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Opinion

OPINION - State Capital Highlights: Perry touches on pot policy in international forum

AUSTIN — With the end of his longevity record of 14 years as governor less than a year away, Rick Perry took part in policy discussions at the 2014 World Economic Forum Jan. 21-25 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

Perry was the only U.S. state governor to attend the forum, the governor’s office said. Besides his headline-grabbing words suggesting a softer approach through drug courts on state marijuana laws, Perry said Texas is the place to be for companies seeking a business-friendly environment.

On Jan. 23, during the forum’s widely publicized panel discussion on drug policy, Perry said, “I’m probably the only person who is going to be an anti-legalization person on the stage tonight.” But, in the context of Tenth Amendment/state sovereignty, Perry added, “As the governor of the second-largest state in the country, what I can do is start us on policies that can start us on the road towards decriminalization.”

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Early voting turnout looks strong

Texas voters will decide the fate of nine proposed amendments to the state constitution in the coming election.

Early voting began Oct. 21 and runs through Nov. 1. Numbers reported Oct. 25 showed that voting is on track to outpace turnout in recent elections.

The Secretary of State’s office reports daily voting totals for the 15 most populous counties in the state, and by the end of Oct. 24, the fourth day of early voting, about 95,000 Texans had cast a ballot at the polls in those counties. That was more than double the 45,379 voters who had voted at the same point in 2011 constitutional amendment election, the Secretary of State’s office said.

The Nov. 5 constitutional amendment election is the first statewide election since photo ID requirements for voting in person went into effect. Computer users who have an Internet connection can see daily voter turnout numbers for early voting in this and past elections by visiting the elections tab at sos.state.tx.us.

Focus of week is safety

On Oct. 21, the Texas Education Agency and Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University jointly pointed school districts and charters toward resources available to help address and combat bullying and cyber-bullying on campuses.

That message, part of Texas Safe Schools Week, Oct. 20-26, fit with a law passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011 mandating that schools make campuses safer for all students. Gov. Rick Perry, in his Oct. 4 Texas Safe Schools Week proclamation, said, “All children deserve to learn in an environment where they feel safe and free from harm.”

State law defines bullying as “engaging in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the district and that has the effect or will have the effect of physically harming a student, damaging a student’s property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or of damage to the student's property; or is sufficiently severe, persistent, and pervasive enough that the action or threat creates an intimidating, threatening, or abusive educational environment for a student.”

Texas School Safety Center’s inaugural Texas Bully Prevention Summit in San Marcos is set for Oct. 30.

A&M Israel is planned

On location in Israel on Oct. 23, Gov. Perry and Israeli President Shimon Peres, joined by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp and other TAMU System executives, announced the creation of an international branch of Texas A&M University in Israel.

Funding for development and construction of the campus, to be located in the predominantly Arab city of Nazareth, will come from private donations.

The governor’s office released a statement on the topic, saying, “Locating a branch campus of Texas A&M University in Israel will further strengthen the economic and cultural ties Gov. Perry has worked for two decades to foster between Texas and Israel. In developing the new campus, a strong emphasis will be placed on building bridges of peace and understanding through education among the region's vibrant and diverse cultures and religions.”

Williams resigns from Senate

In early October, state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, announced he would not remain in office for the 2015 session of the Texas Legislature.

Last week, Williams, an accountant by trade, said he would resign from office, effective at midnight, Oct. 25.

Williams chaired the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee in 2013. In 2011, he chaired the Senate Transportation Committee. He began is legislative career in 1997 as a House member. In 2003 he was elected to the Senate.

Enforcement push slows crime

The Texas Department of Public Safety on Oct. 24 announced results of an enforcement initiative titled, “Operation Strong Safety.”

Targeting the Rio Grande Valley, this state, local and federal multi-agency effort brought about an increase patrols Sept. 15 through Oct. 4 to address three public safety issues: criminal activity; commercial vehicles traffic on roadways and unsafe driving practices.

“These 24/7 saturation patrols were sustained until the cartels were forced to curtail their drug and human smuggling operations in the targeted area,” the DPS reported. Beefed up law enforcement in the area resulted in decreases in the illegal trafficking of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, U.S. currency and stolen vehicles, plus a list of other positive effects.

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Appellate court overturns DeLay conviction

AUSTIN — The Texas Third Court of Appeals on Sept. 19 overturned former U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay’s 2010 conviction on charges of money-laundering and conspiracy in an ethics case brought by the State of Texas.

In a 2-1 opinion, the majority concluded that there was insufficient evidence of any felony offense that generated proceeds and, therefore, that the State failed to establish an element of the crime of money-laundering as alleged in the indictment.

DeLay resigned from Congress in 2006 while the state's lawsuit against him, stemming from fundraising activities in the 2002 election, was in progress. A Travis County jury convicted DeLay in November 2010 but he served no prison time.

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OPINION-State Capital Highlights: Governor goes on business-luring trip

AUSTIN — Maryland is the next state in Gov. Rick Perry’s sights. He’s already been to California, Connecticut, Missouri and New York to court businesses, hoping they will pull up stakes and head to the Lone Star State.

Perry announced on Sept. 12 that he would be in Maryland on Sept. 18 to make his pitch. To prepare Maryland for his arrival, a 60-second radio ad and 30-second TV ad are running in several markets.

“The ads showcase the opportunities and freedom available to families and businesses thanks to Texas’ smart fiscal policies,” the governor’s office stated, adding, the nearly $500,000 television and radio ad buys and the governor’s trip are paid for by “TexasOne” and “no state tax dollars were to be used for his travel and accommodations, or for the ad buy.”

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Court lets redistricting maps stand, for now

AUSTIN — A San Antonio federal court on Sept. 6 ordered that redistricting maps passed by the 2013 Texas Legislature will serve as interim plans and those plans would be used in upcoming elections, including 2014 elections.

Plaintiffs challenging the maps allege racial discrimination in the drawing of boundaries in certain districts.

In its order, a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court Western District of Texas San Antonio Division noted the litigation would continue “for as long as it takes to reach a legally correct decision on very important issues, but elections must go on.” And, the panel reasoned, that because “a full, fair and final review of all issues before this Court cannot be completed prior to the upcoming deadlines for the 2014 elections” the current set of maps being challenged will stand for the time being.

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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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