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Work begins on next batch of legislation

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Trent Ashbyby State Representative Trent Ashby

After a welcome reprieve from the Capital City, this past week I made my way down to Austin to begin laying the groundwork for the next legislative session by attending my first interim committee hearing. 

While there have been a number of House committee hearings over the last week or two, I thought it would be appropriate to feature a committee on which I serve — House Transportation — to provide an overview of the issues we discussed at our interim committee hearing, as well as those we will discuss at a future hearing. 

With that, here’s the latest update from your Texas Capitol.

The House Committee on Transportation has jurisdiction over all matters relating to commercial motor vehicles, our state’s roads and bridges, traffic control, and many other areas. While most people associate “transportation” with cars and trucks, the committee also oversees policy on railroads, airports, and the transmission of water in Texas. 

This 13-member committee has purview over a number of state agencies, including the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Transportation Commission. 

Like many other committees, the House Committee on Transportation has been charged with studying the intended outcome of legislation passed relating to several key issues our state is currently facing. Last week, the Committee held a public hearing to begin the discussion on transportation infrastructure, roadway safety, and fraudulent paper tags.

With nearly 1,000 new Texans moving here every day, the state must take action to improve our transportation infrastructure to keep pace with our rapid population growth. To support the growing transportation needs of Texas, the 87th Legislature passed HB 2219, which reauthorizes the Texas Transportation Commission to access additional funding from vehicle title, inspection, and driver license fees to fund critical transportation projects. 

My colleagues and I also heard testimony from TxDOT representatives discussing how the State of Texas can meet the infrastructure needs of a growing population while improving roadway safety. 

Another issue the committee has been charged with is examining is the use of fraudulent paper tags. As I’ve discussed in previous columns, the state has seen a dramatic increase in the illegal use of fraudulent paper license plates, which are often linked to criminal activity. 

The committee has been charged with monitoring the implementation of HB 3927, which requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a system by which the Department can verify, monitor, and limit the number of temporary tags issued throughout the State. 

Though this bill has successfully reduced the use of illegal tags, members of this committee will work over the interim to develop additional safeguards to help put a stop to this practice. 

Though we covered a lot of ground in our recent hearing, we still have a number of charges to address in future interim hearings. In the months to come, the House Transportation Committee will meet again to discuss issues related to truck transportation and its impact on the supply chain, the impact of increased federal infrastructure funding on Texas projects, and the impact of increased migration across our border at ports and other points of entry. 

As always, please do not hesitate to contact my office if we can help you in any way. My district office may be reached at (936) 634-2762. Additionally, I welcome you to follow along on my Official Facebook Page, where I will be posting regular updates on what’s happening in your State Capitol and sharing information that could be useful to you and your family: https://www.facebook.com/RepTrentAshby/.

Trent Ashby represents District 57, soon to be District 9, which includes Trinity County, in the Texas Legislature.

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Time for a literal reading of the law of the land

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FromEditorsDesk Tony CroppedBy Tony Farkas
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I remember an old saw about prayer in school, saying that it never left because anyone taking a test still prays.

This stems from the 1962 (!) ruling by the Supreme Court that school-sponsored prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which reads that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

More on that in a minute.

Back in the day, there was prayer time in schools across the nation, along with the Pledge of Allegiance. Steven Engel got his nose out of joint, and sued, and lost each case and appeal, with judges saying that the prayer offered by the Union Free School District and said by teachers and students each morning was not anything like the government establishing a religion.

Then the case got to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said it did, cause the framers of the Constitution were aware of the religious persecution in England and sought to keep the same from happening here.

Since that time, there were attempts to offer quiet time or some sort of way to allow everyone to be happy and pray or not.

Fast forward to 2022, and here we are once more.

Coach Joseph Kennedy was fired from his job at Bremerton (Wash.) High School for praying on the 50-yard line after games. The school board said it was policy to not promote religion to students, and when Kennedy kept up the practice, they placed him on leave.

Now, we do the conga line through court after court, each one putting their spin on this admittedly convoluted issue. 

Throughout the decades following the 1962 case, there have been other noteworthy cases of a similar stripe, and this one is no different, but I can’t help wondering why it’s even an issue. In all of these matters, the people involved have just wanted to send thanks, praise and maybe ask a little help from the Almighty. In no case, as I’m aware, was it a specific god, but even if it was, why does it matter?

As I read the actual text of the amendment, it says specifically that government shall make no laws establishing a religion, so insisting that a coach kneeling at midfield and thanking God for a good game where everyone played well and weren’t hurt doesn’t track as being a government creating a law establishing a religion.

Moreover, telling a coach he can’t pray because of policy seems more like a government actually prohibiting the free exercise thereof, if you take my meaning, and reading that part literally says to me that the government, in this case the school board, is way in the wrong here.

It’s also necessary to note here that there were no complaints filed with the School Board, it was just the board got wind of it and laid the smack down. The coach sued, and here we are.

