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Federal judge again blocks Texas fetal remains rules

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A federal judge late Friday again blocked Texas rules mandating burial or cremation of fetal remains, in a victory for abortion rights groups.

Austin-based U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks said that the health department regulations would remain suspended until further notice and that a trial date would be set in coming weeks.

Sparks had previously suggested in court that the proposed rules had public health benefit. Opponents argue they could unduly shame and burden women seeking abortions.

The rules seek to ban hospitals and clinics from disposing of fetal remains from abortions or miscarriages as biological medical waste, usually meaning they are incinerated and placed in sanitary landfills.

They were set to take effect in December, but Sparks issued restraining orders after national advocacy groups sued. He then heard two days of testimony before eventually issuing Friday’s injunction. Federal courts previously blocked similar measures in Louisiana and Indiana.

Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights called the rules “unnecessary, unconstitutionally vague, and manifestly insulting to women.”

“Our Constitution protects a woman’s fundamental right to access reproductive health care without needless barriers, and we will continue fighting for decisions like this wherever politicians choose to ignore that right,” Northup said in a statement.

Texas could appeal the injunction and ask a higher court to allow the rules to move forward while it waits for trial. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office hasn’t commented on that possibility but vowed Friday to keep fighting for the rules.

“Texas has chosen to dignify the life of the unborn by requiring the humane disposition of fetal remains,” Paxton said in a statement. He said the ruling “reaffirms that the abortion lobby has grown so extreme that it will reject any and every regulation no matter how sensible.”

Texas first proposed the rules in July, days after the U.S. Supreme Court voided much of the state’s larger anti-abortion law, which was approved in 2013 and would have left Texas with 10 abortion clinics, down from more than 40 in 2012.

The state health department said the rules sought to protect human dignity in a manner consistent with Texas’ past restrictions on abortion. But while hearing evidence earlier this month, Sparks said they were “100 percent political” and suggested they could supersede established Texas law that allows scattering of ashes on any private property with owner’s consent, which might include landfills.

Lawyers for Paxton’s office countered that that law applied only to human remains and not specifically to fetal tissue, which prompted Sparks to exclaim: “It’s the official doctrine of the state that fetal tissue is not human remains. So you’re bringing dignity to non-human remains?”

The groups suing say cremation and burial would cost more and force women to cover the additional expenses. Exactly how much more isn’t clear, though some estimates have put the figure at an extra $400 per fetus — perhaps doubling the costs of an abortion.

Texas argues that those estimates assume individualized burial or cremation being required for each fetus when the rules would allow groups of remains to be collected for mass burial or cremation, lowering the cost considerably.

Even amid the legal fight, top Republican state lawmakers have filed bills to codify similar fetal remains rules into formal Texas law. Since the Legislature’s session ends in late May, those measures could be approved and signed into law before the trial over the health department rules is completed.

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Abortion Clinic Closes After Attempting to Evade State Laws, 3rd Abortion Clinic Shut Down in 2017

Cheryl Sullenger

In an effort to evade Texas laws in 2014, the Texas-based Whole Women’s Health abortion chain established an abortion facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where abortion laws are virtually non-existent.

Now, after less than three years of intense prayer and outreach, the Coalition for Life of Las Cruces has announced that as of January 25, 2017, the abortion business has packed up their office, stripped the building of their signage, and moved out.

The Whole Women’s Health of Las Cruces is the third surgical abortion facility to close in the U.S. in 2017. It is also the third New Mexico abortion facility to shut down in the past six years.

After the 2013 enactment of Texas’ abortion facility licensing law, HB2, Whole Women’s Health and other abortion businesses were forced to shut down several of its Texas locations that failed to comply with the new law.

In an effort to recoup financial losses, Whole Women’s Health set up shop in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just over the state line from El Paso. In addition to taking advantage of lax regulation, the abortion business also referred minor girls from Texas across state lines to Las Cruces for abortions where they would not have to obtain parental consent, which is required in Texas.

