Ex-Mexican drug cartel leader gets 30 years in US prison

A former high-ranking member of the Zetas cartel in Mexico must serve 30 years in a U.S. prison and forfeit $10 million for his drug-related crimes, prosecutors said.

Ivan Velasquez-Caballero, 47, of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, was sentenced Friday by a federal judge in Laredo, Texas.

Velasquez-Caballero is expected to face deportation following his release from prison, officials said.

Known in Mexico as “El Taliban,” Velasquez-Caballero agreed to plead guilty in 2014 to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances and conspiracy to launder monetary instruments.

Mexican authorities in 2012 arrested Velasquez-Caballero in the northern city of San Luis Potosi and extradited him to South Texas on drug-related charges.

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Kushner’s statement on Russia: What to know

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner released a statement Monday morning to the Hill intelligence committees about his contacts with Russians during the presidential campaign and transition.

Kushner denied any collusion with the Russian government, which was engaged throughout 2016 in a campaign of its own to interfere in the election and help Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

The 11-page statement from Kushner is his first public accounting of his interactions with Russians during the presidential campaign.

Here’s a look at the highlights:

Kushner says he had four contacts with Russians last year. The first was a handshake with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before a Trump speech in April. The second was the highly controversial meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower in June. The third was a meeting with Kislyak during the transition. And the fourth was with Russian state-run banker Sergey Gorkov during the transition.

These four interactions were already known from previous news reports, though Kushner added new details in his statement on Monday, including information about relevant emails and logistics.

He says none of these interactions were about collusion or election interference, saying, “I did not collude, not know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.”

Kushner denied reading the full email forwarded to him by Donald Trump Jr. before the Trump Tower meeting. That email explained that the Russian lawyer wanted to meet with Trump campaign officials to give them information from the Kremlin that would hurt Clinton, as part of its effort to help Trump.

He says that he was late to the meeting and only in the room for 10 minutes while the issue of Russian adoptions was discussed. The statement says he emailed an assistant, asking that person to call his cell phone so he would have an excuse to walk out of the meeting. Kushner didn’t publicly release the email but did provide it to the House and Senate intelligence committees.

Kushner denied a Reuters report that said he spoke with Kislyak on the phone twice during the campaign. That report cited seven unnamed sources saying Kushner spoke with Kislyak on the phone at least twice between April and November 2016. Kushner’s lawyers denied the story when it came out in May. Kushner said in his statement that he checked some of his phone records and that his team hasn’t found “any calls to any number known to be associated with Ambassador Kislyak.”

Kushner acknowledges shaking hands with Kislyak before a Trump speech at the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016. This event has attracted scrutiny from investigators on Capitol Hill, who have been trying to figure out the extent of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ interactions with Kislyak the same day. Sessions testified last month that he didn’t recall any such meeting.

For the first time, Kushner said he got an email one week before the election from someone he didn’t recognize called “Guccifer400.” The email threatened to release Trump’s tax returns unless Kushner paid hush money. Kushner says he ignored the email at the advice of a Secret Service agent. The US government says Russia created an online persona called Guccifer 2.0 as a front to release emails it stole during the campaign, but there is no indication that Guccifer400 was part of the Russian meddling effort.

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Analysis: In special session, Texas Senate’s the hare, House is the tortoise

The three leaders of Texas appear jovial at a short meeting of the Cash Management Committee on July 18, 2017, as they face a potentially contentious 30-day special session of the 85th Legislature. 

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Does this seem familiar? The Texas Senate is ripping through an ambitious agenda, racing through the 20 issues on the governor’s special session agenda in an effort to finish within the 30 days allotted for that work.

The Texas House is more deliberate, spending its time on the single issue that must pass — sunset legislation that would continue, for two more years, the lives of five government agencies — and leaving the other 19 issues for later.

This full-speed-ahead vs. slow-and-steady tension was the hallmark of the regular legislative session earlier this year. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, presiding officer of the Senate, laid out an ambitious plan, giving the low bill numbers — Senate Bill 1, Senate Bill 2 and so on — to his legislative priorities and hurrying those off to the House for consideration and collaboration.

That strategy has its charms, especially to anyone with enough legislative experience to know that end-of-session deadlines are often fatal even to bills that have widespread support in both chambers of the Legislature.

Get the work done early, before the storm that always comes at the end.

It has a tactical disadvantage, however, because the chamber that hurries sends all of its darlings to the chamber that’s moving slowly. It’s like sending a stream of hostages to a kidnapper. If the Senate wants a lot of bills passed and the House does, too, there are opportunities for trade. If not — if the Senate wants things and the House doesn’t have a wish list — it puts the hurry-up Senate in the jaws of the we’ll-get-to-it-sometime House.

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions.

The governor can’t really change the flow of things. He can implore. He’s got the bully pulpit. But his only official role here is to start the session, name the subjects for consideration and then wait to see whether any bills make it back to him for signature or veto. Except for his power to pick the subject matter, it works a lot like the regular session.

Last week, Senate Republicans used every rule available to speed consideration of the sunset legislation, because Gov. Greg Abbott said it had to pass before he would open the agenda to other issues.

Once Abbott opened the gates, the Senate set 13 committee meetings for Friday, Saturday and Sunday — racing through the items on the special session agenda in order to get as many of them as possible in front of the full Senate before the end of the session’s second week.

The House, meanwhile, has limited its attention to the must-do sunset legislation, content to lumber through the red-meat items on Abbott’s agenda after that one is out of the way.

“This isn’t a race,” House Speaker Joe Straus told the San Antonio Express-News when asked about the different tempos.

That’s right, sort of. Hardly anyone outside of the Texas Capitol and the bubble that surrounds it really cares about the inch-by-inch progress of legislation, about which side acted first and whose amendments got on; they just care about what passes and what doesn’t, about who voted their way and who didn’t.

The difference in speed will give Patrick and the Senate — and the governor, if he wants to join in — an opportunity to pressure the House to act on what the Senate has sent over. They win on the noisemaking front.

It gives the House the power to edit the Senate’s work, to decide what ultimately gets to the governor and what doesn’t, to control the flow of the special session. It plays into one of the Capitol’s favorite clichés, too: “The process is designed to kill bills — not to pass them.”

Time, the truest friend to legislative assassins, is especially short in special sessions. The first of the session’s four Fridays is already behind us. The House — the tortoise in this race — is just coming up to the starting line. The hare — the Senate — is already sprinting.

All by itself.

