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Anti-Gay Marriage Bill Scrutinized in Committee

After fielding emotional pleas and various complaints in a committee hearing, state Rep. Cecil Bell plans to revise his bill that would bar the state from recognizing same-sex marriages even if the courts declare it legal.

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Emotional pleas beseeching lawmakers to oppose efforts to keep the state from recognizing same-sex marriage even if the courts legalize it dominated the tail end of a House State Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday.

“I got to my church and I hear love and inclusion. I come to my Capitol and I hear hate and exclusion,” Richard Francis, who has a gay son, told the committee. “I can feel that difference … and that bothers me about my government.”

The committee considered a bill that would give the secretary of state, and not county clerks, sole control over marriage licenses in Texas, and prohibit issuing licenses to same-sex couples even if courts overturn the state’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the constitutionality of gay marriage in coming months.

Though some Democrats on the committee clearly opposed the bill, the most pronounced concern from committee members focused on how much money the bill would cost the state and counties. 

The measure, House Bill 1745, was filed by state Rep. Cecil Bell, R-Magnolia after a lesbian couple from Austin obtained a marriage license in February. At a judge’s direction, the Travis County clerk issued a license to Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, who have been together for 30 years.

“This would have been unable to happen under this bill because the policies would have been uniform,” Bell told the committee. State Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, has filed a companion bill in the Senate.

Supporters of the bill testified that it was needed to protect the “status quo” in Texas and defend the state’s constitutional amendment passed a decade ago defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

The state's same-sex marriage ban is currently in federal court and said to be on precarious legal ground after a January hearing during which the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals signaled significant doubt about its constitutionality. The appeals court is expected to rule in the coming months, but the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to have the final word on the issue. It's set to hear four gay marriage cases from other states next month.

During the committee hearing, state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, questioned the bill’s effect on government employees if the nation's highest court does legalize same-sex marriage.

“Am I hearing you all to say that the state of Texas, county employees and others be given the right to disregard the United States Supreme Court ruling?” Turner said.

Some of the greatest concerns about the bill, however, involved not constitutional rights but simple economics. 

Teresa Kiel, Guadalupe County clerk, said she was worried about how counties would fare without the revenue county clerks collect from issuing marriage licenses.

“The fiscal impact of that would be devastating to counties who are already struggling to balance their budgets” and rely on revenue from county clerk’s offices, Kiel said. She added that the negative fiscal impact could be as low was $11,000 for small counties and up to $1.3 million for larger counties like Dallas County.

Under Bell’s measure, the secretary of state would be the sole issuer of marriage licenses and could contract out to county clerk’s office. State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, expressed some anxiety about leaving this up to the secretary of state’s office.

Members of the committee were also wary about the bill’s cost to the state — an estimated $1.4 million in fiscal year 2016 and $1 million every year thereafter. The bill’s pricey fiscal note, prepared by the Legislative Budget Board, includes salaries for 18 full-time employees who would be required to issue marriage licenses.

Texas counties issued 185,510 marriage license applications and declarations of informal marriage in 2013.

No vote on the bill was taken, and Bell told the committee he intended to present a revised version that will address the fiscal impact. Geren said he would also like Bell to address the local impact on individual counties.

"The fiscal note says there's no local impact. My [county clerk] disagrees with that, and I think the testimony here shows several clerks disagree with that," Geren told Bell. "I think there is a local impact in the millions of dollars, and I don't know how we address that, but I hope that you will in the substitute that you're working on.

Turner seemed less interested in considering Bell’s bill substitute, saying the measure would create “chaos and confusion.” When Bell reiterated he would present a bill substitute, Turner responded, “I don’t care how much lipstick you put on it.”

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