AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas schools could train teachers as armed marshals to exchange gunfire with potential attackers under a bill approved by state lawmakers and sent to Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, while a key lawmaker said attempts to allow concealed handgun license holders to carry their weapons into college classrooms is likely dead.
A bipartisan 28-3 Senate vote gave final approval to the marshals bill, which was proposed after the December mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. It had already passed the House over the objection of the Texas State Teachers Association.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a Republican, had pushed lawmakers to help school districts provide teachers or other employees with special weapons and tactical response training.
The bill allows school districts and charter schools to place one armed marshal on campus for every 400 students. After 80 hours of training, the marshals could bring a weapon on campus. Their identities would not be subject to public records law.
Marshals working directly with students would have to keep their guns in a lockbox "within immediate reach," according to the measure. Marshals not working with students would be allowed to carry concealed weapons.
Although many larger school districts employ their own police forces, many smaller districts cannot afford to do so. In testimony early in the session, several small rural districts said they needed marshals or armed teachers to protect students because police response might be too slow in a shooting incident.
Teachers groups had complained that school safety should be provided by professional security and not thrust on educators. They were disturbed when law enforcement experts testified that armed teachers could be shot by police responding to an incident.
Efforts to allow license holders to carry guns into college classrooms appeared dead this session after being stalled for weeks. Although the measure has already passed the House, Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, said Democrats had effectively blocked it in the Republican-controlled Senate.
The guns on campus bill has been a flashpoint for the gun control debate in Texas for years and has been opposed by higher education leaders who fear allowing guns will lead to more campus violence, including suicides.
The Texas House approved a bill that allows the state to drug test unemployment applicants. But Democrats successfully used a parade of stalling tactics to run out the clock on a similar measure mandating such screening for welfare applicants.
Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, sponsored the proposal approved late Tuesday night. It would require applicants to answer a questionnaire to see whether they are at risk of abusing drugs. If there is reasonable suspicion, the Texas Workforce Commission would require a drug test.
Creighton said the proposed law was carefully designed to be constitutional, adding that only first-time applicants working in occupations that require drug tests would undergo screening. Applicants who test positive could ask for a retest or keep their benefits if they enroll in a treatment program within seven days. Otherwise, the person could reapply after 30 days.
"We've had an effort across the nation of over 29 states working on related issues and measures to require a drug screen that could lead to a drug test," Creighton said. "The Texas Workforce Commission would use a nationally accepted screen to determine if a test is needed."
Opponents say the measure would hurt the families of workers who paid unemployment insurance while they were working. Civil liberties advocates also call it a warrantless search.
"We don't have any data that people who have lost jobs due to no fault of their own ... that there is a large number that are using drugs," said Rep. Chris Turner, D-Fort Worth. "Aren't we just adding insult to injury when someone is unemployed?"
Hecklers demanding that Texas expand the Medicaid program under the White House-backed health care law repeatedly interrupted a speech by Gov. Rick Perry on Wednesday, then descended on his office for a meeting to keep pressing their case.
Perry was speaking at an Austin business forum and had barely begun singing the state's pro-entrepreneurial praises when a woman shrieked "Expand Texas health care!" After nobody moved to throw her out, she asked, "What do you think about that?"
Visibly embarrassed, Perry replied, "Expand Texas health care. I gotcha."
As he continued to speak, a man rose and demanded Medicaid expansion. "You leave here," Perry offered, "I'll invite you to the Capitol and we can have a face-to-face debate. Your manners will be greatly appreciated."
Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the nation, with about 6.2 million of its residents lacking health care coverage. Advocates say extending Medicaid as directed by federal health care reform could provide up to 1 million Texans with some coverage.
But because Medicaid is a jointly funded federal-state program, Perry says embracing expansion could bankrupt Texas. He has endured such heckling before, with demonstrators even calling for Medicaid expansion during a recent speech he gave in Washington.
Wednesday's protesters were representing the Texas Organizing Project advocacy group, which has demonstrated previously outside Perry's office in the state Capitol. When the speech was over, about 40 of them headed there — and Perry allowed three in for a closed-door chat of about 20 minutes.
"We had a good meeting," the governor said afterward. "I don't think we came to any great epiphanies in there, but we actually found that there was a lot of things that we agreed on. Medicaid's broken."
Senate confirmation of three University of Texas System regents appointed by Gov. Rick Perry will be delayed at least until Friday, but one key lawmaker said he is "very confident" they will be approved.
Sen. Glenn Hegar, chairman of the Senate Nominations Committee, said delayed the confirmation vote by a day to give some senators time to prepare remarks. The regents appointments are being closely watched as the potential tipping point between the board of regents and Austin campus president Bill Powers and his supporters.
Powers is believed to be fighting to keep his job and until recently held a slim majority of approval on the board.
In lengthy hearing Monday, the three nominees — Ernest Aliseda of McAllen, Jeff Hildebrand of Houston and Paul Foster of El Paso, said they did not intend to have Powers fired.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"The Second Amendment is not about the gun. It's about the right to self-preservation." — Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, on frustration of another defeat of his guns on campus bill.