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It seemed like the perfect solution for the abortion chain – until pro-life activists got wind of their plans.

Pastors Manny and Grace Lardizabal of Albuquerque immediately led a prayer team to Las Cruces and covered the community and border area with prayer. When they showed up at the facility on its announced first day of business, the facility had failed to open.

Operation Rescue, working with New Mexico activists Bud and Tara Shaver and Martha Beasley, and others discovered that the Las Cruces abortion facility had later quietly opened through what appeared to be deception and in violation of zoning laws. However, the City of Las Cruces ignored the zoning issues and allowed the abortion facility to remain open.

Local activists with the Coalition for Life of Las Cruces banded together and maintained a large and powerful presence at the Whole Women’s Health, which likely contributed to the decision to close the facility. The group promised in a written statement to remain vigilant and prevent any other abortion facility from opening in that community.

“Financial issues drove Whole Women’s Health into New Mexico, and it is likely that financial issues also drove them out,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue. “Abortion numbers are down and the border area is over-saturated with abortion facilities after the courts allowed two El Paso abortion businesses to reopen a couple of years ago. There just isn’t enough demand for abortions, which in itself is an answer to prayer.”

Operation Rescue congratulates everyone who worked and prayed for the closure of the Las Cruces abortion business. Prayers have been answered!

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Public Outcry Against President Trump’s Immigration Freeze Stretches Across Houston

Public outcry against President Trump’s immigration freeze stretched across the country and Texas, including in Houston.

The City of Houston has played a large role in the country’s refugee resettlement program and is one of America’s most diverse cities. On Sunday, some local officials spoke out against closing the door to refugees and immigrants from certain Muslim countries. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted that Houston will always be a welcoming city. Houston’s Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee echoed that sentiment.

“We’re not going to yield to panic and fear that is being exhibited by the White House. We hope the White House will learn from America, we don’t want to learn from the White House,” she said.

Jackson Lee is on the Homeland Security Committee. The Houston Democrat says she wants to take away any funding that’s fueling the new immigration order.

Jackson Lee spoke Sunday at Bush Intercontinental Airport, where she told reporters federal authorities had detained at least six people over the weekend, including an Iraqi green card holder. The airport Starbucks filled with volunteer attorneys, who formed a legal rapid response team.

Rosemary Vega is with the immigration law clinic at the University of Houston Law Center.

“We’re getting calls. If we get families that need assistance, that people are being detained and not being released, we’re here to maybe file habeas and help them however we can,” Vegas said.

In downtown Houston on Sunday more than a thousand people gathered just steps away from the Super Bowl festivities.

“Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here. Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here,” they chanted.

People in football jerseys streamed by the protesters who stretched the length of a city block and overflowed into a parking lot. The protest drew a wide range of people — immigrants, members of the local Muslim community, a rabbi and some of his congregation and members of a Methodist church who had just finished Sunday service.

Rabbi Josh Lobel said that he noticed that the immigration freeze came down on Friday, which also marked the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“When we’re banning people, women and children, innocents, people who are just looking to escape, that to me is a terrifying sign,” Lobel said.

Jolie Rocke Brown says she came because she can’t stay at home anymore and just post her discontent on social media.

So she led protesters in song.

“I feel this is a new movement. This is a continuation of the Civil Rights Movement, but now it’s more inclusive, which it needs to be more inclusive,” she said.

While several other Texas cities joined Houston in protesting Trump’s immigration freeze, the state’s congressional delegation was mostly silent this weekend. A few Texas Republicans applauded Trump’s order, including U.S. Representatives Mike McCaul from Austin and John Ratcliffe from North Texas.

