Why texting-while-driving ban may need super-majority in Senate

4:34 p.m Monday, May 15, 2017 Local
Texas Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, is trying to gather additional GOP votes for House Bill 62, which would ban texting while driving. The legislation has passed the House. Ralph Barrera / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The texting-while-driving ban, with its sponsor attempting to reach ever-moving legislative goalposts, has hit another hitch.

Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, the Senate sponsor of House Bill 62, asked Senate State Affairs Committee chairwoman Joan Huffman on Monday to put off a vote for at least another day. The reason: further demands for amendments from the Republican senators she needs to reach a goal of 25 votes.

That’s 25 votes in a 31-member Senate, or six more than is normally needed under Senate rules to bring a bill up for consideration.

“We’re still working on amendments,” Zaffirini said after the committee failed to act on her bill early Monday afternoon. “One vote at a time.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who as presiding officer of the Senate has the power to squelch consideration of any piece of legislation, reportedly has demanded more supportive senators before Zaffirini can bring up the bill on the Senate floor.

Patrick, who did not respond to a request for comment, is uncomfortable with the much-publicized bill passing the 31-member Senate with 11 Democratic votes (the entire roster of Senate Democrats) and just 10 Republican votes, lawmakers have said. Zaffirini has thus been put in the unusual position of rounding up even more GOP votes despite already having more than two-thirds of the Senate on board with HB 62.

Under normal circumstances, HB 62 would appear to have enough votes to pass the State Affairs Committee already. A similar bill passed the same committee 6-3 in mid-March at roughly the same time the House approved HB 62 on 114-32 vote.

The current delay in the measure turns on the words “or” and “and.” Zaffirini said some hold-out senators want a texting-while-driving citation to depend on a police officer spotting the offense and for it to occur simultaneously with another violation, such as reckless driving or running a traffic light.

Zaffirini said law enforcement officials have said that requiring both would make the potential law unenforceable and “gut the bill.” Zaffirini said she could live with the conjunction “or.”

Zaffirini has been trying to pass a texting-while-driving ban since the 2009 session, joined since 2011 by Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, the sponsor of HB 62. Forty-six other states and 101 Texas cities having outlawed the practice in various forms. In Austin, the city ban prohibits talking on a hand-held phone as well, unlike the proposed state law.

The case for the bill was further bolstered in late March when 13 New Braunfels church members died in a head-on car accident near Uvalde, one caused at least in part by one of the drivers texting in the moments before the crash. And Zaffirini several weeks ago secured the 19 votes necessary under Senate rules to bring a bill up for debate and a vote in the 31-member Senate. Passage requires only a simple majority, and Zaffirini said Monday she now has 21 votes.

Huffman, in the hearing Monday morning, read a list of more than two dozen Texas companies and organizations that are in favor of HB 62, including several oil companies, police departments, medical groups representing doctors and hospitals, automobile manufacturers and Realtors.

“That is a substantial and impressive list,” said Huffman, who strongly supports the bill.

The bill on a statewide basis would ban typing or reading electronic messages (which includes texting, emails and apps like Twitter and Facebook) on a hand-held device by drivers in a moving vehicle, other than for emergencies and for global positioning systems. Zaffirini, in a substitute version of HB 62 introduced Monday, has now included accessing music apps as an allowed activity while driving, an attempt to lure more votes.

The bill has also been amended as it moved through the Legislature this session to make it clear that a violator, in a city where texting and driving is already banned by local ordinance, would not be hit with both a local and a state citation.

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