State Rep. Venton Jones

Freshman Rep. Venton Jones is making HIV nonpartisan and getting his bills through committee

DAVID TAFFET | Senior Staff Writer

Legislators in their freshman year at the Capitol rarely get their bills heard by committee. And if that legislator is a member of the party out of power, the chances of getting their legislation heard decrease.

But Venton Jones, freshman Democrat from Dallas, is getting multiple bills heard in this legislative session.

Jones was elected as the first black legislator in the U.S. who is out about his HIV-positive status. His HIV status is part of his identity, and issues surround HIV/AIDS would be important to him as a lawmaker, he promised voters.

His openness worked. He won his Democratic Primary runoff by a landslide against a better-known opponent and coasted through the general election against a Libertarian candidate.

Once Jones was seated in the Texas House of Representatives, Speaker of the House Dade Phelan assigned him to the House Committee on Public Health. And bills Jones wrote pertaining to HIV were assigned to the Public Health committee. And given a hearing.

Rep. Venton Jones is being taken seriously among his colleagues.

He said he’s presenting bills that are considered non-partisan. “Medicaid expansion,” he said. “You’d think that would be nonpartisan.”

Medicaid expansion would give health insurance to more people using mostly federal funding. But it’s not seen as a nonpartisan issue. It’s related to Obamacare, which sets off alarms among Republicans.

But Jones’ bill to fully fund ADAP — the AIDS Drug Assistance Program — he’s presenting as Texas helping Texans. There’s nothing partisan about that. It’s simply what we do as Texans. We take care of each other.

Other states that have not fully funded their ADAP programs have waiting lists.

Florida has been notorious for making it’s HIV-positive citizens wait to access medications. That means more emergency room visits, more long hospital stays and worse health outcomes at a high cost.

Jones is presenting his bill to fully fund ADAP as a cost-saving, common-sense measure that saves lives. In Texas, with a fully-funded ADAP program, someone can get medication the day they’re diagnosed. Funding has to be reauthorized every two years.

Another common-sense measure is Jones’ bill that would make an HIV test part of a routine STI screening. Right now, you have to opt in for an HIV test. Jones’ bill would allow you to opt out, instead.

Why is this important? Because outside of medical practices in and around gayborhoods, doctors either are embarrassed to ask if you’d like an HIV test, or they assume their patients don’t need an HIV test.

“This bill will save lives in mainstream communities,” Jones said.

Another of Jones’ bills relates to PrEP, medication to prevent HIV infection. This measure would remove any requirements for pre-authorization to get PrEP covered by insurance.

And his House Bill 2986 would protect people living with HIV from being charged with aggravated assault based on their HIV status. This bill would prevent the use of transmission of a bodily fluid from being considered “use of a deadly weapon.”

People have been charged with aggravated assault after spitting — usually at a police officer — and found to be HIV-positive, even though HIV can’t be transmitted through spit.

Yet another of Jones’ bills got a hearing on Tuesday after other legislators have tried with similar bills for 20 years. If passed, the bill would repeal the ban on “homosexual conduct” from the state penal code, known as “21.06,” and remove language that labels homosexuality “not an acceptable lifestyle.”

In 2003,the U.S. Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas declared the Texas sodomy law and others like it around the country to be unconstitutional. And yet, since then, the Texas penal code has been printed with Section 21.06 included, along with a disclaimer that says that section of the law has been declared unconstitutional.

Opponents of repeal hope the newly right-leaning U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas ruling. If that were to happen, 21.06 will go back into effect — just as the once-unconstitutional Texas abortion ban did.

Supporters of repeal say continuing inclusion of 21.06 is demeaning, and they just want the penal code to accurately reflect the law.

While repeal is unlikely to pass both houses of the Legislature, the hearing on Jones’ bill is farther than a repeal bill has gotten since 2003.

How has Jones ingratiated himself to the Texas House? His honesty.

“I tell my story,” he said. “It generates good will.”

He explained that the day he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, he knew he had to love himself.

“I disclose in any space I occupy,” he said. “HIV is part of my story. Take it or leave it.”

His honesty is refreshing and disarming. Along with disclosing, he’s always happy to answer any questions his colleagues have about him and his status.

Many have never met someone with HIV, and Jones’ honesty is a way to dispel stigma. And, at least at the state Capitol anyway, it seems to be working.