UT-Austin extending dental and health coverage to same-sex spouses

University-of-Texas-Austin

UT-Austin

The University of Texas–Austin announced today (Monday, June 29) same-sex spouses and dependent children will be eligible for health and dental coverage, according to the Austin-American Statesman.

The changes go into effect July 1. Employees will have 31 days to enroll.

During the last legislative session, Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, introduced HB 2692, which would have allowed universities to extend benefits to same-sex spouses. In turn, Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Rosenberg, introduced HB 3890, which would have barred retirement benefits to same-sex spouses. Both died in committee.

—  James Russell

Bought and sold: Give me a perfect grade or else

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Sen. Konni Burton

Every two years, members of the Texas Legislature descend upon the state Capitol to pass a budget and amend or repeal state laws. Some bills are noble; other bills are not. Then they go home, back to their districts.

After the lawmakers settle in, groups ranging from Equality Texas to your local chamber of commerce release report cards based on legislators’ votes. They’re valuable for fundraising, used to inform voters – and of course, serve as bait during primary season, too.

Among other groups issuing scorecards are – you betcha! – fringe conservative power brokers Empower Texans, Concerned Women of America and Texas Eagle Forum. Wielding the crowns of liberty, they roll out their scorecards to preserve the sacred relationship between donor and flak.

Already two of the three groups have released their scorecards. Empower Texans’ Fiscal Responsibility Index, loosely defined, focuses on the budget. Concerned Women for America gets down the most pressing issues, like preventing Shariah law and reassuring the assurance guaranteed in the Constitution about a clear separation between church and state.

On the Fiscal Index, minions are graded from A+ to F based on key votes, like moving HIV/AIDS education and awareness funds to the abstinence education fund or for a budget with the empty promise of tax relief. Six senators, all Republicans, received a 90 or above. Among them are North Texas freshmen Sens. Konni Burton, Bob Hall, Van Taylor and Don Huffines.

The better the vote, the more likely they’ll stay on the good side of their buddies in West Texas.

But these scorecards are, for the most part, fraudulent. They’re deceptive. They only feed red meat to primary voters. To some observers, their beef with them lies in their fiscal irresponsibility. To me, it’s their co-opting of the term “liberty” altogether. Liberty is a right, allowing people to live and be free.

But to these legislators, liberty is all about chasing their next campaign donation.

If politics is the art of deception, then these scorecards and Texas legislators who champion them are the ultimate definition of politics.

Willingly deceived

I bring this all up not because reading scorecards is my favorite post-legislative activity, but because freshman Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, complained on Twitter this morning that no one was covering her A+ grade on the Fiscal Index. While I can’t see her Twitter posts, The Texas Observer’s Christopher Hooks managed to get a screen shot. You can see those here.

While her meltdown is unbecoming and unprofessional, if she wants publicity, then here, let me give it to her:

Congratulations, Senator. You got a gold star, another toward your re-election bid. You join  Rep. Molly White, who is probably getting her first gold star. Ever. (For what it’s worth, White has already received a “worst” award from Texas Monthly and Equality Texas.)

But keep in mind, as you race toward a perfect grade, don’t fall along the way. That vote to slash the social safety net didn’t just earn you a re-election check and gold star, but the chance there’ll be nothing to help you back up after you’ve fallen down.

—  James Russell

Abbott signs Pastor Protection Act, reasserting rights that have been reasserted

Abbott.GregGovernor Greg Abbott today signed SB 2065, otherwise known as “the Pastor Protection Act” protecting clergy members from performing marriage ceremonies that violate sincerely held religious beliefs. The bill, by Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls and Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, was filed before an anticipated Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality late this month.

Under the First Amendment clergy members are already protected from performing marriages they may oppose — including same-sex marriages.

Abbott hosted the signing ceremony at the Texas Governor’s Mansion and was joined by members of the legislature who were instrumental in the passage of this legislation, as well as members from the clergy across Texas.

“Freedom of religion is the most sacred of our rights and our freedom to worship is secured by the Constitution,” Abbott said in a statement. “Religious leaders in the State of Texas must be absolutely secure in the knowledge that religious freedom is beyond the reach of government or coercion by the courts. Today I am proud to sign into law SB 2065 — the Pastor Protection Act — to ensure that clergy in Texas cannot be forced to violate their religious beliefs.”

Despite the record-breaking number of bills targeting the LGBT community filed this session, only SB 2065 received a floor vote. Initially Equality Texas and others initially opposed the bill over concerns that clergy members who also serve in government roles could deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However they dropped their opposition after Rep. Sanford clarified it only applies only to clergy in that official capacity.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, called the law necessary.

“With today’s signing of SB 2065, Texas took a small but important step to further protect the religious freedom of clergy in the face of increasing hostility toward people of faith in all walks of life,” he said in a statement.