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Texas Senate panel targets mail-in ballot fraud after high-profile case

 

A Texas Senate panel approved a measure Sunday aiming to crack down on mail-in ballot fraud — largely through increased penalties.

“Mail-ballot voting is a prime target for illegal voting and election fraud,” said Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, who authored the measure, Senate Bill 5. “In the U.S., the right to vote is sacred. Any attempt to steal an American’s vote … must be addressed.”

In a 9-0 vote, the Senate Committee on State Affairs sent the bill to the full chamber. The mail-in voting issue was among the items Gov. Greg Abbott placed on his call for the special legislative session that kicked off last week.

The focus on absentee balloting puts the Republican-dominated legislature on a new path for changing the voting process by addressing a documented vulnerability in Texas elections. Previously, lawmakers targeted rare in-person election fraud with voter ID legislation eventually blocked by federal courts.

State law allows Texans with disabilities, those who are at least 65 years old or those who plan to be out of their home county during voting to request a mail-in ballot, and that process falls outside of voter ID requirements.

Saturday’s legislative movement on the matter comes amid an investigation of mail-in ballot irregularities affecting city council races in Dallas, where 700 suspicious ballots were sequestered after the county’s district attorney received an “off-the-charts” number of complaints from voters, according to news reports. Many people — especially in West Dallas — said they received mail-in ballots they didn’t request and feared that someone else voted in their place. Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted a man for allegedly taking a Dallas woman’s blank mail-in ballot, filling in a candidate’s name, and delivering it to the county’s election department.

Hancock’s bill would widen the definition of mail-in ballot fraud, boost penalties for certain offenses, strengthen rules for signature verification and require election judges to notify voters when ballots are rejected. It would also limit who could assist mail-in voters.

The bill’s proponents — including representatives with the state Republican Party and Texas Association of Election Administrators — said it would protect the votes of elderly and disabled Texans who are most likely to be targeted by those who abuse the mail-in balloting system. County prosecutors rarely spend much energy prosecuting mail-in balloting fraud, they said, because the current penalties are too soft.

“This bill is long overdue,” said Alan Vera, who chairs the Harris County GOP’s Ballot Security Committee, adding that the proposal “puts some badly needed teeth into election law enforcement.”

The bill would create a state jail felony — carrying up to two years in prison — for those who provide false information on an application for a mail-in ballot; intentionally causes false information to be provided on a ballot application; or knowingly submits or alters a ballot application without a voter’s knowledge. The bill would further bump up penalties for offenses involving voters older than 65.

Also under the bill, those found to be carrying a ballot without a voter’s authorization could be charged with a third degree felony, carrying penalties of two to 10 years in prison.

Critics called some of the penalties too harsh, and suggested there were more effective ways to prevent fraud.

“The bill’s penalty enhancements are extreme,” said Matthew Simpson, deputy political director for the ACLU of Texas.  “Someone could fail to sign an envelope and find themselves facing a penalty of 2-10 years in jail.”

Cinde Weatherby, with the Texas League of Women Voters, said the enhanced penalties could discourage elderly Texans and those with disabilities from voting by mail.

Some who testified Sunday pointed out that lawmakers already took a step this year to prevent one type of absentee ballot fraud.

Last month, Abbott signed into law a bipartisan bill aiming to simultaneously curb voter fraud at nursing homes and widen ballot access to elderly Texans who live in them. It created a process for collecting absentee ballots at nursing homes and similar facilities — turning them into temporary polling places during early voting to discourage facility staffers, political operatives or others from trying to manipulate residents’ votes.

Texas lawmakers have been slow to beef up protections against mail-in ballot fraud, despite vowing for years to protect the integrity of elections.

Lawmakers six years ago passed the nation’s strictest voter photo identification law, a politically contentious measure that, experts and federal judges say, disproportionately made it tougher for Latino and black Texans to vote. The state has spent millions of dollars defending that law and has yet to win a round in federal court. As legal appeals continue, lawmakers this year passed a bill to soften the requirements — by making permanent a court-ordered fix for the 2016 elections.

The 2011 voter ID legislation was part of a trend in Republican-led statehouses across the country that proponents said would reduce voter fraud. But the law only applied to ballots cast in-person, where experts have found scant evidence of widespread trouble.

“The bill did nothing to address mail-in balloting, which is much more vulnerable to fraud,” wrote Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, of Corpus Christi, in an April ruling that the Legislature intentionally discriminated against minorities in passing the ID law.

Lawmakers in 2011 would have known they were addressing the less-documented problem if they had read their own past research.

“Overall, most allegations of election fraud that appear in the news or result in indictments relate to early voting by mail ballots,” the Texas House Committee on Elections concluded in a 2006 interim report.

That committee offered similar findings in a 2008 interim report.

Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.

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Drunk Driver Sentenced to 50 Years for Fatal Crash

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady announced today that Billy Wayne Denison, 38, was sentenced yesterday to 50 years in prison for Intoxication Manslaughter.

On Monday, July 17, 2017 Denison pled guilty in the 122nd District Court and requested to have the court determine his punishment. A punishment hearing began Tuesday morning. During the three day hearing the State presented testimony and other evidence that detailed for the court the events that led to the death of Roger Reed, a Santa Fe resident, on September 26, 2015.

Galveston Police Department (GPD) officers were dispatched to major accident on the northbound lanes of the Causeway at around 1:13 am on Saturday, September 26, 2015. Upon arrival, officers found Roger Reed lying in the roadway, unconscious and bleeding. The motorcycle Reed was driving had extensive rear-end damage. Reed was transported to the hospital where he was immediately pronounced dead as a result of his injuries. Medical testimony revealed that Reed had multiple skull fractures, chest injuries, and a spinal fracture.

Officers found Denison, in his vehicle that was stopped at the bottom of the Causeway near the Tiki Island exit, drinking a bottle of Kaluha White Russian. There was also an empty bottle of Kaluha in the front cup holder and a broken bottle of Bud Light Lime on the pavement near Denison’s driver door. While speaking to Denison, officers noted that he smelled strongly of alcohol, had a slurred speech, swayed, and stumbled. Dennison told a Firefighter, who was checking him for injuries, that “I was going a hundred bro. I was going a hundred.” Denison admitted to hitting the motorcycle and that in addition to the alcohol found in his vehicle he had drank beer prior to driving. Officers obtained a search warrant for Denison’s blood after he refused to voluntarily give a sample. Analysis on the blood sample taken was conducted by the Texas Department of Public Safety Houston Crime Lab. The results showed that Denison had a blood alcohol level of 0.137 when the sample was taken.

