Bad Bills

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HOME COOKING

House Bill 566

Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center

State senators and representatives put in five months every other year sitting through long debates and poring over the details of legislation on behalf of Texas citizens, and they get a measly $7,200 annual salary in return. Surely, at the very least, they deserve a little special treatment in the eyes of the law, right?

Luckily, they have Rep. Wayne Christian’s House Bill 566.

Under current state law, the Travis County district attorney can prosecute any state-level elected official. That’s because the venue for prosecuting a crime is where it occurs, and Travis County happens to be home to the state Capitol. Its DA’s office also happens to be uniquely experienced in, and equipped for, conducting these types of investigations because of its state-funded public integrity unit.

Christian’s bill would change the prosecution venue for elected state officials so that “[t]he only proper county for the prosecution of an offense involving official misconduct or an offense against public administration” by a legislator would be “the county in which the individual resides.”

Recently elected Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, who spent the last 10 years as former DA Ronnie Earle’s first assistant, is not impressed. “It creates a special class of citizen who gets to be tried differently from everyone else,” she says.

Lehmberg points out that the statute could also make prosecutions “unwieldy.” If multiple legislators were involved in the same crime, HB 566 would require that they be tried separately in their home counties.

“Usually, with legislation that changes the law like this one, I look for some public interest being served,” says Lehmberg. “In this case, it is very difficult to find.”

Travis County’s DA’s office has historically not been shy about going after public officials. During his 32 years in the position, Earle brought charges against numerous elected officials from both parties, most famously former Congressman Tom DeLay.

Christian declined to talk with the Observer about the bill. An aide said he would “work on a press release about the issue instead.” At press time, it was still being written.

-Reeve Hamilton

ULTRA-UNSOUND

House Bill 36

Rep. Frank Corte, R-San Antonio

To hear Rep. Frank Corte tell it, his latest abortion bill is all about women’s rights. House Bill 36 and its Senate companion, Republican Dan Patrick’s SB 182, would require physicians to conduct ultrasounds on pregnant women, then show and explain the results before performing abortions. Doctors would have to report the fetus’s size, heart activity and organ development, along with the presence of legs, arms, fingers and toes. They’d have to make fetal heartbeats audible.

“We believe the woman should have the right to view [the ultrasound],” Corte say. “She should have the right to have the process described to her.”

Corte’s bill is the latest in a rash of so-called informed consent laws passed by state legislatures all over the country. On other medical issues, “informed consent” means providing enough information for patients to make intelligent decisions. Abortion-oriented measures like HB 36 are “turning informed consent on its head,” says Elizabeth Nash, a public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization. “The whole idea is to pretty much steer the woman away from even choosing abortion.”

Texas already has one of the nation’s more conservative informed consent laws. Since 2003, the state has mandated a 24-hour waiting period between abortion counseling and the procedure. Abortion clinics also must show pregnant women information published by the Department of State Health Services. The brochure, titled “A Woman’s Right to Know,” depicts the development of a fetus at two-week intervals, discusses its ability to feel pain, and uses graphic language to describe certain abortion procedures. (From the description of a dilation and extraction: “The contents of the unborn child’s skull are suctioned out, the bones of the head collapse, and the child is delivered dead.”)

Three states’ informed consent laws require doctors to perform ultrasounds before every abortion and let their pregnant patients view the images. The distinction with HB 36, notes Sarah Wheat, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Austin, is that Corte’s bill would require doctors to show and describe the ultrasound “even if that’s expressly against the client’s wishes.”

Under the bill, “the pregnant woman may avert her eyes from the ultrasound images required to be provided … and reviewed.” There is no provision for plugging her ears, so women presumably would have to listen to the description and heartbeat (if the fetus is old enough to have one).

“Depending on what that individual woman’s personal situation is, that could make it a pretty emotionally traumatic experience for her,” Wheat says. “It’s one thing to require that they be offered this information,” she says, but mandating it amounts to “callousness and insensitivity.”

The bill contains an exemption for medical emergencies, but not for rape or incest. That was the sticking point for Oklahoma Gov. Brad Henry last year, when his state’s legislature passed a bill that, like HB 36, would have required doctors to display and describe ultrasounds. “By forcing the victims of such horrific acts to undergo and view ultrasounds after they have made such a difficult and heartbreaking decision,” Henry’s veto read, “the state victimizes the victim for a second time.”

The Oklahoma Legislature overrode Henry’s veto, but because of pending litigation, the law is under temporary injunction.

Corte argues that his bill isn’t just about women’s rights; it’s also about transparency. “You wouldn’t go in for treatment on a broken foot,” he says, “without an X-ray.”

-Susan Peterson

DISABLING DEMOCRACY

House Bill 419

Rep. Betty Brown, R-Kaufman

Every now and then, Texas takes the lead on an issue. Accessible voting, to name one. But as any firstborn child will attest, there are costs and difficulties associated with being out in front. Rep. Betty Brown has found a way to alleviate some of the financial burdens that Texas communities have felt in their transition to a more democratic system. Her solution? Simple. Leave some people out.

Brown’s House Bill 419 exempts cities with populations below 5,000 from a requirement that local elections have at least one electronic voting machine for voters with disabilities.

The accessibility requirement has its roots in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandates that polling places in federal elections have at least one accessible system for people who previously relied on assistance to vote. The rationale: “An equal vote means a vote that is private and independent,” says Dustin Rynders, a HAVA policy specialist and attorney for Advocacy Inc., a federally funded statewide advocate for the rights of the disabled.

Texas extended the requirement to local elections, but the federal government balked at providing funds for the local contests. So Texas counties had to pay for accessible systems if they didn’t have one already.

Local election costs rose at varied rates across the state, depending on the machines and vendors counties used. The city of Forsan reported it would cost $125 to lease a system and $1,000 to program it. The city of Smiley reported the same rental price but said programming would cost $304.

“It is unfair to require a small town to spend such a large portion of their budget on providing these machines,” Brown says. “Some small cities bought the voting machines, which increased the cost of their elections by thousands of dollars, only to find out that they were underutilized or not used at all.”

Rynders blames the “underuse” on inexperience. “Especially at the time that electronic voting machines were first introduced,” he says, “we would receive calls from voters who wanted to use the machines but were not able to because inadequately trained poll workers were not yet comfortable using and demonstrating the machines. We received calls from voters who did not know machines were available, complained that machines were not plugged in, or were inappropriately placed in inaccessible locations.”

Since then, several groups have pitched in to train voters and workers on the new technology. “As a result,” says Rynders, “machines are being used by more and more voters, including those who need their accessibility features.”

Brown’s solution to the cost problem is not unprecedented. The 2007 Legislature created a tiered system of compliance based on county size. Counties with populations under 2,000 were exempted from the voting-machine requirements. In all, more than half of Texas counties were granted some exemption from the accessibility requirements. But among the state’s 44 counties with populations between 10,000 to 20,000, which the Legislature allowed to provide fewer machines if they could demonstrate that their election costs would increase by at least 25 percent, the Secretary of State’s office estimates that only “around 10″ claimed an undue burden in the past year.

Brown’s bill is flanked by two similar efforts. Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has filed House Bill 355, which would create exemptions for political subdivisions containing fewer than 1,500 people, no matter the county size. House Bill 381, by Rep. Bill Callegari, R-Katy, would do the same for subdivisions with fewer than 5,000.

“This is disenfranchisement,” says Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. “They are saying that they’re not going to bother to pay the costs of a certain class of voter.”

-Reeve Hamilton