The 83rd Legislature
SB 120 transformed Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso into a component institution of the Texas Tech University System.
This bill was the top legislative priority for the El Paso delegation this session, and represented the culmination of two decades of hard work and close collaboration by our community and the Texas Tech University System.
Establishing an independent health sciences university is a key element of our community’s educational, health care, and economic development strategies.
In plain language, the bill establishes TTUHSC at El Paso as an independent health sciences university with its own president and administration, schools with degree-granting authority, and greater local engagement in key hiring and funding decisions.
The move takes on greater significance given its role in regional priorities. It will continue to promote access to health care, attract more doctors and other health care professionals, research diseases that affect Latino and border populations, create high paying jobs, and spur economic development through its key role in the Medical Center of the Americas.
As an independent health sciences university, TTUHSC at El Paso will be able to focus on research priorities such as diseases that affect Latinos and border populations. In addition, the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, which graduated its first class of doctors in May, and its companion, the Gayle Greve Hunt School of Nursing, will reduce the regional shortage of health care professionals and provide quality health care in a medically underserved area.
School District Accountability
The FBI and U.S. Dept. of Education have been investigating corruption at El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) for over two years.
Six years ago, Dr. Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent, and his top administrators began gaming the federal accountability system to give the appearance that standardized test scores and student performance were improving at lower performing schools within the district.
This scheme included denying some students credits to advance to the 10th grade, forcing students to drop out or transfer to alternative schools, not allowing some students to enroll, and ultimately submitting false data to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and the U.S. Department of Education. Targeted students were generally low performers, in the bottom 20 percent of their class, and/or Limited English Proficiency students.
The criminal investigation is still ongoing, and the former superintendent is currently serving a 42-month sentence in federal prison. In addition, after months of failed leadership by the district’s Board of Trustees, the TEA Commissioner has placed the district under conservatorship and appointed a Board of Managers to run the district. EPISD is the largest district in the state’s history to be placed under conservatorship.
Unfortunately, it appears that EPISD was not the only district in the county that was cheating students. During the past year, similar allegations have been made at Canutillo ISD, San Elizario ISD, and Socorro ISD.
Senator Rodríguez passed the following bills in response to the corruption at our public schools:
· SB 119 creates a student recovery program at EPISD to find the hundreds of students cheated out of their high school education.
· SB 122 adds school districts’ boards of trustees to the list of county officials who can be removed from office for incompetence or misconduct.
· SB 123 gives the commissioner of education the ability to issue subpoenas and conduct accreditation investigations.
· SB 124 makes the fraudulent manipulation of PEIMS data reported to the TEA a third-degree felony.
· HB 343 requires El Paso County school board members — like other publicly elected officials — to file personal financial statements with their district and the El Paso County Commissioners Court.
Military and Veterans
El Paso is home to Fort Bliss, which with 1.1 million acres is larger than the state of Rhode Island and can accommodate every weapon system in the Army. Excellent ranges and training area, coupled with the third longest runway in the nation, make Fort Bliss a premiere facility for training, mobilization and deploying combat forces. Because of this military presence, our community has a high level of awareness of veteran needs. The Senator is a member of the Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee, which this session passed bills to help veterans transfer their skills to civilian employment, among other matters.
· HB 634 requires the Texas Department Criminal Justice to investigate and verify the veteran status of each inmate by using data made available through the Health and Human Services Commission and to use system data to assist inmates who are veterans in applying for federal benefits.
· HB 1123 authorizes a toll project entity to establish a discount program for electronic toll collection customers that are recipients of the Air Force Cross or Distinguished Service Cross, the Army Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, or the Medal of Honor.
· HB 2135 requires the Texas Private Security Board to adopt rules to waive any licensing prerequisites for individuals who have gained security experience during service in a branch of the U.S. military, including the U.S. Coast Guard.
· HB3946 honors Officer Angel David Garcia and his memory with a tribute to his generosity and selfless service to Texas and to our country by designating the interchange in El Paso between Interstate Highway 10 and Joe Battle Boulevard as the Officer Angel David Garcia Memorial Interchange.
The Senator’s service on the Jurisprudence and Criminal Justice Committees and his previous public service as El Paso County Attorney give him unique insight into issues associated with the civil and criminal court systems. This session, he passed a number of bills that address juvenile justice, family law, public defense, and probate and other matters that have great impact on people’s lives. The bills passed by the Senator protect victims of family violence, improve the quality of indigent defense, authorize attorney fees for women in contested divorces, and empower courts to deal with deadbeat parents.
