In a dramatic overnight reversal, the Texas House gutted a "healthy marriage" bill Thursday that would have doubled marriage license fees if couples didn't take classes in how to be good spouses.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, won a key vote, 76-61, to keep marriage license fees at $30, effectively stripping the bill of its ability to induce Texans to take marriage education classes.
"No matter how you split it, this marriage tax is wrong," she said. "If we want people to get married, why are you just going to double the fee if they don't happen to go through a course? Let them get married."
That argument, combined with queasiness among Republicans and Democrats about government intrusions into private lives, sealed the fate of House Bill 2685.
Even though the bill gained final passage, the fee hike was critical to its carrot-and-stick approach: Don't take the class and pay $60 to $100 for a marriage license. Take the class, and get a free marriage license.
"I think it severely damaged the bill," said its author, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. "Now I think people will just pay $30 and not go through an eight-hour course. What she's done is destroy the effect of the bill."
Chisum said he thinks the vote on Thompson's amendment, with 14 Republicans joining 62 Democrats, means some other "healthy marriage" proposals backed by the Texas Conservative Coalition could suffer a similar fate.
Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, said his constituents would see the marriage license fee hike as a tax increase. If he agreed to it, it could backfire in his next political race.
"I could see it in a (campaign) mailer," he said. "They wouldn't care that we were trying to keep marriages together. They wouldn't care."
He said he's not convinced of the success rate for marriage based on premarital counseling, noting Chisum offered few convincing statistics for backup.
"I do not believe it is good policy for the state to intervene in the sanctity of a marriage," said Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview. "For us to say an eight-hour course is going to make a marriage sustain itself is not the prudent way to encourage a Christian marriage."
Like the others, Rep. Gary Elkins, R-Houston, said he had a gnawing concern about government's proper role in society.
"Marriage is sanctioned by the state, but it's really a Biblical or historically religious ceremony. I don't know how government's going to counsel people or give people advice," he said.