Texas Legislature ends session without passing pro-gay or anti-gay measures, but special session could offer each side another chance
The 81st Texas Legislature adjourned Monday night with a lot of unfinished business still left on the table.
Paul Scott, executive director of the statewide LGBT advocacy group Equality Texas, said Tuesday that unfinished business — and the special session it could force — has the potential to lead to both good and bad outcomes for the Lone Star State’s LGBT community.
A sticking point at the finish of the 140-day session was a bitter dispute between the House and Senate over $2 billion in transportation bond funding that the House failed to pass before gaveling out of session.
Angry Republican senators said it was preferable to quit and let Perry call the Legislature back into a 30-day special session to continue the transportation department and other state agencies and pass the bonds.
Perry has said a special session may not be necessary. Scott said this week if the special session happens, it could give LGBT rights advocates another chance to get a bill approved that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in the issuance of insurance.
"It depends on what [issue] the special session is called on," Scott said.
"Insurance and transportation are two of the primary issues [left hanging], and including insurance issues in the special session would allow us some opportunity to move forward in advocating for nondiscrimination policies in that area.
"It would also give us a chance to maybe revisit the competitive benefits bill that [Rep.] Elliott Naishtat had introduced," Scott said.
That bill would have allowed the University of Texas system and the Texas A&M University system the ability to offer domestic partner benefits to faculty and staff.
"These issues in a special session would allow us to focus our efforts proactively. It would give us another bite at the apple," Scott said.
But it could also give Republicans another chance to pass legislation requiring citizens to show identification at the polls before being allowed to vote. Democrats killed that bill with a filibuster earlier in the session.
Supporters of the voter ID measure say that it would prevent voter fraud, but opponents say it would intimidate some valid voters, especially those in poor and minority communities.
Scott said this week that transgenders are among those who could be disenfranchised if the voter ID measure is enacted.
"People in the transgender community often do not have identification that matches their physical appearance or the way they choose to present," Scott said.
Overall, Scott said, for the LGBT community, the 81st Texas Legislature was notable not for what came out of it, but for what didn’t.
"We feel good in the sense, first of all, of having made sure nothing anti-equality was passed" or even introduced, he said.
LGBT advocates have often had to fight off efforts to prohibit gays and lesbians from serving as foster or adoptive parents as recently as four years ago. Two years ago, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, had signaled his intentions to introduce such bills again. And even though those bills weren’t introduced, Scott said, "we had to be careful to make sure that no amendments or riders were introduced and moved forward."
This year, he added, "there was no undercurrent [of anti-gay legislation], no threats, no phone calls from sources telling us that something was coming.
"Because of the work we did in 2007, we developed stronger relationships in several offices to serve as our eyes and ears to look out for us. This time we heard of nothing specific" on the agenda, Scott said.
This session did give Equality Texas "good opportunities to work in a bipartisan nature on some issues, and we even had a couple of Republican cosponsors on some of our bills," he added. "It’s so much easier when you don’t have to shop around for people to carry out bills. We have our heroes, like Garnet Coleman in Houston … and Rafael Anchia in Dallas, who work with us to carry legislation, but having that diversity in our support is really important."
Scott also said that although none of the bills Equality Texas supported made it to a vote in either house this time, he does see action on those bills as a sign of progress.
"We felt like the anti-bullying bill had a better chance at getting passed toward the end of the session. It was carried by [Austin Rep.] Mark Strama and had a number of supporters. We felt like it was a good foundational bill to use in moving forward," Scott said of a measure that would have strengthened protections against bullying and harassment in the schools and which defined cyber-bullying and set up a mechanism to track incidents of bullying.
Scott said that bill was sent to the Calendars Committee and actually set for debate on the House floor. "But unfortunately, debate on some other bills took a lot longer than expected and we ran out of time. We were 10 bills away from that bill being heard, but the debate over feral hogs and shooting them from helicopters went on much longer than anyone expected," he said.
Scott also said that there were "more hearings on more bills" supported by Equality Texas in this session than ever before.
Legislation that would have established a study to see how the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Law is being used in prosecutions and why it is not used more frequently also made it to the Calendars Committee, but was not put on the schedule for debate on the House floor.
Scott said he was pleased by the participation of Equality Texas members this year, which was "more targeted and more focused."
"We have been trying to get members in some parts of the state to work on getting some of the more moderate Republicans on board with our issues, and we are definitely seeing some progress with that," Scott said.
Now that the session has ended, Scott said Equality Texas will focus first on the possibility of a special session, but also beginning "advocacy work on bills for the next session, especially those dealing with safe schools."
"We want to start developing outreach efforts to educate the public, parents, teachers and administrators, and we want to work on getting districts to include LGBT students in their anti-harassments policies," he said.
"A lot of our focus is on the legislative sessions, of course. But it is critical to work prior to the session, so on that first day, it is clear what our agenda is, what our needs and priorities are, and to have members know those things and be supportive of them," he said.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 5, 2009.