Our Bodies, Our Cities

Austin and Beyond

A promised backlash against annexation is gaining momentum, with legislative proposals pouring in from around the state on how Texas might limit cities' almost-unilateral ability to expand outside their borders. Leading the pack is Round Rock Republican Mike Krusee, who has campaigned heavily on a promise to limit Austin's annexation powers. Krusee has filed two annexation bills so far. One would allow courts to assess penalties on cities that fail to provide promised services to territories they annex.1 The other has several provisions: It would limit the amount by which a city's extraterritorial jurisdiction is extended when an area is annexed; require cities to identify areas that might be annexed three years in advance; require cities to provide full fire, police and emergency services immediately after annexation, and other services within two and a half years. It would also prohibit areas slated for annexation from drastically lowering their tax rates or selling off assets in anticipation of being annexed.2

In addition, there are two bills in the House that would require that cities allow residents to vote before their area is annexed3,4 and another that would require municipal utility districts to inform home buyers whether the property they wish to purchase is in a city's extraterritorial jurisdiction.5 There's also similar legislation in the Senate, being carriedby Dallas Republican John Carona6.

As for transportation, the larger questions surrounding regional commuter rail have not yet surfaced in the House or Senate, but plenty of time remains for that much-debated topic to appear. Capital Metro's sales tax, harshly challenged but triumphant during the last legislative cycle, may be challenged again this time around. So far, only a few rumblings that there may be changes in store for mass transit in Texas are audible. In the House, those rumblings are coming from Democrats Sherri Greenberg of Austin, who has filed a bill to require transportation authorities to keep internal auditors on staff,7 and Houston's Senfronia Thompson, who wants to let citizens of midsized cities vote to withdraw from rapid transit plans after they've committed to them.8

1. HB 239Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock)

2. HB 439Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock)

3. HB 322Frank Corte (R-San Antonio)

4. HB 379Thomas Williams (D-The Woodlands)

5. HB 641Charlie Howard (R-Sugar Land)

6. SB 167John Carona (R-Dallas)

7. HB 67Sherri Greenberg (D-Austin)

8. HB 640Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston)

Crime and Punishment

It's a pretty safe bet that legislators -- who bienially complain that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice builds luxury hotels, not jails -- will again make the brave political move of calling for crackdowns on prisoners, as evidenced by a number of bills designed to remind inmates that they're being punished. Two House bills and one Senate proposal would require inmates to pay for the cost of their confinement,9,10,11 and Republican Rep. Buddy West has filed two bills of his own -- one that would require all inmates to participate in work and educational programs,12 and another that would prohibit inmates from lifting weights, watching television, or listening to the radio "other than in connection with a programmatic activity."13 Moreover, those who file "frivolous or malicious" lawsuits would lose their good conduct time under a bill filed by one of Austin's own, former Travis Co. Sheriff Terry Keel. And no more weekly massages, either.14

On the "punishment" side of the agenda, the death penalty is once again getting its moment in the sun, after a rather shadowy two years in which 53 men and one woman received Texas' ultimate penalty with rarely a blink from the public or the press. This session promises to be one of strident voices and odd coalitions -- both for capital punishment and against. Arguing for the affirmative is GOP Rep. Jim Pitts of Waxahatchie, who roused the outrage of everyone from lifelong death penalty opponents to Gov. George Bush when he proposed lowering the age for capital convictions to 11. Realizing that pre-pubescent killing is unlikely to go down smoothly even in the death penalty capital of the world, Pitts has softened his stance, raising the age to a more culpable 16 -- old enough to drive but still younger than the current minimum, which is 17.15 Dallas Democrat Dale Tillery has a proposal that would make murder committed on school property a capital offense;16 a similar proposal by Sen. Royce West of Dallas would do the same for hate crimes. Striking a note for "compassionate conservatism," Keel has proposed compensating crime victims' families out of public funds for travel and lodging expenses incurred for the purpose of viewing an execution.18

