After Senate Sideshow, ‘Bathroom Bill’ Looms
WILL WEISSERT, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Outlandish debates are something of a Texas Senate specialty, but the three-plus-hour discussion that ended with endorsing a national convention to rewrite the U.S. Constitution at times resembled a political sideshow.
Suggestions about donning powdered wigs and jailing Patrick Henry? There were both.
A joke about John Adams supplanting his cousin Samuel to become a famous "brewer patriot?" Check.
Legislation jailing for up to two years any Texas delegate breaking from previously agreed-upon protocol during said convention? Senators not only approved it, some pushed for locking "faithless delegates" away longer.
The idea is for 34 legislatures, representing two-thirds of the 50 states, to bypass Congress and call for convening a convention to draft constitutional amendments and limit Washington's power through things like a federal balanced budget rule and term limits. Texas has actually approved 16 calls for such conventions in the past, though the last one came in 1978.
Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Granbury Republican who sponsored the "convention of states" bill, tried earnestly to keep the discussion from going too haywire. His colleagues ignored him and endorsed felony charges for convention delegates who advocate for "unauthorized" constitutional changes that could spark a "runaway" convention. Fines weren't enough, it was argued, because liberal troublemakers like filmmaker Michael Moore would be happy to pay them for anyone torpedoing Texas' carefully laid conservative plans.
When Dallas Democratic Sen. Royce West suggested that, if it had been left up to the states, slavery might still be legal, Birdwell seized on the fact that he is white and West black: "Whether your melanin or my melanin, you will find no greater defender of your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Otherwise, much energy was devoted to keeping Texas' call similar enough to lump together with "convention of states" proposals previously approved either in 28 other states or in eight others, or both, depending on how you count.
That united national front against federal overreach might not even stretch as far as neighboring Arkansas, though. The state Senate there passed its own call for a convention backing amendments outlawing abortion and gay marriage.
Of course, actually convening an assembly to crack open the Constitution and uncap the White-Out is about as easy to imagine as the Dallas Cowboys skating their way to a Stanley Cup. But at least no Texas senators are facing jail time for "going rouge" during last week's debate.
Here are two top issues to watch this week in Texas politics, one that will spark another round of emotional debate, and another expected to sail to bipartisan approval.
'BATHROOM BILL' BATTLE BEGINS
The fight over Texas' hottest-button bill finally has a start date. A proposal barring transgender Texans from using the public bathroom of their choice is being heard Tuesday by the Senate State Affairs Committee.
The committee should eventually approve the measure to the full Senate, but getting even this far took longer than expected given just how much Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has supported it. The bill isn't necessarily behind schedule, though, since Gov. Greg Abbott declined to make it a legislative priority — failing to exempt it from state rules barring the Legislature from passing legislation until after the 60th day of the session next week.
Business groups oppose the measure, worried about the uproar and boycotts that rocked North Carolina after it approved a similar measure last year. And even if it clears the Senate, the proposal isn't a slam-dunk in the House, where Speaker Joe Straus says it could sap Texas' economic growth.
POLICE BULLETPROOF VESTS
The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on Monday hears West's proposal to create a grant program helping police forces purchase bulletproof vests for their officers. Funding would be administered by the governor's office and forces statewide could apply for it, similar to a police body camera grant program created last session.
Patrick, who oversees the state Senate, has been a leading advocate on this issue. He vowed before session to ask for $20 million to provide heavily fortified vests for 40,000 police officers on regular patrol around Texas, and the Senate's draft state budget actually earmarks $25 million.
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