Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse
As I wrote last week, the Senate has been moving at a fast and furious pace to pass the leadership’s priorities. About one-third had strong bipartisan support, but the remaining do not and have been incredibly divisive. I’m reminded of the saying, “elections have consequences.”
This last week alone, the Republican majority passed several measures that don’t reflect the opinions of the majority of Texans. Some place targets on certain groups while others tie us to future budgets that don’t provide enough funding for the state to carry out its necessary functions and limit revenues that will be available.
We are fortunate to live in a rich state in a rich country, but we passed a budget that fails to fully meet our obligations to children and families by again underfunding education and health care. It does address some needs, such as adding funding to Child Protective Services, but not all critical needs are addressed.
In addition, the Senate passed S.B. 9, which creates a constitutional spending cap, effectively pre-empting future legislatures from having the same discretion that today’s lawmakers have to make basic decisions about the state budget. This is an unnecessary infringement on the rights, responsibilities, and role of representatives. You can read my statement on the topic here.
The Senate also passed the latest attempt at vouchers, which give public dollars to unaccountable private schools (Senate Bill 3).
The Senate continues to attack a woman’s constitutional right to choice by making it much more difficult for women to have health insurance that covers abortion care (Senate Bill 20), and opening up women who choose to have an abortion to harassment by outside groups that now have a way to gain access to their personal medical information (Senate Bill 258).
All of these bills, including the budget, now go to the House. The budget will be voted upon in the House on Thursday. I will continue to fight against these bills by encouraging my colleagues to fix them if possible and to vote against them if necessary.
Some details on the budget
Passing a budget is the legislature’s basic responsibility; one that none of us takes lightly. Although I have some serious reservations, I voted in favor of the budget to keep the process moving forward and with the hope that some of these concerns will be addressed in the final budget, which we will vote on in May.
Three cycles after the draconian cuts of the 82nd Legislature, we have made incremental progress. However, we have the ability to do much more. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of this body prioritizes tax cuts over education and other essential government functions. That is why I voted against SB 17, and against SB 2, just to give two examples of bills that will 1) limit the funds available for future school funding, and 2) limit local government’s ability to set priorities and respond to emergencies – especially so for rural counties. I also voted on Thursday against SB 9, which would set a new, even more stringent limit on spending.
We should be using the state’s “Rainy Day Fund,” which continues to grow, now at more than $10 billion and estimated to be at almost $12 billion by the end of the 2018-19 biennium. The basic allotment provides for per-student funding of $5,140 in the 2018-19 biennium; this is the same amount as the last biennium, so we’re falling behind. And we also are cutting $332 million from universities, state colleges, and technical schools.
With all that, this budget has some good things. CPS is funded at $430 million, which includes $300 million for $1,000 raises for 828 additional caseworkers. That is not enough, according to experts and the agency, but it’s a huge step forward. Although not a large item, there’s $25 million for school broadband access, which will help draw down hundreds of millions in federal funds. This budget provides $244 million for mental health care, which includes $64 to eliminate wait lists for community mental health services.
All of these items are critical needs, but not all critical needs are addressed by SB 1. I voted for this budget with the understanding that it is a start. We have the resources to build upon this start. Let’s see what happens when the House votes Thursday and the budget comes back to the Senate.
Other key items
Senate Bill 3 redirects public money to private schools by creating a “voucher” system. I have major concerns with the bill, now dubbed the “short-notice” voucher bill because of the limited time members had to review the new language before the floor debate. According to an analysis from the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the three largest districts (EPISD, YISD, SISD) in my district would lose a total of $42 million at 5 percent loss of students; about $25 million at 3 percent loss; and about $8.5 million at 1 percent loss. It is worth noting that private schools do not have to meet the same accountability standards or even provide the same educational services as public schools. For example, the bill states that private schools do not have to provide special education services that the law guarantees for children in public schools. You can read more about it here.
Senate Bill 5 is the latest in voter identification legislation. It imposes unreasonable penalties on voters who incorrectly fill out a declaration of reasonable impediment form. (Voters who do not possess an acceptable form of photo identification and cannot obtain one of the forms of acceptable photo identification listed below due to a reasonable impediment, may present a supporting form of identification and execute a Reasonable Impediment Declaration, noting the voter’s reasonable impediment to obtaining an acceptable form of photo identification, and stating that the voter is the same person on the presented supporting form of identification.)
Ensuring citizens have equal access to the ballot is essential to our democracy. However, our state’s history is replete with examples of voter suppression and infringement of the voting rights of African American and Latino voters. Unfortunately, the legacy of voter suppression was furthered by the passage of Senate Bill 14 in the 2011 session. With the passage of SB 14, Texas had the most restrictive voter identification requirements in the nation. We should never have passed that law, and we should have fixed it in subsequent sessions after multiple federal courts continued to find SB 14 violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.
