Daniel Williams

Acrimony in the House, the return of a transphobic Senate bill and renewed hope for community input in HIV programs marked the 18th week of the Texas Legislature’s regular session, one of the most contentious thus far.

The House had its first Saturday meeting of the session last week, and it set the tone for everything to come. House rules require 100 members to be present to establish a quorum. When the 10 a.m. meeting started, only 113 members were in the House chamber. Democrats realized that, just by walking out, they could end the business of the House, which included controversial “loser pays” changes to how lawsuits work in Texas. The legislation had already been defeated but was placed back on the House’s to-do list by GOP Gov. Rick Perry, who declared it an “emergency item.”

While the Democrats where contemplating a walk-out, Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, the author of Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, asked for a roll call, which would have locked the House doors, preventing any members from leaving. Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, then asked about sending state troopers out to find the missing members, some of whom had gone home to celebrate Mother’s Day. A debate erupted over a threat by Republicans to “set aside the rules” using their two-thirds super majority and prevent all debate on future bills. Tempers flared. At one point Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, who is known for his even disposition, literally threw his House rule book across the room.

Things eventually settled and the House continued its business, eventually passing the contentious lawsuit legislation without allowing debate. The hurt feelings and bruised relationships would continue to influence business in the House for the rest of the week.

On Monday, Senate Bill 723, the anti-transgender marriage bill that’s been lurking on the Senate’s schedule for a month, was put back on the the “intent calendar” for Tuesday. The intent calendar is a fast-track list of bills that require two-thirds of Senators to agree to bring them up for a vote. Equality Texas, the Human Rights Campaign, the Transgender Education Network of Texas and other groups issued alerts to LGBT Texans to call their senators in hopes of finally defeating the bill.

The Senate adjourned on Tuesday and Wednesday without bringing up SB 723. On Thursday when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate president, announced that his “desk was clear,” signaling the end of the day’s business, SB 723 had still not come up. The bill’s author, Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, declined to place it back on the intent calendar for today — Friday. SB 723 remains on the Senate’s regular order of business, but its removal from the intent calendar makes it far less likely to pass. In order to become law the bill must pass the Senate and make it through the House Public Health Committee by midnight on Saturday, May 21. With time running out, SB 723 is on life support, but remains a threat.

Meanwhile, Monday at midnight was the deadline for House committees to vote on House bills. The vast majority of bills that LGBT Texans have been carefully watching died when the deadline passed, including two bills to repeal Texas’ unconstitutional law against “homosexual conduct;” bills creating laws against discrimination in insurance and employment on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity/expression; and bills to improve the state’s hate crimes law.

In addition to a slew of good bills, two targeting the LGBT community were stuck in committee when the midnight cut-off passed. House Bill 2638, by Chisum, would expand the powers of the attorney general to interfere in same-sex divorce cases, and House Bill 3098, by Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, is the House version of SB 723, the anti-trans marriage bill. The death of the House companion makes the passage of SB 723 more difficult.

House Bill 910, by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, was voted out of the House Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee just hours before the deadline. The bill would allow unmarried Texans to enter into gestational agreements with surrogate mothers. Current law restricts such agreements to legally recognized married couples. Because HB 910 was voted out of committee without any objection it is eligible for the House’s “local and consent calendar,” a list of noncontroversial bills. The bill has until Friday, May 20 to pass the House.

On Tuesday a piece of good news arrived from the House. House Bill 1386, by Garnett Coleman, D-Houston, was placed on the schedule for Wednesday. HB 1386 would create an inter-agency program designed to prevent teen suicide. An earlier draft of the bill named it “Asher’s Law” after Asher Brown, the 13-year-old Houston-area boy who committed suicide after enduring years of horrific bullying in school. The House Public Health Committee objected to naming the bill after Asher and also removed any mention of LGBT youth. Despite these revisions HB 1386 still contains many commonsense guidelines for schools and other agencies to provide counseling and resources designed to abate bullying and prevent suicide.

Also Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee met and received public testimony on House Bill 2229, also by Coleman, which would make permanent the Texas HIV Medication Advisory Committee, a group made up of HIV service providers and clients that provides on-the-round guidance to the Department of State Health Services’ HIV medication assistance program. HB 2229 was voted out of committee with no objection and recommended for the “local and uncontested calendar,” reserved for noncontroversial bills.

Thursday was the last day for the entire House to begin consideration of House bills, other than those on the local and consent calendar. HB 1386, the teen suicide prevention bill, was 136th in line for consideration. Progress in the House was slow as the tensions which had been simmering since Saturday’s conflagration begin to boil over.

The pace began to pick up as Thursdsay evening wore on, and House members started to worry their bills would die at midnight. HB 1386, the suicide prevention bill, finally came up for a vote shortly after 10 p.m., when Rep. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, attempted to kill the bill using a “point of order.” Creighton claimed that the method by which HB 1386 had made it to the floor was not in keeping with the rules of the House. Coleman, HB 1386’s author, had killed Creighton’s HB 32 earlier in the evening using a point of order, and Creighton was out for revenge. The House delayed consideration of the bill for half an hour while the parliamentarian researched Creighton’s objection.

Half an hour later the bill did not come back up for consideration, nor had it an hour later. With the midnight deadline only 40 minutes away, Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, one of HB 1386’s joint authors, asked why it had not been brought back up when it was scheduled.  The chair responded that the parliamentarian was still researching the point of order.

Finally, with less than 20 minutes left till midnight, HB 1386 came back up, the parliamentarian ruled the bill in order, and debate continued. Coleman rose to explain his bill and Farrar begin to ask him questions about how HB 1386 would work. With only minutes left till midnight shouts rang out though the chamber to just vote on the bill and get on to other business. A non-record “voice vote” was held and HB 1386 passed the first of its two required votes in the House.

HB 1386 must pass its second required House vote by midnight tonight.

Several other anti-bullying bills remain in play, including HB 1942, the antibullying “super” bill drafted by the House Public Education Committee; Senate Bill 205 by John Whitmire, D-Houston, which gives greater guidance on the bullying sections of student codes of conduct school districts are required to create; and Senate Bill 736, which would require local school health advisory committees to make recommendations on school’s anti-bullying curricula. With only two weeks left in the session and tensions running high in both chambers, there are no guarantees that any of these bills will pass.