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Lege Lines

This week the Lege takes on wrongful convictions, medical marijuana, and dark money

Fri., May 17, 2013

MOWING THE GRASS National support for legalizing medical marijuana may have reached an all-time high of 85% in favor (including 80% of Republicans) according to a recent Fox News poll, but at the Capitol lawmakers remain wary – declining even to pass a measure that would protect ill Texans who use medi-pot from being prosecuted and sent to jail. For the fifth time in as many sessions, Austin Rep. Elliott Naishtat's modest proposal to create an affirmative defense to prosecution for pot possession for medicinal marijuana users who suffer from bona fide illness has died without making it to the House floor. This time around, House Bill 594 actually got a hearing – only the second time in a decade that's happened. Indeed, where other affirmative defense bills have been referred to the Criminal Juris­prud­ence Committee – including, this session, HB 1743 by Rep. Eric John­son, D-Dallas, a so-called "Good Samaritan" bill that protects drug users from prosecution if they call for help when someone has overdosed, which sailed out of committee on a 9-0 vote – Naishtat's medi-pot bills have repeatedly been relegated to the less friendly Public Health Committee. Still, Naishtat remains refreshingly optimistic that the bill is finally gaining traction; passing it is the right thing to do, he said, and he remains committed to the legislation. "There's definitely movement forward." – Jordan Smith

SEE YOU IN THE FALL? OR MAYBE SUM­MER? With the 83rd Legislature scheduled to end May 27, lawmakers are already wondering how soon they'll be back in Austin for a special session. Pick a reason: No compromise has been reached on essential issues like transportation funding, while Gov. Rick Perry is still demanding nearly $2 billion in tax cuts be passed. Or the state's legal woes: With both school finance and redistricting inching their way through the courts, Attorney General Greg Abbott met with the Republican caucus on May 14 to discuss whether lawmakers will have to come back in the summer to deal with their fallout. – Richard Whittaker

BUDGING ON THE BUDGET Republican lawmakers seem to be nearing a compromise on state spending for the 2014-15 biennium. On May 14, House Appropriations Committee Chair Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said a deal is imminent; the cornerstone seems to be his decision to allow his committee to hear Sen­ate Joint Resolution 1, the main mechanism for providing $2 billion for a new statewide water infrastructure bank. – R.W.

SHINE A LIGHT Lawmakers have passed a measure cracking down on unreported dark money spent in Texas elections, and now all eyes are on Gov. Perry to see whether he will veto it. SB 346 would redesignate political nonprofits with a 501(c)4 or 501(c)6 designation as political action committees, meaning they'd have to file finance reports with the Texas Ethics Com­mission. Unsurprisingly, dark money groups like Empower Texans are unhappy with this – so much so that Empower Texans President (and self-appointed kingmaker) Michael Quinn Sullivan convinced Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, to try to drag it back to the Senate after it had already been sent to the House. But House sponsor Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, was having none of it and also rebuffed attempts by his more conservative colleagues to amend the bill during the May 13 final debate. Now Perry must decide which he fears more: The influence of unfriendly nonprofits on his own election plans, or the wrath of Quinn Sullivan. – R.W.

MAKING AMENDS With Michael Morton watching from the gallery, the Texas House on Monday afternoon passed two measures designed to prevent wrongful convictions – such as that of Morton, who spent nearly a quarter-century behind bars for a murder he did not commit. SB 1611, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, requires broad open-file discovery to ensure defense access to police reports and witness statements, among other evidence. The measure also reaffirms the commitment memorialized in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brady v. Maryland, which requires the state to provide a defendant with exculpatory, impeaching, or mitigating evidence. Monday's voice vote coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Brady ruling. The chamber also approved SB 825, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, which would extend the amount of time an exoneree has to file a complaint of prosecutorial misconduct with the State Bar of Texas, and make public any reprimand or discipline a prosecutor may receive. Both measures received final passage Tuesday and will be sent to Gov. Perry for signing into law. – J.S.

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