The 84th Legislature
July 1, 2015
Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving you in the Texas State Senate. The Regular Session of the 84th Legislature ended on June 1st, and I am proud to report on the work produced by my office. I worked with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to send 71 bills and concurrent resolutions to the Governor’s desk and amend many others that supported the priorities of my constituents in Senate District 29 and the people of Texas.
I helped secure funding for local priorities in the budget, including:
- $3.5 million for the long-awaited Franklin Mountain State Park Visitors Center;
- $70 million in tuition revenue bonds for an interdisciplinary research facility and $7 million for the pharmacy program at the University of Texas at El Paso;
- $75.52 million in tuition revenue bonds for the Medical Science Building 2 at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center-El Paso;
- $30 million for Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grants (DEAAG) for military cities; and
- more than $3 million for the Eighth Court of Appeals.
I also passed legislation that:
- allows for expansion of successful dual language education programs statewide;
- reforms the criminal and civil justice systems;
- makes state job opportunities more accessible to veterans;
- promotes renewable energy and sustainable resource management practices; and
- supports economic development in El Paso.
While this Texas Legislature began and ended with a focus on the wrong overall priorities — tax breaks over education, state border security enforcement over health care — we were able to stop some extremely bad proposals altogether, while working with the majority to make some items better. For example, I successfully amended several education bills to support innovation while protecting our already underfunded public schools.
We stopped anti-immigrant proposals that would have forced local police into immigration enforcement roles and eliminated the ability of Texas DREAMERs, college-age state residents brought here as unauthorized immigrant children, to pay the in-state tuition rate like their peers.
We also stopped proposals that would have diverted more public funds to private schools via vouchers and targeted teacher unions and other state employee unions by prohibiting automatic payroll deduction for dues, making it more difficult for members to support the organizations that advocate for them.
Unfortunately, there was one major issue that we were unable to steer in a better direction. The Legislature committed over $800 million in General Revenue funds to the Department of Public Safety in the name of “border security,” a nebulous concept that has been used successfully in political campaigns but has little hard data behind it to justify the enormous amounts of funding and paramilitary buildup in border communities.
We also did not adequately fund our schools. Although there is $1.5 billion in new funding to the Foundation School Program in this budget, I am disappointed that we are still very much operating under an unconstitutional school finance system. The Legislature did not address equity inefficiencies, or the funding weights for compensation education or bilingual education. This means that we will likely need to address school finance in a special session next year.
The Legislature also failed to ensure greater access to health care, whether through expansion of the traditional Medicaid program; through the “Texas Way,” a private insurance exchange plan supported by businesses, hospitals, and health advocates; or through a Section 1332 waiver. It is imperative that we find a solution that will allow us to accept billions in federal taxpayer dollars to provide affordable health care to the rest of our uninsured population in Texas, which still has the dubious distinction of having the most uninsured in the country. Health care is a basic human need, and in the midst of great abundance, there is no good reason for Texans to suffer from lack of health care.
This session’s missed opportunities and misplaced priorities are especially disappointing because they show a failure to recognize how Texas inevitably is evolving. In our lifetimes, Texas will become a Latino-majority state. We have an opportunity to build on what always has made Texas unique. It is a frontier state in a global economy, and the richness of its resources, the vastness of its territory, and the growth of its diversity should be celebrated, not with tax cuts and mean-spirited laws, but with broad-minded acceptance of our differences, and prudent and targeted investment from a Legislature that knows it is good business to embrace the New Texas.
We are headed in that direction, albeit slowly, and I am proud of what my office accomplished for the state and Senate District 29 during the 84th Legislature’s Regular Session. There is always more work to be done, and I will continue to give everything I have to create positive change.
71 Bills and Concurrent Resolutions passed by Senator Rodríguez
This past session, my office worked diligently with members of both parties and state leadership to pass significant legislation. We sent 68 bills and 3 concurrent resolutions to the Governor and amended many others. Herein below is a brief description of each bill and concurrent resolution for which I was the primary author or sponsor. Unless otherwise indicated, this legislation is already in effect or will be effective on Sept. 1, 2015. For additional information, please call (915) 351-3500.
H.B. 218/S.B. 159 allows school districts to use an English as a Second Language (ESL)-certified teacher to teach the English component in dual language programs. This legislation overturned a recently adopted Texas Education Agency rule mandating a bilingual-certified teacher to teach both the English and Spanish language components. Experts and the data show a team-teaching approach is the most effective bilingual education program. H.B. 218 relieves districts from the burdensome requirement of an annual waiver application, which will allow districts to focus on continuing and/or growing their successful dual language models.
S.B. 1259 ensures that parents and teachers can provide meaningful input on special education services provided to their student, known as the student’s “individualized education plan” (IEP). The bill restores several protections previously adopted by agency rule, such as a preference that a teacher who will implement an IEP be on its planning committee. Parents or teachers who disagree with the IEP must also be allowed to include a written statement of disagreement.
H.B. 3562 allows students whose lunch card has run out to continue receiving meals by directing school districts to adopt a grace period policy that provides credit. The policy must provide notification to the parent or responsible party that the student’s meal card or account balance is exhausted; further, the district is not permitted to charge a fee or interest on the meal credit.
