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The Brief: April 21, 2015

The House gave the OK on Monday to legislation overhauling the way public corruption cases are handled in the state, but not before criticism that the new mechanism creates "a new protected class" of elected officials.

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The Big Conversation

The House gave the OK on Monday to legislation overhauling the way public corruption cases are handled in the state, but not before criticism that the new mechanism creates "a new protected class" of elected officials.

That was how Longview state Rep. David Simpson described the bill, which was written to strip the public integrity unit, housed in the Travis County DA's office, of its authority to prosecute public corruption cases. Simpson was the lone Republican voting against the bill, which passed on a 94-51 vote. It will be voted on a final time today before being sent to the Senate.

The Tribune's Jay Root wrote:

Under the bill as it came off the floor, public corruption complaints against high-ranking state officials would no longer be directed to the Travis County district attorney’s office but instead would go to a new white collar crimes division inside the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The designation of the elite state investigative agency as the repository for complaints against state politicians who oversee their budget prompted Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, to decry what he saw as a move toward the “fox guarding the henhouse.”

Root also wrote Monday on an ethics bill in the Senate that underwent significant weakening in committee before it was voted out. Here are some of the details:

After some complained it was too stringent, the so-called cooling-off period for lawmakers who want to become lobbyists now exempts every current member of the Legislature. A measure preventing legislator-lawyers from making money off of public debt deals as bond counsel was taken out of the bill.

(Bill author Van) Taylor also agreed to slice out a section that would have taken away lucrative pensions from lawmakers who commit serious crimes connected to their public service.

Meanwhile, amendments offered in committee that would have forced members to recuse themselves on bills that benefit them financially and that would have required them to disclose their tax returns were voted down.

Trib Must-Reads

Bills On Medical Authority Spark More Doc Fights, by Edgar Walters — Medical groups are tracking more than a dozen bills — some moving, some apparently stuck — that would give more autonomy to professionals like nurse practitioners and physical therapists to operate independently of medical doctors.

Analysis: Bickering Over Inquiries With a Legislative Audience, by Ross Ramsey — As the Texas Legislature debates moving ethics investigations out of Travis County, an exchange between prosecutors and state police illustrates some of the problems ahead.

Two Democrats Face Off to Fill Legislature's Last Seat, by Patrick Svitek — Voters head to the polls Tuesday in Bexar County to chose between two Democrats in the second round of the race to replace former state Rep. Jose Menéndez, D-San Antonio.

Will Texas Ever Change Railroad Commission Name?, by Jim Malewitz — A group of lawmakers is trying – again – to change the Railroad Commission's name to reflect what it does. This time, proponents want to call the agency the Texas Energy Commission.

Senate Gives Initial OK to School Scholarship Plan, by Morgan Smith — Scholarships funded by state business tax credits would help some low-income parents send their children to private schools under a measure tentatively approved by the Texas Senate Monday.

Senate Sends Border Security Measure to House, by Julián Aguilar — The Texas Senate on Monday passed its own sweeping border security bill, choosing to send its own version to the House rather than taking up the House’s measure, which the lower chamber passed last month.

Lawmaker Urges Colleagues to Act on Climate Change, by Jim Malewitz — Pressing Texas leaders to act on climate change, a state lawmaker on Monday appealed to his colleagues' long-held disdain for federal intervention.

Open Carry Wins Final Passage in House, by Bobby Blanchard — Last-ditch efforts to let big cities opt out went nowhere, and the Texas House on Monday moved all Texans a step closer to the public carrying of handguns by license holders.

UT Regent Asks Attorney General for Access to Confidential Info, by Matthew Watkins — UT System Regent Wallace Hall is questioning whether it is legal for the chancellor to restrict Hall's access to confidential student information. In a letter, he asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in.

House Launches Contracting Inquiry at 11 State Agencies, by Aman Batheja — State Rep. John Kuempel, chairman of the House General Investigating and Ethics Committee, launched an official inquiry Monday into contracting practices at 11 state agencies.

Integrity Unit Won't Resume Inquiry Into DPS Contracts, by Ryan McCrimmon — Responding to a request by the Texas Department of Public Safety to renew an investigation into the department’s border security contracts, the head of the state’s anti-corruption unit said Monday that it was not equipped to continue the investigation.

With Hospital Funds in Question, Abbott Holds Firm Against Medicaid Expansion, by Edgar Walters — Following news that billions of federal dollars for hospitals could be in jeopardy if the state does not expand its public health insurance program to cover more low-income Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott reiterated his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

Perry's Likely 2016 Campaign Gets Policy Team, by Patrick Svitek — As he readies for a 2016 presidential campaign, former Gov. Rick Perry is officially bringing on board a policy team.

Fenves Named Next President of UT-Austin, by Matthew Watkins — By an 8-0 vote, Gregory Fenves has been named the next UT-Austin president. He'll take over the job June 3.

The Day Ahead

•    The House convenes at 10 a.m.; the Senate convenes at 11 a.m. On the House calendar is that chamber's version of "right to try" legislation, which would allow terminally ill patients to take drugs still in clinical trials.

•    House Public Health meets at 8 a.m. where one bill up for consideration authorizes the direct sale or sale at farmers' markets of raw milk and raw milk products (E2.012).

•    House Culture, Recreation & Tourism meets on final adjournment where members will take up a number of proposed state superlatives — from the State Hat of Texas (cowboy hat) and Steak Capital of Texas (Hico) to official nickname of Texas (the Lone Star State) (E1.010).

Elsewhere

Blue Bell issues sweeping recall, Houston Chronicle

Seliger injured in motorcycle wreck, The Associated Press

Legislators' vision for incentive reform looks like Abbott's, Austin American-Statesman

Gambling bills coming up losers in Legislature, The Dallas Morning News

Filings fly in Rick Perry criminal case, San Antonio Express-News

Wendy Davis plans national women’s initiative, San Antonio Express-News

U.S. sends illegal immigrants home on expensive charter flights that are largely empty, The Washington Post

Falkenberg wins Houston Chronicle's first Pulitzer, Houston Chronicle

Quote to Note

"This is shaping up to be the worst session for ethics in 30 years."

— Tom "Smitty" Smith of the consumer group Public Citizen of Texas, reacting to ethics legislation that was significantly weakened on its way to the Senate floor

Today in TribTalk

It's time to modernize voter registration in Texas, by Jennifer L. Clark and Myrna Pérez — Texans and their lawmakers can and should come together to craft a modernized voter registration system that works for Texas. The state deserves a 21st century voter registration system that’s secure, efficient and inclusive.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    Energy: The Next Five Years on April 24 at at SMU in Dallas

•    A One-Day Symposium on Health Care on May 4 at Huston-Tillotson University in Austin

•    A Conversation With John Sharp on May 7 at The Austin Club

•    A Conversation About Texas Monthly's Best and Worst Legislators 2015 on June 18 at The Austin Club

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