AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - As courtroom twists go, this one is practically unheard-of: On the brink of bringing Texas' attorney general, Ken Paxton, to trial on felony securities fraud charges, the government's prosecutors are threatening to bail out of the case unless they get paid.
Whether one of the biggest criminal cases in Texas finally goes before a jury is now in limbo over what prosecutors contend is a deliberate effort by rich supporters of Paxton, an up-and-coming firebrand in Republican legal circles, to delay justice by challenging their paychecks. So far, the tactic is working.
Paxton, who was a state lawmaker and investor on the side before being elected attorney general two years ago, was indicted for allegedly steering investors to a technology startup in 2011 without disclosing that he was being paid by the company.
A judge appointed two high-profile Houston attorneys to prosecute the case after the district attorney, a Paxton ally, recused himself. The trial is scheduled to start May 1, and the judge said Wednesday he will issue a ruling Thursday on whether to postpone the trial. He also told both sides to stop making comments to the media. Paxton's lawyers declined comment as they left the court Wednesday.
Supporters of Paxton have made an issue of the $300-an-hour fees being charged by the special prosecutors, who are paid by the Dallas suburban county where the trial will be held. A three-judge panel of a Dallas appeals court agreed to halt payments on the $200,000 in legal bills while it considers a lawsuit filed by Jeff Blackard, a wealthy Dallas developer and onetime Paxton political donor, who has argued that the fees were excessive and costing taxpayers too much.
"Everyone in the courtroom is being paid except for us," one of the appointed prosecutors, Brian Wice, has said. "No one expected us to work for free."
Firing back, Paxton's attorneys earlier this month accused prosecutors of being "financially self-serving" and argued they don't have a right to be paid until the case is over. As of last year, Paxton had raised more than $300,000 from private sources to pay his own high-powered defense team.
UNION DUES RESTRICTIONS
The Texas Senate has given preliminary approval to ending voluntary payroll deductions of union dues from state and public employee paychecks.
Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman says the government shouldn't be in the business of collecting union dues. But her bill still allows payroll deductions for charities and for unions for first-responder groups, like police and firefighters.
Huffman fought off attempts by Democrats to allow public school teachers to have their union's dues automatically collected from their paychecks.
Labor groups oppose the measure as an attack on unions.
It passed 20-11 Wednesday along party lines within the Senate's Republican majority. A final vote sending the bill to the state House could come as early as Thursday.
A similar measure passed the Senate in 2015, but never got a House vote.
TEACHING POLICE INTERACTION
The Texas Senate voted Wednesday to require high schools to provide instruction on how to best interact with law enforcement in traffic stops and other situations.
The bill by Sens. Royce West of Dallas and John Whitmire of Houston is in response to a series of violent encounters between police and the public that made national news.
The sponsors, both Democrats, want to teach students what is expected of them when stopped by police. The bill requires instructions for officers on their responsibilities during an encounter.
It would have state education and law enforcement officials develop a curriculum for the 2018-2019 school year. The instructions would also be required in future driver's license instruction books and part of driver education courses.
The bill now goes to the House for consideration.
Senators also preliminarily passed a bill mandating burial or cremation of fetal remains from abortions and miscarriages, even though a federal judge already blocked an existing state rule requiring the same thing.
Dallas Republican Sen. Don Huffines' bill passed 22-9 on Wednesday. It still needs a final vote to send it to the House.
Huffines says Texas now allows putting fetal remains in garbage disposals, though medical providers note that they usually are incinerated and deposited in sanitary landfills.
Opponents argue the bill will discourage abortions by making them more expensive.
Texas' health department previously set rules requiring fetal remains' burial or cremation, but a U.S. district judge suspended them as "purely political."
Lawmakers are nonetheless trying to make the mandate part of state law.
BANNING RED LIGHT CAMERAS
The Texas Senate also voted to ban the use of red light cameras in traffic enforcement - nixing tools that had been used to try and stop wrecks at busy intersections.
Supporters of red light cameras, including police and trauma experts, say they help uphold the law and reduce crashes. But critics say they invade privacy, put the burden on drivers to prove their innocence and are used to raise cash for local governments.
The Senate has twice voted in recent years to ban red light cameras but the measures have failed to pass the Texas House.
Another bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday would bar state and local governments from blocking vehicle registrations based on outstanding tickets issued by red light cameras.
The House reconvenes at 10 a.m. Thursday but has nothing on its legislative calendar except giving final approval to a small group of bills the chamber already passed. The Senate returns to work at 11 a.m. and is poised to approve a sweeping voucher plan offering private money to children attending private and religious schools.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"I know this will be another tool in the tool box to help citizens and law enforcement understand each other better," - Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, advocating for the proposal to teach high school students how to better interact with police officers.
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