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RERfirst — EXTRAORDINARY DEVELOPMENTS IN A TEXAS ELECTION CORRUPTION STORY

By James Keller, RERcontributor

The first case targeting illegal electronic voting practices in Texas, by Dr. Laura Pressley, is progressing through the Texas court system.  She is the candidate who sued to de-certify the election of her opponent (Austin City Council race) due to the county not keeping or not producing any original records of the vote (zero tapes, serial numbers, results tapes, ballot images) as required by Texas election code, Texas Administrative Code, and the State Constitution.

Notable is that the Texas Secretary of State’s Director of Elections, Keith Ingram, who worked in Little Rock, Arkansas for a former partner of the Rose Law Firm (according to David Knight, Infowars), is at the center of the case.  His office, under the color of law, instructed Pressley’s county, as well as counties all over the State of Texas to ignore all of requirements that give any credibility to e-voting election results.

The county refused to give Pressley a copy of any of the four legally required sets of documents, including legally sufficient ballot images – and only produced the CVR (cast vote record) summary only – not an image of the whole ballot that each voter saw and marked.

The lower trial court dismissed her election contest case ‘for lack of evidence’ and fined her personally $40K and her attorney $50k, later offering to lift the draconian fines if she would not appeal the case.

But she did appeal the case in 2015, and gave oral arguments in April 2016, and the Austin Third Court finally ruled 8 months later, after the 2016 General Election, on December 23 – the Day that Governments ‘take out the trash’ while no one is watching. The Austin Third Court upheld the lower court, and added $25k to the fine!  Make no mistake, a message was sent to any candidate who believes or knows that their election was stolen – don’t even think about it. Meanwhile, a major voting equipment manufacturer is lobbying hard to prevent a paper ballot requirement.

Voters of all Parties are very skeptical of computerized voting – especially those that lack paper backup records. Amazingly, there are coalitions forming between groups like LULAC, Democratic Party, Tea Party, Republican Party, Libertarian Party – who all presented, together, at Dr. Pressley’s press conference in October.  What other cause elicits such across the board passionate support?

Now, Dr. Pressley is evaluating the option of submitting her case for review by the Texas Supreme Court. Amazingly, the mainstream media is ignoring this case, while obsessing upon ‘hacking’ allegations elsewhere – but always side-stepping the gross vulnerabilities endemic to the electronic systems we are using.

Legal cases similar to Dr. Laura Pressley’s 2014 election are springing up across the country because of the failure of States to deliver on already mandated election back up records to validate computerized results.
Pressley’s case has the evidence, and the rule of law on her side, yet the Austin based Third Court of Appeals ruled the Texas Secretary of State (SoS) may instruct counties to ignore laws related to backup records for electronic voting and recounts (pp. 19-20).

Moreover, the Austin Court

With not one word in the legal opinion to compel Travis County to follow election law, or address their recurrent tabulation corruption errors and security breaches, secure all memory cards, improve transparency, adhere to the Texas Constitution, and retain all mandated paper backup records for electronic voting, the Austin Third Court has disenfranchised the voters of Travis County, and set a precedent that denies Texans any confidence in the election results, past, present, and future, as it has opened the door to election fraud statewide, if left unchallenged. A case with prima facie evidence was dismissed and sanctioned, making a mockery of not only democratic process in Texas, but of the Justice System itself.  Honest admission of the obvious appears to be beyond the scope of the court.

Implications to Texas Elections and Next Steps

The legal precedent set by the Austin appeals court endangers election integrity in Texas and the ability for voters and candidates to challenge questionable or bogus results. Also, checks and balances mandated by Texas election laws must be obeyed by counties regardless of convenience.

Dr. Pressley declares, “Laws are not negotiable. The expectation, for the strict adherence to the rule of law in Texas elections, will not be silenced.”
Pressley’s team is considering appealing to the Texas Supreme Court. In addition, the 2017 Texas Legislative Session, State Senator Bob hall has introduced a comprehensive election integrity bill enhancing the security of the vote in Texas elections.   What issue facing us is of greater importance at this time than whether we have legitimate elections with accurate tabulation?

