WEEK IN REVIEW
AUSTIN - With the mother and father of James Byrd, Jr., looking on, Governor Rick Perry today signed the hate crimes bill passed by the Senate on Monday.
The legislation has been named the James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Act, in memory of the African-American man who in 1998 was dragged to death behind a pickup in a racially motivated killing.
"In the end, we're all Texans, and we must be united as we walk together into the future," Perry said. "That's why I have signed House Bill (HB) 587 into law. Texas has always been a tough-on-crime state. With my signature, Texas now has stronger criminal penalties against crime motivated by hate."
HB 587 will increase penalties for hate crimes motivated by prejudice or bias. The bill would also provide assistance to local jurisdictions for the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes. The act will raise the penalty by one level for a crime determined to be motivated by hate. Under current law, spray painting a church with a swastika carries a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. HB 587, which takes effect September 1, will increase the maximum punishment to 1 year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
HB 587 was authored by State Rep. Senfronia Thompson of Houston and sponsored in the Senate by Rodney Ellis of Houston, who authored the companion bill. Dallas Sen. Royce West and Dallas State Rep. Steve Wolens also attended the signing ceremony.
"This bill needed Governor Rick Perry's name on it, and I'm very grateful for that. This bill needed and deserved Lieutenant Governor Bill Ratliff's vote, and I appreciate that. And this bill needed and deserved the leadership of the speaker of the House to get it through that body," Ellis said. "But more than anything else -- take it from someone who started down this road in 1991 -- this bill needed a tough, strong black woman named Senfronia Thompson to put the heat on to get this bill passed."
After signing the bill, Perry presented the pen he used to the parents of James Byrd, Jr.
"This is the best Mother's Day gift that I've ever received, something that I will cherish and can remember all my life," said Mrs. James Byrd, Sr. "At least I have something good to remember from his death. It's been hard. It's been real hard to live through it."
Lt. Governor Bill Ratliff on Monday praised the action by the Senate in passing HB 587, particularly the tone of the debate despite the high emotions surrounding the bill. 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.
Senate Considering Redistricting Proposals
The members of the Senate met as a Committee of the Whole on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to discuss proposals for the redrawing of their own district lines.
Every ten years, following the U.S. Census, Texas' Senate, House, Congressional and State Board of Education district lines are redrawn.
Three proposals are under consideration by the Senate, including the Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 499. The bill was authored by Senate Redistricting Committee Chair Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio. The Redistricting Committee held numerous hearings at the Capitol and around the state in 2000 and this year to gather public input.
"Balancing this Senate with 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats, neither party can pass this plan without help from the other," Wentworth said. "So, we tried to make it as fair as we could."
CSSB 499 would not pit one incumbent senator against another. The bill also splits only 12 of Texas' 254 counties. Ten years ago, 33 counties were split. Most importantly, Wentworth said, the plan complies with federal redistricting laws.
"Coming out of a 7 to 1 vote by the Senate Redistricting Committee," Wentworth said, "I don't believe the Senate could go very wrong if we simply adopted this plan without any amendments."
The Senate is also considering two redistricting proposals submitted by Waco Sen. David Sibley. Most of the discussion on the Sibley proposals has centered on Senate districts in the Rio Grande Valley and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Although the Senate has a long tradition of working across party lines, redistricting is one of the most partisan issues in the Legislature. Several members of the Senate Democratic Caucus have criticized Sibley's proposals and endorsed the committee plan authored by Wentworth.
"The Wentworth plan keeps communities of interest together, allows minority impact districts to elect the candidates of their choice, meets the Gingles test requirements and, most importantly, takes into account the wishes of not only the citizens of the state, who told us how they want to be represented, but also of the members (who) make up the body we all serve in together," said Houston Sen. Mario Gallegos, who co chaired the Senate Redistricting Committee during the interim between the 1999 and 2001 sessions.
A Gingles analysis is a test based on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to determine if there is a large enough collection of minorities to be protected under the Voting Rights Act.
"Senator Sibley, as much as I respect your leadership and contributions to this body, on this issue I feel strongly that your plans fail to meet the requirements embodied by the Wentworth plan," Gallegos said. "Any redistricting plan brought before the Senate should not be one that was created (in a) vacuum."
Sibley responded that he created his proposals after consultation and consideration of all guidelines.
