Posted: Mar 7, 2013 3:31 PM
Updated: Mar 7, 2013 3:31 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Sen. Kirk Watson touted a bill introduced Thursday that would allow elected bodies to hold open meetings online.
Abbott, who is responsible for enforcing open meeting laws, said the bill would catch the Open Meetings Act up with modern technology. Watson, a former Austin mayor, said allowing elected officials to use an Internet chat room to publicly hammer out new measures will speed up decision-making.
"This will create the opportunity for a virtual work session, the city council, the commissioner's court, the school board, or any other public entity will have the opportunity to ask questions of one another," Watson said. The Democratic lawmaker said it would open those meetings to anyone who wants to monitor them online, and the conversations would be posted for 30 days and then archived for two years.
Abbott, a Republican, said the bill does not force public officials to adopt the technology, but allows a new option for holding public meetings. Officials would still have to hear public testimony and vote on measures at an official in-person meeting.
"Texas has had some of the strongest open government laws in the nation. Though these laws continue to protect the transparency that is so vital to democracy, the public always benefits when modern technology is harnessed to make government more accessible," Abbott said. "It will allow these public officials to be more productive, they won't have to wait for the next meeting to communicate with each other."
Under the Open Meetings Act, a quorum of elected officials cannot meet and discuss public business without posting notice of an official meeting and inviting the public. Watson said the rule slows down decision-making, but is necessary to ensure government transparency.
HUNDREDS RALLY FOR PLANNED PARENTHOOD AT CAPITOL
Hundreds rallied outside the Texas Capitol on Thursday for Planned Parenthood, an organization vilified by many conservatives who work inside the dome.
Activists, largely dressed in pink and waving blue-and-white signs declaring "Texas Needs Planned Parenthood," staged a flash mob to the Beyonce song "Run the World (Girls)" and then cheered as top Democratic lawmakers decried their Republican colleagues' "ideological assault" on the organization and women's health in general.
Following the demonstration, the crowd fanned out to legislative offices for meetings with individual lawmakers as part of the group's annual lobbying day. But such efforts have rarely paid off, as many Texas legislators view Planned Parenthood as Public Enemy No. 1, claiming it promotes abortion in a state where the public overwhelmingly opposes the practice.
Their distaste for the group has been put into law. In 2011, the Legislature voted to bar all state funding to groups affiliated with abortion providers. That led to Planned Parenthood being booted from the Texas Women's Health Program, which provides care to about 130,000 low-income women, even though the organization was the initiative's largest provider.
In this session, a bill in the Senate would ban health educators linked to Planned Parenthood from providing sex education in public schools. The group says it only does so in a handful of Texas school districts and only with the permission of the local community and school board officials.
Supporters of that bill have also targeted sex education materials on the Planned Parenthood website, claiming the group promotes teen sex as a way to increase abortions and generate more profits.
But those at the rally dismissed such measures as sexism and noted that tens of thousands of Texans rely on Planned Parenthood for family planning services, cancer screenings and other care that isn't related to abortions.
DROUGHT WORSENING IN PARTS OF TEXAS
Parts of Texas went without rain in February, deepening the state's inability to overcome a drought that began two years ago.
National Weather Service rainfall maps show that southwest Texas received no rain last month, while southern areas of the state saw no more than a tenth of an inch. Recent record snowfall in the Panhandle helped pull much of that region out of exceptional drought.
But the U.S. Drought Monitor map released Thursday shows portions of North, South and southwest Texas moving back into exceptional drought, the driest category. A few areas received near normal precipitation from December to February thanks to rain that fell in mid-January.
The state's driest year on record is 2011. The state climatologist says the chance of rain for March is scant.
Texas lawmakers are considering setting aside $2 billion from the state's Rainy Day Fund to open a development fund to build new water projects. The continuing drought will likely weight heavily on them as they debate the measure.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"It's just ridiculous that we do things to women to manipulate their minds instead of just trusting that they've already made a very difficult decision." Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, on the 24-hour waiting period and large number of documents a woman must read before obtaining an abortion.