But to Paxton and others, the bill is not enough. Recently some social conservative leaders called for a special session to address same-sex marriage. Abbott indicated he would not call any special session.

“We now have much more work to do to ensure that all Texans can practice their faith and, among other things, recognize traditional marriage without being punished, harassed or discriminated against for their beliefs,” Paxton said, taking a swipe at the governor.

“Whatever the U.S. Supreme Court decides, the people of Texas and its leadership must not sit idly by in the face of hostility and harassment at the hands of a small but loud chorus of activists and the few corporate cronies cowed by them who denounce Texans simply for standing in defense of traditional marriage,” he added.

If not a special session on marriage, then perhaps Paxton is instead mulling another avenue: the 2018 GOP primary.

—  James Russell

Texas Lege ends, now the fun begins; “bought and sold” series returns

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The Texas Capitol, site of a future “American Horror Story” season.

After staving off the threats of ISIS at the border, struggling with the godlessness of pre-kindergarten education and failing to save the evil Speaker Who Doesn’t Believe in the Messiah, the 84th legislature’s snake charmers finally went back home yesterday.

On the bright side: Per the state’s Constitution, they passed a budget. And their mighty efforts to slash taxes resulted in successfully saving the average homeowner…$200-something in property taxes.

Just as important, they’ve stopped screwing with your lives! Any legislation harmful to the LGBT community was thwarted!

The bad part: They’re now back home. They’re among us.

In the 84th tussle to burn the biggest effigy, LGBT advocates can happily claim a number of wins. The Romeo and Juliet bill made it to the floor for a vote after receiving bipartisan support in committee; religious discrimination language targeting LGBT children and families was defeated; and county clerks will not be barred from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

But your valiant warriors worked to assure us they did indeed accomplish something. Enough, in fact, that those accomplishments won’t fit on a post card: the Senate passed a last-ditch resolution re-asserting their support for “traditional marriage” (as in, between a man and a woman, at least in the daylight); they found more ways to regulate uteri; and of course they gutted serious ethics reform legislation.

With such great accomplishments, now it’s time to watch the little substance of this past session turn into campaign fodder — or for many Republican incumbents who’ve earned the tea Party’s ire, liabilities.

I can’t wait to write about upcoming election cycle. I’ll continue to follow the money, reviving my “Bought and sold” series on dark money, campaign finances and right-wing boogeymen.

Bring it, 2016.

Or, if strictly speaking in presidential elections, 1992.

—  James Russell

Rep. Ramon Romero Refuses to Allow His Bill to be Hijacked

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Rep. Ramon Romero

Rep. Ramon Ramero pulled a bill from consideration and wrote on Twitter, “I refuse to allow my bill to be hijacked by an amendment that would discriminate against the LGBT community.”

He sent the following to Dallas Voice’s James Russell:

AUSTIN, TX – Rep. Ramon Romero (D-Fort Worth) passed House Bill 1630 earlier this month out of the Texas House of Representatives seeking to end the practice of nondisclosure agreements shielding facts from public disclosure when taxpayer dollars are used to settle lawsuits against public officials and other state actors.

“I had strong bipartisan support for meaningful reform of nondisclosure agreements when taxpayer dollars are used to settle lawsuits. It was based on the time-honored premise of open government and transparency — that the public deserves to know how and why tax dollars are being spent,” said Rep. Romero.

The legislation passed 117 to 26 and went to the Texas Senate for consideration. Many measures aimed at curbing LGBT rights have been popular with conservative legislators during this session. When House Bill 1630 was brought up for consideration on the Senate floor, Republicans hijacked Rep. Romero’s legislation by adding an unrelated and non-germane amendment seeking to shield pastors from lawsuit discovery, legislation related to the City of Houston’s passage of a non-discrimination ordinance protecting the LGBT community.

Rep. Romero had a choice to make: Simply accept the amendment, risk its adoption in a conference committee negotiation, or refuse to allow the bill to move ahead with the controversial amendment attached. Romero promptly decided to send the bill back to the Senate with the hope that they would remove the amendment, thereby likely sealing the bill’s fate.

The bill failed to pass by the Wednesday midnight deadline and is now dead.

“I would rather have my legislation, which I believe to be important for transparency in governmental accountability, to die than be amended to possibly encourage discrimination against our LGBT community and other Texans,” said Romero. If this measure related to shielding pastors from discovery is something more than political posturing, it should pass on its own merit, said Romero. “Tea Party-inspired culture war politics have no place in our State, and I would never allow my name to be associated with it,” he said.

—  David Taffet

Sanford amendment, HIV bill dead but crucial marriage equality vote set for today

texas-capitolTwo pieces of legislation opposed by many LGBT advocates died yesterday, Tuesday, May 26. But marriage equality opponents in the Legislature have one more chance to play political batting practice with same-sex couples seeking marriage licenses before the session ends.