GPD Sergeant Robert Sanderson, the Accident Reconstructionist, determined that the victim was traveling north in the outside lane when he was struck from behind by Denison. Denison’s vehicle and Reed’s motorcycle were stuck together and continued traveling north for several hundred feed before the motorcycle dislodged. The impact appeared to have taken place at the top of the Causeway based on skid marks, gouge marks, and scuff marks starting there and continuing to where the motorcycle was found.

Sgt. Sanderson also testified that based on evidence at the scene, he determined that Denison appeared to continue to drive way from the based on skid marks and oil on the road beginning a short distance from the motorcycle and ending where Denison’s vehicle stopped due to the damage it sustained.

The owner of the vehicle Denison was driving testified that she was a friend of Denison’s and that he had taken her vehicle without her permission. This was confirmed by Denison during his own testimony. Testimony about Denison’s time in prison revealed that he had a lengthy disciplinary history which included testing positive for drugs and multiple fights.

Denison faced a punishment range of 25 to 99 years, or life, in prison because of two felony enhancements; a 2003 conviction for Escape and a 2005 conviction for Burglary of a Habitation. In addition to the enhancements, the State presented multiple other felony and misdemeanor convictions. In 1998 Denison was convicted of Possession of Marijuana and Evading Arrest. In 2001 he was convicted of Driving While Intoxicated, and Failure to Appear. He was conviction in Georgia in 2002 for Driving Under the Influence. In 2003 Denison had convictions for Criminal Trespass, Resisting Arrest, Criminal Mischief, and Unauthorized Use of a Motor Vehicle. In 2005 he had convictions for Assault Causing Bodily Injury and a second conviction for Burglary of a Habitation. Lastly, in 2014 he was convicted for Reckless Driving.

During closing arguments, the State argued that since Denison turned 17 years old he has been in and out of prison and jail, doing nothing but committing crimes. Assistant District Attorney Kayla Allen told the Court to think about “how many victims have to suffer at the hands of the defendant. How much is enough.” Denison has 5 felony and 10 misdemeanor convictions, many involving victims. ADA Allen argued that not only did Denison commit another victim he crime, he killed someone. The State asked the Court to sentence Denison to life in prison.

The Court took a short recess to consider the evidence and arguments before returning with a verdict of 50 years in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The Court also made an affirmative finding of a deadly weapon. Denison will have to serve at least one-half of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Denison was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Kayla Allen and Ross Hill in the 122nd District Court, with visiting Judge Mary Nell Crapitto presiding. The investigation was conducted by the Galveston Police Department.

 

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Tanker Crew Rescues 5 In Capsized Boat

A tanker crew came to the rescue of five people after their boat capsized 12 miles off the coast of Galveston on Saturday afternoon.

The crew of Overseas Texas City contacted the Coast Guard to report the capsized vessel just after noon on Saturday. The tanker crew was then able to navigate to the capsized boat and rescue everybody aboard, none of whom were injured.

“If not for the courage of the fearless crew of the tanker Overseas Texas City, the outcome of today’s events may not have been as successful,” said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Rendon. “It is incredibly important that boaters are aware of their surroundings and prepared for emergency situations.”

A Coast Guard crew transported the rescued boaters to shore.

It’s not immediately clear why the vessel capsized.

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Man Sentenced to 45 Years on Drug Charges

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady announced today that Charles Lynch, 59, was sentenced yesterday to 45 years in prison for Possession of a Cocaine with Intent to Deliver.

Lynch was arrested in September 2015 for possessing more than four grams of crack cocaine following the execution of a search warrant at his residence. On Monday, July 17, 2017 Lynch’s jury trial began in the 405th District Court.

On September 23, 2015, La Marque Police Department officers, with the assistance of other local agencies, executed a search and arrest warrant at a residence in La Marque. The search warrant was the result of an investigation into illegal drug trafficking by Lynch at his residence. Lynch and several other people were found in the residence when officers made entry.

During the search of the home, officers identified a bedroom as belonging to Lynch. The bedroom contained several items belonging to Lynch that included mail, prescription bottles, a cell phone, and bills all with Lynch’s name on them. On a dresser, with Lynch’s cell phone, was found several pieces of crack cocaine and a knife with cocaine residue. In a trash can next to the dresser, officers found several torn plastic baggies. In a trash can in the kitchen officers found additional torn plastic baggies. The lead investigating officer testified that plastic baggies like the ones found are commonly used to package illegal drugs, like crack cocaine, for sale.

The drugs found were sent to the Texas Department of Public Safety Crime Lab for testing. The results of the tests confirmed that the substances found in Lynch’s bedroom was cocaine and weighed more than 4 grams.

The jury heard closing arguments Wednesday morning and retired to deliberate. They returned with a guilty verdict shortly before 1:00 p.m., after deliberating for about an hour. Lynch elected to have the court determine his punishment. The punishment phase began Thursday afternoon. Lynch faced a punishment range of 15 to 99 years, or life, in prison because of one felony enhancement; a 2006 conviction for Delivery of a Controlled Substance.

During the punishment phase, the State presented evidence of the felony enhancement conviction and evidence that Lynch had three additional drug-related felony convictions from 1990 and 2006. Assistant District Attorney Kiara Gradney told the Court that Lynch’s history has shown that he hasn’t been and won’t be a productive citizen. ADA Gradney argued that Lynch’s convictions, which go back to 1990, are evidence that nothing will deter him from a life crime.

The Court took a brief recess before returning with its punishment verdict. After considering the evidence and the arguments the Court set Lynch’s punishment at 45 years, in the Institutional Division of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Lynch will have to serve at least one-fourth of his sentence before being eligible for parole.

Lynch was prosecuted by Assistant District Attorneys Kiara Gradney and Adam Poole in the 405th District Court, with Judge Michelle Slaughter presiding. The investigation was conducted by the La Marque Police Department.

During the search of the residence, officers also found $515.00 that they believed to be the proceeds from Lynch’s illegal drug activity. The money was seized and later forfeited to the State as contraband in January 2016.

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After Texas “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Patrick lauds sanctuary city law

The truck with human trafficking victims — nine of whom died from heat exposure — was discovered at a Walmart in southwest San Antonio.

Following the deaths of nine people in what police are calling a “human trafficking crime,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took to Facebook Sunday to highlight the importance of cracking down on “sanctuary cities.”

Police found eight people dead in a tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning, with no air conditioning in the sweltering summer heat, according to the San Antonio Express-News. One later died in the hospital, and about 20 survivors suffered from heat stroke and dehydration. Some survivors identified themselves as Mexican nationals.

