The Brief: Top Texas News for Feb. 24, 2012

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott

The Big Conversation:

With two separate moves, Texas edged into the roiling national debate over reproductive rights on Thursday.

The state on Thursday joined six others and several Catholic organizations in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a new health care rule approved by the Obama administration that would require all employers to include coverage for contraceptives in employees' health care benefits.

"Obamacare’s latest mandate tramples the First Amendment’s freedom of religion and compels people of faith to act contrary to their convictions," Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a press release. "The very first amendment to our Constitution was intended to protect against this sort of government intrusion into our religious convictions."

Though the president revised the rule earlier this month to exempt religious organizations, Abbott said the "so-called 'accommodation' was nothing but a shell game: the mandate still requires religious organizations to subsidize and authorize conduct that conflicts with their religious beliefs."

Gov. Rick Perry in a statement praised Abbott for taking "much-needed action" in "an ongoing battle over out right to practice our faiths, and live our lives, without Washington interference."

Meanwhile, at the direction of lawmakers and Abbott, Tom Suehs, Texas' commissioner of health and human services, signed a rule on Thursday that formally bans Planned Parenthood clinics and other "affiliates of abortion providers" from participating in the state's Women's Health Program.

Because the Obama administration has said such a move would violate federal law, the program — which provides women with cancer screenings, well-woman exams and contraception — is effectively dead.

"The Obama administration is trying to force Texas to violate our own state laws or they will end a program that provides preventative health care to more than 100,000 Texas women," said Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle. "This boils down to the rule of law, which the state of Texas respects and the Obama administration does not.

Peter J. Durkin, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, said politics had interfered with women's access to health care. "It is shameful," he said, "that Governor Perry and Commissioner Suehs continue to politicize lifesaving breast cancer screenings and birth control access for low-income women."

Culled:

  • Bruce Malone, the doctor who will perform surgery on Rick Perry today to repair his right clavicle, has openly criticized some of the health policies that the governor has championed. Malone told the Tribune in January that cutting family planning money and eliminating the Medicaid Women's Health Program to force Planned Parenthood out of Texas would be "a very stupid political thing." On Thursday, Malone clarified, but didn't back down from, his criticism of state policy but added that he'd likely avoid discussing politics with the governor. "I try to not do that," Malone said. "If they ask me a question, I’ll answer. But otherwise, I’m just their doctor."
  • A program created to help insurance-seekers in Texas navigate the complexities of federal health care reform will shut down in April, years before the health care law law goes into full effect. The Consumer Health Assistance Program, as it's called, was created the same year President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, but federal financing was not renewed, and unlike some other states, Texas is not seeking alternative means to maintain its program.
  • The political action committee of Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons on Thursday asked 18 state lawmakers to return about $65,000 in donations after a watchdog group reported that the PAC had violated Texas election laws. The state's election code requires PACs to have at least 10 contributors before making political donations, but the PAC was funded solely by Simmons. "We are working with the Ethics Commission now to get into full compliance,” said PAC treasurer William Lindquist. Several lawmakers said they planned to return the donations.

"I hate to say this, but in Texas we can fight all day long, but there's a propensity to write us off. They think, 'That's Texas. Texas is a place where those things kinds of things happen.'" — State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, on why Texas' recent abortion sonogram law received little national attention compared with Virginia's version

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