H.B. 1842 (Aycock/L. Taylor) establishes a turnaround model for low-performing public schools. Under H.B. 1842, school districts and campuses are subject to a series of reforms over a five-year period of unacceptable ratings. Sen. Rodríguez added four amendments to H.B. 1842 that:
- ensure teachers will not be automatically purged in the campus turnaround plan;
- allow TEA to remove a Board of Managers (BOM) and replace it with a new BOM if the district or campus continues to fail;
- ensure that once the Board of Managers is removed, a monitor (not just conservator) is an option for TEA; and
- allow TEA to perform desk audits for certain reviews and convert monitoring reviews to special accreditation investigations if flags are raised (filed as B. 471).
S.B. 378 protects social workers who are volunteering from civil liability, thereby encouraging volunteers to perform essential services on behalf of charitable organizations in a time of need. Texas has more disasters than any other state, and effective disaster response demands volunteers from virtually every profession in the medical and health care fields. Under the Charitable Immunity and Liability Act of 1987, many types of professionals are already afforded liability protection by the state when they volunteer.
S.B. 1624 requires four-year Texas universities to offer full-time students information about available mental health services and early warning signs present in a person considering suicide. According to the Texas Suicide Prevention Council, suicide is the second-leading cause of death in Texas among young adults aged 15 to 34.
H.B. 839 addresses health care challenges for youth leaving detention facilities, as detailed by juvenile probation departments across Texas. H.B. 839 directs the Texas Health & Human Services Commission (HHSC) to apply for a waiver to suspend rather than terminate Medicaid and CHIP benefits when a juvenile enters a detention facility. This will allow Medicaid and CHIP benefits to be reinstated within 48 hours of the juvenile’s release, which will help to eliminate disruptions in access to health care professionals and medications for these youth.
H.B. 764 increases transparency about collected patient data and improves security of the data held by Texas Health Care Information Collection (THCIC), which was created in 1995 to collect data and report on health care activity in hospitals and health maintenance organizations operating in Texas. H.B. 764 requires the Dept. of State Health Services (DSHS) to (1) develop a database that de-identifies all public use data, (2) make a form available on the agency’s website for use by providers to notify patients whose health data is being collected; and (3) prepare an annual report on security related to the data.
H.B. 2574 increases awareness of the dangers of leaving a child unattended in a vehicle in warm weather conditions. The death of a child due to prolonged heat exposure while left unattended in a motor vehicle is as unacceptable as it is avoidable.
H.B. 3823 directs HHSC to analyze and compare the Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE) and STAR+PLUS Medicaid program; this analysis will be used to set reimbursement rates. PACE is a Medicaid and Medicare program serving individuals who are 55 or older, eligible to receive nursing home care, and can live safely in the community. There are PACE providers in El Paso, Lubbock, and Amarillo. Although evaluations have shown that individuals in PACE typically have better outcomes than those in other programs, current data does not allow the state to compare Medicaid client outcomes across the PACE and the STAR+PLUS programs.
H.B. 1049/S.B. 1556 updates state law regulating massage therapy schools to clarify that these programs are “post-secondary” education programs as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. This will allow students to be eligible for federal loans.
H.B. 1846 establishes an annual process for soliciting public comments from interested persons regarding grants and contracts involving the federal Food Safety Modernization Act, which directs the FDA to establish standards for adoption of modern food safety prevention practices by those who grow, process, transport, and store food. Prior to H.B. 1846, DSHS could enter into an agreement or contract with a federal agency to implement the Food Safety Modernization Act without notice or feedback from the general public.
S.B. 660 expands the Texas Veterans Commission’s (TVC) Veteran Entrepreneur Program by authorizing statewide regional coordinators who will conduct business training classes, consult with aspiring veteran business owners, and advocate for veteran business opportunities. The program previously provided services to more than 2,100 veterans through seminars and an entrepreneur academy.
S.B. 389 will help veterans match their military experience with state job postings by requiring state agencies to pair job postings with Military Occupational Specialty codes, the nine-character codes utilized by the U.S. military to identify a specific job. That way, veterans can quickly identify the state jobs for which they have relevant experience.
H.B. 1702 eliminates the $10 fee to receive the Gold Star Specialty License Plates, which are available to surviving spouses, parents, children, or siblings of a person who died while serving in the United States armed forces.
H.B. 3710 authorizes concealed handgun licensees to make a contribution to TVC’s Fund for Veterans’ Assistance. More than $45 million in Fund dollars have been awarded to veterans courts, as well as more than 180,000 veteran families experiencing a broad range of needs, including transportation and housing assistance, and family and child services.
H.C.R. 46 urges the U.S. Congress to require the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to provide services to incarcerated veterans held in state hospitals, and to consider expanding services to all incarcerated veterans. Currently, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) suspends medical services to incarcerated veterans, and other disability services may be discontinued. Veterans suffer disproportionately from mental health problems.
S.C.R. 33 designates September 8 as Major Jefferson Van Horne Day. In 1849, Van Horne founded what would become present-day Ft. Bliss. The base’s founding began a long, close association between El Paso and the U.S. Military.
S.B. 961 recognizes February 19 as Iwo Jima Day, in memory of the more than 7,000 courageous Americans who gave their lives successfully capturing the island of Iwo Jima during World War II.
