AUSTIN -The hate crimes bill is all but dead in the Texas Senate. After days of negotiation, the legislation failed to make it out of committee. The Senate stood 'at ease' on Friday, May 14 for more than nine hours while Senate members from both parties negotiated over the Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 938, the pending hate crimes legislation. But an additional day of talk still did not produce a hate crimes bill on which senators could agree.
Houston Senator Rodney Ellis, the bill's sponsor, commented on the day's negotiations, "A couple of times today I think we came very close to having language we could all live with, would make us feel good; also give us an opportunity to pay homage to Mr. Byrd's legacy and to their family. We couldn't quite get there." The hate crimes bill was named after James Byrd Jr, the victim of a racially motivated murder in Jasper, Texas last summer.
CSHB 938 would enhance the penalties for crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religion or sexual preference. Supporters say it was needed because Texas' existing hate crimes statute is too vague. The proposal debated Friday includes specific categories such as ethnicity and sexual preference which supporters say they need in order for the bill to be of any use. Opponents say the Legislature should not decide who should be protected under the bill.
Democratic Senators say all they want is to debate and vote on the legislation on the Senate floor. Laredo Senator Judith Zaffirini says they are not giving up hope yet. "Do you know of any rule of the Texas Senate that cannot be suspended? Where there is a will there is a way and if the leadership truly wants to pursue this bill I ensure that we can suspend the rules and pursue the bill. It is not necessarily dead," said Zaffirini.
Friday, May 14 was the last day for committees to recommend bills to be considered by the full Senate. Generally, a bill is considered dead if not reported out of committee by midnight on that date.
The Legislature got the final word on how much money the state will have to spend for the next two years. Texas has $807 million more available than expected. Comptroller Carole Keaton Rylander announced the new budget surplus estimate Thursday, May 13. A conference committee of senators and representatives had been waiting for the announcement to finalize their state budget proposal. They are expected to vote the budget out of committee on May 24.
A proposal requiring background checks at gun shows had its first run in the Texas Senate. One senator pulled down a bill after another senator tried to tack on the controversial amendment. Dallas Senator Royce West sponsored the amendment which would require background checks for the sale of semi-automatic weapons at flea markets. The definition of a flea market would include gun shows.
Flower Mound Senator Jane Nelson sponsored the CSHB 749 and said it was the wrong place and the wrong time to consider West's proposal. "I believe the bill should go through the hearing process and I don't think Royce has the support to get that bill through the proper procedure so he's trying to amend my bill and I'm not going to let him do that," said Nelson. Her bill attempted to prevent the sales of other items -- such as baby formula, over the counter drugs and contact lenses -- at flea markets.
West has filed a bill with the background check proposal but it was not heard in committee. "It's absurd to me that we would have a situation where if you're a licensed gun dealer you would have to do a background check which is instantaneous now but if you're not a licensed gun dealer you can sell guns without doing a background check," said West.
In legislation passed Tuesday, May 11, employers would be immune from lawsuits if they disclose truthful information about former employees. CSHB 341 still allows employees to sue if they can prove that the employer knew the information they disclosed was false or was done with malicious intent. Nelson says it is a safety issue. "Statistics show that employers are afraid to release information about employees beyond name, rank and serial number so we don't know if someone we hire has harassed, stolen or is violent. The Committee Substitute for House Bill 341 creates a safe workplace for all Texans," said Nelson.
Every vehicle with the exception of school buses would have the same speed limit in areas outside of cities. Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins sponsored CSHB 676. Bivins says giving trucks the same speed limit as cars may actually make Texas roads safer. "The problem is when you have trucks going at a slower speed and cars trying to get around them, it causes a safety problem. That was the reason for the bill and I believe it will improve safety on our state's highways," said Bivins. The bill does not include farm and ranch roads. The Senate approved an amendment allowing a county commissioners court to ask the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to lower speed limits on certain farm or ranch to market roads.
The Senate passed legislation Monday, May 10 that affects parents who share custody of a child. One parent would have to notify the other if one moves in with a sex offender. Failure to inform the other parent would be a misdemeanor. Plano Senator Florence Shapiro is the Senate sponsor for the CSHB 1462.
Although it is not 'until death do us part', a covenant marriage contract is close. The Senate passed a bill creating the stricter, voluntary marriage contract. The commitment would include premarital counseling and would make obtaining a divorce much more difficult. Wichita Falls Senator Tom Haywood sponsored the CSHB 644 because he says something needs to be done to help couples stay together.
Colonias would be able to keep state assistance for five years after being annexed by a city under House Bill (HB) 1982. Current law requires colonias to give up state help immediately after being annexed. Corpus Christi Senator Carlos F. Truan sponsored the bill in the Senate. "This will ease the burden on cities and encourage more municipalities to annex colonias," said Truan.
Former prisoners of war from Texas, including the recently released soldier Steven Gonzales, would get a free ride to a public college or university under legislation passed Tuesday, May 11. Senator Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville sponsored the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1902. Lucio says he filed the bill in honor of Gonzales who he says joined the armed forces after he could not afford to finish his education at Texas A&M University.
The full Senate met as a Committee of the Whole Thursday, May 13 to clarify the rules about who would replace vacancies in the offices of governor and the lt. governor. A possible presidential run by Governor George W. Bush prompted the action. Senate members agreed with the House of Representatives, that if the governor leaves permanently, the lt. governor would assume the duties of governor. Senators would then meet within 30 days to elect one of their own to serve as acting lt. governor. That senator would perform the duties of both senator and lt. governor. Texas voters will have the final say on House Joint Resolution (HJR) 44, which will appear on the ballot as a constitutional amendment in November.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, May 17, at 10:00 a.m.