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.

The Legislature returned on Monday, May 16 with SB 723 still on the Senate’s intent calendar as was House Bill 2229 by Coleman. HB 2229 makes permanent the Texas HIV Medication Advisory Committee, a group made up of HIV service providers and clients that provides on-the-ground guidance to the Department of State Health Services’ HIV Medication Program. The Advisory Committee was temporarily suspended earlier this year by the department’s commissioner, Dr. David Lakey, before public outcry forced him to reform it. Coleman’s bill would prevent future commissioners from doing anything similar. HB 2229 passed with only five of the 31 Senators, all Republicans, voting against it. The bill has now passed both the House and Senate and awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature.

Despite being on the intent calendar, SB 723 was not brought up for a vote. Williams declined to place it back on the intent calendar for Tuesday, and trans-identified Texans breathed a sigh of relief.

While the Senate was ensuring that HIV-positive Texans will have input in the state’s medication assistance program on Monday, the “conference committee” on House Bill 1 announced that the program would not be funded at the level advocates say is necessary to keep track with increasing infection rates. HB 1 is the state’s budget for the next two years. Because the House and Senate passed different versions of the budget, a conference committee — five members of the Senate (appointed by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst) and five members of the House (appointed by Speaker of the House Joe Strauss) — was created to work out a compromise.  The House version of the budget funded the HIV Medication Program at current levels, the Senate’s included an additional $19.1 million for increased infection rates. The conference committee announced on Monday that their version of the budget would use the House’s numbers, but that they were empowering Commissioner Lakey to request additional funds if they are needed and available.

The final version of the conference committee’s compromise budget is not yet available. Once drafted it will need to be approved by both the House and Senate, neither of which can offer amendments. If the committee’s budget is not approved they will have to start over on a new draft compromise. The biggest bone of contention is funding for public schools. The Legislature only has until the end of the 140-day session, May 30, to pass the budget. If it is not passed by the deadline the governor will be forced to call a “special session” to start the process over again from scratch. Gov. Perry has indicated that he is hopeful that that will not be necessary, but Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, who is chair of the Senate Finance Committee, told the Austin American-Statesman that, “I don’t think we’re going to agree on a funding level for education before a special session.”

Thursday, May 19th, was a good day for anti-bullying bills in the Legislature. As the Senate adjourned for the day Sen. Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, announced that the committee would meet at her desk. The Education Committee had two key pieces of anti-bullying legislation to consider: HB 1942, the “super” anti-bullying bill drafted by the House Public Education Committee; and HB 1386, Coleman’s teen suicide prevention bill. The committee passed HB 1942, 6-0, but did not act on HB 1386. Equality Texas considers HB 1942, which already passed the House and now heads to the full Senate, its top priority in this year’s session.

Over in the House, the Public Education Committee was considering the Senate’s anti-bullying bills. Senate Bill 205, by John Whitmire, D-Houston, clarifies and expands the bullying sections of guidelines for student codes of conducts that school districts are required to adopt and enforce. Senate Bill 66 by Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, closes a loophole that prevents students who have been transferred to a different school district from being expelled in the same school year they transferred. The committee passed both. Both bills must pass the House by Tuesday, May 24th.

Today looked  to be another busy day at the capitol. SB 723, the anti-trans marriage bill, remained on the Senate’s regular order of business, but is unlikely to be brought up for a vote. SB 723 will die at midnight Saturday if it doesn’t pass out of both the Senate and the House Public Health Committee. Senate Bill 736, by Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen,was  on the House’s “Local and Consent Calendar” today. The bill would require school district’s Local School Health Advisory Councils to make recommendations on anti-bullying curricula to be included in school health classes. The local and consent calendar is a list of noncontroversial bills that are considered in a rapid, auction-like, process. Only bills that had no “nay” votes in committee may be placed on local and consent. SB 736 is likely to pass.

As previously reported by Instant Tea, Senate Bill 1811, the fiscal matters bill, was also on the House’s schedule for today. SB 1811 is on the Major State Calendar, a list of important, and contentious, bills. The bill contains additional budgetary provisions that were not covered by HB 1. A staffer for Rep. Elliot Naishtat, D-Austin, reports that Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, intends to offer an amendment to SB 1811 that would prohibit Texas universities from LGBT resource centers.