Lege Notes

Odds and ends (mostly odds) from the 79th

El Paso Democratic Sen. Eliot Shapleigh's legislative bid to create a state commission to study capital punishment has been left pending in committee. SB 544 would create the Texas Capital Punishment Commission to study the state's death system, with particular focus on the representation of indigent defendants and the way capital cases are investigated and prosecuted. Predictably, both the Harris Co. and Dallas Co. district attorney's offices signed up to oppose the measure. Although a host of witnesses signed up in support, committee Chair Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he intended to leave the bill pending in order to give Shapleigh a "good chance to round up some votes, because I think you're a little bit short." – Jordan Smith

On March 29, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee voted on Laredo Democratic Sen. Judith Zaffirini's SB 37, which would give victims of sexual assault the right to have a forensic rape kit exam performed if the alleged sexual assault is reported to police within 96 hours of the crime. "Basically, now, a victim of sexual assault does not have the right to a forensic medical exam," Zaffirini told the committee. "It's totally the discretion of law enforcement." Under the bill, police could deny the exam only if the alleged victim has made false claims of sexual assault to any law enforcement agency, or if there is "no other evidence" to corroborate the current assault claim. During the hearing, Zaffirini accepted an amendment from Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, to give Child Protective Services the power to order a forensic rape examination. Supporters of the bill included the state chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Texas Medical Association, the Sheriff's Association of Texas, and the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. – J.S.

On a vote of 27-4, the Texas Senate on April 4 passed SB 87, Houston Democratic Sen. Rodney Ellis' bill that would streamline the process for wrongfully convicted inmates seeking monetary compensation from the state. Ellis' bill removes the requirement that victims of wrongful conviction secure a letter from the convicting district attorney's office, certifying actual innocence. Texas is the only state that has that requirement. Indeed, although DNA evidence exonerated Josiah Sutton in 2003, clearing him from responsibility for a 1998 rape for which he was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Harris Co. District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has refused to certify his innocence, leaving Sutton unable to seek monetary redress from the state. The Legislature in 2001 passed the law allowing the wrongfully convicted to seek compensation, up to $25,000 for every year they were wrongfully imprisoned. The certification requirement was inserted into that law in 2003. "I am very pleased the Senate … stood up to eliminate bureaucratic red tape for those the state has wronged," Ellis said. "The DA letter provision … was an unnecessary burden that threatened to close the door on the wrongfully imprisoned. It was wrong, and now it's gone." – J.S.

It's voucher time again at the Capitol, as the House Committee on Public Education heard testimony on three bills (HBs 12, 1236, and 3042) that would establish private school voucher programs of various scope and grandeur for Texas schoolchildren. The most limited is HB 1236, which would establish a pilot program for which only 0.5% of, or 19,000, low-income students would be eligible; the most extreme is HB 3042, which would give every Texas child $5,500 a year to spend on private school tuition, regardless of their income or whether they're already attending private schools. More than 150 people crammed the hearing room and testified late into the night that vouchers, which provide some students a subsidized ticket out of public schools, represent either the future or the demise of Texas education. Supporters say enabling parents to exercise school choice will improve public education via the magic of the free market and the edifying spirit of competition; opponents say it will skim the best students and millions of dollars from public schools, which could ultimately cause their demise. – Rachel Proctor May

Austin lawyer Buck Wood has filed a second lawsuit against the Texas Association of Business – this time leveling a claim of conspiracy between the business group and Texans for a Republican Majority, a political action committee known as TRMPAC. A separate civil case against TRMPAC is awaiting a state district judge's ruling following a weeklong trial last month. The trial included testimony that suggested that the two groups conspired in their 2002 election effort that involved the use of corporate funds. State law forbids corporate and union money in political campaigns, yet TAB attorney Andy Taylor has consistently defended TAB's use in this instance because, though corporate money helped bankroll thousands of political mailers, the mailers were educational in nature and did not advocate voting for or against certain candidates. Wood's most recent lawsuit specifically claims that TAB's coordinated effort with TRMPAC amounted to an illegal campaign contribution. In a related development, the House Elections Committee is expected to take up proposed legislation next week that would strengthen the state's ban on corporate and union money in campaigns, although a public hearing date has not yet been scheduled. – Amy Smith

Between bills concerned with making April Jazz Appreciation Month and specifying purple sage as the state shrub, the House Committee on Culture, Recreation, and Tourism considered the carnal collusion of Texas' redneck ethos and technological proficiency: live Internet hunting. Rep. Todd Smith introduced HB 391, which would ban services where participants can fire a rifle with the click of a mouse. Describing it as "immediately and intuitively offensive," Smith united the Texas State Rifle Association and the Texas Humane Legislation Network in support of his bill, the latter's witness calling Internet hunting "a sophisticated video game that kills live animals." San Antonian John Lockwood, owner of www.live-shot.com, disagreed. (His domain and Hill Country ranch are seemingly the sole entities affected by the bill.) Lockwood's argument that he helps the handicapped to hunt was shot down by a Texas Wildlife Association witness who told of bringing the disabled, specially armed and equipped, on hunting expeditions. With only one other witness testifying against HB 391, a hunter whose affiliations included the Ted Nugent United Sportsmen of America, the bill seemed certain to pass. In closing, committee member Jim Dunnam advocated harsher penalties than the initial Class C misdemeanor specified in the bill. – Wells Dunbar

Dirty old men: Charles Bukowski, Benny Hill … Rep. Gene Seaman? When not voting for vengeful legislation like SB 7, the 78th session's ban on gay marriage, the Corpus Christi Republican performs penile impersonations more odorous than the beach at low tide. In an amendment to 2003's HB 541, a ribald number relating to contingent payment clauses, the senior shimmied and bandied about in an innuendo-filled speech with no small amount of creepiness. To highlight the hypocrisy of a Viagra-addled Republican in staunch "defense of marriage," advocacy group Practice What You Preach has crafted a 60-second spot capturing Seaman's performance. The clip, available at www.practicewhatyoupreach.org, shows Seaman with narration from some unseen wisecrackers. The most damning words spew from Seaman himself, however: "This is my Viagra amendment, ladies. … Now, amenders, let me firm up my position. I probably will not get enough ladies to vote for me on this. … If I go limp before the microphone, Mr. Speaker, withdraw the amendment." PWYP is also soliciting donations to run the video ad nauseam in Seaman's district. – W.D.

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Texas Legislature, Texas Association of Business, Texans for a Republican Majority, TRMPAC, TAB, Buck Wood, House Elections Committee, Andy Taylor, Rodney Ellis, Josiah Sutton, SB 87, wrongful conviction, Chuck Rosenthal, Gene Seaman, SB 7, HB 541, Practice What You Preach, www.PracticeWhatYouPreach.org, SB 544, capital punishment

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