9. HB 49Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo)

10. HB 74 Burt Solomons (R-Carrollton)

11. SB 53Tom Haywood (R-Wichita Falls)

12. HB 244Buddy West (R-Shirley)

13. HB 275Buddy West (R-Shirley)

14. HB 118Terry Keel (R-Austin)

15. HB 41Jim Pitts (R-Waxahachie)

16. HB 388Dale Tillery (D-Dallas)

17. SB 49Royce West (D-Dallas)

18. HB 657Terry Keel (R-Austin)

Education Hits the Books

Education illustrationGiven last year's partisan chest-thumping and finger-pointing over the sorry state of our public schools, it's little surprise that education is making an encore appearance in the Legislature. What is surprising is that, until last Monday, nobody had filed a substantial bill proposing publicly funded private school vouchers, a topic near and dear to the heart of freshman Lt. Gov. Rick Perry. Only Rep. Krusee has filled the gap, with a limited bill that would provide vouchers for up to 20,000 children in Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio.19 Two other Krusee bills would provide inroads for a greater number of open-enrollment charter schools to set up shop.20,21

As usual, a lengthy slate of curriculum requirements is also proposed. Among the items legislators want to add to students' mandatory high school workload are community service;22 CPR;23 "basic American values";24 personal finance education;25 and, perhaps most sensibly, Spanish.26

Two identical bills filed by Corpus Christi Democrats Vilma Luna in the House and Carlos Truan in the Senate would require a grade of at least 70 for students to be promoted, effectively ending what George Bush and Senate Education Committee Chair Teel Bivins have both disparagingly called "social promotion."27,28 Other bills would allow richer school districts to keep more money in their areas, rather than redistributing funds to poorer schools,29 and require criminal history background checks of prospective school employees.30, 31

19. HB 709Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock)

20. HB 711Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock)

21. HB 712Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock)

22. HB 17Tony Goolsby (R-Dallas)

23. HB 578Helen Giddings (D-Dallas)

24. HB 183John Longoria (R-San Antonio)

25. HB 226Buddy West (R-Odessa)

26. HB 686Rene Oliveira, (D-Brownsville)

27. HB 370Vilma Luna (D-Corpus Christi)

28. SB 72Carlos Truan (D-Corpus Christi)

29. HB 613 Kenn George (R-Dallas)

30. HB 371 Kino Flores (D-Mission)

31. HB 513 Patricia Gray (D-Galveston)

Business and Labor

The session's forecast looks mixed for labor interests, which typically spend the six months of the Legislature's tenure in permanent duck-and-cover mode, with "victory" defined more by what labor didn't lose than by what it gained. In keeping with that tradition, this session offers one particularly bitter anti-labor proposal and several more mildly flavored pro-worker propositions. The former, from Kerrville Republican Harvey Hilderbran, would require every union member in the state to sign a written consent form before the union could use his or her dues for "political purposes."32 In Texas, unions already lack the power to require workers to join as a condition of employment; this bill would require them to get written authorization before spending dues on virtually any non-administrative function. On the pro-labor side are two bills to increase the state minimum wage, currently $3.35 an hour. One bill would raise it to the federal minimum of $5.15,33 and another proposes to boost it to $6.50 within the next two years.34 Other proposalswould create financial incentives for businesses to invest in economically distressed areas, in the form of tax incentives, grants, and job training funds.35-37

On a related note, some consumer-oriented matters to keep an eye on this session include some overlapping bills that would exempt from sales taxes items as diverse as diapers, basic clothing, school supplies, Internet access, college textbooks, and gun safes.38-41 Another bill, filed by Houston Republican Talmadge Heflin, would reduce the state sales tax to 5%.42

32. HB 407Harvey Hilderbran (R-Kerrville)

33. HB 327Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston)

34. HB 197Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth)

35. HB 55Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo)

36. HB 64Sherri Greenberg (D-Austin)

37. SB 45Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville)

38. HB 86 Robert Gutierrez (D-McAllen)

39. HB 111Glen Maxey (D-Austin)

40. HB 179Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo)

41. HB 730Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston)

42. HB 607Talmadge Heflin (R-Houston)

Whose Decision?

