Looking for Mr. Goodbill
Sifting Through the Good, the Bad and the Preposterous at the Lege
Yes, it's that time of biennium again, when a mighty host of part-time lawyers, doctors, chiropractors, insurance and real estate salesmen, horse trainers, and dentists descends ceremonially on Austin in two great hordes -- also known as the House and Senate. From mid-January to June, our chosen representatives debate the great issues facing our state: education, justice, equity, economic development, and whether or not Feb. 26-27 will be henceforth be celebrated as Denton County Days (House Resolution 29, sponsored by Mary Denny, R-Aubrey).
Although the 77th session of the Texas Legislature doesn't officially begin until Jan. 9, the senators and reps (or more precisely, their staffs) have been busily pre-filing hundreds of bills for consideration in the new year. This session's bills run the usual gamut, from Good to Bad to Indifferent to What the...? Most will die in committee and disappear without a trace -- for which we can all give thanks -- but a not-so-precious few will roll and stumble their way next spring to the desk of Gov. Rick (Yikes!) Perry for his signature. And this session is likely to be even more frantically compressed than usual, because much of the early attention of all parties will be devoted to redistricting. Who has time for lawmaking when you're trying to hold on to your chair?
In the interest of public information and public hygiene, we at the Chronicle have taken an early look at some of the bills in the various categories, hoping to highlight a few of the best and raise the alarums at some of the worst. Since new bills are accumulating daily, what follows is not intended to be complete or comprehensive -- just a few red flags and flashing blue lights for the Lege's New Year's Legislation.
Just don't say we didn't warn you.
The "hate crimes" bill succumbed to headline defeat last session -- the Repubs reportedly shot it down because it would protect gays, although the governor's public reason was that "all crimes are hate crimes." Sen. Rodney Ellis' SB 87 would create additional penalties for certain crimes if the victim was chosen because of the defendant's bias for reasons of "race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, or sexual orientation," and would provide funds for counties to investigate such crimes and confirm apparent prejudice.
Opponents of the bill insist that all similar crimes should be treated equally. But supporters point out that a hate crime is also an attempt to terrorize a whole community, and that laws and courts make distinctions about the severity of crimes every day. (That's why developers who destroy whole forests without the proper permits get fined, while they threw the book at the poor deranged schnook who tried to poison the Treaty Oak.) Much less defensible is the bill's tentative attempt to criminalize "hate speech" -- very hard to define, but easy to prosecute for the wrong reasons.
There will be plenty of grandstanding on this one, but in the absence of a local presidential campaign, some negotiated version might pass. One can only hope it will do what its supporters promise, and not become one more club to bludgeon activism.
Hold Your Apples
Session after session, schoolteachers are poked, prodded, tested, "incentivized," and ritualistically reminded that any pretensions they have to professionalism are subject to whimsical political veto. But even the pols are getting embarrassed by the condition of school employee health insurance, and the schools can't keep classes staffed because teachers are leaving in droves for real jobs with real benefits.
Dallas Democratic Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt's bread-and-butter HB 12 would require health insurance for all full-time school employees (with part-timers also eligible for some coverage) equal to that provided to state employees, with the state contributing the funding and the plan administered by the Teacher Retirement System. The bill as submitted has few bells and whistles, and is likely a working template for committee amendment, floor discussion, lobby arm-twisting, and budget hysterics (early power-talk is that it is just too expensive). But in a state (and a Republican administration) loudly and rhetorically devoted to "education," that teachers do not have adequate health insurance is a pure-dee Texas disgrace.
Who Let the Smogs Out?
One of the most compelling battles of the session should be what happens to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. The agency is under Sunset Advisory Commission review, and will no doubt survive in some form -- who else will issue permits to pollute? -- but there are many toxic issues to be addressed first.
Getting a jump on the TNRCC is San Antonio Democratic Rep. Ruth McClendon, who came away from a BFI-landfill fight in her district so battered (of course BFI got its TNRCC permit to expand, and of course McClendon's constituents got the shaft) that she has put together a tough package of bills aimed at reining in the agency and its industry sustainers. Some of her bills bit the dust last session; others are directly lifted from Sunset Commission staff recommendations that will likely not be part of the major TNRCC bill that comes to the floor. McClendon's bills would require that: the agency's public counsel be truly independent (HB 37); the agency factor cumulative risks into permitting decisions (HB 38); the executive director be removed as a party to contested case hearings, where he now speaks for industry (HB 39); permit standards for landfills be toughened (HB 44); TNRCC commissioners be required to avoid conflicts of interest (HB 257); and the TNRCC pollution-report hotline be available at all times (HB 332).
