In Search of a New Agenda
What to look for in the 2007 Texas Legislature
You know it's been a rough four years under Craddick when you see the senior-most member of Travis Co.'s liberal wing crafting legislation with the right-most wing of East Texas to attempt to provide some tax relief for elderly homeowners. Austin Democrat Elliott Naishtat sponsored a similar bill last year, which nearly made it into the new tax-swap package that lawmakers passed in a special session. But it fell victim to a political maneuver in the Senate Finance Committee. Naishtat might have better success this year because an East Texas conservative, Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, has signed on to help bring senior homeowners into the tax-cut equation. "What I'm trying to do more of these days is work with Republicans," said Naishtat, a prolific bill-filer who has seen many of his bills killed or vetoed since the GOP came into power in 2003. "In light of the makeup of the Legislature and the leadership, [bipartisan sponsorship] greatly enhances the chances of getting legislation passed."
The born-again cooperative spirit of the House doesn't apply in all areas, however. Berman and Naishtat are worlds apart on the issue of immigration rights, for instance. Berman and other GOP legislators have filed several bills targeting undocumented workers and their children. Most of the proposed legislation is not only far-reaching but unusually cruel, targeting U.S.-born babies that is, U.S. citizens under the U.S. Constitution born of illegal residents, prohibiting driver's licenses for undocumented workers, and charging an 8% fee on money transmissions headed south of the border. It's uncertain how far the bills will get in these somewhat gentler, but still polarized, times.
The Legislature's freshman class which includes two Austin Dems, Donna Howard (who took office last year) and Valinda Bolton says it has already started building relationships with several incoming Republicans. The bond formed during orientation developed rather naturally, they say, because they all rode into office on pro-public-education platforms and the bipartisan endorsement of the Texas Parent PAC. The grassroots group, formed in 2005 to counter the swell of enthusiasm in the Legislature for private-school vouchers, fought back by recruiting and supporting a bipartisan mix of public-ed-friendly candidates. Twelve of them won House seats; a handful even toppled incumbents aligned with Craddick and the voucher crowd. "They're a very talented and well-rounded group of representatives," said Dinah Miller, a PAC board member from Dallas. Even though all but one of the group's Republican candidates appeared on Craddick's pledge list during the speaker's race, Miller says she's confident of where they stand on education. "I trust that they will be voting no on vouchers," she said.
With the long-running school finance crisis finally behind the Legislature at least until next time sophomore Rep. Mark Strama says lawmakers have the rare luxury of setting their own agenda. "There's no major crisis to be solved, so I think we'll see more of a bottom-up-driven agenda rather than one driven from the top down or by external circumstances," he said.
In other words, the hot topics of the day air quality, water resources, property appraisals, education, health care, local taxes, toll roads, gambling, and deciding what to do with a so-called $14 billion-plus budget surplus are only as hot as the new Legislature chooses to make them. Here's a look at the current lineup of would-be hotties. Amy Smith
In a marathon opening day, House Speaker Tom Craddick bullied his way to another term Tuesday and then promised a more responsive and inclusive style of leadership in the new legislative session. "I am humbled by your vote of confidence," he said, after a series of floor maneuvers by his lieutenants left most members with no other choice. Had the reps been able to cast secret ballots in the speaker's race, it was likely that Rep. Jim Pitts, a Waxahachie Republican and onetime member of Craddick's inner circle, would be the new speaker of the 80th Legislature. But several Republicans who had privately defected from the Craddick side were not willing to put their necks on the line in a public vote, so Pitts withdrew his challenge, threw his support to Craddick, and told the House, "It's time to heal." And heel they did. Craddick prevailed on a vote of 121-27. Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez was the only Central Texas delegate to vote against him.
Cap'n Craddick Foils Mutiny
House members from both parties have long complained, publicly and privately, that Craddick's management style of fear and intimidation makes it difficult for them to vote in the best interests of their districts. Craddick said Tuesday that things would be different this time. "I want to be responsive to your personal needs," he said. A.S.
Health and Human Services: Small favors
Lawmakers will revisit unfinished business, weigh in on new ways to serve the indigent and uninsured, and consider wrapping a protective arm around residents of nursing homes. Much of the old business on the to-do list stems from the mess left by the 2003 Legislature's budget-slashing bender, as well as that session's $899 million privatization experiment (since scrapped) and its botched rewrite of eligibility requirements that left thousands of Texas families scrambling for health care at the local level. Lawmakers took some corrective measures in the 2005 session, but Band-Aids can only go so far in a state that has the highest percentage of uninsured in the nation.
