On the Lege

Christian Sabotage?

Accusations of racism and homophobia reached a boiling point in the hallways of the Capitol last week when Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, argued the merits of proposed hate crimes legislation (HB 638, SB 275) with two of the bill's biggest Republican opponents, Rep. Wayne Christian and Sen. Drew Nixon. Christian and Nixon both represent Jasper, the East Texas town where James Byrd Jr. was tied to a truck and dragged to his death last summer. Ellis' bill -- which seeks to strengthen the penalty for crimes motivated by race, religion, or sexual orientation -- is named in memory of Byrd.

According to Capitol sources, Christian had threatened to release a statement declaring the Byrd family's opposition to the hate crimes legislation. Christian denies the claim, but aides to Rep. Senfronia Thompson, a Democratic sponsor of the bill in the House, confirmed that Christian told her: "I've got something that will kill your bill." When Ellis caught wind of this, he flew offdown the Capitol corridors in search of Christian,and cornered him outside a Senate Finance Committee meeting room. "I heard you're messin' with my bill," Ellis reportedly told Christian. Ellis added that he had telephoned Byrd's mother, who reiterated her support for the bill. Ellis wenton to tell Christian that the Byrd family had never heard of their Jasper representative and that no one named Christian had contacted the family since Byrd's death. At this point, Nixon, seeing his fellow East Texan looking uncomfortable under Ellis' hard gaze, ambled over to see what was going on, and the two Republicans tried to convince Ellis that they would support the hate crimes bill if only it didn't "cover the sinners" -- meaning gays and lesbians. The two said they opposed the sexual orientation aspect of the bill because of what the Judeo-Christian Bible says on the subject. By this time, Ellis was fuming. "You're so holy," Ellis said, glaring first at Christian, then at Nixon. "You're really holy, all right."

The bill goes before the House Committee on Judicial Affairs, chaired by Thompson, on March 11. A prayer rally in support of the legislation is scheduled for March 12 on the South Lawn of the Capitol. --A.S.

Wage Hike

Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, has drafted a proposal to raise the salaries of all state employees and public university staff by $200 a month beginning in 2000, with another $200 monthly raise to follow in 2001. The raises, which would exclude university faculty, would represent an increase of as much as 17% for the lowest-paid University of Texas staffers, who make about $14,000 a year. That's a dramatic upswing from the 3.9% across-the-board raise proposed in the Legislature's general appropriations bill, which University Staff Association President Peg Kramer describes as "barely enough to keep up with inflation."

Currently, Legislative Budget Board proposals provide only $26 million in additional funding for UT programs, a figure that falls far short of the $85 million that UT President Larry Faulknersays is needed to finance pay raises and beef up recruitment programs. Nonetheless, Faulkner says UT will find the money to pay for a 10% increase in graduate assistant wages, a 6% hike in staff pay, and a 5% raise for faculty. "I don't want to take the position that we're going to give out as raises what the Legislature provides," says Faulkner, who estimates the wage hikes would cost the university $56 million. To finance the raises, he says, UT "would have to stop replacing people who depart the university by holding replacements to 25% of departures."

If stalling faculty and staff replacements is not enough to make up the shortfall, Faulkner says, the university will consider appropriating funds from other UT programs to finance the raises. Although UT's largest cash cow, its football program, is probably safe from the budget ax, Faulkner says that no program will be exempt from consideration. "We have got to get raises for these people," Faulkner says. "We're vulnerable right now on losing our most talented staff and most talented faculty."

But staff association members remain skeptical about Faulkner's concern. Since a 1997 study revealed that UT staff are paid 17% below the Austin market average for comparable private-sector jobs, staffers have called repeatedly for a raise. Only recently, Kramer says, have UT administrators begun to respond. "The only reason Faulkner's [asking for a 6% increase] is because he knows we aren't going away," says Kramer. "If we were to stop today, I think the priorities would really change." --E.C.B.

