- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a pre-K boost on Thursday that delivers one promise and appears close to making good on another over gun rights before Texas lawmakers go home next week.

In the home stretch of the first legislative session under Abbott, which ends Monday, there has been last-minute discord over allowing openly carried handguns on Texas streets and tuition breaks for veterans. There’s also a shift in tone from Republicans over tax cuts that won’t be big as suggested and an anti-gay marriage bill that fizzled.

Even as Abbott signed the pre-K legislation at an early education school in Austin, there seemed to be recognition that a largely uncontroversial priority of a new governor didn’t come easy, even with a dominant Republican majority.

The bill gives more money to Texas schools that implement higher pre-K standards. Abbott had to twist arms of tea party lawmakers - some far-right groups slammed the idea as “Godless” and socialist - and overcome disappointment from educators who say the $130 million boost will only nudge the status quo.

As Abbott scribbled his signature, Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffirini told Abbott it was a tribute to his “muscle.”

“This was a team effort,” Abbott said.

Unfinished business is ahead. A bill that would legalize open carry is still awaiting a signature after a once-clear path to Abbott’s desk was blocked this week when law enforcement groups called for a veto if police can’t ask gun owners for their license.

Abbott would not take a stand on that provision, but lawmakers Thursday acquiesced to law enforcement, stripping out the language in a deal that sets up a likely vote Friday.

The House and Senate are also split on scaling back tuition breaks for military veterans, which Senate Republicans say isn’t financially sustainable under current eligibility rules.

Abbott said he believed lawmakers would finish the biggest issues on time. One already squared away is tax cuts, although the break to homeowners will be about $1 billion less than what Abbott first proposed amid the economic slowdown in the oil and gas industry.

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LAWMAKERS REACH AGREEMENT ON OPEN CARRY BILL

Texas state lawmakers negotiated on Thursday a final version of a bill allowing licensed open carry of handguns, easing concerns of police and priming it for a vote that would send it to Gov. Greg Abbott.

House and Senate negotiators said they stripped out language that sought to bar police from demanding to see the license of someone carrying a gun if they had no other reason to stop them.

That provision had passed both Republican-dominated chambers by large margins, but later prompted angry rebuttal from law enforcement around the state. Police called it a “game changer” that would endanger officers and the public.

A final vote could come as early as Friday. The legislative session ends Monday.

Open carry has been one of the major gun-rights issues of the legislative session, and Abbott has pledged to sign it into law. Texas allows concealed handguns, but has banned open carry since the post-Civil War era.

If passed, Texas would be one of the last states to allow some form of open carry, but would be the country’s largest to do by population.

The session’s other gun-rights bill, allowing concealed handguns in college classrooms, lurched toward resolution with an agreement to let schools create “reasonable” gun-free zones. The last point to resolve is whether to force private universities to allow weapons.

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TEXAS TO REIMBURSE COUNTY FOR ‘AMERICAN SNIPER’ TRIAL

The Texas Legislature is reimbursing a North Texas county for costs incurred during the trial of a man who killed “American Sniper” author Chris Kyle and his friend.

The House on Thursday agreed to pay Erath County $500,000 for the high-profile trial of Eddie Ray Routh, convicted in February of capital murder for the 2013 double-slaying.

The expenditure was one of several tweaks the Senate made to a $300 million state budget that covers immediate costs. The measure now heads to the governor.

Also included now is $4.7 million for the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Economic Geology.

Earlier this month, a 4.0 magnitude earthquake in Johnson County marked the sharpest quake ever detected in North Texas.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. John Otto said the funding “could not wait.”

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EXONERATION COMMISSION BILL CLEARS TEXAS LEGISLATURE

A bill establishing an 11-member commission to examine wrongful convictions is heading to Gov. Greg Abbott.

The House voted Thursday to accept Senate tweaks to a measure sponsored by Democratic Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon.

Its Senate sponsor, Democrat Rodney Ellis, said he’d spent years attempting to pass similar proposals. Abbott can now sign it into law.

The commission would be named for Timothy Cole, who died in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape. He was cleared 10 years after he died, and in 2010 became the first Texan posthumously pardoned.

The commission will examine exoneration cases since 2010, and make recommendations to avoid mistakes in the future.

Texas exonerated 39 people in 2014, the most nationwide. Most were drug convictions dismissed after lab results were found to be faulty.

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ON DECK

Both chambers will convene for the session’s final Friday with a lot still to accomplish. A deal between the House and Senate on the open carry bill means it’s likely soon headed to Gov. Greg Abbott, but other issues may take all weekend to resolve - including discrepancies between both chambers on a proposal cutting tuition benefits offered to veterans, an overhaul of ethics rules and a proposal to limit teens getting court-ordered abortions in extreme cases.

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QUTOTE OF THE DAY

“You are a great example of someone with the strength of character and the focus that we need in this House, and everything that is good about this House,” - Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, congratulating his first-term lawmaker classmate from 20 years ago, Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, on the passage of the Timothy Cole Exoneration Review Commission.

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