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House vote clears way for new abortion regulations

AUSTIN — Legislation to revise redistricting maps, regulate abortion and change punishment guidelines regarding youths convicted of a capital felony occupied state lawmakers in special session last week.

Called by Gov. Rick Perry on May 27, the 30-day session ends on June 26. Drawing the House floor spotlight through Sunday night and early Monday morning was Senate Bill 5, relating to the regulation of abortion procedures and providers. Citizens for and against crowded Capitol corridors and the House gallery. SB 5, tentatively approved on a 97-33 vote at 3:24 a.m., faces a final vote before moving back to the Senate.

The legislation proposes to amend the Health and Safety Code and the Occupations Code regarding regulation of abortion procedures, providers and facilities, prohibiting abortions at or after 20 weeks post-fertilization and adding a violation related to abortions performed after the same time window to the list of prohibited practices by physicians or license applicants. Included is an exception that allows an abortion in the physician's reasonable medical judgment that so complicates the medical condition of the woman, to avert the woman's death or substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, other than a psychological condition.

The legislation also directs the Texas Medical Board to assess penalties on physicians for improperly distributing or prescribing abortion-inducing drugs. And, the legislation would create a new minimum standard for abortion facilities licensed by the Department of State Health Services. Such a facility would be required to meet the new standards by Sept. 1, 2014.

Republican members, leveraging a 40-seat majority of over Democrats, moved bills forward to comply with the wishes of Gov. Perry, but Democrats brought their arguments to the fore through proposed amendments, although all failed on votes to table them.

Two among many arguments were the adverse and disproportionate effects of the great distances women from rural and remote areas would have to travel to get to one of five facilities that currently could be qualified to perform abortions under the bill and that 26 percent of Texas women do not have health insurance.

The House on June 24 preliminarily passed SB 23, relating to the punishment for a capital felony committed by an individual younger than 18 years of age. The bill proposes to allow a 17-year-old offender serving a life sentence the eligibility to apply for parole after serving 40 years.

The House also tentatively approved SJR 2, a proposed constitutional amendment to change how dollars are moved from the state's general revenue fund to the so-called rainy day fund on transfers based on oil and natural gas production taxes.

Votes on the preponderance of special session legislation have been along party lines, with Democrats voting in opposition. Some lawmakers who challenged bills said that ultimately the abortion-regulating legislation would not stand up to scrutiny by the courts, nor would bills revising certain redistricting maps and limiting a jury's ability to mitigate parole in capital murder convictions of certain juveniles.

One bill already on its way to the governor's desk is SB 3, relating to the composition of Texas House districts. Tentatively approved by the Senate earlier in the week, the bill came back to the Senate with several amendments passed to allow certain Democratic members in abutting House districts to tweak boundary lines in small and mutually beneficial ways. In a vote on final passage, the Senate accepted the changes adopted by the House.

Jobs rate stays positive

Texas' seasonally adjusted total nonfarm employment expanded by 19,500 jobs in May for a total of 324,700 jobs added since May 2012, the Texas Workforce Commission reported on June 21.

Positive every month since May 2010, the state's annual job growth rate in May stood at 3.0 percent and the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose slightly in May to 6.5 percent, from 6.4 percent in April.

"The addition of 324,700 jobs over the past year, with private sector employers adding 299,800 during this period, is good news for Texas," Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar stated in an agency news release.

Offer: feral hog grants

Texas Department of Agriculture on June 18 announced it is accepting grant applications to assist regional efforts to control feral hog populations through its new County Hog Abatement Matching Program. Selected applicants will receive funding on a cost reimbursement basis of up to $30,000.

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