Lege Notes: Taser talk and more

Stories from under the pink granite dome

Back in December, Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed House Bill 418 to restrict the use of electroshock Taser weapons by police only to those situations where the police would also be justified in using deadly force against a suspect. The legislation was prompted by an article in the alternative Fort Worth Weekly, which suggested police were using Tasers frequently, and perhaps too casually, said Burnam assistant Doug Lewin. The story, Lewin told us late last year, was disturbing, painting a picture of "rampant abuse of what seems to be the weapon of choice against minorities." So, the goal of the legislation, Lewin said, is in essence to create a statewide definition of the Taser as a deadly weapon, which would raise the bar, and thus the level of scrutiny, related to its use.

Rep. Lou Burnam, D-Fort Worth
Rep. Lou Burnam, D-Fort Worth (Photo By John Anderson)

Codifying a definition would be no small feat, really, considering that while the Taser has become increasingly popular among law-enforcement agencies nationwide, there is no national or state standard for defining exactly what kind of weapon they are and where they should fall on the police use-of-force continuum, which generally begins with the use of verbal commands and escalates to the use of firearms in deadly force situations. A May 2005 report from the Government Accountability Office, for example, reviewed the Taser policies of seven law-enforcement agencies – including the Austin Police Department – and found that where Taser use was placed on the force continuum varied greatly. Two of the departments placed the Taser at a higher level of force – akin to situations in which batons might be used; three departments, including APD, allowed the Taser to be used at a lower threat level, beginning when the officer "perceives" the situation as volatile, a level at which the use of chemical spray would be warranted; one agency, the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Fla., placed the Taser at the lowest level of threat, allowing its use even when a suspect is displaying "passive resistance," such as not responding to an officer's verbal commands.

HB 418 is a rather bold suggestion – one that would likely be met with resistance by police groups, which generally see the Taser as an important tool for reducing officer and suspect injuries – and whether Burnam's proposal to define it as a deadly weapon will actually find any traction at the Capitol remains unclear. Still, Burnam said in a Feb. 26 press release that in the months since filing HB 418 he's had "many conversations" with police and community groups regarding his bill and has now filed four additional bills – each decidedly less extreme in scope than HB 418 – in an attempt to further define the proper role of the Taser weapon within the police arsenal:

•HB 1933 requires every Texas law-enforcement agency to craft a Taser-use policy and report all incidents of Taser use to their municipality or county and directs the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education to compile and analyze that data.

•HB 1934 directs TCLEOSE to develop a statewide Taser-training program for police.

•HB 1935 prohibits private citizens from carrying a Taser or other electroshock weapon without "proper licensure and training."

•HB 1936 requires police to seek medical attention – and treatment, if necessary – for all suspects shot with a Taser gun.

In all, Burnam says he hopes his bills "will help to create a standard for Taser use and increase safety for everybody." The Taser can be a "great tool" for law enforcement, he continued, when "used correctly." – Jordan Smith

Capitol Briefs

• As expected, a group of parents filed suit last week seeking to halt Gov. Rick Perry's executive order calling for HPV immunization for all sixth-grade girls. Dallas attorney Kenneth Chaiken filed the lawsuit in Travis Co. District Court on behalf of the unnamed plaintiffs. "The school-aged girls of Texas are not guinea pigs who may be subjected to medical procedures at the apparent whim of Texas' governor," the petition stated. Perry's order of Feb. 2 directed the state Health and Human Services Commission to establish guidelines for the Merck-manufactured vaccine. The suit claims Perry's order represented an abuse of power and violated the Texas Constitution. It further argued that state law only allows for governor-issued executive orders in times of disasters or imminent threats that could cause widespread damage, injury, or death. – Amy Smith

• Cervical cancer – executive order notwithstanding – is not the only health-care issue this session. Two groups focused on health care were at the Capitol last week to request more funding to prevent heart attacks and strokes, which are the leading causes of death in the nation. The American Heart Association and American Stroke Association are looking for $100 million in funding this session to address risk factors: smoking cessation and prevention, community intervention when it comes to obesity and especially the growing problem of childhood obesity in Texas, and for a new plan that sends stroke victims to properly equipped health-care facilities. The groups say only a small fraction of the state's tobacco settlement actually has gone to smoking-cessation programs, primarily in rural counties out in East Texas. – Kimberly Reeves

• Two Austin Democrats, Sen. Kirk Watson and Rep. Mark Strama, announced on Feb. 27 the filing of the Texas Prevention First Act (Senate Bill 837 and House Bill 1842), designed to beef up public education on sexually transmitted diseases and prevention of unplanned pregnancies. The legislation is similar to a federal Prevention First Act that seeks to add funding for family planning and unplanned-pregnancy-prevention programs, among other features. The Texas legislation in part calls for a "comprehensive" outreach campaign to reduce unintended pregnancies and incidence of STD infection. "The best way to prevent the termination of a pregnancy is to prevent the pregnancy," Watson said at a Tuesday press conference. – J.S.

• Texas foster children would have guaranteed protections under a "bill of rights" should legislation filed this week win approval. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, have filed companion bills (HB 1752 and SB 805) containing a proposed list of 40 basic rights for children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect. The proposed measures range from the basic (the right to live in a safe, comfortable home; eat healthy foods; and attend religious activities of the child's choice) to the no-nonsense (such as the right to not be "unnecessarily or excessively medicated" and the right to speak with caseworkers, judges, and court-appointed advocates). The legislation's intent is to take child-protection laws a step further to ensure that foster children are aware of and understand their rights, said Rodriguez. – A.S.