With a big "surplus" in play, the Legislature faces enormous pressure to boost dollars for children's health and Medicaid programs and fetch matching federal dollars in the process. A raft of health care and human services bills have already been filed and will continue to stack up. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, was one of the early birds in filing legislation to ease eligibility requirements for state benefits, seeking to raise household income requirements with House Bill 109. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, proposes creating consumer-friendly family councils (Senate Bill 131) that would serve in advocacy roles for residents of extended-care facilities throughout Texas. In SB 23, Senate Health and Human Services Chair Jane Nelson, R-Lewisville, seeks to generate new ideas toward creating affordable insurance plans for individuals and small business owners. And finally, Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez has filed HB 454, which would beef up the state's participation in the national school-lunch program. A.S.
Won't Vouch for It: Education
Education has been center stage so long at the Capitol that it seems like the fat lady has sung two arias, a cantata, and taken three curtain calls. They may have to use a hook to get her off the stage. Yet when it comes to general mayhem and high drama, lawmakers can find plenty to file in the arena of education, whether it's a bill on cheerleader performances or a solution to equitable school finance.
Dozens of education bills already have been filed this session. Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio, was early out of the chute, filing his voucher legislation (HB 18), like clockwork, for consideration. (The House has been trending away, not toward, voucher support.) Other bills tackle bullying, early-childhood education, vouchers for autism, and the top-10% rule for admission to the state's public universities.
Early press has come from Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro's proposal (not yet filed) to replace the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills with end-of-course exams. Other suggestions in the Senate's interim report include stricter standards for alternative schools for students with disciplinary problems and, for charter schools, including the ability to revoke charters of nonperforming schools. The Senate also supports tougher standards on math and science instruction.
The House Public Education Committee will see a change in leadership this session. Moderate Diane Patrick defeated Chair Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, a longtime voucher advocate, in a bitter showdown during the Republican primary. Craddick has yet to name a new chair to the committee. Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, a key member of the committee, says he'd like to revisit the state's funding formulas for education, including the additional funding for areas such as transportation, special education, and bilingual education. His own particular interest is the way the state is using student data. Eissler would prefer to see an accountability system that makes more sense and is more easily understood by parents, teachers, and students. Teachers and administrators need to know and understand the 10 years' worth of data the agency has gathered, he said.
And to add more to the mix, the Governor's Business Council, fronted by President George W. Bush favorite Sandy Kress, has made its own list of suggestions. Those include more alignment between high school and college, better teacher preparation programs, more incentive pay, additional principal training, and the ability to remove nonperforming teachers from the classroom sooner. Kimberly Reeves
Meet the Fetus: Reproductive rights & health care
As usual, there's no shortage of proposed legislation designed to limit women's reproductive choices and to reach the hand of government into the underwear of all women. Veteran Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, beat his far-right brethren to the prefiled punch with HB 175, a "trigger law" that would outlaw all abortion procedures in Texas should the U.S. Supreme Court ever vote to overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. Chisum's bill would also define the point at which life begins as fertilization.
Another member of the life-begins-at-conception caucus, Rep. Frank "the Fetus" Corte, R-San Antonio, will continue his crusade to narrow women's reproductive freedoms, filing two bills that broaden the scope of "informed consent" (an anti-choice buzz phrase), ostensibly tied to the 24-hour waiting period before permitting an abortion, but also an occasion to proselytize the fertilization-equals-life gospel. His HB 23 would mandate large signs at the cash register in any drug store where emergency contraceptives are sold, explaining that emergency contraception could prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg: "If you believe that life begins at fertilization," the sign would read in part, "then you need to know that emergency contraception may ... prevent the egg and sperm from uniting or prevent the implantation of your already fertilized egg in your womb."
Corte's HB 21 would expand on his 2003 legislative success that created the Women's Right to Know pamphlet, which explains, at length, the stages of fetal development and the alleged risks associated with abortion. Currently, the law says doctors must make the WRTK pamphlet available to women who ask for it; HB 21 would require doctors to give the pamphlet to all women seeking abortion, either by hand delivery or certified mail, at least 24 hours before any scheduled abortion. But revisiting the WRTK legislation could be risky for its sponsors, because it would provide opponents an opening to challenge the "educational" material, which they say is misleading such as a passage that links abortion to an increased risk of breast cancer, which has not been scientifically demonstrated.
