Bad Bills


Just Trust Us and Worship the Gipper

Drug War Constitutional Drive By House Bill 65 Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon (D-San Antonio) Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon’s HB 65 is that rare piece of legislation that manages to punish people even if there is no current crime committed. McClendon’s HB 65 would prohibit drug offenders from entering entire swaths of San Antonio, except to go directly to their home, school, or work. Those convicted of a drug offense would be banned from these designated drug-free zones for one year. Someone simply arrested for a drug offense, but not convicted, would be banned for 90 days. The Bexar County district attorney’s office brought McClendon the language for HB 65. Asked if the legislation would strip people of their individual rights, Cliff Herberg, assistant district attorney of Bexar County, responded, “The public’s right to security outweighs individual liberties [of those] who have been involved in prior crimes.” Critics charge that McClendon’s bill violates several rights that—unlike the so-called right to security—actually appear in the Constitution, including the right to due process of law and the right of free association. “Not only is this a bad idea in terms of public policy, but it’s also patently unconstitutional,” says Will Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. The U.S. Supreme Court seems to think so too. In 2003, the high court threw out a nearly identical law to HB 65, enacted in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a ruling that the statute violated constitutional rights. HB 65 would affect only San Antonio. It would grant the city council the authority to create the drug-free zones in neighborhoods with high rates of drug arrests. Anyone banned from the drug-free zones would be placed on a police watch list. Law enforcement officers who have probable cause to question an individual in a drug-free zone (e.g., they were hanging out on a corner known for drug trafficking) could check the person’s name against the watch list, and arrest anyone found in a prohibited area. The penalties for entering the zones once banned have not yet been established, but will probably involve jail time or an extension of parole. Exceptions for an otherwise prohibited individual to enter the drug-free area would include meeting with an attorney, complying with a court-ordered obligation, and accessing a needed social service. While McClendon’s intentions of reducing drug activity are commendable, the bill, which remains in committee, is unlikely to pass. “Quite frankly we don’t anticipate using much capital defeating it,” says Harrell. “I believe it is a DOA: Dead on Arrival.” Rename One for the Gipper House Bill 110 Rep. Martha Wong (R-Houston) The Texas Capitol is the second-most popular tourist attraction in the state—right behind the Alamo—and remains one of Texas’ enduring symbols, from the goddess of liberty atop the dome to the gates where protesters gather on Congress Avenue. So it would stand to reason that the circle drive that surrounds the Capitol would be named after a renowned figure from the state’s glorious past: Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, Ma Ferguson, maybe John Connally or LBJ. Instead, Rep. Martha Wong’s HB 110 would name the Capitol drive in honor of that noted Texan—Ronald Reagan. For the record, the actor-turned-politician was actually born in Illinois and spent most of his life in California, including two terms as its governor. The 40th president was never even a resident of the Lone Star State. He did, however, look dashing in at least one movie set partly in Texas. That’s enough for Wong, who says Ronald Reagan Circle is the perfect name for the street surrounding the state Capitol. “Reagan was a person that was able to bring many people together; both Democrats and Republicans alike. He was a great communicator,” said Wong. She says she filed the bill because she was touched and inspired by the nation’s reaction to Reagan’s death last summer. “There was such an outpouring of love towards him. I thought Texas should do something to recognize him.” The bill would adorn the circle with Ronald Reagan street signs and a historical plaque honoring the conservative icon. Reagan’s name already graces an airport and a massive federal office building in Washington, D.C., and a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier. Conservative activists also are lobbying to name at least one street in every county in America after Reagan, to memorialize February 6 (Reagan’s birthday) as Ronald Reagan Day, and to boot FDR’s visage off the dime in favor of you-know-who. Wong says the street signs and plaque shouldn’t cost taxpayers more than $1,000. For some of Wong’s House colleagues, though, the problem with HB 110 isn’t money, but good old-fashioned Texas pride. Should the Capitol drive be named after a Californian? Even Wong seems to recognize this problem. In an interview, she said she was “open to suggestions” for alternative roads to name after the Gipper. Wong mentioned that perhaps a Texas highway, like State Highway 290 would serve as a more appropriate tribute. “A Bad ‘ol Bill” House Bill 305 Rep. Toby Goodman (R-Arlington) The biggest threat to the Open Meeting Act to have emerged so far this session is the product of a young local official: the author’s daughter. Currently, elected officials cannot meet together with staff members or vendors to receive information without it being a public meeting. This bill would reverse that if there was less than a quorum of elected officials receiving the information, among other exceptions. Christie Goodman, 28, who is also Rep. Toby Goodman’s acting chief of staff, serves on the Cedar Park City Council. She and other conscientious officials try to follow the law, but find it ambiguous. In fact, so ambiguous that some of them ran afoul of the Texas attorney general. Last March, two months before the younger Goodman took office, a few Cedar Park City Council members met secretly to discuss firing the city manager. Attorney General Greg Abbott investigated and in December, according to an attorney general’s press release, brokered a deal whereby members promised Abbott they would support new legislation on open government training to avoid prosecution. HB 305 would not have made these secret meetings legal, notes Goodman, and she never got involved in the investigation nor did it influence her work on the bill. But while council members must make informed decisions, she says, it isn’t clear when they can and cannot talk privately to each other or to a city attorney. “I think we can’t be scared to touch open meetings or open government,” she says. “Most of the people I meet [in government], they are really trying to do the right thing, and they really want to represent their constituents.” So we just need to trust them. During the 1999 legislative session, then-Rep. Steve Wolens (D-Dallas) and Sen. Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) successfully sponsored a bill that expanded the Open Meeting Act to keep governmental bodies from receiving private briefings from their staffs. Under Goodman’s bill, the loophole Wolens and Wentworth closed would re-open a crack. While the bill does prohibit officials from taking any action in a secret meeting, or from sharing the contents of the private discussion with anyone else outside of a public session, it would still allow the unscrupulous to store shady business out of sight. The bill was referred to the House Committee on State Affairs, but at press time hadn’t received a hearing. It already has a powerful opponent in the Senate—Sen. Wentworth. “We would not be interested in reopening that loophole,” says Wentworth. “It’s not in the public interest to have secret meetings of governmental bodies. Toby Goodman is a good friend of mine, but HB 305 is a bad ol’ bill.” Bad Bills are compiled by the Observer’s Bad Bills Girl, who rises vampire-like from hibernation every two years to suck the blood from vile or absurd state legislation.