- Associated Press - Monday, May 15, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas is asking the federal government to reverse course and provide funding for a state-run women’s health program that excludes abortion providers, an apparent test of the Trump administration that could provide a model for other conservative states.

Since 2011, Texas has chosen to forgo millions in federal Medicare dollars rather than let abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood participate in a statewide program that provides birth control, pregnancy testing and health screenings for low-income women.

Although the move showed the resolve of Republican lawmakers determined to get Texas out of business with abortion providers, a state report found that 30,000 fewer women were served in the program following the changes. More than 80 family planning centers also closed in Texas, a third of which were Planned Parenthood affiliates.

Texas health officials say the program has since improved and now want the Trump administration to provide dollars blocked under President Barack Obama.

The stakes potentially extend far beyond Texas. Abortion-rights groups worry that if Texas succeeds, other conservative states will also cut off Planned Parenthood and put clinics in jeopardy.

“There is a new administration, and we’re looking at what opportunities may exist for us,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

At a public hearing Monday, Planned Parenthood supporters criticized Texas health officials for seeking the waiver while continuing to exclude the nation’s largest abortion provider from the state program, which is now known as Healthy Texas Women. Texas expects to finalize its request this summer to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Only Missouri and most recently Iowa have joined Texas in spurning federal dollars rather than let abortion providers into its women’s health programs, said Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst with the Guttmacher Institute, a national organization that supports abortion rights. But Texas is the first state to seek a waiver with the Trump administration, and Nash said other states could follow.

“If Texas is successful there’s no reason to think these others states wouldn’t try to do the exact same thing,” Nash said.

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CORNYN ON RUSSIAN INVESTIGATION

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, one of several candidates President Donald Trump is considering to replace fired FBI Director James Comey, sees no need for a special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Last year, though, Cornyn said an independent prosecutor was necessary to investigate Democrat Hillary Clinton and her email practices.

His position echoes that of most of the Senate GOP caucus. Cornyn is the Senate majority whip and the No. 2 Republican, a job that often puts him in the position of speaking for the party and defending Trump. That role is outsized for Cornyn because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s reluctance to publicly weigh in on most issues.

Cornyn is a member of both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, putting him in the center of Senate investigations into Russian interference.

His comments provide insights on how he might respond if tapped for the FBI post.

Like most Republicans, Cornyn has supported an investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. elections conducted by the existing GOP-run committees, not a special bicameral panel. At a hearing last week, Cornyn said Russian interference isn’t anything new, but “perhaps the level and intensity and the sophistication of both Russian overt and covert operations is really unprecedented.”

On CBS’s “Face the Nation” last month, Cornyn said investigating ties to the Trump campaign is a “legitimate area of inquiry” and “there is no question that Putin is trying to undermine our democracy and undermine public confidence in our institutions.”

After Trump fired Comey last week amid the FBI’s investigation, Cornyn said it was “within his authority” to do so. Asked if it was an appropriate move, Cornyn would only say the investigation will continue - and perhaps intensify because of the increased attention.

Like most of his GOP colleagues, Cornyn has said a special prosecutor isn’t needed and has expressed confidence in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is heading the investigation.

Asked about a special prosecutor last week, Cornyn mentioned Rosenstein and said “certainly that’s a possibility, but as long as there’s no question about his ability to oversee the investigation, there’s no need for it in my view.”

He took the opposite position during the 2016 election, joining fellow Republicans in asking for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s use of a private email server for government business.

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‘RELIGIOUS FREEDOM’ FIGHT

Debate over usually benign State Bar rules has devolved into a bitter “religious liberty” fight in the Texas House.

The chamber approved Monday an oversight law for the Texas Board of Law Examiners, which qualifies applicants for admission to the State Bar.

But tensions rose over an amendment by Fort Worth Republican Rep. Matt Krause saying that when establishing its eligibility requirements, the board will ensure no rule limits admission to practicing law based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”

It passed narrowly, 79-66.

Democrats objected, saying the U.S. Constitution already guarantees such protections.

The amendment follows the American Bar Association last year adopting professional conduct rules barring discriminatory actions by lawyers.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a subsequent, nonbinding opinion saying applying those rules would violate First Amendment rights.

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IMPROPER TEACHER-STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS

Texas lawmakers have given final approval to a measure cracking down on inappropriate relationships between teachers and students, sending it to Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bill requires principals and superintendents to report inappropriate teacher-student relationships or face jail time and fines up to $10,000. The teacher’s family could also lose access to the teacher’s pension.

Under the bill, a teacher would automatically lose their license if they have to register as a sex offender. Teachers would also get training on how to properly handle personal boundaries and relationships with students.

The Texas Education Agency in 2016 opened more than 220 investigations that involved in appropriate teacher-student relationships.

The law now goes to Abbott who can sign it, veto it or allow it to take effect without his signature.

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ON DECK

The Senate returns to work at 11 a.m. Tuesday, an hour after the House convenes its next floor session.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?,”- Rep. Cecil Israel, D-Austin, who is openly gay. Israel on Monday questioned Rep. Matt Schaffer, R-Tyler, and his support for including “religious objections” language in legislation overseeing the State Bar of Texas. Schaffer waited an instant, then answered: “Yes, I do.”

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