On the other hand, there are also several bills that actually seek to broaden and improve women's access to reproductive health care. Three bills would publicize the newly approved vaccine against human papilloma virus, or HPV, a common cause of several strains of cervical cancer. Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, and Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, have filed companion legislation (HB 215 and SB 110) that would add HPV for sixth-grade girls to the state's list of required immunizations. Similarly, HB 146, authored by Joseph Deshotel, D-Beaumont, would require the state to educate the public about the HPV vaccine and to make it available for immunization.
Also seeking to expand reproductive health care, HB 268 by Rep. Rafael Anchía, D-Dallas, would stipulate as a "minimum requirement" that most health insurance plans include coverage for prescription "contraceptive drugs and devices." Jordan Smith
Greens to Politicians: Stop the runaway coal train
As state lawmakers moseyed into Austin last Thursday, the Alliance for a Clean Texas a coalition of 26 environmental, health, religious, and sporting groups laid out its agenda for the upcoming legislative session at a Capitol press conference. While alliance members aired urgent demands for improved state-park funding and water-conservation efforts, along with calls for producer take-back electronics recycling and beefed-up polluter busts, the group's directives to lawmakers focused on the 17 controversial coal power plants proposed statewide. Utilities, led by former monopoly TXU (with 11 applications), show no signs of hesitation in their multibillion-dollar build-out of technologically dated pulverized coal plants, expected to spew forth tons of new climate-changing carbon dioxide, smog, ozone, and toxic mercury pollution. Greens argue that the plants won't come online in time to meet predicted 2008 energy shortfalls, won't improve outrageous electricity prices, and will leave Texans in deep shit when anticipated federal carbon-limiting legislation is enacted, as the plants will double our global-warming emissions.
ACT has called for a moratorium on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's plant-permitting process fast-tracked last fall by a Gov. Perry-issued executive order until the cumulative impact of the plants' emissions, not to mention cleaner alternatives, can be examined by state leaders. ACT argues that Texas can meet its growing power needs more economically by boosting energy efficiency and asked the Lege to require that utilities offset 50% of new energy demand with efficiency programs (up from 10%), mandate a 25% cut in energy use over five years at government offices and schools, and allow the State Energy Conservation Office to tighten building codes, adopt SECO-recommended efficiency standards for appliances, and create tax breaks for the purchase of Energy Star models appliances, building materials, lighting, and heating and cooling products, among others, which have met EPA energy efficiency guidelines (see www.energystar.gov). The alliance also called for a statewide solar-installation rebate program (like Austin Energy's) and for the removal of a wayward Public Utility Commission measure Subsection M, said to have been snuck into 2006 rule-making by industry that experts fear will destroy the state's successful renewable-energy goal program.
As politicians find their seats for the 80th session, it seems that some have taken notice of the widespread public discomfort over the coal rush. A Nov. 20 letter from 25 state reps (download a PDF of the letter) was sent to the TCEQ executive director, asking that the approval process for six of TXU's proposed plants be delayed, pending air-quality modeling, to ensure that more cities (such as Austin) don't join Dallas and Houston in federal air-quality violation. The letter also calls for a cumulative, statewide analysis of the plants' emissions (Texas already has the worst carbon emissions levels in the country) and full consideration of alternatives, such as integrated gasification combined cycle (aka coal gasification or clean coal technology), which TXU claims is commercially unfeasible. Meanwhile, it's rumored that an unlikely figure, Waco-area GOP Rep. Charles "Doc" Anderson, may file a permitting moratorium bill. Staffer Matt Welch said such a measure is in the development process, though timing is still "nebulous" at this point. He added that Anderson has interest in exploring IGCC.
On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, has filed one bill supporting the ACT-recommended efficiency measures and plans to file another. Says Anchia's legislative director, Damian Brockman, "The only folks wary of this are TXU. They're selling a good, and our bill reduces the need for it." Anchia's efficiency strategy, he said, will ultimately benefit consumers, utilities, and the environment.
