Bad Bills

Carrion Wayward Legislators


House Bill 23 Rep. Frank Corte Jr. (R-San Antonio)

Like cranes flying back to Port Aransas or bluebonnets blooming in spring, you can count on fresh pro-life bills from Rep. Frank Corte with each new session of the Legislature. He’s right on time with this year’s offering, House Bill 23, which, as it targets emergency contraception, would put words like “sperm,” “womb,” and “huevo” on the walls of every pharmacy in Texas.

The bill, a proposed addition to the state Health and Safety Code, marks a return to the pharmacy for Corte. Two years ago he pushed to let pharmacists refuse to fill abortion-related prescriptions on moral grounds. Corte was forced to withdraw his 2005 bill because of language that confused emergency contraception with abortion procedures.

HB 23 would provide a warning to women seeking over-the-counter, emergency contraception like Plan B, the “morning-after pill,” informing them that the medication will, in all likelihood, keep them from becoming pregnant. One way the drug could do this is by preventing an already fertilized egg from implanting in the womb—a possible concern if you believe life begins at the moment of fertilization.

To help get out the message—if you’re looking to get pregnant, this isn’t the pill for you!—HB 23 requires pharmacists to read aloud a 68-word warning before selling the drug. To be sure it sinks in, they must also include a written copy of the warning with the medication, and—because really, who reads those little labels on the pill bottles anyway?—post a 2-foot-wide sign beside the cash register with the same message printed in English and Spanish.

The warning, which is included in the text of Corte’s bill, makes clear what’s at stake by beginning, “If you believe that life begins at fertilization …” and then describes the fertilization process—”the point at which the sperm and egg unite.” The warning details how the contraceptive pill may either “prevent the egg and sperm from uniting or prevent the implantation of your already fertilized egg in your womb.”

“I’m surprised it doesn’t come with a requirement for graphics, too,” says Sarah Wheat, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region. “I’m just not sure if the pharmacy counter is an appropriate place for Texans to get sex-ed lessons.” She adds that all pharmacy customers would be treated to the description of fertilization—and a particular opinion about when life begins—even if they’re just picking up antibiotics or chewable kids’ vitamins.

Plan B, a concentrated form of the same hormones in regular birth control pills, was approved for over-the-counter sale in August 2006 after a long internal battle at the Food and Drug Administration. The approval makes it easier for women to get the drug within the recommended window of 72 hours after having unprotected sex. According to Wheat, HB 23 specifically targets Plan B in response to the FDA move. This time there’s no specific mention of abortion in Corte’s bill, and the contentious abortion pill RU-486 is not included as “emergency contraception.”

Corte policy adviser Kathi Seay characterizes HB 23 as simply the latest in the longtime House member’s ongoing charge to “keep women informed”—in the tradition of Corte’s 2005 “informed consent” bill requiring doctors to list breast cancer among potential health risks connected to abortion. Opponents say the breast cancer-abortion link was bad information based on outdated research, selectively included for dramatic effect—in much the same way HB 23 highlights one particular belief about the beginning of life.

“I can’t see why anyone would be opposed to information,” Seay says of the new bill, adding that there are plenty of other instances where warning signs are posted. “It’s not unprecedented,” she says. “There are warning signs for drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco, or sniffing paint.”

HB 23, however, would force pharmacists to warn women of a potential risk to their consciences or their souls, not their health. By prescribing the exact words pharmacists should use with customers, HB 23 goes even further than Corte’s 2005 “informed consent” bill in putting contentious words in the mouths of health care professionals. And while buying emergency contraception is now a relatively quick, discreet process, HB 23 would treat anyone waiting in a pharmacy line to a performance of the Plan B speech, including—just so you know—the possibility that “life begins at fertilization.” But as Seay says, “It’s just information.”


House Bill 141 Rep. Jim Jackson (R-Dallas)

Rep. Jim Jackson has identified a true scourge among undocumented immigrants: kids who want to go to college. He has filed a bill to ensure impossibly high tuition rates for those pesky, highly motivated immigrants who dare to set their sights on something beyond bussing your table or mowing your lawn.

House Bill 141 is one of four house bills this session that would rescind a law passed in 2001 allowing immigrant children in Texas to pay the lower, in-state tuition rates at public universities.

“I don’t think people who are here illegally should receive benefits,” Jackson said. “If they’re not here legally, they just ain’t legal.”

Gov. Rick Perry, who signed HB 1403, the original legislation granting in-state tuition, has said he will oppose any effort to repeal it. The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate and with one dissenting vote in the House in 2001.

Now, to be eligible for in-state tuition undocumented students must have graduated from high school in Texas and lived in the state for three years, and they are required to sign an affidavit promising to file an application for permanent residence. According to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, in fall 2005 approximately 5,000 foreign students were paying in-state tuition rates, less than half of 1 percent of total enrollment.

Rep. Rick Noriega, the Houston Democrat who authored HB 1403, said the law began as a dropout prevention effort. “Can you imagine … us telling kids in high school that college is not attainable for financial purposes, or because of immigration status? What would that do to the dropout rate when you take away a generation’s hope?” he asked.

Previously these students had to pay higher out-of-state tuition rates, largely barring them from attending college. Mirla, who asked that her last name not be published because she is an undocumented immigrant, recently graduated from the University of Texas in Austin. Before she knew about HB 1403, she wasn’t planning to attend college, despite being valedictorian of her high school class.

Ana Yañez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, said the law makes economic sense because these students become an asset rather than a burden on the state. After Texas adopted the law, 10 states passed similar legislation.

Jackson doesn’t buy the argument: “How do you justify that with the claim that the reason we have to have undocumented immigrants is to do jobs that people here won’t take, and then you give them an education?”

Jackson said that performing jobs Americans won’t do also doesn’t justify the presence of undocumented immigrants.

A report released by the Texas Comptroller last December concluded that the approximately 1.5 million undocumented immigrants in Texas contribute more to the economy in taxes and other revenue than the state spends on them. “I believe in that report about like I believe in anything [former Comptroller] Carole Keeton Strayhorn says,” Jackson said.

Jackson shouldn’t worry. The inspired undocumented immigrant who somehow manages to make it to college still faces often-insurmountable challenges. Mirla, for example, could not get a driver’s license or a bank account, and had to take a semester off for lack of funds. Now that she has graduated, Mirla can’t work here.

While advocates for undocumented college students try to preserve and expand Texas law, a federal version has languished in Congress since 2003. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, would allow many undocumented students who attend high school in the U.S. to qualify for permanent residence, provided they attend college, join the military, or work in a federally funded community-service program. So far, the act hasn’t been reintroduced in the new Congress that began work this month.

Like swallows to Capistrano, like hummingbirds to nectar, Observer staffers are drawn every two years to the Capitol. But we’re more like vultures, ready to feast on the rotting flesh of truly bad or absurd legislation. If you can direct us to a bad bill, stupid bill, funny bill or bill that’s just plain unconstitutional, e-mail us at [email protected].

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Published at 12:00 am CST