Fellow Texans may be subject to TV ads like the one by The Hull Firm in Austin warning that criminal penalties for certain crimes are automatically increased by a degree when the state is under a disaster declaration.
I warned this would happen.
Back in my previous life in the early 2000s when I served as research and policy director for the Texas Legislative Study Group, a caucus of the Texas House of Representatives, the bill enacting this policy by former Georgetown Texas state Rep. Diana Maldonado came across my desk. I was charged with writing the bill analysis and evaluation on it that would largely inform our caucus members’ vote on the floor. This language concerned me. (I’m still searching my files for a copy of the floor report with my BA&E and recommendations on this legislation.)
When I first read the bill, I called the representative’s office and inquired as to the purpose of the legislation. It was to deter (or, more correctly, more harshly punish) looting after natural disasters, like a recent hurricane along the Texas coast. I then inquired why it wasn’t bracketed — “bracketing” is a means by which legislation is narrowly defined to pertain to a specific municipality rather generally across the state1. I was told by whomever answered the phone that they’d look at it and fix that.
I watched as the bill progressed through committee toward the floor of the House and made one of my rare in-office visits to Rep. Maldonado’s office to discuss the seemingly overlooked ramifications of the bill’s language. I was handed off to the staffer handling the legislation, who looked to be on his way to his sophomore year of college. I laid out the problems with the bill — that in a state regularly under disaster declaration in various parts due to drought, this could allow certain law-and-order localities to more harshly punish people on a regular basis — to his apparent consternation and was assured it would be discussed with the representative.
Finally, the legislation hit the floor. Any changes that had been made in committee hadn’t rectified the larger issue of its general applicability. I protested and called the representative’s office. The arguments I’d written in my floor report were even mentioned by legislators on the floor, to which they were also told the bill was being amended to correct.
It wasn’t. The bill passed. Now, it’s law.
William O. Pate II is the founding editor and publisher of San Antonio Review. He lives and works in Austin. He has published online since 1998 at inadequate.net.