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Two Senators Throw Support Behind Challenger to Byron Cook

Also, House members get an update on the Zika virus, and the Governor's University Research Initiative gets an official launch.

State Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, speaks during an anti-toll road rally at the Texas Capitol on March 23, 2015.

Two state senators — Don Huffines and Bob Hall — have decided to throw their support behind the challenger in the contentious GOP primary fight in the Central Texas-based HD-8.

The men, along with Michael Reagan (son of the former president), are backing Thomas McNutt, who is seeking to unseat the incumbent Byron Cook, House State Affairs Chairman and key lieutenant to House Speaker Joe Straus.

"Thomas won't just run as a conservative — he will lead and vote as a conservative! He will keep Texas virtuous by fighting for liberty," Huffines said. "I am proud to endorse Thomas in this race and hope you will support him to be your next state representative."

Hall added, "I strongly support Thomas McNutt in House District 8. Thomas is a principled leader who will serve his constituents (not the lobbyists) well by fighting to eliminate sanctuary cities and standing up for Texas family values."

The HD-8 race has become something of a proxy fight between forces backing Straus and those who are seeking his ouster, and is one of five House contests to receive the highest “red” designation in the Texas Weekly hotlist.

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Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann, who is facing a competitive Republican primary challenger to keep her seat, was the top vote getter in a poll conducted by the State Bar of Texas, her campaign announced on Monday.

Lehrmann is facing Justice Michael Massengale in the GOP contest for the Place 3 seat.

She received 2,531 votes, or 46 percent of the total votes cast. The Democrat in the race, Mike Westergren, received 1,042 votes, or 19 percent of the total votes. Massengale received 861 votes, or 16 percent of the total votes, in the survey of Texas attorneys.

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Lawmakers on the House Public Health Committee heard testimony about the state's preparedness for infectious disease on Wednesday. The hearing came on the heels of official confirmation that the first sexually transmitted case of Zika virus had infected a person in Dallas.

John Hellerstedt, the new commissioner of Texas' public health agency, the Department of State Health Services, told lawmakers the state's laboratories would be able to conduct two kinds of tests for the virus within about a month.

Despite the first case of local transmission, Hellerstedt said no native Texas mosquitoes, the virus's typical vector, had so far tested positive for carrying the virus.

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One of Gov. Greg Abbott's top priorities for the 2015 legislative session came to fruition on Wednesday when he announced the launch of the Governor's University Research Initiative. Now, universities can apply for state funds to help them lure nationally recognized researchers to join their faculty.  

“The Initiative will attract the brightest minds from around the globe and enhance our Universities’ capacity to conduct world-class research," Abbott said in a statement. "I am confident that Texas’ commitment to investing in higher education will pay dividends for our economy, and current and future generations of students and faculty across the Lone Star State.”

Lawmakers approved the fund, which starts out with $40 million, in June. The money came from the dissolution of the Texas Enterprise Fund, a pet project of Abbott's predecessor Rick Perry.

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For a few years now, the Texas Department of Transportation has said they are as much as $5 billion short of the money needed to maintain current levels of traffic in such a fast-growing state.

After two sessions in which lawmakers aggressively pumped more money into the highway fund, is the shortfall finally closed?

Maybe, said TxDOT Executive Director James Bass in a conference call with transportation reporters Thursday.

"We're just over $5 billion additional per year coming into programs for TxDOT," Bass said, citing financial infusions including Propositions 1 and 7, approved by voters, and a five-year, $305 billion transportation funding bill signed by President Obama in December.

Yet Bass noted that the agency's original estimate of the shortfall came from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, which assumed the agency would have access to the same tools to stretch its dollars as it always had, including tolling. Yet both Propositions 1 and 7 have provisions barring those funds from being used on toll projects.

"We would look toward them to update that estimate to see if it's still on target," Bass said.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announced on Monday that he’s setting up a new select committee with a focus on maintaining the competitiveness of Texas ports.

One of the main purposes of the committee, according to Patrick, is to study the economic benefit to Texas ports of the Panama Canal expansion.

The panel’s members are: Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe (chair); Jose Menendez, D-San Antonio (vice chair); Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; and Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood.

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Former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte will play a leadership role at this summer’s national Democratic Party convention. She tells the Tribune that she's been asked to lead the Democratic National Committee’s rules committee for the convention.

Disclosure: The State Bar of Texas is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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