Economic and Community Development
S.B. 597, which was filed to help El Paso build a downtown convention center hotel, was amended onto H.B. 1964 (Clardy/Eltife). The amendment adds El Paso to the list of Texas cities that qualify for a 10-year hotel occupancy tax rebate to develop a convention center hotel. Passage of this amendment is a boon for the City of El Paso, which is working to encourage Downtown development. Creation of a world-class convention center hotel will help the City attract major events and conferences to Downtown.
S.B. 408 allows counties to give a preference to a local business that bids on certain contracts. Increasing the local bidder preference from three to five percent would have allowed counties to do what cities already are allowed to do – use more than simple cost as the only criterion to assess best value to the community when awarding contracts. If a county chooses to utilize this tool, state law requires a finding that the local bidder offers the best combination of contract price and additional economic development opportunities. This bill was vetoed by the Governor.
H.B. 2878/S.B. 976 makes a narrow exception in state law to allow the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso (HACEP) to file multiple applications in one calendar year with the Bond Review Board. This will better enable HACEP to comply with federal requirements for where tenants may be relocated and to meet the 2017 deadline for renovation of existing housing units, as required by the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) Program. RAD provides local housing authorities a way to privately finance the renovation of multi-family housing sites. In Dec. 2013, HUD approved HACEP’s application to convert over 6,300 housing units through the RAD Program. The project will save local taxpayers millions of dollars while providing residents safer living conditions free of environmental and safety hazards common in older public housing units. This project, the largest of its kind in the country, is projected to have a local economic impact of $1 billion over five years.
H.B. 1833/S.B. 629 allows El Paso County to contract with another entity to operate a toll bridge. Current law limited this authority to counties with a population under 675,000; H.B. 1833 removes this limitation to allow any county along the U.S.-Mexico border to contact with another entity to operate a toll bridge. This will allow counties to determine the most efficient method to operate these critical facilities and contract with another entity if that be determined to be the best option.
H.B. 995 creates a stormwater planning authority that includes representatives from each city, water district, and water utility in El Paso County as well as representatives from the county and state legislators. The bill will promote collaboration between jurisdictions and areas affected by flooding and will allow these entities to coordinate and adopt a long range master plan to facilitate the development and management of integrated stormwater control and recapture projects within the county.
H.B. 3868 requires the Texas Historical Commission (THC) to work with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to designate, interpret, and market Westside Drive in El Paso County as the Don Juan de Onate Trail and a Texas historic highway. The bill allows THC and TXDOT to apply for federal funds for highway enhancement.
S.B. 1203 allows nonprofit self-help homebuilders—similar to Habitat for Humanity—to originate low-interest home loans, without enduring expensive state licensing requirements. This bill is only for federally-recognized nonprofits offering programs in which applicants provide at least 200 labor hours or 65 percent of the labor to construct their homes.
H.B. 1628 seeks to incentivize savings by allowing banks and credit unions to operate prize-linked savings account programs in which a person can win simply by making deposits in their own account. Having savings is an essential ingredient not only for financial security and stability, but also for upward economic mobility. However, more than 1 in 3 Texas households do not have a savings account. This bill was vetoed by the Governor.
H.B. 75/S.B. 658 prevents small farm co-ops from incurring fines for lending their farm vehicles to co-op farmers. Many Texas farmers use state highways, rather than using farm-to-market roads, when using their personal farm vehicles and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles issues them a special license plate which exempts them from registering their vehicle. The bill now expands that exemption to vehicles used by farm co-ops, which rent or lend such vehicles to members.
S.B. 1204 exempts school-based aquaponics programs— like the BioFood Institute at El Paso’s Irvin High School, which will grow fish and fresh produce in recirculating water systems—from paying certain fees assessed by the state. These programs teach students about water, science, and agribusiness. Exempting fees saves schools hundreds of dollars.
H.B. 2381 simplifies the process of appointing election officials. Currently, there is nothing in the Election Code that specifies how election day judges should be appointed in counties that are using countywide poll locations. The absence of a codified procedure has led to inconsistency across counties. This bill was vetoed by the Governor.
H.B. 2721 adds transparency to elections by requiring local authorities to send early voting times and locations to the Secretary of State, who is required to post the information online. This is needed because early voting location and times differ in every county, and many counties do not maintain websites, and thus, locations and times of early voting are not readily available. Having these locations listed on the Secretary of State’s website will make it easier for the public to access this information.
S.B. 1034, as requested by county election clerks, simply allows a voter with an annual ballot by mail application on file with the early voting clerk to cancel a mail-in ballot for a single election without cancelling the application for all subsequent elections. In 2013, the legislature passed H.B. 666, which allowed senior and disabled voters to submit one application to vote by mail each year. However, it canceled future mail ballots if a voter voted in-person, creating some confusion for voters who did not realize this would happen. This bill was vetoed by the Governor.
Energy and the Environment
S.B. 1626 grants homeowners who wish to install solar technology on their homes the freedom to do so. Under current law, when a neighborhood is in the “development phase,” builders can block all homeowners from installing solar, regardless of how big a development is, or if a homeowner has already lived for years in their home. This bill effectively stops that practice; builders may now only prohibit solar installation in very small developments with fewer than 51 units.
H.B. 2763/S.B. 1067 requires the state to study the amount of materials currently being recycled, as well as the economic impacts (including lost state and local revenues) from the materials that are not being recycled. The study will identify new markets and job creation opportunities available if Texas were to recycle more municipal waste.