Patrick wrote the incident was indicative of why Senate Bill 4 is so important. The law, scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1, requires local authorities to cooperate with federal immigration officials and allows police to ask about the immigration status of people they lawfully detain.

“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Patrick, a Republican, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon, with a link to an ABC News report. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”

The cities of Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso and El Cenizo are among the local governments suing Texas over the law.

Gov. Greg Abbott issued a formal statement with no mention of SB 4, instead highlighting the importance of a bill he signed to help the trucking industry report signs of human trafficking.

“The loss of these lives is a heartbreaking tragedy,” he said. “Human trafficking is an epidemic that Texas is working to eradicate. To that end, Texas will continue to provide protection for the victims who have been robbed of their most basic rights, and bring down the full weight of the law for the perpetrators of this despicable crime.”

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also weighed in on the incident Sunday morning. “Border security will help prevent this Texas tragedy,” he wrote on Twitter.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

 

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Charges possible in disturbing Florida drowning case

A group of teens accused of mocking a man as he drowned in a Florida retention pond and filming the incident may face charges, according to multiple reports.

After the disturbing video went viral, prosecutors initially said there was no clear sign that the teens had committed any crime by not assisting 31-year-old Jamel Dunn as he drowned July 9.

State law does not require people to provide or call for help when someone else is in distress or danger, the Associated Press reports.

The five teens, ages 14 to 16, could reportedly be heard laughing in the video and taunting Dunn as he struggled to stay afloat and cried out for help.

But Cocoa police announced Friday they intend to recommend misdemeanor charges against the teens through a state law that requires those who witness a death to report it to proper authorities, according to WFTV.

Jacksonville attorney Gene Nichols said it’s an obscure statue, and one the teens may be able to successfully fight.

“No matter how heartbreaking this is, no matter how hard it is to watch that video, this is going to be a hard statute to prove for the state of Florida, which is why we don’t see people get prosecuted for the statute very often,” Nichols said.

Like Nichols, Randy Reep, who served as a prosecutor, believes a conviction on today’s charge would be far-fetched.

“The judge who gets it is going to have to be the one to say, as applied to these children, that law is obscure. It’s vague and probably untenable — un-prosecutable,” Reep said. “But if I’m the prosecutor, I understand what why they’re doing it. They’re getting such pressure that there is something wrong with this. Yeah, there’s something wrong with people today. It’s sad.”

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith described the video as very upsetting.

“Just to stand there and not, you know, the act of of doing nothing, but to be thoroughly entertained by it? To think it’s funny, it’s humorous, it’s something you’re going to enjoy later because you have it on video? It’s very disturbing,” Smith said.

Ultimately, it’s up to prosecutors to determine whether to file charges.

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Texas Senate committee OKs bill to outlaw city cellphone restrictions

State Sens. Brandon Creighton, R-The Woodlands, and Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, at a Business & Commerce committee hearing on Saturday. 

A Texas Senate committee approved a bill Saturday that would outlaw local restrictions on using a cellphone while driving.

Senate Bill 15 would pre-empt local ordinances on mobile phone usage, effectively rolling back provisions in more than 40 Texas cities that currently post hands-free ordinances stricter than the statewide texting ban. That measure now heads to the full Senate. It was one of several items the Senate Business and Commerce Committee took up Saturday that target local regulations and ordinances. 

That committee also passed a bill that would require women to pay a separate premium for insurance coverage of an abortion that is not considered medically necessary.

Gov. Greg Abbott has argued that stricter local cellphone ordinances make for a confusing “patchwork” of regulations across the state, leaving drivers confused as they navigate between areas with different rules. Opponents of SB 15, including police officers from San Antonio and Austin who testified against the measure on Saturday, argue that the state should not pre-empt city ordinances that make people safer.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of the statewide texting-while-driving ban that goes into effect in September, said SB 15 would be a “huge step back.”

“I’ve never cried as a senator,” said Zaffirini, a senator since 1987. If this passes, “I think I would cry.”

The committee vote on SB 15 was 7-2.

The panel did not vote on three other bills that focus on local regulations in municipalities across the state. In some cases, lawmakers indicated that they were willing to reconsider elements of the bills.

Senate Bill 12 would prohibit cities and town from enforcing ordinances on a property that were not in place when that property was purchased. During the hearing Saturday, several witnesses raised concerns that the bill would overrule local ordinances regulating noise, short-term rentals, and environmental dangers. State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, said that she had proposed an amendment that “drastically” reworks the bill.

“In all fairnesss, we realized there were a bunch of unintended consequences,” Buckingham said.

texting while driving

The committee also took on local tree ordinances with Senate Bill 14, which would prohibit towns and cities from passing ordinances regulating tree cutting on private land. More than 50 cities and towns across Texas regulate tree cutting, requiring property owners to either pay a free or replant trees when they cut them down on their land.

“That sounds reasonable,” state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, said after hearing about the tree ordinance in Galveston. “Maybe there is room for a statewide ordinance.”

Still, elected officials from cities across Texas remained critical of the proposed bills that limit the ability of a city or town to enforce local regulations or ordinances. On SB 12, SB 14, and Senate Bill 13, which seeks to accelerate permitting processes across the state, many witnesses strongly condemned efforts by state lawmakers to step into local rules.

“The decision on whether to have local tree protections rules should be made at the local level by the citizens in each community and not by an overreaching centralized government here in Austin,” said Mary Dennis, the mayor of Live Oak and the president of the Texas Municipal League.

Other witnesses and lawmakers attacked the local rules as overbearing and encroaching on the rights of the citizens who live there. Bryan Mathew, a policy analyst at the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, said that the tree regulations infringed on the private property rights of Texans.

“Private property ownership has always been understood as including at a minimum of the dirt and vegetation, including trees, on your land,” he said.

SB 13 would automatically approving permit applications if a municipality does not approve it quickly enough and outlaws a set of worker protections in the city of Austin. During the hearing, Ned Muñoz, the general counsel of the Texas Association of Builders, discussed changes the groups was working on with the bill’s authors, while several city officials denounced the effort to change local permitting rules.

“We should not be sacrificing public safety in favor of a speedier permitting process,” said Allen Bogard, the city manager of Sugar Land.

Also on Saturday, the Senate Select Committee on Government Reform passed State Sen. Paul Bettencourt’s bill aiming to slow property tax bill growth after hearing hours of testimony on that legislation and bills that would make the property appraisal process more transparent.

