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Opinion

OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Abbott explains opposition to proposed merger

Ed-SterlingAUSTIN—Attorneys general of Texas, Arizona, Tennessee, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia joined in the U.S. Justice Department's Aug. 13 anti-trust lawsuit intended to block the merger of Fort Worth-headquartered American Airlines and Tempe, Ariz., headquartered US Airways.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in an Aug. 16 opinion piece first published by the Dallas Morning News, explained why he opposes the merger of the two carriers. Here's an excerpt:

"Why in the world would Texas file a legal action challenging the merger of American Airlines with US Airways?" Abbott asked in his opinion piece. He answered his own question this way: "We believe that actions by the airlines and their officials violate antitrust laws. In fact, the legal violations appear so overt that it would offend my oath of office not to take action.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Road-funding legislation finally passes

Ed-SterlingAUSTIN — A third called session of the Texas Legislature began July 30 and ended Aug. 5 with the task completed: passage of legislation to create a new funding path for transportation projects.

Given the contentiousness of the two previous called sessions that each lasted a full 30 days, lawmakers plowed their way to comparatively quick votes to give Gov. Rick Perry what he wanted. It’s a two-part solution.

First, Senate Joint Resolution 1 by Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, is a proposed constitutional amendment that voters will see on the November 2014 ballot. SJR 1, should voters approve it, would take 50 percent of the state’s oil and gas severance taxes that normally are deposited in the state Economic Stabilization (“Rainy Day”) Fund and instead put that revenue into the state highway fund.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Second special session ends, third begins

AUSTIN — A second special session of the Texas Legislature ended July 30 without the House and Senate accomplishing the governor-ordered task of passing legislation to fund future public transportation projects.

House Joint Resolution 2 failed on July 29. Had the proposed constitutional amendment passed, Texans would have voted yes or no to a plan to tap the state’s $12 billion Economic Stimulus (rainy day) Fund to the tune of $1 billion every year for use in transportation projects. On the House floor, Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, the primary author of HJR 2, asked Gov. Rick Perry not to call another special session on transportation right away and suggested lawmakers might do a better job next spring, after party primaries.

But on the 30th and final day, Gov. Rick Perry called a third special session to begin immediately. “When it comes to transportation,” Perry explained, “the stakes facing our state could not be higher and a failure to act now could take years if not most of a decade to correct as traffic congestion increases and harms our quality of life.”

In the third special session, some lawmakers appear ready to act in accordance with the governor’s wish for a quick and permanent method to fund transportation projects, while others will keep with constituents who are in less of a rush, possibly seeing enough at stake to warrant a longer look at the funding question and how it might dovetail with other areas of the state budget. In any case, the Legislature has about four weeks to continue working on the problem.

Combs reports condition

In a July 31 letter to the governor, lieutenant governor, speaker of the House and members of the Legislature, Comptroller Susan Combs reported the state’s oil and natural gas production taxes are performing better than expected this year.

Combs projected those taxes to generate an additional $900 million in fiscal 2013, one quarter of which is available for general purpose spending. And that amount is in addition to the $683.1 million available for general purpose spending and not appropriated in the 2014-2015 biennium.

The additional remaining $675 million of severance tax revenue available in the current year will be part of a $2.37 billion transfer into the Economic Stimulus (rainy day) Fund in November, Combs said.

Federal relief to come

President Barack Obama on Aug. 2 signed a major disaster declaration and in doing so overruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s June decision to reject Texas’ request for relief for the town of West.

A fertilizer plant in West exploded on April 17, causing the loss of 15 lives and widespread damage to buildings and infrastructure.

Gov. Perry, members of Congress and others appealed the EPA’s ruling. On Aug. 2 Perry released a statement saying, “This, along with the disaster relief funding provided by the Texas Legislature, will help this community rebuild their infrastructure, school district and public works as quickly as possible.”

Justice Hightower dies

Retired Texas Supreme Court Justice Jack Hightower, 86, died Aug. 3 in Austin.

Hightower was born in Memphis, Texas, and started his law practice in Vernon after graduating from Baylor Law School in 1951. He went on to serve as a state representative, state senator and assistant attorney general. In addition to his seven years (1988-1996) on the state Supreme Court, Hightower also served 10 years as a member of Congress.

Burial was set in the Texas State Cemetery on Aug. 7.

Race attracts candidates

Three current officeholders have entered the race for Texas attorney general: Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas.

Smitherman’s law degree is from the University of Texas, Paxton’s is from the University of Virginia, and Branch’s is from Southern Methodist University.

Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican who has served as the state’s chief legal officer since 2002, on July 14 announced his candidacy for governor after Gov. Perry on July 8 said he would not seek another term.

