Either way, there's reason to think needle-exchange legislation could succeed this session when it's failed in the past. In 2013, an earlier version of McClendon's bill failed to pass the House on a tight 63-70 vote following an unusual bout of parliamentary back and forth. At root, opponents objected to using taxpayer money of any sort to pay for needles for addicts.
New bill, new dynamic
Which brings us to this year's bill: In committee, a faction of Tea Party legislators combined to block the original version, which would have allowed hospital districts or public-health departments in seven pilot counties (Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, El Paso, Nueces, and Webb) to operate taxpayer funded needle exchanges. In its stead, they demanded a version in which spending taxpayer money on needle exchange is forbidden and private charities operate the program. That version passed out of committee unanimously, with some of the most conservative members of the Texas House (Burrows, Schubert, Spitzer, Stickland, and Tinderholt) voting to approve it.
Bill is on Monday’s general state calendar.
ALLOW CHARITIES TO FUND AND OPERATE NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAMS TO PREVENT DISEASE
Needle exchange can be controversial because conservatives understandably object to public funds paying for addicts’ paraphernalia, believing that is not an appropriate government role. However, conservatives also believe in letting free markets and free people seek solutions to society’s problems. So it would be wrong to impinge on the liberty of independent charities seeking to prevent disease through these programs, which have been proven effective everywhere they operate.
Sentiment among national conservative leaders has shifted on this subject. Last month, Kentucky’s first needle exchange opened in Louisville after its legislature authorized the program. And Indiana’s Governor Mike Spence on May 5 signed a bill authorizing needle exchange to prevent the spread of HIV. Both Kentucky and Indiana are solidly red states. Disease prevention is not a partisan issue.
SUPPORT HB 65 BY REPRESENTATIVE MCCLENDON
CSHB 65 received unanimous support in the House County Affairs Committee, including from all Republicans: Burrows, Schubert, Spitzer, Stickland, and Tinderholt.
The substitute for HB 65 authorizes needle exchange pilot programs in seven Texas counties, but solves the principle conservative concerns by forbidding public funding and disallowing counties or hospital districts from themselves operating the programs. Instead, local government can authorize programs operated by other organizations such as nonprofits.
Agents of the authorized programs would be protected from arrest on drug or paraphernalia charges during the course of their operations. That’s necessary because the last time the Legislature authorized a needle exchange pilot, the Bexar County District Attorney scuttled the plan by threatening to prosecute program volunteers.
CSHB 65 lets charities do what charities do best – ministering to the poor and sick – while keeping government out of an area conservatives have long thought is not its business.
Those changes earned Rep. McLendon’s bill unanimous support in committee. We hope you will support it, too.