Senate Passes Landmark Hate Crimes, Insurance Bills
AUSTIN - The Senate today voted passage of bills concerning two of the highest-profile issues of this session, hate crimes and insurance for public school teachers and employees.
House Bill (HB) 587 would increase penalties for crimes motivated by hate, prejudice or bias. The bill would also provide assistance to local jurisdictions for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
The bill was authored by Houston Rep. Senfronia Thompson and sponsored in the Senate by Rodney Ellis of Houston. Ellis authored the Senate companion bill.
"This is truly an historic day for the state of Texas," Ellis said. "The Texas Senate has sent a message that our state is not a safe haven for hate. This legislation will help protect all Texans from anyone who decides to act on their hate and prejudice."
The legislation has been dubbed the James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Act, in memory of an East Texas African-American who in 1998 was dragged to death behind a pickup in a racially motivated killing.
The act would raise the penalty by one level for a crime determined to be motivated by hate. Under current law, spray painting a church carries a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. HB 587 would increase the maximum punishment to 1 year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Similar legislation almost deadlocked the Senate in 1999, and discussions about the issue had been heated on several occasions this session. Last week, several senators on both sides of the legislation gave passionate personal privilege speeches on the floor of the Senate. Although the rhetoric from both sides was at times heated, the debate today was more cordial.
"I would like to thank, in particular, my Republican colleagues who have made this a bipartisan piece of legislation," Ellis said. "You have joined your colleagues from the House and taken a brave stand here today."
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff praised today's action by the Senate, particularly the tone of the debate despite the high emotions surrounding the bill.
"I was very proud of the Senate. They distinguished themselves I think today." Ratliff said. "The entire debate was on a very high plane, talking about the actual legal and moral merits of the bill, and I think the members of the Senate can be proud of themselves. No matter how the result had come out I think they could have been proud of themselves."
Ratliff was among the 20 members who voted in favor of final passage of the bill. He rarely casts a vote on legislation before the Senate, although has the right to do so because he still represents the 1st Senatorial District. Ratliff has cast his vote on only two other bills this session, the General Appropriations Bill and the bill targeting racial profiling that was passed by the Senate in April.
"I felt like it was probably very important that we send a message to the world that crimes committed from a motivation of hatred are not to be tolerated in the state of Texas," Ratliff said.
The Senate also passed a bill that would create a state-funded insurance program for public school district teachers and employees.
The Committee Substitute for House Bill (CSHB) 3343 would direct school districts to offer coverage for their teachers and employees. Under the bill, the State of Texas would contribute $1.6 billion to help fund the plan during the 2002-2003 budget cycle.
Amarillo Sen. Teel Bivins, the bill's sponsor and the chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the plan is not the top of the line, "but it gets us down the road."
Bivins said the funding for the bill had to take into account the tighter budget reflected in the General Appropriations Bill.
"That bill considered all the demands on state resources, not just those for a new, state-funded school district employee health insurance program, but also for Medicaid, for nursing homes, for a modest increase for state employee pay," Bivins said. "And within all those competing interests we developed this bill."
Bivins said there was not enough money in the budget to fund what he called a "Cadillac" plan, which he said everyone would have preferred.
"The reality is it's a Chevrolet, maybe even a used Chevrolet," Bivins said.
CSHB 3343 as passed by the Senate today would create five tiers of coverage, beginning with bare bones, catastrophic care coverage. School districts would have to make up the difference between the cost of providing coverage and the state's contribution. School district teachers and employees would also pay for part.
Ellis, the chair of the Finance Committee, agreed that CSHB 3343 does not provide as much funding as many wanted, but added that the bill is "a gigantic step in the right direction."
Ellis and Bivins said they hoped to continue to improve the program in coming years.
The Senate stands at recessed until 8 a.m. Tuesday when bills on the Local and Uncontested Calendar will be taken up. The Senate will reconvene at 10 a.m.