Sunday, May 15, 2005

You can't win 'em all

I've been writing recently about good criminal justice bills still moving in the Texas Legislature. But a lot of good legislation has also stalled out in the process. Here's a few bills I strongly supported that appear to be in trouble as the session grinds toward its conclusion:

Banning red light tickets based on traffic cameras
(HB 259 by Elkins): After passing the House by an overwhelming vote, this legislation on Thursday failed on a record vote to bring it up on the Senate floor. Sixteen senators supported the legislation, but 21 were needed. Look for House sponsors now to find transportation bills from the Senate where the same item may show up as a floor amendment. Certainly the bill sponsors aren't giving up, and it wouldn't be a shock to see the item resurrected.

Restructuring low-level marijuana sentences
(HB 254 by Dutton): This legislation passed in committee unanimously but did not make it onto the House floor by the Thursday deadline. The Calendars committee clearly didn't want to subject the members to a vote on marijuana penalties. If the legislation is to go any further in 2007, it will need the permission of Chairman Woolley and company. The bill got as far as it did this round because it's one of the lynchpin reforms needed to free up county jail space for more serious offenders. But those arguments were mostly being made by advocates, not jailers. In 2007, it would be a lot more effective if county sheriffs and commissioners courts were backing the idea themselves - this time they just stayed neutral, many of them hoping the bill would pass but afraid of the political consequences of supporting it. Now that conservative House members like Terry Keel, Mary Denny and Debbie Riddle have gone on the record in favor, maybe that will free up the politics a little on this subject to let institutional interests support the idea. Folks who support restructuring marijuana sentences should be demanding their local county officials go on record in support between now and 2007, with the 2006 elections offering a good opportunity to get folks on the record. That's the missing piece, IMO, that's needed to propel this good idea forward.

Creating a Defense for Medical Marijuana
Use (HB 658 by Naishtat): Despite support from 75% of Texans and the strongest grass roots effort in memory to pass it, this bill unhappily never made it out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee. Very disappointing that such broad support didn't translate into more traction, especially since the same committee liked HB 254 (above). The latter bill, though, had enormous fiscal implications in its favor, whereas sympathy for suffering patients, while compelling for some, doesn't have the same legislative oomph.

Opt-out for RFIDs in student IDs
(HB 2953 by Kolkhorst): Schools that want to electronically track students with RFID devices weren't pleased to see this legislation scheduled for debate on the House floor on the final day, but they just didn't get to it on the calendar. The same language was amended to House Bill 2, Texas' school finance legislation, but the American Electronics Association wants to strip out the language to let schools mandate RFID use for students. Hopefully Kolkhorst's colleagues will help her protect the amendment.

Disclosing snitch rewards
(HB 3151 by Escobar): Defendants in cases involving snitches must wait a little longer for the Legislature to require their verbal deals be disclosed to defense counsel. HB 3151 passed out of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, but never made it to the House floor.

Meanwhile, two good bills in the Senate are still technically alive, but on life support:

Local opt-in for needle exchange
(SB 127/HB 2005): Legislation allowing local governments to operate needle exchange programs, which prevent the spread of disease, got further this session than ever before in the Senate. It cleared committee and actually made it to the Senate floor, where it won seventeen votes on second reading but did not clear a procedural hurdle to make it to final passage. The bill has been waiting for weeks to finally clear the Senate. It's been on the Intent calendar every day, which means it's eligible to be brought up and voted on if the sponsor can get 20 other senators to agree, but Sen. Lindsay appears to be just a few votes short.

Strengthening Vienna Convention rights
(SB 603): This bipartisan legislation passed out of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee a month ago, but never made it onto the Senate floor. If it passed, judges who suspected a defendant was a foreign citizen must inform them of their right to notify the consulate from their home country. I'd been thinking the bill was dead, but just noticed it was placed again on the Senate Intent calendar for Monday. The Senate's deadlines are later than the House's, so theoretically it still has a chance, but it'd better move quick.

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