Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Day 113: Anti-Bullying Bill on House Floor, Take 2

Today is the 113th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature, except for in the House where it's still technically the 112th day for a little while longer... no really. The House "recessed" just after 7 pm last night and will return today at 10 am, since they did not adjourn at the end of the day yesterday they will still, technically, be on the 112th legislative day and will still be working on the list of bills to be considered that day. The Senate will reconvene at 11 am.

On the list of bills to be considered in the House on the 112th day is the "super" anti-bullying bill HB 1942 by Diane Patrick (R-Arlington). The bill is an amalgamation of ideas from several anti-bullying bills heard in the House Public Education Committee. It's the only major House anti-bullying bill to make it out of committee this session. This next Monday, May 9th - the 119th day of session, is the last day for House committees to vote out House bills, and even then bills of this nature must be voted on by the entire House before midnight on May 12th in order to advance. With the clock ticking HB 1942 may be our last, and best, chance of real anti-bullying reform. Please contact your House member and tell them to support HB 1942. Equality Texas has set up an easy-to-use e-mail form that takes less than a minute HERE.

The nifty trick about the House still being on the 112th day this morning is that it will let them take both the 2nd and 3rd reading vote on HB 1942 on the same calendar day. The Texas constitution requires that bills be "read" on three different days in the House. "Read" means that the bill number and a short description, called the bill caption are read aloud and then, depending on whether it's 1st, 2nd or 3rd reading a different action is taken. After 1st reading the bill is referred to a committee which then holds public hearings and makes a recommendation to the entire House of the bill. After second reading the bill can be debated by the entire House, amended by a majority vote, and then voted on. If the bill passes 2nd reading it's then read a 3rd time and can be debated, amended by a 2/3 vote and voted on again (after which it's sent to the Senate for consideration in the case of House bills or the Governor for signing in the case of most Senate bills). Since HB 1942 is to be considered on 2nd reading on the 112th legislative day the House can pass it, adjourn, reconvene and then pass it on 3rd reading on the same day.

As I mentioned last Friday in my weekly column on the Dallas Voice's Instant Tea Blog, the Senate was expected to start debate this week on HB 1, the appropriations bill that will govern the state's budget for the next two years. It's looking, however, like that might not happen. The bill is on the Senate's "intent calendar," a fast-track list of bills that require a 2/3 vote of the Senate to be brought up for debate (more info on how the intent calendar works from LQ's Day 107 post), but the capitol scuttlebutt says that Sen. Steve Ogden (R-Bryan), who is carrying the bill in the Senate, doesn't have the required 21 votes to bring it up.

The budget touches every aspect of state government. Among the host of concerning issues in the current version of the budget are the underfunding of Texas' HIV medication assistance program and an amendment added by Rep. Wayne Christian (R-Center) designed to reduce funding for campus LGBT resource centers and reappropriate those funds for "Family and Traditional Values Centers" (although it seems that the amendment might have been so poorly written that it will not have its intended effect).

If the Senate does not bring up the bill in time for it to pass out of the legislature before the looming end-of-session deadline on May 30th, Governor Perry will be forced to call a "special session." The governor has broad discretion to call all legislators back to Austin to conduct pressing business that arises between the regular sessions held for 140 days in the spring of odd-numbered years. The lack of a state budget, which would precipitate the complete shutdown of state government this fall, definitely qualifies as pressing.

A special session to approve the budget has advantages and disadvantages. If the budget show down comes to this the legislature will be forced to start at square one on the budget, meaning that things like the Christian amendment would be removed, but also meaning that hard-fought funding for the state's HIV medication assistance program (however inadequate to meet the rising rate of infection in Texas) would also be removed. A special session would mean that LGBT activists would have the interim period between the regular and special sessions to further lobby lawmakers, but it also means that the budget would be crafted under the unique rules governing special sessions, which allow the legislature to work much more quickly and make it more difficult to monitor legislation and inform the public of any actions, good or bad, that take place.

The only sure prediction in the legislature is its unpredictability. With only 27 days left in the regular session people on all sides of the political spectrum are carefully watching the Senate in an attempt to discern the next move.

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