With several legislators no doubt riding into Austin on the industry gravy train, ACT's objectives will surely be met with some flak. But considering the army of local-government, nonprofit, and individual opposition now in place, dirty coal ain't gonna burn in Texas without a fight. For more info, see www.stoptxu.org, www.stopthecoalplant.org, www.allianceforcleantexas.org, and TXU's www.reliabletexaspower.com. For local energy-efficiency options and incentives, see Energy Saving Opportunities on Austin Energy's site, www.austinenergy.com. Daniel Mottola
Still Pouring: Visions of concrete
Transportation funding remains a hot-button topic in Central Texas, but the presession buzz shows no sign of any wholesale change in the state's push toward toll roads. The chairs of both Transportation committees Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, and Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas are pledged to the continued expansion of toll roads. Krusee likes to describe toll roads as simply "one tool in the toolbox" of transportation funding, a tool that can be evaluated and either used or discarded by each of the state's Regional Mobility Authorities. In principle at least, it's a local choice.
The question, however, is whether the tool available will be a sledgehammer or a fine carving knife. Each session, lawmakers have come back to refine the toll-friendly transportation policy Krusee drafted two sessions ago.
Last session, it was tweaks like stopping the conversion of free roads to toll roads, raising the compensation to property owners along future roadways, and refining the formulation of comprehensive development agreements so that TxDOT has more of a say when private partners choose to set toll rates. This session, Carona who already has managed to butt heads with Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson over Dallas-area toll issues plans additional tweaks. Carona, who replaces outgoing Sen.-turned-Ag-Commissioner Todd Staples, has filed at least three bills to address state transportation policy: a fuller dedication of transportation-related fines and fees to transportation projects rather than the state's general revenue coffers (SB 125), a proposal to index the current 30.4-cent fuel tax to the cyclical cost of highway construction (SB 165), and a commitment to outlaw noncompete clauses on agreements with private developers so that the Texas Department of Transportation isn't penalized if it builds a road that's considered an economic threat to a nearby private tollway (SB 149). Carona has also filed a Senate resolution (SR 2) to restore federal funds to state enhancement projects such as historic trail programs. TxDOT has proposed pulling those funds in order to pay for more road construction.
Krusee, who has taken his share of flak over toll roads as a member of the CAMPO Transportation Policy Board, makes no apologies for the state's move to private-public partnerships and toll roads, saying the region is better for it. "People in Williamson County are getting everywhere much faster than they used to," he said. "I'm proud that we've been able to put $3 billion worth of roads U.S. 183-A, SH 45 over to the north end of MoPac, and SH 130 on the map sooner than we ever expected. Trips that used to take me 30 minutes now take me 10, and even the free roads are less congested." K.R.
Legislating Austin: First, do no harm
Contrary to conventional wisdom (and too much recent history), the city isn't staring down state legislation that would pave Barton Springs for a Wal-Mart park-and-ride, classify breakfast-taco fillings as a Schedule I controlled substance, or any other manner of Austin-bashing bills that would bring the idyllic experiment we call the People's Republic to a crashing end. Not yet.
Preventing such legislative tyranny falls biennially on the shoulders of the city's Governmental Relations Office. With the city and her environmental protections long renowned as the Lege's whipping lass, the GRO, led by John Hrncir, has its hands full preventing the worst. "We look at all the bills filed, get input from the departments on them, and make decisions on them to support, amend, or oppose the legislation," he says. With deals freshly struck and alliances constantly shifting under the dome, "We do a triage daily, or practically hourly, on what's the most important to work toward." Typically, he says, that involves tracking between 1,200 and 2,000 bills that could impact Austin in particular or Texas cities in general.
With hundreds of would-be laws holding millions of dollars' worth of ramifications for the city, the GRO drafts an official City of Austin Legislative Program, delineating legal concepts to support, monitor, or oppose. Many bills receiving city support sound decidedly wonky or esoteric yet carry very real consequences. Health care is a good example; official city policy of supporting health care incubator grants sounds dry on paper, but it and several other health care initiatives (restoring state human service funding levels, boosting CHIP and Medicare funding, and providing more for mental health services) offset local expense, preserving Austin's quality of life and low tax rate. Other city concerns include planning for growth around SH 130, preserving the city utilities' power and purview, and incentives for film, television, and other employers.
Of course, City Council has inserted several of its own initiatives: adopting California emission standards for new cars, a favorite of plug-in conscious Mayor Will Wynn; a flat homestead exemption, lauded by Mike Martinez; an increase in city representation on the Capital Metro board, no doubt from suburb-outnumbered board members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken; and several other initiatives. Up for monitoring is another increasingly discussed proposal from the city: revision of Capitol view corridor restrictions.
