Let them stay!

Dear friend:

I’ve been sending weekly updates on the Legislature because that’s the center of activity from January to June in odd-numbered years for elected state officials. Although it’s virtually all-encompassing for those of us engaged in the work, there are still other vital issues facing our communities.

Last week, opponents of destroying an historic neighborhood – one of the first in modern El Paso – spoke before City Council. The city is proposing to replace the Duranguito neighborhood with an arena; this tight-knit community was first platted, or mapped, in 1859 by Anson Mills, an iconic El Paso figure. Interestingly, when we look back only a few years to 2012, when voters gave approval for this project, it was called a multipurpose center. Now the city calls it an arena. Is this really what people voted for? I voted for a multipurpose center, but most certainly did not vote to destroy our history, and a vibrant neighborhood, in the process. Because of this, I am against this proposal, and you can link here for my statement on the issue.

Also last week, the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of Homeland Security visited El Paso. They pose a bleak picture of our community, one that is distorted and dangerous. Their recent comments should frighten anyone who believes in the freedoms guaranteed by the constitutional separation of powers, and our great tradition of civil liberties.I’ll say it again: The border is not a threat. It is an opportunity. You can read my full statement here, and you can read a great editorial on the subject from the New York Times here.

Our job is made more difficult by the successful effort by Republicans to demonize the border, and hype immigrant crimes. Unfortunately, even some Democrats fail to realize the significance and damage of these false narratives, and haven’t made it a priority to counter with facts. This has led to support for draconian policies at the federal level, and also to terrible proposals at the state level (more on that in a bit). The Texas Lyceum this week released the results of a poll that shows public support for such silly ideas as a border wall.

But also in the poll was some good news, as reported by the Houston Chronicle: “A whopping 90 percent support allowing immigrants here illegally to become citizens after a long waiting period, payment of taxes and a penalty, passing a criminal background check and showing English proficiency, according to a poll released Tuesday.”

I agree with the majority – let them stay. Immigrants who have traveled long distances and endured hardships to be here, regardless of whether they were authorized or not, are overwhelmingly assets to our country, and we should welcome their efforts and contributions to our economy and culture.

Back to the Lege

In the previous newsletter, I wrote about the increasing pace, as well as intensity, of the legislative session. This is not only because of the sheer volume, but also the fact that bills from one chamber are being considered by the other.

The budget is the only bill thus far that has been considered by both chambers. Part of the budget process involve individual bills that enable parts of the budget. An example of this is HB 21, heard in the House this week. You can read an analysis of the bill generated in the House prior to the vote here.

One major element of HB 21 is that it increases the basic allotment, the base level of funding, from $5,140 to $5,350 per student in each year of the biennium. Another way of putting it is that state funding dropped from 48 percent of the cost to educate students in 2007 to 37 percent now; HB 21 would increase that to 39 percent.

The House analysis states: “Past funding cuts have caused districts to raise taxes or seek donations to keep extracurricular programs, extra school supplies, and other options available to students. HB 21 is a good first step, but without a statutory increase to the basic allotment and significant funding formula changes, Texas’ school finance system continues to be inequitable.”

Senate bills in the House

Two bad bills that moved from the Senate to House are SB 4, which would coerce local police to serve as immigration enforcement, and SB 6, which targets people who are transgender for discrimination. SB 4 will be heard on the House floor Wednesday. You can read my prior statements on SB 4 here.

SB 6 does not appear to be moving in the House. But another bill, HB 2899, could be just as bad. It would eliminate any local nondiscrimination ordinances. You can read about that here, and read my original statement on SB 6 here.

Another bill that just got sent to the House last week would reduce Texans’ ability to contest unconstitutional state laws. This is important, because as we just saw last week, a three-judge panel, on a 2-1 vote, determined that the state’s 2013 House maps were discriminatory.

This is only one of many Texas laws that have been found to be discriminatory. It takes expensive, time-consuming challenges to stop some of these laws. SB 949 restricts the awarding of attorney’s fees to no more than $250,000 in a case assigned to a special three-judge district court, which include school finance and redistricting. In just those two areas alone, the fees to contest laws that were found unconstitutional were in the millions.

By capping reasonable attorney fees as determined by a court the state is trying to eliminate the necessary opposition to discriminatory laws.

Some good news

The Texas Senate passed SB 160, my bill eliminating the Texas Education Agency’s cap on special education enrollment. I appreciate my colleague’s support in ensuring that the state never again sets an arbitrary cap, however it’s described, on the services to which children are legally entitled. Parents have a right to have their child evaluated for special education services, and to have a place at the table when schools design appropriate accommodations. Children deserve our best efforts to provide a quality education.

Rachel Gandy, policy fellow with Disability Rights Texas, said this about the bill: “Since 2004, TEA’s 8.5 percent cap on special education stood as an unnecessary roadblock to services for thousands of students. SB 160 fixes that problem.”

I also passed from the Senate SB 1533, which adds university employees to the list of educators currently eligible for training in mental health first aid (MHFA). MHFA is an evidence-based training program that educates non-medical professionals about strategies and resources to respond to an individual who is developing a mental health problem or experiencing a crisis. Participants learn how to assess risk, listen to and support the individual in crisis, and identify professional resources and supports.

Other notes

This week in El Paso, Pvt. Marcelino Serna, was recognized. The new international bridge at Tornillo was named after him.

Serna was a WW1 hero who left his native Juarez to join the U.S. Military. Despite his many accolades, Serna has not been awarded either the Congressional Medal of Honor or the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor. In 2015, I introduced a concurrent resolution to award Serna the Texas Legislative Medal of Honor; however, only one for that era can be awarded per session and it was given to another Texas war hero, Edwin Dyess. I have again recommended Serna for the Medal of Honor.

Additionally, I sent a letter to the Texas National Guard recommending Serna for the Medal of Valor. Maj. Gen. John F. Nichole the recommending Serna for the medal; that was awarded and formally presented to Serna’s family at the bridge-naming ceremony.

Finally, late Wednesday the Transportation Committee passed my SB 928, which establishes a statewide Tom Lea Trail. Lea was an El Paso artist, muralist, author, and war correspondent who was known across Texas and beyond. The twelve municipalities on the trail are Austin, College Station, Dallas, El Paso, Fredericksburg, Galveston, Hebbronville, Kingsville, Odessa, Seymour, Sweetwater, and Waco.

As always, I encourage your letters, emails, and phone calls. You can contact my office by clicking here.

Sincerely,

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