Green on Guns

Envisioning a spate of lawsuits against gun manufacturers similar to those filed in New Orleans and New York City, 27-year-old Rep. Rick Green, R-Dripping Springs, has proposed HB 1561 to prohibit Texas from suing gun manufacturers for damages caused by firearm-related crimes. The bill marks a splashy legislative debut for the freshman lawmaker, an NRA member and attorney who has never held political office before. "In Texas, we place the blame for crime on the people responsible, and that's the criminals," he says. "If we blame gun manufacturers for the actions of the people who use the guns, the next thing we'll be doing is suing car manufacturers when people drive while intoxicated."

In filing lawsuits against gunmakers elsewhere, state officials have alleged that manufacturers have marketed their weapons disproportionately to inner-city areas, fanning the flames of gang warfare and preying on urban blight. But in Green's view, that's just good marketing strategy. "I think it's very valid for them to market in urban areas where people need protection," Green said. "They're not marketing to the criminals, they're marketing to people who need to protect themselves."

Green said that the NRA played no part in drafting the bill, but that its state affiliate, the Texas State Rifle Association, was "very supportive" after its leadership read the draft. (Calls to TSRA headquarters were not returned.) Green said that several other lawmakers, including Austin Rep. Terry Keel and Round Rock Rep. Mike Krusee, have expressed interest in signing on to the bill. --E.C.B.

In the Hoods

The neighbors are getting restless -- not just here in the People's Republic, but all throughout the Great State. Texas Neighborhoods Together, a super-coalition of local advocacy groups -- including the Austin NeighborhoodsCouncil -- has a lengthy platform that it advanced last week at its de rigueur legislators' reception. The package includes most anything having to do with land use, including the expansion of counties' authority to regulate "noxious uses" like fireworks stands, day labor sites, or junkyards. The TNT agenda also embraces the so-called "Triangle bill" that gives cities authority to zone commercial projects on state-owned land. Other TNT initiatives include expanding the Texas Transportation Commission, giving cities the power to regulate other cities' landfills within their extraterritorial jurisdictions (ETJs), legalizing photographic traffic control systems, and prohibiting the discharge of a firearm in any urban area.

The TNT's "priority package," though, focuses on needs not often felt in Austin. Well, one of the three items does -- a blanket commitment to oppose any bills that restrict the rights of municipalities to control zoning. But the other two are far more relevant to the Houston and Dallas metro areas, where most of the TNT member groups are located.

One priority item is preserving the right of mandatory-membership homeowners' associations to foreclose on owners who don't pay their assessments, a big issue right now in Harris County. Another is a bill to discourage what are known as SLAPP suits -- "strategic lawsuits against public participation" -- used to scare people and interest groups out of the civicarena. Though this is a nationwide phenomenon, Houston's annexation battle over Kingwood, which led to the city's suing the individual Kingwood municipal utility district board members, has made the issue a Legislative hot button.

By and large, Austinites could care less about the latter causes, but as with any statewide advocacy group, the Austin contingent of TNT bears a heavy burden in dealing with Granite Mountain. "We sort of have an understanding," says one ANC member, "that we'll support the rest of the state's issues -- even if we don't understand or agree with them -- if they get behind ours." --M.C.M.

Bills! Bills! Bills!

Among the many items that large insurance companies do not routinely pay for (birth control pills, breast implants, etc.) is treatment for infertility, an expensive series of elective procedures that can cost up to thousands of dollars a month. But Plano Republican Florence Shapiro's SB 572 would require insurance companies to cover the treatments as part of their regular package of services. ...

After facing widespread ridicule for their decision to divest their stock in Disney after deciding that its subsidiary, Miramax, produced "immoral" materials, State Board of Education members may soon find that their actions have come back to haunt them. SB 582, sponsored by Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis, would prohibit the board from considering "subjective evaluations of the social value of the investment" when making its financial decisions.--E.C.B.

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