What to watch: Religious objection bill; Abbott pre-K plan

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - The Texas Legislature is in the homestretch with less than a month left in the session - and top Republicans may have to hustle if they are going to keep their loftiest promises.

Some key items are poised for crossing off conservative to-do lists: pumping extra billions into border security and transportation, allowing licensed Texans to openly carry handguns and strengthening ethics rules for elected officials.

But the largest potential tax cuts in a decade have bogged down amid a Senate and House standoff on cutting property taxes versus sales taxes. Other pending proposals would allow guns on college campuses, promote school vouchers and repeal a 2001 law offering in-state tuition at public universities to the children of some people in the U.S. illegally.

Unlike his predecessor Rick Perry, who usually made it abundantly clear what he wanted from lawmakers, Gov. Greg Abbott has said little publicly except for refusing to take sides in the tax-cut impasse. He's working behind the scenes, though, and which pet conservative bills ultimately survive will shed light on where his priorities lie.

Here are some issues to watch this week at the Texas Capitol:

RELIGIOUS OBJECTION BILL: A proposal allowing clergy members to refuse to preside over marriages that violate their beliefs will be heard and likely approved Monday in Senate committee, clearing the way for it to zoom through the full upper chamber. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick helped ensure the bill was filed weeks after the deadline and would have put it on an even faster-track had not a Democratic objection delayed the process by a few days. Supporters say such measures protect religious freedom, but others decry them as licenses to discriminate against gay people and point to recent uproars over similar measures in Indiana and Arkansas. Simply passing the bill out of the Senate will allow Patrick and other tea party leaders to claim victory - but it could face a rockier road in the House.

ABBOTT'S PRE-K PLAN: A governor-endorsed proposal offering $130 million in extra funding to pre-kindergarten programs that meet certain quality standards sailed through the House and is now ready for the Senate floor. But for a top Abbott priority, the bill's path has been anything but smooth. Texas currently offers half-day pre-K to about 225,000 youngsters from low-income households or military families, or those learning English. Education advocates wanted more spending to offer full-day programs to more kids. Conservative activists, meanwhile, dubbed the initiative "socialistic" and worried about thrusting children into "Godless" classroom environments.

DRILLING BAN BACKLASH: Also eligible to be heard on the Senate floor this week is a House-approved proposal championed by top oil-and-gas interests that would stop cities from banning hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities. The city of Denton, near Dallas, voted to impose such local limitations in November, but lawmakers want to undo those and ensure other communities don't follow suit. Supporters say protecting property rights and state economic interests supersedes fears about trampling the will of local voters or environmental concerns - including a rash of small earthquakes that have accompanied the North Texas fracking boom.

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