Thursday, January 24, 2013

SB 237: Employment Non-Discrimination

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte
Senate Bill 237 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Under current law it is illegal in Texas to discriminate in employment based on a person’s race, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability. It remains legal to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. There is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination against the LGBT community (although, according to  a 2011 poll by the Center for American Progress, 9 out of 10 American voters erroneously believe that federal law does provide LGBT people employment protections).

This is the first time that a bill to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression has been filed in the Senate.

SB 237 is identical to HB 238 by Rep. Mike Villarreal (D - San Antonio).

Why file the same exact bill twice, one in the House and once in the Senate?

Sets of identical, or nearly identical, bills filed in both the House and Senate are called "companions." Bills are filed in these sets because of a quirk in the way legislation is passed in the Texas legislature. The Texas Constitution requires that bills be "read" on three separate days in both the House and Senate before they become law. That doesn't mean that the whole bill is read, it just means that the bill is mentioned and that some action is taken.

So if a bill is introduced in the House (that means it starts with "HB" (for "House Bill")) its first "reading" is when the bill is sent to one of several dozen House committees for consideration. If the committee chooses to consider the bill they will hold a public hearing (when anybody can walk off the street and tell the committee what they think of the bill) and then, if they think the bill is a good idea, the committee can vote to "report favorably" on the bill, basically recommend that the entire House should vote on it. Bills that are reported favorably are then sent to one of several "calendar" committees that schedule the bill for its second "reading."

The legislature only meets for 140 days, and this process can take one to three months.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Day 2: Sunset and Rules

Sen. Leticia Van De Putte
Today is the 2nd day of the 83rd regular session of the Texas Legislature. The House convenes at 10:00 am, the Senate at 11:00 am.

Yesterday's opening ceremonies largely went off without a hitch. On the Senate side Sen. Leticia Van De Putte (D - San Antonio) was elected the senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial position (although it means that if both the Governor and Lt. Governor are out of state she can act as governor). Last session Sen. Van De Putte co-authored a comprehensive anti-bullying bill with Sen. Wendy Davis (D - Fort Worth) that included non-discrimination protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (which unfortunately did not pass). She also co-sponsored HB 1942, the anti-bullying bill that went into effect last year, but which did not include non-discrimination protections.

If you were watching the Senate's swearing-in yesterday morning and felt a chill go up your spine it's likely because you caught a sight of failed presidential candidate and former U.S. Senator Rick Sanatorium (he of the infamous same-sex relationships = "man on dog" sex quote). Sen. Santorium was in attendance as the guest of freshmen Sen. Ken Paxton (R - McKinney).

This morning the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission meets in public hearing. Most state agencies in Texas are subject to "sunset review" on a regular schedule. The review is required in order for the agency to continue its operations and is an opportunity for public input on the agency. The Advisory Commission consists of twelve members of the Legislature who then make recommendations to the whole body about needed changes. A list of the agencies under review this cycle is available here.

Meanwhile we're waiting for both the House and Senate to adopt rules. The Texas Constitution allows the bodies of the legislature to figure out for themselves how to go about their business. For the most part both the House and Senate start with last year's rules and make a few adjustments based on issues that have arisen. There has been some debate about whether to keep the "two thirds rule" in the Senate, which requires most legislation to receive 2/3 support before passing (normally this means 21 of the 31 senators, because of the recent death of Sen. Gallegos (D - Houston) and the current vacancy of his seat only 20 senators are required for the time being). Senate leadership has indicated that the two thirds rule is likely to remain intact for the time being.

On the House side yesterday Rep. David Simpson (R - Lubbock) withdrew his nomination for Speaker of the House (the Speaker is the leader of the House, elected by the entire body from among their own membership), clearing the way for Speaker Joe Strauss (R - San Antonio) to be re-elected to a third term by acclimation.

In his concession speech Simpson quoted President Thomas Jefferson's first inagural address:
"All...will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then, fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions."
There is a particularly appropriate irony to Simpson quoting Jefferson. Our nation's third president was a brilliant man: the architect of the Declaration of Independence, one of the progenitors of the American belief in government only by the consent of the governed, a dedicated and talented statesman who piloted our nation through some of its earliest trials.

He was also a profoundly racist and sexist person.

Jefferson was a product of his time, perhaps, but it can not be argued that a belief that the rights of individuals should be restricted based solely on the color of their skin or their sex is anything other than the definition of racism and sexism.

