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Texas House speaker adds voice to ‘bathroom bill’ opposition

Kimberly Reeves

Speaker of the House Joe Straus voiced his opposition to the so-called “bathroom bill” at a Texas Association of Business conference on Jan. 18, saying it could send the wrong signal to companies and events looking to locate in Texas.

San Antonio has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to convert the Alamodome and expand its Convention Center for large-scale events, such as the NCAA Final Four in 2018. Straus referred to the recent loss of several NCAA events in North Carolina after similar legislation, known as HB 2, was passed in that state in 2016. He said his concerns reflected the concerns of his community, which depends strongly on its tourism industry and expects to see $234 million pumped into the economy during the Final Four.

“It’s not just about basketball tournaments or conventions,” Straus told the group. “Many people where I come from get concerned about anything that can slow down the overall job-creating machine. They’re also watching what happened in North Carolina, and they are not enthusiastic about getting that type of attention. So I think we should be very careful about doing something that could make Texas attractive for investments, jobs and a highly-skilled workforce needed to compete.”

Straus’ message was the flip side of Attorney General Ken Paxton’s speech on Jan. 17 at the TAB event. Paxton focused on the importance of Senate Bill 6, which is officially known as the Texas Privacy Act but often referred to as the “bathroom bill” because it restricts restroom access in government buildings and schools to the gender of one’s birth certificate. Paxton emphasized exemptions to the bill, which would include the sports facilities rented for the Final Four. Paxton urged business leaders to take into account the concerns of parents of schoolchildren.

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Gosnell Not an Aberration

Phelim McAleer

If there is one thing the abortion defenders agree on, it’s that abortion doctor/mass murderer Kermit Gosnell is an aberration.

The Philadelphia doctor was convicted of truly horrific crimes including killing babies born alive by “snipping” their necks with scissors. He was also convicted of manslaughter for allowing unqualified workers to administer anesthetics to a patient who then died and he performed illegal and late abortions – many on women who were six, seven or eight months pregnant.

When a conservative social media firestorm eventually forced the mainstream media to cover the case everyone agreed that although Gosnell ran a house of horrors abortion clinic – it was a one-off that was not representative of the abortion industry.

It must be true – so many important writers and thinkers told us so.

Conor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic magazine explained “most people” are pretty clear that “Gosnell is an aberration that says nothing larger about abortion in America.”

According to Slate writer William Saletan, Gosnell was an “outlier”.

This line about Gosnell even went all the way to the highest court in the land.

In a Supreme Court Judgement referencing Gosnell, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg described him as “rogue.”

We have spent three years covering the trial and researching the Gosnell case for a book and film. And one of the most frequent questions we get is – “Do we think there are any other Gosnells out there?” Our answer was a mixture of “it’s hard to imagine and we really don’t know because those who are supposed to regulate abortion have a hands-off approach and the media is very, very reluctant to cover any story that shines a negative spotlight on abortion.”

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Jurors shown cash, safe as Border Patrol agent’s murder trial continues

