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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

"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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OPINION-Immigration Reform Must Include Results On Border Security

John CornynEditor’s Note: The following op-ed piece was published in the Houston Chronicle on June 27.

I know of no one, including me, who believes our broken immigration system is acceptable.

And while Americans are an extra­ordinarily compassionate and generous people, they have learned from painful experience to be skeptical about endless Washington broken promises to restore law and order to our dysfunctional immigration system.

Border states, like Texas, have borne the brunt of the federal government's failure to deal effectively with this issue.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Special session on redistricting begins

AUSTIN—On May 27, the last day of the 140-day regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry called a special session to begin that very day.

Perry’s only stated purpose in keeping lawmakers in Austin is for the Legislature to pass legislation that “ratifies and adopts redistricting plans ordered by the federal district court as the permanent plans for districts used to elect members of the Texas House of Representatives, Texas Senate and United States House of Representatives.” In 2010 and 2011 various redistricting maps were in and out of federal courts over matters relating to preclearance, a requirement under Section 5 of the U.S. Voting Rights Act that subjects Texas to when new laws relating to voting are passed here, because of the state’s history of discrimination in conducting elections.

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OPINION-End comes to Legislature's regular session

AUSTIN—Texas lawmakers finally passed Senate Bill 1, a state budget for fiscal biennium 2014-2015, on May 26, the 139th day of the 140-day regular session of the 83rd Texas Legislature.

Next stop will be Gov. Rick Perry’s desk for the $197 billion budget – which came in at about $7 billion more than the estimated budget for the current fiscal biennium. Perry had asked lawmakers to make about $2 billion in tax reductions, but the budget he will be looking at brings in cuts totaling an estimated $1 billion.

Various other legislation also on the way to Perry, for example, changes student testing requirements, benefits charter schools, increases Medicaid funding, allows issuance of campus “carry” permits and much more. Among bills Perry already has vetoed was one that would have identified individual citizens who donate to so-called “dark money” organizations. The veto period will end June 16.

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OPINON-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott asks those targeted by IRS to contact his office

AUSTIN—Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott recently issued the following statement concerning revelations that the IRS targeted conservative organizations for audits and investigations, causing these organizations to expend time and money defending themselves and responding to IRS questions.

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