Tuesday's highlights from the Texas Capitol

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Associated Press

Posted on March 9, 2011 at 10:05 AM

Updated Wednesday, Mar 9 at 6:05 PM

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A day after losing a fight over a bill that would give Texas some of the strictest abortion rules in the country, House Democrats stood Tuesday with Planned Parenthood advocates working against a barrage of legislative attempts to weaken their programs.

Hundreds of supporters rallied at the Capitol, saying they were angry with state lawmakers for endangering women's health care and family planning. The legislation approved Monday requires women to get sonograms before an abortion, and recently approved Medicaid limits would leave many of the organization's patients without access to birth control and health screenings.

"This is basic, preventative health care," said Ken Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Texas Capital Region. "We do more to prevent the need for abortion than any program in the United States."

Planned Parenthood has been under fire from conservative lawmakers in recent weeks, as nationwide attempts to decrease abortions and cut funding for family planning programs gain momentum.

Despite Democratic attempts to derail the Texas sonogram legislation, the bill cleared the House floor Monday on a procedural vote. Republican Gov. Rick Perry designated the legislation as a priority early in the legislative session.

Democratic leaders acknowledged their loss, but were satisfied with the pressure they put on conservative, anti-abortion legislators.

"They're scratched, they're marked, and we didn't go down without a fight," said Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who led the fight against the legislation in the House, where Republicans hold a 101-49 majority.

The bill would require pregnant women to view the sonogram image, hear the fetal heartbeat and listen to a doctor describe the characteristics of the fetus. The bill doesn't exempt victims of rape, incest or sexual abuse.

The Senate passed a less-restrictive version of the legislation last month.

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GAMBLING

A trio of lawmakers have filed a proposed constitutional amendment to allow video gaming at charitable bingo locations in Texas. The bipartisan group says if approved, it could raise up to $500 million for the state and about $330 million for charities.

The smallest locations would have up to 30 machines and the largest could have up to 120. The machines would be regulated by the Texas Lottery Commission. About 17 million people visited charitable bingo locations last year, the bill sponsors said.

"People have been playing bingo since the early '80s, so this bill will not expand the footprint of gaming," said Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, and Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville are co-sponsors of the measure.

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SMOKING BAN

Smoking would be banned in bars, restaurants and other indoor public places in Texas, under a bill approved Tuesday the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Supporters have been trying to pass a smoking ban for several years, but have run into fierce opposition from bar and restaurant owners.

The bill by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, passed 5-3 and now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Texas cities already have some level of smoking ban. Supporters of a statewide ban say restaurant and bar workers are exposed to high levels of second-hand smoke that cause lung cancer, heart disease and other chronic ailments

The bill would exempt cigar bars and tobacco shops from the ban.

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GOVERNOR'S FUNDS

A Senate bill would loosen Gov. Rick Perry's control over multi-million funds used to lure business to the state and held start-up technology companies.

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, says he filed his bill Monday in response to a series of stories by the Dallas Morning News. The newspaper found one of the funds' former directors and a former member of an advisory panel made money from secret side deals.

Carona's bill would strip the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker of their power to make awards from the Emerging Technology Fund and Enterprise Fund. It would set up advisory panels appointed by those three, and the state comptroller and attorney general to decide which companies get money.

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FIGHTING BACK

Texas cities are fighting an attempt by state lawmakers to take a bigger chunk of money from municipal traffic tickets.

The state already takes the first $82 collected and a bill by Rep. Naomi Gonzalez would increase the state's take to $97 at a time when lawmakers are starting a budget shortfall estimated to be at least $15 billion. Some of the money the state collects goes to help pay for trauma care.

The Texas Municipal Leagues says lawmakers want too much money without helping cities pay for local police salaries, health insurance and retirement benefits.

"Taking money out of city treasuries to pay for state services is simply highway robbery that forces cites to cut services or raise property taxes," said Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck.

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IMMIGRATION

Restaurant owners and produce packagers in Texas are again urging lawmakers to vote against get-tough immigration bills that some businesses say would hurt the state economy.

Texas Association of Business president Bill Hammond on Tuesday said the economy would be "devastated" by proposals aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. Hammond has been among the vocal private sector opponents of more than a dozen anti-illegal immigration bills moving through the Legislature.

Louis Barrios, owner of the popular Los Barrios restaurants in San Antonio, said the proposals would hamper the tourism and service industries and damage relationships with Mexico.

Barrios and Hammond railed against the measures during a small panel discussion of Texas businessmen at the Capitol.

Gov. Rick Perry has made so-called "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants a priority for the Legislature. None of the anti-immigration bills have been given a full vote by the House or Senate so far.

EDUCATION

A House school finance guru, a Democrat, has filed legislation to adjust funding formulas to fit in available revenue. The bill by Rep. Scott Hochberg of Houston would eliminate multiple allotments in the formulas, including extra money for high school students and gifted and talented programs.

Hochberg said his intent was to offer options for dealing with a state budget shortfall that could reach $27 billion. Budget proposals so far would leave schools almost $10 billion short of what current funding formulas require.

Budget writers have said the funding formula laws will have to be changed to allow the state to legally give schools less money. But Republican leaders of the Legislature have not yet embraced specific changes.

Hochberg also filed legislation that would clear the way for school districts to raise property tax rates.

Hochberg criticized comments made a day earlier by Gov. Rick Perry, suggesting the state should consider requiring schools use their reserve fund balances before tapping into the Rainy Day Fund.

Hochberg said schools depend on their reserve funds to pay their bills while waiting for payments from the state. Schools' state ratings also are partially based on the balance in their reserve funds.

Statewide, school districts have a total of about $12 billion in savings. The state is expected to have a balance of $9.4 billion at the end of the budget period. Some fiscal conservatives, including Perry, have resisted using that money.

The Rainy Day Fund was created to help the state through tough economic times.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY:

"What passed the House was a terrible bill. It's not compassionate, conservative or right." — Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, on the House vote to require women seeking abortions to have a sonogram.

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