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Laws that take aim at Texans’ ’sins’ await action in Legislature

by Nate

These are among the so-called sins the Texas Legislature is considering regulating — for better or worse — this session.

From a statewide smoking ban to a 10 percent tax on entry fees to sexually oriented businesses, lawmakers are looking at tightening restrictions.

And in the case of potentially allowing liquor sales on Sundays, they’re also looking at loosening them.

“They are always looking at sins,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “There’s a heavy Baptist presence in Texas and the Legislature.

“They are very attuned to sins,” he said. “And they always want to be ‘agin’ it.”

Maybe somewhere along the way, their actions can affect what some Texans do, said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University.

“Governments try to both change behavior and produce revenue from it,” Riddlesperger said. “These are all behaviors that do not contribute to the wholesome growth of society.”

With just weeks remaining in the 81st Legislature, time is dwindling for lawmakers to weigh in on the 2009 Sin Agenda.

Here’s a look at some of their efforts.

Lawmakers are considering a statewide smoking ban in public places, including bars and restaurants.

Cities such as Fort Worth and Dallas already have local ordinances, but this one would create a uniform policy throughout Texas.

Supporters say it would help reduce lung cancer and other smoking-related diseases. Opponents say it would infringe on business and property owners’ rights.

Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is one of several co-sponsors of the bill, and she said it’s about protecting Texans.

“It’s a public-health issue,” Davis said. “It’s not about the person who makes a choice to go into these places but about protecting the people who work in those businesses. They have a dramatically increased risk of having cancer.

“In this job climate, people don’t always have a choice of where they work, and they don’t understand the risks.”

Senate Bill 544 hasn’t made it out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and a House companion also hasn’t made it out of committee.

Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong recently shared an online petition on Twitter, asking Texans to urge officials to make the state smoke-free.

Another measure would raise the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 19.

SB1049 by Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, has passed the Senate and has been referred to the House State Affairs Committee. Davis is a co-sponsor on this bill as well.

Supporters say they hope the measure will keep youths from smoking for at least another year.

The House has approved a new tax on sexually oriented business.

Every sexually oriented business that charges admission — such as strip clubs, adult movie theaters and adult video clubs — would pay a 10 percent tax on entry-fee gross receipts.

It would replace a controversial $5-per-person “pole tax” that started in 2007 and has ended up in the courts. An Austin court has ruled that the charge violates a constitutionally protected right of expression. A state appeals court has yet to weigh in.

The new fee could raise as much as $8 million a year, according to estimates from the sponsor, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston.

HB982 passed the House and remains in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

Another measure — by Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, and Davis and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound — would boost penalties for prostitution if the offense occurs within 1,000 feet of protected areas such as churches, schools and hotels.

HB724 and SB528 haven’t moved from the committees where they were originally referred — Criminal Jurisprudence in the House and Criminal Justice in the Senate.

Instead of cracking down, lawmakers are considering easing up on alcohol restrictions, lifting the “blue law” ban that for decades has prevented the sale of distilled liquor on Sundays.

HB863 by Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, would let alcohol be sold from noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.

The state already allows beer and wine to be sold at grocery stores on Sundays; liquor can be sold in bars that day as well. But this would open the door to Sunday sales at liquor stores.

The bill is pending in the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee.

Lawmakers are trying to guide Texans’ behaviors, said Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth.

That is part of their job.

“Policy should be about encouraging good behavior,” Burnam said. “Regulation is an easy, shorthand way that behavior the general public disapproves of can be addressed.”

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