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‘Choose Life’ license plates could be boon for faith-based pregnancy centers


“Choose Life” license plates are back. Pre-abortion sonograms are an official state emergency. The 2011 Texas legislative session presents great opportunities for anti-abortion advocates and faith-based crisis pregnancy resource centers, to which the state directs millions of dollars per year.

The historic Republican advantage in the state Capitol bodes well for formerly unsuccessful legislation allowing the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to sell license plates that read “Choose Life,” currently approved in 25 states.

House Bill 238 by state Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) and Senate Bill 257 by state Sen. John Carona (R-Dallas) would create a special “Choose Life” account for proceeds not just from license plate sales, but also from private sources.

Anti-abortion group Texas Alliance for Life (TAL) is spearheading the Texas measure as the official state contact of Florida-based national organization Choose Life Inc.

The plates — which are being challenged in several states over First Amendment violations — are meant to promote “adoption as a compassionate alternative to abortion,” said TAL executive director Joe Pojman.

TAL actively opposed House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) and credits itself for helping pass a bevy of anti-abortion measures in Texas since 1999. It has given $2.5 million a year for abortion alternatives since 2006, and gave $5 million for adult (not embryonic) stem cell activities in 2007, according to its website.

“Choose Life” account

Administered by the state attorney general as dedicated general revenue, the “Choose Life” account could receive funds from legislative appropriations, license plate sales, plus gifts, grants and donations from “any source,” according to the legislation.

Conceivably, private donations could outpace license plate revenue. The Legislative Budget Board estimated that Carona’s 2009 version of the bill would generate $9,000 per year from the sale of 300 “Choose Life” plates. Of that, $2,250 would go to the State Highway Fund, $150 to counties and $6,600 to the “Choose Life” account, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Pojman said creating the account to under the aegis of the attorney general was the “logical choice,” comparing the “Choose Life” plates to the plate program for court-appointed special child advocate group Texas CASA. He pointed to the $700,000 netted via the “Choose Life” initiative in Florida as a potential indicator of success in Texas.

“We could be doing better than Florida, since we are more populous and more conservative,” Pojman said.

In 2009, Carona’s bill passed the Senate by a margin of 22-9, with eight Democrats and one Republican voting against it, before dying in the House transportation committee.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat (D-Austin) voted against the bill two years ago but believes House members may be more predisposed to passing the legislation than ever before, given the Republican supermajority. Currently, 95 lawmakers have signed on in support of Phillips’ House bill.

“I was surprised and disappointed that this type of authorizing legislation was introduced,” Naishtat said. “It’s an emotional, hot-button issue that would only generate a great deal of controversy in the state.”

“Choose Adoption?”

Naishtat is certain that if the legislation makes it to the House floor for debate, there will be a series of amendments offered, including creating plates with the less-controversial message “Choose Adoption.”

Last session, lawmakers did add a “Choose Adoption” plate to the bill. Pojman said sales in states that have done this “have not been stellar.”

“To sell and be successful, we want to stick with what’s proven to raise money,” he said.

Naishtat and other opponents say TAL could go directly to the DMV to create the “Choose Life” plates, rather than entangle the already burdened House and Senate.

“There are so many pressing needs in terms of balancing the budget, that if an organization could go directly to [the DMV] without having to go through the Legislature, it begs the question, is this really something our government needs to spend its limited time on?” said Sarah Wheat, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood.

But Pojman says affiliate The Heidi Group, a faith-based service provider for pregnancy resource centers, applied to the DMV three times during the last five years and was not approved. DMV spokesperson Kim Sue Lia Perkes said before the department split off from Texas Department of Transportation about a year ago, it did refuse the group’s application because specialty plates could not be the subject of litigation in other states or serve as a political statement.

“I don’t know why they felt we shouldn’t be approved; they really didn’t say. I do know they don’t want to approve any plates that are controversial,” Pojman said. “We’ve done our due diligence and gone through the process several times and it hasn’t worked. Now we are asking the Legislature to have the power.”

Eligible organizations

According to the legislation, funds from the “Choose Life” account would be granted to “eligible organizations” according to certain criteria. Organizations must have 501(c)3 nonprofit status, provide counseling and material assistance to pregnant women considering adoption, not charge for services and not provide abortions or abortion-related services. Organizations also cannot make referrals to abortion providers or be affiliated with, or contract with, any organization that does.

Those limitations exclude groups such as Planned Parenthood (which charges for services) and largely narrows the pool of possible grantees to crisis pregnancy resource centers — generally faith-based nonprofits that provide counseling and sonograms, and share a mission to dissuade women from having abortions.

“If you are really concerned with adoption, why not directly increase funding to adoption centers and foster care?” said Sara Cleveland of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, which has been fighting the legislation for the past decade. “Simply put, it is unconstitutional for a state to endorse one political viewpoint over another. The funding of agencies affiliated with churches or religious organizations amounts to establishment of religion.”

Cleveland said the “politically motivated” legislation is a step down the path toward potential litigation. “State government-sanctioning political messages” distract generating revenue for more important causes such as cancer research and environmental protection, she said.

In the current two-year budget cycle, state lawmakers directed $8 million to crisis pregnancy resource centers through the state’s “Alternatives to Abortion” program, paid for by $5 million from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and $3 million from general revenue. The primary state contractor for the program is Texas Pregnancy Care Network, which has 44 service provider locations, according to its website.

While the House version of the budget zeroes out funds for the Alternatives to Abortion program, the Senate version increases the funding to $8.3 million for 2012-2013. In 2009, budget writers projected the centers would serve 36,000 clients in two years; the current budget projects the centers will serve 32,000 clients in two years.

In 3.5 years, from fall 2006 to the end of 2010, the Alternatives to Abortion program served 42,905 clients, spending an average of nearly $300 per client, according to Texas Pregnancy Care Network’s website.

Pre-abortion sonograms

On the one hand, the centers could be eligible for more state funding. On the other, the centers could see an influx in clients seeking free sonograms under legislation deemed an official emergency by Gov. Rick Perry. The emergency designation allows lawmakers to consider bills immediately. Perry made the emergency announcement during a pro-life rally in Austin that included TAL among its sponsors.

State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston), state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria) and state Rep. Todd Smith (R-Euless) have filed bills to mandate that a woman seeking an abortion must first undergo a sonogram. The legislation also contains directives for the woman to hear about physical characteristics of the fetus and listen to the fetal heartbeat.

The bills also direct abortion providers to provide clients with information that includes a comprehensive list of facilities that offer free sonograms but not abortions. That definition applies to crisis pregnancy resource centers. A physician’s failure to comply could result in the revocation of his/her medical license.

Often unregulated, unlicensed and not offering actual medical care, the centers have drawn scrutiny from Austin officials, who found the centers to be potentially misleading. The Austin City Council passed an ordinance in April requiring the centers to post signs disclosing they do not provide abortions or birth control, or make referrals for either. At the time, anti-abortion groups said they intended to explore a legal challenge to the law. Baltimore has a similar ordinance.

“Choose Life” fund recipients are intended to spend the money on material needs — such as clothing, food, prenatal care, housing and utilities — of pregnant women considering adoption, as well as to infants waiting placement with adoptive parents. The pool will also help subsidize pre-/post-adoption counseling, training and advertising relating to adoption, but cannot be used for administrative, legal or capital expenses.

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