• A stringent increase in punishment for sex offenders – including the possibility of execution for repeat child molesters – may be one step closer to becoming Texas law. HB 8, authored by Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, would be Texas' own version of a so-called Jessica's Law, prescribing no less than 30 years' imprisonment, or half the entire sentence, for sex offenders who attack victims under the age of 14. Last week, HB 8 was passed, without amendment, by the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence. Apparently, concern by victims advocacy groups that the capital punishment provision would deter reporting of what, in most cases, is a family crime has been alleviated some; the word around the Capitol is that prosecutors have promised to ask for the death penalty in only rare cases – a pledge that, judging from the insatiable appetite of DA offices to appear "tough on crime," may come back to haunt the groups. The bill hit the House floor Wednesday for a debate, as dubiously fast-tracked "emergency" legislation. – Wells Dunbar and Jordan Smith

• Forget the lottery. It's the Permanent School Fund that's bankrolling Texas schools, and you don't even have to buy a ticket. According to the Texas Education Agency, the PSF just crossed the $25 billion mark, putting it second only to Harvard in terms of largest endowments. The fund, which underwrites textbooks and some school expenditures each biennium, provided $1.7 billion to Texas schools last biennium, almost on par with the $1 billion a year or so the Texas Lottery provides. Such growth – the PSF began with a $2 million appropriation in 1854 – could be a good argument in favor of Gov. Rick Perry's proposal to sell the Texas Lottery and create a new state nest egg for other state expenditures. – K.R.

• The Senate confirmed last Wednesday the appointment of Julie Parsley for a second term on the Public Utilities Commission of Texas, despite her voting record showing an unwillingness to intervene in the market. The former solicitor general and Rick Perry appointee helped oversee the deregulation of the state's electricity market and sat on Perry's Energy Planning Council, whose 2005 report pushed Texas further down the path of coal and oil reliance. Notably, last April, Parsley and fellow commissioner Barry Smitherman outvoted Chairman Paul Hudson on the PUC's power to hold companies accountable. TXU and Reliant had sought PUC permission to raise prices in the wake of Katrina, due to high natural-gas prices. The PUC approved, on the understanding that the companies would drop prices when costs came down. Months later, fuel prices had dropped, but electricity prices hadn't. Hudson said this was the commission's last real opportunity to balance prices before deregulation and that he wanted the incumbent energy companies to appear before the PUC over possible price gouging; Parsley said the PUC had no power to do anything about it. Her take on the commission's role ultimately won out. She'll remain on the commission until Sept. 1, 2011. – Richard Whittaker

• Sen. Kip Averitt, R-Waco, is championing a new water-management plan for the state that might also cut the governor's powers. Last Thursday, the Texas Committee on Natural Resource chair filed SB 3, which he hopes will conserve the state's natural resources while providing for an expanding and thirsty population. But hidden in its text is a power shift. The bill brings back the Environmental Flows Advisory Committee, a policy advisory panel balancing ecological and consumer demands on the water supply. Established in 2005 by Gov. Rick Perry by executive order, the panel had nine governor-appointed members, including the Exxon Mobil Beaumont refinery manager and a vice chairman of Mary Kay. SB 3 gives the House speaker, lieutenant governor, and governor three appointments each. Moreover, the governor's choices will be limited: He would have to select one representative from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and Texas Water Development Board. Other members will come from the House and Senate. Supported by an independent scientific committee, the group will present biannual reports on the state of Texas water to the Legislature. Industry representatives will get a voice on new local water stakeholder committees around the state but not on the main group. – R.W.

• You'll have to pay to watch topless dancers or other stripped-down entertainers if a Houston legislator has her way. Rep. Ellen Cohen, D-Houston, filed HB 2124 Tuesday; it would charge a $5 door fee at sexually oriented clubs, which, oddly enough, turn some of their tidiest profits in Austin when the Legislature is in session. These businesses would be required to submit quarterly fees to the state comptroller's office. The revenue would be deposited into a sexual-assault-prevention-program fund, or, if it exceeds $12 million in a fiscal biennium, it would go to the general fund. The bill would also give the Legislature some wiggle room for dedicating the money to other types of funds or programs, provided their primary purpose is to combat sexual violence. – A.S.

Microbrewers have finally found a Lege ally in Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who on Monday filed a bill that would allow small beermakers to sell their products on the premises of their breweries directly to consumers (as winemakers are already allowed to do). As the organization Friends of Texas Microbreweries had asked, HB 1926 defines eligible brewers as those whose annual production is less than 75,000 barrels; on-site sales would be capped at 5,000 barrels per year. Possible roadblock: a powerful wholesalers lobby, who might look unkindly on any incursions into their business. – Lee Nichols

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Texas Legislature, Friends of Texas Microbreweries, Jessica Farrar, Taser, Lon Burnam, HB 1933, HB 1934, HB 1935, HB 1936, HB 418, Government Accountability Office, GAO, Eddie Rodriguez, Carlos Uresti, Ellen Cohen, Texas Prevention First Act, Mark Strama, Kirk Watson, SB 837, HB 1842

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