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State Senate Leaders Urge Federal Action on Zika Virus

Also, the widow of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee publicly endorses Rodney Ellis for the seat and a railroad commissioner breaks down recent recommendations from the Sunset Commission.

The Aedes albopictus mosquito.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, on Monday upped the urgency on federal policymakers to do something about the Zika virus.

The top Senate Republicans penned a letter asking Texas congressmen and the Obama administration to reach a compromise on a spending bill that would fund Zika prevention efforts, saying the funding was urgent after recent floods. Without federal funding, they said, Texas could face "potentially devastating effects."

Congress is expected to take up a funding bill for Zika prevention this week. The Obama administration in February asked lawmakers to set aside $1.9 billion to combat the mosquito-borne disease, but that's been ensnared in a three-month stalemate as Republicans in the House and Senate have debated spending less.

"We urge you to help ensure a coordinated and robust response by the federal government to combat the spread of Zika," the state lawmakers wrote.

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State Sen. Rodney Ellis’ bid to win the seat on the Harris County Commissioners Court that had been held by the late El Franco Lee received a boost this week in the form of a public endorsement from Lee’s widow, Kaye Lee.

Ellis made his plans known that he would like to run for the seat in the fall elections soon after Lee’s death in early January. A caretaker for the seat, Gene Locke, was named soon afterward.

Locke, though, upset those plans for an orderly succession when he announced in April that he had changed his mind and planned to seek the spot on the ballot himself.

Because El Franco Lee died after his name was placed on the March 1 party primary ballot, party precinct chairs will choose later this month someone to replace Lee on the general election ballot.

Noting that the seat now held by Locke is the only Democratic seat left on the Commissioners Court, Kaye Lee tells county precinct chairs in a Tuesday letter that Ellis is “the only candidate who has the durability to win the open election in 2020. Your vote is much more than electing a replacement for an unopposed term … you will determine if we as a party will continue to have a voice and presence on Commissioners Court for years to come.”

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Williamson County District Attorney Jana Duty, whom the State Bar of Texas recently placed on probation for professional misconduct, is facing pressure from local critics to resign her post.

A group of local officials and business leaders, including state Sen. Charles Schwertner and Judge Bill Gravell, held a press conference on the steps of the Williamson County Courthouse in Georgetown on Wednesday morning and called for Duty's resignation, according to Tom Holloway, Schwertner's chief of staff.

Among other points, critics said she has not been coming to work.

Under the terms of Duty's 18-month probation, she may still practice law. Duty, who recently lost a re-election bid, was not present at the conference, according to Holloway. She could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton on Friday weighed in on the Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendations to overhaul his 125-year-old agency — agreeing with some, and disagreeing with others.

In a breakfast hour interview last week with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Sitton said he backed the legislative body’s call to rename the commission, which has nothing to do with railroads (The Sunset Commission, which periodically reviews state agencies, recommends a change to Texas Energy Resources Commission).

That’s consistent with Sitton’s past calls for such a change, a transparency effort intended to bolster public awareness of the agency’s duties.

Below are Sitton’s responses to some of the sunset commission’s other recommendations (in bold).

Do more to crackdown on rule-breaking operators: Sitton said he believes the agency already has and uses tools — such as the ability to bar companies from further operating in Texas — to discourage bad behavior. But he said he’d welcome any legislative changes that gave the commission more flexibility in assessing penalties. He suggested that industry officials themselves want strict enforcement, so as not to damage the commission’s image in the public eye (“They’re the first people that come to say, Ryan, if they’re bad performers, it’s your job to take them out.)

Change bonding requirements to give the commission more money to attack its growing backlog of abandoned wells: “Yes,” he said. The commission needs more resources.

Transfer the commission’s duties to regulate natural gas utilities to the Public Utility Commission: Sitton disagreed, saying that the agency has more expertise in natural gas pipelines — and more ability to know when a utility should ask for money for upgrades.

Sitton also said that the sunset commission should have called for outmoded agency rules to be updated, such as requirements for flaring natural gas at well sites.

In non-agency-related comments, Sitton, who was a staunch supporter of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz during his presidential run, will vote for presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who he believes is a better option than the Democrat, Hillary Clinton.

“There’s no question it’s been a struggle,” he said of that decision to throw his support to Trump.

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