Monday, January 31, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes Part V

In which bigotry is enshrined in the State Constitution, and some flee having an opinion.

[Be sure to read parts I, II, III & IV]
79th Session
HJR 6 by Chisum
(Texas Constitutional DOMA Amendment)
Yea (19D, 82R)
Nay (29D)
Present, Not Voting (7D 1R)
Absent (5 D)
Absent, Excused (4D 3R)

In 2003 Rep. Warren Chisum was successful in ramming a bill prohibiting marriage equality through the Texas House. Bills create statutes and codes, secondary forms of laws that are trumped by the state constitution. The Texas State constitution reads in its first article:
"All free men, when they form a social compact, have equal rights, and no man, or set of men, is entitled to exclusive separate public emoluments, or privileges, but in consideration of public services."
In other words: "The law must apply equally to everyone and can't be written to allow some people to exercise power that other people don't have". In other words: "A statute that allows some people to enter into a state recognized contract but not others is unconstitutional".

Chisum's a smart guy, he recognized this conflict between the constitutional guarantee of equality and the statutorily-provided prohibition on marriage equality. No doubt this recognition was brought home by the string of successful court cases that demonstrated other state's constitutions provided similar protections and were equally in conflict with those state's marriage equality bans.

The only way to address the conflict, and maintain the ban, was to amend the constitution. This is easier said than done. Amendments to the state constitution must be approved by a majority of voters in the state. In order to place amendments on a statewide ballot a two-thirds majority of both the House and Senate must approve them. This means that just 11 Senators or 51 Representatives can ban together to block any proposed amendment.

The 79th Texas House had 86 Republicans and 64 Democrats. If the vote fell on partisan lines it would have failed. Unfortunately the vote did not fall on partisan lines.

Before the House vote Rep. Chisum offered an amendment: "this state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage". Chisum was concerned that, despite the resolution's clear prohibition against marriage equality, civil unions or county or municipal domestic partnership registries would be created to circumvent the ban. The amendment was accepted.

This amendment gave moderate House Democrats an "out". Many expressed a concern that the amendment, as worded, would ban ALL marriage in the state of Texas. They could oppose the proposed change to the constitution without being labeled as supporting marriage equality by basing their vote on the recent amendment. Seven of those voted "Present, not voting" in protest, while others voted "Nay" but entered unequivocal statements in the record that they opposed marriage equality, but were concerned the new version of the resolution would ban all marriage.

Five Democrats decided to be "absent" during the vote rather than have an opinion on record. There were two separate votes on second reading of HJR 6. Since the first vote was so close a "verification vote" was taken to give anyone who wasn't in the chamber a chance to vote the second time around. With that much warning the only reason for an "absent" vote is because the member did not want to be forced onto the record. Because an HJR requires two thirds of members to vote "yea" an "absent" is as good as a "nay" as far as the vote count is concerned, but it's upsetting to see that kind of cowardice from people who are charged with representing the public. By leaving the room those representatives abdicated their responsibility to represent.

HJR 6 passed the verification vote with 101 voting yea, if only 2 of those had voted no, or even decided to just leave the room, the resolution would have failed. Two votes - that's all. Two votes enshrined bigotry in our constitution. I wonder how many phone calls those two representatives received. I wonder how many constituents visited those reps in their offices and asked them to stand up for what's right. I'd be willing to bet it was few, if any. State Representatives simply don't hear from constituents that often, even on the most controversial of issues. In a state with 25 million people even the governor's office usually receives fewer than 300 calls about any given bill.

One e-mail, or phone call, or visit can make a world of difference. We must - we must - we must engage the people who are elected to represent us. We can't rely on party affiliation. We can't rely solely on our lobbying organizations. We have to take responsibility for influencing the legislation that affects us. If we are not willing to stand up for ourselves we are complicit in our own oppression.

Up next in Part VI: The shape of anti-bullying legislation to come.

Day 21: Top Priority for Senate Education Committee: Not Student Safety

Today is the 21st day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 1 PM, the Senate at 1:30.

Senate committee hearings began to be scheduled following Friday's announcement of Committee Assignments. The committees don't have any legislation to consider yet (that should change today as bills begin to be referred to committee), but agendas for the first week have been announced. The Senate Education Committee, which will likely get anti-bullying legislation, has set as its first priority "Flexibility and Mandate Relief" (which is legislative speak for finding ways to let schools work around state regulation). The Senate Education Committee meets for the first time tomorrow, February 1st, at 10 am.

Conservatives, who have long chafed at the power of teachers unions, are using the budget crisis as an excuse to give administrators the power to increase class sizes and force teachers to take unpaid furlough days. Teacher attrition already costs local school districts in Texas over 500 million dollars. Making teaching a less attractive field is a short-sighted solution to the budget crisis, one that, in the end, will cost taxpayers and school children. The proposals being put forward by the right have more to do with the convenience of school administrators (and punishing the teachers unions) than with the quality of education in Texas.

The safety of school children must be made a higher priority. In a recent Equality Texas poll 79.2% of Texas voters said that they supported uniform anti-bullying legislation that protected LGBT kids. With that kind of public mandate it's shocking that the committee isn't making anti-bullying legislation their top priority.

The phone number for the Senate Education Committee is 512-464-0355. If you are part of the 79.2% please call the committee and let them know that you want anti-bullying legislation made a priority.

Friday, January 28, 2011

State Senate Committee Appointments Announced

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst announced Senate committee appointments this afternoon. The Senate Education committee this session looks much the same as it did last session but with Janek and Zaffirini rotating off and Gallegos and Selinger rotating on. Sen. Wendy Davis, who is carrying a comprehensive anti-bullying bill, remains on the Committee and Sen. Florence Shapiro remains chairwoman.

Sen. Shapiro (R-Plano) is the real key here. If she can be convinced to support Davis's Legislation it has a chance of doing very well in committee. This legislation wasn't filed in the Senate last session, so it's difficult to predict where specific senators are going to come down on the issue. Shapiro made her political bones fighting for legislation to protect children from sexual predators. She is very proud of those efforts. If she can be convinced that children also need to be protected from bullying there may be a chance for Davis's bill.

If Shapiro is your Senator please call her right now and ask her to support SB 245 (Equality Texas has an excellent fact sheet HERE) . Her Austin Office number is (512) 463-0108. Do not wait till Monday. Call now and leave a message then call again on Monday and speak with someone.

If you don't know who your State Senator is go HERE to find out.

If you know anyone who lives in the Plano area who cares about the issue of bullying please talk to them as soon as possible and ask that they call Shapiro's office. It is vital for the safety of every child in the state of Texas that she hear from as many constituents as possible as soon as possible.

Day 18: Friday Call Day

Today is the 18th day of of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House and Senate are both adjourned until Monday.

Today is the last day of Texas Nurse Anesthetists Week at the Capitol, The Texas Society of Architects has a display in the Rotunda all day and the Texas CHIP Association will meet in the Legislative Conference Center this morning.

Meanwhile almost all of the lawmakers are back home in their district offices, which makes Fridays a great day to call those offices. For a suggested script for your call read Legislative Queery's Day 4 post. If you don't know who your state representative and senator are you can find them HERE.

I suggest calling your representative and asking them to" co-author HB 208", Rep. Roberto Alonzo's (D-Dallas) bill to prohibit insurance discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Equality Texas has an excellent fact sheet on the bill HERE. Currently this bill does not have a senate companion (a senate companion can help bills move through the process faster). Last session Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) filed the companion bill, but he hasn't yet this session. His district office number is (713) 236-0306. You can call him, thank him for his support in the past and ask that he consider re-filing the legislation.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Last session, SB 482 created the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission. Written by Sen. Rodney Ellis, the legislation was carried in the House by none other than notorious bigot Warren Chisum, the man behind the Texas prohibition on marriage equality.

