- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 11, 2017

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Legislators in the nation’s largest conservative state of Texas sought Tuesday to chip away at the landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, voting to let county judges and other elected officials recuse themselves from issuing marriage licenses if they have personal religious objections.

The bill won preliminary approval in the Senate 21-10, with full Republican support and all but one Democrat opposing it. A final vote, expected to come Wednesday, sends it to the state House.

Texas’ Republican-controlled Legislature only meets every two years, meaning state lawmakers weren’t able to respond to the high court’s June 2015 gay marriage decision until now. Should the bill become law, however, it will almost certainly be challenged as unconstitutional by federal lawsuits.

“If we don’t do this, we are discriminating against people of faith,” said the sponsor, Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Republican from Granbury about 40 miles southwest of Fort Worth. He was referring to clerks, judges, justices of the peace and other elected officials empowered to issue marriage licenses in Texas’ 254 counties.

Opponents say it sanctions discrimination and defies the nation’s highest court.

“The Texas Senate today said it has no problem with public officials picking and choosing which taxpayers they will serve,” Kathy Miller, president of the progressive activist group the Texas Freedom Network, said in a statement. “This bill opens the door to taxpayer-funded discrimination against virtually anyone who doesn’t meet a public official’s personal moral standards.”

Birdwell’s hotly debated proposal only applies in cases where other officials without objections agree to step in for the recusing party. If the substituting official is located outside the county where the marriage license is being sought, documents could be sent electronically so as not to unduly delay the process.

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SANDRA BLAND’S MOM TESTIFIES IN HOUSE COMMITTEE

The mother of a black woman whose death in a Texas jail following a confrontational traffic stop in 2015 is pushing for sweeping police reforms in her daughter’s name.

Geneva Reed-Veal on Tuesday testified to Texas lawmakers for the first time since her daughter’s death became a flashpoint in the national “Black Lives Matter” movement. The “Sandra Bland Act” would revamp racial profiling laws and officer training.

Bland was found dead in a jail outside Houston three days after a white state trooper pulled her over for not signaling a lane change. Her death was ruled a suicide.

Her mother, who is from the Chicago area, says reforms are needed to show people who say “Texas is the most awful state.”

Influential police groups remain opposed to key provisions of the bill.

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PAXTON TRIAL HEADED TO HOUSTON

A judge has moved the criminal trial of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to Houston after uprooting the case from the Republican’s hometown.

State District Judge George Gallagher made the decision Tuesday after special prosecutors argued they couldn’t get a fair trial in the conservative Dallas suburb where Paxton lives. Paxton was indicted in 2015 on felony securities fraud charges over allegations he duped investors in a tech startup.

His trial was originally set for May before the judge granted a venue change. A new trial date hasn’t been set.

Gallagher said in a statement he chose Harris County because it can accommodate the trial and because attorneys on both sides are based in Houston.

Paxton has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces 5 to 99 years in prison.

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SEX OFFENSE EVIDENCE TRACKING

The Texas House has preliminarily approved a bill creating a statewide electronic tracking system for forensic evidence collected in sex offense cases.

The chamber used a voice vote Tuesday to pass Austin Democratic Rep. Donna Howard’s proposal, which would create an online system making cases easier to follow once physical evidence has been collected. It’s expected to cost about $1.5 million during Texas’ 2018-2019 budget cycle.

Howard says a sizeable rape kit testing backlog has made it difficult for victims to track their cases. She said the idea for the bill came from an assault victim who told of being frustrated with the lack of information about the progress of her case after evidence was collected.

A final vote, likely coming Wednesday, will send Howard’s bill to the state Senate.

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ON DECK

The House reconvenes at 10 a.m. on Wednesday and the Senate is in an hour later, though work will fast begin wrapping up for the week as lawmakers head home for Easter.

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QUOTE OF THE DAY

“I just want to say that this Legislature far surpasses the one in Washington” - Republican U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson of Plano, a former Texas state representative and veteran of Congress since 1991 who was honored Tuesday on the floor of the Texas House and Senate.

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