I can’t see any ulterior motive here regarding the text of the amendment, which incidentally includes speech, the press, assembly and redress of grievances. Imaging the stretch the courts would have to make to rule those unconstitutional.

Opponents of the Second Amendment have long used the literal, specific text of the gun law as the argument against allowing U.S. citizens in good standing to own handguns. That same interpretation, however, doesn’t seem to be in play here, and I’m thinking that it should.

One part I see as well is that the amendment states that Congress shall make no law …; at what point did Congress legislate, and the president approve, a coach in a high school in Washington be the standard bearer for a state religion? There is no law that exists that I know of. Federal government has no business being directly involved in local school matters, and in this case, it isn’t, so the whole fuss about prayer is a non-starter.

This case should never have existed, and here’s hoping that the Supreme Court reads the amendment as it was written, and thereby tossing the whole thing out and telling the interested parties to concern themselves with real problem.

Prayer is not now, nor has it ever been, a problem, certainly not one for the courts.

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The Supreme Court is going to overturn Roe V Wade – But that’s no surprise

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Jim Opionin by Jim Powers
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As you have probably seen by now, a draft judgement from the Supreme Court overturning Roe V Wade, the decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. almost 50 years ago, was leaked to the press. I’ll not go into the details of the decision because it is, of course, a draft copy and could change, and with a majority of right-wing justices dominating the court, it was inevitable that it would be overturned.

Overturning Roe will make abortion illegal in many states. Eventually, legislation will pass in the U.S. Congress that makes abortion illegal everywhere in the U.S. That will take a while, but it is coming if the republicans take over the house, senate, and presidency again.

We’ve been here before, of course, pre-Roe V Wade. I was an adult, then, so can remember what it was like. The next expressed target after abortion is making birth control illegal. I was a teenager when birth control was illegal, even between married couples, in many states.

So, when both were illegal, what happened? Well, the same thing happened as when the highway department puts up those 70 mph speed limit signs on IH 10. Everyone drives 80 mph.

Most Americans, in poll after poll, decade after decade, support safe, legal abortions in the United States. And a minority can’t oppress a majority for very long. Unpopular laws get ignored.

It won’t be any surprise to you that back in the 1960’s, when abortion and birth control were illegal, abortion was common and most married couples used birth control. The laws didn’t stop most folks. It wasn’t the state that was having to support a dozen kids if you didn’t use birth control.

And don’t ask, don’t tell works well when dealing with unpopular laws. Of course, Texas is effectively dangling $10,000 dollars in front of its citizens to rat out their neighbors who get abortions; but most folks aren’t going to do that.

So, what was the effect of most folks ignoring these two unpopular laws? In the case of birth control, far fewer pregnant teenagers, and married couples who could afford to support their self-limited family. Abortion is more complicated.

There were still abortions; but many of them were carried out, literally in dirty backrooms and abandoned buildings by unqualified people using the most brutal of tools. The result were women who could never again have children when they were better prepared financially and socially to have them.

The other concern I have is that many people who favor making abortion illegal are consumed by magical thinking. There are almost a million abortions a year in the United States. Do you really think that just because women are forced by the state to carry to term children they don’t want, that they will suddenly decide once the child is born to keep them? 

In the days before Roe V Wade, newborns were often abandoned in front of hospitals, churches, and charitable institutions. And those were the lucky ones. The others ended up in trash cans, fire pits, in gas station toilets and along the side of country roads. Will the state accept the financial burden of a million orphans?

Perhaps we should start an ASPCB (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Babies) organization, to take in the million stray babies left in dumpsters and on the steps of hospitals and charities each year once abortion is illegal.  

We can dress them up real cute, give them cute names and run their pictures in newspaper ads, "Please adopt Samantha. She was found alone and hungry and cold near a dumpster. Would you give her a forever home? Only $20 donation will help us save these forgotten babies!"

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Maximizing workforce potential of Texas community colleges

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opinion graphicBy Glenn Hamer and A.J. Rodriguez

Texas’ economy has been declared open again after the COVID pandemic. But many employers and customers seeking timely service or goods are learning that we need more skilled people in the workforce to lead us back to a fully robust economy.

The good news is Texas has people. Our state grew by 4 million over the last decade, bringing our population to 29 million, and we could see nearly 9 million more Texans living here by 2036 when the state turns 200.

The question now is how will we prepare this growing population to contribute to our state’s prosperity, particularly given automation technologies and other disruptions that will impact future workforce needs.

One answer is Texas’ community colleges.

Texas has 50 two-year community college districts with campuses across the state. More than 660,000 Texans are currently enrolled in classes to attain the skills and credentials needed for immediate jobs or build towards four-year bachelor’s degrees. Community colleges help upskill and reskill Texas workers and are open to any Texan.

