16 new laws & a veto

It’s been a couple of weeks since my last email update and during that time, several of my bills were signed into law, an important local project was funded and one measure fell victim to the governor’s veto.

I’ll start off with the bills we had signed into law. For the sake of brevity, I’ll touch on some of the “bigger” bills and not each of our 16 measures that made it across the finish line and are now law.

  • College Transferability (SB 25): Students lose time and money taking courses that won’t transfer from one institution to another. As Chairman of the Higher Education Committee, I made it a priority to work with Senator Royce West to improve this situation. SB 25, which I authored and sponsored in the House, will do several things to address the transferability of college courses, including requiring colleges and universities to develop lists of courses required for every degree they offer and make that list publicly available.
  • Transcript Notation (HB 449): Aimed at protecting students, this new law will make colleges aware if an incoming student is ineligible to re-enroll at their previous school due to a serious disciplinary violation, including sexual assault.
  • Reducing textbook costs (HB 3650/HB 3652): The cost of textbooks is on the rise, making these laws critical for students and their families. Both of these laws will lead to increased access to Open Educational Resource (OER) material, lowering textbook costs for those taking college classes.
  • Better health care (HB 3041): This law will help improve health care for both patient and medical providers by putting an end to lapses in medical treatments for Texans with chronic conditions by letting doctors request early renewal of pre-authorized treatments and medications.
  • School data transparency (HB 3007/HB 3011): Both of these new laws will improve transparency by increasing a school district’s ability to access the data used to determine their A-F rating. This was an important issue brought to us by Arlington ISD and one that will positively impact school districts across Texas.

In addition to these stand-alone measures, with the help of our House budget writers, I was able to direct $750,000 through the state budget to the East Arlington Recreation Center and Library in the form of a “Library Innovation Zone Grant” that will provide access to free Wi-Fi to residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the library.

Located in the heart of 76010, the Tarrant County zip code with the largest number of residents living below the poverty line, many in this part of our community do not have reliable access to the internet to use for school or to find work. I hope that this funding will provide these neighbors with additional tools needed to succeed.

As with many things, including legislative sessions, you have to take the bad with the good.  

On Saturday, I got the call that no legislator wants – news that the governor was going to veto one of my bills. In this case, it was my common-sense car seat measure backed by the medical community, law enforcement, and first responders. It was a bill that would literally save lives.

Unfortunately, despite evidence to the contrary, the governor didn’t see it that way.

Instead, he viewed the proposed law – which would have required parents and other caregivers keep their children in a rear-facing car seat until age 2 – as an overly prescriptive overreach. It didn’t matter that 15 states have already passed the law, including our neighbors Oklahoma and Louisiana. It didn’t matter that it passed both the Texas House and Senate with strong bipartisan support. Nor did it matter that several state agencies, including the Texas Department of Public SafetyTexas Department of Transportation and the Texas Department of State Health Services all recommend keeping children in rear-facing car seats until at least age two. He still vetoed it.

The good news – his action didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, quite the opposite.

In the hours and days to follow, the veto received a great deal of media coverage and if the hundreds of social media comments that followed are any indication, Texans agree with pediatricians and other public health experts and oppose the governor’s action.

On Monday, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal penned an editorial panning the governor’s decision. In it, they wrote, “Texas highways are already overly dangerous, and while no one is a fan of government intrusion, it’s unfortunate this bill, which would have clarified the existing statute and strengthened protection for infants and toddlers, did not become law.”

I couldn’t agree more. That’s why I am committed to working to pass this measure again in two years.

Good to be home

It is good to be home. 140 days does not seem like a long time – but when it comes in the form of a Texas legislative session, it’s a really long time!

The 86th session of the Legislature ended Monday and overall, it was successful. The Legislature passed a needed school finance measure that will put more dollars in our classrooms and increase compensation for public school teachers, counselors and librarians. I was proud to co-author this important education bill. House Democrats were able to successfully combat a regressive sales tax increase, attempts to erode voting rights and attempts to overturn paid sick leave rules.

Inevitably, there were also some disappointments. The Legislature again refused to address Texas’ high rate of uninsured. Property tax cuts should have gone all to homeowners; instead a big chunk of them went to businesses and it is unclear how they will be paid for in the future. Cities and counties will have a harder time providing basic services due to needless meddling by the Legislature. Several bipartisan criminal justice reform measures were killed in the Senate.

For my team and me, it was a very busy session. Between serving as the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus and Chair of the Committee on Higher Education, we were constantly on the move. Despite the workload, it was definitely our most productive legislative session yet: we passed 17 pieces of legislation, including several measures to help students at Texas colleges and universities.