Jay Root

BROWNSVILLE — Prosecutors hauled a big black safe and $90,000 in cash into a South Texas courtroom Friday to bolster their assertion that Border Patrol Agent Joel Luna used thousands of dollars in money smuggled from Mexico and participated in a criminal enterprise that took the life of a would-be snitch.
Taking the stand for a third day, Joel’s brother Fernando calmly told them he’d seen that same black safe inside his brother’s house with a similar amount of cash in it sometime after the murder of Franky Palacios in March of 2015.
“You have seen money in the safe?” Cameron County Assistant District Attorney Gus Garza asked Fernando. He responded “Sí” in his native Spanish.
“It was neatly stacked?” Garza asked.
“Yes it was in order,” Fernando responded, speaking through a translator. “It was organized.”
When asked the origin of the money inside the safe  — Fernando said it was from cash he smuggled into Texas from Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from McAllen. Smuggled money also was used to obtain houses for Joel’s two brothers.
Garza tried to get Fernando to say it was “drug money,” but Fernando said he only knew that the youngest Luna brother, Eduardo, obtained the cash across the Rio Grande, in Mexico. Eduardo, said in court records to be a Gulf Cartel “comandante,” is on trial for murder and drug trafficking along with brother Joel. On cross examination, Fernando acknowledged that Eduardo hid his money smuggling activities from Joel.
Fernando Luna was charged along with his two brothers and two other defendants, but he took a plea deal and is now testifying against his younger siblings.
Fernando has already told jurors that it was Eduardo — not Joel, the federal agent — who shot Palacios in the head and then dumped his body off of South Padre Island.  In this first week of the trial, prosecutors have not directly tied Joel to the murder but are working to make the case that he was involved in a criminal enterprise that Palacios jeopardized when he threatened to snitch on the Luna brothers.
The safe is the state’s most damaging evidence against the Border Patrol agent. Investigators seized it from his mother-in-law’s house. Testimony and court records indicate the safe was moved from Joel’s house to that location, an assertion that remains unproven, according to the federal agent’s lawyer, Carlos A. Garcia.
Inside the safe, investigator retrieved nearly $90,000 in cash, more than a kilo of cocaine, ammunition, Joel’s commemorative Border Patrol badge and the password to his workstation at the federal agency.
The capital murder case began after a decapitated body turned up in Laguna Madre Bay, just off South Padre Island, during the height of spring break in 2015. Robert Hannan of Sugar Land was out boating that day when he came across the corpse.
He briefly told the story to the jury, which was shown gruesome pictures of the headless body floating in the clear water.
“Did you find something unusual on that day?” Garza asked him.
“I did,” Hannan responded. “A naked body with no head.”
Hannan called authorities, who eventually identified the body as that of Franky Palacios, an undocumented Honduran immigrant who worked with Fernando and Eduardo Luna at a tire shop in Edinburg.

Transition within mental services must get better

Deborah Cohen

The 21st Century Cures Act has been both lauded and criticized, but one thing about it is for sure – the bill was a landmark achievement for receiving bipartisan support in an era when bipartisanship is scarce. It will go a long way in improving coordination of federal mental health initiatives. But there is still more work to be done at the state level, particularly in Texas, to ensure older adolescents and young adults who are served by the mental health system can successfully transition into productive adults.

Stoppage of care is especially prevalent for older adolescents and young adults ages 16-25. This break in treatment is not only unfortunate but also untimely. Major illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder first emerge during this age range, and treatment for these illnesses needs to happen early.

The primary barrier to treatment for this age group is bureaucratic. Like Texas, many states restrict the entrance of individuals over the age of 17 into the adult mental health system. In fact, less than 30 percent of youths served within Texas’ public mental health system at age 17 transition into adult services. This is a problem. Texas can do better.

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Tens of thousands attend Women’s March on Austin

Tens of thousands attend Women’s March on Austin

Erin Jones and KVUE

The Women’s March in Washington prompted more than 300 sister marches across the country, including one here in Austin.

APD estimated between 40,000 and 50,000 people attended the march in front of the Texas State Capitol Saturday afternoon, many with a message to share.

My body, my choice,” a group of women said.

“Their body, their choice,” the men answered back.

Some expressed anger while others promoted peace.

“I think there’s a time and a place to be furious and this is the time,” one woman said.

On President Donald Trump’s first day in office, a sea of signs filled Congress Avenue in downtown Austin.

“Grab us by our brains,” one woman said.

Thousands of men, women and children hit the pavement, each marching with a different message to the country’s new administration.

“Today if for my kids,” Jodee Neil said.

She made the drive from Dallas because she felt she had to be here with her sign.

“It just represents the work that we have to do and the resisting,” Neil said.

She said demonstrators like herself are fighting not just for women, but for anyone who feels marginalized by today’s political climate.

“For all the women who are thrown away – it’s for the healthcare they don’t get,” Neil said.