In advance of the 2023 legislative session – what many are hoping will become a “Workforce Session” – it is essential to look at community colleges’ role in workforce development. It is also crucial that we examine why we place last among large states in the percentage of our population with postsecondary credentials.

To accomplish this, the Texas Legislature established the Commission on Community College Finance, which held its first hearings in mid-November. Its mission is to craft recommendations for the Legislature to establish a state funding formula and appropriate funding levels to sustain viable community college education and training programs throughout the state.

This mission should also include looking at how Texas’ community colleges can partner with high schools, employers, and four-year colleges to build career pathways that lead to good-paying jobs. The commission should also evaluate the availability and kinds of courses offered to Texas students.

Not surprisingly, Texans agree.

In August, Texas 2036 polled voters and found that almost 9 out of 10 Texas voters wanted community colleges to focus on offering course programs that match the needs of the local workforce. And 7 out of 10 thought the state should link community college funding levels to whether students find good-paying jobs after completing their educational program. Better workforce alignment isn’t just necessary, it’s popular and a smart financial investment.

Each year, Texas spends more than $5.5 billion on community colleges, including almost $1 billion from students themselves, $1.3 billion from the federal government, and $3.4 billion from Texas taxpayers through general funds and designated property tax collections.

Given Texas’ need to develop a workforce for the future and close the gaps that impede students’ ability to succeed in the 21st Century economy, this investment in human capital is essential. By 2036, 71 percent of all jobs in Texas will require a postsecondary credential, but only 32 percent of high school graduates currently earn such a credential within six years of completing high school.

And Texas’ outlook is off-track, as the state is lagging behind the progress needed to reach its goal of having 60 percent of 25-to-34-year-olds earn a degree or credential by 2030. 

Community colleges are an important means to address these challenges and ensure that every Texan has an opportunity to achieve success.

The Texas Commission on Community College Finance provides a critical opportunity to address these challenges and engaging the business community in this process will provide more Texans with the postsecondary credentials needed to compete for good jobs.

Glenn Hamer is president and CEO of the Texas Association of Business. A.J. Rodriguez is executive vice president of Texas 2036.

This op ed first ran in the Austin American-Statesman.

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Activists should stop monkeying around with lifesaving research

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opinion graphicBy Matthew R. Bailey

Alzheimer’s research is a matter of life and death. But it also involves a lot of monkey business -- literally.

The scientists working to cure Alzheimer’s rely heavily on monkeys because humans and monkeys share extremely similar pre-frontal cortices, the part of the brain that controls memory, concentration and personality.  

Nonhuman primates are the key to understanding and defeating the fatal dementia, which currently afflicts about 6 million Americans -- and is projected to plague 14 million of us by 2060, unless a breakthrough is achieved. 

Unfortunately, misguided animal activists are making scientists’ jobs much harder by pressuring lawmakers to preclude using nonhuman primates to develop therapeutics for diseases. If they get their way, they’ll slow down -- and potentially prevent -- medical discoveries that could save millions of American lives. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviews pre-clinical animal research data to evaluate the safety and efficacy of drugs, medical devices and other therapeutics before approving them for manufacturing and distribution to American consumers. Until animals respond positively to a potential treatment in pre-clinical evaluation, researchers cannot conduct clinical trials on human subjects.

That’s especially true when it comes to hard-to-treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, as well as neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression. The brain chemistry of primates -- human and nonhuman alike -- is so complex that alternative methods of testing, such as computer modeling, could never deliver the same degree of accuracy scientists get from monkeys. 

That’s why just last year New York University researchers tested a new Alzheimer’s therapy on elderly monkeys. The treatment led to 59% fewer plaque deposits of the protein associated with Alzheimer’s and stopped the disease from progressing. Researchers are hoping to begin human trials soon.

Of course, animals aren’t just helpful for studying brain disorders. For decades, they’ve played a crucial role in nearly every medical breakthrough, including COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. Researchers in the public and private sector worked collaboratively for years to perfect the mRNA technology behind the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, relying on animals for their tests. The successful vaccination of nonhuman primates paved the way for Food and Drug Administration approval. 

The FDA has also recently approved several new COVID-19 treatments that prevent severe illness once someone gets the virus. Pfizer successfully trialed its antiviral pill in December 2020 with animals. That opened the door to human trials in March 2021. The now-approved drug reduces hospitalization and death by 89%. 

The federal government understands the value of human life and the crucial role that nonhuman primates play in protecting it. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Defense, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies humanely use animals in their research to control biological threats like COVID-19 and the H5N1 “bird” flu.

Animal research continues to represent one of our best hopes for discovering lifesaving medical treatments. We need nonhuman primates and other research animals, followed by human clinical trials, to discern that kind of information. 

In the next several decades, researchers will likely find new breakthroughs to beat back some of the most stubborn diseases humanity faces. But they will likely still need animals to do it.

Matthew R. Bailey is the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research (www.fbresearch.org). This piece originally ran in Florida Today.

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