The Texas Holocaust and Genocide Commission is a wonderful organization, it does good work and I'm glad it was created. What I find upsetting is the definition of "Holocaust" that was included in their founding document. When SB 482 came to the House floor "Holocaust" was defined as:
"the killing of approximately six million Jews and other persons during World War II by the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazis) and Nazi collaborators as part of a state-sponsored, systematic program of genocide and other actions of persecution, discrimination violence, or other human rights violations committed by the Nazis and Nazi collaborators against those persons."
Which is true, but glosses over the merciless execution of the mentally and physically handicapped, Polish, Romani, Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Anabaptists, Communists, Socialists, Masons, and yes, queer people.

Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth) attempted to amend the bill to more fully articulate the scope and breath of the horror of the Holocaust but Chisum removed the bill from consideration before he had the chance. Later that day the bill was brought back up and, in a compromise, Chisum agreed to amend the bill to say that "millions of others" were also exterminated.

It seems Chisum was reticent to recognize in statute that there is a historical precedent for the ruling party of a state to have an official policy in support of rounding up queer people and putting them behind bars, the fact that Chisum belongs to the Republican Party of Texas, which has an official platform calling for the re-enforcement of the state's sodomy law might have hit a little too close to home. Maybe Chisum didn't like the idea that the public might become informed that there have always been queer people, and always will be queer people and that we have a history and a legacy all our own. It's hard to guess the motivations of a man so filled with hate.

Fortunately there are institutions in this state which recognize more fully the broad scope of the horror of the Holocaust. The Dallas Holocaust Museum has specifically invited the LGBT community participate in their Remembrance Day candlelight vigil tonight at 6 pm. (The Dallas Voice has more information) The Houston Transgender Center has a large collection of items from the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin, one of the earliest organizations to approach homosexuality and transsexuality scientifically. The Nazis raided the institute on May 6 1933, confiscating the client roles and destroying the library and research materials. The client roles were then used to round-up thousands of gay and bisexual men and transgender women and send them to concentration camps. The Transgender Center is located at 604 Pacific street in Houston and is open to the public M-F from 1 to 5 pm or by appointment. More information at www.tgctr.org

If you would like to know more about the queer victims of the Holocaust I recommend the excellent essay Gay Prisoners in Concentration Camps as Compared with Jehovah's Witnesses and Political Prisoners by Ruediger Lautmann which can be found in the book A Mosaic of Victims edited by Michael Berenbaum.

Day 17: Apres I.D., Le Deluge

Today is the 17th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 10 am, the Senate has adjourned until Monday.

Thursdays tend to be pretty slow around the capitol for the first couple of months since legislators are generally in their district offices on Fridays and many of them head out on Thursday afternoons. There are a handful of press conferences and briefings around the building today, and the Texas Retail Association will be talking about the life of a grocery bag on the South Steps at 11:00 am.

Everybody is going to be talking about voter ID/suppression which passed out of the Senate on strictly partisan lines yesterday after a marathon session of attempted amendments. The House will still have to debate their version and one of the Senate amendments required the State budget fund the implementation of new identification rules - so the debate is far from over. Now that the Senate has voter suppression (mostly) off their plate things should really start moving on that side of the building.

House members are supposed to turn in their preferences for committee assignments by tomorrow. House committee membership is determined by a mixture of personal preference and speaker selection. Half of the members of any committee are there because they requested to be and have the seniority to get what they want. The other half are selected by the Speaker, who also selects the chairperson of each committee. Since a majority of the committee may override the chairperson Speaker Straus must carefully consider his assignments to avoid creating committees which may try to usurp his hand-chosen chairs.

I know I've said this before, but expect committee assignments next week.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Day 16: You Know... Like You Do

Today is the 16th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 10 am, the Senate at 11.

The House spent a delightful morning yesterday congratulating and thanking people for visiting the capitol. Among the resolutions passed: declaring it Lubbock day, declaring it Brownsville day, declaring it East Bend Chamber of Commerce day and declaring it Merchandise Vending Association day (nobody tell Lubbock and Brownsville they have to share a day, OK?).

While the House was all lightness and smiles (have you ever seen Rep. Leo Berman smile? It's creepy) a dark pall hung over the Senate as it launched into a marathon 13-hour hearing on voter ID. As the debate raged both sides argued for their position. Opponents pointed out that the legislation would cost two million dollars during a budget crisis, was unlikely to be approved by the Department of Justice and would limit access to the polls for people of color, women and people with disabilities. Proponents said that they were pretty sure that some people who weren't supposed to be voting were, and that the legislation was popular so it must be the right thing to do. The statement in support that most stuck in my craw was by Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) who said that the identification requirements weren't any more stringent than those required to cash a check.

Voting is the highest sacrament of the American faith in government of the people, by the people and for the people - not the everyday stuff of errands and grocery shopping. Equating cashing a check to voting betrays a profound contempt for democracy. The arrogance of such a statement is sacrilege. Shame on us if he gets away with it.

The legislation passed the Senate on a strictly partisan vote - 12 to 20.

-----

Still no committee assignments in either the House or Senate. I'm told that the Speaker is taking private meetings with many House members to talk to them about committees. Speaker Straus is known for his bipartisan approach to government and respect for individual members so it's not surprising that he would take some extra time to be sure he got the assignments right. Until he does the only legislation moving is voter suppression.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Day 15: Everybody Understand the Rules?

Today is the 15th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 10:00 am, the Senate is in recess and will convene a committee of the whole at 8:00 am to debate voter suppression legislation. The Senate will hear public testimony on the topic this afternoon. Members of the public are invited to register to speak starting at 7:30 am today. Each member of the public will be limited to three minutes for their comments.

Yesterday the House adopted rules after prolong and sometimes heated debate. Highlights include an attempt to change the way the speaker is elected (failed), an attempt to require the committee in charge of redistricting to abide by the voting rights act (failed), an attempt to strip Rep. Howard of her seniority since her election is still being contested (failed) and an attempt to loosen the rule that men wear ties on the House floor (failed).

We are still waiting for committee assignments in both the House and Senate. Those should be forthcoming in the next couple of days. Until that happens all of the bills we are tracking, from bullying to decriminalization, are stuck in limbo waiting for referral to committee. With only 125 days left in the session, time is running out.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Day 14: But It's An Emergency!

Today is the 14th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House and Senate will both reconvene at 1:30. The Senate is expected to begin debate on voter suppression legislation today. The House will likely adopt its rules either today or tomorrow.

---------------------------------------------------

You know those audio recordings of 911 calls that go viral every few months? The ones where someone calls because McDonalds is out of McNuggets, or because they need a ride to the liquor store and are too drunk to drive? Gov. Rick Perry is pulling the legislative equivalent of that.

The Governor has the power to declare emergency items that the legislature must take up more quickly than other legislative priorities. The intention of giving the governor that power is to allow the state to respond quickly to emergent issues - things like natural disasters or war breaking out. Gov. Petty has decided that he instead wants to use his gubernatorial 911 line to push partisan GOP priorities to the front of the line.

So far the Governor's list of "emergencies" includes:
  • Eminent domain reform
  • Forcing municipal law enforcement to arrest undocumented immigrants
  • Balancing the federal budget
  • Voter suppression legislation requiring photo identification at the polls
  • Requiring women considering termination of a pregnancy to view sonograms of the fetus
Each and every one is a long-standing and controversial issue, but are any of them an emergency? Texas is facing a 25 billion dollar state budget shortfall and the Governor wants the legislature to focus on the federal budget? We have the highest rate of uninsured residents among the 50 states, but the governor wants us to spend money to show pregnant women sonograms? (Not the ones who plan to have a baby mind you (they have to pay for their own prenatal care), just the ones who don't want to be pregnant.)

