- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Tax cuts and better pre-K in Texas - two major promises of new Republican Gov. Greg Abbott - pushed ahead Wednesday when the House rallied behind a $2 billion proposed sales tax cut before passing an early education bill that schools say underwhelms.

Both moves simultaneously disappointed Democrats, deepened tensions with Senate Republicans and raised the chances of a rocky final two months in Abbott’s first legislative session.

Across the aisle from the House, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick dug in his heels, calling the House tax plan “out of step” and saying he will insist on property tax relief for rising home appraisals.

The significance of the day was set early when Abbott - who has largely kept behind the scenes so far in the Legislature - privately huddled with House Republicans before they called for lowering Texas’ sales tax rate and then delved into a limited pre-K makeover.

“I’m very proud of the fact that the Texas House of Representatives has taken it this far,” Abbott said.

School administrators and education groups are more frustrated than proud. They see Abbott’s plan as a missed opportunity that only nudges the status quo, since Texas would not expand pre-K eligibility or extend to full-day classes. The state would instead give districts more money to improve its existing programs.

Abbott says Texas shouldn’t rush into pre-K expansion but wait a few years until the state can study the impact of his $130 million plan. Four years ago, Texas cut $300 million from pre-K to help close a massive budget shortfall, which hasn’t been restored.

Debate over the House bill began shortly after House Republicans unveiled a sweeping tax-cut package that includes what would be the first drop in Texas’ sales tax rate in history.

“We discuss a $4.8 million tax relief package on the very same day we’re about to give crumbs to pre-K education,” Democratic state Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer said.

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SENATE VOTES TO MOVE TEXAS PUBLIC INTEGRITY UNIT OUT OF AUSTIN

Texas senators voted Wednesday to move a statewide public corruption unit out of liberal Austin and put local district attorneys in charge of prosecuting ethics violations, a move Republicans said was needed to “depoliticize” the agency tied to former Gov. Rick Perry’s abuse-of-power indictment.

Republicans, who have sought the change for decades, insist the effort isn’t about retribution for the Perry case or creating extra legal protections for politicians. But outnumbered Democrats worried local prosecutors who know officeholders might be unwilling to prosecute their friends.

Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman’s bill makes the Public Integrity Unit part of the Texas Rangers rather than the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, whose chief is chosen by heavily Democratic voters in Austin. It would have Rangers investigate corruption complaints, then forward cases to district attorneys where the accused official lives.

The measure passed 20-11 along party lines and needs a final, procedural vote before heading to the House - where a similar measure is waiting to hit the floor.

Preliminarily approval came despite Democratic Sen. Kirk Watson of Austin suggesting the changes could create a “special class” of prosecution for politicians

“Most people don’t get to be tried by a hometown judge, a hometown jury and a hometown prosecutor,” Watson said.

Speaking to reporters afterward, Huffman countered: “The politicians now are being prosecuted in Travis County, that’s a special system.”

“I think this creates a more-fair and certainly a more-transparent process,” said Huffman, a former judge and prosecutor.

She’d originally proposed that the unit be headquartered within the GOP-controlled state attorney general’s office, but scrapped that to ensure speedier passage of her bill.

Perry in 2013 vetoed the Public Integrity Unit’s funding after Democratic Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg refused his calls to resign following her drunken-driving conviction.

A separate grand jury in Austin eventually indicted Perry on coercion and abuse-of-power charges for publicly threatening the veto he later carried out - though that case was led by a special prosecutor, not Lehmberg or her ethics unit.

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MARIJUANA SUPPORTERS GETTING THEIR DAY IN TEXAS HOUSE COMMITTEE

Legalizing marijuana remains out of the question in Texas, but pot looks to still be scoring a relatively big day in the statehouse.

Backers of softening laws in Texas over pot use are hoping Wednesday is when their proposals finally start getting traction in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Several marijuana laws were being considered before a House committee running late into the evening.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is unlikely to approve relaxing penalties for pot use. But Democrats are playing the long game and say they’re optimistic their bills may start making progress.

One proposal would remove the threat of arrest for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

Republican state Rep. David Simpson is calling to completely legalize pot. He contends that God didn’t make a mistake when he made marijuana.

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ON DECK

The House reconvenes at 10 a.m. Thursday, and the Senate’s back an hour later. But verbal fireworks may start earlier, during an 8 a.m. meeting of the House Transportation Committee, which is expected to hear contentious testimony over a bill that would allow ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber to operate statewide.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We do not usually allow applause in the Senate gallery, but we’re making an exception,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, as a large group of visiting retired teachers frequently interrupted a series of floor speeches singing the praises of their profession with long, loud cheers.

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