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.

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