Posted: Apr 17, 2013 5:40 PM
Updated: Apr 17, 2013 5:40 PM
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) A renewed push to make texting while driving illegal in Texas stayed afloat Wednesday, but only after narrowly defeating bipartisan resistance to an outright ban over concerns that ranged from racial profiling to government meddling.
The House eventually gave preliminary approval to leveling a $100 fine to drivers caught texting behind the wheel. Yet another hurdle for backers of a Texas texting ban remains: Gov. Rick Perry, who vetoed a similar bill in 2011.
Perry already has signaled that his stance hasn't changed leaving shaky this second try by more than two dozen Republicans and Democrats, who point toward Texas being among just 10 states without laws against texting while driving.
Prevailing in a three-hour debate on the House floor, however, left supporters savoring a win for now.
"This is a uniform ban across the state that is about public safety and saving lives," said Republican state Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland, who is the longest-serving member of the House.
Perry characterizes a texting-while-driving ban as a form of government micromanagement. He says educating drivers is the key to deterrence.
The bill passed 98-47 and still needs final House approval.
Yet Democratic state Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston nearly de-fanged the proposal before it even reached a vote. He sought to change the bill language in a way that would effectively forbid patrol officers from pulling over a driver solely for being caught texting.
Dutton earlier told House members he worried about black drivers being profiled and disproportionately stopped over texting allegations. He later made the case against expanding government an argument that appealed to many Republicans.
Dutton's amendment was so narrowly defeated that the House clerk twice polled every member about their vote including once after a 72-72 tie.
"There is intent around here to pass this bill, even if they have to scare the heck out of you," Dutton said.
Other amendments prevailed. One would get drivers off the hook if they're pulled over for looking at their phone but "reasonably believed" that an incoming text message concerned an emergency regardless if there was one or not.
A 2009 federal study showed texting takes a driver's eyes off the wheel for an average 4.6 seconds, enough time to travel the length of a football field at 55 miles an hour.
TEXAS SENATE APPROVES TEACHER WEAPONS TRAINING
Texas schools could send up to two teachers to get special tactical response and weapons training to help guard against school shooters under a bill approved Wednesday by the state Senate.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst has been pushing for special training for school personnel since the December 2012 shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Although schools are generally a no-guns zone, Texas law allows districts to let teachers who have concealed handgun licenses to bring their weapons to campus. Currently, only three school districts are known to do that.
"The landscape of school safety has sadly changed," said Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the sponsor of the bill.
Patrick said school districts could have two teachers per school apply for the training. The state set aside up to $1 million per year for the training.
Superintendents at three small rural school districts that allow some teachers to carry guns have told lawmakers that the practice provides a critical measure of safety for students in the event of a campus shooting.
But a law enforcement expert warned lawmakers that the policy could put those teachers at "high risk" of being mistakenly shot by responding officers.
Patrick has suggested the teachers would likely be in a defensive position and not roaming the halls with a gun drawn to be mistakenly targeted by police.
SENATORS MOVE TO REPEAL ANTI-GAY LAW
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted on Wednesday to repeal the state's anti-gay sodomy law, a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.
Texas, along with Oklahoma and Kansas, will be the only states that still have the law on the books after Montana's legislature approved its repeal of the measure and the governor pledged to sign it.
Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, authored the bill and said the state was long overdue in taking the measure off the books and that it created confusion among law enforcement.
"This defunct law was the grounds for police to harass patrons of restaurant in my district resulting in a suit against the city of El Paso," he said, describing a 2009 incident where police arrested a same-sex couple for kissing. "Not only is the continued existence of this law on the books a source of misinformation to law enforcement, but in my own district local governments have been forced to spend their limited resources due to this misuse."
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he tried to get the law repealed in 1993, but conservatives in the Texas House blocked the attempt.
"All you're doing is following court rulings and taking unconstitutional language off the books," he said.
The State Bar of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union and the pro-gay rights group Equality Texas supported the bill. No one registered with the committee to oppose it and it passed 5-0. The bill was sent to the full Senate for a vote.
SENATE APPROVES CHANGES TO 'PARENT TRIGGER' LAW
The Texas Senate has approved legislation to expedite the parental right to close public schools or convert them into charter schools if they are underperforming academically.
