Politics

EXCLUSIVE

By Ian White

THE COUNTY’S top judge, Lonnie Cox, will run against incumbent and fellow Republican Mark Henry in next year’s election for the county judgeship, promising to “work positively and effectively” for the whole citizenry if elected.
Cox, left, the county’s administrative district judge who sits in the 56th district court in Galveston, spoke to The Post exclusively on Monday to say he will oppose Henry, who is already his bitter rival in a lawsuit pitting the county’s judiciary and executive against each other and which awaits a ruling by the state’s supreme court.
Although it has been an open secret among leading Republicans for some months that Cox was planning to oppose the county judge in their party’s primaries for the November 2018 election, Cox had kept his cards close to his chest until keeping a promise to announce his candidacy to The Post before going public.
In the meantime, the names of at least five rivals for the job have been bandied about but none is known to be intent on standing at present. The five are Michelle Hatmaker, Bobby Hocking, Roger Quiroga, Chris Robb and Bob Senter.
Cox said that, as county judge, he plans to be “totally accessible” working full-time “positively and effectively”.
He added: “I do not believe the present county judge has done that”.

Texas bill renews call to feds for border security costs

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

A STATE senator wants the federal government to refund $1.6 billion being spent by Texas over four years in the fight to stop illegal immigrants crossing the border from Mexico.
The senate finance committee on Monday took up a bill that its author says will help the state understand the true cost in state funds of illegal immigration in Texas. Although the federal government is responsible for maintaining border security, its failure to secure the border is costing Texans millions, says Dallas senator Don Huffines.
The state legislature approved $800 million to pay for more troopers and more resources for border security during its 2015 session and the senate version of the new budget includes
the same amount for the upcoming biennium.
Huffines claims his senate bill 764 will help the state’s argument that Washington should pay Texas back for the costs.
He said: “When the federal government fails to protect the border, then the federal government should reimburse the state for its expenditures.
“With this cost accounting, Texas can better explain to the federal government the severity of the consequences of its failure of its responsibilities.”
If passed into law, Huffines’ bill would require state public-accounts comptroller Glen Hagar to tally and release each biennium the total cost to the state incurred by people not lawfully present in the USA.  It would also require that the report break out the specific costs for their health care, education and incarceration.
Some senators opposed to the measure asked why the bill doesn’t include the benefits of undocumented immigrants to the state, citing labor and sales-tax revenue as examples.
Juan Hinojosa of McAllen said: “You want a clear, concise picture, you need to look at the whole aspect of people who are in this state undocumented. Not only what it costs, but what they provide in terms of benefits to the economy.”
The bill passed the committee on a vote of 8-4 and will now go to the full senate for consideration.
• ALSO IN Austin on Monday, the legislature’s state budget conference committee, which is comprised of five members from each chamber, held its first hearing, tasked with reconciling the chambers’ differing proposals for the biennial budget.
They are relatively close in amount – the senate would spend $217.7 billion in state and federal funds over the next two years, slightly less than the $218.1 billion proposed by the house of representatives.
There are differences in where the money would go, however, and the conference committee has until Memorial Day to present a compromise for approval by both chambers.
Representing the senate on the committee are finance-committee chair Jane Nelson of Flower Mound, her vice-chair, Hinojosa, and Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham, Joan Huffman of Houston and Charles Schwertner of Georgetown.
Before the committee began deliberating, Nelson pointed out that eight of its 10 members served on the committee in the 84th session, saying: “You have a very strong, experienced team.
“I am confident, members, that we can come to an agreement that will make Texas proud.”