After years of litigation and appeals, the federal court finally issued an interim court remedy creating the necessary safeguards to protect the voting rights of all Texans. I am glad that we are codifying some of the safeguards put in place by the court. There is no question that SB 5 is a marked improvement over SB 14. One of the safeguards and improvements to SB 14 includes a provision expanding access to the free Election Identification Certificate through mobile units.
Unfortunately, SB 5 crosses the line into the realm of voter suppression by creating a third degree felony punishable by two to ten years in prison for intentionally making a false statement on the reasonable impediment declaration. This severe penalty is not tied to illegal voting or any type of voter fraud. The felony penalty is for falsely marking the wrong box that explains your impediment for not having a preferred photo ID. Under current law, a false representation on the form is punishable as a Class A misdemeanor. This leaves me to believe the only reason for this disproportionate additional crime is to intimidate eligible voters from utilizing the declaration in order to vote with an alternative identification. I believe this provision undermines the safeguards that the interim court ordered remedy put in place. I hope this provision is modified before final passage, so that we can truly feel confident that our election laws are providing equal access to the ballot. You can read more of my statement here–
Senate Bill 258 places unnecessary financial, bureaucratic, and emotional burdens on both patients and health care providers without providing any medical benefit to the woman, which violates the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Just as the state cannot ban abortion outright, it may not make an end-run around these constitutional limits by targeting abortion providers for regulations whose purpose or effect is to erect barriers for women obtaining abortions. It is worth noting that a federal trial court has already blocked similar rules that the state agency proposed last year. SB 258 uses coercive and stigmatizing procedures to erect additional barriers to women seeking abortion services as well as care for miscarriages, which can make women hesitant to seek health care. These delays can lead to women developing further health complications. You can read more about it here.
The Senate also passed Senate Bill 20, which creates unnecessary governmental interference in how insurance companies conduct business, and places women at risk by limiting their access to safe, medical abortions. Families rely on health insurance to protect themselves from unknown emergency medical situations, and this bill fails to consider that pregnancy comes with the risk of a multitude of health complications, some of which may require abortion services. By restricting families’ ability to insure themselves for these circumstances, SB 20 puts women’s health and well-being at risk by restricting their ability to insure themselves for all emergency situations. As with any law that chips away at access to abortion, this increases the risk of unsafe and illegal practices. Rather than imposing superfluous restrictions that bar women from medical services, our goal should be to bolster women’s access to safe, readily-available health care. You can read more of my statement here.
Targeting teachers and other state employees
On the same day that the Texas Senate honored retired teachers, the majority of the body, in a partisan vote, passed a bill aimed at gutting protection for current teachers, as well as many other state workers. S.B. 13, a refile of the same bill that failed last session, eliminates the option to deduct membership dues from paychecks for teachers, CPS workers, correctional officers, and other state employees, as well as prohibit cities and counties from making the option available. Paycheck deductions, which are used to make payments to hundreds of organizations and charities, are strictly voluntary. You can read more about it here.
A couple of my bills of note
SB 160, which prohibits TEA from adopting a performance indicator that solely measures a school district’s total number or percentage of enrolled students that receive special education services, was heard in Senate Education. The bill makes clear, however, that TEA is not impaired in its requirements under federal law to monitor for disproportionality. You can view video archive of the hearing here.
The bill was spurred by media reports statewide describing the impacts of a TEA-adopted monitoring policy that set an arbitrary 8.5 percent target for children receiving special education services in Texas public schools. Parents, advocates, and school districts said the policy effectively served as a cap that drastically lowered the number of students receiving services for a variety of needs, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and epilepsy. When the cap was implemented in 2004, Texas was comparable to the national special education enrollment average at about 12 percent. But by 2015, Texas reached TEA’s 8.5 percent target, the lowest special education enrollment in the nation.
This is about civil rights. One hundred percent of kids that qualify for special education services should receive those services. You can read more about the bill here.
SB 330 passed from the full Senate Wednesday. This bill makes it easier for land owned by veterans and young beginning farmers to qualify for agricultural property tax valuation, which saves farmers several hundred to several thousand dollars in property taxes and makes new farms more attractive to investors. Farming has high startup costs and often doesn’t pay profits for years. SB 330 supports veterans in particular, who often face substantial barriers transitioning to civilian employment. Over a third of Texas’ veterans live in rural areas, and a staggering 26.9 percent of rural veterans are unemployed. You can read more about that bill here.
As always, I encourage your letters, emails, and phone calls. You can contact my office by clicking here.