Likewise when Rep. Simpson speaks of the rights of the minority his concept of the minority is limited, perhaps as much as Jefferson's. Simpson is not speaking of communities that are denied a voice at the table of power because of the circumstances of birth. His concept of "minority" is restricted to people who lounge at the tables of power, gorged on the buffet it offers, but whose extreme views and arrogance make it impossible for them to win the hearts of their fellow power brokers.

This inability to understand the difference between not having power and having power, but being too inept to wield it, undoubtedly explains why, during the last legislative session, Simpson supported removing LGBT student resource centers from college campuses. It explains why Simpson voted against requiring schools to report instances of bullying based on anti-LGBT bias, and why he believes that insurance companies should be allowed to continue discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, even when that discrimination is not based on actuarially sound principles.

Like Jefferson, Simpson is a product of the time and place he lives, and like Jefferson that doesn't make him stupid, or evil... it makes him unaware of the consequences of his actions. It's too late to educated our nation's third president -it's not too late to educate Rep. Simpson.

If you live in the Lubbock area, please give the representative a call. Help him to understand that his voice at the table can be a powerful tool for insuring that the the rights of the minority are not trampled by the majority. Ask him to support efforts to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Texans.

Rep. Simpson is currently in his Austin office. He can be reached at (512) 463-0750) 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

HB 360: Require Public Support of Racist, Sexist and Homophobic Student Organizations

Rep. Matt Krause
House Bill 360, by Rep. Matt Krause (R – Fort Worth) would remove funding from state universities that require officially recognized student organizations to be open to any interested student regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation, so long as the student organization claims that the discrimination is religiously based.

The bill defines “student organization“ as any organization that is composed mostly of students enrolled at an institution of higher education or a private or independent institution of higher education and that: is registered with the institution; receives student organization resource fee revenues or other funding from the institution; or is otherwise recognized as a student organization by the institution.”

The broad definition, and the mention of student activity fees (this is a fund paid into by all students that is then dispersed to student organizations to pay for activities), could create a situation, if this bill becomes law, where student organizations with discriminatory membership practices could threaten the school with retribution by the state if they are not given access to funds to finance their missions.

The constitution guarantees both the freedom of speech and the freedom of association. That means that any person can form a club around whatever stupid or hateful idea they want, and they can claim that their club is based on their religious beliefs, but what Krause is suggesting in this bill is a radical expansion of those rights. Under Krause’s bill not only would these clubs have a right to exist (which they do) they would have a right to financial and material support from the people of Texas.

Religion is a powerful force in our society, which is why every civil rights gain in our nation’s history has been opposed by groups claiming faith as the basis of their opposition. From slavery to suffrage from civil rights to the freedom to marry, hiding behind religion has long been an effective tool for those opposed to equality. HB 360 does not protect religious freedom, it denigrates people of faith by legitimizing the use of their beliefs as a shield for hate.

Under Krause’s bill a student chapter of the Ku Klux Klan could be entitled to funds and to the use of school resources for meetings and events, since the Klan claims that their hatred of people of color is based on biblical teachings.

(Don’t believe me? Here’s a video from a Memphis news station last week where the local Ku Klux Klan explains “"We're not a hate group, we're a Christian-based group.”)
Universities are laboratories for thought. That means that a wide variety of student organizations, including ones that hold opinions that are discriminatory, should be allowed to operate on campus. That being said, university administrations still need the leeway to be able to practice discretion regarding discriminatory organizations and students attending public universities should certainly not be forced to fund organizations that actively discriminate against the student body.

Day 1: The 83rd Texas Legislature Gets Underway

Texas Capitol at dawn
Today is the first day of the 83rd Regular 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. David Simpson challenges current Speaker Joe Strauss (more info HERE)).

Mostly today is a party. Lobbyist will be dropping off gifts at the official's 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.

Today is also a prime opportunity to let your state representative and senator know that you want them to support efforts to end discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Texans. Please call both offices today. If you don't know who represents you go HERE to find out.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Homophobia At Play in Speaker's Race

Speaker Joe Strauss
In four days the 84th Texas Legislature will convene in Austin. The first order of business is for all members to be sworn into office in a lovely ceremony with proud parents and spouses, everyone in their Sunday best, cake and punch to follow.

The second order of business will be the selection of the Speaker of the House and an increasingly nasty and impotent attempt by Rep. David Simpson (R - Longview) to unseat current Speaker Joe Straus (R - San Antonio).

Political Commentators expect Straus to easily retain the Speakership, but Tea-Party-associated groups supporting Simpson maintain the race is still winnable. Recently one Burleson group has charged Straus of pushing a "pro-gay" agenda in an attempt to rouse conservative lawmakers to oppose him.