S.B. 991 requires the state to study ways to use renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind, to power water desalination plants. Currently, the fossil-fueled electricity production used to power desalination plants is very water-intensive. Coupling desalination with renewable energy would allow for freshwater production without wasting existing water-making energy.
Protecting victims of sexual assault, stalking, human trafficking, and family violence
H.B. 1446/S.B. 145 has three elements. It authorizes the Attorney General’s Office to reimburse reasonable costs for emergency medical care incurred by victims of sexual assault. In addition, H.B. 1446 allows stalking victims to be eligible for a relocation assistance payment (filed as S.B. 146). Finally, H.B. 1446 creates a new program in the Governor’s Office to address all of the medical, psychiatric, psychological, safety, and housing needs of victims of child sex trafficking.
S.B. 630 and H.B. 1447 strengthen post-conviction and post-offender-release protections for victims of sexual assault and abuse, stalking, and human trafficking. The bills provide these victims, the opportunity to apply for a protective order (PO) at the time their attacker is convicted. A PO issued after conviction would cover victims after the prosecution and, under Section 85.025(c) of the Family Code, would extend at least one year after an offender’s release.
S.B. 147 fixes loopholes under which people, who violated protective orders in sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking cases, have received lesser penalties than those who violated the orders in family violence cases. The bill aligns the penalties, thereby strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking and providing more enforcement tools for prosecutors.
S.B. 817 allows a third party to apply for a protective order on behalf of a victim, expands the definition of “abuse” for protective orders by referencing provisions from the Child Welfare section of the Family Code, and allows judges to consider a history or pattern of family violence and whether a protective order has been issued when making a conservatorship decision.
S.B. 737 addresses the timely entry of protective orders into the Texas Crime Information Center (TCIC). Delayed reporting puts the safety of both the law enforcement officer and the victim at greater risk. S.B. 737 requires new protective orders to be reported to law enforcement by the end of the next business day and for law enforcement to enter the information into TCIC within three business days, and fixes a past oversight by requiring magistrate’s orders for emergency protection to be reported to the TCIC.
H.B. 2070 waives notification and hearing requirements for certain foster homes that provide shelter to victims of human trafficking. It is estimated that 1 out of every 5 human trafficking victims passes through Texas through the I-10 corridor. The lack of resources and victim services with respect to human trafficking victims is well-documented. The number of victims far exceeds the number of safe houses available. Currently, before a foster group home or foster family home (“safe houses”) may be opened in counties having 300,000 residents or less, it must disclose its location through a public notice and in a public hearing. This includes safe houses that serve child victims of human trafficking. H.B. 2070 removes this public hearing requirement if the Dept. of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) determines that the majority of children served by the safe house in question are victims of human trafficking, and that disclosure of the safe house’s location in the notice or at a public hearing will compromise the safety and well-being of the residents and staff.
H.B. 2455/S.B. 944 provides for an accurate and uniform system of gathering and reporting data to efficiently deploy funding, training, and safety resources to aid affected families and victims. Family violence, sexual assault, stalking, and human trafficking are common occurrences in Texas. However, the actual frequency of these crimes is unclear, because state and local agencies across Texas conduct data collection and reporting in widely varying ways. In addition, responsibility for capturing this data is split across numerous state agencies. The resulting inconsistency yields inaccurate numbers, making it more difficult for the state to address crime and protect victims efficiently and effectively.
Smart on Crime Legislative Priorities
H.B. 1546/S.B. 589 streamlines the process involved in awarding diligent participation credits to those participating in education, vocational, treatment, or work programs in state jails by allowing the judge to make an affirmative finding at sentencing. If the judge decides a defendant should be eligible to earn diligent participation credits, then TDCJ will automatically apply any credits earned unless the defendant is placed under disciplinary action. This will improve efficiency while ensuring judges retain the discretion afforded in current law by giving judges an opportunity to deny the credits for any offender that they believe should not be eligible for credits. The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) anticipates the bill may save the state tens of millions of dollars per year.
H.B. 710/S.B. 380 expands the use of summons or “blue warrants” in two situations that pose a low risk to public safety: for administrative violators who have been under supervision at least one year; and for parolees who are alleged to have committed a Class C misdemeanor, have been out of prison and have had steady jobs and stable homes for at least one year, and have not been charged with an offense after release. “Blue warrants” are orders issued by the Parole Division of TDCJ when people on supervision are accused of violating their conditions or committing a new crime. Instead of being kept in the county jail, without access to bail or bond until a hearing is held, they are summoned to a hearing on a date certain. This will ensure non-violent offenders are not incarcerated unnecessarily and significantly reduce jail costs for counties.
H.B. 3579 has three main components. The bill (1) allows the expunction of an individual charge for a multiple-charge arrest, (2) updates the system for sealing criminal records by providing orders of non-disclosure for fine-only misdemeanors to eligible individuals, and (3) incentivizes community supervision by reducing a state jail felony conviction after an individual serves state jail probation to a Class A misdemeanor. This bill was vetoed by the Governor.