Perry keeps calling 911 to complain about the things he wants-right-now, as, I'm sure, the McDonalds lady who called about the McNuggets wanted-them-right-now, but neither are emergencies.

These are issues most people have strong opinions about. Some of us really want to see Perry's priorities go into effect, some of us don't, but by placing them at the front of the legislative line the Governor has delaying action on every other issue before the legislature, including things like efforts to curb bullying, ending insurance and job discrimination, and removing "homosexual conduct" from the criminal code.

Perry needs to learn that sometimes you can't get McNuggets when you want them, and stop wasting the 911 operator's time.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes, Part IV

In which the Texas House attempts to buy a 8.5 million dollar gay foster parent ban and, for some, fiscal concerns trump personal bigotry.

[Don't forget to read Parts I, II & III]

79th Regular Session
Amendment 60 to SB 6
By Talton
Yea (16 D, 71 R)
Nay (45 D, 11 R)
Absent (2D)
Absent Excused (1 D, 3 R)
Present not voting (1 R)

SB 6 by Nelson, filed during the 79th regular session in 2005, had the laudable goal of reforming the State's child and adult protective services agencies after a series of tragic incidents in which our most vulnerable citizens were left in deplorable conditions, some of which lead to their deaths.

After the bill passed through the Senate and the House Human Services Committee it was brought to the House floor for debate and amendment. The 60th of those attempted amendments was a proposal by Rep. Robert Talton (R-Pasadena) to prohibit gay, lesbian and bisexual people from being foster parents (I can only assume that Rep. Talton would have thrown in transgender people if he had been savvy enough to be aware of their existence). Talton had filed a bill (HB 194) to do the same thing the previous session (co-authored by notorious bigot Warren Chisum), but it was stopped in committee.

The amendment would have required the Department of of Family and Protective services to ask all prospective foster parents if they were "homosexual or bisexual" and bar those who answered affirmatively or who an investigation by the department determined to be lying in their statement.

What happened next is a testament to the power of fiscal concerns to triumph over personal bigotry. Rep. Suzanna Hupp (R - Bell, Burnet and Lampass counties) who carried SB 6 in the House (and is, by no means, a bastion of liberal ideology) rose to speak against the amendment. Rep. Hupp first said that she was also concerned about straight children being placed in foster homes with gay parents but that the proposed ban was:

"... just not workable. It's not workable. It s’ like homosexuals in the Army, it s’ not workable. It's don't ask, don't tell—it doesn't work. Secondly, and this is a biggie, it's got a big fiscal note attached to it. We're talking about 8.6 million right off the bat, 7 point something million after that, 7 million, 7 million, 3 million—it has a big fiscal note."
The fiscal note is a document created by the Legislative Budget Board (LBB) for every bill that details how much money the bill will cost or raise. In 2005 the Texas legislature faced a budget shortfall, several key state agencies saw their budgets slashed to accommodate the deficit. Since SB 6 already had a projected two year cost of over $122 million Hupp was reticent to add additional costs and risk loosing the support of fiscal conservatives.

During debate Hupp would go on to say that the thought of having kids in foster homes with LGBT parents gave her the "willies" and asked that, rather than have the foster parent ban amended onto her bill, the House consider it as a separate bill. Later, in interviews, she would be very careful to reiterate that she liked the idea of the foster parent ban, but that the cost of implementing it would have hurt her bill's chances of passing.

Her opposition to the amendment led ten additional House republicans to vote against it. Rep. Casteel, a republican, entered the following explanation for his vote against the amendment:
"The author of the bill, Representative Hupp, asked us to debate and discuss the amendment... outside of this... because of the large fiscal note of approximately 8.5 million to 7 million per year beginning in 2006. It was clear from the debate that the cost was astronomical "
Six-teen Democrats voted for the amendment, proving that while fiscal concerns may occasionally trump personal bigotry, personal bigotry will always trump party fidelity.

Fortunately, although the amendment was successfully adopted in the House it was removed by the conference committee (bills must be approved by both the House and the Senate, if there are any differences between those two body's versions a 'conference committee' is appointed by the Speaker of the House and the Lt. Governor to hash out the differences).

Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Lewisville), the author of SB 6, served on the conference committee and was strident in her opposition to the Talton amendment's inclusion in the final bill. Nelson's concern was that including the foster parent ban would cause the entire bill to be tied up in court due to lawsuits.

Two Republicans: Rep. Hupp and Sen. Nelson; fought to prevent the gay foster parent ban from becoming reality. Not because opposing the ban was the right thing to do (which it was) and not because they were supportive of the queer community (which they weren't) but because they were concerned that including the ban in the bill would hurt their legislative agenda.

We can recruit allies in the Texas Legislature by showing them the ways that the queer agenda (equality) and theirs (get re-elected) align. That means that sometimes, when talking with elected officials, it is not as productive to say "we must address bullying so that queer kids will feel safe in school" than it is to say "we must address bullying so that school districts don't get sued".

It also means that we have to pay attention to what people we may not like are saying. I encourage everyone to get on the mailing lists of the people who represent you. Find out what they are saying is important to them and respond by telling them how what you think is important fits with that agenda . Most of the 34 new members of the Texas House were elected by touting their "fiscal conservatism". Few, if any, of them ran on homo/transphobic agendas. This gives me hope that they may be willing to vote in the best interest of the queer community, if we can persuade them that, like the proposed foster parent ban, to not do so would be fiscally irresponsible.

Up Next: When statutory bigotry isn't enough, turn to constitutional bigotry.

Day 11: Friday Call Day

Today is the 11th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. Both the House and Senate will reconvene on Monday at 1:30 pm. The Senate is expected to begin what is certain to be an impassioned debate on voter suppression legislation. The House may finally adopt rules.

Senate committee assignments are also expected which means bills should start being referred to committee. Of particular interest is SB 245 by Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) which proposes comprehensive and inclusive anti-bullying measures. We'll be watching that carefully and will let you know as soon as it's referred to committee.

Today is Friday, which means that most of the representatives and senators are back in their district offices in your cities and neighborhoods. Fridays are great days to call your local office and ask for support from the people elected to represent you. This is particularly important if you know that your elected officials are not supportive of the queer community.

To find the phone number for your representative and senator's district offices go HERE. Put in your address and press enter, then scroll down the page until you see the listing for state senator and state representative and find the phone numbers for their district office. Now put those numbers in your phone's address book so you don't have to keep looking them up!

For a suggested script for your phone call read Legislative Queery's post from Day 4.
You can call about any topic that's important to you. For lists of bills that have been filed this session check out the tabs at the top of this page.

I suggest calling your representative about HB 604 by Farrar, which would repeal the state's unconstitutional ban on "Homosexual Conduct". Ask them to "co-author HB 604". Equality Texas has an excellent fact sheet on the bill HERE.

Sen. Davis has been unabashed in her support for anti-bullying legislation. I want to thank her by reiterating my suggestion from last week to call your senator and ask them to "co-author SB 245". The Equality Texas fact sheet is HERE.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 10: Waiting for More Dough

Today is the 10th day of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 10 am. The Senate is adjourned until Monday at 1:30pm.

The budget is still the big topic of conversation around the capitol. With a projected shortfall of $25 billion over the next two years, and a majority party that is a.) determined to deflect responsibility for the structural faults they created in Texas's finances and b.) unwilling to shift the tax burden from the poorest Texans (who pay, on average, more than 12% of their household income in taxes) to the wealthiest (who pay less than 7%) it looks like the conversation will be long, riotous and end poorly.

