- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas lawmakers and top business leaders vowed Tuesday to kill two proposed constitutional amendments they say will promote anti-gay discrimination and could lead to backlash similar to recent reactions in Indiana and Arkansas.

Opponents say the proposals, sponsored by Republicans Rep. Matt Krause and Sen. Donna Campbell, would morph the business-friendly Lone Star State into a costly state for corporations and negatively affect tourism.

Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1999 allows a Texas resident to sue state and local governments if he or she feels that a government entity is burdening their religious beliefs or practices. Lauded as “carefully crafted” by gay rights advocates, the act explicitly states it cannot be used to undermine federal or state civil rights or take precedence over local ordinances.

The proposed amendments do not explicitly say the law can’t be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation, mirroring the original language of the laws passed recently in Indiana and Arkansas that sparked boycotts and strong opposition. Those states’ Republican-controlled legislatures both revised their laws last week.

Krause said his proposed amendment would give constitutional strength to Texas’ law. It would also trump local laws, including cities’ nondiscrimination ordinances already in place, such as Houston, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

Dozens of states have similar religious freedom laws, largely modeled after a federal law enacted in 1993 with broad bipartisan support. Texas is one of 29 states that have no protections for gays and lesbians in nondiscrimination laws. Similar debates are going on in other statehouses, as Republican governors in Michigan and North Dakota are urging lawmakers to extend anti-discrimination protections for gays.

Flanked by Democratic lawmakers at a news conference, Texas Association of Business’ Chief Executive Officer Bill Hammond called the GOP-backed measures “misguided legislation.”

Dallas Democratic Rep. Rafael Anchia said that, like in Indiana and Arkansas, people in Texas are concerned about the economy. He added a bipartisan group of legislators “will stop this thing in the House.”

Krause said he’s still confident in his proposal. He said the amendments wouldn’t change the protections already in the act. “Our system’s worked well for 16 years,” he said Tuesday.

But others fear that’s not the case.

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SWEEPING HOUSE SCHOOL FINANCE FIX BILL UNVIELED

An ambitious House proposal to fix the much-criticized way Texas pays for its public schools seeks to pour $3 billion extra into classrooms and reduce the state’s reliance on the so-called “Robin Hood” funding mechanism - even as a multiyear court battle continues to rage.

Unveiled Tuesday by the lower chamber’s leading schools expert, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, the sweeping bill would increase per-pupil funding for 94 percent of the state’s 5.2 million public school students - with some school districts in wealthy areas, or those not currently collecting local property taxes at high enough rates, virtually the only ones left out.

No district would see current funding levels decline over the first two years of the plan.

Education advocacy groups have for weeks cheered Aycock’s attempted school finance overhaul - but all sides also agree it’s still a long way from becoming law.

Texas has no state income tax, meaning public education funding relies heavily on local property taxes and a “Robin Hood” system under which school districts in wealthier parts of the state share funding with those in poorer areas. Aycock’s plan would scrap a series of “outdated” funding formulas and de-emphasize the share-the-wealth plan by ensuring that Texas’ poor school districts get more new funding than their wealthier counterparts.

“I think it does what’s right for kids,” said Aycock, a Killeen Republican who spent months building bipartisan support for a proposal he says he can shepherd through the lower chamber.

The problem may lie in the Senate, which has focused more on advancing school voucher plans than freeing up additional money for classrooms. While both chambers have called for property and business tax cuts, the Senate has made “tax relief” a higher priority than education funding.

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ON DECK

The House resumes work at 10 a.m. Wednesday and will take up a major proposal to expand pre-kindergarten programs which were a key campaign promise of Gov. Greg Abbott, but which many education advocates say don’t go far enough. The Senate heads back to work at 11 a.m. In the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, meanwhile, members will discuss a series of proposals to decriminalize marijuana - including a seemingly longshot proposal for outright legalization by Rep. David Simpson of Longview, a tea party stalwart.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We’re getting to the point here where, if we don’t hear bills, they end up on the trash heap,” Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, talking about the small mountain of bills piling up before the Public Education Committee he chairs.

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