Senate Bill 1 would require cities and counties to have an election if the amount of property tax revenues they collect on existing property and buildings exceeds 4 percent of the amount levied the previous year. Currently, residents can petition for an election if property collections exceed 8 percent.

Such an election requirement has been controversial, with city and county leaders saying it will hamstring their abilities to pay for necessary services. Supporters of the measure say it will give Texans more control over their tax bills.

Jim Malewitz contributed to this story. 

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League, the Texas Association of Builders and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Texas Senate panel approves teacher bonuses, retirement benefits

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, explains the benefits of Senate Bill 19 during a Saturday meeting of the Senate Finance Committee on July 22, 2017. 

The Senate Finance Committee Saturday approved a proposal Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick listed as a priority for Texas education: providing bonuses and pay raises for long-term teachers, and reduced health-care costs for retired teachers.

The committee voted 10-3 to approve Senate Bill 19, authored by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, which would provide $193 million for teacher bonuses starting September 2018, put $212 million into state-run health insurance for retired teachers, and require school districts to increase teacher pay by $1,000 starting in 2019.

The senators who voted for the measure were Republicans; those who opposed it were Democrats. State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was present but decided not to vote.

The full Senate could consider the bill as soon as Monday.

Educators and activists who testified opposed the part of the bill requiring districts to raise teacher pay, since it would not necessarily come with additional money from the state.

SB 19 addresses one of the 20 priorities Gov. Greg Abbott put on his agenda for the July-August special session. Patrick laid out the specifics of the plan in a press conference earlier this month.

Nelson proposed borrowing money for the bonuses and health benefits from the Health and Human Services Commission, by deferring payments to health care companies that provide Medicaid through the state’s privatized system. “I will work to ensure that the deferral will not affect any services” for Medicaid, Nelson said.

She called SB 19 a “bridge” while legislators work to solve larger issues with the school finance system.

Legislators argued about whether, and how, to turn the short-term changes in the bill into long-term solutions to help teachers. With limited flexibility in the budget, which has already been approved by the governor, they are looking for creative ways to fund provisions they hope to pass during the special session.

Even with the additional money through SB 19, the state-run Teacher Retirement System will see a projected shortfall of $500 million to $700 million in 2020-2021, which will increase to $2 billion by 2022-2023, according to Brian Guthrie, TRS executive director. School employees have absorbed most of the healthcare premium increases over the years, with state and district inputs remaining close to fixed.

“We say we’re going to make a commitment, but we are also saying we’re not going to increase the state statutory contribution rate,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, begged the panel not to let political debate get in the way of accomplishing TRS reform during the special session.

“I am almost begging you. Please do not let the session end with nothing happening,” he said.

“We are going to stay focused,” Nelson responded, despite likely disagreement with the House on how to pay for school finance issues. She called the House’s willingness to use the Rainy Day Fund, a pot of emergency cash for the state, a “false promise” and short-term solution.

Educators opposed the part of the bill that would require school districts to fund teacher pay raises, without the promise of state funding to help bolster the cost. “We don’t want to have to reprioritize money from within our districts to find money” for pay raises, said Tonja Gray, a member of the Association of Texas Professional Educators and a reading intervention teacher at Abilene ISD. “I would rather have nothing than this bill.”

“It’s this or nothing,” Nelson said. She argued there are ways to fund the pay raises, which would start in 2019. Legislators would have to decide how to fund the pay raises during the next legislative session.

Disclosure: The Texas Retired Teachers Association and the Association of Texas Professional Educators have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Carjacking suspect opens fire on officer during chase in SW Houston

A Houston Police officer is safe after a carjacking suspect opened fire during a chase in southwest Houston, police said.

Authorities said a man and a woman were at a park at 3 a.m. in the 11100 block of Windmark Drive when two men approached them and stole their vehicle at gunpoint.

Police spotted the car and attempted to stop the driver. The driver refused to stop and led police on a chase to a Shell Gas Station at the intersection of Hwy 6 and Beechnut street.

During the chase, the passenger shot at the police officer, striking the driver’s side window, police said.

Executive Assistant Chief Troy Finner said the officer, a 19-year veteran, was not hit and did not return fire. The officer sustained only minor injuries, possibly from the shattered glass in the vehicle.

“I’m proud of the way these officers responded. They were able to take the dangerous suspect in custody, who knew these were police officers and who could see clearly officers were following him for at least a half-mile and still decided to shoot at police officers.” Chief Finner said. “These types of individuals are dangerous and if they will shoot at police officers they will shoot at anybody.”

Both suspects were taken into custody, according to police. They face charges for aggravated assault on an officer.

Finner said the Houston Robbery division will investigate if the two men are linked to a serial robbery case.

Media Briefing with Exec Asst Chief Troy Finner on Shots Fired at Officer https://t.co/ehFuMzB6Wt

— Houston Police (@houstonpolice) July 22, 2017

 

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Man, 2 children killed in crash in NE Houston

A man and two children were killed in a six-car pileup on the Beltway near Bush Airport, police say.

Officials said one of the main issues was a scheduled road closure between Hardy and JFK on the Beltway, and as cars were slowing down, one driver was going too fast and slammed into another vehicle.

Police said at least six cars were involved in the crash at 10 p.m. Friday, crashing into one another on the main lanes of the freeway.

A father, his 6-year-old girl, and 4-year-old boy died after being pressed in between two cars, police said.

Several other people were taken to area hospitals for injuries, but police said they do not have an exact count.

Investigators said the driver responsible for the crash has been cooperating with police.

“The at fault driver has been cooperative so far. Now we’re finishing collecting statements from everybody. At this time intoxication does not appear to be a factor,” Captain Megan Howard said.

The stretch of the Beltway at JFK was blocked off overnight and reopened just after 5 a.m.

The scheduled construction from Hardy to JFK will reopen at 5 a.m. Monday.

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Katy woman arrested for DWI after man follows, records her erratic driving

A man followed an erratic driver and recorded the entire incident on Facebook Live.

Micah Hatcher said he noticed Janice McMaster swerving in and out of lanes, even jumping a curb before she finally stopped.

McMaster, 58, is now under arrest for DWI.

Police said the incident happened while her 12-year-old child was in the truck.

“They’re going to wind up hurting somebody, wide turn almost took out that SUV,” Hatcher can be heard saying on the video.

Hatcher was on his lunch break and driving near Katy Fort Bend and Morton Ranch Road when he noticed something was wrong.

“When I turned she kind of looked asleep. That’s what made me wonder why she was sitting at the light,” Hatcher said.