The Senate adopted its rules yesterday. They are substantially similar to last session's rules although a requirement was added that the budget be available for public review for 48 hours before adoption. This is a welcomed change to a process that often moves so quickly that the public doesn't have time to properly understand it.

The budget, and the shortfall, and who's to blame for it, and how to fix it will dominate all conversation about Austin for the next few days. Expect the House to adopt its rules early next week. Once that happens and the Speaker of the House and Lt. Governor (who's in D.C. today) appoint committee chairs and members things will start moving much more quickly.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Attention Austin: Two More Chances To Get "Early Bird" Tickets to Merry Martini Mixer

If you live in Austin and missed the opportunity to purchase "early bird" tickets to Equality Texas's Merry Martini Mixer you have two more chances to do so. Tickets will be on sale for $45 Thursday (10-12 p.m.) and Sunday (3-5 p.m. ) at Rain and Oil Can Harry's. I know many of OCH and Rain's regulars can drop $45 on a night of entertainment without thinking twice. Why not let that money go the Equality Texas, just this one time. Regular price tickets are still available online at MerryMartiniMixer.org for $55.

The Merry Martini Mixer, held Saturday, January 29th, will raise funds for Equality Texas's Lobby Day on March 7. The cost of providing training and meals for the hundreds of participants in lobby day is significant. Equality Texas organizes Lobby Day with no cost for attendees, ensuring that all Texans have the opportunity to participate. Attending the fundraiser is a great way to support this effort. Plus I'll be there, so you can come by and say hi!

If you haven't already don't forget to register for lobby day on-line HERE. While you're at it, start making plans to bring someone who wouldn't otherwise attend. Lobby day is an opportunity for lawmakers to interact directly with queer Texans. It's important that they see the full spectrum of our diverse rainbow. To be effective we need everyday people to attend, not just policy nerds who read overly-florid blogs on queer legislative issues.

State Senate Adopts Rules

The Texas State Senate has officially adopted its rules for the 82nd legislature. The Senate rules are similar to the House with the most notable exception being that the Senate is required to consider bills in the order they are filed, while the House may consider them in almost any order they see fit.

Of course the Senate never actually follows that rule. Instead they take a vote to set aside the rule to take up bills out of order. Since a vote to set aside the rules requires two-thirds of the Senate this effectively creates a requirement that all bills in the Senate must have two-thirds of the Senators support (or, at least, lack of opposition) to pass.

Sen. Dan Patrick had campaigned in the lead up to the adoption of rules to remove this particular operational quirk, but was unsuccessful. However, the Senate did choose to maintain the loophole added last year that allows legislation about voter identification to bypass the 2/3 vote. (Last session this voter suppression loophole created bedlam when Democratic leaders in the House slowed the process to a crawl to prevent the passage of the Senate's voter suppression legislation.)

The Senate's rules lay out the committee structure for the Senate. Now that the Senate has committees the next step is for Lt. Governor Dewhurst to appoint chairs and members of those committees. Only after that is done can the Senate get down to the process of actually considering legislation.

Queer Texans will want to watch carefully to see who is appointed to the Senate Education Committee, which will almost certainly be given the duty of hearing several anti-bullying bills which have already been filed (SB 42, SB 66, SB 205, and SB 245). Of particular interest is SB 245 by Sen. Davis (D-Fort Worth). SB 245 is, by far, the most comprehensive of the bills filed thus far and is likely to serve as the "water bearer" for any Senate action on bullying.

(To save time both House and Senate Committees will often condense several bills on a single topic into a kind of super-bill which contains elements of all of the proposals, this super-bill is known as the "water bearer" and carries the bill number of one of its component bills, usually the most comprehensive. SB 245 is likely to be the "water bearer" not only because of its scope, but because Sen. Davis has been very vocal in her support for anti-bullying legislation.)

The Senate has adjourned until Monday, so we will not know the committee chairs or members until then.

Meanwhile in the House the rules debate is on-going. Earlier it had seemed likely that we would see rules adoption this week, but the capitol scuttlebutt is that it is more likely to come on Monday or Tuesday of next week.

Day 9: Budget, Budget and more Budget

Today is the 9th day of the 82nd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House will reconvene at 10 am, the Senate at 11.

As expected yesterday's budget announcement has dominated the news. The proposed budget hits public education hard, highlights include:
  • No state funding for pre-Kindergarten programs
  • Drastic cuts to Teacher retirement program funding (which will hurt recruitment and retention)
  • Funding for School for the Blind cut by 59%
  • Public Education funding cut by 23%
  • 60,000 fewer college students receiving state financial aide.

We don't yet have the full proposed budget, which is sure to contain more bad news (we'll have to wait to see what's going to happen to the state's already paltry HIV/AIDS prevention programs). While we wait for that information it might be a good idea for Texas' toddlers, blind people and college students to band together to hire several good lobbyists, 'cause they're all about to be seriously screwed over.

For more information on the budget watch live streaming video of the press conference by Rep. Coleman at 10:30 today HERE.

For the next week or so the budget will be the only story coming out of Austin. In the meantime we're still waiting for rules adoption in both the House and Senate so that bills that would be good for LGBT Texans can start the process of becoming Law.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Day 8: Get Out of the Way! The Budget's Coming Through!

Today is the 8th day of the 82nd Texas Legislature and lawmakers are back in Austin after the 3 day weekend. The House will reconvene at 9:30 am and the Senate at 11:00 am.

Right now everything is waiting on rules adoption. The Texas constitution outlines how the House and Senate are to do their business, but both bodies have broad discretion to decide the specifics of how they operate. Since the rules lay out the committee structure without them there are no committees, without committees there are no committee chairs and without committee chairs there are no committee hearings. Until the rules are adopted everything else is in a holding pattern.

Most of the rules debate will be hashed out behind closed doors. Bits and pieces are leaking out but we won't know what either the House or Senate rules will look like until they are formally introduced on the floors. The capitol scuttlebutt says that some of the freshman Republicans in the House are frustrated by the rule making process so there may be an ill-advised attempt to make major alterations on the floor, which will be fun to watch but won't do anything to help the advancement of legislation important to the queer community.

Quorum Report says that Jim Pitts, who last session served as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will file the appropriations bill today. Pitts is widely expected to retain his chairmanship, if so he will be overseeing the first step in adopting the State's two year budget (thus he receives the honor of filing it). Passing a budget is the only requirement the State Constitution places on the legislature.

The budget is their only job, and this year it's a doozy! Texas has a projected budget deficit for the next two years of as much as $25 million dollars. Last session Governor Perry jury rigged a balance budget by using stimulus funds designed to improve public schools to instead cover general budget provisions. No such funds are forthcoming this session. The concern is that the Republican majority will again rob eduction by forcing massive cuts in public schools and universities. Texas ranks 43rd out of 50 states in high school graduation rates. Our schools are already woefully underfunded. Compromising the quality of education may balance the budget in the short run but will lead to massive economic hardship as another generation of high school drop-outs enters the workforce.

The budget process should be watched carefully, not only will effect every aspect of every state agency but since it's the only bill that has to pass it's a prime target for amendment. Last session Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) managed to amend the budget to include a nondiscrimination policy for Texas Public Schools that included sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (it was later removed). Almost anything, good or bad, can get tacked onto the budget somewhere, as the session speeds up thing will start happening very quickly, hopefully our allies in the legislature are watching.

Today is also inauguration day for Governor Rick Perry. A joint session of the House and Senate affirmed the results of November's election last week - making them official. Perry will take the oath of office today and then attend the inauguration ball this evening (tickets are still available if you're into that sort of thing).

Friday, January 14, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes - Part III

In which marriage is denied in order to defend it and bipartisanship works against the queer community.

