By Peter Schurmann
The Texas state legislature holds sessions on a biannual basis. The current session ends on May 31. Bills now pending threaten to further roll back abortion and transgender rights, and strip non-US based Chinese, Iranians and Russians of rights to own land, among other issues.
Gene Wu, a Democrat who represents portions of Houston in the Texas legislature, does not mince words when it comes to the legislative agenda of conservative lawmakers in his state.
“I think there can only be one message, and that is a message of alarm,” says Wu, who serves as Vice Chair of Texas’ Democratic Caucus and has represented the people of District 137 since 2013.
The son of immigrants from China, Wu is an outspoken critic of what he describes as efforts by GOP legislators in Texas to turn the clock back on a wide range of issues, including hard-won rights for ethnic minority, immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities while resisting calls for tighter gun laws in the wake of several deadly mass shootings.
“The way they do things here… is to hide what they are actually doing, to hide how bad the legislation is, and how many of your rights will be taken away,” noted Wu in a message recorded for EMS and its ethnic media partners in Texas. “You guys have to start paying attention. If this legislation passes it will set back our communities a lot.”
Wu is among a small cohort of elected officials in Texas representing communities of color largely concentrated in the Houston area. His comments come as the Republican-majority State Legislature meets for its bi-annual session which ends May 31.
According to Wu, up for consideration are “dozens and dozens of bills… to ban books, to whitewash history… bills banning the discussion of Black history and Black achievement.”
Among the pieces of legislation Wu and his colleagues are eyeing are efforts to ban Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs in the state, along with an attempt to eliminate preferences for women and minority contractors, which he says would make a bad situation worse for businesses competing for government contracts.
“We have tons and tons of anti-women legislation… bills taking away contraception… criminalizing doctors for even suggesting that a patient might travel somewhere else to get an abortion,” noted Wu. “Either we start fighting now, or it’s gone.”
Anti-trans, pro-gun bills move ahead
Penny Morales Shaw represents the 148 District, which contains northern parts of Houston. She says there are three bills in particular that she and her Democratic colleagues are working to pass. They include the Texas Family Act, a law that would ensure paid parental leave for all working Texans, something Morales says in a post-Roe era is key to “taking care of the family foundation.”
Morales says that while they are working to push that bill forward it appears likely to die on the floor.
Another, the Language Access Plan, seeks to ensure that the tens of thousands of Texans who speak a language other than English or Spanish have access to quality information on state health services.
A third is an environmental measure that Morales says is critical to her constituents. “We’ve got the petrochemical industry in our backyard… we have a big problem with contamination from explosions at chemical plants,” including one the same day Morales gave her remarks which she learned about through a headline shared by a resident.
Morales’ bill would create a Special Environmental Remediation Fund (SERF) which would allow any county in the state to draw from monies won through civil litigation involving environmental polluters for use in clean up and remediation efforts.
Like Wu, Morales says SB14 – which would deny gender affirming care to minors – is a major concern that would “alienate parents from their rights” to make decisions regarding medical care for their children and would “confuse the whole medical industry” around what they can and cannot provide to patients.
A press release put out Thursday by the Texas GOP calls passage of SB14 a “top legislative priority.”
Texas being Texas, guns are also at the fore. Morales says the tone this session is one of making guns more accessible, to let them “proliferate” despite a rash of mass shootings, the latest at a Dallas shopping mall that claimed eight lives.
The time for ‘sofa politics’ is over
Dr. Suleman Lalani is the first Muslim American elected to the Texas House. Representing District 76, the freshman lawmaker says he had initially planned to submit somewhere in the vicinity of 15 bills this first session.
“We ended up (submitting) over 100 bills and resolutions,” said Lalani, all of which have made it through committee. A career physician, he noted the focus of many of the bills is healthcare, along with education, safety and security, and technology.
Among the bills Lalani authored is HB4762, which seeks to provide better protection for hospital and medical staff, many of whom Lalani says have come under physical attack from violent and mentally disturbed patients. Another would ban smoking in all colleges and universities.
As a candidate, Lalani says he was told to consider when drafting legislation not just which communities will benefit, but which communities will be harmed. “There are some bills (being considered) that will hurt people,” he said, including SB147, which would prohibit the purchase and sale of real estate by people of certain ethnic or national origins. “That is not a good precedent.”
Another bill, HB3, was marketed as an effort to divert more money into education but in fact was a veiled attempt at increasing the presence of guns on school grounds.
“These are very concerning,” Lalani says.
All three lawmakers urged members of the media and communities to stay engaged.
“The time for sofa politics is gone,” said Lalani. “We can’t just gripe and push the baton to others. The change we want to make will come from us.”