DPS report DWI arrests

The Texas Department of Public Safety on Aug. 1 announced Highway Patrol troopers made 1,124 driving-while-intoxicated arrests, June 28 through July 7, the agency’s holiday-related special enforcement period.

During the 10-day period, enforcement resulted in more than 15,700 speeding citations, more than 2,400 seat belt and child safety seat citations, 720 fugitive arrests and 602 felony arrests.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Transportation legislation pushes lawmakers to brink

AUSTIN — As the end of a second, 30-day special session inched closer last week, the Texas House and Senate fell short of reaching a compromise on a path toward the future funding of transportation projects.

During that time span, however, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, House Speaker Joe Straus and key lawmakers worked out strategies in back and forth messages, in hopes of bringing House Joint Resolution 2 and House Bill 16 to final votes on July 29 and 30, the last two days of the 30-day special session.

Gov. Rick Perry said he would call a third special session if the Legislature failed to act in accordance with his wishes, that is, to let voters decide via constitutional amendment if sizable-yet-limited withdrawals from the state’s $12 billion Economic Stimulus (rainy day) Fund henceforth should be devoted to future transportation projects.

Wording for the Nov. 5 ballot measure — if approved by the Legislature as currently written — reads: “The constitutional amendment to provide for revenue from motor fuel taxes to be used solely for constructing, maintaining, and acquiring rights-of-way for certain public roadways and to provide for the transfer of certain general revenue to the economic stabilization fund and the available school fund.”

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OPINION - Transportation legislation pushes lawmakers to brink

AUSTIN — As the end of a second, 30-day special session inched closer last week, the Texas House and Senate fell short of reaching a compromise on a path toward the future funding of transportation projects.

During that time span, however, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who presides over the Senate, House Speaker Joe Straus and key lawmakers worked out strategies in back and forth messages, in hopes of bringing House Joint Resolution 2 and House Bill 16 to final votes on July 29 and 30, the last two days of the 30-day special session.

Gov. Rick Perry said he would call a third special session if the Legislature failed to act in accordance with his wishes, that is, to let voters decide via constitutional amendment if sizable-yet-limited withdrawals from the state's $12 billion Economic Stimulus (rainy day) Fund henceforth should be devoted to future transportation projects.

Wording for the Nov. 5 ballot measure — if approved by the Legislature as currently written — reads: "The constitutional amendment to provide for revenue from motor fuel taxes to be used solely for constructing, maintaining, and acquiring rights-of-way for certain public roadways and to provide for the transfer of certain general revenue to the economic stabilization fund and the available school fund."

If approved by voters, the requirement that one-fourth of certain net revenue from the motor fuel tax be allocated to the available school fund will end. That revenue would be used to acquire rights-of-way for public roadways other than toll roads and for the construction and maintenance of those public roadways.

Voting rights battle shifts

A month ago, in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.
To some observers, the court's 5-4 decision meant Texas and a number of other states would no longer be subject to federal preclearance before any changes to state election laws could take effect. To others, the court's action meant more legal action lay ahead. Last week — those who sensed more legal action would come — may be right.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on July 25 announced the justice department would ask a federal court in Texas "to subject the State of Texas to a preclearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act." Holder said his request to "bail in" the state to require it to obtain "pre-approval" from either the justice department or a federal court before implementing future voting changes is available under the Voting Rights Act when intentional voting discrimination is found.

"Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination that was presented last year in the redistricting case, Texas v. Holder – as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities that the Supreme Court itself has recognized — we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices," Holder added.

Attorney General Greg Abbott reacted to Holder's announcement, saying, "The Obama Administration shouldn't deny in Texas what is allowed across the country." Likewise, Gov. Rick Perry said Holder's expressed intent "casts unfair aspersions on our state's common-sense efforts to preserve the integrity of our elections process."

On June 25, the day the Supreme Court released its decision in Shelby County v. Holder, Texas Secretary of State John Steen posted a list of acceptable forms of identification that prospective voters could present at a poll before casting a ballot.

Court ruling favors EPA

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., on July 26 ruled in favor of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in State of Texas v. EPA, 10-1425.

The State of Texas had appealed EPA's takeover of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's regulation of carbon-emissions from power plants and smokestack industries for not meeting the January 2011 deadline relating to the regulation of greenhouse gases.
The Texas Attorney General's Office said plans are to review the ruling.

George Mitchell dies

Texas philanthropist, oilman, real estate developer, billionaire and native of Galveston George P. Mitchell died July 26 at age 94.
A 1940 graduate of Texas A&M, Mitchell pioneered the process of hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas exploration, now a widely used technique.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Perry puts signature on House Bill 2

AUSTIN -The Texas House and Senate, closing in on the end of the second 30-day special session, postponed floor debates on the future funding of transportation projects until July 25.

Lawmakers likely will place that funding decision squarely in the hands of the electorate in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot.