[Be sure to read Part I and Part II]

78th Legislature
SB7 (Texas Defense of Marriage Act)
by Chisum
Passed on Second Reading
Yea (35 Democrats, 85 Republicans)
nay (11 Democrats)
Present, not voting (2 Democrats, 1 Republicans)
Absent (8 Democrats, 1 Republicans)
Absent, Excused (5 Democrats, 1 Republicans)

The 78th Legislature was perhaps the most contentious in the history of the state. Republicans had captured a majority in the Texas House for the first time since reconstruction. They used this new majority to elect Tom Craddick as Speaker of the House. Craddick's reign as speaker was marked by vicious political maneuvering, questionable campaign finance and swift reprisals against anyone seen as opposing his rule.

George Bush had recently been elected riding a wave of opposition to marriage equality. As activists in states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts began to fight in the courts for the right to marry, conservatives across the country began to introduce anti-equality legislation at the state level.

In the Texas House Warren Chisum (he of "sexual preference") introduced the "Texas Defense of Marriage Act", which enshrined in statute Texas's policy of not providing equal access to marriage to people in same-sex relationships.

Democrats were running scared after their defeat in the polls the previous November. 57% of the Democrats in the 78th Texas House voted in favor of denying marriage equality. While some of those probably honestly thought that was the right thing to do most were simply bending to the prevailing political wind. Willing to compromise other people's civil rights for their own political career most of them have since lost their bids for re-election. Only 40% of the Democrats who voted for inequality are still serving in the Texas House, 73% of those who stood by our community still hold their seats.

In the case of Texas DOMA bipartisan support for legislation worked against the LGBT community. Once again the bill would have passed solely along partisan lines, but the overwhelming Democrat support for this hateful legislation would create the impression of a mandate leading, just two years later, to the inclusion of DOMA not only in statute, but in the State Constitution.

Up Next: Marriage is one thing - but what about parenthood?

HB 665: Employment Non-Discrimination

HB 665 by By Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Villarreal filed the same legislation last session (81st HB 538).

Currently in the state of Texas it is perfectly legal to fire an employee for being LGBT. The fired employee has no right to sue and will probably not be eligible for unemployment compensation. HB 665 is needed to protect the basic civil rights of queer Texans, so expect a shrill reaction from the far right - no doubt claiming that churches will be forced to hire lesbian preachers if the bill passes.

Last session's version of this bill was referred to the House State Affairs Committee which was chaired by Burt Solomons. Solomons is one of the 'Gang of 37' - long time House members with perfect records of voting against the queer community. By simply sitting on the bill, and refusing to give it a hearing, Solomons was able to prevent this important piece of legislation from passing.

The State Affairs Committee has 15 members. In addition to Solomons the committee last session included another of the 'Gang of 37' - former Speaker Tom Craddick (who was ousted last session by current Speaker Joe Straus and spent most of last session pouting in his office - missing almost all of the State Affairs Committee meetings). The other 13 members of the committee, however, all had a record of voting in the best interest of the queer community at least once, even if it was only once.

For instance, during the 80th session an amendment was offered to a bill promoting student-led prayer in school. The amendment would have prevented the student-led prayer from being used as a platform for gay bashing. Fourteen of the fifteen members of this committee were serving in the legislature at that time. Seven of them supported the amendment, and that's with two of the most supportive members (Menendez and Lucio) absent.

It's hard to draw a direct connection from one vote to another, but clearly last sessions State Affairs Committee was not strictly a bastion of homophobia. Its chairman, however, was - and was able to use his position to kill a good bill.

This is why committee chairpersonships are so important. We'll likely know who the new chairperson of State Affairs will be next week. If Solomons remains chair HB 665 is dead. If the committee has a new chair HB 665 has a chance.

Day 4: District, Sweet District

Today is the 4th day of the 82nd Texas Legislature. Both the House and Senate have adjourned until next Tuesday. Most of the Representatives and Senators will be back in their district offices today, checking in with their staffs and dealing with local business. This will be the legislature's pattern for about the first half of session: taking Fridays off.

Members of the legislature maintain two offices, one at the capitol and one in their district. Since almost all of the members will be in their district offices on Fridays for the next couple of months Fridays are a great day to call the district office and ask the people elected to represent you to support legislation that will improve your life.

To find the phone number for your representative and senator's district offices go HERE. Put in your address and press enter, then scroll down the page until you see the listing for state senator and state representative and find the phone numbers for their district office. You're going to want to call them every week anyway, so you might as well put the number into your phone's address book now.

I'll wait while you're entering the numbers into your phone...

... done? Good!

Now pick the legislation you want them to support. There are tabs at the top of this page that link to bills on different topics if you want to pick out a bill yourself, but I recommend the big anti-bullying bills: HB 224 and SB 245. HB stands for 'House Bill' and SB stands for 'Senate Bill' so you're going to talk to your representative about HB 224 and your senator about SB 245.

Right now both of these bills are in limbo waiting for the House and Senate to adopt their rules. So we can't ask our elected officials to vote for them (since there is nothing to vote on yet). What we can do is ask them to "co-author" the bill. Co-authorship is a way for elected officials to put their name on a bill to officially support it. If a bill has several co-authors it shows that there are many members who care about it and can help it move through the committee process faster.

When you call you will likely speak with a staffer. Tell them your name and make sure you say that you are a "constituent". They may ask you for your phone number, e-mail and address and a few questions about the bill, if you don't know the answers that's fine, tell them what you do know and repeat that you want their boss to "co-author" the bill.

What a staffer won't do (or at least should never do) is argue with you, or promise that their boss will take any action. Their job is to speak with you and then reduce your request down to a couple of sentences for their boss. So keep it simple:

"Hello, my name is [name] and I'm a constituent. I'm very concerned about the issue of bullying. I would like the [representative or senator] to co-author [HB 224 or SB 245] so that children don't have to be afraid to go to school."

That's it! If they have questions answer them as best as you can and just keep repeating "co-author".

It may not seem like much, but calls like this can make a huge difference. It is particularly important to call if you know that your representative does not support the queer community. Even if they will never co-author the bill, knowing that they have many constituents who support it will discourage them from trying to kill the legislation.

The phone calls won't take more than five minutes, but they will make a huge difference.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Day 3: A Little More Conversation, A Little Less Action

The House reconvenes at 9:30 today, and then will hold a joint session with the Senate at 10:00. Expect them to do the pledges, introduce the pastor and the doctor of the day (yes, they have those), say a prayer, congratulate some people, handle a few technical pieces of business and then adjourn until Monday.

Tomorrow, Friday, will be a day off - so many of the officials will be heading out this afternoon (some have already left), leaving their harried staffs to try to catch up before they return on Monday. This makes Fridays a great day to call lawmakers' district offices and ask that they support legislation that is important to you. We'll be writing more about that tomorrow.

Yesterday was all about the rules, and the Sunset Commission. The State Constitution lays out the general outline of how the legislature is supposed to work, but each chamber (House and Senate) gets to adopt its own rules about the specifics of its operation. The debate on those rules began in earnest yesterday.

The Senate decided it will wait till next week to adopt its rules. The House, on the other hand, is in full debate mode on adoption of its rules. Quorum Report says that the House is looking at changing the way it handles "Sunset Bills". By State law every State agency must undergo the "Sunset Process" every 7 years. The process requires the legislature to reauthorize the agency's existence, otherwise it will be automatically dissolved. Last session the Legislature failed to reauthorize the Texas Department of Transportation and had to be called back to Austin to get take care of it (be glad they did, or we wouldn't have highways anymore). I'm guessing the suggested change is intended to fast track Sunset Bills to avoid a similar incident.