Below are some of the highlights. I am excited about the impact these new laws will have for all Texans – and I am very grateful to the people of House District 101 for giving me the opportunity to serve.

Honoring Our Fallen Heroes

On Saturday, in a joint session of the Texas Legislature, we honored the lives of five brave fallen Texans, including two from Arlington: Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Lee Smith and Army Specialist Allen Stigler, a resident of House District 101 and a graduate of Timberview High School.

Please take a moment today to remember these men, and the thousands of women and men, who have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom.

Let us also reflect on how we may honor their memory not just today, but every day, by making a difference in the lives of others and by positively shaping the future of our state and country. It is our duty, as we owe them and their families for a debt that can never be repaid.

Sierra

Yesterday, the Senate passed HB 449, my bill that would require a college transcript notation if a student is determined ineligible to re-enroll because of a serious code of conduct violation including sexual assault, terroristic threats, burglary or drug charges. 

This bill has taken over three years to get to this point and I know we could not have done it without Senator Kirk Watson, who sponsored the bill, or the student conduct experts who were with us every step of the way. Many played critical roles in the content and the passage of this measure, but no one played a bigger role than Sierra Smith. 

Last week, for the third time in two years and for the second time in as many months, Sierra shared her very personal story about her experience with sexual assault.

I urge you to watch her testimony and to share her words. Click on the video below:

Sierra Smith testimony on HB 449

The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk.

It is my hope that he signs it into law in order to protect other young women like Sierra, who graduated from Baylor University last Saturday, from being victimized on their college campuses.

Property Taxes

Yesterday, the House debated and ultimately passed Senate Bill (SB) 2, which deals with property taxes. I want to provide property tax relief — however, this bill does not do that.

WHAT THE BILL DOES
This measure limits the ability of cities and counties to fund vital services, including public safety – police, firefighters and EMTs. With already strained budgets, local governments will be forced to make harmful budget cuts.

WHAT THE BILL DOES NOT DO
Lower taxes. In fact, when explaining what the bill does, its sponsor repeated several times over that this bill does not lower anyone’s property taxes.”

The main cause of property tax increases is not addressed in this bill.

As you may know, the majority of property tax revenue is dedicated to funding our schools. Each year, that reliance on local property tax revenue increases, while the state share decreases. In 2012, the state paid about 46% of the cost of public schools. In 2019, the state share is just 38%.

StateversusLocalFunding

THE BEST SOLUTION
It’s not tying the hands of local governments through an arbitrary revenue cap or jeopardizing our communities’ safety because of new strains on city and county budgets. The best way to put money in the pockets of homeowners is pretty straightforward — double the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000. By doing this, on average, Texas homeowners will save $325 annually.

This solution provides real relief to Texas homeowners struggling with the cost of property taxes, unlike SB 2 as proposed.

If the Legislature really intends to put money back in our pockets, the state should contribute more money for our schools, so property taxpayers don’t have to foot the majority of the bill.

It’s as simple as that.

Historic School Funding

On Wednesday, in a near-unanimous vote (one member voted no), the House passed HB 3 to address the most critical issue facing our state: public education.

It’s a pretty long bill, around 170 pages, so I won’t go through every major point, but here are a handful of highlights:

HB 3 Points

I am particularly proud of the last bullet.

There’s been a lot of talk about teacher pay. Most agree that we need to pay teachers more, but it’s how much and how we do it that that can spark debate.

TT Quote HB 3

To try and bridge a gap between proposals passed in the Senate and those being discussed in the House, I added an amendment to HB 3 to ensure that not only teachers, but librarians, nurses, counselors, educational aides, custodial workers, and other full-time support staff get a raise. This isn’t a one-time pay bump or a one-time bonus check, these employees will get a raise each and every time the Legislature increases basic allotment funding for our schools.

DMN HB 3 Quote

This amendment strikes the perfect balance by giving an across the board raise to teachers and support staff, making pay increases sustainable beyond the next two-year budget cycle, and ensuring that local districts have flexibility on how to use these additional funds for salaries.

In addition to receiving broad bipartisan support, my amendment was endorsed by every major teacher organization in Texas.

AFT on HB 3

That’s huge. And now, we must get it through the Senate and across the finish line.

The teachers, the support staff, and most importantly, the children of our state, deserve nothing less.

Budget

We’re past the half-way mark and there is still much to do to address the critical needs facing our state…and not very much time to do it. On Wednesday, the House will take its first big step to address these needs by debating the two-year, $250 billion state budget (that’s all funds, including federal dollars) – the one bill we are required by the state’s Constitution to pass.

I have said it many times before and it still holds true today: our state budget is a moral document that reflects our priorities as a state, what we care about, and more importantly, who we care about.

