Group touts pro-LGBT legislation; Senate in uproar as session begins
The Texas Legislature opened its 81st session this week with a moderate Republican at the helm as speaker of the House, but with the Senate in an uproar as Republicans there try to circumvent filibuster rules.
Randall Terrell, political director for the LGBT advocacy organization Equality Texas, said Wednesday, Jan. 14, that new leadership in the House could be advantageous for LGBT people in the Lone Star State. But it could also bring up new challenges, as well.
"I am a little more hopeful now that [San Antonio Republican Rep. Joe] Straus is speaker of the House, but that cuts both ways," Terrell said.
The speaker of the House controls the agenda there, determining which bills can come to the floor for a vote. Straus is not expected to push the kind of socially conservative agenda that former Speaker Tom Craddick backed. But Craddick still has supporters in the House, and they are likely to test the new speaker on those issues with anti-gay amendments to other bills, Terrell said.
"With a lighter hand from the speaker of the House this time, I expect to see more attempts to throw amendments up from the floor," Terrell said. "The Arkansas bill [Act 1, an initiative approved by voters there last November that prohibits gays and lesbians from becoming foster or adoptive parents] has us all worried. I fully expect to see a nasty amendment on foster care or adoption in the House this session.
"The social conservative minority in the House is probably going to try and force votes on some issues. With a moderate Republican as speaker, we’re going to see attempts by the social conservatives to embarrass him or to try and sneak something through," Terrell said.
He said that the uproar in the Senate could impact the LGBT community, as well.
"The Senate is in the process of blowing up even as we speak," Terrell said Wednesday afternoon. "There’s a struggle going on on two issues right now: voter IDs and redistricting.
"The Senate has always had a rule requiring a two-thirds majority vote to bring something to the floor. But there is a proposal right now to remove that requirement on bills dealing with these two issues [voter IDs and redistricting]," he explained.
"Democrats have had enough votes in the past to block bad bills from coming to the floor because of the two-thirds requirement. But if they remove that requirement, then [the Democrats] can’t stop those bills from coming up for a vote," Terrell said.
Redistricting always has the possibility of re-aligning districts in such a way that LGBT-friendly lawmakers see their constituency divided and their chances of re-election diminished.
The last redistricting in Texas, controlled by Republicans, prompted longtime LGBT ally state Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt not to run for re-election after her district was redrawn. It also led to the re-election loss of another longtime LGBT ally, Congressman Martin Frost.
Redistricting, Terrell said, "is a purely partisan affair," and a look at the Texas Republican Party’s state party platform, "a truly heinous" document, makes it obvious why Republican-friendly districts could be bad for LGBT Texans.
But, Terrell said, the voter ID debate can also have a significant negative impact on the community.
"We got collaterally involved in the voter ID issue last time, and we may do so again, depending on the language used in this version," he said. "Requiring people to present a photo ID to be able to vote sounds all well and good. But the fact is, 10 to 15 percent of Texas voters don’t have a photo ID. And last session when this bill was introduced, it included language saying that if the precinct judge at your polling place said your appearance didn’t match your ID, then they could exclude you from voting. And that certainly directly affects some of our constituents."
Terrell said an obvious example is that many transgender people have photo IDs that do not accurately represent their gender identity. But even something as minor as someone having dyed their hair could give an election judge reason to deny that person the ability to vote.
"Without some definite standards in place, it could really endanger the ability of our community to vote," he said. "And having anyone be denied their right to vote is a tragedy."
Despite the possible problems, Terrell said, there are several bright spots in this first week of the session for the LGBT community. One that tops the list is Rep. Marc Veasey’s bill that would establish a commission to study the effectiveness so far of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act.
"Essentially, police officers in Texas investigate a lot of crimes each year as potential hate crimes, but only eight prosecutions have occurred that have asked for a hate crimes finding" since the act was passed in 2001.
"You’d think there would be a higher percentage of cases where the prosecutors would ask for a hate crime finding," Terrell said. "There is a lot of information out there already, and we know what we’re looking for. But Marc Veasey’s bill goes a long way toward getting that information all together in once place. And when we get that information together, that could help us see if we need to do something to tweak the legislation so that prosecutors will use it more."
Veasey is a Democrat from Fort Worth. He introduced the same measure in the 80th legislative session in 2007, but it never made it to the House floor for a vote.
Rep. Mike Villareal, a Democrat from San Antonio, has introduced an omnibus nondiscrimination bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, public accommodations and other areas. Terrell said that a previous version of this bill, which also did not make it to the floor for a vote in 2007, would have established separate regulations preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. This new bill simply injects sexual orientation and gender identity into the protected classes in existing regulations.
Rep. Eddie Rodriguez of Austin, a Democrat, has introduced legislation guaranteeing unmarried partners hospital visitation rights and the right to make medical care decisions for one another. "It is a fairly comprehensive effort to look at all those situations where people should be able to stay with their partner and help in decision-making," Terrell said. "It is a very nice bill and we really like it."
Democratic Rep. Roberto Alonzo of Dallas has refiled a bill to ban discrimination in the provision of insurance. Terrell said the measure did not make it out of committee in the last session of the Legislature, "which was not surprising given the leadership we had at the time. We’re very happy that Rep. Alonzo has filed this bill again."
On the Senate side, Democratic Sen. Royce West of Dallas has filed a measure that would add protections for homeless people to the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act.
Terrell said because "there is a lot of crossover" between the LGBT population and the homeless population, Equality Texas is watching this bill, too. "He [West] hasn’t proposed this yet, but we would like to see gender identity and gender expression added to the protected classes [in the hate crimes act] as well," Terrell said.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston, has introduced legislation proposing to set up an insurance system for small businesses that can’t otherwise get insurance. The bill has a nondiscrimination clause that includes sexual orientation, but does not yet include gender identity and gender expression, Terrell said.
"I think we can work with him on that to get those included. That’s another one we’re watching," he added.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 16, 2009.