WEEK IN REVIEW
Hate Crimes Legislation Continues to Percolate
AUSTIN - Several senators made personal privilege speeches on the Senate floor Thursday about the continuing discussion surrounding controversial hate crimes legislation.
A hate crimes bill deadlocked the Senate for nine hours last session as members tried to work out a last-minute agreement.
More than a dozen members of the House of Representatives were in the Senate on Thursday as a show of support of efforts to have hate crimes legislation brought up for debate by the upper chamber.
"(Wednesday) night, a church in my district was swastikaed and racial slurs were spray painted on the church," said Dallas Sen. Royce West. "It's time, members of the Senate, to do something about this issue," West said. "We must find a way to deal with this issue, not tomorrow, but today."
Hate crimes legislation, the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 87, was approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee in February. The bill's author, Houston Sen. Rodney Ellis, has not been able to get the votes necessary to bring the bill up for debate by the full Senate.
The Criminal Justice Committee on Wednesday approved a House hate crimes bill, House Bill (HB) 587, authored by Senfronia Thompson of Houston.
"I call on the governor of the state of Texas. I call on the leadership of this chamber. I call on the leadership of the Republican Caucus and the Democratic Caucus to find a way, this session, to deal with this issue," West said.
Waco Sen. David Sibley, the leader of the Senate Republican Caucus, denounced the defacement of the Dallas church and said that those who oppose the proposed hate crimes legislation would work for compromise legislation.
"It's a difficult issue. This is not something that's a slamdunk. This is not saying, 'Every child in the state of Texas ought to have a right to an education.' We all agree with that. That's easy," Sibley said.
Ellis said he had toned down his rhetoric on his hate crimes legislation, but, "at some point, you get sick and tired of being sick and tired."
"I try to be as dispassionate on issues as much as I can," Ellis said. "But this is one that's ripe. It's ripe for action. And some of the anger that I feel is because that body across the hall (the House) has passed this bill now two times with bipartisan support."
Ellis' rhetoric has heated up in recent days. On Wednesday, he was critical of what he characterized as Gov. Rick Perry's attempts to influence the debate.
"If I offended somebody by my rhetoric a bit (Wednesday), tough. I meant it," Ellis said. "I've done as much as I can to try to be respectful of the governor, but I don't appreciate him stepping in the middle of this issue."
Plano Sen. Florence Shapiro, who has proposed alternate bill language that Ellis has rejected, told Ellis she did not like the recent tone of the rhetoric.
"I was a victim of a hate crime in 1992," Shapiro said, referring to an incident in which her campaign signs were spray painted with swastikas. "It was a very, very difficult time for me, for my family -- not only for my parents, who are Holocaust survivors, but for my children."
Shapiro said she would continue to work with Ellis to try to come to a compromise on the legislation.
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff talked to reporters Friday about the status of negotiations surrounding hate crimes legislation.
"We had a very good meeting (Friday morning)," Ratliff said. "It was free of the kind of emotional dialogue that went on yesterday. It was a very, very constructive discussion."
The informal meetings will continue, he added, which increases the chances that an agreement can be reached.
Senate OKs Nuclear Waste Facility
A bill that would establish a disposal facility for nuclear waste from Texas and other states was approved by the Senate on Thursday after a lengthy debate the day before.
CSSB 1541 would allow Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission to oversee the facility, which would be managed by a private company, said Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, the author of the bill.
"This ... is a bill that will enable the State of Texas to license a facility to permanently manage low-level radioactive waste," Duncan. "The original design of this bill was to fulfill Texas' obligation under the compact that we have with Maine and Vermont."
Duncan said Texas' agreement with Vermont and Maine, under which Texas agreed to dispose of nuclear waste from those two states, allows Texas to regulate and control the amount of waste within its borders.
"Currently, we have no provision for the permanent management and disposal of low-level radioactive waste in Texas," Duncan said. "There are over 1,200 sites in Texas where low-level radioactive waste is being stored."
Duncan added that CSSB 1541 would allow Texas to better manage where that waste is stored by putting it in one place.
Wednesday's debate was interrupted several times by protesters in the public gallery that overlooks the Senate chamber. One protester yelled, "No more nuclear waste dumps in Texas." As Department of Public Safety troopers and Senate Sergeant-at-Arms staff escorted the man from the gallery, he shouted, "You can't silence the people."
