Karina Kling

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Senate passes CPRIT reform bills

The Texas Senate has unanimously passed two bills to overhaul the state’s embattled cancer fighting agency. Republican Sen. Jane Nelson authored both bills, which will in part, restructure CPRIT’s leadership to make sure agency rules are followed and ban agency executives from having business relationships with award recipients.

CPRIT has been under fire for several grants being awarded without going through the proper approval process. Tuesday, the private foundation linked to the state agency announced it was shutting down. The move follows an investigation by the State Attorney General’s Office over what it calls “serious legal concerns” surrounding the nonprofit.

On today’s legislation, Sen. Nelson said she’s pleased the Senate unanimously passed a bill she believes will restore confidence to the public.

In 2007, Texas voters approved spending $3 billion on cancer research.

The bill to overhaul the agency now goes to the House for consideration.

Federal judges say redistricting maps don’t pass pre-clearance

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. said Tuesday that the most recent legislative district maps drawn by Texas lawmakers don’t comply with the Voting Rights Act.

In 2011, Texas lawmakers created new state house, state senate and U.S. congressional districts. Those district maps have undergone months of litigation. The court was not ruling on the current, interim maps that federal judges drew to enable the state’s primary elections, but rather, those maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature.

Prosecutors needed to show the court that Texas lawmakers didn’t have discriminatory purposes when they drew the maps, but the court said they failed to show that. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott immediately vowed to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You can read the opinion for yourself below.

Straus: Stop accounting tricks

House Speaker Joe Straus called for truth in budgeting, Monday, asking lawmakers to make sure the fees paid by Texans go to their intended purposes. Straus says the long, accepted practice of diverting fees generated for specific purposes to certify the state budget, instead of being spent on their intended purpose has to stop.

For decades those fees have been used as part of "funds consolidation," an accounting trick meant to balance the budget.

"It’s been a long, accepted practice in good times and in bad times, and there’s never going to be an easy time to deal with this," Straus said.

Straus asked a House subcommittee on appropriations to consider how to make the budget process more transparent.

"I’m not saying today that we need to cut $5 billion to straighten this out. What I am saying is that we should be honest in our budgeting and we should collect fees for their intended purpose or stop collecting them," Straus said.

According to Straus, lawmakers have stockpiled nearly $5 billion in dedicated accounts to balance the budget. Examples include fees charged to drunk drivers that are supposed to go to hospital trauma centers. Instead of spending that money, lawmakers keep it in an account where it can be used to balance the budget.

Texas Hospital Association spokesperson Denise Rose says because hospitals do not receive the full amount, each year there’s a possibility of less care, especially in rural areas that can’t keep centers going on their own dime.

"Our half, we’ve gotten portions appropriated, but never the full amount," Rose said. "It’s a chunk of money that’s helpful to a lot of communities, and I think it just increases the strain on hospital facilities and the safety nets and will end up being passed down in some form or fashion."

In a statement Straus said, "This move toward greater transparency will require discipline and tough choices, but I am confident that the House is up to the challenge. In the end, Texans will have a budget that is fairer, simpler and more straightforward."

Austin State Senator Kirk Watson, who championed the Honesty Agenda during the last legislative session, said he is pleased with the call for transparency by the speaker.

"I’m very encouraged by the Speaker’s comments today on the vital issue of ending the diversion of dedicated funds – taxes or fees that Texans pay for specific purposes such as parks, hospitals, and utility bill relief, but that instead are used to certify the budget," Watson said in a press release. "We need to start working on these reforms right now, especially given the budget uncertainties we know we will face next year. And I will work with the Speaker and any other public official in Texas to truly reform the system and ensure taxpayers’ money is used for its intended purpose."

Vying to be the most ‘conservative’ candidate



The current race for Kay Bailey Hutichson’s seat on the U.S. Senate is quite crowded on the Republican side.

Division within the party itself has become evident between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst’s and former solicitor general Ted Cruz’s campaigns. Cruz has won the support of national Tea Party groups, some of which are now running ads attacking Dewhurst for not being conservative enough.

However, some Republicans may differ on what ‘conservative’ actually means.

"A belief in the patterns of government that have existed and worked in the past," Jim Cardle with Texas Insider said.

Jonathan Saenz with the Liberty Institute says a true conservative believes in what some would say are the core values established at America’s birth.

"Where do you stand on the issue of the role of government? Where do you stand on religious liberty and Founding Fathers?" he said.

Most would say the candidates for U.S. Senate wouldn’t differentiate a whole lot on those, but what about today’s Texas conservative?

"A personal agenda, or something divisive, where you have to answer a score card or something like that," Cardle said.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Perry, who’s been considered one of the Tea Party’s loudest voices, is coming to Dewhurst’s ‘conservative’ defense in one of the lieutenant governor’s latest ads.

"The fact of the matter is, they’re all conservative. They all believe in less government. They all believe in individual freedoms,” Cardle said. “They all believe in states’ rights. They’re conservatives, but again their problem is they’re running in a conservative primary."