H.B. 943/S.B. 375 removes the automatic presumption of income for a parent who is incarcerated for 90 days or more. Current law does not account for incarcerated parents’ inability to appear at child support hearings or submit evidence for this purpose. Consequently, the default assumption is made for incarcerated parents, who then accumulate substantial amounts of debt while incarcerated. Once released, parents have a harder time becoming financially stable, while the Attorney General’s Office expends effort inefficiently on unsuccessful child support collection. With H.B. 943, judges will be able to consider the circumstances and assets available to the incarcerated parent to determine child support orders that reflect the parent’s actual means.
Improving Judicial Efficiency
S.B. 873, which includes S.B. 1040 as filed, amends Chapters 43 and 45 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to expand the courts that may hold an indigency hearing on a capias pro fine warrant when the court that issued the warrant is unavailable. A capias pro fine warrant is a post-adjudication warrant issued for a person who has failed to pay his/her fines and court costs. S.B. 873 will assist local governments to (1) control jail costs by providing alternatives to jailing individuals who have not yet had an opportunity to have an indigency hearing; (2) return peace officers back to the street quickly; (3) be compliant with constitutional prerequisites to jailing individuals who are unable to pay their court costs and fines; and (4) reduce the number of jail beds used by low risk, non-violent prisoners charged solely with Class C misdemeanors.
H.B. 518 allows an incarcerated probationer to waive a hearing by signing a form in front of a notary public. Previously, an incarcerated probationer who wants to waive a hearing on a motion to revoke or adjudicate has to be brought before a court of record and sign the waiver in person. This creates transportation and administrative costs, particularly when a defendant on probation absconds and then is convicted and incarcerated in a different jurisdiction. In such cases, the probationer has no defense to the revocation of his probation, so waiving the hearing is a sensible, efficient step.
Protecting Civil Rights
S.B. 662 requires the appointment of counsel for indigent habeas applicants when the prosecutor agrees to relief on the grounds that the defendant is not guilty, guilty only of a lesser offense, or the law under which the person was convicted has been declared void. The bill applies to non-capital felony cases, community supervision cases, and misdemeanor cases. This will ensure more timely administration of justice by requiring that defense counsel be appointed in these cases.
H.B. 211 requires a court to resume criminal proceedings within 14 days after a defendant, who was determined previously to be incompetent to stand trial, has subsequently been found competent to stand trial. This will improve efficiency in the criminal justice system, and more importantly, ensure that a defendant receives a speedy trial as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
H.B. 511/S.B. 509 remedies a gap in existing law by expanding the definition of “correctional facility” in the Texas Penal Code to include federal immigration detention facilities, making it an offense for employees to intentionally violate the civil rights of a person in custody or engage in improper sexual activity with a person in custody in federal immigration detention facilities.
S.B. 663/H.B. 1516, which was amended to S.B. 287 (West/Smithee), requires a bill of costs to include an itemized breakdown of incurred charges; a bill of cost is provided to those who are charged with an offense and responsible for court fees. This will ensure that Texans can better understand and identify their court fees without the need for legal representation or a formal request
H.B. 431/S.B. 645 requires the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) to create the Juvenile Records Advisory Committee. Many juveniles that enter the juvenile justice system go on to lead law-abiding lives as adults with no subsequent criminal history. The confidentiality of their records ensures they have access to work, education, housing, and other opportunities. In addition, the information collected by the juvenile justice system serves an important public safety purpose. However, over time, state statutes have grown more complex. H.B. 431 creates an advisory committee to study and advise TJJD and the 85th Legislature on reforms needed to ensure the continued effectiveness and security of confidential juvenile record-keeping.
S.B. 409 protects confidentiality of juvenile records by implementing the recommendations of the Texas Fingerprint Advisory Committee. The bill amends the Family Code to limit the dissemination of confidential information concerning juveniles who received pre-adjudication diversion or deferred prosecution, or whose charges were discharged, dropped, or found to be untrue. The bill permits this information to be shared only with criminal justice agencies, TJJD, and DFPS.
H.B. 3121 allows family law courts to enforce temporary orders, such as those used in a divorce, by contempt of court. During a divorce, it is common for a court to enter temporary restraining orders to keep the status quo until a hearing can be held. These orders may, for example, keep the parties from selling or hiding assets, incurring unnecessary debt, cancelling bank or credit cards, changing beneficiaries of life insurance policies, or otherwise harassing the other party.
S.B. 815 additionally updates what judges may include in a temporary restraining order to include prohibiting modern electronic forms of harassment. The law in this area had not been amended since the late 1990s. This bill allows judges to prevent parties from sending harassing or threatening comments via email, text, video chats, or other electronic means, as well as prevent parties from destroying stored electronic messages.
H.B. 1449/S.B. 820 increases standards for evaluators who make child custody recommendations to a family law court. Evaluators are given an extreme amount of authority to make recommendations that affect Texas families. To ensure the quality of evaluators, the bill sets minimum education and training standards, and outlines what must be considered in an evaluation.
H.B. 1500/S.B. 819 sets uniform minimum standards for what must be alleged before a court will consider changing a child’s primary residency. The bill is intended to save families the expense of defending against baseless requests.
S.B. 821 standardizes how the Family Law Code defines schools for purposes of determining child custody plans. This may be important to guardians sharing custody of children. In particular, it’s important to know when guardians are permitted to drop off and pick up a child. Without a clear definition, there can be confusion and therefore disagreement between guardians, which is not in a child’s best interest.
