Weighing the Scales of Justice April promises to be a month packed with criminal justice matters to consider. Last week lawmakers heard testimony about whether to tweak language for the criminal definition of insanity – changing the word "know," as in "know something is wrong," to "appreciate," as in "actually grasp the concept that something is legally wrong." The debate was, in moments, spirited, with freshman Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, opining that the change would make it "unduly easier" to prove insanity. That measure was left pending by the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee – along with perennial proposals to downgrade punishments associated with possession of small amounts of controlled substances including cocaine and heroin. Those measures may be smarter on crime than is the status quo, but they still face an uphill battle.
This week lawmakers in the House considered whether to ban the death penalty for individuals who may have been party to a crime but were not actually directly responsible for it. (The bill was left pending in committee.) Meanwhile, the Senate Criminal Justice Committee considered a raft of other proposals – including Senate Bill 1292, a joint proposal by Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, to require pretrial DNA testing of all evidence in death penalty cases. That measure, which is backed by Attorney General Greg Abbott, sailed out of committee Tuesday.
The Hands That Feed The latest report from public watchdog group Texans for Public Justice provides a line-item examination of the political perks afforded the three chiefs who control the Texas Enterprise Fund – Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus. It happens that the companies that obtained $307 million in grants from the enterprise fund are directly tied to big donors who have contributed $5.3 million in political money to Perry, Dewhurst, and Straus, as well as to the state Republican Party, the TPJ report states. Perry, the boy genius who created the taxpayer-financed fund in 2003, is the top recipient of contributions from fund-connected donors. Perry's top contributor is Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, a key investor in Lexicon Pharmaceuticals – a partner in the Texas Institute for Genomic Medicine, which received an "unsurpassed" $50 million Enterprise Fund award in 2005.
Budget Goes to Conference Committee With the House's passage last week of a $194 billion budget, members from both chambers have plunged into the dealmaking process to try to forge a compromise budget. The House last week approved SB 1 on a vote of 135-12, with 11 Democrats and 1 Republican (Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview) voting no. Dissenting Dems cited the budget's shortcomings on health care and insufficient restoration of funds to education as the main reasons for rejecting the bill. One key vote, however, clearly demonstrated unity in the House's opposition to state-financed private school vouchers, contrary to the strong wishes of Gov. Perry and Senate Education Committee Chair Dan Patrick, who began trying to sell his voucher-related proposal (SB 23) to his colleagues at a hearing Tuesday.
Gambling On the Future The biennial debate over whether to legalize casino gambling opened Wednesday before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee. Dallas GOP Sen. John Carona, who chairs the committee, is proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide the nagging question of legalized gambling. If approved, casinos would open up in three urban counties – Tarrant, Dallas, and Bexar. This bill has the endorsement of influential lobby group Texas Association of Business but, as in previous sessions, still carries sufficient opposition from both parties.