About the Author:  Jim Keller is a fifth generation Texan and member of the Maverick Family.  He works managing investments, properties, and a cattle ranch, and is a professional photographer. Keller comes from a family tradition of scientists and inventors, holds four US patents for panoramic camera related inventions, and has taught photography at Trinity University.

Copyright©2017 Raging Elephants Radio LLC

Barfly owner claims surveillance video captures moments during deadly shooting

by Ryan Hill

Barfly owner claims surveillance video captures moments during deadly shooting

The owner of Barfly says surveillance video shows that there were no fights at the establishment before a deadly shooting erupted in the parking lot.

Barfly owner Isabel Salcido spoke to KFOX14 about Sunday’s shooting.

El Paso police said 19-year-old Moises Galvan shot and killed 22-year-old Rogelio “Rj” Franco.

David Ortega, who was with Franco, was shot in the chest and injured when Galvan fired a handgun.

According to police, the three men allegedly got into an argument inside the bar and continued the altercation in the parking lot.

Galvan was arrested after a foot chase, police said.

Salcido gave KFOX14 surveillance video that she says captures what really happened that night.

Salcido said the video shows one of her employees checking Galvan’s ID, and then he walks into the bar. Moments later, the video shows someone who Salcido said is Galvan and a group of other people walk out of the bar, into the parking lot.

“There was never a fight inside the bar. There was footage of nobody being escorted out. There was no fight in the parking lot. They basically walked out and it was already something premeditated from that gentleman,” Salcido said.

Because Galvan is 19, the bar could face sanctions from the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission for allowing him to enter the bar.

Salcido claims that Galvan had a fake identification.

She said she hires professionals to try and make sure this doesn’t happen. “I actually hire constable and sheriffs and I properly train the host how to identify any IDs. If they have any questions, they can show the sheriff and they are properly trained.”

The shooting, which forced police to lock down the bar for hours, prompted an investigation by the TABC.

“If we show that they were grossly negligent, allowing a situation to escalate into a violent confrontation and did nothing to prevent it or could’ve prevented it, that’s a pretty serious violation. That could be 25, 30 or 35 days’ suspension of the permit,” said TABC supervisor Major Mark Menn.

If found guilty, Barfly could face an 8-day suspension with a $2,400 fine.

Records show Barfly has previous violations on the TABC’s website and according to their records, this wouldn’t be the bar’s first filed complaint.

In May 2015, the bar had a complaint for aggravated breach of the peace, which is a violent confrontation.

In July 2015, it violated regulations by selling alcohol to a minor.

“I commend the sheriffs and constables on duty responsible for catching the shooter. Barfly will be closed until further notice to evaluate all policies and procedures,” said Salcido.

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Doyal supports Texas 249 project; Noack calls it risky

By Catherine Domingue

The Aggie Expressway has divided two Texas A&M alums who serve on Montgomery County Commissioners Court.

The project includes a 3.6-mile stretch in Montgomery County that is being overseen by the Montgomery County Toll Road Authority, which is the same individuals who serve on Commissioners Court. The Aggie Expressway, also known as the Texas 249 tollway, among other names, goes from Houston to College Station.

While Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack supports the project, he says it should be the Texas Department of Transportation‘s responsibility, not Montgomery County. County Judge Craig Doyal disagrees, saying the project comes with little risk and will not cost taxpayers money in the long run. The two earned their college rings from Texas A&M University in College Station.

For Noack, the project is too much of a risk for the county, especially since TxDOT will fund the project. However,Doyal says the traffic data shows the need for the road, especially in West Montgomery County, where the road will run through with exits at FM 1774 and FM 149.

According to TxDOT’s website, planning for the tollway to College Station began in 2000 as part of its Major Investment Study.

Montgomery County will construct the main lanes of the toll road from Spring Creek to FM 1774. The cost of the project is about $85 million, with $10 million of that already spent on design work through Halff Associates. Funding for the project, according to Doyal, will come from revenue bonds that will be repaid through the tolls collected. Noack believes voters should have a say; and if approved, paid for through general obligation bonds.