The commission that oversees the Sunset process also made its recommendations to the legislature yesterday. Expect those recommendation to dominate Texas political reporting for the next couple of days.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

HB 604: Repeal the State Sodomy Law

HB 604 by Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) would remove the crime of "homosexual conduct" from Texas' Penal Code as well as several rules based on that law that require Texas school children to be taught that "Homosexuality is not a valid lifestyle choice".

You may recall that in 2004 the Supreme Court of the United States declared the Texas sodomy law (which is Penal Code 21.06) unconstitutional in Lawrence v. Texas. What many people do not realize is that the law, although now unenforceable, is still on the books. While it might seem a simple matter of housekeeping to remove it thus far most state lawmakers have seemed too afraid of being accused of being "pro-sodomy" to do anything about it.

Last session Rep. Garnet Coleman (D-Houston) filed this exact bill (word for word) (HB 3028). It was sent to the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee which referred it to a sub committee. When a committee has a large number of bills to consider the chair may, at their discretion, appoint sub committees - which usually look at groups of bills on similar topics and then make recommendations to the whole committee.

The Chair of the Criminal Jurisprudence committee last session was Pete Gallego who has a solid record of voting for the best interest of the LGBT community. Gallego referred HB 3028 to a subcommittee - who then did nothing with it.

It's tempting to blame the subcommittee (which did include virulent homophobes Wayne Christian and Debbie Riddle) and it's tempting to blame Gallego for referring it to subcommittee, but the real culprit is the calendar.

The legislature meets for 140 days every other year. In that 140 days all of the business of the state must be completed. Anything left undone on day 141 must wait another two years. In addition there are many deadlines along the way. One deadline is the 60th day of the session: the last day to file new bills - which in 2009 fell on March 14. HB 3028 was filed just four days before the deadline, on March 10. After a bill is filed it must be read on the House floor and referred to committee, because of the shear volume of bills this takes a few days. HB 3028 was read and referred on March 17.

But it's not like HB 3028 was the only bill the Criminal Jurisprudence committee had to consider. By this point in the session there were hundreds of bills waiting in the committee for the chair to refer to subcommittee. Chairman Gallego referred HB 3028 on March 30, which is actually pretty fast in legislative terms. By this time another major deadline was looming, the 120th day of the session on May 14, which was the last day for bills to be considered on the House floor.

Between the subcommittee and the House floor were several additional steps the bill would have to surmount to meet the May 14th deadline: hearing in subcommittee - report by subcommittee to committee - hearing in committee - vote in committee - committee report filed with "calendar" committee (which decides the order bills will be considered on the floor) - placement on the House schedule and then waiting in line behind every other bill for consideration on the floor of the House. With only 6 weeks to go before the deadline there was not much point in the subcommittee pursuing the bill, especially not with all the work on other bills that lay before them.

Which is why I'm happy to see that Farrar has taken over this bill and decided to file it today, on the 2nd day of the session. Getting a bill towards the front of the line is a huge step in getting it passed.

It's still by no means a sure thing, there are at least 37 incumbent members of the House who have historically voted against anything that is good for the queer community, and with 34 first-time representatives in the 82nd legislature it's hard to predict how bills will do. There is hope, however, that this year this tiny little bit of housekeeping may finally be accomplished.

Attacker of Transgender Student Gets Seven Years.

Terrance Calhoun, who brutally robbed Houston Community College Student Lance Reyna last June, was sentenced to seven years in prison today by Harris County District Court Judge Belinda Hill.

Judge Hill had previously indicated that she was likely to give Calhoun deferred adjudication with a requirement to serve one year in a lock-up drug treatment facility and 10 years of community supervision. Hill gave no explanation for why she changed her mind.

At Calhoun's previous hearing several dozen family members were in attendance, no doubt to bolster his defense attorney's claim that Calhoun's large "Christian" family would keep him on the straight and narrow (despite their inability to do so after the drug conviction he was on parole for at the time of the attack). Only a handful attended today's hearing.

Crystal Johnson, who claims to be Calhoun's fiance, was also in attendance and left the courtroom in tears; in sharp contrast to her repeated threats posted on the website of Houston's Transgender Center and on social media websites. Reyna continues to receive anonymous threatening text messages, which have been reported to police.

The attack took place on June 22 at HCC's Central Campus. Calhoun followed Reyna into the restroom, shouted “Hey queer!”, and demanded Reyna’s possessions while thrusting a knife against Reyna’s throat. After robbing Reyna, Calhoun struck him in the face and shoved him to the floor.

The attack was reported to the Department of Public Safety as a Hate Crime but Harris County prosecutors declined to pursue Hate Crime sentence enhancements since doing so would not have increased the maximum sentence Calhoun could have received.


For more background on the case read Sentencing Delayed for Attacker of Trans Man

Day 2: Down to Business

Today is the second day of the 82nd regular legislative session.

The Senate will reconvene at 11 am and will likely begin the process of adopting their rules. The rules in the Senate are very similar to the House's with a few noted exceptions. Chief among these is that the House can consider bills on the floor in any order it deems fit. The Senate, however, has a rule that bills must be considered in the order they were filed. So SB1 should be first, then SB2 and so forth.

Of course the Senate never follows this rule. A two thirds majority of Senators can set aside their rules and take up a bill out of order. So each session what's known as a blocker bill is filed first. The blocker bill sits at the front of the line and never gets voted on, this requires every other bill to get two thirds of the Senators to agree to set aside the rules and consider it out of order.

The blocker bill is generally credited with creating a more civil tone in the Senate since every bill must garner at least two-thirds of the senators favor to pass. Last session Sen. Dan Patrick engineered a loophole into the Senate Rules to allow voter suppression legislation to bypass the blocker bill without the two-thirds support. That loophole resulted in a backlash that nearly brought the entire session to a halt. The Senate rule making process will be watched closely this session to see if any similar shenanigans are attempted.

Also this morning the Sunset Advisory Committee is meeting at 8 am. Texas law requires that every state agency undergo a "Sunset Review" every 7 years. The legislature must re-approve the existence of the agency or it will automatically be dissolved. The Sunset process began at the end of the previous session and involved hearings held around the State on each agency under review.

The House will convene briefly today but don't expect much beyond some minor congratulations and ceremony. The real action will be in the Legislative Conference Center which is underground behind the capitol building. House members will be meeting in heated sessions to hash out the specifics of this session's House rules.

Arch conservatives in the House are likely still stinging from yesterday's relatively smooth reelection of Joe Straus as Speaker. Rep. Ken Paxton, the teabagger favorite for speaker, withdrew from the Speaker's race just before the vote was to begin.

A motion was made to elect Straus by acclamation, when Rep. Leo Berman requested a record vote. Only 15 members voted against Straus: Berman, Burkett, Christian, Cain, Flynn, P. King, Landtroop, Laubenberg, C. Perry, Paxton, Parker, Simpson, V. Taylor, White and Zedler. There are a few extreme old timer right-wing hardliners in that list but almost half (7) of those voting 'no' are serving their first term in the House. Which would seem a foretaste of things to come in a House of 34 freshmen, most of whom were sent to Austin by teabaggers who demand only obstinance and pig-headedness.

The discussions should be interesting. The House Rules are extremely complicated, some members who have served for years still to not have a full understanding of them. If the freshmen recalcitrance brigade tries to muck up the works with their default rejection of order and civility they will likely get taken to task by even the most conservative of the senior members. The House has 150 members, each of whom is answerable first to their constituents, not to a party, and not to a hissy fit disguised as a national populist uprising.

Today the grown-ups get to work and if the wet-behind-the-ears whipper snappers don't behave they may find themselves spending the rest of the session sitting in the corner.

