- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Senate voted Monday to advance a contentious but potentially landmark school voucher plan that would use taxpayer funds to help parents send their children to private and religious schools instead of public ones.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and top tea party Republicans have long championed dedicating state funding to promote “school choice,” arguing that competing for students will improve struggling public schools. But efforts in previous sessions failed to clear the Senate - which this bill is now on the verge of doing.

Passed 18-12 over objections from outnumbered Democrats, the plan allows businesses to donate up to half of what they would pay in state business taxes to educational nonprofits. Those groups would then provide families with scholarships to be used at private schools - up to $6,000 or about three-fourths of what the state pays per student in public education funding.

Public school students could also elect to stay put and apply for $500 scholarships for benefits such as after-school activities, tutoring and transportation.

A final, largely procedural Senate vote is required before the plan heads to the House, where its road is likely to be far rockier.

“I don’t think we’re taking money from a public school,” Senate Education Committee Chairman Larry Taylor, the plan’s sponsor, said. “The student is moving.”

Voucher proponents had backed even more ambitious plans that would funnel state funding to families who hoped to send their children to private schools, but devised the tax credit alternative to appease critics. Opponents, though, say losing would-be tax revenue has the same effect as direct state funding.

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SEN. SELIGER HURT IN MOTORCYCLE CRASH

Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger’s office says the lawmaker was injured and needed surgery after a motorcycle accident in Austin, but could return to work within days.

Spokeswoman Becky Womack said Seliger was injured Sunday afternoon in a collision with another vehicle. He was taken to a hospital where he had elbow and ankle surgery Monday but is expected to make a full recovery.

Womack said the 61-year-old Amarillo Republican was driving from the Austin airport to his apartment when he was injured. She did not immediately have more details of the accident.

Womack said Seliger did not have any passengers on the motorcycle.

Seliger is chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

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TEXAS HOUSE OKS CHANGING WHO HANDELS PUBLIC CORRUPTION INVESTIGATIONS

Texas lawmakers are closer to shutting down the anti-public corruption unit that was at the center of former Gov. Rick Perry’s indictment last year.

The Republican-controlled Texas House on Monday gave preliminary approval to letting the Texas Rangers take over the duties of the state’s Public Integrity Unit.

The Senate has already passed a similar measure.

House Democrats had stalled passage of the bill last week. But Republicans are bent on uprooting the unit out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, which is run by an elected Democrat.

Perry vetoed funding for the unit in 2013 after the district attorney refused to resign following a drunken driving arrest.

Perry was later indicted on abuse-of-power charges. That case remains pending.

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HOUSE ORDERS MORE STATE CONTRACT DETAILS IN WAKE OF NO-BID SCANDAL

Lawmakers say they want details on major contracts at nearly a dozen Texas agencies following a $110 million no-bid contracting scandal.

The request Monday from a House committee is the latest fallout from a criminal investigation into how the Austin-based tech company 21 CT received a lucrative contract in 2014 outside the normal bidding process.

Revelations over how the deal was awarded has made contracting reform an unusually high-profile issue in the Legislature this year.

The House Committee on General Investigating and Ethics says 11 of the state’s largest agencies have until the end of this month to provide details about its biggest contracts.

House leaders say the purpose is to find out whether contract irregularities are widespread.

Several top state officials have resigned over the 21CT deal.

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SENATE ADVANCES BORDER SECURITY BILL - BUT WITHOUT IMMIGRATION CRACKDOWN, IN-STATE TUITION REPEAL

A sweeping border security package that is a priority of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has passed the Senate without divisive immigrant crackdowns.

Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell said Monday he wouldn’t allow contentious “sanctuary cities” or anti-Texas DREAM Act proposals to be tacked onto the main border security bill that now moves closer to Abbott’s desk.

“Sanctuary cities” has become Republican shorthand to describe local governments that forbid police from asking about a person’s immigration status.

Some Senate Republicans want the state to punish those cities and repeal in-state tuition for college students who were brought into the country illegally as children. But there is little sign of support for those proposals in the House.

The price tag on border security is poised to at least double under Abbott.

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SENATE OKS PROPOSED CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT DROPPING AUSTIN RESIDENCY RULE FOR SOME OFFICEHOLDERS

The Texas Senate has approved a proposed state constitutional amendment allowing the attorney general, land commissioner and comptroller to no longer be required to live in Austin.

Sen. Donna Campbell’s proposal would put a referendum on this November’s general election ballot, letting voters decide whether or not scrap a residency requirement dating back to 1876.

It passed Monday with no debate or vocal opposition, and now heads to the House.

Campbell says modern technology allows statewide officeholders to easily communicate with Austin, and that state capital residency requirements are therefore out of date.

The Republican from New Braunfels argues that living in Austin “is no longer a necessity” and that the change “will allow greater flexibility for statewide elected officials and reduce the burden placed on them and their families.”

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‘OPEN CARRY’ BILL CLEARS HOUSE

Texas is closer to becoming the most populous state to allow licensed open carry of handguns after Republicans pushed through a key vote in the state House.

House lawmakers in a 101-42 vote gave final approval to open carry on Monday after preliminarily passing the bill Friday. The state Senate has already approved a similar version and the chambers could send the measure to Gov. Greg Abbott to sign into law in the coming weeks.

Abbott and the Legislature’s strong Republican majority have pushed open carry as an important gun rights and self-defense measure. Most Democrats have opposed it, noting concerns from police in the state’s largest cities and gun control advocates about public safety.

Texas is only of only six states that don’t allow some form of open carry.

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ON DECK

The House reconvenes at 10 a.m., the Senate returns to work an hour later.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We’ll pray to the lord that it will start raining and we won’t have these issues in the future,” Sen. Lois Kolkhorst R-Brenham, while discussing a bill approved Monday by the Senate making it easier for state officials to grant emergency authorization for use of state water amid prolonged drought.

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