LEGE UPDATE: Trans marriage ban all but dead; major anti-bullying bill clears Senate committee

Daniel Williams

The zombie-like resurrection of an anti-transgender marriage bill, movement by bullying bills and uncertainty about the fate of Texas’ HIV medication assistance program made for an uncertain week during this, the 19th week of the Texas Legislature’s 20-week regular session.

Last Friday, May 13, dawned with a decided pall hanging upon the Capitol. The previous evening the House had rushed to meet the midnight deadline for House bills to receive the first of their two required floor votes. Hundreds of bills, good and bad, simple and complex, failed to be heard before the deadline, and memories of the preceding night’s massacre still stung the raw, sleep-deprived nerves of elected officials and staffers alike. Bleary-eyed House members stumbled to their desks aware that another midnight deadline loomed before them: Every bill that passed in Thursday’s flurry of activity had to pass again Friday.

House Bill 1386, Rep. Garnet Coleman’s teen suicide prevention bill, had slid in just 20 minutes before Thursday’s midnight deadline. Coleman, D-Houston, began crafting the bill after the suicide of Asher Brown, a 12-year-old Houston-area boy who took his own life after enduring years of anti-gay torment at the hands of school bullies.  The bill allows school districts to work with other state and local agencies to provide counseling and resources to at-risk youth, but does not require any action from schools. When the House brought up the bill for a vote Coleman removed portions that duplicated language in House Bill 1492, the anti-bullying compromise bill drafted by the House Public Education Committee that passed the House the week before. After Coleman reassured his colleagues that HB 1386 did not require school districts to take any action but merely permitted them to work to prevent suicide if they choose to, it passed 107-to-29.

Over in the Senate, LGBT activists were waiting with baited breath. Sen. Tommy Williams, R-TheWoodlands, the author of Senate Bill 723, the infamous anti-trans marriage bill, had once again placed it on the Senate’s fast-track “intent calendar.” The bill would effectively ban opposite-sex marriage for anyone who has changed their legally recognized sex. As the day progressed the Senate took up bill after bill, but SB 723 remained on the table, untouched. Finally, the Senate adjourned without taking up the bill.

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LEGE UPDATE: Anti-bullying bills advance; Senate to consider trans marriage ban Monday

Daniel Williams

Anti-bullying bills were voted out of committee in both the House and Senate this week, the 14th of Texas’ 20-week regular legislative session held in odd-numbered years.

Back on April 5 House Public Education Chairman Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, appointed a subcommittee on bullying. Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who has filed anti-bullying legislation for the last two sessions, chaired the subcommittee.

On Tuesday, Strama’s subcommittee presented a compromise designed to appease conservatives on the Public Education committee. The bullying subcommittee recommended amending House Bill 1942 by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, to include the least controversial elements of other anti-bullying bills and to add the authors of the other bills as co-authors on HB 1942. The newly formed compromise bill requires that anti-bullying materials be included in school health classes and updates the education code to recognize the existence of cyberbullying. Unlike Strama’s original anti-bullying bill, House Bill 224, the compromise only allows administrators to address cyberbullying if it happens on school grounds or at school events. The compromise bill would also allow for the transfer of bullies to different classes or campuses than their victims (currently only the victim may be transferred).

The subcommittee avoided any recognition of LGBT students in its compromise. The bill neither prohibits anti-LGBT discrimination (as legislation filed by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, would do) nor requires school districts to report if homophobia or transphobia motivated an incident of bullying (as legislation filed by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would do).

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Equality Texas lauds House committee’s decision to advance bipartisan anti-bullying bill

Rep. Diane Patrick

The Texas House Committee on Public Education voted 10-1 today to advance a bipartisan anti-bullying bill, authored by Republican Rep. Diane Patrick of Arlington. The bill, a committee substitute for Patrick’s HB 1942, doesn’t specifically protect LGBT youth but incorporates much of the language from another anti-bullying bill by Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin. For example, Patrick’s bill would update the definition of bullying to include cyberbullying, and it would allow the bully, instead of just the victim, to be transferred to another classroom or campus. Strama’s bill had the backing of Equality Texas, which now plans to support Patrick’s bill. The text of the committee’s substitute for Patrick’s bill wasn’t immediately available on the Legislature’s website, but Equality Texas provides details of the measure in a press release below.