------------------------
UPDATE: The Senate voted to delay adoption of rules until next week (via Quorum Report)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes - Part II

In which the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act becomes law, and we learn the power of committee chairpersonship

[Be sure to read Part I]

77th Legislature
HB 587 (James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act)
by Thompson
Passed on Second Reading
Yea (77 Democrats, 10 Republicans)
Nay (60 Republicans)
Present, Not Voting (1 Democrat)
Absent (1 Republican)
Absent, Excused (1 Republican)

The James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act created a mechanism to allow prosecutors to seek tougher sentences for defendants convicted of committing crimes where the victim was targeted based on their real or perceived race, color, disability, religion, national origin or ancestry, age, gender, or "sexual preference".

The Democrats held the majority in the House during the 77th session, with 78 of the 150 House Seats. Versions of the Hate Crimes Bill had been introduced every regular session since the brutal murder of Paul Broussard (targeted for being gay) in Houston in 1991 but had failed to pass. During the 76th regular session Rep. Senfronia Thompson, frustrated with the stalled efforts and galvanized by the recent vicious murder of James Byrd Jr. (targeted for being black), took the lead in passing the bill. Thompson used her position as chair of the Judicial Affairs Committee to stall the legislation of Representatives who opposed the bill.

The Texas State Constitution requires all bills to be "read" three times on the House floor. After the first "reading" the bill is referred to one of the House committees which then must vote for the bill to proceed. Once the bill is out of committee it is then sent to one of the Calendar Committees which schedules it for a second reading. It's during second readings that the real debate takes place. Although there is one more vote after the third reading it is rarely a record vote.

When HB 587 passed the House on second reading every Democrat voted for it (other than the Speaker, who traditionally only votes in cases of ties) - as did 10 Republicans. Although the Hate Crimes Act would have passed with only Democratic votes, the bipartisan support garnered was crucial later when the bill went to the Senate, which was controlled by the Republicans.

The key to passing the Hate Crimes bill was Rep. Thompson and her chairwomanship. As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee she was in a position to, at her discretion, choose which bills referred to that committee received hearings and were voted on by the committee (it is possible for a majority of the members of the committee to bypass the chair but it is almost unheard of). She used that power to negotiate with key members who were holding up the vote on the Hate Crime bill.

Committee chairs are selected by the Speaker of the House, who is selected by the members of the House (and is historically a member of the ruling party). This is one way that the majority party can exercise their power, and one of the reasons it matters which party is in the majority. Unlike the U.S. Congress, where committee chairs are almost always all members of the ruling party, Texas House Speakers have historically appointed committee chairs from both parties, roughly in proportion with each party's House Membership (there is pressure from the Texas far right for the Speaker to abandon that practice, which is short-sighted).

Thompson was also able to leverage her personal friendship to get the House's most vitriolic homophobe, Warren Chisum, to support the bill by changing "Sexual Orientation" to the more prejudicial "Sexual Preference". Without Chisum's opposition it was difficult for more conservative Democrats to justify their opposition.

The personal relationships that House members develop with each other are probably more influential to getting legislation passed than any other single factor. Thompson is currently the second longest serving member of the House, and even in 1999 she held significant seniority. That lifetime of building relationships was crucial in the passage of the Hate Crimes Act.

What makes Rep. Thompson's advocacy for this bill so amazing was her unwillingness to drop sexuality from the list of characteristics against which motivating bias could trigger the Hate Crimes enhancement. The bill would have likely have flown through the legislative process without this inclusion. Rep. Thompson's willingness to take the more difficult path is laudable even as we, a decade later, lament the exclusion of Gender Identity and Expression from the statute and the use of "Sexual Preference".

Up next in Part II: the Texas Defense of Marriage Act, how to tell who your real friends are and bipartisanship is also the key to LGBT legislative failures

Day 1: The 82nd Legislature Gets Underway

Today is the first day of the 82nd Texas Legislative Session. The legislature meets every other year for 140 days. In that time they must handle all of the business of the State for the next two years.

Most of today's activities are ceremonial or procedural. Both the House and Senate will convene at noon. You can watch the proceedings live on-line HERE (House) and HERE (Senate).

The on-screen action today will be minimal. Members of both houses will be sworn in and the House will likely elect its speaker (which may involve some fireworks as Rep. Ken Paxton is refusing to back out of the Speaker's race (more info HERE)).

Mostly today is a party. Lobbyist will be dropping off gifts at the officials offices (none worth more than $75), staffers will be getting to know each other and lawmakers will start, in earnest, conversations about their legislative priorities. There are a number of parties thrown by lobbying and interest groups around Austin tonight to celebrate the beginning of session.

But don't be fooled. The deadly seriousness of the tasks before them are not lost on the officials or their staffers. Today is a day to eat, drink and be merry, because for the next 139 days they will get little sleep or peace as they go about the business of the people of Texas.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Straus Wins GOP Caucus' Speaker Vote

Quorum Report tweets that Speaker Straus has won the Republican caucus vote for Speaker with 70 out of 100 votes (for more information on the unorthodox practice of taking a caucus vote for House Speaker see Legislative Queery's post UPDATE: Chisum Remains in Speakers Race).

Unconfirmed reports indicate that the vote was stopped after Straus received 70 votes so it is possible that he actually had much broader support. It is now all but certain that Joe Straus will remain House Speaker for another session. With that settled the next major step in getting the session underway will be the adoption of the House's rules, followed by the appointment of committee chairs by the Speaker.

Straus is a Republican from Bexar County. He has been praised for his even-handed and statesmen-like approach to the Speakership and vilified by the far right for not suppressing moderate and liberal members.

The Texas State Constitution allows the House to adopt its own rules within certain guidelines. The rules generally remain about the same with minor tweaks here and there to address issues that have risen since the last revision. It takes a two-thirds majority of the House to approve the rules.

(With the new Republican super-majority it is possible that an attempt will be made to majorly edit the rules to make it easier to pass conservative legislative priorities. Last session a change in Senate Rules allowed voter suppression legislation that had stalled in previous sessions to sail through the Senate, creating a major crisis when it reached the House and the Democratic leadership slowed House business to a standstill to prevent its passage. It is possible that something similar may be tried in the House this session.)

Once the rules have been adopted the next order of business is for the Speaker to appoint chairs, vice-chairs and members to each of the House's standing committees (the exact number and nature of committees is laid out in the House Rules, so appointments can not be made until the rules are agreed upon). Committee Chairs determine which bills will receive hearings and in what order and which bills will be voted out of committee. A chairpersonship is a very powerful position.

Historically both Democratic and Republican speakers have appointed chairs from both parties with the appointments roughly divided between parties in proportion to that party's seats in the House. If that pattern holds true we should see about 11 Democratic committee chairs and 23 Republicans.

Assuming the committee structure this session is similar to what it's been in the past (which seems likely), most media will be focused on the chairs of the Appropriations, Elections, Redistricting, Border and Intergovernmental Affairs, State Affairs and Ways and Means committees. These committees will likely handle the highest profile issues like the budget, voter suppression, redistricting, and immigration. It is very likely that all of those chairpersonships will go to Republicans.

Most of the legislation that will most directly effect the queer community, however, is likely to go through the Public Education Committee (anti-bullying), the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee (Hate Crime reform) and the Insurance Committee (insurance non-discrimination).

Straus's chairs last session of those committees were: Rob Eissler (R), Public Education; John Smithee (R) - Insurance and Pete Gallego (D) - Criminal Jurisprudence.

Last session Chairman Eissler was fairly supportive of anti-bullying legislation, scheduling it for a hearing and bringing it up for a vote, if a bit late in the session. He supported Straus's bid to remain speaker so it seems likely that he may keep his chairmanship. If so, the public attention on bullying and the early filing of several anti-bullying bills will likely mean an earlier hearing date, and hopefully earlier passage out of committee.

