Bill would require Texans to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in

By Nicole Cobler | March 1, 2017

AUSTIN — A Dallas lawmaker’s bill to automatically make organ donors out of driver license holders is meeting resistance from a surprising opponent — the nonprofit that runs Texas’ organ donor registry.

Donate Life Texas has been vocal in opposing so-called “opt out” or “presumed consent” programs across the country, fearing it could slow down momentum at a time when 47 percent of the state’s adults have signed up to be donors.

According to a 2012 national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 51 percent of Americans would support presumed consent laws, but 23 percent said they would opt out of the donor registry if presumed consent were implemented.

“Such strong negative public sentiment demonstrates the real risk that backlash against an opt-out system would result in fewer donations, not more,” said Suzy Miller, executive director of Donate Life Texas.

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Senators decry secrecy pacts they signed to get voter fraud claims

By Nicole Cobler | Feb. 9, 2017

AUSTIN – Two Texas senators are promising to fight confidential agreements they signed before being allowed to view voter fraud complaints reported to the secretary of state’s office.

Their plan to make the information public follows newly nominated Secretary of State Rolando Pablos’ declaration in a Senate committee hearing last week that, “There is voter fraud in Texas, and we’re doing everything we can to prevent it.”

In response to Pablos’ statement, Sen. Kirk Watson and Sen. José Menéndez asked him to provide them with the number of complaints filed with the secretary of state’s office following the November general election. They also asked for the number of voter fraud allegations referred to the attorney general’s office and the nature of the complaints. Pablos agreed to give lawmakers the documentation, but his office required them to sign nondisclosure agreements before releasing the information to them.

“In my view, that is absurd,” Watson, D-Austin, said. “I just think the public needs to know this.”

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Lawmaker wants to position Texas to outlaw abortion with ‘trigger law’

By Nicole Cobler | Feb. 3 2017

AUSTIN – State Sen. Bob Hall is playing the long game on abortion.

To date, more than two dozen bills relating to abortion have been filed in the Texas Legislature, most aimed at restricting the controversial procedure. Hall, however, has gone a step further and authored a bill to create a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortion “to the fullest extent authorized under federal constitutional law as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.”

The Republican senator from Edgewood is looking forward to a conservative U.S. Supreme Court he hopes will overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that made abortion legal in the United States.

Other states have attempted similar approaches by passing “trigger laws,” that would go into effect if Roe v. Wade were overturned. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights, 19 states have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion. Four states – Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota – have laws intended to ban abortion automatically if Roe is overturned; eight others still have pre-1973 abortion bans on the books but do not enforce them. Eight states have laws that mirror Hall’s bill.

“I think there might be a real possibility that a Supreme Court in the near future just might overturn Roe v. Wade,” Hall said. “If they were to do that, then this would put in place in Texas that abortions would be illegal.”

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Judge blocks state from ousting Planned Parenthood from Medicaid

AUSTIN — A federal judge on Thursday issued a temporary injunction, blocking the state from ousting Planned Parenthood from its Medicaid program for at least a month.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks’ ruling followed a three-day hearing in which lawyers for the state argued that removing the nonprofit from Texas’ Medicaid program would have little effect on health care for poor Texans because plenty of other medical providers exist.

Planned Parenthood’s termination from the state’s Medicaid program was scheduled to occur Saturday, but Sparks’ temporary injunction blocks that until Feb. 21. Sparks said he hoped to have an opinion written by then.

Sparks’ ruling was related to timing and was not based on the merits of the case.

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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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