Thursday, January 24, 2013

SB 237: Employment Non-Discrimination

Sen. Leticia Van de Putte
Senate Bill 237 by Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) would prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and expression. Under current law it is illegal in Texas to discriminate in employment based on a person’s race, religion, gender, national origin, age, or disability. It remains legal to discriminate based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. There is no federal law prohibiting employment discrimination against the LGBT community (although, according to  a 2011 poll by the Center for American Progress, 9 out of 10 American voters erroneously believe that federal law does provide LGBT people employment protections).

This is the first time that a bill to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression has been filed in the Senate.

SB 237 is identical to HB 238 by Rep. Mike Villarreal (D - San Antonio).

Why file the same exact bill twice, one in the House and once in the Senate?

Sets of identical, or nearly identical, bills filed in both the House and Senate are called "companions." Bills are filed in these sets because of a quirk in the way legislation is passed in the Texas legislature. The Texas Constitution requires that bills be "read" on three separate days in both the House and Senate before they become law. That doesn't mean that the whole bill is read, it just means that the bill is mentioned and that some action is taken.

So if a bill is introduced in the House (that means it starts with "HB" (for "House Bill")) its first "reading" is when the bill is sent to one of several dozen House committees for consideration. If the committee chooses to consider the bill they will hold a public hearing (when anybody can walk off the street and tell the committee what they think of the bill) and then, if they think the bill is a good idea, the committee can vote to "report favorably" on the bill, basically recommend that the entire House should vote on it. Bills that are reported favorably are then sent to one of several "calendar" committees that schedule the bill for its second "reading."

The legislature only meets for 140 days, and this process can take one to three months.

The second "reading" of the bill is the first opportunity for every member of the House to express their opinion of the bill. Any of the 150 House members can get up and say why they like or don't like the bill, they can ask questions about the bill and can make recommendations about how to change the bill to make it better. These recommendations take the form of amendments which, if a majority of the House members present that day vote for them, can be added to the bill to change it. After everybody has their say a vote is taken, and if a majority of the House members present vote for the bill it goes on to third "reading."

Third reading typically takes place within a week of second reading. It's the last opportunity for members of the House to discuss or change the bill (although changing the bill on third reading requires 2/3 of the members present that day to agree). A final vote is taken and, if a majority of the members agree, the bill is then sent to the Senate for consideration.

Once in the Senate the process starts all over, with first reading, referral to committee, second reading and third reading (although things work a little different in the Senate). 

This whole process can take months, and with only 140 days to work with many bills don't pass because time ran out.

Having the same bill in both the House and Senate can help make certain that a bill doesn't run out of time. The rules in the House and Senate allow for a companion bill passed by the other chamber to be substituted for a bill that's working its way through.

So, for instance, if HB 238 gets through the House (1st reading, committee, calendars, 2nd reading, 3rd reading) but SB 237 hasn't yet had its second reading in the Senate the rules allow the House Bill (HB 238) to be substituted for the Senate Bill (SB 237) at whatever point it is in the process (2nd reading), thus skipping first reading and the committee process.

Working issues from both ends this way makes it more likely that one of the two bills will pass.

So what does the bill do?

SB 237 would allow the Texas Workforce Commission's Civil Rights Division (TWC CRD) to investigate claims of employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression in the same way that it investigates claims of discrimination based on the other protected attributes. The TWC CRD allows individuals who believe they have experienced prohibited employment discrimination to file a complaint in person in Austin, over the phone, or via notarized form. If the complaint warrants investigation the TWC CRD pursues it further. The Legislative Budget Board (an agency of the State of Texas) estimates that if employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression was prohibited that the TWC CRD would need to investigate 474 credible cases a year.

There is a great deal of evidence that employment discrimination is pervasive and widespread in Texas:
  • Men in same-sex relationships in Texas make 9% less on average than their straight married counterparts according to information from the Census Bureau,
  • Households in Texas headed by two women make on average 11% less than households headed by a man and a woman according to information from the Census Bureau,
  • In a 2010 survey 26% of transgender Texans reported losing a job because of their gender identity or expression.
Prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression has overwhelming public support. In a 2010 poll conducted by Equality Texas,
  • 75.4% of registered voters in Texas said they support ending employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation,
  • 69.7% said they supported ending employment and housing discrimination for transgender citizens.
With the reality of employment discrimination clear, a mechanism already in place for investigating it and strong public support for addressing the issue why has Rep. Villarreal's decade long effort to pass legislation thus far been fruitless? Because there is a disconnect between the people of the state of Texas and the 183 elected officials who create laws in Texas. If SB 237 is to become law we must bridge that disconnect, and the only way to do it is by contacting your members of the legislature and telling them that you expect their support for SB 237.

You may call Sen. Van de Putte at 512-463-0126 to thank her for filing SB 237 (Rep. Villarreal may be reached at 512-463-0532.

Please call your State Senator and ask that they support SB 237.

If you don't know who represents you go here to find out.  

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