Scoppe: The game’s afoot

Associate EditorJune 3, 2012 

THE PENULTIMATE WEEK of the regular legislative session ended Thursday with Sen. Gerald Malloy filibustering a bill that would effectively lock local governments out of the broadband business. Mr. Malloy’s filibuster is aided by senators who want to stop Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin from bringing the anti-video-poker legislation to a vote.

If video-poker opponents can’t break the filibuster this week, supporters of the broadband ban — in large part, the same people — will have to decide whether it’s more important to protect generous campaign donors in the broadband business from what is still a minuscule threat to their bottom line, or to protect our state from the revival of the video-gambling industry. Here’s a thought: Give Mr. Malloy and his allies whatever amendments they want to the broadband bill, move on to video poker, and take back the concessions in conference.

Forget everything you think you know about the legislative process. In the frantic final days of the session, anything can happen — or not. Like used car salesmen trying to unload their excess inventory, legislators and lobbyists are ready to negotiate. It’s chess meets “Let’s Make a Deal.” Everybody fancies himself a chess master, as Sen. Brad Hutto acknowledged earlier in the week, when he put a block on an important Freedom of Information bill, not because he opposed it but because he might need a pawn to trade to block debate on a bill to forgive people their taxes in return for helping to undermine the public schools.

On Tuesday, the Senate gave key approval to a bill making it legal for 18-year-olds to commit or attempt to commit “a lewd or lascivious act upon or with the body, or its parts, of a child under sixteen years of age, with the intent of arousing, appealing to, or gratifying the lust, passions, or sexual desires of the actor or the child.”

The bill is supported by a coalition of law-enforcement and medical groups who discovered an oddity in our statutes after a new law was passed requiring teachers, doctors and others to report any crime against a child. There’s a special carve-out that allows anyone 18 or younger to have consensual sex with 14- and 15-year-olds (sex with 16-year-olds is already legal), but no similar carve out for “lewd and lascivious” behavior. As Rep. Bruce Bannister told me later in the week, that means the same two kids who can legally have intercourse can’t engage in the foreplay that precedes it.

Mr. Bannister’s bill passed the House a year ago, made it out of a Senate committee and was shunted to the Senate’s contested calendar, where bills go to die. Except when they don’t. On Tuesday, Sen. Hutto removed his objection, and suddenly the bill was up for debate, which resulted in a 35-1 vote for second reading.

At 96 pages, the Senate’s calendar contains an untold number of other Lazarus bills, all waiting for that miraculous breakthrough that resurrects them. Or not.

By Wednesday, Sen. Jake Knotts had kicked the “lewd and lascivious” bill back to the contested calendar, one vote short of passage.

Meantime, across the hall, representatives were playing an equally unpredictable, and dangerous, game. They approved a committee amendment, twice as long as the original bill, that added 10 new tax law changes to a Senate tax bill. Next up: pension reform, an incredibly technical magnet for litigation. When a bipartisan group of House leaders presented a 20-page rewrite of the plan representatives had passed earlier in the session, the House voted 63-48 against taking extra time to debate it; no one seriously considered delaying the debate so lawmakers could study the plan before voting on it.

Expect more of the same this week. Although House leaders were spending more than a week behind closed doors crafting a new budget to spend the extra $300 million senators had available, it looked at week’s end like the rank and file would be asked to vote on that sight unseen, perhaps on Tuesday.

On Thursday, the Senate briefly debated a House-passed bill to make it illegal for 17-year-olds to text sexually explicit photos of minors to other minors. Which, apparently to some, is more worrisome than 18-year-olds having sex with 14-year-olds, since that’s still legal six years after the Legislature “accidentally” carved out the so-called Romeo exception to the criminal-sexual-conduct law.

Mr. Banister is the one who thought of the irony of outlawing sexting while simultaneously liberalizing sexual-conduct laws, after he acknowledged that the Romeo law was problematic and I suggested that the Legislature create a separate law against consensual teen sex, one that doesn’t send hormone-driven teens to prison for 15 years but does offer the state’s official support to parents who are trying to convince their children that they shouldn’t have sex before they get married — or at least until they’re sort of grown up

Here’s another thought: Since anything’s possible this week, why not legalize teen foreplay — in return for outlawing teen intercourse?

But please, no pictures.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com.

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