Chairman Smithee is one of what I like to call the "gang of 37" - arch conservatives who have consistently opposed any legislation that improves the lives of queer people - regardless of how minor. If he remains chairman of the House Committee on Insurance it seems unlikely that any effort to outlaw insurance discrimination based on Sexual Orientation or Gender Identity and Expression will succeed.

Smithee is also frequently named as a potential candidate for Speaker. He has supported Straus in the past but his potential as a rival makes it important for Straus to reward his loyalty. It seems almost certain that Smithee will be appointed as a committee chair... but which one? Speaker Straus will want to be certain that the chairs of the high profile committees and the chairs of the procedural committees like Calendars are all Republican stalwarts. He may choose to promote Smithee to a more powerful position. If so, we may have a new chair of Insurance, and a new hope for justice.

Chairman Gallego has a solid record of votes in favor of the best interest of the queer community. Last session his committee sent through Marc Veasey's HB 616 (refiled this session as HB 172) which would study the effectiveness of Texas' current Hate Crimes Law and suggest improvements, but the bill stalled waiting to reach the House floor.

There will be fewer Democratic Chairs this session, there is no getting around that. Gallego may be one of the Democrats who lose their chairmanship. I will be watching this appointment carefully.

Expect to learn the new lineup of committee chairs within a week or so. The outcome is crucial to the eventual success or failure of many vital bills.

"Die-in" Planned at State Capitol

A Facebook page has been created to promote a scheduled 'die-in' on the front lawn of the Texas State Capitol in Austin tomorrow at 6 pm. The event is designed to draw attention to the very real and deadly consequences that can result from bullying.

I am a big believer in the power of protests and publicity events to sway public opinion and in turn to sway elected officials. I wish the organizers the best of luck and encourage anyone who will be in Austin to participate as volume is key to the success of these sorts of events.

I also encourage anyone who is planning to participate to come a couple of hours early and visit the offices of their State Representative and Senator (if you don't know who that is you can find out Here (House) and Here (Senate)). There are dozens of protests and rallies at the capitol every week. I can tell you from experience that most of the time the people working in the building, most of whom work in underground offices, have no idea what is happening on the front lawn (unless, of course, it involves free food).

Direct action is most effective when coupled with direct communication. Without that a 'die-in' just looks like a bunch of people taking a nap.

Bipartisan Votes Key to LGBT Legislative Successes - Part I

Last month The Austin American Statesmen reported that Representatives Pena and Ritter, formerly Democratic State House members, switched parties and are now Republicans. This change means that the Texas House now has 101 Republicans and 49 Democrats.

One-hundred is a key number in the Texas House, which has 150 members total, there are several key parliamentary procedures that require two-thirds of the members, including establishing a quorum, suspending the House rules, approving proposed constitutional amendments and even expelling fellow house members.

Unfortunately for the Republicans, in order to exercise their new found power they will have to find a way to unite a party that is increasingly fractured and discordant. The same Teabagger movement that swept them into their 'super majority' has also emboldened the most arch members of their conservative wing and saddled them with 30 freshmen legislators, most of whom ran on such fevered opposition to federal issues it's difficult to know if they understand they've been elected to the state legislature.

While the current partisan break down of the House is certain to play a major role in issues such as voter suppression and redistricting, its influence on the fate of major queer issues such as bullying and ending insurance discrimination is hard to predict.

Attempting to understand the relationship between the partisan divide and the fate of legislation that affects the queer community I looked at 10 house votes from the last 5 regular sessions. What I found was that support or opposition to the best interest of the queer community never fell along partisan lines. In fact 15 of the 44 incumbent Democrats in the House this session have a record of voting against LGBT people at least once and 23 of 69 incumbent Republicans have a history of, at least once, voting for them.

Before we look at the historic votes more closely let's talk about the challenges of interpreting Texas House votes. According to the House Rules all votes are taken by voice vote, but any member can request that a 'record vote' be taken which will record specifically who voted which way (technically the rules say that every vote must be a voice vote but that after the vote is taken any member may request that a record vote may also be taken - historically the presiding officer of the house has forgone this formality and skipped right to the record vote if requested).

If only a voice vote is taken and the measure passes members who opposed the measure may enter their official opposition in the record. In that instance the House Journal only reflects those in opposition.

In cases of record votes each member of the house uses a voting machine embedded into their desk to record their vote. The machine allows them to vote either 'yea', 'nay' or 'present not voting' for each item before the House.

If a member is away from the House Chamber due to illness, family emergency or similar circumstance they can ask a fellow member to request that the Speaker excuse them, if a vote happens while they are away they are notated as being "Absent-Excused" in the record. Typically a member who is "Absent-Excused" will miss an entire day of votes.

The House often meets for hours on end without breaks. Members must often step out of the chamber the eat meals, meet with constituents or take bathroom breaks. If a member happens to be away from their desk and unable to vote when a record vote is taken they are recorded as being 'absent' from that vote.

So on any vote there are five different ways that a members position could be recorded: Yea, Nay, Present - Not Voting, Absent-Excused and Absent.

The issue is further complicated by a long standing tradition of members voting for each other. Many representatives feel that it is appropriate for them to record a vote on the machine embedded in the desk of a colleague who is absent, obstinately voting in the manner that member would and sparing them a record of being "absent" for a vote. The practice is strictly prohibited by House Rule 5, section 47, but it still happens (and was famously defended by Rep. Debbie Riddle after she was caught, on tape, voting for Rep. Kuempel).

These votes are jokingly referred to as "voting machine malfunctions". The House Rules allow members to enter a statement in the official house record explaining that their voting machine "malfunctioned" and stating how they intended to vote. Members can enter a similar statement if they are absent for a vote and would like a record of their position on the record.

For the purposes of analyzing historic House votes I have chosen to reflect member's "intended" vote if it differs from their recorded vote.

Up next in Part II - the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Act of 1999 and the power of committee chairmanship.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Today's Shooting

Our thoughts go out to the Hon. Gabrielle Giffords, the Hon. Jon Roll and all of the victims of today's senseless shooting and their family and friends. No matter our disagreements, regardless of how serious or fervent the values that separate us, let us remember that violence - and threats of violence - are never the road to justice.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Equality Project Coming to Houston January 22nd

The Equality Project is coming to Houston, Saturday, January 22. Created by Equality Texas Foundation, the Equality Project is designed to teach members of the LGBT community and their allies to effectively communicate with elected officials. The January 22 training will be held at the Transgender Community Center at 604 Pacific from 10 am to 3 pm.

The training will focus on influencing members of the State Legislature during the upcoming legislative session, but will also give general information vital to communicating with any elected official. The Texas Legislature will convene on January 11, starting its biennial whirlwind of lawmaking. Several bills important to the LGBT community have already been filed, including legislation to end insurance discrimination and several anti-bullying measures.

I am honored that Equality Texas has asked me to lead this training. I attended the training the last time it was in Houston and was impressed by how thoughtfully the curriculum is constructed.

It is shocking to me that their are member of the State Legislature who claim they 'don't have any gay people in my district'. If they believe that it is our fault, as a community, for not communicating with them. This training aims to correct that.

Participants will learn about bills that have been filed and will review the process by which a bill becomes a law (the training is non-partisan and will not advocate for any particular legislation). Role-playing plays a major role in the training as participants practice speaking directly to lawmakers and staffers. Lunch will be provided.

The training is free but pre-registration is required to reserve space and so information can be gathered about each registrant's elected officials. To register, visit: http://bit.ly/g0px8j

Equality Project Training is presented by Equality Texas Foundation, with support from The Transgender Foundation of America, Houston Stonewall Young Democrats and the Houston GLBT Community Center.