S.B. 822 additionally aligns the definitions of “amicus attorney,” “attorney ad litem,” and “guardian ad litem,” throughout the Family Code. These are individuals appointed to represent the child in an action or to assist the court in making certain determinations regarding children.
H.B. 4086 ensures a party can appeal the temporary orders of an appointed associate family law judge. Texas law allows elected family law judges to refer matters to an appointed associate judge, including authority to issue certain temporary orders. Temporary orders are also typical in child custody disputes. Awaiting a final order may take weeks or months. This may be an injustice for a family that fundamentally disagrees with a temporary order. H.B. 4086 now allows families to request an elected judge to review these orders.
S.B. 812 authorizes appointed associate judges to approve legal name changes for adults and minor children. Name changes are typically non-controversial. Giving associate judges this authority reduces family law courts’ dockets.
S.B. 813 ensures that provisions allowing for the use of digitized signatures on family law court documents are uniform. This eases court administration and gives parties greater assurance that their pleadings, motions, and other court papers are filed correctly.
S.B. 814 standardizes the requirements for a waiver of citation. These waivers are submitted to a court when a person voluntarily acknowledges being named a party to a lawsuit. Someone may do this if they want to avoid being served legal papers at their home or business by a sheriff or process server.
S.B. 818 requires that parents be notified if their child will live with a person subject to a family violence protective order. This ensures the best interests of the child are considered when determining who the child lives with. Under current law, a judge is already required to order divorced parents to notify one another if they reside with, marry, or intend to marry a registered sex offender. S.B. 818 now additionally requires a parent to notify if he will live with a person who is subject to a family violence protective order, if he continues to live with a person even after seeking a protective order against that person, or if he has a protective order issued against himself.
Estates and Probate Law
H.B. 1022 makes clear that surviving spouses bequeathed a life estate in their homes may claim a property tax homestead exemption. Under a life estate, spouses don’t own homes outright, but have a right to live there until their death.
S.B. 1202 increases the amount of money that can be transferred for the benefit of minor children. Under current law, someone who either owes money to a minor or who holds funds for a minor’s benefit may distribute those funds to a custodian. Limits on how much money may be distributed have not been updated since the mid-1990s. S.B. 1202 updates that cap to $25,000.
H.B. 2706/S.B. 1201 expands the amount of property one may protect from creditors. Texas law already lists several items of personal property protected from creditors’ claims, but caps their total value. That cap hasn’t been updated since 1991. The bill adjusts the cap for inflation to $100,000 of exempt property for a family or $50,000 for a single adult.
H.B. 2428/S.B. 994 adopts a uniform law (already adopted by 17 other states) intended to make it easier to refuse ownership of property through a gift or inheritance. Current law makes it difficult to disclaim property, even if failing to do so would impose serious tax liability.
H.B. 1923/S.B. 1620 adds retired and former probate judges to the list of who may serve as “special judges” authorized to hear civil cases referred by an elected presiding judge. Former district court, statutory county court judges, or appellate court judges may already serve as special judges. Broadening again the pool of potential special judges alleviates crowded dockets.
H.B. 2419/S.B. 993 provides that the Texas Estates Code governs all probate documents, such as wills. In recent years, the legislature recodified as the old Texas Probate Code into the modern Estates Code. Some probate documents were, of course, executed before this recodification. By now making clear that the Estates Code and the former Probate Code are considered one continuous statute, we provide clarity when courts give effect to wills in Texas.
S.B. 995 was an omnibus decedents’ estates bill endorsed by the Real Estate, Probate, and Trust Law Section of the State Bar of Texas. The bill makes several technical updates to the Estates Code. For example, the bill clarifies what persons may establish a “pay on death” account on the account owner’s behalf; clarifies the effect of a divorce on an already executed will, makes provisions for the inheritance of children born after a decedent’s death, expands the circumstances under which a court will give effect to an out-of-state will, and clarifies narrow circumstances under which a court may modify a will.
Legislative Priorities for 2017
The interim is a time to review the past session and look ahead to the next one. Ongoing consultation with community members, stakeholders and advocates will help frame priorities for the 85th Legislature in 2017. For my office, these priorities will include:
School Finance: In light of another court decision finding the Texas system inadequate, inefficient, inequitable, and lacking meaningful discretion, school finance was the number one issue facing the 84th Legislature. It was also the number one issue identified by school districts in Senate District 29 and stakeholders across the state at the Senate Hispanic Caucus regional summits.
Some members of the House, under the leadership of the House Education Committee Chairman Jimmie Don Aycock, attempted to pass legislation that increased funding for our schools (H.B. 1759); these attempts were unsuccessful. In the end, the Texas Legislature adopted the Senate’s school funding recommendations, which simply increased the basic allotment and golden pennies by a minimal amount, increased homestead exemptions, and offered little additional relief with the exception of $118 million to improve Pre-K programs and $40.6 million for reading and math training academies.
I filed S.B. 161 to increase the bilingual education funding weight from the current 10 percent add-on weight to 25 percent. This weight has not been updated since 1984. Studies dating back to the 1970s estimate that the bilingual add-on weight should be about 30 percent to 40 percent. A recent study by Dr. Jimenez-Castellanos recommended 50 percent add-on (.5 weight) based on the most recent empirical research.
