Highlights from the Texas Legislature - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Highlights from the Texas Legislature

(AP) Gov. Rick Perry announced Wednesday that he signed legislation protecting journalists from having to reveal certain confidential sources in court.

The shield law, known as the Free Flow of Information Act, grants a qualified privilege to journalists so they can protect their sources and in many cases not have to testify or produce notes and tapes in court gathered while acting as a journalist. News industry and open government advocates fought for the law for several legislative sessions.

Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia had some form of shield law. Texas becomes the 37th state.

Supporters of the measure say it will encourage whistleblowers to come forward and reveal government corruption, public safety hazards and corporate malfeasance because they will know their identity can be protected.

"It's an important day for Texas," said Fred Hartman, chairman of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association/Texas Press Association legislative advisory committee. "It's a law that will benefit all Texans, all of our citizens."

The law takes effect immediately.

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved the bill, sending it on to Perry for his decision. Perry said it's a complex issue, and that he's glad lawmakers struck a balance between protecting the rights of the people and the press.

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KUEMPEL'S CONDITION

House members got an update Wednesday morning on Republican Rep. Ed Kuempel of Seguin, who was taken to Brackenridge Hospital after he was found collapsed at the Capitol the night before.

Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, told lawmakers Kuempel suffered a massive heart attack and would be in a medically induced coma for one to three days.

Geren applauded the responses of Capitol staffers, Department of Public Safety officers and Rep. John Zerwas, a doctor and Richmond Republican who managed CPR and resuscitation attempts on Kuempel until EMS arrived.

Also on Wednesday, Gov. Rick Perry spoke fondly of Kuempel. He praised his legislative work and said he and Texas first lady Anita Perry were praying for his speedy recovery.

"It's episodes like this that remind us that life is pretty short and that we need to make the most of our days, leave our mark on the world around us," Perry said.

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LIABILITY DISPUTE

Legislation that would make it easier for certain injured workers to sue property owners for negligence has passed the Texas House.

The bill, supported by personal injury trial lawyers, would remove existing liability protections for premises owners who buy workers' compensation insurance for contract workers who come onto their property to perform their jobs.

Business interests, including the influential group Texans for Lawsuit Reform, opposed the legislation, which passed on a preliminary 75-69 vote Wednesday night. It faces another vote before it can be sent to the Senate.

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WOOF WOOF!

Local leash laws would not apply to dogs used for agriculture purposes, such as guarding livestock, under a bill passed by the Senate.

Many Texas cities require dogs to be kept on a leash in city limits, but most ordinances don't account for farm and ranch dogs that may be used to protect livestock, said the Senate sponsor of the measure, Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls.

"These dogs many times feel like they are a sheep or a goat, part of the herd," Estes said.

The bill has already passed the House and now goes to Gov. Rick Perry for his consideration.

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DPS ADMONISHED

The Texas House has preliminarily approved an overhaul of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The state's top law enforcement agency has been criticized for numerous problems, including staffing levels when the Governor's Mansion was set on fire last summer.

The measure, approved on a voice vote Wednesday, would appoint an inspector general to investigate criminal activity, allegations of wrongdoing and crimes committed on department property.

The overhaul was guided by a state-commissioned study that identified significant problems in DPS' organization, business processes and information systems.

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LASER HUNTING

The Senate voted to allow some hunters who have vision problems to use a laser-sighting device, sending the measure to Gov. Rick Perry.

Texas generally bans hunting with an artificial light, including laser sighting devices. The bill allows disabled hunters to using the laser device if they are assisted by a non-disabled hunter and have a doctor or optometrist statement certifying the extent of the sight disability.

Supporters of the measure say it will improve the shooters' accuracy, reducing the likelihood the hunted game is only wounded.

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SALES TAX HOLIDAY

Parents used to getting a back-to-school break on their children's clothing could soon get the same break on some school supplies, including notebooks, pens, paper and backpacks.

The House on Wednesday approved the measure extending the annual sales-tax holiday on the third weekend in August to cover "essential" school supplies as well as some clothes for elementary and secondary school students.

"In these tough economic times, this is pro-family, pro-taxpayer and pro-public education," said Rep. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston. Bohac said the estimated savings to families will be $9.5 million per year.

The sales tax break would apply to many school supplies that cost under $100. The measure next goes to the Senate for consideration.

