Picking Up the Pace
We’re six weeks into the 83rd Texas Legislature and things have picked up.
After the first week, I wrote in a column for the El Paso Times that while “we don’t know yet how the session will shape up, some broad contours have emerged. I am, as the saying goes, cautiously optimistic.” [link]
That still holds, although we know a little more.
Getting up to date
The Finance Committee has been through its first round of hearings and has broken into subcommittees that are going into more detail — for example, subcommittees are meeting today on High Education, Public Education and more [link]. The initial assumptions have not changed. We are starting the budget from where we left off last session, although it’s slightly better because it at least provides for growth in key areas such as education.
But it does not restore the $5.4 billion in education cuts from last session, and it does not account for expansion of Medicaid.
We’ve also passed a key deadline for submitting requests for bill drafts – the first attempt at crafting laws. The office that helps us develop precise language will have to turn its attention to finishing off the requests that it already has. That deadline was Friday, and my office has been busy!
To date, almost 600 bills have been filed in the Senate and almost 1,500 bills have been filed in the House. Believe it or not, this is actually a light session thus far! I’ve filed 38 bills, of which 25 have been referred to committee.
Priority: Higher Education
Among my key priorities is supporting our higher education institutions, in particular the push to make Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center a standalone university, with its own president among other things. Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance said this when I filed Senate Bill 120 [link] in November: “As the need for health care professionals grows, having an independent health sciences institution in El Paso for the Texas Tech University System will be a tremendous asset to the community, region and entire state of Texas.
“Our Board of Regents approved this decision mindful of the numerous benefits that will come from the establishment of a freestanding university, and we look forward to working with members of the Legislature to pursue this goal.”
I am pleased that Sen. Robert Duncan, who represents Lubbock and the Texas Tech University System, has signed on as a co-author of the bill.
This will help to grow the Texas Tech system and the Medical Center of the Americas, promote access to health care, attract more doctors and other health care professionals to the region, continue research on diseases that affect Latino and border populations, and spur economic development.
We’re also working for Tuition Revenue Bonds (TRBs) to build new and vital structures at Texas Tech and at UT El Paso. For Texas Tech, we are working on two buildings – a $99 million medical science building (with TTUHSC providing $10 million) that would triple current research capacity and a $30 million clinical sciences/pediatric pavilion (with TTUHSC providing $3 million) that would serve as a base for patient care.
UTEP is seeking a $110 million interdisciplinary research facility (with the school providing $11 million). The facility would enable UTEP to create laboratory space for externally funded research programs, accommodate UTEP centers focused on defense systems and security-related research, and provide teaching space for graduates and undergraduates.
What is a TRB?
A TRB is a bond issued by an institution of higher learning that is used for educational space – as opposed to auxiliary space such as dormitories – and is backed by tuition and fees. It must be approved by the Legislature.
According to page 15 of the Legislative Budget Board report on High Education funding, the state since 1991 has approved, on average, about $500 million in TRBs per session. [link]
It did not approve TRBs in 1999 or in 2011. In the two sessions prior to 2011, in 2007 and 2009, it only allowed a total of $168 million in such bonds, which comes to about 1/10th of the per session average. With a growing population and increased awareness of the importance of our higher education institutions, and competition with other states for students, research and industry partnerships, we cannot afford to get further behind in supporting higher education.
About our future
This ties into our entire educational system. Education is a key to success, whether it’s through preparing the scientists of the future or those who make the equipment that allows scientists to work.
As Texas’ minority population grows, if racial, ethnic and cultural demographics continue to be tied to income, the state will decline. Nobody wants that, and it’s incumbent upon us to prepare for the New Texas in a way that allows everyone access to opportunity, and that starts with full support of education at all levels.
For El Paso’s immediate future, we may face a difficult decision, because the budget writers are telling us that there isn’t enough to cover the TRB requests they’re getting from around the state. They have $3.8 billion in requests, but have said they will fund only half that, and they are asking communities to prioritize – to choose between their children, as it were.
Other education priorities include a package of bills that address some of the issues brought to light by the scandal at the El Paso Independent School District. [link]
By the way, other legislators have filed bills to reform school accountability and standardized testing statewide, and I am supportive of those efforts, which have bipartisan support.
Lots more on our plate
Those priority issues aren’t the only matters at hand, however.
My office also is working on Medicaid expansion [link], using solar energy as a way to develop El Paso’s economy [link1] [link2], protecting worker’s rights [link], and helping police keep immigrant communities safe [link], while putting a focus on removing dangerous criminals from the country [link].
Let’s talk about equality
Most recently, I filed two bills that would address issues of civil rights for the LGBTQ community.
I filed SB 538 [link] to repeal §21.06 of the Texas Penal Code, which lists “homosexual conduct” as a misdemeanor crime, and SJR 29 [link] to repeal the state’s 2005 marriage amendment that discriminates against gay couples that want to marry.
As I told KVIA [link], we’ve come to recognize that as human beings, we all have the same aspiration; we all want stable, loving relationships and we should allow people to have that, with full and equal protection under the law.
The simple fact is that the government should not stand in the way of people who want to enjoy the legal rights and privileges of marriage that the rest of us enjoy.
As for the Texas Penal Code provision, the law was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court 10 years ago, and it simply does not reflect the accepted cultural norms of today.
Whatever your position, I urge you to follow the issues in the news, contact my office, sign up for my newsletter (www.senatorjoserodriguez.com), and use the Legislature’s resources (www.capitol.state.tx.us), which includes agendas, video, and documents. It also allows you to find and track bills [link]. Why should lobbyists have all the fun!
With your involvement, we are building a New Texas, with opportunity for all its residents. I am proud to be part of this effort, and to represent the best of Texas, District 29.