VIDEO: Katy woman gets DWI after being recorded, followed

Hatcher called 911, but didn’t see any officers around, so he decided to follow the green truck and started recording.

The video shows the truck weaving in and out of traffic. At one point, McMaster crossed over into oncoming traffic.

“I figured with the new day and age, cops, they’re always looking at Facebook and everything else, so I figured doing a Facebook Live would get more immediate attention,” Hatcher said.

A Katy police officer saw the video and contacted Hatcher.

Police said they arrested McMaster later that day when they found her driving again.

“Having somebody else in the car that couldn’t do anything about it … she couldn’t have taken the wheel or driven herself, that’s what made me start following and making sure everything was fine by the end of it,” Hatcher said. “I am not happy about the situation, and what happened at all, but I am glad something was done about it and hopefully she learns from her mistake.”

A family member said McMaster is still in jail.

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Mickey Mouse mask-wearing burglar caught on camera breaking into 2 stores

It was a smash and grab, times two.

Edgar Fuentes’ two businesses, one on Bellaire Boulevard and one on Beechnut Street, were burglarized within minutes of each other.

The twist is that Fuentes saw both break-ins as they were happening.

His surveillance cameras are linked to his cellphone.

Fuentes owns two Optical Illusionz stores and said the same person robbed both locations by breaking the front glass and kicking in the door.

The thief then made a mad dash for the designer frames on display, stealing thousands of dollars worth.

Fuentes said the stolen goods are worth about $45,000 retail.

The first target was Fuentes’ optometry clinic and eyewear store on Beechnut, and then minutes later, his second location on Bellaire was targeted.

WATCH: Surveillance video of smash and grab at Optical Illusionz

“My heart just dropped, and I said, ‘Let me check my other location,’ so I checked this one and I could see them pulling in and unfortunately, I can’t do anything about it. Just watch it live,” Fuentes said. “It’s only a 10-minute distance, so they drove after that location, drove to this location, busted through the front glass door and stole some more eyewear.”

Fuentes said he knows the same person broke into both stores because the burglar was wearing a Mickey Mouse mask.

The thief grabbed a bunch of frames before bolting out of the store and into a getaway car.

“You will get caught sooner or later,” Fuentes said.

Anyone who recognizes the person in the surveillance video is asked to call police.

Fuentes said his employees no longer leave high-end glasses on display overnight and he is working on getting a better security system.

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Houston pastor Victoria Osteen says she does not endorse skin care product

Houston Pastor Victoria Osteen is warning her 5 million plus Facebook followers not to be suckered by a skin care company using her likeness to pedal beauty products.

“Victoria does not sell or endorse any beauty or diet products,” her page reads.

Osteen’s page reads in bold print: BE AWARE THIS AD IS FAKE.

Judging by complaints rolling into our tipline, the ads have been effective.

The problem extends beyond the unauthorized use of Osteen’s image for consumers.

“I saw no results,” Channel 2 viewer, Beverly Standford said of Lunaluxe Signature Skincare’s enriched skin cream.

A free trial of that cream and another serum ended up being quite costly for Standford.

A few weeks after Standford’s free-trial products arrived, she noticed a $176 charge on her debit card for the products.

A company representative told Channel 2 Standford was charged because she failed to cancel the offer within two weeks.

Channel 2 could find no requirement on the company’s website which highlighted such a provision.

There are numerous complaints about Lunaluxe Signature Skincare online, most appear to deal with the company’s billing practices.

Channel 2 has reached out to the company via phone and email to try to resolve Standford’s issue, but has not received a response.

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Senate committee passes bills on private school choice and school finance study

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, during a July 21, 2017 Senate Public Education Committee hearing. Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, is seated to his left. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Senate Education Committee got two major bills out of the way Friday, passing legislation that would create a “private school choice” program and start a commission to study the school finance system.

The committee voted 8-2 to pass Senate Bill 2, creating a tax credit scholarship subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities. It voted 10-0 to pass Senate Bill 16, which would task a 13-person committee of legislators and educators with developing recommendations on how to fix the beleaguered system for funding public schools before the 2019 regular session.

The bills could be taken up on the Senate floor as soon as Monday.

Gov. Greg Abbott listed both issues in his 20-bill agenda for the July-August special session, which the Senate has wasted no time in tackling, with several committees set to meet through the weekend.

Parents, educators and activists sat in front of the Senate panel from 10 a.m. until just after 6 p.m. to explain how subsidizing private school tuition for students with disabilities would sap resources from public schools, or how it would offer families a wider array of options.

Abigail Tassin, a 17-year-old Fort Bend ISD student with Down Syndrome, asked legislators not to pass the bill, instead urging them to focus on improving public schools’ resources for kids with disabilities.

“I want to be with everyone else,” she said. “Help my teachers be able to help me better.”

SB 2 is similar to several proposals that its author, Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, pitched to the Senate during the regular session. Insurance companies would receive premium tax credits in exchange for contributions to scholarship organizations.

An estimated 6,000 students with disabilities would receive up to $10,000 in scholarships to private schools under the bill. In addition, an estimated 26,000 eligible students with disabilities could receive up to $500, if they stay in their school districts, to pay for transportation or needed services. The tax credits for businesses would be capped at $75 million per year.

Tara Cevallos, principal of St. Austin’s Catholic School, said Catholic schools do not have all the resources to provide services for students with special needs, but that tax credit scholarships would help them. Private schools can provide a “niche approach,” because they have so few students, she said.

Taylor also added a few unrelated programs to the bill, including $60 million for charter schools, $60 million for facilities funding for traditional public schools, and $150 million for a hardship grant program for struggling small, rural schools that relied on a now-expired state aid program.

The $270 million for those programs would be borrowed from the Health and Human Services Commission, by delaying payments to health care companies providing Medicaid.

Sen. Bob Hall, R-Canton, said he was concerned about that “deficit spending,” before he voted yes on the bill. “I would hope that between now and when we get to the floor, we find a way to solve that problem,” he said.

Monty Exter, a lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said adding programs that school districts actually want to a “private school choice” bill prevents in-depth discussion of school funding. He said the bill would not help improve public schools for kids with special needs who decide to remain in that system.

“One of the biggest philosophical problems we have with this bill is that it changes the mentality from ‘Let’s fix the problems that we have’ … to saying, ‘Well, now we’ve provided you with this out,’ ” he said.

The committee took under an hour to hear testimony and approve a bill that would create a 13-member commission to study the school finance system. The commission would have four members appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the House Speaker, and a member of the State Board of Education. It would deliver recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2018, intended to guide lawmakers during the 2019 legislative session.

