- Associated Press - Thursday, May 7, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s pre-K upgrade that tea party activists condemn as socialist and educators tepidly embrace as better than nothing cleared the Senate on Thursday after months of disappointing opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Abbott doesn’t get to sign his first flagship education initiative quite yet. But with the House only needing to agree to some minor tweaks, Abbott is now poised to deliver a major campaign promise before the Legislature adjourns June 1.

Not everyone will enthusiastically celebrate.

Although Democrats and education groups support putting an extra $130 million on the table for schools that implement higher pre-K standards, they spent four months unsuccessfully trying to convince Republicans that far more is needed to make any significant impact.

Republicans on the far right, meanwhile, are flustered that any more money is going to pre-K at all. The Senate vote came only a few weeks after tea party activists who advise Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Abbott’s plan a “godless” idea that takes kids away from religious preschools. They also dispute that kids benefit from pre-K programs.

Patrick had one of his most conservative senators, Republican Donna Campbell, emphasize that the program wasn’t mandatory for districts and stressed the cap on the cost while laying out the bill.

“I think this bill is a fiscally, morally and academically responsible thing to do,” Campbell said.

During sweeping state budget cuts in 2011, Texas eliminated a $300 million pre-K grant program the state has yet to restore.

“We took a big step backward, and this is a little step forward,” Democratic state Sen. Judith Zaffirini said.

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PROGRAM GRADUATING TEXAS’ FIRST ‘INMATE PASTORS’

Thirty-three Texas prisoners are graduating from a behind-bars seminary program this weekend - part of an initiative producing what organizers say are the first “pastor inmates” in state history.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who heads the chamber’s Criminal Justice Committee, said 185 prisoners are working to earn college degrees in biblical studies, including Saturday’s graduates.

The program only offers Christian and biblical studies, is privately funded, and taught by professors from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary visiting prisons.

Whitmire said Texas is “still the toughest state in the union” on violent offenders, but that the program has improved prisoner morale and reduced cellblock cursing and violence against guards.

His voice cracking, deeply religious Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said the program wouldn’t have been possible “without the hand of God.”

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SENATE APPROVES MARIJUANA OIL SALE FOR MEDICAL REASONS

The Texas Senate has approved a limited medical marijuana bill, authorizing the sale to eligible patients of Cannabidiol oil.

The upper chamber voted 26-5 to support limited legalization of what’s also known as CBD oil. It’s an extract from the marijuana plant that doesn’t produce the high associated with other parts.

The oil is used to help control seizures associated with intractable epilepsy, which advocates say affects about 150,000 Texans.

Tyler Republican Sen. Kevin Eltife’s measure now heads to the House. A companion House bill has cleared committee, making it potentially eligible for a lower chamber floor vote.

Texas hasn’t legalized marijuana in any form, even for medical reasons.

So, while a small step, passage of CBD oil exceptions would be unprecedented - should they eventually clear the Legislature.

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HOUSE VOTES TO RELAX RULES ON RAW MILK SALES

The Texas House has voted to expand rules governing raw milk to allow producers to sell it at farmers’ markets or customers’ homes.

Rep. Dan Flynn assured his colleagues Thursday that the bill would not mean a blanket legalization of raw milk sales, which have been closely regulated for decades.

Licensed producers are already allowed to sell raw milk directly to consumers at the point of production, usually farms. Flynn’s bill would let those same producers sell milk elsewhere, including at separate businesses they run away from farms, at farmer’s market stands or while visiting the homes of customers.

Flynn, a Republican from Van, said it was about protecting small business from overregulation.

His bill passed 122-14 and now needs a final, largely ceremonial vote to clear the lower chamber.

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HOUSE OKS MENTAL HEALTH SCREENINGS PRIOR TO SENDING INMATES TO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT

The Texas House has voted to require that prison officials perform mental health assessments on inmates before placing them in solitary confinement - and refrain from doing so if medical clearance isn’t granted.

The bill by El Paso Democratic Rep. Marisa Marquez was approved Thursday by a voice vote. It needs a final, largely ceremonial vote to clear the House.

Under the proposal, inmates ordered to solitary confinement would be examined by medial staff. If the staff determines that solitary confinement would be harmful, the inmate would instead be placed in an available inpatient psychiatric facility.

According to a report released in February by the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 6,500 Texas inmates live in solitary confinement - and a third have been diagnosed with mental illness.

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ON DECK

The House reconvenes Friday morning for what promise to be a very long day. The Senate, however, is off until Monday - except for briefly meeting Friday to handle its “local and consent calendar” for bills expected to pass without debate or controversy.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“I can pray as well as anybody. I don’t normally do it in public” - Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, recounting a visit to a prison church service he took with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.


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