For fifth time, lawmakers to decide ban on texting while driving

By Nicole Cobler | Nov. 25, 2016

James Shaffer used to be guilty of looking down at his phone while driving.

He thinks about that now, just months after a distracted driver unlocked her phone and swerved into oncoming traffic, killing his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

“It’s just that you become more aware of it when it hits home,” Shaffer said.

Now, he can’t help but notice dozens of distracted drivers on the road. Since the wreck in April, he’s spent his energy calling on public officials to pass laws that ban texting while driving. He’s started small – testifying at local city council meetings in Denton. But he hopes lawmakers heading back to the Capitol in January will finally pass a statewide ban on texting while driving.

“I think the state of Texas needs to take a hard look at this … and a strict stance on this,” Shaffer said. “It’s not going away. It’s getting worse.”

Drivers know the risks, and in more than 95 Texas counties they live under local cell phone ordinances that ban texting while driving. But the Lone Star State remains one of four states in the country without a statewide ban on the practice.

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Texas county where Sandra Bland died may elect first black sheriff

By Nicole Cobler and Neena Satija | Nov. 9, 2016

PRAIRIE VIEW — More than a year after Sandra Bland’s death put this little Texas town in the national spotlight, Democrats here hope to put it back there by electing the area’s first black sheriff.

It won’t be easy. Waller County, a mostly rural county just west of Houston that is about 42 percent white and 26 percent black, has long been led by Republicans. But supporters of Democratic sheriff candidate Cedric Watson say a historically black college tucked in the county’s northwest corner could make the difference. About 1 of every 7 residents in Waller County is a student at Prairie View A&M University.

“It’s been crazy all over campus, with us pushing students to vote, to get involved, to know about this,” said Kayla Gilchrist, a senior theater major at Prairie View A&M University who helped register students to vote. “The Sandra Bland incident … that’s been huge.”

Bland, a black woman, was found dead last year in a Waller County jail cell three days after she was pulled over by a state trooper for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument, the trooper arrested Bland on a charge of assaulting a public servant.

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Democrats hope Trump effect aids long-shot bids for Texas Supreme Court

By Nicole Cobler | Oct. 20, 2016

Three Republican members of the Texas Supreme Court running for re-election are facing Democratic challengers who say they may have a chance in the solid-red state with Donald Trump at the top of the ballot.

Democrats point to recent polls that show Trump beating Hillary Clinton by just four points in Texas to explain a possible shift in Lone Star State politics. The Democratic National Committee announced plans in September to open headquarters in Houston to capitalize on the presidential race as a way to help down-ballot candidates.

But only one of the Democratic candidates for Texas Supreme Court — Dori Contreras Garza — has raised even close to enough money to be competitive. And even her bid is a long shot in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the court since 1994. The court has nine justices who are elected statewide to staggered six-year terms.

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Texas Workers Comp System Questioned After Oklahoma Ruling

By Nicole Cobler | Sept. 20, 2016

In the wake of an Oklahoma Supreme Court decision striking down part of that state’s workers’ compensation law, Texas is now the only state that lets private companies opt out of a state-run system and draw up their own plans to compensate injured workers.

Before the ruling, Oklahoma had been the only other state offering an “opt out” provision.

That leaves some Texas attorneys and labor unions questioning whether the state’s nonsubscriber option for businesses will survive, but a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance said changes are unlikely because there are “significant differences” between the Oklahoma and Texas law.

StillRichard Levy, secretary-treasurer of the Teas AFL-CIO, called the Oklahoma ruling “significant” for Texas and said the group is considering if a similar argument could be used to strike down the Texas opt-out provision.

“I would imagine that a lot of people in this area are looking at their Texas Constitutions right now,” Levy said. “Certainly, we expect this to be an issue in the upcoming legislative session.”

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African-American Monument Being Installed at Texas Capitol

by Nicole Cobler | Sept. 27, 2016

After more than two decades of effort by lawmakers to install a monument at the Capitol celebrating African-Americans, the main components of a bronze and granite memorial were quietly lowered onto the south lawn on Tuesday.

Denver-based sculptor Ed Dwight proposed the Texas African-American History Memorial to celebrate more than 400 years of achievements by black Texans. The sculpture, which will be 27 feet high and be 32 feet long when completed, stands near the Capitol’s main entrance.

“It’s really extraordinary,” Dwight said. “This one is right in your face, and you’ll be able to walk up and touch it and associate with it.”

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Lawmaker Pledges Bill to Protect Texas Fantasy Sports Betting

by Nicole Cobler | Sept. 8, 2016

A state lawmaker says he’ll file legislation to make sure Texans can play fantasy sports online without repercussions — following an opinion from Attorney General Ken Paxton that equates placing bets on gaming websites to illegal gambling.

Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, has drafted a bill for the upcoming legislative session that would classify fantasy sports as games of skill, not of chance. The move follows a nonbinding opinion Paxton’s office released in January that suggests paid fantasy sports sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel — which offer Texans the potential to win money off of their virtual teams — violate the state’s prohibition on betting on games of chance.

“It is beyond reasonable dispute that daily fantasy leagues involve an element of chance regarding how a selected player will perform on game day,” the opinion states. Free fantasy sport sites — like those hosted by Yahoo, ESPN and the NFL — are not in dispute.

But Raymond argues people who play fantasy sports must have a deep understanding of the game and the players, which he argues is skill, not chance.

 “It really isn’t the roulette wheel,” he said at a news conference Thursday announcing his plans for legislation.

Texans’ McNair Leads NFL Owners in Political Contributions

By Nicole Cobler | Sept. 29, 2016

One million dollars is just half what the average NFL player makes in a year, but it’s a hefty political donation nonetheless. So far only one NFL team owner has anted up that much during the 2016 campaign cycle according to a report by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington — Robert McNair of the Houston Texans.

The owner of Texas’ other team — Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys — has ponied up $200,000 in the 2016 presidential race, the center reported.

McNair’s $1.3 million in political contributions haven’t gone to support presidential aspirants. He gave $1 million to a super PAC dedicated to protecting the Republican hold on the U.S. Senate, and $100,000 to a similar super PAC for the U.S. House.

NFL owners have contributed more than $2.1 million thus far in 2016, but little went to presidential candidates’ super PACs, the analysis found. Other major NFL owner donors included Robert Wood “Woody” Johnson of the New York Jets, who gave $100,000 to the Trump Victory joint fundraising committee, and Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who gave $125,200 to joint fundraising committees.

McNair is “head and shoulders above the rest,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the ethics group that released the report.

Read more at Texas Tribune