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May 16th, 2019:

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes Senate

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Braddock:

Here’s the story.

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan Hughes’ Senate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on their association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins, and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

[…]

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio Airport after a member of the city council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

See here for the background. Lord knows, if there’s one thing we need, it’s an excuse for Ken Paxton to launch another religion-fueled legal crusade. The main thing to keep an eye on here is the clock, as time is running down for this to be approved by the House. Call your State Rep and urge them to oppose SB1978. Every little bit will help.

(Also, too: How long has it been since I’ve wondered when the hell we’ll finally rid ourselves of Sen. Eddie Lucio? Because holy cow, he sucks.)

House votes to raise smoking age

This could happen.

The Texas House voted Tuesday to raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21, except for military personnel.

Senate Bill 21 received preliminary approval from the lower chamber more than one month after the Senate approved a slightly different version of the legislation. The bill now awaits final approval in the House, which is usually a formality. Then the Senate will vote to either appoint a conference committee for the two chambers to iron out differences in the bill or accept the House’s changes and send the legislation to Gov. Greg Abbott.

Rep. John Zerwas, a physician who sponsored the legislation, said the measure would protect young adults who are”highly susceptible” to an addiction to tobacco products.

“The idea behind this bill is essentially to move that risk away from those people that are most susceptible to it,” said Zerwas, a Republican from Richmond.

If the bill becomes law, Texas would become the 14th state to raise the legal tobacco purchasing age to 21 and the third to include military exemptions. The stricter age restriction would apply to tobacco products such as cigarettes, as well as e-cigarette products.

State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, added a floor amendment Tuesday that broadens the bill’s military exception to allow all members of the military over the age of 18 with a valid military ID to purchase tobacco. The bill previously only allowed members of the military on active duty with a valid ID.

See here for the background. Rep. Zerwas had filed his own bill on this topic, but in the end went with the Senate bill. That will have to go back to the Senate due to the House amendments, but my guess is that shouldn’t cause a problem. I thought that bill was fine as it was, but I can live with the broadened military exemption. That addresses the one substantive criticism of the original bill, so I hope this means it’ll be on to Greg Abbott’s desk for a signature.

Texas blog roundup for the week of May 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance practices saying sine die in the mirror as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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