LEGE UPDATE: Senate flirts with trans marriage ban; LGBT youth removed from suicide bill

Posted on 22 Apr 2011 at 9:25am
Daniel Williams

An attack on opposite-sex marriage, movement on anti-bullying bills and the removal of protections for LGBT teens from a suicide prevention bill marked this, the 15th week of the Texas Legislature’s 20-week regular session.

On Friday morning , April 15, urgent alerts went out from state and national transgender advocacy groups asking Texans to call Democratic members of the Senate and urge them to oppose Senate Bill 723. The bill would remove a court-ordered “change of sex” from the list of identifying documents which Texans can use to obtain a marriage license, potentially voiding all opposite-sex marriages in Texas where one partner has changed their legally recognized sex.

The alert was caused by the placement of SB 723 on the Senate’s “intent calendar” for Monday, April 18.

Senate rules require bills to be considered in the order they are filed, but the Senate hardly ever follows that rule. Instead they file a bill at the front of the line (the “blocker bill”) and everyone agrees not to vote on it. In order for the Senate to consider a bill filed after the blocker bill they must vote to “set aside” the Senate rules and take the bill “out of order.” Senate Rule 22.02 says that setting aside the rules requires a two-thirds majority of the members present. The intent calendar is a list of bills that Senators intend to bring up out of order that day. The Senate creates an intent calendar each week, and any bill not taken up on Monday rolls over to Tuesday and then to Wednesday. They then start a new intent calendar the following week.

There are 31 Senators: 12 Democrats and 19 Republicans. In order for a bill to receive the required two-thirds (or 20) votes it needs, at least one of the Democrats must support it. Thus the urgency of the alert.

On Monday, when the Senate convened, LGBT activists waited anxiously to see if the Senate would bring up SB 723. After four hours of consideration the Senate adjourned without voting on the bill.

On Tuesday, two Senate anti-bullying bills moved closer to becoming law. Senate Bill 736, by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, was heard in the Senate Education Committee. The bill would require Local School Health Advisory Councils to make recommendations on their school district’s “policies, programs, and resources on dating violence, bullying, and sexual harassment.” There’s nothing currently preventing councils from making such recommendations, but explicitly stating, in code, that they can may encourage schools to take more proactive steps to counter bullying. Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, has filed identical legislation in the House.

Also on Tuesday, the Senate Education Committee voted out Senate Bill 205. The bill, by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, clarifies and expands the current requirement for school districts to create student codes of conduct which are designed, in part, to discourage bullying. Whitmire placed SB 205 on the Senate intent calendar almost immediately after the committee approved it.

Neither Hinojosa’s or Whitmire’s bill makes any specific acknowledgement or LGBT students, or notes they are particularly targets of bullying.

By the end of Tuesday the Senate had still not taken up SB 723 and LGBT advocates statewide had begun to breathe a sigh of relief — but suddenly multiple posts on Twitter and Facebook reported that Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, might break ranks and support the bill. The rumors started after a staffer for West told a Houston-area transgender advocate that the senator supported the bill. West’s office did not respond to multiple requests to confirm or deny his support. Instant Tea broke the story Tuesday night, which prompted Equality Texas to issue an action alert to West’s constituents. Twelve minutes later West’s media relations office responded emphatically stating his opposition to the bill.

Late on Wednesday, Equality Texas also issued an action alert that Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was “undecided” on SB 723. Uresti sits on the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, which heard the bill. When the committee voted, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, had stepped out of the committee chamber. With her absent the vote was three “ayes,” two “nays,” and one “present, not voting.” Uresti was the present, not voting. If he had voted nay the tie vote would have prevented the bill from advancing. A staffer for Uresti confirms that he is still “undecided.” He can be reached at 512-463-0119 or by e-mail at carlos@carlosuresti.com.

Wednesday was the last day this week that the Senate could take up SB 723. They failed to do so but employed a legislative trick that gave them one more day to look at it: The Legislature uses legislative days, not calendar days. Wednesday was the 100th legislative day and remained the 100th day until the Senate adjourned. Instead of adjourning at the end of the day the Senate “recessed” — just took a break. When they returned on Thursday morning it was still, technically, the 100th legislative day and they could have still, technically, continued with the intent calendar from the 100th day, which still contained SB 723.

Fortunately, the Senate did not take up the bill on Wednesday morning. They conducted some business, adjourned from Day 100, and immediately reconvened to start day 101, which, like all Thursdays, Senate Rules reserves for the “local and consent calendar,” or noncontroversial bills.

Long before the Senate returned from their recess on Thursday morning, Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, was introducing House Bill 1386 in the House Public Health Committee. The committee was late starting their regularly scheduled 11:00 am Wednesday meeting because of prolonged debate on the House floor. By the time the they brought up Coleman’s bill, the last heard, it was after 4:00 am on Thursday, yet multiple witnesses in favor of the bill had stayed to testify.

HB 1386, like so many other bills filed this session, is designed to address bullying and teen suicide, but it takes a slightly different approach. The bill, named “Asher’s Law” after 13-year-old Asher Brown who committed suicide last fall, creates a statewide training program to help not only teachers, but also police, nurses, social workers, counselors and school administrators and staff recognize children at risk of suicide and give them tools to provide assistance. HB 1386 would require schools to compile annual reports of instances of bullying and would allow schools to transfer bullies to different campuses or classrooms. The bill would also allow administrators to address cyber-bullying, but only if the communication was sent from campus or from a school event.

As introduced, Coleman’s bill included a policy that would prevent schools from discriminating on the basis of “the actual or perceived ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion, or national origin of the employee, student, or student’s parent.” However, Coleman offered a “committee substitute” (a way of amending a bill by completely replacing it with a new bill) that instead says, “A school district or employee of a school district may not: discriminate against or harass an employee of the district or a student enrolled in the district on account of the perceived or actual characteristics, behavior, or beliefs of the employee or student,” completely eliminating any mention of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. In explaining the committee substitute, Coleman stated that he removed portions of the bill that might be politically difficult for some committee members to support.

Both the House and Senate are taking today off in observation of Good Friday and Monday off in observation of long-standing legislative tradition. SB 723 is not on the Senate’s intent calendar for Tuesday, but is on the General Calendar of bills to be considered in the order committees voted them out. Since the General Calendar contains more controversial bills it takes much longer for the Senate to consider it. SB 723 is the 74th bill in line on the calendar and is unlikely to be taken up next week. Whitmire’s anti-bullying bill, SB 205, is on the intent calendar for Tuesday.

Also on Tuesday the Senate Education Committee will hear Senate Bill 66 by Judith Zaffirini. SB 66 closes a loophole in the Education Code that prevents a student transferred due to behavior problems, such as bullying, from being expelled from their new school during the same school year.

As the Legislature enters the last quarter of the regular session things will start happening at a much faster pace. Important deadlines are looming and the authors of bills, both good and bad, will be scrambling to find any way to get their legislation through. The LGBT community will need to be doubly vigilant for the next five weeks to insure that the people elected to represent us act in our best interests.

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