Every single one of these necessary reforms falls under the supposedly Lege-worshipped Category of Common Sense. Watch how few of them finally make it into law.
Execution Assembly Line
While Bush was on the hustings, the state received a national and international drubbing for setting execution records (40 this year) -- and more specifically, for incompetent capital prosecutions, nonexistent capital defense, and for executing juveniles and the mentally retarded and mentally ill. These undeniable facts will hardly generate an anti-death penalty groundswell at the Capitol, where pols remain convinced that opposition to execution is a campaign kiss of death. Indeed, one early rumor floating around the Capitol is a move to lower the age of execution eligibility to 10 years. (Not yet, at least, to the unborn.) Even so, some humanitarian "tinkering with the machinery of death" might make it to the floor.
Several bills calling for the addition of "life without parole" as an alternative punishment (McClendon, HB 30; Hinojosa, HB 365; Lucio, SB 85) will be met with howls from prosecutors, who have always fought giving juries such a weak-kneed option -- because they know it will make it harder to get death sentences. Both Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, have filed bills (HB 256 and HB 242) that would outlaw the execution of the mentally retarded. Gallego also filed HB 260, to allow the governor to commute death sentences to life without parole. Since that would mean a sitting guv could no longer hypocritically hide behind his "independent" Board of Pardons and Paroles (which he appoints) and their clemency recommendations, it has little chance of passage.
As for the board itself, which, in the hallowed tradition of hooded executioners, currently votes on death sentences by private fax: Rep. Glenn Lewis, D-Ft. Worth, proposes (HB 174) the radical step of requiring that board members actually meet when making decisions on clemency (i.e., life or death) matters. Seems only reasonable that if they're going to poison the poor wretches, the Board have the simple decency to face the public music.
Not bloody likely.
Rep. Suzanna Gratia Hupp is nominally the Republican rep from Lampasas, but might more accurately be described as the Designated Hitter for Smith & Wesson. Hupp's HB 334 is yet another concealed handgun promotion -- she wants to make any information about the identity of concealed-carry permit holders obtainable only by law enforcement personnel. Such a law would certainly prevent the public from knowing the number of felons currently licensed to carry concealed handguns, or the number of permitted weapons used in the commission of crimes (as embarrassingly revealed in an exhaustive investigative report on the Texas law by the Los Angeles Times last summer).
According to Hupp's staff, she isn't promoting weapon secrecy, she's protecting personal privacy and safety -- against simultaneously ingenious and stupid criminals. "The idea is," Hupp's aide Trey Blocker told the Chronicle, "that if I want to attack someone, I won't know whether or not they have a concealed weapon, and that would be a deterrent. As the law is written now, I could write DPS a letter and find out whether the person has a permit, then I would plan my attack accordingly." Presumably, this far-sighted perpetrator, now free to shoot his unarmed neighbor, would happily leave a paper trail pointing straight to his own door.
Hupp's bill died in committee last session, but at the NRA, gunpowder springs eternal.
Baseball, apple pie, and political sanctimony: Enter three bills aimed at mandatory boosting of the "morals" and "self-esteem" of public school students. Parker Republican Rep. Phil King's HB 86 offers school districts the chance to implement "character education programs"; in return, such schools could be dubbed "Character-Plus" schools -- which, says King aide Trey Trainor, would be the carrot to entice more schools into participating in the program. Curriculum would be decided by an in-district committee -- consisting of parents, educators, religious, and other community leaders -- and designed to develop positive character traits, e.g. "respect, honesty, integrity, responsibility, patience, mercy, courage, good citizenship, and patriotism." King's companion bill (HB 88) mandates daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. "There has been a decrease in character and morals which we believe has led to some of the violence we've seen in the schools," Trainor said, "and to the overall decline in morals in our society."
