Daniel Williams

The absence of a homophobic budget amendment, movement on anti-bullying legislation and the most adorable committee hearing in recent memory marked this, the 17th week of the Texas Legislature’s 20-week regular session.

The infamous anti-gay amendment to the Texas budget — which would require universities to fund “family and traditional values centers” if they have LGBT resource centers — isn’t in the Senate version budget. While the state’s media focused on whether the Senate would actually vote on the budget, the Finance Committee seems to have quietly skipped over the provision, added by amendment in the House by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. Last week the American Independent reported that the Christian amendment would have little to no impact, but its absence from the Senate budget is cause for celebration for LGBT Texans.

Chuck Smith, deputy director of Equality Texas, greeted the news with cautious optimism, explaining that the budget is a massive document, 854 pages long, and although the “family and traditional values” language isn’t in Article III Sec. 56, the entire text would have to be carefully searched before the amendment’s absence was certain.

“If it really is out of there, then I’m pleased,” Smith said, “but I need to do research.”

The full text of the Senate budget can be found here.

The Senate Finance committee also included funding for the state’s HIV Medication Program to the level advocates say is necessary to meet increased caseload in the coming budget cycle. The HIV Medication Program, related to the federal ADAP (AIDS Drug Assistance Program), provides lifesaving medication to low-income people with HIV/AIDS. The program currently serves 14,000 people, but is expected to see 3,000 new clients over the next two years. As a result, the program needs an additional $19.2 milion from the state. The House budget left out the needed money, meaning the program would have to limit access. But the Senate budget, which would spend $12 billion more overall, includes the needed funds.

Since the House and Senate versions of the budget bill are different, the next step will be the appointment of a “conference committee” of five representatives and five senators. The committee will create a compromise budget, but can only change the parts that are different between the two versions. The committee could potentially re-introduce the Christian amendment or lower funding for the HIV Medication Program. Both the House and Senate must approve the committee compromise before it goes to the governor’s desk.

While the Senate worked on the budget a number of bills important to the LGBT community made headway in the House. On Tuesday HB 1942, the anti-bullying “super” bill drafted by the House Public Education Committee came up for the first of its two required House votes. The legislation, by Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, is a amalgamation of ideas from various anti-bullying bills that came through the committee. Equality Texas now considers Patrick’s bill its top priority in this year’s session.

In a fitting coincidence of scheduling, HB 1942 came to the floor on the day officially recognized in the House as “Cy-Fair Independent School District Day.” Thirteen-year-old Asher Brown, whose suicide after years of tortuous bullying captured the nation’s attention last fall, was a student of Cy-Fair ISD.

Patrick began to explain her bill when Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, requested to ask some questions. Farrar, along with Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, has her own anti-bullying legislation that has languished in committee for months. Farrar asked if Patrick’s bill required school districts to report instances of bullying to the state, as her legislation would. Patrick responded that it did not, explaining that the committee wished to avoid placing an “unfunded mandate” on school districts. The irony of Patrick’s statement is that she voted for Christian’s amendment to the budget placing an unfunded mandate on universities to create “family and traditional values centers.” Farrar neglected to point out Patrick’s hypocrisy.

Next, David Simpson, R-Longview, offered two amendments dealing with “self-defense” as a response to bullying. The amendments were added with Patrick’s consent, and without a vote. HB 1942 passed: 102 “yeas” to 34 “nays.” Among the 34 people voting against HB 1942 there was a surprise: Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, one of the strongest allies of the LGBT community in the House. Her office did not respond to requests that she explain her “nay” vote.

Thompson and Simpson have had a very difficult relationship this session. Simpson is a new House member, elected last fall with strong tea party support. His confrontational style has not sat well with his new colleagues, particularly Thompson, whose puppy mill regulation bill Simpson decried as creating a “dog gestapo.” Two weeks ago Simpson attempted to kill the bill, but violated a cardinal rule of House decorum in not telling Thompson that he planned to do so. He has since become a pariah at the Capitol, with many House members removing their support of his legislation. It’s possible that Thompson’s vote, the only “nay” from a House Democrat, was a response to Simpson’s amendment, and not a reflection of her thoughts on the merits of the bill.

On Wednesday, when HB 1942 passed the House on its second required vote, 94 to 41, Thompson was among those voting “yea.” HB 1942 now goes to the Senate, where it will likely be heard by the Education Committee.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, long before the House vote on HB 1942, the House Public Health Committee met to hear public testimony on House Bill 415.  The bill, by Rep. Raphael Anchia, D-Dallas, would allow same-sex parents to have birth certificates issued which accurately include both parents’ names. Currently the Texas Bureau of Vital Statistics routinely issues new birth certificates for adopted children reflecting their new parents, but state law prohibits two men or two women from both being listed as parents on a birth certificate. Anchia has filed this bill in the past, but this time he brought a secret weapon to the hearing — adorable children. Three parents in same-sex relationships got up to speak in favor of the bill, each of them holding a cute kid who giggled or squirmed or tried to eat the microphone. Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenam, struggled to stifle her laughter when one child repeatedly interrupted his mother’s testimony with shouts of glee.

HB 415 is still waiting for the committee to vote. The deadline for House committees to vote on House bills is midnight on Monday, May 9. If they don’t vote HB 415 out by then it will be officially dead. Smith said this week that while Wednesday’s hearing was very favorable, he doesn’t expect the committee’s chair to call up the bill for a vote.

The midnight Monday deadline threatens a number of bills both good and bad. House Bills 605 and 2165, which would repeal Texas’ unconstitutional law against “homosexual conduct,” have been waiting for a committee vote for months; as have bills creating laws against discrimination in insurance and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression; a bill making it easier to contract with a surrogate mother; and bills to improve Texas’ little-utilized Hate Crimes law — all of which will die Monday night if they don’t receive a vote in committee. On the other hand, two anti-gay bills would die with them. House Bill 2638, by Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, would massively expand the powers of the attorney general in an attempt to prevent same-sex couples from getting divorced, and House Bill 3098 by Kolkhorst, would effectively ban straight marriage for anyone who has had their legally-recognized sex changed.

Next Tuesday the Senate Health and Human Services Committee has scheduled House Bill 2229, which makes permanent the HIV Medication Advisory Committee, for a hearing. The advisory committee is made up of health professionals and clients of the state’s HIV Medication Program and offers advice to the Department of State Health Services.

With three weeks to go in the session the budget and the state’s once-every-10-years redistricting process are going to start grabbing most of the headlines. However, with several pieces of legislation vital to the LGBT community still in play, activists will need stay on their toes as the pace of the Legislature once again accelerates.