Doyal said those bonds could be sold within the next few months.

For the toll road

Doyal said Montgomery County retains the right to build the tollway from TxDOT since the feeder roads for the highway are built. The need for the road, he said, is based on the current traffic patterns and future growth.

The congestion is horrible (between Magnolia and Tomball). … You’ve got a traffic signal every two miles and it just takes forever,” said Doyal, adding that traffic increases tremendously during the Renaissance Festival in October and November.

The project, he said, makes sense.

“We felt like that would be a fairly easy project for us for our first real toll facility,” said Doyal, noting the county would only be constructing the main lanes. “A free route already exists for people to use if they choose not to use the toll facility.”

As for who benefits from the road, Doyal said “everyone.”

“Everyone along there,” he said. The increase mobility will create a benefit for that portion in Montgomery County and the county will benefit from revenue that toll road will create.”

Doyal said if TxDOT builds the the toll road, it would dictate the tolls, the rate and control whether those tolls would ever go away. Also, in the case, Montgomery County may not beneift form the toll revenue because TxDoT would receive it and could use it anywhere across the state.

“Why would we not want to put ourselves in a position to recoup some of those costs from people cutting through Montgomery County,” he said. “It’s going to be a toll road no matter what.”

Against the toll road

While Doyal and the rest of Commissioners Court support the project, Noack says it is not a necessity because TxDOT will build it.

“It’s simple,” said Noack, noting he has not seen any studies showing the actual need for the road.

However, Noack’s biggest concern is that the project puts county taxpayers at risk.

“If revenue shortfalls exists, how will the bonds be (repaid)?” he said. “It would be the taxpayers because Montgomery County cannot afford to let those bonds default.”

With revenue bonds, the MCTRA would be loaned money from the county. The bonds would be repaid through the toll revenue. However, if that revenue falls short, it excess debt would fall on the county, and therefore taxpayers, who did not have a say in building the road because there was no vote.

Noack pointed out that the SH 130 toll road near Austin was not successful.

According to an Aug. 12, 2016, San Antonio Express-News article, the road’s private operator SH 130 Concession Co. filed a bankruptcy reorganization plan in August that proposed transferring company ownership to its largest lenders, which include the Federal Highway Administration and a group of European banks. The company owes more than $1.6 billion. It is owned by Spanish road developer Cintra, the majority stakeholder, and San Antonio-based Zachry American Infrastructure.

The company built the 41-mile southern section of Texas 130, stretching between Seguin and Mustang Ridge, south of Austin, and operates it as part of a 50-year lease agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation. It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March 2016, claiming the recession severely reduced the amount of traffic it expected the road to attract.

The company paid TxDOT $125 million upfront for the rights to operate the road, which was built to bypass Interstate 35 traffic between San Antonio and Austin and then became state property. It also agreed to share some of its toll revenue with the state as part of the lease agreement.

Noack said the success of the Texas 249 toll road is a gamble.

“My issue is there is not tangible benefit to Montgomery County,” Noack said.

Funding options

Noack has suggested if the county is going to build the 3.6-mile toll road, it should use funds available through the state as part of the pass-through toll program the county has been a part of since 2005.

In May of last year, Jennie Taraborelli, with Pate Engineers, who originally prepared the pass-through toll agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation for Montgomery County, told commissioners the county has $66.6 million available for projects. She urged commissioners to consider possible projects to utilize the funding before it is swept into other projects outside of the county.

“The one thing that is going to have to happen is the county is going to have to put forward a list of projects,” she said. “I know the county has a lot of needs.”

Under the agreement and through the 2005 pass-through referendum, Montgomery County has funded projects on FM 1484, FM 1485, FM 1488, FM 1314 and the direct connector from Texas 242 to Interstate 45, which opened last year. The county has received state and federal reimbursement of more than $150 million through the pass-through toll program, which was part of the 2005 road bond referendum. The reimbursement rate is 7 cents per vehicle mile.