As presiding officer of the Senate, Ratliff has the authority to clear the gallery when disruptive behavior threatens the ability of the Senate to operate. He declined to order the gallery cleared, because he said the public should have the opportunity to hear the debate.
CSSB 1541 was approved by the Senate Natural Resources Committee on April 20. An amendment supported by Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins was added in committee that would bring high-level nuclear waste from other states and the Department of Energy to the Texas dump site.
Bivins' 31st District in the Panhandle is among the likely sites for the facility should it be approved.
The committee amendment, which Duncan opposed, was at the center of the debate Wednesday. Duncan said much of the waste would be contaminated materials from disposal sites in other states.
"We might conceivably become the outdoor privy for the rest of the nation," Corpus Christi Sen. Carlos F. Truan said.
El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh proposed an amendment that would have removed the committee amendment from the bill. He said opening up the dump to other waste would bring as much as 50 times more waste to Texas. His amendment was defeated by a 16-13 vote.
Truan said the committee amendment was a mistake because it would open up Texas for the rest of the country's waste.
"We're going to come to regret this," Truan said.
Resolutions Urge Greater Flexibility, Cooperation on Environmental Regulations
The Senate on Friday adopted a pair of resolutions aimed at giving Texas more flexibility and better coordination in implementing federal environmental rules.
Senate Concurrent Resolution (SCR) 22 asks the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide more latitude to the state in implementing federal environmental programs and regulations. The second resolution, SCR 23, urges TNRCC to improve its coordination with federal regulators.
The resolutions were authored by Lake Jackson Sen. J.E. "Buster" Brown, the chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. Brown said the idea of the legislation is not to weaken enforcement of environmental regulations but to "let us be more creative in our planning and in our programs so that we can make the maximum of use of our state resources in meeting those requirements."
DNA Bill Targets Prevention of Repeat Offenses
On Monday, the Senate passed a measure its author, Austin Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, called "probably the most important bill" of this session.
CSSB 638 would require the collection of a DNA specimen from anyone arrested, convicted or charged with a sexual offense or aggravated kidnaping. Advances in DNA testing technology, Barrientos said, allow a usable sample to be gathered easily and matched with 99 percent certainty.
Barrientos said Department of Justice statistics show that a sex offender will commit an average of 8 to 12 assaults. He added the bill would allow law enforcement to quickly identify repeat offenders, enabling police to prevent rapes and sexual assaults from being committed.
Texas Inaugurates Sen. Chris Harris as Governor for a Day
Arlington Sen. Chris Harris was inaugurated on Saturday as Texas' Governor for Saturday, May 5, 2001.
Harris' fellow senators unanimously elected him president pro tempore of the Senate on January 9, the first day of the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. As president pro tempore, Harris serves as governor when the governor and lieutenant governor are out of the state. Today's official swearing-in as governor for a day marks a long-standing Texas tradition.
In addition to Harris' family, invited guests and Senate colleagues, dignitaries including House Speaker James E. "Pete" Laney, Secretary of State Henry Cuellar and Comptroller of Public Accounts Carole Keeton Rylander attended Harris' inauguration. Among Harris' invited guests were two women whose husbands were Arlington firefighters killed in the line of duty two years ago.
"God bless Texas," Harris said. "It is only through hard work that we -- when I say we I mean all of us whether elected officials or constituents -- it is only through hard work of all of us that we can make it happen."
Following the swearing-in ceremony in the Senate Chamber, Harris welcomed his guests in the Governor's Reception Room in the Capitol. The festivities continued on the Capitol grounds with barbecue and entertainment including live music, dancers and singers from Harris' 10th District.
Bill Would Ease Some Restrictions on Cosmetologists
The Senate on Friday passed HB 551, which would allow licensed cosmetologists to work on a person's mustache or beard following a debate peppered with bad puns.
"This bill is very straight-edged, and we have trimmed all the unnecessary stubble so that the vote this morning will not be a close shave," said San Antonio Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, the bill's sponsor.
Other Senate News
The Senate voted Thursday to approve CSSB 85, a measure authored by Brownsville Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr., that would give juries the sentencing option of life without parole in capital cases. Under current Texas law, a life sentence means a person convicted of a capital offense becomes eligible for parole after 40 years. Life with the possibility of parole and the death penalty are currently the only sentencing options in capital cases.
There are 24 days remaining in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. May 11 is the deadline for Senate committees to take action on bills and joint resolutions. For more information about legislation and the Texas Legislature, please visit www.capitol.state.tx.us.
The Senate stands adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday.