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Gregg County moves forward on new voting machines, parking facility

Gregg County took its first official step Monday toward purchasing a new voting machine system and building a downtown Longview parking facility.

The Commissioners Court unanimously agreed to move forward with Hart InterCivic for its Verity system, although no contract has been approved. That must wait until the Texas Secretary of State’s Office has reviewed the county’s decision and proposed contract, said Elections Administrator Kathryn Nealy.

Nealy, a 30-year elections office employee who has been its top administrator for the past 15 years, recommended the Verity system over Omaha, Nebraska-based Elections Systems & Software.

Commissioners first looked at the Verity voting system more than two years ago, and they were joined by local party chairs and several elections workers in reviewing the system last week, Nealy said.

“I like it,” Pct 3 Commissioner Gary Boyd said. “It seems easy to operate.”

The system, which includes a ballot paper trail for the county, will cost about $1.18 million, and the county intends to use the machines this November during state constitutional amendment elections — one year before the 2020 general election.

Gregg County’s purchasing director, legal representative and auditor have reviewed the contract and quote from Hart, but the secretary of state must certify the Verity system and equipment before the county enters a contract with Hart, Nealy said. She was sending an email to Austin after commissioners voted Monday to expedite the process.

“The secretary of state needs to know that all of the prices of this system are certified,” she said.

Commissioners also authorized Purchasing Director Kelli Davis to issue a request for qualified engineer firms to direct designs and likely construction of a parking facility on land across Methvin Street from the Gregg County Courthouse.

The parking facility, if built, would provide parking for as many as 300 vehicles but could also provide space for other ventures including relocation of the county’s Veterans Services office from its site on East Marshall Avenue, said Pct. 1 Commissioner Ronnie McKinney.

In other business, commissioners unanimously authorized a buildout of a Gregg County tax office branch at Gladewater City Hall.

The work will be performed by Gregg County Sheriff’s Office maintenance and inmate labor. Sheriff Maxey Cerliano said the job could be completed for about $25,000, beating estimates of between $43,000 and $56,000 from private contractors.

“Thank you, sheriff, and thank your inmates as well,” County Judge Bill Stoudt told Cerliano.

Practices open

Locupere prium este consulus host vivivasdam. Habeffrevit, nitem.

Serum acchilius nossidem publice ropteripti, convermis. Gil hoc, ommor qui sulatri mununcut in peribus menatum, morituusque quis, nihil consili percerem terfessicaet ipte perioc, concum hil te ina, consum teri poention vigna, manul horditem nos, dem re, que aur. Opotiam ur quo Cupplii trum faut L. Catuidi terobus ciora? Patimiu consul hosum eo, cone et audemov essidius, ta veri supimunum venihilis facerrae fur qui publis? que intelud ervius vignox munce ficaperces! Obsedero et; Castria L. Nampris; non audem.

Ignos publi, nocupim moruris sendam, praribulini pat, ceperbi factandam. Marbi sedo,

Texas has one of country's highest rates of cervical cancer

In 2007, two governments set into motion a massive public health experiment.

One was the state of Texas, where lawmakers rejected a mandate to vaccinate adolescent girls against human papillomavirus, or HPV, a near-ubiquitous sexually transmitted infection that causes cervical cancer. For more than a decade since, the number of Texas adolescents vaccinated against HPV has remained low.

On the other side of the globe, Australia, a country with roughly the same size population and economy as Texas, was taking a radically different approach. Public health leaders there rolled out a nationwide program that offered the HPV vaccine to girls for free at their schools. The program, though optional, proved popular, and it later expanded to boys. Vaccine coverage grew rapidly, with up to 80% of teens becoming immunized over the next decade.

Now, 12 years after Texas and Australia first veered onto wildly different courses regarding HPV prevention, their gap in health outcomes has widened demonstrably. Australia is on track to become the first country to eliminate cervical cancer, perhaps within a decade. Texas, meanwhile, has hardly made a dent in its rate of cervical cancer — which remains one of the highest in the United States, with an incidence comparable to that of some developing countries.

Medical experts in Texas and Australia say the results underscore the effectiveness of widely available vaccines and cancer screenings.

“From the beginning, I think the [Australian] government successfully positioned the advent of HPV vaccination as a wonderful package that had a beneficial effect for the population,” said Karen Canfell, a cancer epidemiologist with the Cancer Council Australia. “It was celebrated for that reason, and it was a great public health success.”

Local cancer experts say Australia seized a golden opportunity Texas missed out on. “They embraced the vaccine at that time, and our fear kind of began around then,” said Lois Ramondetta, a professor of gynecologic oncology at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Texas is at half of Australia’s vaccination rate for adolescents — and is lagging behind most other U.S. states. Only about 40% of Texans between 13 and 17 years old were up to date on their HPV vaccinations in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s compared with the national average of 49%.

Cervical cancer rates remain significantly higher in Texas as well. In 2016, the age-adjusted rate of new cervical cancer cases in the state was 9.2 per 100,000 women, according to the CDC and National Cancer Institute. Women in only four other states — New Mexico, Alabama, Florida and Kentucky — were found more likely to develop cervical cancer.

Because it takes several years for persistent HPV infection to manifest as precancerous lesions on the cervix, not all of Texas’ high cancer rate can be attributed to low vaccine rates. But experts say the best way for the state to significantly reduce its cervical cancer rates is to boost HPV immunization.

Researchers in Australia estimate the country will see fewer than 4 new cases of cervical cancer per 100,000 women each year by 2028, as long as vaccination rates remain high among adolescents and adult women receive regular cancer screenings.

The success of those programs has positioned Australia as the “first country that is likely to eliminate cervical cancer as a public health issue,” researchers wrote in a study published by medical journal The Lancet late last year.

An estimated 99.7% of cervical cancer cases are caused by the group of viruses known as HPV. Cervical cancer is the fourth most commonly occurring cancer in women. Study after study has found the HPV vaccine to be safe and effective.

Some Texas policymakers say it’s time to revisit the state’s vaccination requirements in light of Australia’s success.

“This is a preventable disease, and we should and can be doing more,” said state Rep. Jessica Farrar, a Houston Democrat who has advocated for more robust HPV vaccine coverage. “Here we are 12 years later, and look where we could’ve been, but because of certain beliefs, we’re suffering from cancers that could have been avoided.”

Texas’ last effort to expand HPV vaccine coverage, supported by an unlikely cast of characters, fell wildly short.

‘We did not want to be the first’

On a Friday afternoon in February 2007, just months after the U.S. government approved a vaccine to protect adolescent girls against HPV, then-Gov. Rick Perry — a Republican — stunned the political establishment by announcing an executive order: Texas would become the first state in the nation to require all 11- and 12-year-old girls entering the sixth grade to receive the vaccination. Doing so, Perry wrote, had “the potential to significantly reduce cases of cervical cancer and mitigate future medical costs.”

Public health advocates were as elated as they were surprised. Farrar, who had authored a bill that would have similarly required adolescent girls to receive the HPV vaccination, said she was caught unawares by Perry’s proclamation but quickly voiced her support for it. Kathy Miller, executive director of the left-leaning Texas Freedom Network and a veteran of the state’s long-running debate over policies regarding sexual health and education, said she was “completely shocked ... but applauded [Perry] for his out-of-character decision to listen to the science and the health care experts.”

Their optimism was short-lived. Pressure from evangelical groups and members of a nascent anti-vaccine political movement to repeal the executive order mounted, while government watchdogs accused the Texas governor of being too cozy with pharmaceutical lobbyists; his former chief of staff, Mike Toomey, had gone on to become a lobbyist for Merck, the manufacturer of the Gardasil HPV vaccine.

Within weeks, Texas lawmakers revolted against Perry’s order — and with support from Democrats and Republicans, the Legislature voted overwhelmingly to torpedo the mandate.

“We did not want to be the first in offering young girls for the experiment to see if this vaccine is effective or not,” state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the Angleton Republican who authored the bill overturning Perry’s order, told The New York Times. (Bonnen, now the Texas House Speaker, did not respond to emailed questions.)

The blowback would haunt Perry for years. When he unsuccessfully ran for president in 2011, the executive order spawned attacks from primary competitors on the right. Perry ultimately called the order a mistake, saying, “If I had to do it over again, I would have done it differently.”

Lessons from down under

Australian leaders took pains to avoid a mandate in their rollout of the vaccine program.

As it is in Texas, HPV vaccination for students in Australia is optional. But unlike Texas, where parents are generally expected to have their children vaccinated on their own time, Australia decided to bring the vaccine directly to the kids — by offering the shots at school.

“Relying on people to go to their pediatricians ... it’s harder to reach kids that way,” said Divya Patel, an assistant professor at the University of Texas System Population Health Initiative who has studied HPV vaccination in Texas.

Another reason the Australian schools-based program has been so well-received: It’s free.

“Vaccines in schools is by far the most effective way to do it,” said Ian Frazer, a professor of medicine at the University of Queensland who helped develop the HPV vaccine. “Free public health programs work really well if you publicize them well.”

Medical experts also praise Australia’s national cervical cancer screening program, which maintains a registry of people who have received cervical cancer screenings and encourages women to be tested every five years from age 25 to 74.