The U.S. Senate race will be among the topics during our weekly political show “Capital Tonight” this Thursday at 7 p.m.

Awkward timing of primary elections could hinder some candidates’ chances



The municipal election just wrapped up Saturday, and now early voting has already begun for the state’s primary election.

Confusion over election dates due to the state’s redistricting battle pushed primary election day to May 29, one day after Memorial Day.

UT Political Science Professor Jim Henson says encouraging voters to cast their ballot early is key for candidates.

“The impression we’re getting is that the campaigns are working very hard to mobilize their voters early in order to sort of back fill against the possibility of folks coming back from a three-day weekend, and not being particularly attentive to politics and not turning out to vote," Henson said.

Robert Eller works for Adan Ballesteros’ campaign for Constable Precinct Two. Eller posted campaign signs outside a polling location Monday in hopes that it will remind voters to come out and cast their ballot.

"I’m hoping that it does draw attention, and hopefully it will get people out here to vote," Eller said.

Henson says on the crowded Republican side of the U.S. Senate race, low turnout could prove problematic for the frontrunner, David Dewhurst. Polls show challenger Ted Cruz is steadily gaining support.

"If the Cruz campaign can make some inroads among conservative voters, convince them that Cruz is the more conservative candidate than the more established politician David Dewhurst, then the low turnout could break Cruz’s way," Henson said.

If the race goes to a runoff, that election would happen in July—an even worse time for voter turn out.

Due to the unusual timing of the primaries, some election offices are also having problems finding election judges.

Travis County is still in need of about 100 judges for May 29.

Austinites gather to watch Paul’s strong 3rd place finish



GOP presidential candidate and Texan Ron Paul came in a close third in the Iowa caucus Tuesday night with 21 percent of the vote.

Paul’s grassroots support across Iowa echoed back home in Texas, and despite critics who claim Paul isn’t electable, his supporters in Austin say he’s on the way to victory.

"We will go on. We will raise the money. I have no doubt about the volunteers. They’re going to be there," Paul said.

He couldn’t quite capture a first-place finish at Tuesday’s Iowa caucus, but Paul’s supporters came out strong enough to see him finish a solid third. Paul said his finish is a strong message to the status quo.

"Too often, those who preach limited government and small government, they forget, that invasion of your privacy is big government,” Paul said. “We have to emphasize protecting your personal rights and your economic rights, are what the government’s supposed to do. They’re not supposed to run our lives or spend our money."

In Texas, Paul’s support was no different. A packed house of Paul backers gathered in Central Austin to watch what happened in Iowa.

"I came out here because I support Ron Paul and I want him to do well in this caucus. I’ve been following Ron Paul since the 1970s and have always liked his small government, freedom-oriented views," Paul supporter Jerri Lynn Ward said.

Akash Sharma said he believes so strongly in Paul for president that he devoted his New Year’s plans to helping out the cause.

"I had a free ticket on American Airlines anywhere, and I was thinking what am I going to do New Years Eve? I thought I’d do something productive and find the grassroots campaign office for Ron Paul in Cedar Rapids. I called them up and asked if they needed volunteers and they said sure," Sharma said.

Even as critics continue to say Paul’s not electable, his supporters keep showing up and say don’t count him out too quickly.

“Their first tactic seemed to have been to ignore him, thinking he would go away and he kept building up," supporter Lynn Foster said.

"I would say we’re still ready to go and not going to give up, still going for Ron Paul 2012," supporter Matt Wood said.

Paul’s next stop will be New Hampshire. His campaign is banking on its organized volunteers already in place in the state, some of whom were along for the ride four years ago in his previous bid for president.

Hardly downtime for Texas lawmakers between sessions



The Texas Capitol looks and feels much different than it did just eight months ago, but just what are the state’s lawmakers up to now that the Legislative session is over?

Texas has what is called a “citizen legislature,” meaning that lawmaking for the state serves only as a part-time job for the legislators. In return, they earn $600 per month as lawmakers and $150 per day when the Legislature is in session.

"The whole idea behind meeting part-time is to have a citizen legislature,” Republican State Representative Larry Gonzalez said. “To have men and women that come to the Capitol, serve the state and then go back and live under the laws they helped to create."

While lawmakers head back to their day-jobs and keep an ear out for constituent concerns, suggestions on what needs to be worked on and possibly addressed in bills next session, called interim charges, are issued by Speaker and Lieutenant Governor.

"Those hearings are ongoing, a variety of issues, lots of committees meet,” Rep. Gonzalez said. “Austin’s the hub, so they meet here."

In November, many lawmakers had already returned to the Capital City to start tackling drought and state water supply concerns, just one of Speaker Joe Straus and other House members’ 175 interim charges.

Others include looking at the problems with the Texas’ so-called franchise tax and enhancing public and higher education.

Click here to read a full list of the interim charges to be examined by lawmakers over the break.