On the Lege

Byrd Bill Stalls ... Again

After five days of arm-twisting and late-night bargaining sessions, the delayed for a third time a vote to untie the hate crimes legislation that has been pending there since late last week. The earliest the committee can meet under Senate rules is Thursday afternoon, and senators' final deadline to consider bills in committee is Friday. The legislation, known as the , is sponsored in the Senate by Houston Democrat , and was carried by another Houston Democrat, Senfonia Thompson, in the House, where it passed more than a week ago. This latest committee hearing,delayed several days for Ellis to collect the votes for its passage in the Republican-dominated committee, teetered toward the surreal on several occasions, as senators dashed in and out of the hearing room to confer with one another; at one point, with the committee's six other members tied up in hearings elsewhere or deep in discussion in an adjoining room, committee chair , D-Victoria, was left sitting, somewhat befuddled, alone on the committee dais.

Ellis, well-versed in the art of persuasion, brought out the heavy artillery -- including the weeping daughter of James Byrd Jr., the Jasper murder victim for whom the legislation was named -- in his efforts to sway the committee's wavering Republicans. Other Ellis allies who spoke at last week's hearing included Houston mayor , Houston City Council Member, and the police chief of Lubbock, the home town of GOP committee member Robert Duncan. Byrd's daughter, , had several senators wiping their eyes as she told of the agony caused by her father's murder almost a year ago. Committee member , D-Houston, told Mullins during her testimony that even if the bill made it out of committee, it was clearly "in trouble." He told Mullins to blame politics -- presidential and otherwise -- if the bill failed to pass, and cautioned her not to think that the Legislature wasn't concerned about crimes of bias and prejudice. "A vast majority of Texans have always stood united against hate, for all people," Whitmire said. The problem, he said, was a predictable controversy over the inclusion of "sexual preference" -- changed in the House from the more common "sexual orientation" -- in the list of motivations for bias-related crime.

Ellis acknowledged that that wording had hobbled the bill since its Senate introduction. But, he pointed out, an overwhelming majority of House members -- 83, including Republican anti-gay crusader Warren Chisum -- had voted for the bill. "I am just so glad that if the issue is sexual orientation, that people are ashamed to say it in public," Ellis said. By late Wednesday evening, senators were still in negotiations over the inclusion of sexual preference in the bill. Ellis insists he will not allow its removal, as some senators have suggested. But the issue, his aides acknowledge, is not one which lends itself to compromise. -- E.C.B.

Cleaning Up Its Act

Rep. wants to clean up or shut up. That might sound rude, but the Austin Democrat believes it's time for the world's largest trash company to deal with the toxic waste site at its Giles Road landfill. Toward that end, Dukes' bill, HB 3716,will require the to force WMI to "take remedial action" to prevent the toxic waste at its landfill from migrating. WMI is grappling with problems posed by 21,000 barrels of industrial hazardous waste that were buried at the landfill in the 1970s, several years before WMI bought it. A year ago, four Austin enviro groups asked city and federal officials to investigate the site. In February, WMI was prohibited from bidding on a city trash disposal contract after a city-hired consulting firm determined the hazardous waste "poses a substantial environmental risk and potential future liability to the owners and users of the site."

While Dukes' bill was in committee, WMI officials testified in favor of the measure. But now her bill is stuck in the Calendars Committee, waiting to be scheduled. Dukes doubts the bill will get out of Calendars, so she's hoping to attach the measure to another bill. On Tuesday, Dukes said she has been pleased with WMI's handling of the toxic waste site, but added that she filed the bill to "make sure they continued to make progress." , a district manager for WMI, says the company wants to please surrounding neighborhood leaders, who have been critical of the company's plans to clean up the toxic waste. Green said the company will "move forward with the investigation" of the toxic waste site. And if Duke's bill doesn't pass this session and WMI doesn't satisfy the neighborhoods? "I think they will do the right thing," said Dukes. "But if they don't, we are going to get real tough." WMI and neighborhood representatives will meet from noon-2pm Saturday, May 15, at Bluebonnet Trail Elementary School, 11316 Farmhaven Rd., to discuss the remediation plan. -- R.B.

Chalk One Up for the City

Austin may not have many friends at the Texas Capitol, but on Tuesday it had a friend for a day in the House of Representatives. The House passed a bill that would clear the way for the city to buy a piece of state-owned property for the site of the new . City and state officials should begin negotiating a sale price once the Senate passes a similar bill, which Sen. says is a certainty. The city's acquisition of the block, bounded by Guadalupe, San Antonio, W. Third and W. Fourth streets, is part of a whopping redevelopment plan for downtown's west end. Once all the pieces are in place, the new $60 million museum would sit just north of a three-block office project, a new City Hall, and an upscale residential building. While recent appraisal reports showed downtown's property values inching skyward, , the city's Public Works point man for the downtown project, says he hopes the state will stick with a reasonable price for the AMOA site. AMOA, which is still raising funding with the help of First Lady , expects to begin turning dirt on the project next year, with an opening set for 2002. As for the CSC/city/residential projects, we can expect a wrecking ball to begin razing the existing buildings within a couple of months. -- A.S.

Long Live the Consumer

Last week, it looked like a bill designed to overhaul the was going to render the agency suitable for burial. But some legislative maneuvering in the Texas House transformed the legislation into something that will likely help protect consumers. As reported last week, HB 3516, written by Rep. , R-Coppell, included a casket-load of bad provisions. But when the bill, written by a lobbyist hired by , the world's largest funeral home company, got to the House floor, Rep. , a Dallas Democrat (we wrongly reported last week that he is a Republican) sponsored several amendments giving the agency more teeth. Tillery's most important change restores the agency's ability to issue surprise subpoenas against funeral homes. , the state director of Public Citizen of Texas, a consumer group, said that Tillery deserves a lot of credit "for understanding and changing the parts of the bill that would hurt consumers." The bill is now on its way to the Senate. -- R.B.

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