Aman Batheja, Texas Tribune

From the Texas Tribune:

After years of experimenting with its groundbreaking autonomous vehicle technology almost exclusively in California, Google confirmed Monday that it has begun testing one of its self-driving vehicles in Austin.

A white Lexus RX 450h SUV outfitted with the company’s sensors and software began making trips without the aid of a driver in the city within the past week, said Jennifer Haroon, head of business operations for the Google self-driving car project. Another vehicle will join it in the area for testing this week.

U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court has backed Texas’ decision to forbid specialty license plates sporting an image of the Confederate flag, a ruling that could have national implications for how free speech protections apply to government services.

In a 5-4 ruling released Thursday morning, the court ruled that messages on license plates constitute "government speech," as the state of Texas had maintained in court filings and oral arguments.

Scott Schrantz

From the Texas Tribune: A bill to update Texas law for the age of driverless cars has stalled due to two serious roadblocks: Google and major car manufacturers. Both the technology giant and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group, have come out against a proposal from state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, to create a pilot program aimed at monitoring and encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in Texas.

Google has previously encouraged the development of similar laws in other states including California and Nevada, yet is refusing to publicly explain why it is opposed to such a measure in Texas. At last week’s committee hearing on the bill, a Google representative registered as opposed to the measure — but declined to testify as to why. The Texas Tribune got a similar response from Google after repeated requests: “We have no comment to offer on this.”

From The Texas Tribune:

Only six out of every 100 Texans rely on public transportation as their primary means of transportation, and less than half of Texans believe it reduces congestion, according to a new poll released Thursday.

The survey of more than 5,000 Texans was conducted by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute in May to study how Texans get around and their views on transportation funding. 

Ninety-one percent of Texans use a personal automobile as their primary means of transportation, followed by 6 percent who rely on public transportation, according to the poll. Ninety percent of respondents said they own or lease a personal vehicle. Minorities and those with an annual household income of less than $25,000 rely most heavily on public transportation, researchers found.

Norihiro Kataoka

For years, the Japanese company behind the world’s first and busiest high-speed rail system has been itching to enter the U.S. high-speed rail market, hoping to sell one of the world’s ripest passenger rail markets on its breathtakingly fast Shinkansen bullet trains.

But with Central Japan Railway’s efforts to sell high-speed trains on the U.S. coasts going nowhere, Texas has emerged as the company’s best hope for introducing its wildly successful technology to the American market.

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT

In the Texas Tribune today, Aman Batheja reports on a significant change that has researchers and politicos drooling: Exit polls are returning to Texas.

Batheja writes:

This year, with a high-profile gubernatorial race on the November ballot, the National Election Pool confirmed on Tuesday that it plans to conduct more robust exit polling in Texas this year, giving researchers and political analysts the means to better examine the outcome. 

Marjorie Kamys Cotera via Texas Tribune

The agency charged with prosecuting state public corruption cases wrapped up an investigation into state Sen. Wendy Davis last year without finding any issues worth pursuing, its director said, and did not uncover anything it believed it should refer to the FBI.

The Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County District Attorneys Office closed an investigation into a complaint made against Davis’ law firm last year. The Dallas Morning News reported Friday that documents related to Davis’ legal work as a lawyer for the North Texas Tollway Authority are part of an FBI inquiry into the agency's board members, citing a letter from the Public Integrity Unit about its own closed investigation into Davis.

Reynaldo Leal for the Texas Tribune

A high-speed rail line connecting San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico, could be less than a decade away from welcoming its first passengers, according to federal and Texas officials who met with Mexican officials in Washington, D.C., on Thursday to discuss the project.

imgur.com

U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, a Friendswood Republican with a history of flouting campaign finance laws, entered a new legal gray area this week when he announced his campaign can now accept donations in Bitcoin, a private virtual currency.

Stockman, who is challenging U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in this year’s Republican primary, was attending an event promoting the NYC Bitcoin Center in New York's financial district earlier this week when he told a reporter with Business Insider that his campaign could now accept Bitcoin donations. Stockman appeared to confirm the report by posting it on Facebook and Twitter.

Texas Tribune

In a speech last month kicking off her campaign to be Texas' first Democratic lieutenant governor in 15 years, state Sen.Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio offered examples of what she considered negligence by the state’s Republican leadership.

Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson

In 2015, an 11-mile stretch of Austin’s MoPac Boulevard will expand to eight lanes from six. The two new lanes will be tolled, giving drivers the chance to pay a premium to avoid the road’s frequent congestion. 

While the toll lanes will help ease traffic on the free lanes, neither the Texas Department of Transportation nor any of the local entities involved in the $200 million project are predicting it will transform MoPac into a free-flowing thoroughfare. With robust population growth projected for the region, MoPac traffic is expected to continue periodically slowing to a crawl for decades. When it does, local officials are optimistic that frustrated commuters will notice that it is not only personal vehicles zipping past them on the toll lanes. 

flickr.com/matt_hintsa

Officials in Austin and San Antonio are in talks with the U.S. Department of Transportation about receiving federal funding to facilitate connecting the two cities via high-speed rail, according to local and federal officials.

“I think that that concept has a lot of promise, and we just have to continue working with the local community to see how to get it in shape and see what we can do on the federal level,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.

Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

Update (June 21, 3:26 p.m.): State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said Friday afternoon that his effort to unseat University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall is still very much alive in the last days of the session, and said he is confident he has the necessary support in the House. Aides to Gov. Rick Perry have been lobbying members to leave Hall in office, but Pitts said he's got the numbers right now.

Original story: The House's chief budget writer and a longstanding critic of the University of Texas System regents is attempting to launch impeachment proceedings against University of Texas Regent Wallace Hall.

Liang Shi/KUT News

The Texas House will take up what is likely to be its most sweeping attempt at tax reform this year on Tuesday, though for some critics, it doesn’t go far enough.

Lawmakers have been waiting for weeks for House Bill 500, from state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, to reach the floor. The bill would spend nearly $400 million to reduce the burden of the state's franchise tax on businesses, also known as the margins tax. Along with addressing how the tax applies to a handful of industries, the bill would make permanent a popular provision that exempts businesses with less than $1 million in gross receipts from paying the tax annually. The provision is set to expire next year.

flickr.com/callendercreates

Updated, 4:35 p.m.: 

In a 91-53 vote Tuesday afternoon, the Texas House passed House Bill 2197, continuing the the Texas Lottery Commission. An earlier vote Tuesday had failed to continue the commission.

Original story:

In an outcome that left many House members stunned, a bill to continue the Texas Lottery Commission failed on Tuesday, potentially abolishing scratch-off tickets, charity bingo and other popular games of chance and blowing a new hole in the state budget.

Tamir Kalifa via Texas Tribune

While the Texas House began working through 267 amendments on the proposed budget Thursday morning, Democratic and Republican House members confirmed that potentially divisive amendments related to funding for women’s health are being withdrawn as part of a bipartisan truce.

“Both sides are standing down,” state Rep.Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, said.

Todd Wiseman/Texas Tribune

The 15 members of the Senate Finance Committee unanimously voted on Wednesday for a $195.5 billion two-year budget that undoes some of the cuts from the 2011 legislative session. 

The budget, which now heads to the full Senate, is 2.9 percent higher than the estimated size of the current two-year budget, which is $189.9 billion after factoring in extra spending lawmakers are expected to approve later this session.

Bob Daemmrich

Two weeks after Google showcased its self-driving car to local officials in Austin, a Texas lawmaker has filed a bill attempting to regulate the use of the futuristic technology.

State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, filed HB 2932 on Thursday to define “autonomous motor vehicle” and “autonomous technology” in the state’s transportation code. The bill would require that a licensed driver be held responsible for such a vehicle when it is in use, even if the car is operating without the driver inside it. It also directs the Texas Department of Transportation to set up rules for the use of such vehicles in the state, including minimum insurance requirements. Nevada approved similar laws last year, though that state requires a person in the driver's seat and passenger's seat of a self-driving car while it is in use.

Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune

Federal and state elected officials are now exempted from the background checks required of visitors to the Governor’s Mansion, the Department of Public Safety said Tuesday.

Several members of the Texas Legislature had complained last week after learning they were required to undergo background checks before being allowed to enter the Governor’s Mansion for a reception hosted by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. Angry legislators had asked DPS officials why the vetting they go through by Capitol security wasn’t sufficient for access to the Governor’s residence.

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