Highlights from the Texas Legislature

AUSTIN, Texas - After months with little or no action, Texas lawmakers are stirring up the emotional cauldron that always brews with abortion-related bills.

A House committee was hearing testimony on a bill that would require women seeking abortions to first have an ultrasound and be shown the results. A Senate panel on Tuesday approved creating new "Choose Life" license plates.

With less than two months left in a session dominated by fights over voter identification bills, insurance and federal stimulus money, supporters of the major abortion-related bills are hoping they can whip their issue back to the forefront.

"There's time," said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life. "It's kind like an aircraft: Either you have altitude or you have speed. We have less altitude but I think we're getting speed before you crash ... It's going to be crunch time soon."

Kyleen Wright, president of the Texans for Life Coalition, called the ultrasound bill the "top priority" for anti-abortion groups.

Opponents of the bills are counting on time running out and a lack of will from lawmakers to pin their ears back for an all-out fight like the one that erupted in the Senate over a voter identification bill.

The ultrasound bill has stalled in the Senate.

The bill by Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican and conservative radio talk show host, requires women seeking an abortion to have the ultrasound but gives them the option whether to view the images. It passed the Senate Health and Human Services committee but is stuck waiting for a full Senate vote that may never come.

Patrick passed the bill in the Senate two years ago. But Republicans lost a seat in the 2008 elections and while the GOP still holds a 19-12 majority, Senate rules require 21 votes to bring a bill to the floor for a vote.

That gives Democrats just enough votes to block bills they don't want. Patrick says he's one vote shy of a vote by the full Senate.

"Last session, I passed this bill before the opposition had a chance to mobilize," Patrick said. "(This year) the opposition has been mobilized against this bill since Day One. I'm not giving up."

The ultrasound and "Choose Life" bills had some early momentum.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry endorsed the license plate bill in December. In February, Perry and Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst joined hundreds at a rally on the Capitol steps in support of the ultrasound bill.

In the House, the ultrasound bill has 59 of the 150 House members signed on in support. It was in the lineup in the House State Affairs Committee on Tuesday.



Texas would develop a $500 million solar energy rebate program to help make it easier for homeowners and businesses to tap into the power of the sun under a bill passed in the Senate.

Environmentalists hailed the 26-4 vote as a big step toward a greener future for Texas. And by getting more Texans using solar power, consumers can reduce dependence on foreign oil, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Troy Fraser, a Horseshoe Bay Republican.

The fund would be paid for with fees built into monthly electric bills. Homeowners would pay 20 cents, commercial users $2 and industrial users $20 a month.

Fraser's bill is designed to collect up to $100 million annually over five years. It would pay rebates of up to 30 percent of the cost of installing solar technology. The federal government also allows tax credits of up to 30 percent.

The bill also requires developers to offer solar as a standard option in developments with 50 or more homes, creates a loan program for schools and prohibits neighborhood associations from banning homeowners from installing solar projects.



Taking aim at border violence, the Texas Senate gave unanimous approval Tuesday to legislation creating new penalties against currency smuggling while stiffening existing sanctions on crimes committed on bridges linking Texas and Mexico.

Though currency smuggling is a federal offense, it's not a state crime, said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands. The legislation, SB2195, would also raise state penalties against the international trafficking of arms, people and cars.

"They bring the drugs in and they take the money and arms back south," said Williams. "I'm trying to cut off the money and the arms that are going back south."



In another attempt to close access to public records, the Texas Senate approved legislation Tuesday that would make secret the addresses of the spouses of federal and state judges. The addresses of the judges themselves - contained in otherwise public records such as property appraisal documents and voter registration applications - are already secret.

The bill, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would extend the same exemptions to their spouses. The Senate also approved legislation recently exempting from disclosure the addresses of federal immigration agents.

Meanwhile, the House gave unanimous final approval Tuesday to a bill allowing federal and state judges and their spouses to leave their home addresses off of their Texas drivers' licenses. Instead, they would be allowed to list the street address of their courthouse.



A proposed House resolution that has helped Republican Gov. Rick Perry attract national attention in his stand for states' rights was up for discussion in the Capitol again on Tuesday.

The measure by Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, voicing support for the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was among a lengthy lineup of bills before the House State Affairs Committee.

Earlier in the day, Perry touted the resolution on the online messaging service Twitter, urging supporters to let their legislators know they back the Creighton resolution. "Let Texans run Texas!!" his tweet said.