Policy experts who testified asked the bill’s author to make the commission more transparent about how it conducted the study.

“We would appreciate the opportunity to ensure that the public can in some fashion or procedure submit public comments to the commission,” said Steve Aleman, policy specialist with Disability Rights Texas.

Taylor said regular public input was unlikely. “Generally someone who just comes from the public, they have a very limited view of public education Texas,” he said. “I don’t foresee us having a public hearing every time.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

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Bill limiting city, county spending fuels war over local control

State Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, visits with a House member on the Senate floor May 17, 2017. House members have been visiting the upper chamber to negotiate bills in the final days of the 85th Legislature. 

When state senators revive legislation on Saturday that could require voter approval of city and county property tax rates, lawmakers will also consider something that didn’t come up during this year’s regular legislative session: limiting how much money local governments spend.

Sen. Craig Estes‘ Senate Bill 18 would require cities and counties to get voter approval if they plan to spend a certain amount more than they did in a previous year. His bill ties such an election trigger to inflation and statewide population growth.

“You ask people about that and they generally think that’s a good thing,” the Wichita Falls Republican said Friday.

But local government officials and advocates for municipal government say the measure will hinder their ability to afford services that residents expect. They also say it will make it hard to keep up with population growth — especially in booming suburbs growing much faster than the state as a whole.

“We’re planning our budgets multiple years in the future because we’ve got so many capital projects that we can’t just look at budgets from year to year,” said Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney, whose North Texas city grew almost four times as fast as Texas did from 2015 to 2016.

Estes’ bill, plus others aimed at giving voters more frequent say over their property tax rates, are on the docket for Senate committees this weekend. They fall in line with several items on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session call that seek to limit powers cities and counties have long exercised. Other bills being considered Saturday and Sunday would change how and when municipalities regulate land use and annex land outside their borders.

State leaders say they are trying to both respond to Texans’ complaints about rising property tax bills and protect landowners’ rights from local regulations. But local elected officials say lawmakers and top state leaders are unfairly portraying cities and counties as irresponsible stewards of taxpayer money to score political points with voters ahead of next year’s primaries.

Such tensions highlight a growing divide over how much say city and county officials should have over local matters. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the proposed spending cap is another example of lawmakers trying to control officials who are elected to represent Texans at the local level.

“It certainly flies in the face of the very important democratic principle that we’ve adhered to for centuries in self governance,” Nirenberg said.

On Monday, Nirenberg and the mayors of the state’s other 17 largest cities sent a letter to Abbott asking for a meeting to discuss the bevy of special session bills they said would hinder their ability to “serve as the economic engines of Texas.”

Abbott began reaching out to the mayors Thursday to set up a meeting, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League. The chief of staff for El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said his office had been contacted in response to the letter. Staffers for other Texas mayors said late Thursday they had not been contacted yet.

“As far as we know, the governor’s office started calling those mayors today and saying, ‘Yeah, come on by next week,'” Sandlin said Thursday. “That’s all we know.”

While Republicans hold all statewide offices and both chambers of the Legislature — and many big city mayors and council members are Democrats — state GOP leaders looking to limit local officials’ powers are getting pushback from both political parties.

Cheney, the Frisco mayor, is a Republican. So, too, is Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who was among the mayors asking Abbott for a meeting. She said Estes’ spending cap bill isn’t necessary and could create unintended financial consequences that the state will simply leave the cities to address.

She said cities have de facto spending caps already, “in the form of your citizens who talk to you in terms of the services, what they want, what they don’t want and what they’re willing to pay for,” Price said.

Sandlin, with the Municipal League, said voters already have a way to control local officials’ spending: city council and county commissioners court elections.

“It’s got to be one of the most poorly conceived bills from a policy standpoint that I’ve ever seen,” Sandlin said.

Estes couldn’t point to any examples of cities or counties dramatically increasing their spending in recent years. He said his office is currently collecting data from local governments on it. And he said he’s open to tweaking provisions in his bill as it moves through the Legislature.

But he shrugged off the notion that the state shouldn’t be telling local governments what to do. He said counties are extensions of state government, and that cities “reside in the state.”

“I don’t think that’s really an issue, that we don’t have any jurisdiction in what they’re doing,” he said. “We do.”

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report. 

Disclosure: The Texas Municipal League has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

 

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Woman, 93, dragged during carjacking at church, police say

A 93-year-old woman was dragged during a carjacking Thursday morning outside a church in Florida, police said.

DeLand police said Darius Matthews, 20, and David Leo Perkins III, 21, of Daytona Beach, were arrested in the carjacking, which was reported around 8:15 a.m. at St. Peter’s Catholic Church before morning Mass.

DeLand police Chief Jason D. Umberger said the DeLand woman had just opened her car door when Perkins snatched her car keys from her hand, and then he and Matthews got into her vehicle.

The victim grasped onto the steering wheel to try to stop the men, but she ended up being dragged about 20 feet before falling to the ground as the men stole her tan four-door Chrysler, authorities said.

The woman was injured, but she was not taken to a hospital, police said. Umberger described the woman as resilient, articulate and cooperative.

“She sustained some minor injuries — cuts and scrapes and bruises. Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously injured, but she did sustain a couple injuries,” Umberger said.

A Volusia County sheriff’s deputy spotted the stolen car near Euclid Avenue and Stone Street, and a short pursuit that lasted about 30 seconds ensued, police said.

The car crashed into some trees in a backyard at High Street and Winnemissett Avenue near Franklin Avenue, and the men ran away in separate directions, authorities said.

A Volusia County deputy arrested Perkins, who was driving, and an officer from the DeLand Police Department arrested Matthews, who was in the passenger seat.

Umberger said Thursday’s arrest illustrates the importance of cooperation between law enforcement agencies.

“I want to commend the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office and thank them for their assistance in this incident, and we look forward to continually working in conjunction with Sheriff Chitwood and his deputies as we fight crime in the DeLand area,” Umberger said.

Police said the men were not carrying any weapons and that it seemed more like a crime of opportunity.

“This was more of a grab-and-go,” Umberger said.

He said it was “disturbing” that criminals would attack an elderly woman leaving a place of worship and, although the victim in this case did nothing wrong, he hopes citizens remember to remain vigilant and aware of their surroundings.

“I think, just as citizens of any area, we can’t stop the ill intentions of other people, but we can be as cognizant of our surroundings as we can, and just be aware of our surroundings from just a general safety standpoint,” Umberger said.