right-to-chose illustrationThe outlook is not so mixed on the right-to-life vs. right-to-choose issue, which routinely divides the Lege into two pretty evenly split camps: one very vocal anti-abortion half which resurrects the issue session after session, and a quieter pro-choice contingent that would rather leave the issue -- and women -- alone. Prominent among the former group are suburban GOP Senators Florence Shapiro and JaneNelson, who have introduced bills this session that will seem oddly familiar to Lege-watchers from sessions past. The bills would require parental notification and parental consent, respectively, for minors to obtain abortions without the approval of a judge.43,44 Similar bills have been filed in the House by Arlene Wolgemuth and Dianne Delisi.45,46 Two other Senate bills would require a "waiting period" for a woman to think over the decision she has made to have an abortion; during this time -- alternately proposed as 24 or 72 hours -- the woman is invited to peruse a collection of anti-abortion literature.47,48 Three other measures proposed in the House would, respectively, criminalize the injury of a fetus;49 define life as beginning at "the moment of fertilization;"50 require that abortion clinics operate 1,500 feet away from schools or churches, and restrict abortions performed after 16 weeks to the confines of a hospital surgery ward.51

43. SB 27Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

44. SB 30Florence Shapiro (R-Plano)

45. HB 342 Arlene Wolgemuth (R-Burleson)

46. HB 343 Dianne Delisi (R-Temple)

47. SB 65 Florence Shapiro (R-Plano)

48. SB 83 Chris Harris (R-Arlington)

49. HB 682 Ray Allen (R-Grand Prairie)

50. HB 181 John Longoria (D- San Antonio)

51. HB 36 Frank Corte (R-San Antonio)

The Behavior Police

Behavior Police illustrationThe personal behavior of constituents is never far from the hearts and minds of legislators who view themselves as morally inclined, and those who fear the imminent collapse of marriage and the family are desperate to do something about it this session, with a number of bills devoted ostensibly to upholding those venerable institutions. Reps. Arlene Wolgemuth and Warren Chisum want to make divorces more difficult to obtain -- Chisum by requiring a six-month waiting period after a couple files for legal separation,52 and Wolgemuth by allowing couples to enter a so-called "covenant marriage," which would prohibit them from divorcing except in cases of adultery, felony imprisonment, abandonment, or abuse.53

You may recognize Chisum's name for another reason, however: It's he who biennially resurrects a slate of gay-bashing bills designed to prevent gay Texans from adopting, serving as foster parents,54 or marrying one another (already included in Texas' Constitution, but now codified55). On the other hand, Austin's Glen Maxey -- a regular nemesis and foil for Chisum's venom -- has filed a bill to prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation,56 and a similar bill by Harryette Ehrhardt of Dallas would prohibit discrimination by school districts.57 Two Houston reps have filed gay-friendly bills as well: Debra Danburg is proposing the repeal of the "offense" of homosexual conduct,58 and Senfronia Thompson has a bill to provide statutory protection against bias-motivated hate crimes.59

52. HB 169Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)

53. HB 350Arlene Wolgemuth (R-Burleson)

54. HB 382Warren Chisum(R-Pampa)

55. HB 383 Warren Chisum (R-Pampa)

56. HB 475 Glen Maxey (D-Austin)

57. HB 364 Harryette Ehrhardt (D-Dallas)

58. HB 337 Debra Danburg (D-Houson)

59. HB 148 Senfronia Thompson (D-Houston)

Environmental Agenda

Environmental illustrationConsidering that the Lege pushed through SB 1, the most comprehensive water law ever passed, during the last session, the consensus among legislators seems to be to let water issues slide under the bridge this year. A few senators, most notably Lake Jackson Republican Buster Brown, are continuing to tinker with the bill, but for the most part, water concerns remain secondary to issues dealing with solid ground. In short, the Lege must craft an alternate blueprint this session for the state's planned low-level nuclear waste disposal site, which was derailed last year by nagging environmental concerns and a massive public outcry from those on both sides of the border from the original site in Sierra Blanca. El Paso's Norma Chavez has filed a bill requiring the new site to be at least 60 miles from the Mexican border, which would likely push the site search north to Andrews County, where local officials are vying for a title to the waste.60 Alpine's Pete Gallego would allow the state to contract with a private company to dispose of the waste and operate the disposal site.61