But beyond all the potentially good proposals, Hrncir iterates that "the things that we are on the lookout to oppose ... are probably the most important." He says no bills filed so far explicitly single out Austin, but he's cautious of legislation tying cities' hands in general. "Anything that would impose some sort of revenue cap or change the rollback [property-tax election-triggering] rate that could have a huge impact on us and every local government in the state. Anything that could reduce our zoning or land-platting authority, or our environmental regulatory authority, [we oppose]." One example is HB 252, a nasty piece of free-market fanaticism from Fort Worth Republican Anna Mowery, which would tie municipalities' zoning authority by demanding they pay property owners if, as a result of a zoning change, said property's value falls by 10% or more. "That's probably the biggest one out there that we're aware of," Hrncir says.
For the opening-session moment, at least. Wells Dunbar
Ethics Reform: The blind (and dumb) commissioners
Last week the U.S. House, inspired by the well-publicized antics of corruption poster boys Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, tackled a far-reaching ethics reform bill intended to weed out corruption in Congress. The self-imposed rules the first order of housekeeping business on opening day passed 430-1, in about the time it takes Texas millionaire James Leininger to ink a few $100,000 campaign checks. The D.C. House achieved in a single day what some state lawmakers have been trying to accomplish for years. Maybe that's what Gov. Rick Perry was alluding to on the campaign trail when he said, "Washington, D.C.-style politics won't fly in Texas."
On that note, don't expect to see major ethics reforms coming out of the Lege this session, but there'll be plenty of attempted small steps. A bill that seeks to rein in the state's major campaign bankrollers is back by popular demand. House Democrats Mark Strama of Austin and Mike Villarreal of San Antonio have filed, for the third time in two years, legislation (HB 111) that would place a $100,000 aggregate cap on the amount an individual or political committee can give in state races during an election cycle. The bill last appeared in the 2006 special session on school finance. Bipartisan support had grown after the March primary which saw Leininger invest $2 million toward ousting several Republican incumbents who had helped kill a school-voucher bill but it was still not enough for passage. With the House's new political makeup, Strama believes the bill's survival chances are greater this year, but adds, "I wouldn't go to Vegas on these odds. Any time you try to take power away from incumbent politicians, you're going to have opposition."
From the department of "What do I have to do, draw you a picture?" arrives HB 158, which would do just that for the weak-kneed Texas Ethics Commission. The bill, filed by Austin Democrat Elliott Naishtat and Richardson Republican Fred Hill, would help improve the eyesight of the commission, which last year determined that a state official doesn't have to disclose the actual dollar amount of a cash gift, contrary to what the law says about reporting gifts valued over $250. The case stemmed from a 2005 disclosure form filed by Bill Ceverha, an Employees Retirement System board member, who received two $50,000 checks from Houston home-builder Bob Perry. Ceverha reported that Perry had given him "checks," but he included no dollar figures. The checks were to help Ceverha pay off legal debt related to a lawsuit in which a judge found he broke the law while serving as treasurer of DeLay's Texans for a Republican Majority in the 2002 election. Ceverha subsequently filed for bankruptcy and won a nice appointment to the retirement board, courtesy of House Speaker Tom Craddick. "Many of us think that the [existing] law is clear," said Naishtat of the TEC's curious interpretation in the Ceverha case. "You can't just put down, 'I received a check.'" At any rate, HB 158 would add clarity by explicitly requiring elected or appointed officials to report the fair market value of gifts they receive, Naishtat said. Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, will carry the Senate version. A.S.
Criminal Justice: Swinging pendulums, slamming doors
There are many returning perennials (or rather, biennials) like the never-popular bills that would allow police to establish random sobriety check points which Capitol insiders already say are DOA. Promised to reporters, but not yet filed, are a brace of sentencing reforms, seeking to reduce the state's growing prison population and to improve probation programs, especially for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. The motives are mostly nonaltruistic it costs a lot to keep people in prison, relatively less to keep them out, so the political get-tough pendulum has inevitably swung back in the direction of saving money.
A nasty counterpoint is the spate of bills related to sex offenders seeking arbitrarily to lock more people away for longer sentences. Some bills would broaden sex-offender registry and monitoring or ban convicted sex offenders from living near schools or parks. HB 8 (Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball) would expand the definition of a capital crime to make certain sex offenders eligible for the death penalty, or life in prison for offenders under 18. Expect this proposal to be met with stern opposition, even from law-and-order prosecutors. Not only does the punishment appear disproportionate to the crime, but under such a law, the rate of reported sex offenses very often intrafamily affairs might well decline, and young teens engaging in consensual acts could be subject to disproportionately harsh punishments. Other noteworthy bills:
HB 418 (Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth) would effectively define an electroshock Taser as a deadly weapon, by making its use legal only in situations where deadly force is justified.
