Bad Bills

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MAKING BREAKING UP HARDER TO DO

House Bill 480

Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa

Rep. Warren Chisum is on a mission to save Texas families, and he’s gonna educate the family-splittin’ fight out of ‘em.

“My goal is to reduce the breaking up of families because it’s the basis for our society,” Chisum says. “We have had in this state since the early ’70s something we call divorce for insupportability, which is basically no-fault, which encourages divorce. When you have minor children in the marriage, that should not be an option.”

Eliminating no-fault divorce, which allows couples to dissolve a marriage without accusing each other of a divorceable offense, has been a crusade of the religious right for years. Chisum’s contribution to the cause is HB 480, a bill “encouraging” couples with children to complete a 10-hour crisis marriage education course before or shortly after filing for a no-fault divorce.

If the couple still ends up in divorce court, the judge would be able to use their marriage-class attendance as a factor in dividing their estate and determining spousal support. That might not seem like much of an issue: Logically, husband and wife would be on equal footing in court because couples generally attend marriage courses together. But the bill authorizes a court, in deciding spousal support, to consider all “relevant factors,” including “whether either party has filed with the court a completion certificate for a crisis marriage education course.” This tidbit would essentially allow two people to use attendance in a marriage class against each other in divorce court.

HB 480 does not specify how or to what degree a court can use the marriage course as a mitigating factor. Chisum says it would be the court’s prerogative. “I trust the judges to make the fair call,” he says.

This bill would put more at stake than just the division of a couple’s earthly possessions and financial resources, however; it may also endanger battered women seeking divorce.

Chisum’s bill includes an exemption from marriage education for families where there is documented domestic violence. This requires victims to produce a police report, a restraining order, a doctor’s note or a sworn statement by a counselor or family violence advocate affirming there has been abuse-proof that courts don’t require now.

According to Andi Sloan, executive director of the Texas Advocacy Project, which provides free services to domestic-violence and sexual-assault victims, “Only 20 percent of domestic violence victims ever access domestic violence shelters. We’re talking about a very small percentage of victims who would even be able to fit into one of these categories.”

Sloan says domestic violence escalates around a divorce, so the legislation not only fails to protect victims, it puts them in more danger by throwing another obstacle between them and a way out. Moreover, some courts may interpret the marriage course certificate as a prerequisite for divorce. “They’re going to say, well, come back when you have it,” Sloan said. “Meanwhile, the victim and her children will be in a very dangerous situation for even longer.”

Chisum has a history with state-administered marriage education. Last session, he helped write and pass a law rewarding couples for completing an eight-hour marriage education course before the big day by waiving the state’s $60 marriage license fee and the 72-hour waiting period.

But HB 480 requires couples to foot the bill. The cost could range from $150 for a church-sponsored course up to $800 for a private course.

-Susan Peterson

HONK IF YOU LOVE SUBTLETY

House Bill 109

Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman

On Dec. 18, Gov. Rick Perry singled out House Bill 109 as one he would be devoting a great deal of time and attention to during the coming session. Perry said the bill would allow “Texans who believe in the sanctity of life” to tell it to the world in “a subtle but meaningful way.”

How subtle? HB 109, sponsored by Rep. Larry Phillips, would greenlight “Choose Life” specialty license plates, giving Texans a chance to oh-so-delicately proclaim their anti-abortion leanings to fellow drivers.

“This is all about promoting adoption as an alternative to abortion,” says Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, who joined Perry at that December news conference after spending the fall touring the state to promote the plates.

For each $30 plate purchased, $22 would go into a Choose Life account. The state would dole out this money to “eligible organizations,” meaning those that do not provide abortions or abortion-related services, and those that do not make referrals to abortion providers. Much of the Choose Life bounty would go toward pregnancy resource centers, also called crisis pregnancy centers, or CPCs. These centers have spawned controversy across the country. A 2006 study by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., found that a large majority of CPCs provide inaccurate or misleading information to women seeking advice about unintended pregnancies.

