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Texas House advances ‘Choose Life’ license plates as opponents call bill ‘seriously flawed’

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/Choose-Life-80x80.jpgWhile Democrats grilled the author of a bill that would authorize state-issued “Choose Life” license plates about the legislation’s political undertones, polarizing message, funding stream and constitutionality, it did little to prevent Senate Bill 257 from tentatively passing the Texas House on Tuesday in a 94-29 vote.

The “Choose Life” bill additionally sets up a special account for proceeds generated not only from plate sales, but also from legislative appropriations and private sources, including gifts, grants and donations from “any source,” according to the legislation.

Due to limitations in the bill language, funds generated by these sources will be largely directed to unregulated, unlicensed ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ -– generally faith-based nonprofits that provide counseling and sonograms, and share a mission to dissuade women from having abortions, as [previously reported](http://www.americanindependent.com/167086/choose-life-license-plates-could-be-boon- for-faith-based-pregnancy-centers) by the Texas Independent.

The contentious bill was met with a series of amendments ranging from redirecting funds generated by sales to a childhood intervention program to changing the plate text to read “Choose Adoption,” an effort to diffuse the ideological volatility of the state-issued plates; the amendment failed 98-40.

Lawmakers critical of the legislation deemed it “seriously flawed,” fraught with potential conflicts of interest and seethed in political undertones. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) called the bill language both “vague” and “disturbing,” as bill author Rep. Larry Phillips (R-Sherman) failed to name one eligible organization that will receive plate funds. Rep. Jessica Farrar (D-Houston) pressed Phillips on the plate’s political implications, asking if there was any room in the bill for another viewpoint.

“Do you think these plates speak for all Texans or just those that agree with the message? This is a political message, unlike others — so is there an opportunity for other viewpoints to be expressed?,” said Farrar.

Farrar referenced a 2003 court case — which pitted Planned Parenthood of South Carolina against the state’s Choose Life distributors — that found the plates to be unconstitutional based on the discrimination of a viewpoint. Phillips countered his bill did not limit others, such as Farrar, from bringing anti-abortion rights legislation to the table.

“If Planned Parenthood wants to file a lawsuit they may do that. We have a good Attorney General that will stand up for our Texas rights,” said Phillips.

When asked what the likelihood would be that a bill promoting plates featuring an opposing viewpoint could be passed, Phillips retorted, “My understanding is that it wouldn’t sell enough.”

Farrar also pointed to the limitations of funds produced by the plate’s sales, which would only go toward women who have already decided to adopt, a notion challenged by Phillips who said the bill language stipulates money may go toward “pre-adoption counseling.”

Castro directed attention to the implications of the Attorney General-administered fund, wondering if the bill author sought to create a line item that can be funded later by an appropriations committee of a future legislator. The Attorney General, said Castro, would essentially be operating a nonprofit that would dole out money to another nonprofit. Phillips did not deny the possibility saying, “I think the bill would allow for that to happen […] If people want to give money to help these folks adopt, then that’s a good thing.”

Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) proposed an amendment, eventually tabled, that would direct funds exclusively to support maternity homes, which are regulated by the state — unlike CPCs -– and offer a broad range of services including medical care. The measure sought to create accountability for the revenue stream stemming from the plates. Villarreal continued, pressing Phillips on whether or not he knew the funds would mostly funnel to CPCs, a question Phillips largely skirted during floor debate, only conceding that his bill does not rule out giving money to CPCs.

Villarreal then referenced Texas’ reimbursement rate for CPC counselors, [information made available by reporting from the Texas Independent. ](http:/ /www.americanindependent.com/178704/texas-reimbursement-rate-for-abortion-alternatives-mentorscounselors-greater-than-for-masters-level-professionals) Villareal noted that while Texas’ Alternatives to Abortion Services Program reimburses nonprofit subcontractors $63 per hour for mentoring/counseling performed by unlicensed volunteers to pregnant women (first reported by the Texas Independent), master’s-level professionals providing counseling or social work in crisis situations receive less through Medicaid. Phillips said he was unaware of the statistic.

“What I’m trying to highlight is that we could do a better job of targeting our limited state dollars to organizations that are delivering meaningful, important, much needed and apparently, less expensive services like health care delivered by pediatricians and professional health care providers,” said Villarreal. “Your bill leaves the door open to

money being diverted to crisis pregnancy centers, instead of these other organizations we happen to be cutting this session.”

Villarreal argued the funds should go toward regulated centers that are held accountable by the state, not CPCs.

“They [CPCs] have been failing their accountability measures that we set for them. They have yet to meet standards of measurable objectively that we have set for them, yet we still throw money at them,” he said.

More pointedly, Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Forth Worth) asked Phillips, “What pot of money are you trying to protect?,”

“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.

The bill now moves to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, who has said he will sign it into law.

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