Thursday, June 07, 2007

Overview of GLBT Issues from the 80th Legislature

Last night's Caucus general meeting was really excellent. Members had the great pleasure of hearing presentations from three of our champions in the state house, Garnet Coleman, Ellen Cohen, and Hubert Vo.

Representative Coleman has put together a thorough summary of GLBT related activity from this year's session. This was just one of many excellent messages that Coleman has sent out this spring through his GLBT e-mail blast. I thought everyone would appreciate finding out what happened, and, more importantly, what didn't happen up in Austin this year.

Dear Friend,

Through a lot of hard work, the GLBT community has made tremendous strides over just the past few years in educating the public about equality and fairness for GLBT people, and that showed in the 80th Texas Legislature. Fourteen pro-GLBT issues were filed this session, compared to just one anti-GLBT bill. In contrast to last session, action on the House floor, while rare, was generally positive for GLBT-related legislation. There are still a number of narrow-minded members hostile to GLBT issues, but many members, particularly freshmen, have voted for positive GLBT-related legislation when it's had a chance to get to the floor.

The 'Dignity for All Students' Budget Amendment by Coleman Late this March, I authored an amendment to the budget that required all schools to report data on incidents of bullying and harassment against GLBT students in Texas. Every student in Texas has the right to a quality education without fear of harassment or bullying at school. My amendment simply would have required schools to report on incidents of harassment at schools, because knowing what kind of harassment is going on at school would even further clarify the need for the legislature to do something to stop it.

The Coleman "Dignity for All Students" data collection amendment passed the House, with nine Republicans joining sixty-seven Democrats in voting for the amendment, although it was ultimately stripped in conference committee and did not become law.

Legislative Intent on the rights of residential tenants I was proud to establish legislative intent on a piece of legislation this session with Rep. Rafael Anchia to expand housing protections for GLBT Texans. Rep. Anchia authored HB 3101, which expanded rights and remedies for residential tenants in Texas. Rep. Anchia and I had an exchange read into the record for legislative intent establishing that if a landlord refuses to rent to a person for a particular reason (including the person's orientation) without including that reason in a list of eligibility criteria for renting, then the landlord would have to return any deposit that person put down on the apartment.

GLBT Texans should not have the rug pulled out from underneath them and lose their deposit on an apartment if a landlord decides not to rent to them without informing them of their renting criteria, and this legislative intent I established will ensure no Texans have to face that circumstance.

Rep. Hochberg's Juvenile Hate Crimes Legislation This session I joint-authored H.B. 1078 with Representative Scott Hochberg, which allowed for a finding of conduct constituting a hate crime in a juvenile proceeding. Texas' current law defines hate crimes for crimes committed by adults, including crimes motivated on the basis of a person's sexual orientation. However, the law does not define hate crimes committed by juveniles, even though nearly one-third of all hate crime offenders are juveniles. The tragic attack on David Ritcheson in Spring last year only emphasizes the need for such legislation.

H.B. 1078 passed out of committee on a unanimous vote in April, although it was never set for debate on the House floor.

Unequal Legal Treatment under 'Romeo & Juliet' statute Texas law regarding statutory rape currently unfairly discriminates against GLBT young people. Texas law allows for a three-year overlapping time frame between two young persons who have sexual relations, to prevent cases in which an eighteen year old senior is charged with statutory rape for dating a seventeen year old junior (this is often referred to as a "Romeo" exception). But that exception only applies when the two young people are of the opposite sex, so GLBT young people don't get the exception.

This February I authored an amendment to repeal that unfair treatment in the law. The amendment was defeated, but I promise to remain vigilant on this issue through the interim and next session as well.

Montrose Management District While GLBT Houstonians live all over the city, Montrose has long been a cultural and social home to Houston's GLBT community. Along with Representative Ellen Cohen and Senator Rodney Ellis, this session I passed HB 4091, which expanded the East Montrose Management District to include West Montrose and added additional members to the board.

The Montrose Management District invests in neighborhood improvements and infrastructure projects to improve quality of life and spur economic development in Montrose, and I was proud to author and pass HB 4091 this session.