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UNT LAW SCHOOL

The House has tentatively approved the creation of a new public law school in Dallas.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said two other major Texas cities - Houston and Austin - have public law schools, and Dallas deserves one as well.

The bill, which has been approved by the Senate, would allow the University of North Texas to establish a law school in Dallas.

The measure faces a final vote in the House. After that, the Senate must sign off on changes including an amendment to study the need and ability to establish a law school along the border.

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NO MORE FREE WATER BOTTLES?

The House on Wednesday voted to tighten restrictions on credit card companies that market themselves mainly to students on college campuses, sending the proposal to the Senate.

The bill by Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, would prohibit colleges from sharing contact information on students with credit card companies. It would also prohibit credit card companies from handing out free gifts to students who apply for credit cards during marketing campaigns aimed at students on college campuses.

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TOP TEN PERCENT

With time running out in the Legislature, Gov. Rick Perry urged Wednesday that lawmakers change the state's top 10 percent law for college admissions. Perry, after speaking at a University of Texas System regents ceremony, said there's still time for action before the Legislature adjourns June 1.

He said UT-Austin in particular needs relief from the law giving automatic admission to Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school class. He says the "best and brightest" students often leave Texas for other states because of it.

"When the president of the University of Oklahoma or LSU or Georgia or Mississippi talk about one of the finest pieces of legislation ever passed is the Texas top 10 percent rule, then I think that's kind of indicative of what it's doing to our universities," Perry said.

The Senate voted to cap top 10 percent admission at 60 percent of a university's entering freshman class. The House hasn't approved the measure.

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SMOKELESS TOBACCO TAX

The Texas House gave final approval Wednesday to change a tax on smokeless tobacco in order to fund incentives to draw more doctors to underserved areas of the state.

Representatives voted 79-61 to change the tax on chewing tobacco to a weight-based tax on $1.22 per ounce. Current law taxes smokeless tobacco as a percent of the list price of each can, meaning more expensive brands are taxed more.

Several representatives argued that the tax would hurt smaller tobacco companies that create cheaper, generic brands by increasing their prices. They said the House shouldn't get involved in an industry fight between big tobacco and small tobacco.

Other opponents said the change would amount to a tax increase for Texans who buy cheaper brands of smokeless tobacco.

The bill would take any additional revenue gained from the tax change and apply it to a state medical school loan repayment program that doctors could apply for after working in an underserved area for at least a year.

Federal guidelines call for one doctor per 3,500 people, a standard 114 of Texas' 254 counties do not meet.

Medical organizations say the high cost of medical school drives many young doctors to seek higher paying specialties and jobs, leaving many areas - particularly border and rural areas - running short as doctors retire and populations grow.

Under the bill, a doctor could apply over four years of service in an underserved area, receiving a maximum of $25,000 the first year and up to $55,000 in the fourth year.

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CASINO HOPES DASHED

A proposed constitutional amendment that could have legalized casino gambling, video slot machines at race tracks and casinos at Indian reservations did not make it onto the agenda for the House's final day to pass House bills and proposed constitutional amendments on initial votes. That deadline day arrives Thursday.

Lobbyists and legislators often say no proposal is dead until the final moments of the session, because lawmakers find ways to resurrect measures or attach them to other bills. And there's still time for the Senate to pass such a gambling proposal.

But expanded gambling in Texas faced an uphill climb, and prospects are dim for its passage. The legislative session ends June 1.

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PAROLE REJECTION

In a rare rebuke of a governor's appointment powers, the Texas Senate voted Wednesday to block one of Gov. Rick Perry's nominees to the state Board of Pardons and Parole over concerns she is unqualified.

The 27-4 vote against Shanda Perkins of Burleson was a resounding bipartisan rejection of the former banker. Unlike the occasional high-profile debates over presidential nominees, the Texas Senate rarely votes against a governor's appointment.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union, had assailed Perkins' nomination, noting she has no college degree and had no criminal justice background before Perry selected her for a board with the power to grant parole and recommend clemency in a death penalty case.

Perkins worked in banking for more than 20 years. She told senators last week she is qualified for the parole job because through her church she has often counseled youth and women who have been through drug and physical abuse and had family members in prison.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

"I always tell my patients as they get older that what doesn't hurt doesn't work right." - Sen. Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, who is a physician.

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