Thursday, March 31, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: Don't Text With Texas

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 31, 2011

Last week, I took off for Austin, Texas, to visit family, hear some live music, eat some barbecue and Tex-Mex food and basically decompress after the 60-day legislative session.

But, against my better judgment, I couldn't help but pick up the local paper and read about — you guessed it — the Texas state Legislature. (I'm not that big of a political junkie. I just read the paper. I didn't watch their webcast and I didn't set foot in their Capitol to see in person the Texas sausage being made.)

One story that caught my eye was about a bill to require photo identification to vote. This one gave me a bad case of déjà vu. I read quotes from Texas lawmakers making the same arguments, on both sides, that I hear nearly every session in the New Mexico Legislature.

The bill did better in Texas than it's ever done here. While I was in Austin, it passed the House 101-48 on a mostly party-line vote. When I read that the debate lasted until 11 p.m., I literally shuddered. The bill already had passed the Senate.

In at least one version of the bill, an acceptable form of identification would be a concealed-carry license. Now that's how a real Texan votes!

Last I heard, it was in a conference committee where some minor differences were being ironed out. It's expected to go to Gov. Rick Perry, who has advocated for a voter ID bill.

Deep in the Heart of Texting: But the major piece of Texas legislative news that caught my eye was about a bill that never has been attempted here before.

Introduced by Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, House Bill 2977 would make it illegal for a public official to send text messages during public meetings. The same would go for emails, instant messages and website posting.

Hunter was quoted in the Austin American Statesman saying it's rude for legislators or city councilors to be pecking away on their cellphones while members of the public are speaking.

"I also don't think you should be communicating in a public setting with private interests telling you how to vote, telling you how to think, telling you how to speak without that being open access to the public," Hunter said.

I agree. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe if lobbyists are going to tell a lawmaker how to vote, they ought to buy him or her dinner and cocktails and do it face to face.

The bill hasn't made it out of its first committee yet, but it's received praise in some Texas newspaper editorials.

The American Statesman gave a thumbs-up to the bill. The paper noted the bill comes after "the embarrassing release of hundreds of e-mails between Austin City Council members that contained unflattering comments about people who spoke at meetings and about each other." The paper said the county attorney is investigating whether the council used electronic communications to circumvent open-meetings laws.

There might just be a need for such a bill here if officials are using hand-held devices to make public decisions in secret.

But on a selfish level, I'd hate to see something like this go into effect here. In recent years, I've used texting to contact legislators tied up in committee hearings. It's a quick way to get information and far less disruptive than calling a lawmaker's cellphone or having someone pull him or her out of a meeting.

And honest, I never tell them how to vote.

(Full disclosure: I think I was friends in junior high with Rep. Hunter in Oklahoma. He hasn't answered my email, so I'm not 100 percent certain. If I had his number, I'd text him. If he is the same Todd Hunter, we haven't seen each other in nearly 40 years.)