HB 297 (Jessica Farrar, D-Houston) would expand the definition of animal cruelty to recklessly causing death or serious bodily injury to an animal and to those who "train" or "condition" animals to fight (with certain exceptions for farming and hunting).
HB 312 (Sylvester Turner, D-Houston) would forbid the state from revoking a person's parole for inability to pay court-mandated fees in other words, you can't be sent to prison for being too poor to pay a fine (a protection afforded by the U.S. Constitution's Due Process Clause but not always followed in Texas).
HB 337 (Turner) would allow the state to revoke parole only if a violation is "willful" or "intentional" and would ensure that the state impose only punishments commensurate with the violation; being five minutes late to a meeting with a parole officer would no longer be punishable by imprisonment. J.S.
Free Beer! Or rather, free microbreweries
Discrimination is an ugly thing, and Texas microbrewers have had enough.
In 2003, Texas voters passed Proposition 11, a constitutional amendment changing the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code to allow wineries to sell their products on the premises directly to consumers and not just wholesalers. But this provision only applies to vintners and not to beer makers. Texas' five microbreweries have bonded to form Friends of Texas Microbreweries to lobby for a similar provision for their industry. (Microbreweries are companies producing less than 75,000 barrels per year but should not to be confused with brewpubs bar/restaurants that brew their own.)
The movement is being spearheaded by Brock Wagner, the founder of Houston's St. Arnold Brewing Company, and "Evan," the semi-anonymous blogger of Rick Perry vs. the World (www.perryvsworld.com). "We can no longer ignore the fact that 14 out of 19 microbreweries have failed in Texas in part because current regulations disadvantage microbrewing small businesses," said Wagner as he announced the formation of FOTM. "This commonsense proposal will allow Texas microbrewers to compete with out-of-state microbrewers on a level playing field." Wagner believes the sales at his brewery would probably amount to around 200 barrels per year but notes that the profit on those sales would be around $13 per case, about $11.50 more than if sold to a wholesaler. In an interview with the San Antonio Current, he said, "Breweries will be able to take that money, reinvest it in the brewery, market their beer better, grow better, hire more people."
Other coalition breweries include Austin's Independence and Live Oak, Fort Worth's Rahr & Sons, and Blanco's Real Ale. On the movement's blog (www.starnoldgoestoaustin.com), Wagner reports that FOTM has visited 11 different legislators' offices; all were receptive, but none has yet agreed to carry the bill. Lee Nichols
Okay, We're a Bit Biased on This One ...
... but we would really like to see some sort of shield law for journalists that might protect us from being jailed when we refuse prosecutors' and judges' demands to reveal our confidential sources.
Rep. Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, has decided to take on the powerful prosecutors' lobby by proposing such protections with HB 382, the Free Flow of Information Act. It has become increasingly common for reporters to be jailed for protecting their sources here in Texas, freelance author Vanessa Leggett was incarcerated in 2001 for protecting her notes while writing a book on a high-profile Houston murder case, and currently the two San Francisco reporters who blew the lid off Major League Baseball's steroid problem are being threatened with 18 months in jail for refusing to testify to a grand jury.
As Peña noted when he announced the filing of 382, "Information regarding corruption from whistle-blowers should be encouraged. This bill strikes a delicate balance that allows information to be gathered while at the same time allowing prosecutors to seek justice." Attorney General Greg Abbott might back such a bill, judging by his signing on to an amicus brief on behalf of the San Francisco reporters. "A free and open press forms the foundation of a free and open democracy," Abbott said at the time. "Our nation functions best when its citizens can see their government operating in the full light of day." Peña filed a similar bill last session, but it died in committee.
A potential bit of controversy for the bill is language defining who is a journalist limiting the description to someone who gathers and reports the news "for financial gain or livelihood." It's hard to say whether that language will help or hurt the bill conservatives might prefer that shield protection be limited to traditional news outlets, but liberals might want language that also includes volunteers at outlets such as community radio stations, public access television, and not-for-profit bloggers.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem is whether 382 will actually offer an effective shield or if its loopholes are so wide as to render the protection meaningless: The bill bans authorities from compelling testimony from journalists unless they have "exhausted all reasonable effort to obtain the information from alternative sources" vague language that could be easily abused. At the least, the bill would be a foot in the door for the principle of reporter protection. L.N.