Matthews told police that he and Perkins were walking around DeLand when one of them suggested that it would be easier if they had a vehicle then Perkins walked away and returned with the stolen car, according to the arrest report.

Perkins told police that Matthews was driving the car, pulled up and forced Perkins to get in and drive, the arrest report said. He denied stealing the vehicle.

Police said Perkins’ girlfriend told them that Perkins left a house with Matthews around 8 a.m. Thursday and took a bike that was later recovered at the church. The girlfriend said she believes Matthews, who she knows as “D,” is a bad influence on Perkins.

Perkins was charged with carjacking and fleeing and eluding. Matthews was charged with principle to carjacking and resisting an officer without violence.

DeLand Police gathering evidence from inside carjacked vehicle right now. Investigators say 90yr old woman was dragged. Minor injuries. pic.twitter.com/HO9pBOJQRe

— Mark Lehman (@MarkLehman6) July 20, 2017

Both men appeared in court Friday where a judge ordered that Perkins be held without bond and Matthews be held on $51,000 bond. Neither man is permitted to have contact with the victim or step foot on the church’s property.

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Trans Texans, Advocates Swarm Texas Capitol to Oppose ‘Bathroom Bills’ (Again)

Protesters gathering at the Capitol’s southern entrance.  Ignacio Martinez

Hundreds of people formed a line that snaked through the Texas Capitol’s basement early Friday, waiting to testify as lawmakers continue to push a so-called bathroom bill targeting transgender Texans.

LGBT activists and allies swarmed the Senate State Affairs Committee hearing over Senate Bill 3 and SB 91, near-identical proposals authored by Brenham Republican Senator Lois Kolkhorst that would not only bar local governments and school districts from adopting bathroom policies that accommodate transgender people, but could also block trans students from playing school sports.

Senator Lois Kolkhorst hearing public testimony regarding Senate Bills 3 and 91.  Ignacio Martinez

Kolkhorst, who championed similar measures that failed during the regular session, acknowledged that GOP lawmakers have already slogged through several grueling, hours-long hearings in their so-far unsuccessful attempts to strip local governments and school districts of nondiscrimination policies meant to shield transgender Texans.

On Friday, more than 250 people signed up to testify, and the overwhelming majority spoke in opposition. They carried signs reading “Classrooms not bathrooms” and “Don’t discriminate in the Lone Star State.” Supporters brought signs reading “It’s common sense; men shouldn’t be in showers with little girls.”

Patty Woodruff and her 16-year-old daughter, Izzy, drove four hours from Rusk to testify. Patty said Izzy, who is trans, has attempted suicide five times — an alarmingly common phenomenon that Patty said the “bathroom bill” would worsen.

“Dan Patrick should spend one day with a trans child and see if he still supports this bill,” Patty said.

Kolkhorst and supporters of the “bathroom bill” insist they’re safeguarding “dignity, privacy and safety,” despite no evidence of conservatives’ longstanding claim that nondiscrimination protections have been used as cover for sexual predators to assault women and children in public restrooms. Yet on Friday, Kolkhorst also seemed to acknowledge the debate’s culture-war overtones.

“This issue is about much more than bathrooms,” Kolkhorst told the committee. “This is about finding the balance between the right to declare your gender and the right of a parent to protect their child.”

Both bills — Kolkhorst said she filed two as a “precautionary measure” in the fast-moving 30-day special session — would mandate that restrooms, showers and changing rooms in schools or government buildings be “designated for and only used by persons of the same sex as stated on a person’s birth certificate.” That means someone like Ashley Smith, a transgender woman from San Antonio, would be required by law to use the men’s restroom.

“You know that transgender women encounter violence at a much higher level than the general public,” Smith told lawmakers. “I am scared to think about what some people will do to us if this bill becomes law.”

Rene Slataper, a transgender man from Austin, said such restrictions would “make it nearly impossible for me to do my job,” which sometimes requires work on school campuses.

“These bills would send me to the women’s restroom and locker room,” he said. “If the purpose of this is to keep men out of women’s bathrooms, with all due respect, you’re doing it wrong.”

This week’s hearing comes amid intense, multifaceted opposition, including from public officials, who say the “bathroom bills” strip communities of local control; the business community, which warns of damage to the state’s economy; and schools, which want to respectfully accommodate trans students and their families.

CEOs and top executives from more than a dozen Texas-based corporations, including American Airlines and AT&T, wrote state leaders earlier this week warning the legislation would “seriously hurt the state’s ability to attract new businesses, investments and jobs.” More than a dozen top IBM executives traveled to the Capitol to lobby hard against any “bathroom bills,” and 15 San Antonio-area school districts recently signed a letter urging lawmakers to back off.

Meanwhile, some conservative supporters have shifted their focus back to transgender kids. Before lawmakers even gaveled in the special session, Representative Scott Sanford, a McKinney Republican, said in a recent TV forum that letting trans children explore their gender identities is equivalent to “child abuse.” Some supporters who testified worried that without the new measure, schools would “encourage gender confusion.”

Ultimately, Kolkhorst’s bill passing out of committee is a foregone conclusion, as only two of the committee’s nine members are Democrats — and just one of them, Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini, even opposes the bill. Zaffirini questioned Kolkhorst about whether forcing trans Texans into bathrooms that don’t match their appearance puts them in danger: “How can we ensure their safety?” Kolkhorst’s response: “I think that’s what we’re debating today.”

Brad O’Furey, government relations manager with Equality Texas, said Kolkhorst’s bill will almost certainly sail through the full Senate. The real question at this point is what version of the bathroom bill lawmakers think they can push through the House. O’Furey has his eye on House Bill 50, which largely mimics a “compromise” bill lawmakers considered in the regular session. HB 50 would target trans-inclusive policies only at the school district level.

While narrower, that proposal is still plenty dangerous, O’Furey said. “We’re talking about 9-, 10-, 11-year-old kids who get bladder infections because they have to hold it throughout the day, or who get singled out and ridiculed because of who they are,” he said.

Staff writer Gus Bova contributed to this report. See video coverage from the Observer’s Facebook below.

Faith Leaders Oppose “Bathroom Bill”

Faith leaders opposed to the “bathroom bill” performed a prayer at the Texas Capitol Friday afternoon, as a Senate committee listened to hours of testimony. READ MORE: https://www.texasobserver.org/round-2-hundreds-oppose-special-session-anti-transgender-anti-abortion-bills/

Posted by The Texas Observer on Friday, July 21, 2017

The post Trans Texans, Advocates Swarm Texas Capitol to Oppose ‘Bathroom Bills’ (Again) appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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