Fighting for opportunities for all Texas families

bigstock_State_Capitol_Building_at_Nigh_829837

Dear Friend:

We deserve a Texas that ensures that all hardworking families can earn a decent living, afford high quality health care, and get a great education for their children.

By investing in better schools and improving educational opportunities for our children, closing wasteful corporate loopholes and relieving the unfair tax burden on Texas families, ensuring better paying jobs and fair and equal treatment in the workplace, and providing access to affordable and quality healthcare, we can reduce inequality, create better paying jobs, and build an economy that works for all Texas families.

Our state works best when every Texan gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. Working together we can make our state a better Texas.

Last week, we had the opportunity to do just that when the Texas Senate passed its version of the state budget. We had a unique opportunity and responsibility to build a better future for our state and make the fiscally responsible investments in the vital needs of Texas. We had a chance to build better schools for our children, better roads for our communities, better jobs for working Texans, and ensure Texas families have the competitive economic future they deserve.

84-0368D-045

But unfortunately, those needs largely weren’t addressed in the Senate’s budget. This reflects the fact that dialogue in the Capitol this session has been more about scoring political points than building a better future for the people of Texas, investing in Texas families, and strengthening the Texas economy for the long term.

Even business leaders asked us to do more, urging legislators in a recent letter to invest in the needs of this state before we miss our opportunity to meet the challenges of the future:

Our state government has a substantial budget surplus today largely because of the resurgence in the oil and gas industry and the taxes that our base industries have paid. For once in a generation, you have an opportunity to make progress on the issues that confront our state—congested roads, educational challenges, obsolete infrastructure, high debt and underfunded pensions to name a few. To continue our economic success and job creating machine, we need to address those challenges and protect our business climate.

The budget did not do enough to meet those challenges, but I voted for it because there are still incremental steps taken in the right direction. Steps like increased funding for TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program I created in 1999 that has helped over 432,000 Texans pay for higher education, and new money for mental health services help to address long-term needs in the state.

But there is still a great deal of work to be done.  As the budget is negotiated over the final month of session, I will continue to fight for all hardworking Texas families. That’s why this Ellis Express, sent in the spirit of enhancing economic opportunity for all Texans, will discuss on several of the priorities I’ve been focusing on this session.

Honoring hard work with honest pay

Minimum Wage

Texans believe in honoring hard work with honest pay. Unfortunately, hardworking Texans are finding it more difficult to make ends meet – even those working fulltime. In 2013, Texas had the highest number of minimum wage workers in the country and the fifth-highest percentage of workers making at or below the minimum wage. Despite the perception, these aren’t just college kids and part-time workers: these are everyday Texas families who are working hard to put food on the table. Nationally, the average age of someone earning the minimum wage is 35, and more than half work full-time schedules.

Today, the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour yields an annual income of only $15,080 for full time work, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of two or more. This was not always the case: throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a full-time, full-year minimum-wage income was above the poverty line for a family of two.

But the minimum wage has failed to maintain its buying power. The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.75 today when adjusted for inflation. The result is a growing gap in our society between those who have the most and everyone else. Our state has the fifth worst income gap in the country, with the top 1 percent of the population taking home 21 percent of state income. This trend is exacerbated by stagnating wages, which have not grown in nearly a decade.

While Texas continues to utilize the lowest minimum wage allowable under federal law, 24 states have already set an hourly wage floor higher than this.

How can people be expected to climb the economic ladder if they are not given fair wages for their work? I hear from so many constituents who work hard and play by the rules, but they’re still unable to make ends meet. So this session, I filed two bills related to the minimum wage to help those constituents and millions of other Texans.

SB 67 increases the state minimum wage to $10.10, which will help hardworking families rise out of poverty without requiring a single dollar in new taxes or spending. Raising the minimum wage provides hardworking Texans with income to spend on the basics they need. This, in turn, boosts our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win, with almost 2.4 million Texans receiving a pay increase. A recent study by the Center for Public Policy Priorities shows exactly who would benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage, including:

  • Age: 60 percent are in their prime working years of 25 to 54, and only 3.1 percent are teenagers between the ages of 16-18.
  • Families with children: Nearly fifty percent live in households with children, and 14.7 percent of all workers who benefit are single mothers.
  • Education level: 43 percent have at least some college education, and 15 percent have completed a postsecondary degree.

As an alternative to a statewide increase in the minimum wage, SB 68 gives cities and counties the ability to raise the minimum wage themselves. Texas is an enormous state, and local economic needs vary from place to place. Allowing cities and counties the option to increase the minimum wage on their own will provide the same benefits to the areas that choose to take a stand for living wages.