· SB 1044 gives the public defender’s office much needed access to DPS’ criminal history record information, increasing the quality of indigent defense and conserving county resources
· SB 1360 protects victims of family violence by increasing the penalty for tampering with a witness when the proceeding involves family violence or the defendant has previously been convicted of an offense involving family violence.
· SB 1769 requires the Texas Juvenile Justice Board to appoint an advisory committee to study and develop a plan to end the practice of fingerprinting children referred to a juvenile probation department for low-level or misdemeanor offenses.
· HB2719 helps Texas address a shortage of information on at-risk foster youth and information on parole, re-entry, and integration by requiring Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) to include an additional question in its inmate intake form and instituting new reporting requirements for TDCJ.
· HB 2679 helps reduce the court costs on local governments by allowing individuals to choose to resolve their case through a plea while detained in jail.
· HB 570 makes issuance of an emergency protective order in family violence cases easier by allowing the order to be served on the defendant in person or electronically.
· HB 1366 closes a gap caused by a recent Texas Supreme Court decision by restoring the power of a court to order the payment of attorney’s fees when spouses divorce. This law works overwhelmingly in favor of women, who have historically had access to fewer resources and less financial independence with which to pay their legal fees. It also modernizes the law regarding litigation brought under the Family Code by providing updates to the rules regarding interlocutory appeals, waivers of service and requests for de novo hearings in a suit brought under the Code.
· SB 1259/HB 389 provides for the uniform enforcement of court-ordered, agreed, and contractual alimony and maintenance, and to provide for the enforcement of certain property division agreements.
· SB 1260/HB 847 helps custodial parents receive timely child support payments by giving courts broader court discretion to deal with deadbeat parents.
· SB 1083 adds statutory probate courts to the types of courts from which interlocutory orders can be appealed.
· SB 649 modernizes the law regarding inheritance of insurance proceeds and retirement accounts after death.
· SB 651 provides updates to the law regarding Medical Power of Attorney by clarifying requirements for a valid advanced directive
· HB 2918 protects vulnerable senior citizens by making statutory durable power of attorney forms more consumer friendly.
· SB 647/HB 2080 updates the law regarding guardianships by providing guidelines for mediated settlement agreement and for legal costs of guardians ad litem.
· SB 648/HB 2913 provides a number of modernizations to Texas trust law such as changing the definition of “property” to include digital assets or electronic medium.
· SB 911/HB 2912 updates the probate process in Texas by, among other things, proving for inheritance of insurance proceeds and retirement accounts after death.
· HB 789 provides property tax relief by increasing the allowance in lieu of a homestead from $15,000 to $45,000 and the allowance for exempt personal property from $5,000 to $30,000.
Transparency, Ethics and Good Governance
The Senator has been a leader in El Paso County’s efforts to create the state’s first County Ethics Commission, and has a deep interest in transparent and accountable governance. This session, in addition to passing important statewide transparency measures, Senator Rodríguez passed a number of key items on the City and County’s legislative agendas.
· HB 584 promotes public information by requiring counties to post a notice of foreclosure sale filed with the county clerk on the county website
· HB 1487 provides Texans with a more detailed account of how their tax dollars are being spent by requiring the Comptroller to publish the specific purpose for which a grant was awarded
· SB 336 helps El Paso County and other counties recruit a medical examiner by clarifying that an out of state licensee may qualify for a provisional license, thereby enabling the new hire to begin working immediately.
· SB 457 saves counties valuable time and money by allowing a governmental body to withhold confidential autopsy photographs or x-rays without requesting a decision from the Attorney General.
· SB 458 saves counties valuable time and resources by allowing a governmental body to withhold confidential motor vehicle information without requesting a decision from the Attorney General.