As Sarah Wheat of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capitol region notes, this state’s “taxpayers already fund pregnancy resource centers very generously.” In 2005, the Legislature began diverting tax dollars toward CPCs for the first time. Texans now pay $2.5 million each year for programs that, more often than not, provide no medical services, fail to screen for cervical cancer, oppose birth control, and fail to offer advice for preventing future crisis pregnancies.

Perry, co-opting the language of his political opponents, emphasized a driver’s “choice” in license plate designs. Indeed, a number of viewpoints are expressed, and programs funded, with Texas specialty plates-more than 130 of them. But none of the other “choices” could be so easily construed as a scheme to funnel money to one side of a polarizing issue. “Authorizing a specialty plate that benefits only one side of the debate is unfair,” says Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas.

Pojman has little sympathy for that objection. “It’s just a matter of who’s got votes in the Legislature,” he says. “The losing side usually thinks things are unfair.”

So, if the votes were there, how about an alternative option with a message like “Respect Choice,” to raise funds for women’s health organizations? “Oh, we would absolutely oppose that,” says Pojman. “We think the state of Texas should have a policy of advocating childbirth.”

As Wheat points out, this is not a new issue. In fact, it’s the sixth attempt at passing a law to permit the plates. “What’s new,” she says, “is the governor’s enthusiasm for it.”

Perry is gearing up for a gubernatorial primary battle next year against Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. “If there’s every been a more pro-life governor in Texas history,” Perry said in December, “I’d be hard pressed to name who that was.”

-Reeve Hamilton

LOST IN TRANSLATION

House Bill 81

Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Van

Rep. Dan Flynn wants to stop using state money to print public documents in languages other than English. His House Bill 81 would also repeal a key section of the Texas election code, which requires voting precincts to provide bilingual elections materials.

According to Flynn, it’s all about the Benjamins.

“We’re printing a lot of things in languages,” he says, “and no one reads the material, and they get thrown away. I want to be sure that we maximize every tax dollar that we have.”

It’s true that lawmakers will have to practice some frugality this session, considering the $9.1 billion shortfall. But will prohibiting the printing of public documents in non-English languages work a fiscal miracle?

It’s hard to know how much money the state’s many agencies spend on publishing foreign-language public documents. But the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services was able to provide a breakdown. According to communications manager Darrell Azar, DFPS spent $733,062 on publications in fiscal year 2008. Of that, $90,644 (12.3 percent) was for Spanish-language documents. However, not all that money was from the state; a significant portion came from federal funding and private donations.

Among the documents printed in Spanish: “Protecting Vulnerable Adults”; a poster reading “Kids should be seen and not hurt”; information on the Texas Youth Hotline; and a brochure containing rules for licensed home-based daycares. Azar says that DFPS prints many fewer items in Spanish than in English, and many publications it doesn’t print in Spanish at all, because the audience doesn’t need it.

Many other Spanish-language documents printed by state agencies concern safety, health and well-being, including a brochure of health and safety resources for Hurricane Ike victims (Health and Human Services Commission); a hot-line number for reporting youth exploitation (Texas Youth Commission); and a brochure on addiction and substance abuse (Department of State Health Services).

And then there’s the issue of repealing Section 272 of the Texas Election Code.

Under that section, Texas precincts where 5 percent or more of the population is of “Spanish origin or descent” must provide ballots, instruction posters, affidavit forms, early voting materials and voter registration applications in English and Spanish.

“These precincts have been throwing these ballots in the trash,” Flynn asserts.

This is certainly the most puzzling part of Flynn’s bill, since the federal Voting Rights Act, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, requires every county in Texas to provide Spanish-language elections materials, according to Randall Dillard, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state.

What, then, is the effect of repealing Section 272?

It “removes the detailed instructions to counties on how to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act,” says Nina Perales, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and makes things “more confusing for counties and places them in danger of violating federal law.”

According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimate, 34 percent of Texans over 5 years old speak a language other than English at home, and almost 15 percent speak English “less than ‘very well.’” But maybe HB 81 is not just about them.

Flynn is also worried about the average American’s nerves with all those foreign-language documents lying around. “It’s very frustrating to most Americans,” he said. “You’ve probably gone to Wal-Mart and picked something up and had to search for English on the instructions.”

-Susan Peterson