Equal Pay

Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, and they are the equal or main breadwinner for four out of ten families. Yet in Texas, the median full-time pay for a woman is $33,689 per year; for a man, $42,044. Even when working full-time and year round, Texas women are paid about 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. This amounts to a yearly gap of $7,859 between men and women.

The gap is even more pronounced when race is added as a factor: African-American women earn only 59 cents per dollar and Hispanic women earn just 45.3 cents per dollar when compared to men.

The continued pay gap between women and men is an enduring shame in our society. This is not merely a philosophical issue – it is a serious economic shortcoming that has impacted the livelihoods of hardworking Texas families and our communities for too long.

I’m proud to partner with my friend and colleague Rep. Senfronia Thompson to give Texas women another tool to fight wage discrimination. The federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 gave American women an avenue to challenge wage discrimination, but Texas’ lagging equal pay laws force our citizens to fight for wage equity in federal courts – typically more expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants than state courts.

SB 65 gives Texas women the ability to challenge discriminatory wage practices in local courts, with locally elected judges, and local juries. Equal pay for equal work shouldn’t be a controversial subject, so it’s time to ensure our mothers, sisters, and daughters have every opportunity to protect their right to earn a competitive salary.

Access to affordable and quality health care

Everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care.  Unfortunately, our state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing over one million hardworking Texans from accessing quality, affordable health care, and making it tougher for Texas families to put food on the table.

Medicaid Expansion

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, with one in four Texans living without health insurance. Despite this shameful reality, our state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing over one million Texans from accessing quality, affordable health care. Not only does it make good moral sense to ensure that your ability access health care isn’t dependent on your bank account, but it’s a great opportunity to create more good paying jobs for Texans and grow our economy.

Studies show just how good a deal expanding Medicaid would be for Texas. According to an economic analysis by the Perryman Group, Medicaid expansion would generate over 300,000 Texas jobs per year over the first ten years. Texas would see a return of $1.29 for every $1 spent on Medicaid expansion, and the burden on local governments would be reduced by $1.21 for every dollar the state spent on expanding the program.

Last week, I tried to address this crisis on the Senate floor by offering a floor amendment to expand Medicaid in Texas. My challenge to help those without health insurance in Texas was unfortunately voted down along party lines.

The amendment would have closed the current coverage gap and secured aid for what local taxpayers pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. Accepting $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable health care options for our constituents is just common sense.

Everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care. Expanding Medicaid will reduce local property taxes, create jobs, and provide affordable and quality health care to a million Texans. I will continue fighting and working to convince my colleagues that it is the right thing to do.

Opening educational opportunities

There is no greater way to create better economic opportunities for all Texans than ensuring that every child has access to quality and affordable educational opportunities.

Investing in public education

The state’s 2012-13 budget slashed over $4 billion in state funding from Texas schools and eliminated another $1 billion in public education grants. These cuts meant fewer teachers, crowded classrooms, eliminated bus routes, cuts to extracurricular activities, and more.

Fortunately, our schools fought back against these draconian cuts and the school finance system as a whole. Hundreds of school districts across Texas joined together to fight for their students and the need to adequately and equitably fund public education, arguing that Texas school children and taxpayers are being treated unfairly by the current public school finance system.

20150316-IMG_1623

Last year, three years after the legal challenge was first filed, the judge agreed with the schools’ arguments and ruled that Texas’ school finance system was unconstitutional. The decision has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, and it may be until 2016 before the court issues a ruling.

For too long, Texas’ school finance system has always been patched rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it sputter along another two years in spite of overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers. The legislature should treat investing in our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately.

Money does matter, after all.  Effective teachers, small class sizes, and intensive interventions for struggling learners all cost money and have been proven to deliver results.  Accountability systems from Austin and Washington, D.C. increase expectations and punish schools that fail to meet them.  Schools’ energy, transportation, and health care costs continue to grow rapidly.  Properly funding public education is not an extravagance – it is an obligation we must meet to ensure the future success of our state.

College affordability

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for the jobs of the future, but the rising cost of higher education is pricing many out of that dream. Texas’ failure to invest in providing access to affordable higher education is pushing families to incur enormous debt and pricing others out of higher education altogether. In fact, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt as the second-largest form of household debt, trailing only mortgage debt

Before 2003, the legislature set tuition rates at public universities. That year, in response to a budget shortfall, the legislature changed the law – something I voted against – allowing colleges and universities to raise tuition on their own and shifting costs away from the state and onto families’ backs. Since then, the average cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled.

Texas’ total growth in tuition and fees since deregulation is the 5th highest in the nation, making it harder for students to attend the schools that were built to serve them.

