located on State Highway 287 near Quanah, while two more are on Interstate 40 near Alanreed.
To use TexBox, travelers complete a brief survey about where they are from and a few other questions that may be useful to area businesses and tourism planners, who can see the survey results on the Web. Users can receive a free Texas map and use the touch-screen computer terminal to get information about sights and attractions, shopping options, restaurants and lodging within a 50-mile radius of the kiosk.
TexBox sponsors hope the system will give exposure to small area businesses, such as hotels and restaurants, that might not otherwise catch travelers’ attention.
For more information, contact Dr. Andy Skadberg,
Texas Cooperative Extension, 979-845-5330
“Watch” your kids
A new system for helping parents keep track of their kids has hit store shelves. The system, developed by Austin-based Bluespan LLC, is called “ionKids.” The system features a bracelet, called a Wristag, for a child to wear and a device for parents, called a Base Unit, which is about the size of a remote control that parents use to locate the bracelet, and thus, the child.
The Wristag is tamper- and water-resistant and looks like a watch. It transmits a signal to the Base Unit up to 500 feet outdoors and 350 feet indoors, and if a child ventures beyond a pre-set distance from the Base Unit, the unit emits a signal to alert parents. The device then helps parents locate the child. It also alerts parents if someone removes or tampers with the Wristag.
Bluespan President Bruce Cummings said the device is not intended as an anti-abduction device but was developed to reduce the stress of temporarily losing a child in crowded places such as theme parks, shopping centers or airports. Up to four Wristags can be linked to the Base Unit, allowing parents to keep track of several children at a time.
The ionKids “starter kit” sells for $199.95 and includes a Base Unit, one Wristag, a recharger and decorations—including stickers—for the Wristag. IonKids products were introduced at 20 Comp-USA stores around the U.S. in January 2004, including two stores in the Dallas metropolitan area.
Tackle test dummies
Football players at Virginia Tech are used to putting their bodies on the line for their team during practices and games, but now they do it for science as well.
During the 2003 football season, Virginia Tech used special helmets, equipped with the same type of acceleration sensors used to deploy airbags, to measure the force of tackles, said Stefan Duma, a mechanical engineer at Virginia Tech. Researchers used eight helmets engineered by New Hampshire-based Simbex, a research and product development company, and rotated them among the players. The helmets recorded 3,312 head impacts, Duma said.
“The most important thing it will tell us is how players’ heads get hit during a game,” Duma said. “Once we know how they are hit, we can develop better injury criteria, develop better helmets and we can develop better treatment regimes.”
The prototype helmets cost about $2,000 each, Duma said. He estimates that the cost will decrease as more schools pick up the technology.
For more information, contact Stefan Duma,
Seal of relaxation
Physical therapists often use animals, such as dogs, to treat patients in hospitals. The Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology is trying out a simulated animal aimed at calming patients with special needs.
The Institute developed a robotic harp seal—named Paro—that can react to various stimuli, including sound and touch. Paro even shows displeasure when ignored.
The Institute reported that two different studies—one involving 16 patients in a children’s hospital and the other with 22 patients in a nursing home—showed promising results. Patients’ anxiety levels decreased, and caregivers reported improved communication with patients.
There are three Paro units, and they are the sixth incarnation of the Institute’s original Paro, built in 1995. Institute officials said their goal is to sell Paro, both to individuals and institutions.
For more information, contact Takanori Shibata,
NanoPass Technologies, based in Haifa, Israel, is developing a device designed to free diabetics from daily painful injections of insulin. The NanoPump is a small silicon array of micro-needles with tiny, hollow pyramids. An insulin pump operates the device and controls the release of insulin through the needles and into the shallow, upper layer of skin.
According to the company, injecting medicine into the skin’s upper layer also may save money because shallow injections don’t require as much medicine as conventional injections.
NanoPass also is looking into the feasibility of using the device to deliver other drugs, such as vaccines. The company entered into development agreements with some pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies, but the NanoPump will not be available for sale until 2005 after clinical trials.
For more information, contact Dr. Yotam Levin,
Detecting bad drivers
The British police are evaluating a handheld device that could help identify drivers impaired by drugs, alcohol or exhaustion.
Early results of the device are promising, said Julia Boyle of the University of Surrey in Guildford, United Kingdom, who is leading the research on behalf of the Police Scientific Development Branch, a police and crime technology laboratory in St. Albans, Hertfordshire.
Boyle’s prototype consists of two tests that run on a personal assistance device (PDA) and take about 10 minutes to complete. In the first test, volunteers use a stylus to track an object moving across the screen of a PDA. Every few seconds, another object pops up in the corner of the screen. The subjects must press a button when the other object pops up, while continuing to track the moving object. The test assesses the subject’s ability to perform a motor control task while his or her attention is diverted.
In the second test, road signs flash up on the screen every second, and the volunteer must respond to each of them, except a “target” sign he or she has been told to ignore before the test.
Boyle’s research team tested the prototype on 170 volunteers at two music festivals in the UK in 2003. The team found a significant difference in performance between people who said they had not taken drugs or alcohol and those who admitted being under the influence.
Boyle said a prototype could be available in summer of 2004.
Massachusetts-based iRobot, the company that introduced the world’s first robotic vacuum cleaner, is working to place more robots underfoot. The Swarm project is developing ways to program large numbers of small robots to work and communicate together, much like ants or bees. These robot “swarms” could aid in searches for disaster victims and might be used to explore other planets.
For more information, contact Nancy Dussault,
iRobot, 781-345-0200, ext. 301
Eskom, a South African-based utility company, wants to build the world’s first commercial nuclear reactor that uses pebbles to generate electricity.
The Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) is a helium gas-cooled, high-temperature reactor that uses fuel in the form of tennis-ball sized “pebbles,” instead of rods, according to Eskom. The PBMR is safer, cleaner, smaller and more affordable than conventional nuclear power plants, according to the PBMR consortium.
Eskom officials hope to have the first PBMR installed by 2010.
For more information, contact Sue Cook,
Computer users soon could run machines using energy generated by vibrations in walls and windows.
Masayuki Miyazaki, a senior researcher at Hitachi’s Central Research Laboratory in Tokyo, developed a tiny generator that converts building movements into electricity. A building’s walls and windows vibrate constantly because of wind, air conditioners and heaters or passing traffic, according to Miyazaki.
Miyazaki said commercial applications could be available in five years.
For more information, contact Masayuki Miyazaki,
Editor: Karen Hudgins
Contributing to this issue: Angela Freeman, Magdalena Hamner, Greg Mt.Joy, Edd Patton, Clint Shields, Suzanne Staton, Pam Wagner and Bruce Wright