AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Judges and school districts in several Texas counties asked House lawmakers Wednesday to leave the truancy system alone, citing successful practices they've implemented on their own.
But the proactive programs aren't the norm, advocates for lighter truancy laws said, and more must be done to address the about 100,000 Texas schoolchildren that the Legislative Budget Board says were given misdemeanors for unexcused absences in fiscal year 2014.
Emily Arroyo, 17, told lawmakers that she skipped school on Wednesday to testify against bills before the House Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues.
After Arroyo gave birth to a son last year, she missed several days of school and was ordered to appear in court for unexcused absences. Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell Jr. helped her find child care, which allowed her to return to school.
She plans to graduate in the spring, she said, adding that she opposed the proposals before the committee because they would have kept her from "appearing before a judge who solved my problems."
While Gravell has made it a point to address the problems that keep children from attending school, "those programs are not the norm in Texas," said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Currently, students age 12 and older can be ordered to criminal court if they accumulate three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools must file charges against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. Fines for the charges can be up to $500.
More than 200 people testified for hours on seven bills that were left pending in the committee. Three bills that had been slated for the hearing were withdrawn.
PHIL COLLINS NAMED HONORARY TEXAN
State lawmakers have named pop star Phil Collins an honorary Texan, saluting his donation of hundreds of Alamo artifacts back to the historic outpost - while offering numerous quips referencing his song lyrics.
The former Genesis singer-drummer appeared Wednesday in the Texas Senate and House. He didn't give a speech, but greeted lawmakers who crowded to shake hands.
The 63-year-old Briton is an Alamo buff and spent decades collecting artifacts related to the 1836 battle, where 1,500 Mexican troops laid siege to 200 Texans. Last year, he gave 200-plus pieces of his collection to the Alamo.
Collins grinned as many lawmakers took to the floor to joke about "feeling it in the air tonight," ''one more night" and Texas having a "groovy kind of love" for its newest honorary citizen.
BORDER SECURITY BILL NARROWS IMMIGRANT SCOPE
A sweeping Texas border security bill that Hispanic pastors worried could target their congregants now includes tighter language over immigrants who are in the country illegally.
The bill unanimously passed a House committee Wednesday after assurances that someone wouldn't be arrested for driving their grandmother who is in the U.S. illegally to a hospital. Lawmakers say the bill was tweaked to clarify that human smugglers are the target.
Hispanic religious leaders had packed a Capitol hearing to oppose original language that made it a crime to "recklessly" transport or harbor someone in the U.S. illegally. Pastors expressed concern over being arrested for picking up churchgoers on Sunday mornings.
Hiring more state troopers is also part of the comprehensive border security measure.
The bill now moves to the full Texas House.
SENATE CONFIRMS ABBOTT'S UNIVERISTY OF TEXAS REGENTS PICKS
The Texas Senate has easily approved Gov. Greg Abbott's first three appointees to the University of Texas System Board of Regents, bringing what began as a contentious process to a tame conclusion.
The full chamber Wednesday confirmed six-year terms for new regents Sara Martinez Tucker and David Beck, and a new term for regent Steve Hicks.
Each faced tough questioning from the Senate Nominations Committee last month. But its members then reversed course and approved the nominations a week later, setting up the floor vote.
Tucker was approved unanimously. Beck was confirmed 27-3 and Hicks 28-2. The opposition was led by tea party-backed Sen. Konni Burton.
Tucker is a former U.S. Department of Education official. Beck is a Houston lawyer. Businessman Hicks joined the board in 2009.
FREE EXERCISE OF RELIGION PROPOSAL PULLED DOWN
A legislator has scrapped his proposal preventing the government from burdening a person's free exercise of religion after opposition from Texas businesses.
GOP Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas said Wednesday he won't seek a hearing for his proposed Texas constitutional amendment.
In February, the Texas Association of Business announced it opposed Villalba's proposal and a similar one from Republican Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels. Two other business groups joined the opposition last week.
The Texas Association of Business said the proposals would let people "claim their religious beliefs give them the right to ignore laws and regulations."
The group represents 55,000 businesses statewide.
Villalba said it isn't typically involved in cultural issues, but if so, he "must listen."
Campbell spokesman Jon Oliver said she still supports her bill.
The Senate is adjourned until Monday, but its Education Committee is hearing several key bills, including one that would issue letter grades to individual schools. Texas already gives A through F letter grades to school districts - but not individual campuses. The House has a floor session scheduled Thursday, and the lower chamber's Appropriations and Transportation Committees are among those convening as well.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Who would have thought that the largest collection of Alamo remnants would come from someone in England and not Texas?" - San Antonio Republican Rep. Lyle Larson, speaking about Phil Collins.
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