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USTIN, Tex., May 7 -- Joining the Texas House, the State Senate today approved a hate crimes bill, two years after Senate allies of Gov. George W. Bush suppressed similar legislation opposed by conservatives because it specifically included protections for gays.
The vote on the measure, which would strengthen penalties for hate crimes against explicitly designated groups, was 20 to 10. It followed rejection of an amendment that would have deleted designation of those groups, including gays and lesbians.
"This is truly an historic day for the state of Texas," said the bill's Senate sponsor, Rodney Ellis, a Democrat from Houston. "The Texas Senate has sent a message that our state is not a safe haven for hate."
The legislation, the James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Act, named for a black man dragged to death from the rear of a pickup truck in East Texas three years ago, would increase punishment for crimes prompted by prejudice about "sexual preference, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex or disability."
Because of minor amendments made to the Senate bill, the measure now returns to the House before moving on to the desk of Gov. Rick Perry, perhaps as early as next week.
Governor Perry, a Republican who was involved in an earlier effort to delay the measure's move to the Senate floor for debate, has not decided whether he will sign it, said a spokesman, Gene Acuna.
"The governor has said he will make a decision when the final legislation reaches him," Mr. Acuna said, "and that is still his plan."
Texas Democrats, who for years have been trying to strengthen the state's hate crimes law, were blocked in 1999 when, after a bill similar to the current one passed the House, Governor Bush refused to back it despite lobbying from Mr. Byrd's daughter, Renee Mullins.
When that bill died in the Senate without a vote, its backers blamed Mr. Bush and said his lack of support had been dictated by presidential campaign considerations. Mr. Bush never said during the legislative session whether he would sign the bill. Later, criticized by Al Gore during a presidential debate for his stance on the matter, he replied, "We're happy with our laws on the books."
The Republicans currently have a 16-to-15 majority in the Senate. In the vote today, all 10 of those opposed to the bill were Republicans, while 5 Republicans, including Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, backed it.
The Democratic-controlled House approved the measure last week by 87 to 60, largely along party lines.
Over the weekend, Governor Perry met with Senator Florence Shapiro, a Plano Republican, who today offered the amendment that would have removed the bill's list of specifically protected groups. The amendment was defeated on a vote of 17 to 12. Mr. Acuna said Mr. Perry had favored its more general language.
The bill would amend a 1993 law that provides enhanced penalties for criminals who choose victims based on a bias against "groups" of people. The 1993 statute does not specifically designate those groups, and supporters of the current legislation say this omission makes it difficult to prosecute offenders and even renders the law unconstitutional.
Under the new legislation, if prejudice was found to be involved in crimes other than first-degree felonies or Class A misdemeanors, the punishment for the offense would be increased to the punishment prescribed for the next-highest category.
For example, under current law someone convicted of painting a swastika on a synagogue, a Class B misdemeanor, would face a maximum punishment of 180 days in jail and a $2,000 fine. The new measure would provide for up to one year of jail time and a $4,000 fine, the punishment for a Class A misdemeanor.
According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, there were 331 hate crimes in Texas in 1997, the latest year for which figures are available. Those incidents involved 361 victims and 420 offenders.