Closer to home, two Austin reps are carrying environmental legislation that would affect tank farms and the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission, respectively. Dawnna Dukes has a bill to prohibit bulk fuel and hazardous waste storage within five miles of a school, business, or church,62 and Glen Maxey would require that at least one member of the governor-appointed TNRCC be someone who has shown "an ongoing commitment to conservation or environmental protection."63

60. HB 60Norma Chavez (D-El Paso)

61. HB 674 Pete Gallego (D-Alpine)

62. HB 473Dawnna Dukes (D-Austin)

63. HB 553Glen Maxey (D-Austin)

Controlled Substances

Controlled Substances illustrationDrugs, alcohol, and guns all fall, in descending order, under this category, and legislators on both sides of the aisle are attempting to fine-tune Texas' regulation of all three. Sen. Florence Shapiro has introduced bills that would authorize schools to conduct random drug tests with parental approval, require doctors to give detailed information to police about the drugs taken by overdose victims, and enhance penalties for drug dealers whose products lead to serious injury or death.64 Sen. Jane Nelson takes an even harsher stance, proposing to take away welfare assistance from anyone caught using drugs while receiving Texas Assistance to Needy Families benefits.65

Bills in both the House and Senate would reduce the standard for intoxication to .08% of blood alcohol content, a proposal favored by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has long pushed for tougher DWI standards (HB 210 and SB 114).66,67 Another alcohol-related bill, HB 189, would limit bars to serving patrons a maximum of two drinks per hour.68

The Senate has taken an arms'-length approach to gun control this session, but several proposals in the House would provide new restrictions, including mandatory trigger locks, increased penalties for deadly conduct involving firearms, and mandatory background checks for anyone applying for certification as a qualified handgun instructor.

64. SBs 41, 43, 44Florence Shapiro (R-Plano)

65. SB 51Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound)

66. HB 210Scott Hochberg (D-Houston)

67. SB 114Mario Gallegos (D-Houston)

68. HB 189John Longoria (D- San Antonio)

Mixed Nuts

There are several other issues that may heat up later in the session:

  • Tort Reform -- In addition to Terry Keel's bill limiting prisoner litigation, a few other tort reform measures have been proposed. HBs 44 and 348, filed by Republicans Jim Pitts and Kip Averitt, would prohibit patients from making claims against physicians who provide free health care services; HB 645 by Joe Nixon, R-Houston, would protect employers who maintained workers' comp insurance from paying additional damages when an employee is injured.
  • Utility Dereg -- This session's battle for utility deregulation began in earnest when Sen. David Sibley, D-Waco, filed a lengthy bill, SB 7, which would allow consumers to shop among competing utilities for the lowest rates; it would not, however, require city-owned utilities like Austin Energy or electric cooperatives to submit to deregulation without a city council vote. Sibley's bill, along with two other dereg bills filed by Reps. Chisum and Steve Wolens, R-Dallas, HBs 526 and 349, have the support of the governor as well as the state associations for municipal utilities and co-ops, which is two major allies more than dereg had last session, when a similar bill failed in the Legislature's waning hours.
  • Domestic Violence/Child Abuse -- Several laws would increase the penalty for failing to report suspected child abuse to authorities, including two that would establish such failures as Class B misdemeanors -- HB 270 by Tillery and SB 80 by Carona -- and one that would make a professional care worker who failed to report abuse liable for any subsequent injury or death (Wise's HB 463). Also, Elliott Naishtat's HB 155 would increase the penalty for domestic violence witnessed by a child, and HB 577, by Helen Giddings, D-Dallas, would increase the amount of time an abuser could be held in jail after posting bail.

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