Not to be outdone, Rep. Buddy West, R-Odessa, has filed HB 127, which would require public school students to also recite the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. (Both HB 88 and HB 127 provide constitutionally required fig leaves, the exemptions for kids who would rather not participate in state-mandated patriotism.) "Kids today have such problems feeling good about themselves," said West staffer Julie Williams. "This is something that gives kids pride in their country and in themselves -- something reassuring to feel good about. ... The intent is not to brainwash America," added Williams, "to ostracize or to create a single belief system."
So why stop there? Why not have the little citizens-in-training recite "America the Beautiful," "The Star-Spangled Banner," "Texas, Our Texas" and every last provision of the entire Constitution (U.S. and Texas)? With any luck, they can stand with their tiny hands over their tiny hearts from morning 'til night. That'll teach the little hoodlums to love their country.
San Antonio Democrat John Longoria's perennial anti-abortion bill is back, making quick legislative work of a question that has troubled theologians and philosophers for centuries. Want to know when life begins? Just ask Longoria.
Ladies, be careful with your morning-after hygiene, because according to HB 213, cells become full-fledged human beings -- "entitled to the rights, protections, and privileges accorded to any other person in this state" -- at "fertilization." Longoria's rhetorical flourish probably won't fly as is, but definitely look for numerous new attempts to restrict abortion rights for juveniles, to strengthen "parental notification" enforcement, and to raise the age (currently 14) at which young women seeking birth-control information are legally defined as victims of "sexual abuse."
Here's one good example. On the face of it, HB 17 of Republican Rep. Frank Corte (also of San Antonio) seeks merely to administer abortion procedures and to design "informational materials" to be given to women seeking abortions -- already standard procedure at most clinics. However, with its terrorizing emphasis on potential "risks of infection, hemorrhage, and brain cancer," and mandated color pictures of fetal development, the bill's "information" provisions are obviously intended to do what a mob of fundamentalist protestors outside a clinic might not achieve because of trespassing laws: frighten women away. Moreover, the bill effectively creates a 24-hour waiting period (especially hard on women who must travel long distances to clinics), and even mandates that clinics (like topless bars and massage parlors) be located away from churches and schools. At the Lege, this is what is known as respect for women.
Oddly enough, right-wing darling Suzanna Hupp (see "Gun Huppy") has filed a joint resolution (HJR 15) proposing a Texas constitutional amendment creating an explicit right of individual, personal privacy. No doubt Hupp wants to protect owners of holsters and gun safes from prying eyes. Has it ever occurred to any of these political busybodies to keep their puritanical noses out of women's wombs? (That's a rhetorical question.)
For the second time, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has filed a bill (HB 54) seeking to create a media "shield law," to protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources and privileged information. Requiring a reporter (generally in court) to reveal sources, according to the bill, inhibits the ability of the media to gather and disseminate news in a "free and unfettered environment." In 1999, Cuellar didn't push the bill because, he told the Chronicle, while electronic media outlets supported the move, the state's major daily newspapers did not. "They felt there were already enough protections provided by the First Amendment and case law," Cuellar said. However, after an editorial in The Dallas Morning News last year advocated revisiting the idea, Cuellar decided to try again. "In a free society, we need the free flow of information, and confidential sources are so important to do the job," he told us.
Since Cuellar has just been appointed secretary of state and will no longer be carrying his own legislation, he is looking for other lawmakers to adopt this bill. "Some people have called and expressed interest," he said. "It seems like a good environment [for passage]."
Considering the potential advantages this Christmas of having a "Mini-Me"? Think human cloning could take multitasking to the next level? Not if Flower Mound's finest, Sen. Jane Nelson, has anything to say about it. In addition to her other high tech hysteria bills -- SB 94 and SB 95 address the oh-so-imminent statewide threats of bio- and chemical terrorism -- Nelson is pushing a ban on human cloning (SB 102), which, in light of the reported canine-cloning breakthroughs in College Station, has to make more than one Aggie scientist nervous.
Of course, if you have the dough and the technology actually to clone yourself, Nelson's maximum fine of $10,000 may not be much of a deterrent. And if you've already begun to clone that Special Someone, rest easy: the bill will not take effect until Sept. 1, 2001. So get those test tubes humming!