Daniel Williams

Movement on anti-bullying bills, an impending budget fight in the Senate and late-night debate on redistricting in the House were the defining events of this, the 16th week of the the Texas Legislature’s regular session.

The Legislature traditionally takes a four-day weekend for Easter, so things were pretty sleepy around the Capitol until Tuesday, when a flurry of bills moved in both the House and Senate.

House Bill 2229 by Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, squeaked through the House after initially being tabled. The bill makes permanent the Texas HIV Medication Advisory Committee. Texas has a program that provides medication assistance to low-income HIV-positive people. The Advisory Committee provides input on the program from health professionals and clients. Earlier this year Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. David Lakey dissolved the committee until public outcry forced him to reinstate it. Coleman’s bill seeks to prevent future commissioners from similarly disbanding the committee.

HB 2229 seemed poised to pass until an amendment to the bill by Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, added a needle exchange program, a proven way to reduce the transmission of HIV and other blood-born diseases. Many House Republicans oppose such programs arguing that, by providing clean needles to IV drug users, they condone drug use. The House voted on HB 2229 and it failed to pass, 53-89.

Fearing the demise of the bill, McClendon asked for an opportunity to withdraw her amendment. After she did the House tentatively approved HB 2229, 104-36. The final vote for House approval on Wednesday was 88-57. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee must now consider the bill for it to continue to advance.

Also on Tuesday, the House gave its final approval to anti-cyber-bullying House Bill 1666. Since 2009 it has been illegal in Texas to create a fake profile on a social network website to “harm, defraud, intimidate or threaten” someone else. HB 1666 by Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, expands the current law to include non-social networking sites like Youtube or Blogger (or the comments section of the Dallas Voice). The bill next goes to the Senate Criminal Justice Committee for further consideration.

House Bill 718, which expands Texas’ law against picketing the funerals of members of the U.S. military to include a buffer three hours before and after the service, also passed the House on Tuesday. The bill, by Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Houston, is a direct response to the practice of Westboro Baptist Church’s (famous for their “God Hates Fags” slogan) practice of picketing the funerals of service members who died in the line of duty.

The Senate on Tuesday passed Senate Bill 205 by John Whitmire, D-Houston. Current code requires school districts to adopt student codes of conduct designed to combat bullying, violence and plagiarism. Whitmire’s bill clarifies the anti-bullying portions of the code, requiring schools to combat cyber-bullying and to provide counseling for students who engage in bullying. SB 205 does not recognize the existence of LGBT students, nor does it acknowledge that they are particularly the targets of bullying. Only two Senators — Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, and Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — opposed the bill. It passed the Senate 29-2 and will now likely be sent to the House Public Education Committee for further consideration.

On Wednesday the House started its heated debate on redistricting at 10 a.m. The Texas Constitution requires the Legislature to redraw House and Senate district borders every 10 years in response to the U.S. Census. House Bill 150, by Rep. Burt Solomons, R-Carrollton, redraws the House lines. House Democrats have strongly criticized the proposal, saying it would reduce Hispanic and African-American representation.

Current House borders divide Dallas’ Oak Lawn neighborhood between three districts: 100, represented by Democrat Eric Johnson; 103, represented by Democrat Rafael Anchia; and 108, represented by Republican Dan Branch. The House started its debate with a redistricting committee’s version of the map, which united most of the neighborhood in District 103 but placed the area south of Oak Lawn Avenue in District 108.

The proposed lines stayed mostly intact throughout the debate — until midnight on Wednesday, when Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer, D-San Antonio, offered a dramatically different map designed to create stronger Hispanic voting power. Martinez-Fischer’s plan divided the Oak Lawn neighborhood down Cedar Springs between Mockingbird and Turtle Creek. The House rejected the plan. The map eventually approved by the bleary-eyed House at 3 a.m. Thursday has the district border running along Oak Lawn between Gilbert and Stemmons Freeway, except for six blocks between Cedar Springs and Fairmount where the border runs two blocks south of Oak Lawn on Hood, placing most of the neighborhood in Anchia’s district. House Democratic Caucus Chair Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, issued a press release calling the current map “illegal” and hinting that its under-representation of Hispanic voters may be cause for a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act. The Senate must now approve the map and further adjustments are certain.

On Thursday the Senate passed Senate Bill 736 by Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen. The bill requires Local School Health Advisory Councils to annually issue a report with recommendations on their school district’s policies, programs and resources to combat bullying. The House Public Health Committee will consider SB 736 next. Its identical companion bill, House Bill 944, has been sitting in committee since March 16.

As previously posted by Instant Tea, House Bill 1942, the compromise anti-bullying bill by Rep. Diane Patrick, R-Arlington, is scheduled for debate in the House on Monday. The bill requires school health curricula to include information on how to “effectively address awareness, prevention, identification, and resolution of and intervention in bullying,” but would not require training for staff, teachers or parents (the bill says that districts “may” provide training for teachers, but does not require it). HB 1942 would also allow for the transfer of bullies to different classes/campuses than their victims (currently only the victim may be transferred) and allow school administrators to address cyber-bullying, but only if it occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or on a vehicle operated by the district. Similarly to SB 205, it clarifies the requirements for anti-bullying policies in student codes of conduct. HB 1942 does not require schools or the state to gather statistics on bullying.

Like every other anti-bullying bill that has advanced this session, HB 1942 doesn’t specifically mention LGBT students or the fact that they are particularly the targets of bullying.

The Senate will likely debate House Bill 1, the continuous state budget, next week. HIV/AIDS advocates have been carefully watching the budget’s funding of the state’s HIV medication assistance program. Some early drafts of the budget completely eliminated the program. The current version provides funding, but at a dramatically lower level than advocates say is necessary.

Additionally the budget contains a provision added in the House by Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, that requires state funding for LGBT resource centers on college campuses to be matched with funding for “family and traditional values centers.” The American Independent reports that the Christian amendment would have little effect as most LGBT resource centers are funded through student fees, not state funds. Despite its lack of effect the provision remains in the budget and represents a direct attack on the needs of LGBT students.

With just over a month left in the session this will likely be the last weekend legislators have off until the session ends on May 30. As the pace picks up LGBT activists will have to watch Austin carefully to ensure that the people elected to represent us keep our best interests in mind.