The minimum reimbursement for the construction projects is $10.5 million per year, while the maximum reimbursement is $17.4 million a year. The entire amount will be paid over 10-17 years, Taraborelli said.

But Doyal said that funding is needed for other county projects and it doesn’t make sense to use those funds for a project that is viable for tolling.

“Why would we use those dollars on a project that lends itself to tolls,” Doyal asked.

Noack disagrees and said the Texas 249 toll project is the right project for the funds.

Texas 249 and FM 2978 connection

While Doyal said a connection between Texas 249 and FM 2978 is not a factor, Noack believes it is by driving traffic to the toll facility.

In fact, Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley is moving forward with plans to connect FM 2978 to Dobbing-Huffsmith; and with developer roads ultimately will connect to Texas 249. While the connection originally was aligned with Woodlands Parkway, Riley has since moved the project south a quarter-mile to connect at Mansions Way Drive.

Riley denies the connector is an amended Woodlands Parkway extension. And, according to a county employee, the County Engineer’s Office sent a letter to The Woodlands Township saying the Woodlands Parkway extension at FM 2978 was not viable due to the radio towers and other environmental concerns in the area.

Township Chairman Gordy Bunch said the item was an executive session item and he could not “confirm or deny” the letter from the county engineer existed. He said the township board would be discussing the issue Jan. 25.

County commissioners approved two contracts related to Riley’s project Tuesday. The court awarded land surveying services to Tomball-based Arborleaf Engineering and Surveying Inc. for $264,855 and engineering services for the project to Houston-based R. G. Miller Engineers Inc. in the amount of $264,477, totaling almost $530,000.

Doyal said Riley is using his budget for the engineering of the project and added that the rights of way purchased several years ago would be used for the project. No timeline on the project was available.

However, funding for the construction of the connector could come from the $66 million pass-through toll program. In previous Courier articles, Doyal said developers have committed to constructing the connector from Dobin-Huffsmith to Texas 249.

The issue arose in early 2015 when residents learned Riley was planning to extend Woodlands Parkway from FM 2978 to Texas 249. The project was part of a $350 million road bond referendum that voters rejected in May 2015.

Concerned about the increase in traffic in the community, residents of The Woodlands urged the court to remove the project from the May bond. But the court, specifically Riley, refused to take the project off his list. And so it was overwhelmingly rejected, led by Woodlands voters.

In August 2015, the court agreed to move forward with another road bond for the Nov. 3 ballot in the amount of $280 million. That referendum excluded several projects, including the Woodlands Parkway extension. Voters passed the $280 million referendum easily, with 63.36 percent of the more than 45,500 votes for it.

The extension of Woodlands Parkway has been part of the thoroughfare plan since the original draft in the late 1980s.

Riley maintains his community wants and needs the road and that it would be unlikely motorists would use the route through The Woodlands as a way east to Interstate 45. Community leaders in The Woodlands, including Noack, pushed for Riley to go farther south with a connector, possibly widening Hardin Store Road to allow more through traffic between FM 2978 and Texas 249.

But Riley, along with Doyal, say Hardin Store is not a viable option because of the difficulty in obtaining rights of way to widen two-lane road. Doyal said one of the main reasons he purchased the majority of rights of way for the future extension of Woodlands Parkway while he served as Precinct 2 commissioner was because it was more difficult to purchase those rights of way along Hardin Store Road. He said the railroad tracks that cross Hardin Store Road would be a challenge.

Bunch said he will put the item on the next township meeting to have the board reaffirm a resolution against the project.

 

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Trump threatens Mexico’s biggest cash source

Mexico’s biggest cash cow is under threat from President Donald Trump.

The country’s largest source of cash comes from Mexicans living in the United States. That is now under the microscope after Trump issued an executive order Wednesday to start building a wall on the border.

