We've been enjoying the dark side of the 84th biennial Texas Legislative Session, but it occurred to us that maybe we should take some time out to look at some legislation with some potential for real positive change. Of course, with a Republican-dominated Lege, the odds are good that some of these bills will end up dying an inglorious death without every getting out of committee, but still, it's interesting stuff. Here are five of our favorites:
5. The one that makes it easier to have DNA evidence tested in criminal cases. Senate Bill 487, filed by state Sen. Rodney Ellis, proposes to make it easier to get access to DNA evidence that could end up exonerating someone like Michael Morton, the man who was wrongfully convicted for his wife's murder. Morton served 25 years in prison before he convinced a court of appeals to test DNA evidence on a bandana found near his house. The bandana had DNA on it that wasn't visible to the naked eye, and Morton was exonerated and released.
However, the state's DNA-testing law remained ambiguous, Ellis says. Ambiguous enough for the Court of Criminal Appeals to rule last year that testing could only be granted when biological material had already been identified; the ruling did not consider sweat, saliva or skin cells, which contain DNA but aren't exactly easy to spot with the naked eye when present on crime-scene evidence, Ellis says.In fact, Morton says that had the Court of Criminal Appeals stuck with that interpretation of the law back in 2011, he might have never been granted the DNA testing that ultimately freed him. The new bill will clarify the law to make sure courts allow the testing of any evidence that has a "reasonable likelihood" of containing DNA.
4. The one that at least lets us try to see if needle exchanges work in Texas. (Hint: they probably will.) HB 65, filed by state Rep. Ruth McClendon. This bill proposes -- yet again, because McClendon has been working on this one for years -- to set up legal pilot programs for needle exchanges in the state's seven largest counties, including Harris. The main criticism of needle exchanges -- in fact, the reason GOP state Rep. Van Taylor effectively killed McClendon's bill last try -- is that it enables drug addicts. Never mind that legal needle exchanges have been implemented in 35 other states, where research shows such exchanges have helped lower transmission rates of HIV and hepatitis C among drug users. For years, McClendon has also argued that improperly discarded needles are also a serious hazard for police and paramedics who encounter drug users on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, considering the current makeup of the Lege crew, the odds are good McClendon's latest bill on this will meet the same fate as her last one.
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3. The one about making sex ed in Texas more than, "Don't do it. Ever." In Texas the only thing students have to learn about sex, public education-wise, is not to have it. Seriously, abstinence is the only thing Texas schools are required to teach. This is where HB 78, filed by state Rep. Mary Gonzalez, comes in. If it gets through the legislative grinder, this bill will of course still focus on not doing the deed at all, but it also has the novel approach of still offering young people some "age appropriate" and "medically accurate" information. Right now, the abstinence bit has to be taught in schools, but discussions on other forms of birth control -- the ones that will help prevent teens from becoming pregnant or catching STDs if said teens should, in their infinite wisdom, decide not to abstain -- are totally optional. Under HB 78 schools will even be able to distribute condoms if they want.
2. The one that let's women 15 and older get contraception. In addition to her bill filed to, shall we say, adjust sex ed in Texas, Gonzalez has also filed HB 90, a simple little slip of a bill that would allow that "a woman is eligible for benefits under the Texas women's health program if the woman is 15 years of age or older." Translation: If you're 15 years old and want to get birth control through the state, you'll be able to do so. As things stand now, a woman has to be 18 or older to be eligible for the Texas women's health program. Meanwhile, HB 468, also filed by Gonzalez, gets even more direct and says a woman 15 years or older can get the actual birth control.
1. The ones that aim to make same-sex marriage legal. SB 89, filed by state Sen. Juan Hinojosa. We've been in a sea-change moment with gay marriage law. Right now it's legal for same-sex couples to be married in more places in the country than it is illegal, even Alabama. So of course, Texas legislators saw the way things were going and started filing bills to try and shove Texas the other way as soon as the 84th biennial session started up. Because of course with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals currently weighing the Texas law and the U.S. Supreme Court slated to finally hear the issue this session, Texas lawmakers chose right now to run in the opposite direction.
However, not all Texas lawmakers have gone with that approach, as evidenced by Hinojosa's bill "relating to authorizing a marriage between two persons of the same sex in this state and repealing the statutory prohibition against the recognition of a civil union or similar relationship entered into in another state between two person of the same sex." Of course GOP state lawmakers are more likely to dance the tarantella through the halls of the state capitol building rather than allow this bill to make it onto the books, but at least someone is out there filing this stuff.