On The Lege

Bushwacked

It took the brutal murder of a disabled black man in Jasper to convince House members to support a comprehensive hate crimes bill last month. It took four Republican senators, a presidential candidate, and 11 hours of back-room finagling to derail it in the Senate.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, holds a picture of James Byrd Jr. at a prayer vigil at the Capitol on Friday morning.

photograph by Jana Birchum

The bill's backers insist their efforts aren't over until the end of the session, May 31. But last week's events told a different story. After a day-long debate couldn't dislodge the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act from two different Senate committees on Thursday, frustrated Democrats brought action on the floor to a dead halt on Friday, as they struggled to work out a deal with Republicans determined to make sure the issue never saw a floor debate.

Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, warned his colleagues early on that Republicans were plotting to stall the bill, which would have increased penalties for bias-motivated crimes. Whitmire said 15 Republicans (Houston Sen. Jon Lindsay was the lone Republican holdout, according to a Capitol insider) had signed an agreement to oppose the bill before it was even heard in committee -- enough to prevent the bill from coming to a floor debate (for which a two-thirds vote is required), but perhaps not enough to keep it from passing if it had come to a vote.

Republicans said they could not vote for the legislation as long as it included the category of sexual orientation, an issue on which the bill's sponsor, Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, said there was no room for compromise. But it seemed the real issue of contention was whether this might embarrass the governor. Despite Gov. George W. Bush's convincing lead in the pre-pre-primary presidential campaign, he continues to handle even moderately controversial issues -- like the hate crimes bill, which passed the House with significant Republican support -- as if they were political dynamite. According to a source who witnessed the negotiations, the Senate Republican Caucus, led by Republican David Sibley of Waco, met directly with Gov. Bush and Lt. Gov. Rick Perry during the day to discuss the bill's language, and came back with a two-word response: "No deal."

While the Republicans, who control the Texas Senate by a slim single-vote margin, managed to wield their power effectively on this issue, they could end up regretting it in the next election. Democrats have already begun their drive to retake the Legislature's upper house.

Evidence that Democrats were already maneuvering to capitalize on their colleagues' lack of moral fortitude was evident during both the early and waning hours of negotiations, when key Senate Democrats used impassioned personal privilege speeches to decry their colleagues' partisan timidity. Whitmire, a vocal proponent of the Byrd bill, gave one of his finest speeches of the session, recalling his own wariness about being allied politically with gays and lesbians. "I can remember a time when I wouldn't even be screened by the Gay and Lesbian Caucus ... I said, 'Thanks but no thanks.' It's not unique to the Republican party to deal with the controversies and misunderstandings and prejudice against gays and lesbians," Whitmire said. "But, ladies and gentlemen, let's talk about who that category addresses. ... Surely each and every one of us have family members or personal acquaintances that happen to be homosexuals. All we're trying to say is, 'Leave them alone.'"

After senators acknowledged that they could not come to an agreement on the bill's language, a shell-shocked Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, (who sits on the Senate Criminal Justice Committee that originally defeated the bill) told legislators that James Byrd Jr. was "turning over in his grave. ... He cannot rest, and you should not rest," until the issue of hate crimes is resolved.

Bill supporters say that if anything good can come out of the defeat of this symbolically crucial legislation, it may be that Bush's Clinton-like waffling and prevarication on this issue could come back to haunt him in the presidential election race. When questioned about the bill, the governor repeatedly replied he "had not had a chance to sit down and analyze the bill" and that he believes "that all crimes are hate crimes." But Bush's silence spoke volumes. "George Bush weighed in so heavily on this bill," said Dianne Hardy-Garcia, director of the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. "He rejected every proposal [made during negotiations]. We now know where George Bush stands on hate crimes." --E.C.B.


Rest in Peace ...

The all-day battle over the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act had a number of legislative casualties. Here's a sampling of the bills that did not make it out of committee by the 10:30pm Friday deadline:

* HB 306, by Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, requiring notice be posted whenever the location of a polling precinct is changed.

* SB 1712, by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, establishing a central phone bank and clearinghouse for public access to state information.

* HB 3488, by Rep. Jim Dunnam, D-Moody, requiring that courts inform a defendant accused of a sexual crime that he will be required to register as a sex offender if he pleads "no contest" or "guilty."

* HB 2047, by Rep. Mike Wise, D-Weslaco, making it an offense to videotape another person without the person's consent for the purpose of sexual gratification.

  • HB 1763, by Rep. Domingo Garcia, D-Dallas, increasing the penalty for domestic violence when it results in the "death of an unborn child" or when the defendant has been previously convicted for domestic violence.
  • HB 2346, by Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, eliminating the statute of limitations on the crime of leaving the scene of a fatal accident.
  • HB 946, by Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, prohibiting employers from forcing workers to waive their right to workers'compensation and unemployment benefits.
  • SB 750, by Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, prohibiting insurers from denying property or casualty insurance coverage to victims of family violence.
  • HB 106, by Rep. Leo Alvarado Jr., D-San Antonio, prohibiting minors from going into bars unaccompanied by an adult.
  • HB 3315, by Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, creating a housing construction loan program for low-income individuals and families. --E.C.B


Just Plane Crazy

Once again, Houston Rep. Ron Wilson gets big headlines on a parliamentary move that has no chance of going anywhere. Five days before Robert Mueller Municipal Airport's scheduled closure, Wilson's love for publicity was on display with his amendment to SB 370 -- the must-pass Dept. of Public Safety sunset legislation -- that would require the city to sell Mueller to the state, which would run it for use by state agencies and (politically most important) private pilots. The latter have been working both the Lege and the FAA for months to keep Mueller open, since Mueller is much cheaper for them than Bergstrom will be.

Wilson's scheme passed the House on Tuesday by a 93-27 vote with apparently no warning to either the Travis County delegation (except for Austin Republican Terry Keel) or the city's lobbying team. If it's passed again on third reading, next stop is a House-Senate conference committee to be appointed by the weekend. But it's unlikely that Wilson's amendment could fly, says Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin -- who called Wilson "Dr. Mischief" -- because the state does not have the money to keep it open. Dukes predicted that the amendment will be stripped off the DPS bill and Mueller will be closed.

Other sources at the Capitol agree, including one lobbyist who said the big airlines are sure to oppose Wilson's move, particularly since all the big carriers are committed to Bergstrom. Says the source: The airlines will have "a shit fit" if Mueller stays open. --R.B.,M.C.M

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