English Language Learners are one of the lowest academically performing groups of students in K-12 schools. On average, ELLs scored 41 percent below their native English-speaking peers on the 8th grade NAEP reading assessment. This achievement gap widens considerably as students progress through school.
Notably, this is not an issue that is limited to the border or urban schools. Data show that school districts all across the state are struggling to meet the needs of ELL students. For example, 93 languages and dialects are spoken at Richardson ISD (Dallas). Similarly, 82 languages are spoken at Alief ISD (Houston). 35 and 40+ languages are spoken in Abilene and Amarillo, respectively. In total. over 120 languages are spoken in Texas public schools. S.B. 161 passed the Senate as a study to examine the need for additional funding for bilingual education. Unfortunately, the bill did not pass the House.
We anticipate the Texas Supreme Court will rule on the pending school finance case in the next year. If this occurs before the next regular session, which starts in 2017, then we can expect the Governor to call a Special Session in 2016. Oral arguments in the Texas Supreme Court will take place during the fall of 2015.
Our office will continue to push for additional weighted funding for the students with the greatest need and equitable school finance reform. Specifically, we need legislation that increases the basic allotment to more sufficient levels, increases bilingual and compensatory education weights to .25, and greater equity in the Texas funding system. An investment of approximately $5 to $6 billion over the biennium (less than the budget cuts and well below the monies in the Rainy Day Fund) would truly address our state’s educational needs. It may once again take the Texas Supreme Court to force the Legislature to get it done, but we’ll be ready to lead the way.
Health Care: Despite significant inroads made by the Affordable Care Act, which includes over one million Texans enrolled in the federal insurance exchange, Texas still leads the nation in the number of uninsured residents. Unfortunately, the state’s leadership was not interested in crafting a solution that would allow us to receive billions in federal funds and improve access to care for uninsured and underinsured Texans.
This session, I filed S.B. 1039, known as the “Texas Way,” to provide an alternative to expansion of the traditional Medicaid program. In addition to providing access to private health insurance for more than one million low-wage working Texans, including 50,000 military veterans, S.B. 1039 would have been a more effective use of state and local taxpayer dollars. The “Texas Way” would have provided access to private health insurance so that low-wage working Texans could access primary and preventive care rather than relying on hospital emergency departments for acute care. It would have established a transparent process to assess the impact of reduced uncompensated care costs on local property taxes that currently pay for about $1 billion of indigent health care services. Employers and those who purchase private health insurance would have benefited from reduced premiums.
Although many business, health care provider, and advocacy groups strongly supported this legislation, the bill was not given a hearing. In the interim, my office will continue to work on finding potential solutions, including a Section 1332 waiver, to this important issue. Health care is a basic human need, and in the midst of great abundance, there is no good reason for Texans to suffer from lack of health care.
Equality: Protecting the civil rights of all Texans is of paramount importance. As in past sessions, I filed legislation this session to promote equality.
I refiled legislation to repeal the amendment banning same-sex marriage in the Texas Constitution (S.J.R. 13). In light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which recognized that same-sex couples could not be denied the right to marry under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it’s more important than ever that Texas repeal discriminatory anti-gay language from its laws.
For this same reason, and for the second time, I filed legislation (S.B. 148) to repeal state law criminalizing “homosexual conduct.” In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 21.06 of the Texas Penal Code as unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. More than a decade later, this law is still on the books, serving as a source of misinformation to law enforcement and costing local taxpayer money defending lawsuits because of its misuse.
I also filed S.B. 856, a bill that would prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender Texans in the areas of employment, public accommodation, housing, and state contracting. Discrimination of any kind runs counter to the values of opportunity, personal faith, and freedom from discrimination that all Texans hold dear. Moreover, an inclusive Texas is crucial to recruiting and retaining talent, attracting entrepreneurs and company relocations, and maintaining a strong travel and tourism industry. Although none of these bills were given a hearing this session, I will refile them next session with the continued hope that we can better our state for all Texans.
Criminal Justice: Texas criminal law has long rested on the principle of discretion for judge and jury. It is this principle that yielded broad sentencing ranges for first-, second-, and third-degree felonies in the Penal Code. These sentencing ranges permit juries to bring their wisdom and values to bear as they determine appropriate punishments based on the specific facts of each case. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Miller v. Alabama barred the mandatory imposition of life without parole (LWOP) for defendants under the age of 18. In 2013, to comply with this ruling, the Texas Legislature passed S.B. 2. However, the bill replaced LWOP with only one sentencing option: a mandatory life sentence with parole eligibility after 40 years. Consequently, juries do not have any discretion to weigh the facts and choose a sentence appropriate for the particular juvenile defendant on trial. As I raised during the Senate’s consideration of S.B. 2, I have serious concerns that a minimum sentence of 40 years is a de facto life sentence.
This session, I filed S.B. 1083 to create a separate sentencing proceeding for juveniles in which the trial court and jury consider evidence related to the defendant’s culpability and capacity for rehabilitation. In addition, the bill set parole eligibility for juveniles after one-half of the term is served, or after 25 years, whichever is less. These changes would bring Texas’ sentencing scheme for juvenile capital defendants in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling and Texas’ own longstanding principle of jury discretion. Unfortunately, S.B. 1083 was not given a hearing. During the interim, my office will continue to work with prosecutors and other stakeholders to ensure that the state can be brought into compliance with the spirit and intent of the Miller ruling.