Australia faced some initial anti-vaccine opposition to its schools program, but an effective public awareness campaign helped overcome the opposition. Frazer, the Brisbane-based co-creator of the technology behind the HPV vaccine, was named Australian of the Year in 2006 for his research breakthrough. The same year, Janette Howard, the wife of Australia’s prime minister, disclosed that she had survived cervical cancer.

“What I think has been successful here is a pretty good public understanding of the importance of the vaccine and its key role in cancer prevention, not only for girls but also for boys,” said Canfell, the Australian epidemiologist.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that boys receive the HPV vaccine at age 11 or 12, but boys’ vaccination rates have lagged behind girls’. Only 36% of adolescent boys in Texas were up to date on HPV immunization in 2016, according to federal data.

In 2015, 406 Texas women died of cervical cancer, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

The state’s health department acknowledges the effectiveness of the HPV vaccine; a July report from the agency found that the “burden of cervical cancer can be reduced through efforts to screen all women at risk and to increase use of the HPV vaccination.”

The agency actually has the authority to implement a requirement for all students except those with a “conscientious objection” to receive an HPV vaccination before entering the sixth grade.

But a spokesperson for the agency said it typically waits for orders from state lawmakers before changing vaccine rules.

“We’ve also received clear direction from the Legislature that it wants to be involved in decisions about immunization requirements, so outside of an emergency situation, it’s unlikely we’d make a change without legislative action,” agency spokesman Chris Van Deusen said in an email. The most recent change to students’ vaccine requirements, the addition of the meningococcal disease immunization, came in 2013 after the Legislature passed a new law requiring it.

In 2017, researchers from the University of Texas System found the Lone Star State continued to have one of the lowest rates of HPV vaccine coverage in the nation.

“Despite the remarkable cancer prevention opportunity HPV vaccination provides, Texas has fallen behind the rest of the country in adopting this practice,” the researchers wrote.

Sherry Shephard / Evan Vucci/AP Photo  

Acting Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli speaks Monday during a briefing at the White House. Cuccinelli announced that the Trump administration is set to deny green cards to many migrants who use Medicaid, food stamps, housing vouchers or other forms of public assistance.

Texas Rangers asked to investigate allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

Sullivan, who met with Bonnen and Burrows at the Texas Capitol in June, publicized his allegations against the two Republicans over two weeks ago — and later revealed he had secretly recorded the meeting. Since then, Bonnen has forcefully pushed back against Sullivan’s account of that June 12 meeting and has called on Sullivan to release the full audio. Burrows has not publicly weighed in. Other Republicans who have listened to the recording have said it largely confirms Sullivan’s allegations against Bonnen and Burrows.

The state agency said in an email Monday evening that the Texas Rangers “are conducting an initial inquiry” into the matter and planned to consult with a prosecuting attorney. According to the state’s Government Code, if an initial inquiry demonstrates there’s “reasonable suspicion” that an offense occurred, the matter would then get handed off to a prosecuting attorney. The Texas Rangers, if requested by that attorney, would then help with the investigation.

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting of Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

A spokesperson for Bonnen said the speaker “fully supports the committee’s decision and has complete faith in the House rules and committee process working as they are intended.”

Sullivan, meanwhile, said in a statement and on Twitter that he was happy the committee “appears to be searching for the truth.” He added, “It is abundantly obvious my decision to record our meeting was the correct one. I remain hopeful Mr. Bonnen will recant his false claims about me and the facts surrounding our meeting.”

The Texas Rangers’ Public Integrity Unit has jurisdiction over investigating alleged crimes by state officers and state employees. The Texas Legislature passed a measure to create the unit in 2015 as a branch within the Texas Rangers, which operate under the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Meyer closed the meeting by saying that “any investigation should follow the facts and the evidence without regard to political consideration.”

Last week, state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who serves as vice chair of the House General Investigating Committee, sent a letter to Meyer requesting an investigation into allegations made against the speaker and Burrows. Meyer responded later that afternoon, saying that he had recently “initiated internal discussion” with committee staff about the procedure for launching an investigation.

Two House members who do not serve on the committee, Michelle Beckley of Carrollton and Richard Peña Raymond of Laredo, both Democrats, were at Monday’s hearing. The former, a freshman, was allegedly disparaged at the June 12 meeting, according to multiple people who have listened to the recording. And the latter called on Meyer last week to hold a public hearing in the name of transparency.

Beckley said in a statement after the hearing that although it was “initially disappointing” to see the committee enter a closed-door session, she stood by its decision to ask the Texas Rangers to investigate the matter.