—  John Wright

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: Hearing set on bills to remove ‘homosexual conduct’ law from books

Daniel Williams

DANIEL WILLIAMS | Legislative Queery

This week was the 12th of Texas’ 20-week regular legislative session, held in odd-numbered years. The urgency of looming deadlines has pressed lawmakers into a flurry of activity with committee hearings lasting into the wee hours of the morning and lawmakers engaging in hours-long floor debates. While the heated budget fight continues to dominate headlines, several key bills important to the LGBT community have quietly made progress this week.

On Tuesday, the House Public Education Committee considered legislation designed to address the issue of bullying, including House Bill 24 by Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Duval, Starr, Webb and Zapata counties, and House Bill 170 by Rep. Richard Raymond, D-Laredo. Guillen’s bill had originally been scheduled for a public hearing on March 1, but he removed it from consideration to address concerns that it focused simply on punishing bullies and not on preventing bullying in the first place. At Tuesday’s hearing, Guillen offered a revised version of the bill that included education and prevention elements not in his original bill.

This was the second time this session that the committee heard legislation on the subject of bullying. During discussion of the bills Chairman Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, conceded that this is an important issue for many Texans and indicated that the committee would likely pass some form of anti-bullying legislation that included elements of all or some of the bills that have been filed this session.

On Wednesday, House Bill 665 by Rep. Mike Villarreal, D-San Antonio, which would prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression, was heard in the House Economic and Small Business Development Committee. Meghan Stabler, Human Rights Campaign board member, testified passionately in favor of the bill using her personal experience as a transgender woman to illustrate the need for employment protections. The slack-jawed awe of some committee members at being in the same room with an actual transgender person slowly morphed into rapt attention as Stabler patiently told her story of transitioning on the job and how her employers slowly demoted and moved her to less critical positions. Dennis Coleman,executive director of Equality Texas, also testified in favor of the bill.

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Removal of sexual orientation doesn’t stop bigots — or the ACLU — from opposing anti-bullying bill

Jonathan Saenz

The removal of sexual orientation from an anti-bullying bill didn’t stop anti-gay groups from opposing the measure during a Texas House committee hearing on Tuesday afternoon.

Jonathan Saenz, director of legislative affiars for the Plano-based Liberty Institute, told the House public education committee that even though sexual orientation and other enumerated categories were removed from Rep. Mark Strama’s HB 224, Saenz fears the categories will be restored to the measure at some point.

“It is about the gay rights, the homosexual community, the transgender community, and an effort to create special categories and special rights in our law that don’t currently exist, and really carve off protections for some groups and not others,” Saenz told the committee. “It’s not about bullying, and it’s not about solving this problem. It’s about creating new classes of people and giving special protections to some categories and not others.”

Strama said during the hearing that he has no plans to restore the enumerated categories to the bill.

“We took all those classes out so we wouldn’t have to have this discusssion,” said Strama, D-Austin. “It’s not my intention to put any of that list back in the bill. At this point I’d like to keep it the way it is if we can get this bill moving through the process.”

Representatives from Equality Texas, which supports the bill and testified in favor of it on Tuesday, have said the enumerated categories were removed to improve the bill’s chances of passage and de-politicize the issue.

Also testifying against Strama’s bill were both the anti-gay Texas Eagle Forum and the normally pro-equality American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU representatives say Strama’s bill, which would allow school officials to crack down on cyberbullying that occurs off campus, creates concerns about free speech and parental rights.

The bill was left pending in the education committee. To watch video of the committee hearing, go here.

—  John Wright

References to sexual orientation, gender identity to be removed from TX anti-bullying bills

Chuck-Smith
Chuck Smith

Specific references to LGBT youth will be removed from two anti-bullying bills backed by Equality Texas to improve their chances of passage and de-politicize the issue, Instant Tea has learned.

One of the bills, House Bill 224 by State Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, is scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said Monday that a substitute for HB 224 will be introduced during the hearing that removes all enumerated categories — including sexual orientation — from a provision requiring school districts to report incidents of bullying to the state.

Instead, the substitute bill will direct the Texas education commissioner to specify what types of bullying must be reported. Smith said enumerated categories will also be removed from a companion bill in the Senate, SB 242 by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. Davis’ bill as originally drafted included both sexual orientation and gender identity/expression.