During his campaign, Trump said multiple times that Mexico will pay for the wall. He even threatened to halt or tax cash transfers — known as remittances — from the U.S. to Mexico if the country refused to pay for it.

“They will reimburse us for the cost of the wall. That will happen, whether it’s a tax or a payment — probably less likely that it’s a payment, but it will happen,” Trump said on January 11.

But Mexico’s president won’t stand for it.

“We must assure the free flow of remittances,” President Enrique Pena Nieto said Monday. Remittances are “an invaluable contribution to national development and indispensable for millions of Mexican families.”

Remittances were likely a top issue on the table when Mexico’s top ministers met with Trump’s advisers in Washington Wednesday. Trump and Pena Nieto are scheduled to meet on January 31.

Between January and November of 2016, $24.6 billion flowed back to the pockets of Mexicans from friends and relatives living overseas, according to Mexico’s central bank.

That’s even higher than what Mexico earns from its oil exports — $23.2 billion in 2015. And almost all of that cash comes from the U.S.

The average remittance from Mexico is about $300. Essentially, Mexico’s most lucrative natural resource are the people who leave home.

Remittances help drive Mexico’s economy, from paying for new home construction to schools, especially in low-income areas. The cash transfers from the U.S. have also been growing faster than wages and inflation. And it’s a critical time for Mexico’s economy, which is showing signs of weakness.

With Mexico’s currency, the peso, near an all-time low, its economy only grew 2.2% last year, Mexico’s finance minister says. Trump’s threats are only going to make it worse — the IMF estimates Mexico will only grow 1.7% this year.

On top of slower growth, the government hiked gas prices by as much as 20% at the start of the year as part of an energy deregulation policy. That’s sparked widespread protests and looting.

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Harris County Judge Ed Emmett outlines challenges facing county government

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett spoke at the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce’s monthly government affairs meeting on Wednesday morning, sharing an overview of the challenges faced by county government in 2017 and beyond.

With the population of the county’s unincorporated area approaching that of the City of Houston, Emmett said growth will present increasing challenges for the county as it struggles to provide for larger numbers of residents with limited funding options. The county’s main source of revenue is a property tax.

Emmett said the county’s expenses in criminal justice and the indigent health care rise along with the population growth are outside its control. As a result, the amount that the county can spend on other areas—such as transportation and flood control—are limited.

“Neither of those items, do we need to be cutting back on at this time,” Emmett said. “We’re a big county and we need to be able to address the concerns that we have.”

Emmett said one way to reduce expenses in the criminal justice system is to improve mental health services, but funding for those programs would have to come through different avenues, such as from the state.

“We’re going to have to find a way for the county to have a different financial bucket to draw from other than the property tax,” he said.

The county’s transportation budget is largely directly toward major projects, leaving issues on smaller roads unresolved, he said.

“Transportation is something we will always be playing catch-up with,” Emmett said. “People can talk about METRO and rail projects, but as long as we’re growing as fast as we are, we’re going to have to keep building roads.”

Emmett also updated attendees on the status of the county’s $105 million Astrodome renovation project. An architect was chosen for Astrodome restructuring in December, and the firm—Houston-based Kirksey Architecture—has one year to develop a final construction plan, he said. Renovations will include raising the floor 30 feet to ground level, and developing two levels of underground parking with 1,400 parking spaces. The facility will provide 9 acres of open space beneath a cover, for events such as a rodeo, boat and auto shows or holiday markets.

“By and large the public wants to keep the dome, they just don’t want the taxpayers to pay much money to do it,” Emmett said.

The project will be funded through general county revenue, the county hotel occupancy tax and parking enterprise fund, and it will recoup that revenue back once the facility is operational, he said.

“All the festivals and gatherings we have in our community will just beat the door down to be able to be in there,” he said.

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Texas Senate leaders propose tuition freeze, elimination of financial aid program

With the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the top state senator on higher education issues unveiled a pair of bills Thursday that would freeze university tuition for four years and eliminate a state law that provides tuition assistance to low-income students.

