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Legislating into Memorial Day

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As we pause today to pay respect to those who gave the “last full measure of their devotion” to their country, it is worth noting that the Texas House last night voted against cutting college benefits to military veterans.

Lawmakers are trying to maintain the so-called Hazlewood Act, which provides free college to military veterans. In 2009, it was expanded to include the children of veterans, who now dominate the program. According to an Associated Press report in the Austin American-Statesman the cost rose from $24.7 million in 2010 to $169 million last year. A bill passed by the Senate would have drastically reduced eligibility for the program.

 “How hypocritical that on the eve of Memorial Day, the day after our memorial day service, that this Legislature is trying to break its promise to veterans and their families,” said El Paso Democratic Rep. Cesar Blanco. He was referring to the House and Senate gathering in a special session Saturday to honor Texans killed in military service.

 

A watered-down version of the bill passed, allowing the children of veterans to obtain college benefits only if they have lived in the state for eight years. 

The Right Wing Stumbles On Abortion

After several legislative sessions of getting legislation passed restricting abortion, advocates found themselves stumbling over roadblocks on Sunday.

 

A House-approved measure that would have required women to present a government identification to prove they are not a teenager before they can receive an abortion ran into a constitutional wall in the Senate. As passed the House, the bill effectively would have been a ban on abortion for any woman who lacked a government-issued identification. The bill was modified to require doctors to ask for the identification, but they could perform the procedure even if a woman did not have proof of her age.

On the House side, Representative Jonathan Stickland pulled down an amendment to restrict late-term abortions that he planned to offer on a Department of Health and Human Services sunset bill. Stickland thought he had a deal to get Calendars Committee approval for Senate legislation to remove abortion from the required coverage of health insurance purchased through an exchange. But when Calendars initially voted down setting the insurance bill for floor debate, Stickland almost came to blows with Representative Byron Cook. The Calendars committee eventually met again, according to the Texas Tribune, and set the bill for debate.

New pitfalls for drone operators, except Amazon

New legislation to limit the use of drones in Texas airspace won Senate approval without debate Sunday night. The bill in some instances could turn a drone operation into a Class B misdemeanor.

At the heart of HB 1481 is the idea that critical infrastructure needs to be protected from terrorist attack by drone. The Senate sponsor was Brian Birdwell. Among other things, it would forbid drones from being flown over refineries, electric power generating stations, water treatment or wastewater facilities, a transmission facility used by a federally licensed television station, pipelines that are fenced, railroad switching yards, trucking terminal or “other freight transportation facility,” and dams that are classified as a high hazard by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. 

There is an Amazon carve-out in the bill because it does not apply to an “unmanned aircraft that is being used for commercial purposes” if the operator is licensed by the Federal Aviation Commission. Amazon last month received FAA approval for an experimental drone program.

No argument with the idea that infrastructure needs protection, but think of the video produced of this weekend’s flooding by amateurs and professionals using drones. Some television stations hire helicopters to shoot the same kind of footage. If you look at this report on Entergy trying to shore up the Lewis Creek Dam, you get an idea. Here is some drone footage from a San Antonio television station of a destroyed bridge near Wimberly.

Certainly, we don’t want some goofus flying their drone wherever and then crashing it into valuable resources or natural wonders, such as the tourist did last year at Yellowstone National Park. But does the truck loading area at the flooded San Marcos Walmart become a protected “freight transportation facility?” What about that Entergy dam? What if a drone operator heading over a disaster area passes over an electric switching station incidentally? The bill is filled with the potential for unintended consequences.

One aspect of this bill I could not pin down because the final version is not yet online is that to fly over private property, the drone operator must have the landowner’s permission in writing. While I suspect it just applies to those named infrastructure facilities, think of the can of worms that might open up. The use of drones or unmanned aircraft are one of those new cutting edges of technology that can have a lot of risk and reward.

As Birdwell passed the bill, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick thanked him for the brevity of debate. “We did not want to drone on,” Patrick said.

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