“If they were all there it likely wouldn’t pass,” Smith said, referring to the enumerated categories. “At the end of the day, the reporting part is not important compared to the rest of the guts of the bill.”

HB 224 and SB 242 would establish uniform definitions for bullying and cyberbullying in the state education code, and require districts to create training programs for students, parents, staff and volunteers. The bills would also allow officials to transfer bullies to different classes or campuses than their victims.

Strama’s HB 224 is scheduled for a hearing at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the House public education committee. It’s one of three bills backed by Equality Texas scheduled for committee hearings Tuesday.

HB 172, by Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, would launch a study on the effectiveness of the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act. HB 172 is scheduled for a hearing at 10:30 a.m. in the House criminal jurisprudence committee.

HB 130, by Rep. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, would incorporate an anti-bullying hotline into the state’s existing Texas Abuse/Neglect Hotline. HB 130 is scheduled for a hearing at 2 p.m. in the House human services committee. 

Smith said it’s unlikely that any of the bills will be voted on Tuesday. You can watch committee hearings live on the Legislature’s website. For more information on Equality Texas’ legislative agenda, go here. To register for the group’s lobby day on Monday, March 7, go here.

UPDATE: The full text of the substitute bill is here. Smith also had this to say on Facebook:

“I would have preferred a headline like, ‘House Public Ed Committee to hear landmark anti-bullying bill that will protect every child based upon any actual or perceived personal characteristics, behavior, or belief.’ That’s what’s IN the bill and EVERY child will be protected. The enumerated references were removed from reporting guidelines, not who is covered by the bill.”

—  John Wright

Houston legislators Coleman, Farrar announce plan to re-introduce Dignity for All Students Act

State Reps. Garnet Coleman of Houston, left, and Mark Strama of Austin

State Reps. Garnet Coleman and Jessica Farrar, both Houston Democrats, on Friday released a joint statement announcing their intention to once again file the Dignity for All Students Act when the 2011 Texas Legislature comes into session, saying that “recent news reports have highlighted the necessity for such legislation.”

The news reports the statement references revolve around the recent suicides of teens who had been bullied and harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, including 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, who shot himself to death on Thursday, Sept. 23.

The Dignity for All Students Act would prohibit discrimination and harassment in public schools on the basis of ethnicity, color, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin.  It would also prohibit discrimination based on association with a person, and protects both the parents of students and whistleblowers who may report incidents of discrimination or harassment.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, said that Coleman has been filing the Dignity for All Students Act since 2003, but the bill itself has been filed in Texas legislative sessions since 1997 when then-State Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt of Dallas introduced the measure.

Smith said the Dignity for All Students Act introduced in the 2009 legislative session, authored by Coleman and co-authored by El Paso Democratic State Rep. Marissa Marquez, was sent to the Public Education Committee but did not get a hearing that session.

Another measure, the Safe Schools for All Youth Act introduced in 2009 by Austin Democratic Rep. Mark Strama, is also likely to be refiled in 2011, Smith said. The 2009 version of Strama’s bill, which expanded and clarified the definition of bullying to include cyber-bullying and bullying that occurs off-campus, did pass out of the Public Education Committee and the Calendar Committee and was “in line for floor debate when everything died in the House in the stall that occurred in an effort to avoid dealing with voter ID bills,” he said.

Strama’s bill, Smith said, “uses language that teachers and administrators can relate to. It would create a definition of what bullying is and what cyber-bullying is, what to do when bullying or cyber-bullying occurs and strategies to reduce incidents of bullying and cyber-bullying. It adds those definitions into existing laws about what triggers some sort of disciplinary action.”

He said that the 2011 version of Strama’s bill — which had four joint authors and 13 co-authors — will include even more than was included in the 2009 version. He also said that Coleman and Farrar’s Dignity for All Students Act and Strama’s Safe Schools for All Students Act aren’t redundant.

“The two bills would both be part of the Texas Education Code, but they would be in different parts of the Texas Education Code. Coleman’s bill would be in Chapter 11, and Strama’s bill would be in Chapter 37. They don’t overlap,” Smith said.

He added that these two might not be the only two bills bullying and harassment in public schools to be filed in the 2011 legislative session.

“There is certainly the possibility that there will be additional bills filed,” And if there could be anything good to come out of recent events, maybe it’s that it could help us reach the tipping point where something will actually get done this year.”

The 82nd Texas Legislature convenes in January.

—  admin