City and County
· SB 332 gives the El Paso County Commissioners Court oversight of the emergency services districts in El Paso County
· SB 856 requires El Paso County Water Improvement District No. 1 to contract with El Paso County to run the district’s elections, and post the district’s Board of Directors’ campaign finance reports, meeting agendas, meeting minutes, archived video and audio of meetings as well as the district’s budget and any audits
· SB 1262/HB2975 allows the City of El Paso Housing Authority and the El Paso County Housing Authority to merge to provide affordable housing to county residents
· SB 1133 allows the City of El Paso and the El Paso Firemen and Policemen’s Pension Fund to increase contribution rates to ensure long-term stability of the fund
· SB 1046/HB1970 allows the City and the County of El Paso to enter into an interlocal government agreement to better coordinate development standards and policies and streamline the subdivision process for the private sector
· SB 334 creates deadlines for preliminary review hearings of complaints to the El Paso County Ethics Commission, and allows a member of the commission who is a lawyer or former judge to serve on the preliminary review committee
· HB 2259 patches a loophole under which a city council member could show up to a meeting, then leave without being counted absent and breaking quorum, thereby preventing any work from being done; this bill applies only to Vinton, where this has been an ongoing issue
· HB 3015 allows voters in the Village of Vinton to remove their elected officials by allowing them to recall city council members
· SB 331/HB 1334 allows an El Paso County Judge to appoint a member to serve in his or her place on the El Paso County juvenile board.
· SB 1905/HB 3933 transfers the territory, assets, liabilities, and duties of the former Cuadrilla Improvement Corporation to the Lower Valley Water District thereby supplying water to over 200 families
· SCR 27 urges the federal government to reauthorize and adequately fund the Rio Grande Environmental Management Program under the Water Resources Development Act
The Senator passed laws that allow El Paso, Presidio and Hudspeth counties to employ various economic development incentives. The Senator also joint authored legislation to provide tax incentives for research and development.
· HB1777 Requires the Border Trade Advisory Committee to conduct a study regarding the effects on international trade of wait times at points of entry on the Texas border.
City and County
· SB 1719 encourages downtown development by allowing new hotel projects or hotel renovations within 3,000 feet of the convention center to use the revenue from the project to help pay for the project
· SB 1708 authorizes the Texas Department of Public Safety to enter into a long-term lease with Fort Bliss for land upon which DPS can construct a new regional headquarters and other facilities, including a crime lab and a driver’s license office
· SB 524/HB 1081 Requires a study to determine the risk level for bovine tuberculosis and whether the prohibition of dairy farming in El Paso County should be lifted; dairy farming once was a multi-million dollar industry in El Paso
· SB 855/HB 1347 Allows funds collected through the sale of El Paso Mission specialty license plates to be distributed to the Socorro, Ysleta, and San Elizario Missions for their preservation and promotion
Presidio and Hudspeth Counties
· SB 1584 Allows the Legislature to validate the November 2012 election results, which dissolved the Development Corporation of Presidio and created the Presidio Municipal Development District. The measure will help promote economic development in Presidio
· SB 1585 Adds Hudspeth County to the list of those counties that are eligible to levy a local county hotel tax; the funds will be used to help promote tourism through operation and maintenance of a county fairground, county barn, and county park
Legislative Priorities for 2015
In addition to the bills that were passed into law, I had a number of bills that didn’t make it through the legislative process in time. During the interim, we will build on the progress that we made this session in anticipation of filing these bills in 2015. Here are my continued priorities for 2015:
Tuition Revenue Bonds
The need for more infrastructure and improvements could not be greater at many of our state’s institutions of higher learning. The Legislature did not issue bonds for campus construction in 2011. In 2007 and 2009, the Legislature only allowed a total of $168 million in such bonds, far less than the requests and need. This session, bonds had widespread bipartisan support.
During the Regular Session and all three Special Sessions, I filed bills to authorize Tuition Revenue Bonds for UTEP and TTUHSC at El Paso. Notably, two of the three El Paso projects were “Highly Recommended” by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
· The $99 million project for UTEP would have provided critically needed capacity to expand the number of fast-growing, multi-disciplinary research initiatives, and is expected to annually draw $20 million in external funding while adding $5 million in commercialization revenue.
· The $89 million project at TTUHSC at El Paso, known as Medical Science Building II, is part of the original master plan for the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine and has been requested for four legislative sessions. With a projected 10-year economic impact of roughly one billion dollars, this research space presents significant economic opportunity for El Paso and Texas.
Equality for All
SB 538 (repeal of unconstitutional, anti-homosexual law): In 2003 in Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Texas Law making “homosexual conduct” a crime. Ten years later, despite this being unenforceable, this section of law has not been taken off the books. Not only is the continued existence of this law ‘on the books’ a source of misinformation to law enforcement, but state and local governments must pay to defend litigation from its misuse. The law is void, and should be repealed. SB 538 would have repealed this now defunct law.
