- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 14, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas House made it easier for its members to place panic buttons in their Capitol offices on Wednesday, a day after a heated confrontation involving gun rights activists and a Democratic lawmaker.

The rule, unanimously approved as part of a routine House administration plan, directs the Department of Public Safety to ensure that each House member could request a panic button that “alerts the department in the case of emergency.”

It also provides lawmakers more time and greater flexibility for reimbursing the state for the cost of the panic button, and gives representatives more discretion about who can enter - and who can be asked to leave - their offices.

San Antonio Democratic Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who sponsored the amendment, suggested while speaking on the House floor Wednesday that some representatives already had office panic buttons. But in a subsequent interview he directed questions to DPS, where spokesman Tom Vinger said the agency “does not publicly discuss specific security measures at the state Capitol.” Vinger said such issues are regularly discussed with legislative and state officials.

The measure followed a heated exchange between members of a pro-gun group and Rep. Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat from Eagle Pass.



An online video of the incident shows Nevarez asking the group to leave his office while being called a “tyrant to the Constitution” for not supporting a bill to overturn Texas’ longstanding ban against the open-carry of handguns.

In the clip, posted by a gun rights activist, Nevarez is heard saying he will call security and seen having trouble closing his door on the group. The confrontation occurred in Nevarez’s office on Tuesday, when the Texas Legislature opened its 140-day session.

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DEFENDING TEXAS’ ‘DREM ACT’

One of Texas’ most powerful business lobbies joined Democratic lawmakers Wednesday in opposing Republican efforts to repeal in-state college tuition rates for immigrant students.

The Texas Association of Business has previously endorsed keeping the 2001 state law many top Republicans have pledged to repeal. The renewed call to oppose repeal efforts was another sign of the coming conflict among Texas conservatives in what could be one of the session’s most divisive issues.

It wouldn’t be the first time Republicans have clashed with typically conservative business leaders. In 2011, business interests were seen as influential in scuttling Republican efforts to allow local police forces to ask detainees about their immigration status.

State records show about 20,000 students enrolled under the law, most of them at two-year or technical colleges.

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ABBOTT ORDERS ‘STRIKE FORCE’ IN HHSC INVESTIGATION

Fallout over $110 million in no-bid state contracts widened Wednesday when Republican Gov.-elect Greg Abbott ordered a review into Texas’ sprawling health agency that is already under criminal investigation.

Leading the newest round of scrutiny is Billy Hamilton, a journeyman in state government who was called to mend the Cancer and Prevention Research Institute of Texas in 2013, when that $3 billion agency also unraveled because of questionable contracts.

The Texas Health and Human Services is now facing similar legislative scorn and uncertainty after December newspaper reports showed the agency gave Austin-based 21CT a lucrative contract to root out Medicaid fraud without requiring the tech company to go through the usual bidding process.

Two high-ranking agency officials have already resigned, including one at the behest of Gov. Rick Perry, and public corruption prosecutors have opened a case.

Abbott, who will be sworn in Tuesday, described his team as an independent “strike force” that will review management and contracting within the health commission. The Texas Legislature is expected to spend the next five months scrutinizing how the 21CT deal came together and calling for stricter contract safeguards.

“I’m grateful for Governor-elect Abbott’s help and support as we work to improve contracting and agency operations,” Health Commissioner Kyle Janek said in a statement.

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WHAT’S ON DECK

The House convenes at 9 a.m. Thursday to approve its rules - a pro-forma measure that isn’t expected to spark too much debate. But if it does, lawmakers may have to scramble to finish before Gov. Rick Perry’s farewell speech - which he’s set to deliver to a joint session of both chambers at 2:30 p.m. Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick has also promised an “announcement” at 9 a.m., even though he won’t actually be sworn into office until Tuesday.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“We don’t necessarily agree on every issue, but I know we care about each other,” Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, addressing the House in support of his amendment making it easier for state representatives to get panic buttons for their Texas Capitol offices.

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