The Texas primaries are less than a month away, with many officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, up for reelection. Abbott announced on Tuesday what some are calling a big campaign push – it’s a “preventing, protecting, punishing” proposal aimed at rape kit testing backlogs, sexual misconduct in the State Capitol, and stronger penalties for human trafficking and prostitution.
Democratic Rep. Donna Howard, who represents House District 48 in Austin, and Republican Rep. Linda Koop, who represents House District 102 in Richardson, both say the House has had a swift response to preventing abuse at the Capitol.
Koop sent a letter to the governor in November requesting that he look into the existing procedure for reporting sexual misconduct.
“Quickly, the House Administration Committee met and revised the policy,” Koop says. “But before that, it was very vague as far as understanding who a person should report sexual harassment or sexual misconduct to.”
Howard says the new changes will bring clarity to the reporting process, plus more confidence that the reports will be taken seriously and investigated.
“It does not specifically state in our policy to use the Texas Rangers [to investigate], though in our discussions that was one of the options that we certainly could consider. We did put in the policy that, when appropriate, we would bring in a third party, if you will, an outside investigator, which could also be the Rangers,” she says.
Still, Howard says she’s disappointed by the governor’s proposal.
“Quite frankly, I don’t see anything particularly new about the proposal in that, right now, criminal misconduct is already reported by House Administration to the Texas Rangers,” she says, “so this is really status quo.”
The governor’s plan would also require more training to spot and avoid sexual harassment. Last year, House lawmakers were required to watch a video on sexual harassment. Koop says the training is an important step.
“We already, in the policy, have training for everyone, including our interns, and that’s what concerned me really quite frankly the most,” Koop says, “that we have very young interns in all of our offices and they were not being trained appropriately.”
Koop says that with this new proposal, the governor is showing leadership on the issues. In the proposal, the Governor also includes funding to test 15,000 rape kits that are part of the statewide backlog.
“Certainly the $14 million he’s suggesting would have to be appropriated by the Legislature,” Howard says, “and that won’t happen until we get into the budget debates to find out whether we can find that money or not.”
Last session, Howard says, the legislature added 20 full-time employees and over $4 million to continue working on the rape kit backlog, but that still won’t solve the problem.
“We are having more and more reports of sexual assaults, so the more we keep chipping away at the backlog, the more current reports come in, and right now we do not have sufficient capacity of labs,” Howard says. “That’s part of the issue. Even if we put the money in, could get people working 24/7, we don’t have the lab capacity or the trained people to do this. So it’s a big challenge but clearly this is something that we need to address.”
Another big part of the governor’s proposal is increased penalties for promoters of sex trafficking and prostitution. Koop says that the Governor is signaling that these are top priorities for the next legislative session.
“When the governor highlights something like sex trafficking or rape kits and things of that nature, sexual harassment,” Koop says, “it brings a great deal of gravitas to the concern.”
Still, Howard says she’s not convinced that the Governor is committed to the plan.
“At least when I last checked, it’s not on his official government website,” she says. “It’s on a campaign website.”
But Koop says many fellow Republicans in the House have already told her that they’re on board, so Texans should expect to see bipartisan support for these measures.
Written by Jen Rice.