Two years ago, the last time we went through this process, I didn’t think the budget did its job in meeting the needs of our state. We didn’t invest enough in our public schools, forcing local taxpayers to foot the majority of the cost. Higher education spending was flat, ignoring the needs of our growing institutions like UT Arlington. Medicaid spending failed to keep up with the state’s caseload, creating a wide and deep hole to fill. And a significant amount of transportation funding was diverted to close other gaps and balance the budget. That’s why I voted against it.

As it’s currently written, this year’s budget does a much better job. Some of the highlights include:

  • $9 billion more for public schools*
  • $50 million for special education grants
  • $173 million to help address behavioral health capacity — including more money for psychiatric care, substance use care and residential treatment
  • $210 million in additional funds for institutions of higher education
  • $866 million for the TEXAS Grants programan increase of $80 million for the biennium, to fund growth; last session, I worked with members of our House Democratic Caucus and appropriators to ensure that a larger percentage of Texas college students would be able to participate in this critical program.

With over 300 amendments up for consideration on Wednesday, there will likely be changes, but as it leaves the House, the key provisions should largely remain the same. It’s important to remember, however, that there are still several critical steps in this process: consideration by the Senate, a House and Senate conference committee to address differences between chambers, and finally, the power of the governor’s pen and his line-item veto.

It is my hope that Texans won’t pay a price as they did two years ago and that as we move forward, our schools get the funds they need and deserve, we invest more in health care and create more paths to college.

We only make these important decisions every two years. We need to make sure they count.

Medicaid Expansion

On Monday, advocates from across the state, including many from North Texas, rallied on the Capitol steps in support of Medicaid expansion.

On Tuesday, in the House Committee on Insurance, I presented State Representative Garnet Coleman’s HB 565, which would expand Medicaid coverage to working adults. It would also add key protections afforded under the Affordable Care Act to state law, including ensuring that Texans with preexisting conditions would remain eligible for healthcare coverage.

Yes, this is an issue that I’ve written about often. For good reason. Texas still has the highest rate and number of uninsured adults (and children) in the nation…and that rate is climbingIt is also an issue that is a priority for the people of House District 101.

Expanding Medicaid should be a no brainer. It would provide coverage for over 1 million Texans basically overnight and draw down billions of federal dollars in the process. Yet, even with an incredible need and funding in place, Texas still remains one of the only 14 states to put politics ahead of the people in its refusal to expand Medicaid.

In addition to Coleman’s measure, other members (all Democrats) have filed expansion bills. At least three of these measures would put Medicaid expansion on the ballot, to let voters — you, me and our neighbors — decide. This approach has been successful in Idaho, Maine, Nebraska and Utah.

Medicaid expansion isn’t the only pressing healthcare item on the agenda this legislative session. Other critical measures include:

Healthcare measures

I support each and every one. All of these measures are critical to the long-term health of our state. We’ll see if our state’s leadership agrees.

Let’s Put Texas Kids First!

Last Thursday, I joined several of my Democratic House colleagues as we unveiled the Texas House Democratic Caucus’ Texas Kids First Plan, which would set aside $14.5 billion to address many of the critical needs facing our public education system.

The nuts-and-bolts of the plan:

  • Put more money into our classrooms by raising per-student funding
  • Give teachers and support staff a much-needed raise, while also helping them with health care premiums and covering the cost of classroom supplies
  • Fund full-day Pre-K
  • Add counselors to campuses to help address mental health needs

All this, while giving Texas homeowners a real property tax break by doubling the homestead exemption from $25,000 to $50,000.  Which, unlike the 2.5% revenue cap being proposed by the governor and lieutenant governor, will keep money in the pockets of homeowners.

Early estimates show that homeowners in Arlington ISD will save $342 per year and Mansfield ISD taxpayers will save around $385 per year under our plan. This will force the state to pick up more of the tab for public education, a share that has been dwindling over the past 10 years. Local taxpayers now pick up the majority of the cost of neighborhood schools.

Here’s a snapshot of property tax savings for homeowners in several North Texas communities:

Tax savings

Yes, adding more money to our classrooms, providing full-day Pre-K and paying teachers and support staff more will cost money. As I mentioned above, an estimated $14.5 billion for the two-year state budget cycle. Our Texas kids and teachers are worth every penny (and more) of this investment.

Texas will have a record $15 billion expected in the Economic Stabilization Fund (aka the Rainy Day Fund) at the end of the budget cycle. This is coupled with a positive economic outlook and the need to revisit outdated tax exemptions that have cost our state billions of dollars.

The money is there, we just need to make our kids, our classrooms, our teachers and the future of our state a priority.

We have the plan to do it.

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