Both bills have been hailed as top priorities by Patrick, who has raised alarm about rising college costs in the state. The tuition assistance program requires colleges to set aside some of the tuition that public universities collect so that money can go toward scholarships for low-income students. Patrick has called those “set-asides” a hidden tax that raises tuition bills for other students.

The bills were filed by Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Patrick has had set-asides and tuition in his sights for years. In April, he held a fiery news conference to scold universities for raising tuition in recent years. Since universities won the right to set their own tuition in 2003, average tuition and fees have climbed 148 percent, or a bit over 80 percent when accounting for inflation.

“Making college more affordable for all Texans continues to be one of my top priorities this Legislative Session,” Patrick said in a statement. “I commend Sen. Seliger for filing these two bills that will help bring economic relief to students who pursue higher education.”

In his own statement, Seliger said: “The focus should be on how to make higher education more accessible and affordable, rather than how to get the state, and students, to pay more.”

Both measures will probably face challenges inside and outside the Capitol. Democrats in particular will try to fight the bill aiming to eliminate set-asides. Some school officials have said the program is important to making higher education affordable to low-income students. Patrick has argued that the state should fund those scholarships, not other students.

Meanwhile, university leaders have argued that one of the main reasons they have raised tuition in recent years is that per-student funding for higher education has fallen.

Given their powerful backing, both bills seem to be in a good position to pass the Senate. The challenge for supporters will be getting them through the House.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune last week, Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, who was chairman of the House Higher Education Committee last year, expressed skepticism about the ideas.

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Texas Supreme Court Rules Pipeline Can Take Land by Eminent Domain

On January 6, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas LLC (“Denbury Green”) could take private property by eminent domain. In Denbury Green Pipeline-Texas LLC v. Texas Rice Land Partners Ltd., the decision turned on the question of whether or not Denbury Green qualified as a “common carrier” under the Texas Natural Resource Code. Typically, the power of eminent domain is granted to governmental entities rather than private institutions. Under Texas law, however, a common carrier has the right and power of eminent domain.Denbury Green created a carbon dioxide pipeline known as “the Green Line,” which begins in Jackson, Mississippi, and runs through Texas along CO2 refineries. During construction, Denbury Green planned for CO2 to travel to the refineries, and eventually to oil fields, underground storage reservoirs, or other locations where CO2 can be used or stored. Before construction began, Denbury Green applied for and received common carrier status from the Texas Railroad Commission. Armed with the common carrier identification, Denbury Green purported to use the power of eminent domain to take private land in Texas for the construction of the pipeline. When the case made its way to the Texas Supreme Court, the pipeline was already constructed and in use.

The test utilized by the court to determine Denbury Green’s common carrier status was whether or not the pipeline would serve the needs of the public, not only those of the builder. To pass this test, the court noted, the pipeline would need to provide reasonable proof of a future customer. The court stated that simple assertions that a pipeline would eventually be used for the public and self-identifying with the Texas Railroad Commission as a common carrier would not meet the test.

To reasonably prove that the Green Line would have a future customer, Denbury Green cited a contract with an unaffiliated entity for the transport of CO2, entered into after Denbury Green completed construction of the pipeline. The court coupled the contract with the close proximity to CO2 refineries to find a pre-construction intent that the pipeline would at some point be used for the needs of public, qualifying the pipeline as a common carrier. Therefore, the court granted summary judgment to the pipeline, and allowed the pipeline to keep the private property taken with the eminent domain power.

Of note, the contract for the transport of CO2 was entered into after Denbury Green completed construction of the pipeline, and after Denbury Green had already purported to use the power of eminent domain. The court found that this post-construction contract showed a pre-construction intent to serve the public. This finding is significant because transportation contracts are often entered into after the actual construction of the pipeline, easing the requirements for pipelines to qualify as a common carrier, and thus receive the power to take private property through eminent domain.

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