LEGE UPDATE: Best. Legislative. Week. Ever.

Posted on 27 May 2011 at 6:46pm
Daniel Williams

The passage of not one but two anti-bullying bills, the final death of an anti-trans marriage bill and the failure of amendments designed to defund and ban campus LGBT resource centers made this, the final full week of the Texas Legislature’s 20-week regular session, perhaps the best legislative week for LGBT Texans ever.

Friday, May 20th dawned amid fears that Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, would attempt to amend Senate Bill 1811 to include provisions designed to defund and ban LGBT resource centers from Texas universities. SB 1811 is one of several “fiscal matters” bills that compliment the budget, further clarifying details of how appropriated funds should be used. Christian pre-filed two amendments the previous Thursday. The first was identical to an amendment he attached to the state budget that was later removed in the Senate. The amendment required schools that appropriated state funds for LGBT resource centers to spend an equal amount on “family and traditional values centers.” The second would prohibit any state funds from being spent on LGBT resource centers and would prevent them from being housed in campus buildings.

For seven hours the House considered amendment after amendment to SB 1811. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who carried the legislation in the House and chairs the powerful Appropriations Committee had promised both the Republican and Democratic caucuses that he would oppose all but 11 “perfecting” amendments to the bill. For the most part the House respected his opposition and the House rejected the vast majority of amendments. Late in the debate word came over that another of the fiscal matters bills, Senate Bill 1581, had passed the Senate. SB 1581 deals specifically with fiscal matters affecting secondary and higher education. Because of the late hour, and because most of the amendments to SB 1811 weren’t passing anyway, Simpson and several of his colleagues withdrew amendments dealing with education with the assumption that they could be amended to SB 1581 the next Monday, when it would be debated in the House.

Just after midnight on Saturday morning, SB 1811 passed the House, without the Christian amendments.

Saturday, May 21, was the last day that Senate Bills could be considered by House Committees. Bills must pass both the House and Senate to become law. Both chambers begin the process of considering bills by referring them to committees which then make recommendations to the whole body. Because of the strict 140-day length of session the House and Senate rules contain several deadlines for different steps in the process.

Senate Bill 723 by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, was still waiting for consideration in the Senate when Saturday dawned. The bill would effectively ban opposite-sex marriage in Texas for anyone who has changed their legally-recognized sex. The Senate has two methods for considering bills on the floor: the fast-track “intent calendar,” which requires a two-thirds vote of Senators; and the slower-moving “regular order of business” which requires a simple majority.  SB 723 had been on and off the intent calendar three times since April 15th. Each time Williams placed it on the calendar LGBT activists from across the nation flooded the 12 Senate Democrats’ offices with calls in opposition. Since bills on the intent calendar require the support of two-thirds of Senators, 12 of the 31 Senators can block any bill on the calendar. If the Democrats remained firm in their opposition the bill could not come up.

On Saturday SB 723 was on the Senate’s regular order of business. When the Senate adjourned a little after 4 p.m. without bringing it up for a vote, SB 723 finally died.

On Monday, SB 1581, the secondary and higher education fiscal matters bill that could have been a vehicle for Christian’s anti-campus LGBT resource center amendments, was scheduled for debate in the House. Almost as soon as SB 1581 was brought up for consideration, Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, killed the bill with a point of order, an objection that it was not advanced through the process in accordance with House Rules. The death of SB 1581 meant that Christian lost his last best chance to pass his amendments.

Tuesday was another important deadline in the House: the last day for the House to begin consideration of Senate Bills, other than those on the local and consent calendar. The local and consent calendar is a list of non-controversial bills. To be placed on the calendar, bills must pass committee unanimously. Senate Bill 205 by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, had, early on, seemed like the anti-bullying bill most likely to pass. The bill clarifies and explains the requirements for school districts’ student codes of conduct, requiring specific anti-bullying language. Whitmire is the longest currently-serving member of the Senate and his significant influence in that body had helped push the bill through, but SB 205 stalled in the House Public Education Committee. The committee eventually voted SB 205 out, but not in time for it to get on the House’s scheduled business for Tuesday. When the House adjourned just after midnight without considering the bill, SB 205 died.

Last week the Senate passed two anti-bullying bills: House Bill 1942 by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington; and House Bill 1386 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. The Senate made changes to the House versions of both bills.

HB 1942 is a compromise bill crafted by the House Public Education Committee that includes elements of several other anti-bullying bills. The bill allows for staff training on identifying and preventing bullying and permits schools to transfer bullies to other classes or campuses (currently on the victim may be transferred). It also creates a standard definition of bullying in the Education Code that includes cyber-bullying that originates from on-campus or at school events. The Senate’s changes to HB 1942 were minor: including protections for students receiving special education and cleaning up syntax in the bill’s definition of bullying.

HB 1386 instructs the Texas Department of State Health Services to develop resources designed to prevent teen suicide, including mental health counseling, crisis prevention tools and suicide prevention eduction. Schools would then have the option of implementing those programs, but would not be required to do so. The Senate made two adjustments to the bill, adding licensed marriage counselors to the list of mental health professionals schools could hire and requiring parents to be informed before their children receive any kind of mental health counseling or screening.

In order for the bills to progress to the governor’s desk the House needed to concur with the Senate’s changes, otherwise a “conference committee” of five House members appointed by the Speaker of the House and five Senators appointed by the lieutenant governor would be created to work out a compromise, which would then need to be approved by both bodies.

Late on Tuesday evening the House concurred with the Senate’s changes to HB 1942. They did the same on Thursday morning with the Senate’s changes to HB 1386. The bills now join hundreds of others awaiting Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. The Governor has 30 days to either sign or veto bills once they are approved by both the House and Senate. If he takes no action before the deadline the bills become law without his signature. The Governor’s office has not signaled his intentions for either bill but opposition is not expected.

There are fewer than 100 hours left in the session, which ends on Monday, May 30. There is very little that the Legislature can do during these last four days. Today is the last day for the House to concur with Senate changes to bills, and Sunday is the last day for the Senate to concur with House changes and the last day for either body to approve compromises created by conference committees. House and Senate rules only allow for “technical corrections” on Monday before both bodies adjourn “Sine Die,” Latin for “without a day.” The phrase, pronounced in Texas as “Sigh-knee Dye-ee,” indicates that the session is over and that the current Legislature has finished considering all of the business before it.

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