Stopping Prison Sexual Assault Sexual assault against prisoners is a problem in Texas; at least 36% of all instances of sexual assault against prisoners in the United States occurred in Texas, not including the countless number of cases which go unreported. Sexual assault in prison can lead to increased cases of HIV, increases in long-term health care costs both within and outside of prison, and can have terrible physical and psychological effects on victims of sexual assault. Unfortunately, GLBT prisoners are often singled out more than others as victims of sexual assault in prison.

HB 1944, which I authored and passed this session along with Senator Rodney Ellis, creates an ombudsperson in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Office of Inspector General to ensure impartial resolution of instances of sexual assault.

Health care for children in foster care Current law in Texas allows children in college to remain on their parents' health insurance until age 24, but for foster children, the State of Texas serves as their parents. I passed an amendment this session to allow foster children who are attending college to remain on Medicaid until age 23. Certainly this amendment benefits all children in foster care, but now GLBT youth who have "aged out" of the foster care system can have health coverage until they leave school.

The Davis Amendment to Rep. Charlie Howard's "Religious Viewpoints" bill The far-right still has a strong grip on state government, and this session we faced Rep. Charlie Howard's "religious viewpoints" bill, which was meant to codify religious freedoms in schools. The bill required every event at which students assemble for school administrators to provide a "limited public forum" for students to express their religious viewpoints. I strongly believe in respecting students' rights of speech, but Rep. Howard's bill essentially would require schools to let students proselytize at any student assembly at which attendance was mandatory.

Rep. Yvonne Davis of
Dallas had a very simple amendment to Rep. Charlie Howard's bill. It stated that a student's speech at one of these "limited public forums" could not discriminate against other students on the basis of their "sex, race, age, sexual preference, or religious beliefs." Rep. Davis' amendment was a good attempt to ensure that these "limited public forums" did not turn into platforms for bigotry or hatred against other students. Twenty-three Republicans and sixty-five Democrats voted for the Davis amendment, although it was ultimately stripped in conference committee and did not become law.

Anti-GLBT Legislation The sole anti-GLBT billfiled this session, HB 1017 by Rep. William Zedler was aimed at banning gay-straight alliances (GSAs) in our public schools. GSAs provide a strong support network for GLBT youth in what may be a difficult time in their lives. Fortunately, HB 1017 never even received a hearing from the Public Education committee, and I would thank both the GLBT community and my colleague on the committee, Representative Scott Hochberg, for their hard work in helping to kill this bad piece of public policy.

Fortunately, not a single anti-GLBT amendment made it to the floor this session. Last session the House passed an amendment banning gays and lesbians from being foster parents in
Texas. Despite ample opportunities to do so, no amendment like that hit the floor this session. Changing hearts and minds isn't inevitable; it's happened
because the GLBT community has worked so hard to educate people about ending discrimination and bigotry in our state. I believe that hard work translated this session into the inaction on legislation that would diminish the rights of GLBT Texans. (In particular, Equality Texas, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and Randall Ellis at Legacy Community Health Services have done excellent political and advocacy work to advance GLBT issues this session).

Tom Craddick's grip on the flow of legislation Despite the change in membership that has made the Legislature a less intolerant place for GLBT issues, Speaker Tom Craddick and his leadership team stifled or stopped many of the positive changes members voted for this session. My amendment and the Davis amendment were stripped from their respective bills in conference committee, and Rep. Hochberg's juvenile hate crimes bill was never set for debate on the floor. Additionally, many of the pro-GLBT bills filed this session never received hearings from the committees to which they were referred.

Speaker Tom Craddick has shown his hostility to GLBT issues as speaker, allowing measures to come to the floor like a constitutional ban on gay marriage and a ban on gays and lesbians serving as foster parents. More generally, Tom Craddick has shown hostility to individual rights and freedoms in his three terms as speaker. Recently, he declared he has "absolute power" over all motions on the floor of the house and refused to recognize motions to let the members vote on whether he should remain speaker. Contravening the wishes of the majority of the House through declarations of absolute power is one of many reasons why I believe the Texas House needs a new speaker.

Conclusion I hope this information is helpful to you in covering how the 80th Texas Legislature treated GLBT legislation session. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to respond to this e-mail or call my district office at 713-520-5355. I promise to you that I will continue fighting for equal rights for GLBT Texans in the legislature and providing leadership without fear.


Garnet Coleman

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