Don’t forget our county, leaders tell Austin

By Lora-Marie Bernard

BUSINESS and government leaders from around the county descended on Austin on Wednesday in our community’s first en-masse lobbying trip to the state capitol.
The so-called “legislative day” put the county’s politicians and members of its chambers of commerce in prime position to showcase the county and its communities to Texas legislators.
Representatives from county and city governments and the chambers of Galveston, Texas City-La Marque, Santa Fe and League City-Bay Area were among some 200 people who signed up for hours of meetings with state lawmakers about projects that need their support, such as coastal protection and port improvements.
During dozens of meetings with house representatives and senators, chamber representatives presented each of their hosts with a coffee-table book about Hotel Galvez and a journal embossed with the county seal as they sought to influence opinion on their pet causes.
A measure of their success could well have been the fact that about double the traveling group’s number turned up for the organized trip’s end-of-day seafood party before a late-night bus ride home for the coastal-community lobbyists.
Several county luminaries voted the day a big hit.
Precinct-four county commissioner Ken Clark said the commissioners’ court had been having conversations for many years about conducting a countywide legislative day but the effort had always languished.
He described the milestone as an “open house at the capitol” because it had created ambassadors who raised awareness among legislators who knew little about the Galveston area.
He said: “It allows us to focus on issues that are specific to our county and gives us the ability to work together to achieve the ability to reach out to the representatives and the legislators and have a common message. It builds camaraderie and unity in the county when we do that.”
Santa Fe city manager Joe Dickson said his team had discussed coastal protection, medical-center funding and tax caps with half a dozen representatives and senators.
“They have a lot of issues they have to deal with so we will see how it all comes out in the wash”, he said.  Galveston resident and business owner Rusty Carnes was concerned about immediate coastal issues including a brewing battle about the cleaning process of a superfund site on the San Jacinto river that threatens Galveston Bay.
He said he wanted state legislators to learn the dangers of dredging the site’s waste pits, a process the federal government is proposing in order to rehabilitate them.
“The safest thing to do is to cap them because, once they start stirring them up, that stuff will be distributed all over the bay”, he said.
The county’s district 23 state representative, Wayne Faircloth, summed up the day, saying it had allowed the capitol’s elected officials to “see the rich resources and the incredible people that inhabit Galveston County and our importance to the state economy and our importance to education and jobs and the industry”.
He said: “For me, it’s wanting to shine the spotlight on our county and how important we are and allow the other members of the legislature to experience the people, the seafood and the different things that we have to offer”.

Senate bill seeks to end  ‘wrongful birth’ suits

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

TEXANS WILL no longer be allowed to sue doctors for “wrongful birth” if a bill approved unanimously by the senate’s state affairs committee becomes law.  
“Wrongful birth” is a cause of action based on an accusation that a doctor withheld, either willfully or through negligence, key information from parents who otherwise might have decided to terminate a pregnancy. It allows the parents to seek damages for the high cost of raising a child born with disabilities.
Senator Brandon Creighton introduced the bill maintaining that such suits send a message that some people are not worthy of being born.
During Monday’s committee hearing, he said: “There are no wrongful births. Children born with disabilities ought to have the same rights as any able person. Their lives are just as valuable as any.”
Creighton, left, whose district includes Bolivar peninsula, added that the fear of liability might lead some doctors to recommend abortion to avoid being sued.
Texas was the first state in the nation to develop this standard, based on a 1975 case before the state’s supreme court.
In that case, a woman who had contracted rubella during pregnancy claimed she had not been properly diagnosed by her doctor or adequately warned about the possible fetal complications of the disease.
Her baby was born with severe complications requiring years of expensive surgeries and treatments and the parents sued saying that, had they known the possible complications before-hand, they would  have opted for termination.
Opponents of the bill testified that eliminating the cause of action might lead to doctors opposed to abortions withholding knowledge of a fetal abnormality to prevent parents from opting for termination but Creighton said that existing malpractice laws are adequate.
He said: “We want to make it very clear that we are not allowing doctors to choose what information to give their patients based on their personal beliefs.
“This can be ensured by other means rather than this particular cause of action.”
The measure is now heading to the full senate for consideration.

Lone Star watch by Ed Sterling

TEXANS WHO rely on Planned Parenthood as a medical care provider won’t have to seek those services elsewhere, pending an upcoming trial.
In the lawsuit titled Planned Parenthood Et Al v Texas Health And Human Services Commission, Austin-based US district judge Sam Sparks last week granted a preliminary injunction to prevent the commission, a state department, from eliminating funding for the family-service organization from its 2017-18 Medicaid budget.
In his judgment, Sparks wrote: “There is no legitimate public interest in allowing Texas to complete its planned terminations [of funding] based on the current facts.
“Instead, the public interest favors enforcing the individual plaintiffs’ rights and avoiding disrupting the health care of some of Texas’ most vulnerable individuals.”
Sparks found that an injunction would ensure that Medicaid recipients in Texas “will continue to have access to medical care at their chosen providers” and that the state department’s termination of Planned Parenthood’s provider agreements probably violates federal law.
On Tuesday last week, February 21, the judge ordered the plaintiffs and defendants to work out a schedule for presenting arguments in court within 30 days. The court will then schedule a trial date.
Texas attorney general Ken Paxton expressed disappointment at the ruling and said he plans to file an appeal.
His office released a statement saying he “promised to continue his fight to protect the unborn and Texas taxpayers”, accusing Sparks of ruling that Planned Parenthood’s “willingness to violate state and federal law on manipulating abortion procedures and profiting from the sale of fetal tissue”, as well as “making false statements” to law-enforcement agencies and “misleading” courts, were “insufficient grounds for Texas to exclude the organization from participating in the state’s Medicaid program”.
The statement quoted Paxton as saying the decision “flies in the face of basic human decency”.

