The Austin Chronicle

On The Lege


May 28, 1999, News

Rep. Ron Wilson's bid to keep Robert Mueller airport open for general aviation aircraft appeared to crash and burn on Tuesday morning when Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos used a parliamentary maneuver that could have delayed dozens of pending bills. Shortly after the Senate convened, Barrientos asked that Monday's Senate journal be read aloud. But the journal had not even been printed due to a computer problem. Within minutes, other senators realized that if Barrientos persisted, he could scuttle much of the business scheduled for Tuesday's session. Lt. Gov. Rick Perry quickly asked for a short recess and the senators spent the next hour huddled in a committee room discussing the Mueller question behind closed doors.

After emerging from the committee room, Barrientos sounded confident that he will be able to prevent Wilson's measure from becoming law. Wilson's amendment, attached to a must-pass bill renewing the Department of Public Safety, has sent Austin's lobbyists and its delegation into a frenzy of activity in an effort to get the amendment stripped off the bill. If all else fails, Barrientos said, he will filibuster on the bill. Some 300 bills are awaiting passage by the Senate and they must be passed no later than midnight Wednesday. If they don't pass by then, they are dead, and that deadline gives Barrientos a lot of clout. Stay tuned. --R.B.

Tell It to the Judge

Multiple points of order had briefly hobbled the legislation and tempers were starting to flare, but House members successfully pushed through Texas' first parental notification bill well before sundown on Saturday. Senate Bill 30, authored by Plano Republican Florence Shapiro in the Senate and sponsored by Temple Republican Dianne White Delisi in the House, will require any doctor who is asked to perform an abortion by a minor to notify her parents of the procedure by mail; the bill also contains a provision for "judicial bypass," which would allow a girl to appear before a state district courtjudge to demonstrate that she is mature enough to make the decision on her own.

Several amendments that would have expanded the bypass to include non-parental relatives and clergy were killed by wide margins on Friday. House opponents of the legislation blamed presidential politics for the bill's apparent invincibility. After Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr., D-Houston, called a point of order that sidelined the legislation on Wednesday, it was resurrected in less than four hours, prompting Dutton to cry foul on what he called a failure of "fairness" by the Legislature. "We have a governor that's running for president. ... Maybe that's why we have to vote on a parental notification bill," Dutton said. He called the bill's quick trip through two separate committees and back onto the House floor after its brief defeat an example of "special treatment" that he said "somehow bastardizes" the legislative process. For the past two sessions, points of order -- procedural objections to a bill -- have been successfully raised to keep similar notification bills from coming to a vote.

Debate on the bill, which passed by a surprisingly large 111-30 margin, focused less on the issue of whether parents ought to be involved in a minor's decision to have an abortion than on who could be informed if parental notification were impractical -- for example, in cases of parental abuse or when a minor is living on her own. Rep. Irma Rangel, D-Kingsville, voted against the bill, saying that forcing girls whose family lives are less than ideal to tell their parents about a decision to have an abortion could lead to an increase in suicides and illegal abortions. "What do we intend to accomplish by notifying the parents?" Rangel said. "We don't know these girls. We don't know their environments. We don't know their parents. ... How dare we go and try to intrude in the lives of a family that we know nothing about?"

Besides requiring parental notification, the bill contains a provision -- offered as an amendment by Rep. Talmadge Heflin, R-Houston -- defining a fetus as "an individual human organism from fertilization until birth" and abortion as termination of a pregnancy "with the intention that the termination ... will with reasonable likelihood cause the death of the fetus."

Other anti-abortion bills offered this session, including one by Rep. John Longoria, D-San Antonio, granting full human rights and citizenship to the fetus, have employed similar language. Pro-choice legislators, including Rep. Debra Danburg, D-Houston, have protested that the legal adoption of this definition is a back-door entry to eventual prohibition of abortion. But the notification bill, with the "individual human organism" amendment attached, now heads for the desk of Gov. George W. Bush, who has said that he supports it. --E.C.B.

Lobby Team Lampooned

The Austin bashingisn't over. This week, lobbyists at the Capitol are chuckling over a bill that allegedly will be introduced next session. The bill, which doesn't have an author, applies only to municipalities that have expended "approximately $1.4 million to hire registered lobbyists." The bill goes on to say that "No mayor or council member" of a municipality affected by the bill "may enter the Capitol without an entourage of highly paid registered lobbyists who reflect the diversity of Texas in its composition, if not its compensation. The entourage will be known as The 1.4 Million Man March." Finally, the bill requires that "No city may waste money trying to influence legislation without obtaining a waste money permit from the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, which shall provide for such permits by General Rule subject to a limitation of not more than $1.4 million wasted in five months." --R.B.

Strained Relations

State Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio apparently doesn't enjoy the same immunity from journalists' criticism that Gov. GeorgeBush receives (see "Media Clips," p.38). After crossing the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) once, he suddenly found himself the target of a scathing attack from that group's Austin chapter.

Wentworth had been anointed by the Texas Daily Newspaper Association and Texas Press Association as the "point man" on freedom of information and open government/ open records issues at the beginning of the session, and he spoke at an SPJ meeting in Austin a couple of months back to a very receptive audience (see "Media Clips," April 2, 1999). But the May issue of NewsHound, the Austin chapter's newsletter, carried a blistering editorial blasting Wentworth for pushing a bill which would bar public release of autopsy photos and X-rays, which are currently available to the public. According to the editorial, Wentworth was concerned that such photos could end up on the Internet or "other places" (which the SPJ assumed might mean news outlets) and thus distress the families of the deceased. The editorial began: "Some friend of open government state Sen. Jeff Wentworth turns out to be."

The editorial then claimed that in fact, no one had complained about their late loved ones' pictures going online, nor had any such photos appeared in a newspaper or on TV, and it concluded: "... shame on Wentworth, our so-called friend who delivers us a bill predicated on a false premise. Our friend's own defense of the measure suggests a far stronger interest in muzzling the media than he probably wanted to admit. With friends like that ..." --L.N.

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