- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The restaurant shootout among rival biker gangs in Waco became a last-ditch rallying cry Monday for opponents of a bill that Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is all but certain to soon sign into law: legalizing openly carried handguns in Texas.

The shootout that left nine people dead and 18 wounded happened with only two weeks remaining for the Texas Legislature, where Republicans prioritized expanded gun rights from the get-go after Abbott was sworn into office in January.

Police chiefs and opponents invoked the chaos in Waco and Wild West imagery to make a final protest to a Senate committee before a bill that would allow Texas gun owners to openly carry handguns begins the final approach to Abbott’s desk.

“Officers responded quickly, but open carry would or could have provided more confusion,” Austin Assistant Police Chief Troy Gay said.

After an hour of testimony - mostly from members of the gun control group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America - the committee advanced the legislation to the full Senate by a 5-1 vote.

Abbott said concerns that open carry may have only exacerbated Sunday’s shootout are off the mark.

“The shootout occurred when we don’t have open carry, so obviously the current laws didn’t stop anything like that,” Abbott said.

Texas is one of only six states that don’t allow some form of open carry. Abbott has vowed to get Texas off that list, and could sign a bill doing so before June.

For the last five months, open carry opponents have packed the Capitol and testified repeatedly before the Republican-controlled Legislature about mass shootings elsewhere and the dangers of loosening gun laws further. The Waco shootout, they now say, brought the concerns closer to home.

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ABBOTT SIGNS STATEWIDE BAN ON LOCAL OIL DRILLING BANS

Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a prohibition on cities and towns imposing local ordinances preventing fracking and other potentially environmentally harmful oil and natural gas activities.

The much-watched measure sailed through the GOP-controlled Legislature after voters in Denton, a university town near Dallas, banned hydraulic fracturing locally in November.

The new law limits not only the Denton ban but other actions communities could take limiting energy industry activities. It was backed by oil and gas concerns.

Abbott said Monday he was protecting private property rights from the “heavy hand of local regulation.”

He saw no contradiction in new state regulations superseding local voters’ will, saying he believes “individuals have a much better idea how to run their own lives than do a bunch of government officials.”

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VAPING BAN FOR MINORS HEADS TO GOVERNOR

The Senate sent a bill banning sale of e-cigarettes to minors to Gov. Greg Abbott for his signature. The bill also bans possession of the devices in Texas by anyone under 18.

E-cigarettes are battery-operated smoking devices that vaporize chemicals for inhalation. The bill also directs state health officials to study c-cigarette use statewide.

Supporters pointed to federal studies indicating that children are now trying e-cigarettes more frequently than regular ones. Those opposed suggested the ban was “government overreach.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also is studying e-cigarettes, but doesn’t currently regulate them.

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HOUSE OKS 3-JUDGE PANELS FOR SOME STATEWIDE CASES

The Texas House has preliminarily approved funneling statewide cases, including school finance and redistricting, to special three-judge panels - instead of to the single district judges who currently hear them.

The House approved the measure Monday 91-49. It already cleared the Senate, and one more House vote sends it to Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bill allows the state attorney general to ask the Texas Supreme Court chief justice to appoint three judges to hear qualifying cases. It’s meant to prevent plaintiffs filing lawsuits in counties with sympathetic district judges.

Numerous redistricting lawsuits have been filed, and a district judge has declared the school finance system unconstitutional in a case being appealed to the Texas Supreme Court.

Critics worry it lets the state “judge shop” for its own sympathetic panel members.

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ABBOTT’S 1ST VETO TARGETS CEREMONIAL RESOLUTION

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has issued his first veto, striking down a ceremonial resolution saluting mental health professionals statewide.

A House Concurrent Resolution by Nacogdoches Republican Rep. Travis Clardy commended health professionals as part of National Health Month, observed each May.

But Abbott said in a veto proclamation Monday that the Texas Constitution “requires all laws to be passed as bills” and “new law cannot be made by concurrent resolution.”

He said the resolution “purports to direct the actions of state agencies in the manner of a law,” thus going “beyond the proper bounds of a concurrent resolution.”

Abbott took office in January. As governor, he has 10 days to sign or veto laws approved by the Legislature - though any he takes no action on become law automatically.

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UP NEXT

The House and Senate reconvene Tuesday morning. But it should also be a very busy day in committee for classrooms, with both the upper chamber’s Education Committee and the lower’s Public Education Committee meetings to consider numerous bills.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“The shootout occurred when we don’t have open carry, so obviously the current laws didn’t stop anything like that” - Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to law enforcement concerns that legalized open carry of handguns would have exacerbated Sunday’s shootout in Waco.

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