SJR 29 (repeal of same sex marriage ban): SJR 29 would have put a provision on the ballot for voters to approve the repeal of the Texas constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage. This ban unfairly treats Texans differently based on their sexuality and should be repealed.
Promoting Renewable Energy
SB 1239 (renewable energy buyback): When a property owner installs a distributed renewable generation device such as a solar panel, any electricity they produce that is not consumed at that place– their surplus electricity– flows onto the grid. The electricity is then sold to other customers by the utility, although the owner of the distributed renewable generation source may receive no compensation for the electricity they produced. SB 1239 would have guaranteed the consumer would be compensated for the resource they provide. Texas now is one of only seven states that do not guarantee fair compensation for solar electricity that homeowners put back onto the grid. Moreover, the number is shrinking with Arkansas, Georgia, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Utah, and Wyoming all recently passing similar renewable buy-back laws.
SB 1478 (EPE REC requirements): SB 1478 would have required that El Paso Electric generate a percentage of its renewable energy credits (RECs) in its service area. Currently, the utility in El Paso often fulfills the much of their REC requirements with energy from projects outside of their Texas service territory. That means that many of the economic benefits associated with renewable energy leave the area. This bill would have brought new green jobs and small business development to the area.
SB 1586 (10 MW solar systems): Currently distributed renewable generation systems are capped at 2 megawatts (MWs). A public entity’s load is often greater than 2 MWs. If a public customer, such as a military base like Fort Bliss, chooses to offset a large portion of their load with on-site renewable generation, they are prevented from doing so. SB 1586 would have allowed public customers to build systems up to 10 MWs. This change could have been a key step in the Department of Defense’s effort to strengthen America’s energy security. It would certainly have helped in securing green jobs for Texas.
Cleaning up Scrap Tires
SB 459: Texans generate roughly 24 million scrap tires each year – approximately one tire for every Texan. SB 459 was an effort to prevent the majority of these unsafe tires from being illegally sold, transported or dumped. The bill would have prohibited customers from retaining a scrap or unsafe tire removed from their vehicle when buying new tires. It would have asked tire retailers to contract with registered, bonded tire transporters. These measures would have provided resources for TCEQ for tire cleanup programs, potentially saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
Protections for Workers
SB 340 (bad faith penalty): State law allows the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) to assess a penalty on employers that do not pay wages owed to their workers. However, TWC rarely uses this bad faith penalty. S.B. 340 would have required TWC to assess the penalty on any employer who: fails to pay wages as an act of discrimination or retaliation against the employee, fails to pay wages to multiple employees at the same time, fails to pay wages to an employee knowing that the failure was a violation of state law, or takes other actions showing reckless disregard of the requirements of state law.
SB 740 (workers’ comp): Texas has the most dangerous construction industry in the United States. Between 2007 and 2011, 585 Texas construction workers died from workplace injuries, compared with 299 in California, which had a larger construction workforce. While one in five workers has suffered a workplace injury requiring medical attention, only 40% of surveyed workers reported that their employer provided workers’ compensation insurance and 2% are covered by an alternate plan. SB 740 would have required all construction contractors and subcontractors to provide workers’ compensation to their employees.
SB 741 (wage theft claims): Wage theft undercuts responsible businesses and hurts working families. Current state law requires a wage claim to be filed no later than six months after the wages were due. Workers often miss the 180-day filing deadline because they are not aware of this option or familiar with TWC. SB 741 would have extended the filing deadline from 180 days to one year. Extending the deadline would have ensured that Texas workers have adequate opportunity to recover the wages that they are entitled to under Texas law.
SB 1743 (protection from retaliation): There are countless instances in which employers fail to pay workers their promised wages, pay them less than the full amount they are owed, or don’t pay them at all. In the construction industry, wage theft is pervasive with one out of five workers not being paid. Even worse, 30% of Texas construction workers who experienced wage theft also reported that they had suffered retaliation from their employers. Current Texas law does not provide specific protections from retaliation for workers who have reported a wage theft. SB 1743 prohibits retaliation against a worker who seeks to recover wages owed by filing a formal complaint, seeking assistance, or exercising a right or remedy protected by law.