SB 779, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, and sponsored by Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, is dead. It would have allowed prosecutors to obtain the medical records of defendants with HIV if it is believed the defendant intentionally used their status as a weapon. Advocates for those with HIV and AIDS called the it akin to HIV criminalization.

After a political tug of war, another amendment opposed by LGBT advocates died. McKinney Republican Rep. Scott Sanford’s amendment that would have allowed child welfare organizations, including those with state contracts, to discriminate against LGBT families and children was pulled before it could make a vote.

But one bill still has LGBT advocates on edge.

On Monday, May 25, Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, inserted language in HB 2799 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, that would bar county officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The language placed  is similar to HB 4105 by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia.

Committee members, including Democratic Sens. Jose Mendenez of San Antonio and Sylvia Garcia of Houston, objected, saying it and other language was inserted without their knowledge.

It will be voted on today in the Senate.

—  James Russell

BREAKING: Anti-marriage-equality language revised in Senate committee

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Sen. Eddie Lucio II, D-Brownsville.

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, has inserted language into a House bill that would bar county officials from issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

According to Quorum Report, Lucio added the language during a committee hearing on HB 2977 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. The move largely flew under the radar.

It is similar to HB 4105 by Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, that died before reaching a key vote. After its defeat he said previously he would find another way to insert some form of HB 4105 as an amendment to another bill.

The amended version now heads to the Senate floor for a vote, making it the first record anti-same-sex marriage vote this session but will face a hurdle in the House. Coleman is one of the House’s top LGBT allies.

—  James Russell

UPDATE: Sanford files ‘Indiana-style RFRA’ amendment for child welfare organizations

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Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney.

Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, pre-filed an amendment once again allowing child welfare organizations, including those with state contracts, to discriminate against LGBT families and children.

This is Sanford’s latest attempt to allow child welfare providers to discriminate against LGBT people as well as those of other faiths, interfaith couples and anyone else to whom a provider objects for religious reasons.

After his bill, HB 3864, died, he initially filed it as an amendment to SB 206, by Rep. Cindy Burkett, R-Mesquite, reauthorizing the Department of Family and Protective Services. That attempt failed after a representative killed it via a technical tactic. He also failed again to attach it as an amendment on Sunday, May 24.

In an action alert Equality Texas called it a cynical “Indiana-style RFRA for child welfare service providers that allows tax-payer dollars to be used to deny services to LGBT families.”

Additionally opponents have raised concern it would weaken the pool of qualified applicants and authorize child welfare service providers to force LGBT minors into widely discredited “reparative therapy” programs to change their sexual orientation or gender identity.

—  James Russell

BREAKING: Accord reached on Pastor Protection Act, guaranteeing religious freedom and marriage equality

Texas-CapitolA bill reaffirming the rights of clergy to refuse to perform marriages — including same-sex marriages — that violate their religious beliefs has passed in the Texas House on a bipartisan vote, after its sponsor reassured legislators clergy may only refuse to perform those marriages in their official capacity.

SB 2065 passed 141-2 after questions about whether clergy members who also serve as county clerks, justices of the peace or in other government capacities may deny licenses to same-sex couples, interfaith couples and other couples they may find objectionable.

In a moving statement before its passage, openly lesbian Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso, commended the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Scott Sanford, R-McKinney, for carrying it. She told the floor she believes LGBT justice and religious freedom may coexist.

Despite rumors that Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia, intended to try and attach his anti-gay HB 4105 to Sanford’s bill as an amendment, the amendment never came. HB 4105 would have withheld pay from county clerks issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. It died last week without coming to a vote.

—  James Russell

Rep. Israel releases statement on HB 4105

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Rep. Celia Israel

Rep. Celia Israel, who worked tirelessly to kill HB 4105, the only anti-LGBT bill to make it to the Texas House floor, released a statement moments after midnight:

“I am relieved that the Texas House was not forced to entertain a mean-spirited, divisive bill that could keep us from doing the work our constituents sent us here to do: make the lives better for the people of Texas. This bill dying means that many of my Republican colleagues will not be forced to choose between party loyalty and standing on the right side of history. This bill dying means that same-sex couples across the state will not be forced to witness their elected representatives debate if their love is as worthy as their neighbor’s.

“When a member opposes one of your major pieces of legislation or speaks against you during committee, we all try to not take it personally.  This body will not always agree on how to best serve this state. But when a colleague attacks your family just for being who you are, it is impossible to not take it personally. My family, and the millions like it, took this bill very personally. I am hopeful that this bill is the final vain attempt to push back against the wave of change across our country. Texans are ready for marriage equality, and I look forward to hearing the wedding bells.”

—  David Taffet