Meanwhile, Democrats started passing around T-shirts with Perry's picture that said, "Texas GOP Class of '09 ... Gov. Rick Perry 'Most Likely to Secede.' "



The House gave tentative approval Tuesday to waiving the state's 60-day waiting period for a divorce if there's sufficient evidence that family violence in the case makes an earlier divorce necessary.

In a non-recorded voice vote, House members backed a measure by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Laredo, who said the bill would potentially help saves lives.

Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall, argued against Guillen, saying she has another bill that would help protect Texans from domestic violence and that divorce should be "deliberative and purposeful."

"It should not be entered into lightly," she said.

Guillen's bill is expected to get a final vote Wednesday.



Getting their time in a tanning bed may soon be much harder for some teens under a proposal that got initial approval from the Texas House Tuesday.

The bill would require anyone under 16 and a half years old to get a doctor's note before using a tanning bed. Older teens would need parental consent.

"We are trying to be responsible parents, and we know the science now is that we have more and more cases (of skin cancer) starting at a very early age," said Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton.

An earlier version of Solomons' bill would have required a doctor's permission for anyone under 18.

Currently Texas teens between 13 and 18 years old need parental permission as well as a parent's presence until they are 16.

Legislators in 17 states are pushing stronger restrictions for teens this year. The Texas bill and another in Vermont that would ban non-medical indoor tanning for anyone under 18 years old have been called the strictest.

Twenty-nine states currently have some form of tanning bed restrictions for minors. Most require parental approval.

Some lawmakers and tanning organizations opposed to the legislation have said the decision should remain with parents.

"If the parent wants to say, 'Okay, I'll let you go once,' I think that parent is responsible," said Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall.

The latest version of Solomon's bill requires that parents of teens older than 16 and a half years old to sign their consent in the tanning salon. The permission slips would also have to include Texas Medical Board warnings about indoor and outdoor tanning.



Signs warning pregnant women of the risks of mercury-laden fish could make their way into local fish markets with approval from the Texas House.

House lawmakers voted 96-50 to send a bill requiring the signs to the Senate.

The signs would warn women who are pregnant or plan to be that some fish - namely swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish - may contain large amounts of mercury that can cause birth defects.

Fish markets and grocery stores would be affected. Most restaurants would not have to post the signs.



The Senate voted to make it easier for some people with old criminal convictions to be licensed to carry concealed weapons.

Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, said some people may have old convictions for crimes that were misdemeanors when they were committed but have since been upgraded to felonies.

While some of those convictions may be decades old, they can keep someone from getting a concealed weapons license which is prohibited for people with felony records. Seliger's bill would allow them to apply for concealed weapons licenses.

The bill is supported by the National Rifle Association and the Texas State Rifle Association. The bill passed the Senate 28-2 and now goes to the House.


AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Two bills aimed at banning human reproductive cloning in Texas came up for public hearing in a House committee Tuesday.

The sticking point may be how human cloning is defined in the proposals.

While introducing his bill, Rep. Mark Homer said he hoped it could be a middle ground for a House that is deeply divided on embryonic stem cell research.

"The one thing we do agree on is we do not want to allow for the potential of human reproductive cloning," the Paris Democrat said.

But religious groups and opponents to embryonic stem cell research said both bills are too permissive on using cloned embryos for embryonic research.

Homer's proposal would make it a first degree felony to put a cloned embryo in a woman's womb - called human reproductive cloning. The other proposal by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo, would prevent universities from attempting human reproductive cloning.

Neither bill bans or seeks to ban using cloned embryos for research, causing opponents to say they are not true cloning bans.

The debate boiled down to whether or not cloned embryos create a potential human life, regardless of how they are used.

The Texas Physicians Resource Council, a Christian doctors group, the Texas Catholic Conference and anti-abortion advocates spoke out against the bill. While they agreed it is wrong to put a cloned embryo in woman's womb, they insisted the bill should also ban creating an embryo for research.

Researchers and supporters maintain that there is a distinction between reproductive cloning - which they are opposed to - and therapeutic cloning.

Therapeutic cloning is injecting a shell with cells, such as skin cells, to create a cloned embryo that can be used for research.

Embryonic stem cell advocates say the proposals debated Tuesday allow for research which can potentially cure many diseases without destroying a life.

"They're cells. They're never going to be planted in a woman's womb. They're never going to be a baby," said Laura Templeton, president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Both bills were left pending in the House State Affairs Committee.



"What about all these little girls that are laying out on the beach with baby oil on? We should put a bill on that one, because my gosh, they're frying like little fish out there." - Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Rockwall, during floor debate on a bill that would require a doctor's note for teens under 16 and a half to use a tanning bed.