“I’m marching for women’s rights, women’s equality, for the gay and lesbian community,” another woman nearby said.

Saturday’s march was peaceful and no arrests were reported.

Austin-Travis County EMS reported that between 30 and 45 patients were treated for various medical complaints at the march. 15 people were transported to area hospitals. Some of the illnesses included overheating and chest pain, ATCEMS said.

After the march, the crowds gathered to listen to several important speakers on the South Lawn of the Capitol.

One of those speakers was 27-year-old Austin native Lizzie Velasquez, who was born with a rare congenital disease and has been bullied for her appearance. Velasquez uses the negativity aimed at her to create a positive message.

“To represent the disability community, you don’t know how proud I am,” Velasquez told the massive crowd. “It might be a little squeaky voice like mine, it might be a voice that sounds like it’s coming through a megaphone, whatever voice you have – raise it.”

Former Texas State Senator Wendy Davis also spoke at the rally.

“I am just humbled to be here with all of the people who came from across the state to be here,” Davis said.

Davis rose to fame as a women’s rights advocate after filibustering for 11 hours against a restrictive abortion bill, House Bill 2, in 2013.

Nearly four years later, she says the words that come to mind as she looks at the tens of thousands of protesters in front of the Capitol building are, “Powerful…inspiring…fearless.”

Other speakers included Representative Senfronia Thompson and award-winning singer/songwriter Gina Chavez.

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Bill of the Week: Immunization Choice for Children

By Sarah Marloff

House Bill 97 – Author: Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place

HB 97 would grant children the right to consent to their own immunization for cancer prevention and/or treatment, if the vaccine is approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Food and Drug Admin­i­stra­tion. Certain strains of both hepatitis B and the human papillomavirus, often referred to as HPV – the most common sexually transmitted infection, according to the CDC – are cancer-causing. While the youth vaccine can prevent HPV from developing into cervical cancer, conservative and religious groups widely contest the idea that children and teenagers should receive preventative treatments for STIs.

Texans for Vaccine Choice are horrified by Davis’ bill, calling it “downright UN-Texan” and accusing it – along with Rep. Donna Howard’s HB 241 – of undermining parents’ “basic liberties.” The PAC is concerned that Texas will pass a law similar to California’s SB 277, which removed religious and personal belief exemptions from state vaccine requirements for school-aged children.

HB 97 goes hand in hand with two other bills filed by Davis: HB 107 would require the Department of State Health Services to submit annual reports on immunization rates for HPV, and HB 126 would require that parents participate in an online education course before submitting for a vaccine exemption. Davis’ office did not respond to questions about the bills, but a statement from Brigette Dechant, her chief of staff, notes: “Not one piece of legislation that [Davis] is filing will take away a parent’s right to choose. They will support CDC recommended guidelines and promote less confusion when parents decide what is best for their children.” A cancer survivor herself, it’s no wonder Davis would advocate for disease prevention.

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After Pressure From State Leadership, Texas Supreme Court Picks Up Same-Sex Marriage Case

Last fall, the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear a case with the potential to limit the impact of Obergefell v. Hodges, the Unites States Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015. In October, Texas’ Republican leadership, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, strongly urged the court to reconsider hearing the case, filed by a Houston pastor and a CPA. If the court rules for the plaintiffs, the case would absolve Texas cities from giving spousal benefits to same-sex spouses.

On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case in March.

Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, the Houston plaintiffs, filed the case to challenge a city of Houston policy that extended marriage benefits to every married city employee, regardless of their spouse’s gender. With help from the state, Pidgeon and Hicks argued that Obergefell does not “bind state courts to resolve all other claims in favor of the right to same-sex marriage.”

According to Abbott, Patrick and Paxton, all Obergefell requires Texas public employers to do is to recognize that the unions of employees in same-sex marriages exist. They aren’t required, as Abbott, Patrick and Paxton say in a brief, to “subsidiz[e]same-sex marriages” by providing benefits to those employees.

The Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t retroactively allow municipalities like Houston or Dallas to violate Texas laws in place before Obergefell came down, either, the brief argues. Texas passed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2005.

“It it not the duty of the state courts to divine broad principles from Supreme Court opinions and to extrapolate them to new contexts,” the Republicans write in the brief. “Rather, state courts must be meticulous in examining each new claimed right and determining whether and to what extent it must be expanded in new ways.”

In the immediate aftermath of Obergefell, Paxton suggested that the state of Texas and its employees weren’t obligated to follow what he viewed as an unconstitutional decision. In the months that followed, however, he quietly dropped a legal challenge to providing federal Family Medical Leave Act benefits to spouses in same-sex marriages.

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Supreme Court declines Texas appeal in voter ID case, but the fight isn’t over yet

By Jordan Rudner

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined Texas officials’ appeal in the ongoing battle over the state’s voter identification law Monday, meaning an earlier decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which found the law violates the Voting Rights Act — will stand.

Chief Justice John Roberts, however, took the unusual step of offering an explanation for why the Supreme Court chose not to hear the appeal. He hinted that he might be willing to reconsider the issue.

Roberts noted that a lower court is still attempting to determine how Texas must adapt its voter ID law to compensate for the discriminatory effects that judges found the law had on black and Hispanic citizens. In the next few months, the lower court will specify the next steps Texas officials must take.

“The issues will be better suited for [the court to review] at that time,” Roberts wrote.

The GOP-backed voter ID law, which went into effect in 2013, has been making its way through a long court battle ever since. Most Texas Republicans, including Gov. Greg Abbott, say the law is necessary to prevent voter fraud and that it’s not overly burdensome for a voter without ID to get one.

Last summer, judges on the 5th Circuit noted that out of more than 20 million votes cast in Texas in the last decade, there had been only four instances of possible fraud of the type the voter ID law was written to address.

The law’s opponents argue that the main goal of requiring voter ID is to prevent black and Hispanic voters from casting ballots, because they are significantly less likely to have one of the seven accepted forms of government-issued ID.

As a temporary solution, during the November election, most voters were still required to show one of the approved forms of ID — but voters without a government-provided photo ID were still able to cast ballots, as long as they signed a form and provided proof of identification, such as a utility bill or paycheck.

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Gov. Greg Abbott calls sheriff ‘reckless,’ tells Travis County he will cut funds because of immigrant sanctuary policy

By Brandi Grissom

AUSTIN — Gov. Greg Abbott said he will deny Travis County $1.8 million in law enforcement funds if Sheriff Sally Hernandez doesn’t reverse course on her promise to stop honoring federal requests to detain suspected unauthorized immigrants.

In a letter sent Monday to Hernandez, Abbott called the newly elected sheriff’s policy “reckless,” “misguided” and “dangerous” and said it would result in criminals being “turned loose into Travis County.” The governor has repeatedly railed against what he calls “sanctuary cities” and made banning them a top priority of the legislative session.

“Unless you reverse your policy prior to its effective date, your unilateral decision will cost the people of Travis County money that was meant to be used to protect them,” Abbott wrote.

Hernandez, a Democrat elected in November, said Friday her department would stop honoring all federal requests to detain suspects who might be in the U.S. illegally, the Austin-American Statesman first reported. Only those who commit a crime like capital murder, aggravated sexual assault or people smuggling will be turned over to U.S. customs and immigration officials, Hernandez said.

A spokeswoman for Hernandez did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

That decision sparked Twitter fury from Abbott, who threatened stiffer penalties against the county.

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Paxton Prosecutors’ Bill Tops $510K

McKINNEY (WBAP/KLIF News) – Collin County Commissioners are meeting Monday to discuss the escalating legal fees involved in cases against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

His trial isn’t set to begin until May, but county officials are upset about the $300/hour rate set by one of the special prosecutors.

By state law, they would normally be paid the same amount as defense attorneys during indigent cases involving first-degree felonies, which is about $1,000 for pretrial work and $1,000 a day during the trial.

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