Feds and state in ‘bathroom bill’ lockstep

A REPUBLICAN’S bill seeking a new law on the use of school restrooms by transgender students was on the table on Monday, awaiting a hearing by the state senate’s state affairs committee in the wake of the federal government’s reversal of an Obama administration directive on the issue last year.
The Trump administration last week overturned former president Barack Obama’s May directive to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice.
On Wednesday, February 22, the civil rights divisions for the federal justice and education departments issued a joint guidance letter instructing their staff that they were reversing the controversial move.
The directive had been on ice since late August, when a Fort Worth federal district court enjoined the Obama administration from its nationwide enforcement.
Meanwhile, Texas senate bill 6, introduced by Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham and considered a high priority by governor Greg Abbott and lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, proposes a Texas requirement for transgender students to use facilities that match the biological sex they were assigned at birth.
On Wednesday, February 22, Patrick issued a statement welcoming president Donald Trump’s directive and saying the subject “is a state issue” that “ensures that public schools continue to designate separate restrooms, locker rooms and showers for boys and girls as well as allowing schools to continue to determine how they will accommodate students with individual needs, as they have always done”.
Saying he helped Kolkhorst write the bill, known as the Texas Privacy act, he added: “SB6 also protects private businesses from being forced by a local government to adopt any kind of restroom, locker room or shower policy and requires government buildings to continue to designate separate restrooms, locker rooms and showers for men and women.
“SB 6 does not discriminate against anyone. It is a common-sense privacy and public safety policy
for everyone.”

Legendary chief justice Pope dies

NOTED JURIST Jack Pope of Austin died at age 103
on Saturday.
The former state chief justice, who was born in Abilene in 1913, became famous for helping establish formal judicial education for Texas judges, fighting for a voluntary judicial ethics code at a time when judges had none and fighting again to make that code mandatory and enforceable.
Altogether, he served as a Texas jurist for 38 years, first as a district court judge, then as a court-of-appeals justice and later the state’s supreme court, becoming chief justice in both appellate courts. His judicial tenure, as a whole, was the longest of any Texas supreme-court justice.
While on the bench in the court of appeals, Pope’s reassessment of water rights conveyed by Spanish and Mexican land grants changed Texas water law for ever.
As chief justice, he forged a way to guarantee income to finance legal assistance for the poor.
Concerned with double litigation in the same case, he won legislative support for statutory changes to thwart “forum shopping” for favorable judges.

Poor students lead way in AP exams

ALMOST 123,000 of Texas’ 2016 high-school graduates took at least one advanced-placement-program exam during the previous three years, according to the state’s education commissioner.
Mike Morath said last week that the total, 122,606, amounts to 38.7 per cent of the state’s graduating class, while the national percentage rate for the same period is 36.2.
And Santa Fe was one of 22 Texas independent school districts recognized for their efforts to increase access to AP coursework while maintaining or increasing the percentage of their students earning AP exam scores of three or higher.
The figures came from research by College Board, the nonprofit successor to the national college entrance examination board, which oversees the program.
Morath said they show that “Texas was again the closest state to achieving equitable participation for low-income students”.
He said 50.3 per cent of the state’s AP examinees in the class of 2016 were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, of whom 45.1 per cent achieved a score of three or higher – “much higher than the national average, 24.9 per cent, and higher than any other state”.
Further good news came in the fact that three of the 10 most popular AP courses in Texas were in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, courses.
However, overall, 20.2 per cent of Texas students in the class of 2016 scored three or higher on an AP exam during high school, which was below the national average of 21.9 per cent.