But headlining last week's Capitol action was Gov. Rick Perry's July 18 signing into law of House Bill 2, passed by the House and Senate on July 13.

The legislation bans abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, requires physicians who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges at a facility within 30 miles, mandates that only a physician may dispense or administer abortion-inducing drugs and requires licensed abortion facilities to meet the same minimum safety standards as ambulatory surgical centers, beginning Sept. 1, 2014.

Perry said HB 2 "ensures that anyone performing abortions in Texas is doing so in a facility that is safe, clean and prepared to deal with any emergencies that might occur - a reasonable, common sense expectation for those caring for the health and safety of Texans."

However, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who led opposition to the bill in the Senate, said, "Shamefully, the Texas Senate just voted to pass a law that will leave tens of thousands of Texans without access to preventive and life-saving care, all to further an extremely partisan agenda. Some may believe that that this fight has been waged and won with this final vote today, but they are wrong in so many ways. The fight for the future of Texas is just beginning."

Davis and a number of other Senate and House Democrats said HB 2 and similar bills likely would spur lawsuits over state infringement of constitutionally protected rights.

Bill merges institutions

Gov. Perry on July 14 ceremonially signed SB 24, legislation passed June 14 to reorganize The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas-Pan American in Edinburg into one university within the University of Texas System. The new university is to be christened with a new name by the end of the year.

The medical school is slated to open in 2016. UT-Pan American has been the home of the statutorily authorized medical school in South Texas and the facilities and operations of the Lower Rio Grande Health Center associated with The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Under the legislation, the new university and medical school will be able to tap into the $14 billion Permanent University Fund.

More job growth in June

Texas' unemployment rate remained at 6.5 percent in June, with the state economy adding 5,800 seasonally adjusted nonfarm jobs in the month, the Texas Workforce Commission reported on July 19.

The national unemployment rate stood at 7.6 percent in June, according to statistics compiled and released by U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"Economic growth in Texas has proven to be diverse, consistent, and long-term," said Andres Alcantar, chair of the Texas Workforce Commission.

"The annual job growth across all industries continues to provide opportunity for Texas job seekers."

Education stats go online

Education Commissioner Michael Williams on July 19 announced the public posting of "2012 Snapshot: School District Profiles" on the Texas Education Agency website www.tea.state.tx.us.

"Snapshot," Williams said, provides an overview of public education in Texas for a particular school year. In addition to state-level information, this website contains a profile about the characteristics of each public school district and charter school.

Williams noted that "Snapshot" summary tables provide district information in some common categories, and a peer search function permits grouping districts according to shared characteristics, but "Snapshot" does not provide any campus-level information.

Sales tax holiday: get set

This year's state sales tax holiday is set for Aug. 9 to 11, per Senate Bill 485 passed by the current Legislature.

During those days, most clothing, footwear, school supplies and backpacks priced under $100 will be exempt from sales and use taxes, saving shoppers about $8 on every $100 they spend.

All qualifying items sold during the holiday period qualify for the exemption, including items sold online, or by telephone or mail, and lay-away plans can be used again this year, according to the state comptroller's office.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Lawmakers pass new abortion regulations

AUSTIN — Legislation relating to the regulation of abortion procedures, providers and facilities was passed by the Texas Senate on July 13, and now moves to the governor’s mansion to be signed into law. Thousands of demonstrators journeyed to the Capitol, hoping to influence the outcome and witness the proceedings.

House Bill 2 amends various sections of the state Health and Safety Code and the state Occupations Code, requiring clinics that provide abortions to meet ambulatory care standards and doctors who perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. HB 2 also requires that abortion-inducing medications such as RU-486 be administered in person by a doctor and prohibits an abortion past the 20th week of pregnancy. Also under the bill, pregnancies resulting from rape or incest would not receive special consideration on medical, psychological or moral grounds.

Proponents of HB 2 argued that the legislation would improve women’s health care by raising clinic standards and prevent fetal pain they believe is felt when an abortion is performed.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Lawmakers stay for another special session

AUSTIN - Gov. Rick Perry on June 26 summoned lawmakers back to Austin for a second special session of the Texas Legislature to begin July 1. Perry ordered lawmakers to write and pass legislation to do three things:

• Regulate abortion procedures, providers and facilities.

• Fund transportation infrastructure projects.

• Establish a mandatory sentence of life with parole for a capital felony committed by a 17-year-old offender.

Perry's first called session ended on June 25 with Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, talking to death SB 5, legislation to increase state regulation of women's health care and access to abortion services in particular. Davis's 11-hour filibuster was augmented by motions and questions of parliamentary procedure by Sens. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, Judith Zaffirini of Laredo, Kirk Watson of Austin, John Whitmire of Houston and other Democrats.

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CoverageAreaThe Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.

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