The 26-5 Senate vote Wednesday to overhaul the state "parent trigger" law sends the changes to the House.
The state now can intervene in schools with persistently low test scores. A majority of parents may petition a school board for changes if scores don't improve, but the process can take six years.
The proposal by Republican Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood would allow parents to petition the state education commissioner directly after three years of low scores.
Democratic Sen. Eddie Lucio of Brownsville suggested unsuccessfully that parents be required to prove a record of participation in Parent-Teacher Association meetings before signing petitions.
PERRY TO LEGISLATURE: KEEP $7B IN RAINY DAY FUND
Gov. Rick Perry is urging lawmakers to leave at least $7 billion in the state's cash reserves, or Rainy Day Fund.
The Dallas Morning News reports (http://bit.ly/XREYpm) that Perry said Wednesday a Texas Senate proposal to take $6 billion from the fund is "a little too much."
The fund balance is projected reach $12 billion if left untouched. Perry said he'd like to keep at least $7 billion in case of a major natural disaster.
Perry has also called for $1.6 billion in business tax cuts, and says it may mean tapping the Rainy Day Fund to cover those costs.
Last week, the Senate Finance Committee passed a constitutional amendment that could spend $2.5 billion of Rainy Day Fund money for water projects, and $3.5 billion more on transportation improvements.
SENATE VOTES TO RAISE MINIMUM AGE FOR TANNING BEDS
The Texas Senate is trying to crack down on teen tanning.
The Senate voted Wednesday to raise the minimum age for using a tanning facility to 18 years old. The current minimum is 16 with parental permission.
Lawmakers set the minimum age in 2009. Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, says it should be raised to help reduce the cases of skin cancer. According to a bill analysis, there are about 70,000 new cases of invasive melanoma each year and the disease is one of main causes of cancer deaths in women between 25 and 30.
The bill has been supported by doctors and opposed by the tanning industry. It now goes to the House for consideration.
SENATE APPROVES NEW KAUFMAN COUNTY DA
Texas lawmakers have confirmed the nomination of a new district attorney to replace her slain predecessor in Kaufman County.
Hours after local authorities announced an arrest and confession in the case on Wednesday, the state Senate approved 31-0 the appointment of former county court-at-law judge Erleigh Norville Wiley.
The 49-year-old former Dallas prosecutor replaced former DA Mike McLelland, who was slain with his wife Cynthia over Easter weekend. Their killings followed the death of an assistant district attorney who was shot as he walked to the courthouse.
Sen. Robert Duell of nearby Greenville noted that McLelland had stood in the legislative chamber for a resolution honoring his courage shortly before he was killed.
He praised Wiley for volunteering to take the job "even with the inherent risk."
KEY SENATOR: TEXAS CASINO BILL'S ODDS 'VERY SLIM'
A key advocate for approving casino gambling in Texas calls the chances of his bill passing "very slim."
The Austin American-Statesman reports (http://bit.ly/11gS5NH ) that Texas Sen. John Carona, a Dallas Republican, decided not to have the business and commerce committee vote on his bill.
The bill would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to allow casinos.
Carona said Tuesday his colleagues told him they didn't want vote on a controversial bill with little chance of success. He says the best chance for gambling might be if a special session is called for lawmakers to pass more school funding in the wake of a statewide lawsuit.
Gambling supporters say casinos would create jobs and keep gambling revenue from leaving the state. Conservative and religious groups have opposed the bill.
NUNS PROTEST AT CAPITOL FOR MORE MEDICAID
The "Nuns on the Bus" have arrived at the Texas Capitol, and they are calling for lawmakers to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor.
The Roman Catholic group travels the country drawing attention to poverty and social issues. The group first gained national prominence traveling the country and protesting federal budget cuts they said would hurt the poor and needy.
In Austin on Wednesday nuns and supporters from across the state lobbied lawmakers to pass a state law that would add more than 1 million of the working poor to the Medicaid health care program.
Standing before a group chanting, "Health care for everyone," Sister Ceil Roeger pointed out that 24 percent of Texans do not have health insurance, the highest number in the country.
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
"He's a big talker." Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn on Gov. Rick Perry's announcement that he will travel to Chicago and recruit businesses to move to Texas.