Committees mull bills to rein in feds and abortions

By Richard Lee
Texas Senate News

TEXAS senate committees last week took up bills including some seeking to regulate abortion practices and some that would answer governor Greg Abbott’s emergency call for a constitutional convention of the states.
The convention-related bills are the last to be taken up by the senate that address four issues tagged as emergencies by Abbott in his State Of The State address.
Abbott said in his January speech that the federal government has overstepped its bounds and called on the state legislature to pass an official petition to call a convention under article V of the US constitution for the purposes of amending the nation’s ruling document.
On Thursday, the senate’s state affairs committee took up two measures that would do that.
Senate joint resolution 2, by Granbury senator Brian Birdwell, would tell Washington that Texas wants to amend the nation’s founding document to rein in the powers of the federal government, including term limits for federal elective offices, requiring a national balanced budget and strengthening state sovereignty.
In announcing his bill, Birdwell said he believes that’s the only way to restore the original intent of the
US constitution.
He said: “For years we’ve watched as the executive, judicial and frankly the legislative branches have usurped more and more power from the states. It is my firm belief that the only way we will save this republic and federalism as a whole is to go about the process of the states taking control of the federal government that they created.”
There has never been an Article V convention and it would require 34 of the 50 states to pass formal resolutions calling for one. If convened, each state would send a delegation to represent its interests at the convention.
Senate bill 21, also by Birdwell, would govern the selection and authority of the convention delegates. They would have to be active legislators and the state legislature would retain the authority to recall and replace any who go outside the bounds of the topics under consideration.
Both measures have passed the senate’s state affairs committee and are due to go before the full senate for consideration.
On Wednesday, the senate’s health and human services committee looked at three bills that seek to restrict some practices relating to abortion procedures. The first, SB 8 by committee chair and Georgetown senator Charles Schwertner, would strictly regulate the donation of fetal tissue from aborted pregnancies.
His proposal comes in the wake of a 2015 undercover video that he said allegedly showed employees of a Houston-area Planned Parenthood branch discussing the sale of fetal tissue and altering procedures to allow for the recovery of fetal organs.
He said: “This bill is meant to address the sincere concerns of literally tens of thousands of Texans, including myself, regarding the donation and potential sale and profit of human fetal tissue derived from elective abortion”.
The bill would prohibit the sale or donation of fetal tissue from elective abortions and would create penalties for doing so. If passed, abortion facilities would only be allowed to donate tissue from medically-necessary abortions or miscarriages and only to approved facilities.
The bill also seeks to ban partial-birth abortions, which are already illegal under federal law, in Texas. Schwertner explained the anomaly, saying that, because the federal ban only applies in matters involving interstate transfer, a state law is needed to make the ban complete.
The health and human services committee also heard a bill by Dallas senator Don Huffines that seeks to regulate the disposition of fetal tissue and require a proper burial or cremation for fetal remains following abortion or miscarriage.
A third abortion-related bill, by Lubbock senator Charles Perry, seeks a requirement that any second-trimester abortions using a dilation and extraction procedure must first terminate the life of the fetus if its dismemberment is involved in the procedure.
All three bills remained pending before the committee at the end of the week.

Henry, Hocking and Doyle talk up county and cities

By Trishna Buch

THE COUNTY is the only one on the Gulf Coast to be given the Moody credit-ratings agency’s highest rating, county judge Mark Henry said this week.
Addressing an audience at Texas City’s Doyle convention center during his annual State Of The Cities address on Thursday, Henry said Galveston is one of 10 counties in Texas to earn Moody’s coveted AAA rating.
He said the upgrade “signifies to industry and businesses that we are a stable form of government”.
Earlier, the county had issued a written statement in which he said: “The upgrade to AAA reflects the county’s large and diverse tax base that benefits from ongoing commercial and residential development, healthy financial position supported by conservative budgetary management, and average debt and pension burdens”.
The county’s $64.6 million limited tax refunding bonds were assigned the rating by Moody Investors Service, as a result of which it can claim good fiscal policies and strong recovery since Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Moody’s report said the county’s tax base has grown to high levels since Ike. It had recovered fully within two years of the storm and, in the past five years, has grown at an annual average rate of 3.7 per cent.
Henry also told the audience that Gulf Coast community protection and recovery district has earned a gold medal for engineering excellence in a study of the effect of storm surge and how to lessen the severity of damages caused by a major storm.
The State Of The Cities event also included addresses by the mayors of La Marque and Texas City.
Matt Doyle of Texas City discussed improvements being introduced to his town and told attendees its planned Lago Mar subdivision is well on the way to kicking off.
“They have already platted 500 lots and you can see many homes almost at completion”, he said.
He also discussed the city’s livable centers study and his hope that the city would gain more walking and biking trails as a result of it, declaring: “We need to walk more”.
He said that, according to Houston-Galveston Area Council, the study “should enhance the area as a destination which is walkable, transit-served, characterized by diverse housing and employment choices, thriving businesses, vibrant street life, and civic amenities”.
La Marque mayor Bobby Hocking told the room that new homes, new businesses and new people are making his city.
“La Marque is in a state of preservation and renovation and we are purposed to be all that we are destined to be”, he said.
Among other points, he said that, in 2016, the city saw the approval of six new police positions and has achieved a 60 per cent increase in sales-tax revenues over the past five years, the repair of 90 per cent of its known water leaks, the construction of 124 homes and $34,564,909 in total new home values.
“Highly favored, I believe, is where La Marque stands today”, he said.
“So, if anyone ever tells you that there is no room for you in the inn, or no room in the boardroom, or no room on their roster, or no room in their workplace, know this – favor can make room for you.
“I believe that the doors of favor have opened for our great city.”