Community and Economic Development: Whether it is ensuring access to the vote by fighting against onerous restrictions or redistricting aimed at diluting the Latino and minority vote, standing up for workers’ rights, reforming the criminal justice system so that it supports rather than drains society by providing maximum opportunities for rehabilitation and setting punishments that fit the crime, supporting city and county efforts to further economic development, or promoting border infrastructure and trade capacity, the state has an important role to play. I intend to keep Senate District 29 at the forefront of these discussions!
Border Security and Oversight: Since 2008, DPS and other state agencies have spent nearly $1 billion on “border security,” according to the LBB. These appropriations are difficult to track because they are spread across agencies and strategies. I filed S.B. 1035 to create an oversight committee to review spending and performance of the state’s border law enforcement operations; this bill was not given a hearing. I also attempted to amend H.B. 11, which expanded both the size and scope of DPS, to ensure that the sudden increase in operations does not curtail border residents’ civil and property rights, as well as to establish metrics and measure outcomes. I plan to bring these critical transparency and accountability measures up again in 2017.
Enhancing border infrastructure is the best way to ensure both public safety and continued economic growth. In Texas, trade with Mexico provides almost half a million jobs and about $100 billion in annual exports. This trade hinges on the ability of people, goods, and services to move efficiently and safely across the border. Renovation, modernization, and expansion of border crossing infrastructure would cost an estimated $6 billion, which is less than the annual economic losses caused by lengthy northbound entry delays (e.g., $7.8 billion in 2011). I filed S.B. 731 to provide a dedicated infrastructure fund. Parts of the bill were incorporated into the budget, which now requires TXDOT to apportion border infrastructure funds. I will continue working to increase the state’s investment in this crucial point of commerce.
José Rodríguez: Legislature still fails to embrace Latinos
Guest Column published in Dallas Morning News on June 4, 2015
Last year, Latinos surpassed non-Hispanic whites as the single largest ethnic group in California. Texas is next, and we should embrace the opportunity that brings. The 84th Legislature has just wrapped up its regular session, and I’m still not seeing it.
California’s Latino population reached 39 percent of the population last year, according to that state’s demographers. Non-Hispanic whites, the next-largest group, made up 38.8 percent. This is a major shift that occurred in the space of a generation; in 2000, the numbers were 32.3 percent and 46.6 percent, respectively, and in 1990 they were 25.4 percent and 57.4 percent.
In Texas last year, the Latino population of 10.7 million was about 37 percent of the state’s 27.2 million people, according to the state’s Department of State Health Services. The non-Hispanic white population of 11.6 million made up about 40.7 percent. These numbers were 31.9 percent and 52.4 percent, respectively, in 2000; since then, Latinos have made up 63.5 percent of the state’s growth.
As with California, our state is struggling with the change. In that state in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the response was to pass a slew of anti-Latino laws. The result was a sea change in the political makeup of the state leadership, as Latinos reacted by turning out to vote against the attacks on their community.
In Texas, instead of focusing on the opportunities change brings to enrich our economy and our culture, our Legislative focus is still largely driven by the politics of fear instead of a policy of optimism. In past sessions, we faced the “cracking and packing” of redistricting that limited the opportunity to elect a candidate of choice, and witnessed onerous voter ID laws aimed at suppressing the vote.
This session, we faced proposals to:
- Force local police to become immigration agents. This would have hurt community safety by making victims of and witnesses to crime less likely to come forward (S.B. 185).
- Repeal in-state tuition to Texas DREAMERs. This would have denied an opportunity for Texas immigrant children to pursue higher education (S.B. 1819).
- Recast DPS as a state “border patrol.” This will cost $800 million, with no accountability for oversight of finances or the impact on civil rights for those who live in border communities (H.B. 11).
- Create a “border security” compact with other states. If executed, this would further militarize the border (S.B. 1252).
- Delay medical care to immigrants. It would have put severely ill immigrant children at the end of the line for some medical services (H.B. 2835).
- Skew the research on immigration.B. 62 would have forced the state to study only the negative effects of immigration.
Thankfully, only one of these passed, H.B. 11. But the effort took up much time and attention that would have been better spent on a proactive agenda, such as that put forth by the Senate Hispanic Caucus and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, which focused on education, health care, economic development, and civic engagement.
Unfortunately, the reality is that the far-right makes up much if not most of the grassroots base that drives the Republican Party, whose members followed the political imperative to ignore a proactive agenda and push for laws hostile to Latinos.
The one bill that did pass was, in a sense, the worst of the bunch, because it took such a huge bite of the budget. While the other proposals are recognizably anti-Latino, H.B. 11 was cast as a law-and-order bill.
Instead of spending $800 million on the true needs of the border, such as ports-of-entry infrastructure, or the state, such as promoting bilingual programs that could set us apart globally, we threw nearly $1 billion in this budget — and obligated future General Funds budgets — at a concept that began as a political campaign.
This is not good business for Texas. Besides wasting precious state resources, it sends a terrible message to the entire world, hurting the border communities I represent, which are the gateways to our multi-billion dollar trade partner and friend, the United States of Mexico.
This is not the direction Texas needs. While the Legislature has not outright rejected our Latino future, this session represented another missed chance to embrace change and craft policies based on optimism about what lies ahead.