County clerk marriage license bill clears senate

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

COUNTY CLERKS with a sincerely-held religious objection to same-sex marriage could pass responsibility for granting licenses to such couples to a deputy under a bill that received final approval by the Texas senate on Wednesday.               Brian Birdwell
If it becomes law, senate bill 522 would allow county clerks to notify their respective commissioners’ courts that they cannot issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and the commissioners to then delegate the responsibility to another clerk’s office employee, or even an outside agency if no one in the office is willing.
The bill would prohibit a person from refusing to issue a license for a reason that is protected under law, such as religious affiliation or race. It would also permit judges to refuse to perform a marriage ceremony under the same sincerely-held religious objection.
Bill author and Granbury senator Brian Birdwell said he believes that forcing people to violate their religious beliefs at work is unconstitutional.
He said: “Under this bill, county clerks will be able to fully follow the law without being forced to compromise their religious liberty, the license is issued and is executed to the couple requiring the license and simultaneously the right of conscience to clerks and judges is protected”.
Also on Wednesday, the senate approved a bill aimed at reducing prescription opioid addiction and abuse
in Texas.                   Don Huffines
The bill’s author, McAllen senator Chuy Hinojosa, said problems with opioid prescription have become a crisis.
He said: “Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than HIV or AIDS did at its peak, more than gun homicides and car crashes combined. In 2015, 52,000 people died of drug overdoses, more overdoses than any other period in US history.”
His bill, SB 316, seeks a requirement for doctors and pharmacists to check a state database, called the prescription monitoring program, that tracks opioid prescriptions before they prescribe or dispense one to a patient.
If passed into law, it would also require pharmacists to report any opioid prescription they dispense to the database within one business day and would also allow the state’s board of pharmacists, which operates the database, to monitor it to find ways to identify problematic prescription trends like doctor shopping and send electronic alerts to the doctors.
Elsewhere this week, on Monday the senate finance committee approved a bill that would expand sales-tax collections for online purchases, possibly earning the state a quarter-billion dollars each year.
Current Texas law requires that the customer calculate and remit the sales tax on out-of-state internet purchases to the comptroller. San Antonio senator Carlos Uresti said the law is little known and online shoppers seldom comply with it.
“The result is that out-of-state retailers are able to offer goods at prices that are 8.25 per cent cheaper than those of local businesses, putting them at a competitive disadvantage”, he said.
Uresti’s bill, SB 1713, would require internet marketplaces with more than $250,000 in annual sales or more than 1,000 transactions to calculate, collect and remit sales taxes for purchases made by their Texas customers.
The senator said studies have estimated that Texas could be missing out on upwards of $250 million in sales-tax revenue every year from internet purchases.
The bill remains pending in committee.
Also on Monday, the senate state affairs committee voted in favor of legislation that would allow first responders to carry a concealed handgun in places where it is normally prohibited.
Dallas senator Don Huffines told members that firemen and EMTs often find themselves in danger on the job.
He said: “Most recently, firefighters and paramedics put themselves in harm’s way when they assisted police officers with retrieving downed officers during the July 7, 2016, ambush of law-enforcement [officers] in Dallas.
“Similar incidents are reported with regularity. Nevertheless these brave men and women are deprived of their liberty to defend themselves.”
Huffines’ bill, SB 1408, would permit a first responder with a license to carry to take a 20-hour course on topics such as self-defense and conflict de-escalation. They would then be allowed to carry a handgun concealed on their person while working even in places where to do so is normally prohibited.
The bill is now headed to the full senate for consideration.

Commissioners OK $700k to keep county jail from chaos

By Lora-Marie Bernard

THE OVERTIME budget for the county jail had to be bailed out this week – six months before its replacement is due.
Sheriff Henry Trochesset told the county commissioners on Tuesday that his office expects to need $726,000 to pay for jail guards’ overtime for the rest of the fiscal year.
He said the jail’s overtime budget had only $174,000 in it, having spent $624,000 of its $815,044 allocation in the first five months of the fiscal year.
And precinct-three commissioner Stephen Holmes said the sheriff’s department was in danger of not being able to pay overtime to its jail deputies after this month.
To overcome the deficit, Trochesset, left, called on the commissioners to move general-fund money into the overtime budget in order to meet new projections between now and September 30.
“This is the one part of the office that is as micro-managed to death”, he said.
The request had been part of the meeting’s automatic-approval consent agenda until precinct-four commissioner Ken Clark pulled it out for individual consideration, saying he thought the commissioners’ court had approved a budget to meet the sheriff’s expectations.
“This is a lot of money”, he said in response to Trochesset’s amendment request.
The sheriff said the county jail’s population had increased in significant numbers, which had caught him by surprise. At one point, he said, the population had reached a figure two inmates short of maximum capacity.
“It’s not even our busiest season”, he said.
The commissioners heard that, at present, the sheriff’s office has six staff openings. But Trochesset said that, even if the six positions were filled, he’d still have issues finding enough deputies to guard the jail population to state standards.
Jail deputies have several duties that take them away from their core function of guarding inmates. Training, inmate transfer, military assignments and emergency work are among other duties that cause administrators to shuffle floor-deputy duties, leading to the need for overtime pay.
He said: “I can have one guy who watches 48 inmates but, if I have four inmates at the hospital, I could end up with one [deputy] for each of those four. That’s what we are dealing with.”
Holmes wanted to know if there would be a salary lapse in the county’s fiscal budget as a result of a transfer into the overtime fund.
Trochesset replied that he could find that out because he had made his initial budget request last year following guidelines the commissioners had given him.
The commissioners approved the transfer unanimously.

Senate approves bill to cut gun-carry license fee

By Alex Samuels
The Texas Tribune

THE TEXAS senate on Monday approved a bill that would significantly reduce the fee for a license to carry a handgun.
In a 26-5 vote, the upper chamber gave final passage to senate bill 16, which would reduce the first-time fee for a license to carry from $140 to $40 and the annual renewal fee from $70 to $40. The bill is now headed to the house of representatives.
If it passes there, only Illinois and Arkansas will have higher fees to obtain a license to carry a handgun. Reducing the fees in Texas is one of lieutenant governor Dan Patrick’s priorities for the legislative session.
Republican senator Robert Nichols of Jacksonville, the bill’s author, said on Monday: “They’re getting these licenses from out of state because our fees are so high. So what we want to do is remove that incentive.”
Reducing the fee would cost the state roughly $15 million, Nichols said. Some Democrats expressed concerns with that.
Senator Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, said: “We’ve been told we’ve got to prioritize our needs over our wants. I just don’t believe this is a need we should be prioritizing.”