To fix this problem, my bill to cap tuition, SB 255, was heard last week in the Senate Committee on Higher Education. My bill caps tuition at the amount charged during the 2015-16 school year and returns authority to set tuition rates to the legislature. Any increases in tuition after that point will be legislatively authorized, giving Texans a place to voice their displeasure with tuition rates: the ballot box. SB 255 will rein in costs for students and families and make the legislature accountable for funding of higher education.

Protecting families from predatory lending

Payday lending and auto title loans rely on high-interest rates to trap low-income Texans in a vicious cycle of debt. With no fee or rate caps, these loan products carry annualized percentage rates upward of 600 percent. These lenders drain $1.25 billion from our state annually and exacerbate the burden on already over-stretched charitable and social service providers. What’s more, over 74,000 cars have been lost to these businesses over the past two years, making it difficult for these Texas families to even get to work and school, much less get ahead.  Business as usual for predatory lenders is bad for Texas families.

Senate District 13 is a particular hotbed for these questionable practices. Houston has more than 550 payday and auto title storefronts that bleed around $240 million from the Houston economy annually.

Reforming this system is in the interest of all Texans. In fact, statewide polling shows that 75 percent of Texan voters, across party lines, support meaningful reform of these high-cost, short-term loans. Yet last session, industry lobbyists blocked the reform bill the legislature tried to pass. To fight back, I filed two pieces of legislation that will rein in payday lending abuses.

SB 91 would limit annual interest rates for payday and auto title loans to 36 percent. Federal law already protects military borrowers from triple digit interest rates by limiting loans to a 36 percent cap, and it’s time to extend the same protection to all Texas families.

SB 92 implements numerous reforms to provide fair lending practices to all consumers, making payday loans more affordable to ensure successful repayment in a shorter period of time. Texas cannot continue to allow these predatory lenders to go unchecked, and SB 92 puts in place a number of statewide protections already offered in some of the state’s largest cities.

Closing wasteful corporate loopholes

Review Texas’ tax loopholes

Texas spends billions of dollars on corporate loopholes for special interests without any transparency or accountability. With a tax system rigged with tax breaks and loopholes that only benefit a few, the burden gets shifted onto the backs of Texas families.

These aren’t small numbers we’re talking about: tax exemptions in Texas’ tax code will total at least $54.2 billion in 2015 alone, yet there is no regular assessment to determine the loopholes’ effect on job creation, their cost to the state, and their effect on Texas’ tax burden.

The sad truth is that perks, tax breaks, and loopholes have perverted our tax system and made it blatantly unfair for the average Texas family. That’s why I’ve filed legislation to scrub scores of preferential tax breaks in the Texas tax code. State agencies are subjected to a sunset review every 12 years to determine if their functions need to be continued. The tax code would benefit from a similar periodic review of all its exemptions, exclusions, and special treatments to answer one simple question: are they working?

Texas’ population is predicted to almost double over the next 50 years. That enormous influx of new Texans, both from migration and natural population growth, will require significant investment in our state’s infrastructure. Everything – from our water resources to transportation needs to the number of classrooms – will have to grow to meet our burgeoning population. It’s crucial we meet this need, and to do so we must ensure that our tax dollars are being used as smartly as possible.

SB 80, my bill to review Texas’ tax loopholes, was heard this week in the Senate Committee on Finance. The legislature talks a lot about transparency in the budgeting process, and this bill applies that same principle of transparency to the loopholes that get added to our tax code every session.

Property tax fairness

In a session where we are looking to provide tax relief, we can easily provide hardworking Texas families the property tax relief they deserve – while also protecting crucial resources for our schools, roads, and other priorities.

20150310-IMG_1371

Under Texas property tax law, all properties are supposed be taxed at 100 percent of their market value so that all Texans are treated equally. Unfortunately, many large commercial and industrial property owners exploit a loophole in the law and avoid paying their fair share of taxes. The result? Hardworking Texas families and small businesses are being forced to pay higher taxes to make up the difference, and crucial resources are being siphoned away from our schools and our hospitals to subsidize these tax breaks for the state’s largest and wealthiest corporations.

Over the last five years, commercial owners’ manipulation of this property tax loophole has diverted billions of dollars from our schools, cities, hospitals, and community colleges, and Texas families have had to carry the burden of approximately $5.6 billion more in property taxes.

By simply closing this loophole we can create a more fair and transparent property tax system, provide Texas families, homeowners and small businesses the much needed tax relief they deserve, and ensure our schools and hospitals receive the resources they need.

As the 84th Legislative Session enters its final month, I hope you will continue to stand with me as we try to steer Texas onto a brighter path. All hardworking families should be able to earn a decent living, afford high quality health care, and get a great education for their children. We have a common responsibility to ensure the Texas of tomorrow is the best state it can be, and there is no better time to rededicate ourselves to moving Texas forward.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with: