AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- A contentious proposal to criminalize excessive touching by agents during airport security pat-downs returned Wednesday to the Texas Legislature, along with concerns that the federal government could ground all flights into and out of the state if it ever becomes law.
The House State Affairs Committee heard testimony on a bill by Rep. David Simpson of Longview that would make intentionally touching travelers' private parts by security officials illegal without probable cause.
The tea party Republican introduced a much-ballyhooed measure in 2011 making it illegal for anyone conducting searches to touch travelers' privates, even though clothing, while prohibiting searches considered offensive "to a reasonable person."
That bill passed the full House but died after federal officials threatened to close all Texas airports amid concerns that Transportation Security Administration personnel could face criminal charges just for doing their jobs.
Simpson promised to renew his efforts when the biannual Legislature opened in January, though his new proposal is somewhat softer. It clarifies that security agents must be deliberately touching inappropriately rather than doing so incidentally during pat-downs.
Simpson said his bill was more necessary than ever because traditional metal detectors at airports have increasingly been replaced by full-body scanners that "basically allow people to be viewed naked." He said he and others who object to that now often have no choice but to endure pat-downs.
"The problem is this effort at security is really treating travelers, innocent people, as criminal suspects and making them submit to unreasonable, very intrusive searches," Simpson said. He added of security agents: "They're violating peoples' most sacred areas of their bodies."
The committee could have sent the bill to the full House for consideration but instead left it pending. It also invited TSA representatives to testify, but they declined.
Simpson acknowledged that existing Texas official repression laws already prohibit groping and inappropriate touching by airport screeners or any other security official, but said it was necessary to further spell out restrictions because abuse of power during pat-downs is so common.
He provided a packet showing security officials performing exaggerated pat-downs on travelers and noted that a wounded Texas military veteran going through airport security was recently forced to remove his prosthetic legs.
"It's not only offensive, it's insane," Simpson said.
Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Kerrville Republican, said of the security officials in the pictures Simpson provided, "some of them seem to be enjoying the groping."
Democratic Rep. Rene Olivera of Brownsville said this year's version is more legally sound than Simpson's 2011 bill because it includes language on officials intending to grope during a pat-down. But he said it could still run afoul of federal regulations and may lead airports statewide to be shut down.
"If that happens you destroy the Texas economy, you destroy our business growth," Olivera said. "We would be paralyzed."
Simpson responded that "they've threatened to basically make a no-fly zone."
"It was just a threat," he said. "I doubt they would do that."
But Olivera noted that the state's conservative elected officials often pick fights with the Obama administration and wondered if this one might go too far.
"I frankly get tired of Texas playing chicken with the federal government all the time," he said. "I'm not sure I want to tempt that giant beast."
The committee also heard but didn't yet vote on a separate bill that would compel every airport in Texas to apply to opt-out of having their security duties performed by federal agents in favor of local private contractors -- though the contractors would still have to follow TSA guidelines and report to TSA supervisors.
Its sponsor, Rep. Larry Phillips, said that would make it easier to fire screeners quickly for inappropriate behavior, rather than have them protected as federal employees.
"If you did some ridiculous behavior that we've seen, you could be terminated immediately," said Phillips, R-Sherman.
He said 16 mostly small airports around the country had already chosen to opt-out of TSA services.
Simpson's House Bill 80: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB00080
Phillips House Bill 1719: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=HB01719
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