"I don't believe the plans that I put up, either 1 or 2, was created in a vacuum. There were many hours put into that," Sibley said. "We had the best consultant in the United States come in and talk to us about Gingles analysis. I asked for a Gingles analysis on all the plans I did, that we submitted, Sibley said. "We submitted these things in compliance of the Voting Rights Act, and that was a compelling state interest," Sibley said. "I point out that the Republican Caucus adopted a resolution that said that obeying the Voting Rights Act ... was a compelling state interest. I've seen nothing like that from the other side. This is something that we feel very strong about and we obeyed it to the letter of the law and the intent of the law."
Discussion of redistricting proposals will continue next week, with CSSB 499 coming up for consideration by the full Senate as early as Monday.
The prospect of a special session for Congressional redistricting is increasingly likely, Ratliff said. Redrawing of Senate, House and SBOE districts is not subject to a special session if the Legislature cannot work out plans in the regular session. If state redistricting is not done by the end of the regular session, the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is composed of the lieutenant governor, speaker of the House, comptroller, attorney general and land commissioner, would take up the task.
School Teacher, Employee Insurance Bill Wins Passage
On Monday, the Senate 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. CSHB 3343 as passed by the Senate would create five tiers of coverage, beginning with bare-bones, catastrophic care coverage. School districts and employees and teachers would have to make up the difference between the cost of providing coverage and the state's contribution.
Senate Action Addresses Nursing Home Issues
A bill focusing on problems in the nursing home industry was narrowly passed by the Senate on Thursday after a long debate.
The Committee Substitute for Senate Bill (CSSB) 1839 "addresses the crisis facing the long-term care industry in Texas," said Fort Worth Sen. Mike Moncrief, the bill's author and the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. "This act includes extraordinary measures that are necessary to address the emergency in this state."
Moncrief said he and the bill's co-author, Lubbock Sen. Robert Duncan, combined parts of several bills focusing on the nursing home industry within CSSB 1839. The bill also includes provisions for quality of care monitoring and dealing with violations. Other components of CSSB 1839 focusing on liability insurance rates and availability, especially a quality assurance charge capped at six percent of the per-bed rate charged by the specific home to be levied on nursing home operators, sparked a sharp debate.
The charge would be used to lower liability insurance rates by reducing the number of claims, with the goal of further reducing rates by increasing the number of insurers operating in Texas, Moncrief said. There is currently only one company writing liability insurance for nursing homes.
Although the fee would be paid by nursing home operators, several senators objected because they said the cost would be passed on to nursing home residents. Moncrief and Duncan debated the bill with several other senators, often challenging them to come up with a better idea to improve the situation in the nursing home industry, which Moncrief said is near collapse.
Proposed Tax Exemption Creates a Stir
Legislation that would provide a tax exemption in San Antonio became the subject of much debate in the Senate on Tuesday after an amendment was added that would include another city.
CSSB 1558, authored by San Antonio Sen. Frank Madla, would return the development authority for the former Kelly Air Force Base to tax exempt status. The Edgewood Independent School District, one of the poorest in the state, is located near Kelly. The Kelly property has never been taxed because it was a federal military installation. The loss of tax-exempt status for the development authority now overseeing the former base jeopardizes 19,000 civilian jobs in the area, Madla said.
A floor amendment by Sibley to also provide tax-exempt status to a former military base in his district -- that was closed in the 1960s -- brought several senators to their feet in opposition.
Bivins reminded his colleagues that property taxes are the basis for public school funding and said the amendments chip away at that tax base. Truan further criticized the additional amendment, saying the bill would look like a "Christmas tree" by the time it travels through the legislative process.
Bivins then proposed an amendment to Sibley's amendment that would also give tax-exempt status to an old base located in Amarillo. Several other senators followed suit, suggesting amendments that would benefit their districts, including one by El Paso Sen. Eliot Shapleigh that would extend tax-exempt status to the 13 counties along the border with Mexico. Neither Shapleigh nor the other senators made a motion for consideration of their amendments.
Although Bivins said he was trying to make a point, the Sibley amendment, including Bivins' amendment to the amendment, was added to the bill by a vote of 24 in favor to 4 opposed. The bill was finally approved on a 22 to 5 vote.
A&M-Kingsville in Line for Pharmacy School
HB 1640, approved Thursday by the Senate, would authorize the creation of a pharmacy school at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. Truan, the sponsor of the bill, cited a recent state study that found a shortage in pharmacists in the border region as the reason for creating the new pharmacy school. The Kingsville pharmacy school would be the first professional graduate school of any kind in the region of the state south of San Antonio.
Other Senate News
Friday was the deadline for Senate committees to take action on all bills. All Senate committees worked throughout the day, and late into the night. There are 16 days remaining in the 77th Regular Session of the Texas Legislature. 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.