Senators propose ‘maximum sentencing’ for Texas lawmakers who provide alcohol to underage staff

State Sen. Drew Springer R-Muenster, speaks on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Austin on April 06, 2023. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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Texas lawmakers are looking to crack down on people who give alcohol to minors after one of them was accused of having sex with an intern and drinking alcohol with her.

The state House voted unanimously Wednesday to increase the penalty for giving alcohol to a minor, and a state senator filed a bill Tuesday that he said ensures the "maximum sentencing" in such cases.

The Texas Tribune reported earlier this month that state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, was the subject of an internal House complaint that he had an “inappropriate relationship” with an intern who was under 21. It has since been revealed that they are also alleged to have had “sexual relations” at his Austin apartment in late March. The Tribune also reported, according to someone who works in the Capitol with direct knowledge of the incident, that Slaton drank alcohol with the intern.

Slaton has not commented on the allegations beyond an initial statement from his attorney that denounces unspecified false and "outrageous claims."

The House seemed to seize an opportunity to send a message to Slaton on Wednesday when it considered a bill to enhance the penalty for providing alcohol to minors in some cases. State Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, offered an amendment to make it a state jail felony for a "public officer" to give alcohol to a minor under any circumstances. The House voted 146-0 to adopt the amendment, with Slaton among the yes votes.

A day earlier, state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, announced he was filing a bill to ensure that any lawmaker found guilty of giving alcohol to underage staffers and interns is “given the maximum sentencing if convicted.”

“For a class A misdemeanor that is a $4,000 fine & one year in jail,” Springer said in a tweet.

Providing alcohol to a minor is already a Class A misdemeanor in Texas, punishable by a fine of up to $4,000, a year in jail or both. Springer's proposal, Senate Bill 2610, would amend the Penal Code to apply to any "public servant" who "directly provides an alcoholic beverage to a legislative employee or intern who is younger than 21 years of age."

Springer filed the bill Tuesday, with less than a month and a half left in the session. It would need the support of four-fifths of senators to be accepted this late, but Springer and his Democratic joint author, Sen. José Menéndez of San Antonio, are optimistic that there is broad support for the proposal.

There was no discussion about Slaton as the House took its action Wednesday. But Springer and Menéndez acknowledged the bill is a response to the Slaton matter.

In an interview, Springer said Slaton deserves due process and noted the bill would not apply to Slaton if he was found guilty because it is not retroactive. But Springer said it is important to make a point, at a minimum.

“We’re just going to say, look, crystal clear, it’s going to be the maximum” penalty, Springer said in an interview. “Hopefully that gets the message out. This is unacceptable.”

Menéndez said he was “disgusted” by the Slaton situation.

“It’s been something we should’ve been thinking about for a long time, but never have we had such an example of how and why we need this,” Menéndez said of the legislation.

Menéndez noted that the Senate has shown it “can pass bills in one day,” and Springer was similarly hopeful that the proposal could advance swiftly.

“It can be in the House before May,” Springer said.

Springer previously waded into the Slaton scandal by floating an amendment to a separate bill that he said would have increased the “penalty for Legislators that groom someone below 21.” However, he did not introduce it, saying the proposal was not germane to the bill.

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