TribWeek: Top Texas News for the Week of Dec. 20, 2010

The tort reform state lawmakers passed in 2003 made it more difficult for patients to win damages in any health care setting, but none more so than emergency rooms, where plaintiffs must prove doctors acted with "willful and wanton" negligence. Tort reform advocates say the law is needed to protect ER doctors operating in volatile environments. But medical malpractice attorneys argue the threshold is nearly impossible to cross. “You’d have to be a Nazi death camp guard to meet this standard,” says one.

The president of Texans for Lawsuit Reform on why the group spends so much money on state elections, what it still wants from the Legislature, what he thinks the trial lawyers on the other side are after and what's wrong with the Democrats these days.

Over the next several months, hundreds of electric and plug-in hybrid cars will arrive in Texas cities. They will emit little pollution and be cheaper to operate than conventional vehicles. For the state government, however, the advent of alternative-fuel vehicles creates a long-term concern: They will generate little or no gas tax revenue — a key funding source for keeping the state's roads and bridges in good repair.

Should Texas gun sellers be required to notify the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives when they sell two or more semi-automatic rifles to one person within a five-day period? The feds, desperate to stem the flow of weapons into Mexico, say yes. Gun rights advocates like Gov. Rick Perry say such a policy would be misguided.

Pardoning has become a holiday tradition for governors and the president, who each year choose a fortunate few whose criminal records will get wiped clean. But experts say state and national leaders are granting fewer pardons these days — and doing it in a way that undermines a critical criminal justice process that allows rehabilitated offenders to lead normal lives. Gov. Rick Perry, for example, has granted only about 180 pardons since 2001. By contrast, Bill Clements issued more than 800 pardons during his eight-year tenure, while Mark White issued nearly 500 in four years.

All the schmoozing and strategizing involved in seeking the job of House Speaker is worth it come February, when the leader of the lower chamber gets to choose the chairmen of committees, who have the power to stop, slow or speed legislation through the process. Click the tabs on this interactive table to see what the chairmanships looked like in 2009 and who’s coming back to the House in 2011.

After a recount affirming his loss to state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, former University of Texas lineman Dan Neil has asked that the Texas House settle the election’s outcome. What happens now?

Texas may be reddening, but Dallas County’s turning a darker shade of blue. While the GOP picked up hotly contested Dallas-area state House seats in November, the county voted for challenger Bill White over incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Perry by a margin of 12 percentage points. Straight-ticket voters also helped Democratic District Attorney Craig Watkins cling to his office in a squeaker and gave the County Commissioners Court its first Democratic majority in nearly 30 years.

Hidalgo ISD, through a partnership with the University of Texas-Pan American, is graduating large numbers of students with college credit and is considered in some education circles the first "early college district" in the nation.

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