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Texting Bill's Demise a Victory for Tea Party Freshmen

It was a mostly new cast of characters in the Texas Senate, a chamber historically ruled by seniority, that flexed its political muscle to stop a statewide texting-while-driving ban this year.

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The defeat of a statewide texting-while-driving ban has become a familiar narrative in recent Texas legislative sessions.

But it was a new cast of characters in the Senate — a chamber historically ruled by seniority — that flexed its political muscle to stop the measure this time around. Freshman state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, corralled a group of mostly junior senators to keep the bill from reaching the floor, keeping in "close contact" to "make sure everyone was still opposed to the legislation," she said in an emailed statement.

Advocates for the ban are reeling from their third loss in three consecutive sessions, despite lobby support from cellphone carriers and physicians. 

Forty cities in Texas currently ban texting while driving. But without a statewide ban, "more people will die," said Krista Tankersley, a Texas advocate for the legislation whose brother was riding his bicycle in 2012 when he was killed by a texting driver.

She and others will be back at the Capitol to fight for a statewide ban when lawmakers return in 2017, because not having one “is kind of like being in the dark ages of reality when it comes to risk on the highways,” said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, which advocates for laws against distracted driving.

If this year was any indication, it’s bound to be a tough fight.

Burton said she opposed the ban because it would lead to unreasonable searches by police.

"Our police officers cannot discern what someone is doing on their phone, and therefore, can never honestly ticket someone for texting without having to search the phone for a text," she said.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat from Laredo and the Senate sponsor of the texting ban, at first thought she had the votes to bring the measure up for debate this year.

The bill, authored by veteran state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland, easily passed the House. Then, in a move some observers interpreted as a favorable sign from Senate leadership, the bill was referred not to the Senate Committee on Transportation, where similar legislation died in 2013, but to the State Affairs Committee, which was perceived as friendlier to the bill. It passed the committee with a 5-2 vote. (A spokeswoman for Craddick said he was not available for comment.)

With the abolition this year of the Senate's two-thirds rule — which required the consent of 21 senators to bring a bill up for debate — opponents of the ban needed just 13 senators to block it from reaching the floor, up from 11 two years ago.

When Zaffirini realized a faction of Republican senators was organizing against the bill, she redoubled her efforts. She was one vote short, she said.

“I hand-delivered letters to them, personally — I didn’t risk going to their office,” she said. “I did everything possible.”

That was not enough to persuade Burton and most of the so-called Liberty Caucus — composed of freshman senators with strong Tea Party ties — which scored a major victory when the clock ran out on the texting ban in late May. Zaffirini said the only Republican freshman who supported the ban was state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who did not return a request for comment.

Asked if the episode demonstrated the power of the Republican freshman class, Zaffirini chuckled. “I hope this wasn’t her single-most-important accomplishment,” she said of Burton.

Blocking the texting ban came with a political cost. Several bills by Burton and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham — also a newcomer to the upper chamber — never came up for a vote in the House, in an apparent act of political retaliation. Burton said she was nonetheless able to amend her bills onto others to get them passed.

When it became clear Zaffirini did not have the votes to pass the ban in the Senate, and with the clock running down, she said she offered a compromise to the opposition: Replace the texting ban with a study on distracted driving accidents.

But state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a Liberty Caucus member who said he remained “uncommitted” without seeing more Texas-specific data, said the concession came too late. By that time, he said, bills authored by Burton and Kolkhorst were already being killed in the House.

“That ship had sailed,” Bettencourt said. “When you start trying to beat people like Lois and Konni, we will respond as a group." 

Bettencourt said he opposed the statewide ban this year because he had reviewed data from other states like Utah, which led him to believe a ban would not improve driver safety.

“When you look at it, you look at all the possible distractions,” he said. “Texting is such a small component.”

The Texas Medical Association, a physician lobby group that supports a statewide ban, disagrees.

“There clearly is an accumulating body of evidence that the actual process of texting is not only dangerous, it probably is equivalent to some of the other dangerous activities, such as driving and drinking,” said Arlo Weltge, an emergency physician in Houston.

According to Zaffirini, there were more than 94,000 distraction-related traffic crashes in Texas in 2013 that resulted in more than 18,000 serious injuries and 459 deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that more than nine people are killed in the U.S. every day in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver. State law does bar drivers younger than 18 from using cellphones.

In the meantime, advocates for a statewide ban are setting their sights on citywide texting-while-driving bans, which they say are necessary to discourage drivers from the risky behavior. Big cities like Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth, which lack local ordinances, are their most obvious targets.

But they argue that these local bans aren't a perfect fix, because the law is inconsistent from place to place. This “patchwork” of texting-while-driving regulations means an adult driver on Interstate 35 is sometimes banned from texting — in Laredo, San Antonio, Austin and Denton, for example — but generally not.

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This story was produced in partnership with Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan health policy research and communication organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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Courts Criminal justice State government Judith Zaffirini Lois Kolkhorst Texas Legislature Tom Craddick