Session in summary: positive steps & missed opportunities

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Dear Friend:

After 140 long days, Texas’ 84th legislative session ended on June 1. Back in January, I spoke with you about my hopes for what we could accomplish to make Texas a better place for all families to live and work. While we took some steps in the right direction, the legislature missed far too many opportunities to create better schools for our children, make college more affordable, close corporate giveaways and ease the burden on hardworking Texas families, provide access to quality, affordable health care, and create a more fair and just criminal justice system. I am disappointed but looking forward to building on the successes that we did have.

Budget

The budget is the one bill the legislature is constitutionally required to pass. It’s often referred to as a moral document, as where we invest shows where our hearts are. With a large surplus and a long list of neglected needs, we had a unique opportunity and responsibility to build a better future for our state and make 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.

Unfortunately, the final budget only took halting steps in that direction. It includes increased funding for mental health services and reduced waiting lists for programs that serve Texans with disabilities and their families. It also increased funding for TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program I created in 1999 that has helped over 432,000 Texans pay for higher education.

But the budget can also be described by what’s not in it. Instead of reducing the overcrowding in our classrooms and paying teachers a fair salary, the legislature hoarded $18 billion and refused to invest it in our state’s future. Instead of addressing the shortfall in our state employees’ pension fund or fixing obsolete infrastructure, the legislature chose to spend their time and money on tax cuts for companies that spent millions lobbying the Capitol. Texans deserve better.

Criminal Justice

The legislature took some important first steps to create a fairer and more accurate criminal justice system. After 14 years of struggle and thanks to the tireless efforts of Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, we were finally able to pass a bill creating an exoneration review commission to study wrongful convictions. Texas takes away the liberty of more citizens through incarceration than any other state in this nation. With that power comes the responsibility to make sure we are locking up only the guilty, protecting the innocent, and continuing to make our justice system as reliable, fair, and effective as possible.

The legislature also ended the broken “key man” grand jury system, promoted the use of police-worn body cameras, and decriminalized the truancy system that had resulted in thousands of Texas children with criminal records simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines.

However, it failed to take action on numerous measures that would have reduced Texas’ overreliance on mass incarceration, reduced racial disparities in our justice system, and made our communities safer. This shows there’s still a long way to go to have the justice system Texans expect and deserve. With the news full of outrage in McKinney, Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere, there are still essential reforms that are needed to close the gap between the constitutional promise of equal justice under the law and the unfortunate reality of disparate justice in too many of our communities.

Education

Despite a court decision finding Texas’ public schools are woefully – and unconstitutionally – underfunded, the legislature took no steps to address the funding inadequacy. Instead, the final budget’s funding for public education does not even keep pace with inflation and continues to leave neighborhood schools struggling with overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers.

The legislature also passed on opportunities to tackle the out-of-control growth of tuition at our state’s colleges and universities. I pushed throughout session to cap tuition to make college more affordable and end the system that has allowed the cost of higher education to more than double since 2003, but efforts fell short in the end. Instead, the legislature passed a bill allowing guns on college campuses. This is a reflection of misplaced priorities. Rather than arming students with guns, we should be arming them with 21st century educational opportunities, better paying jobs, and fairer wages.

There were positives, though. Following up on reforms from 2013, the legislature took additional steps to scale back the use of high-stakes tests, and pseudo-reforms like vouchers and efforts to privatize our community schools were killed. Also, we passed legislation promoting high quality pre-kindergarten programs, but the bill notably does not expand the eligibility of pre-k – something I have long advocated for.

Health Care

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 to access health care isn’t dependent on your bank account, but it’s a great opportunity to create over 300,000 good paying jobs per year over ten years, return $100 billion in Texans’ federal taxes back to our state, and grow our economy.

I fought on the Senate floor to close the coverage gap and secure aid for what local taxpayers pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. While my efforts were voted down on party lines, I pledge to continue fighting for this common sense change. After all, everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care.

I was able to pass a few measures to help improve the health of Texans. SB 265 creates a uniform statewide policy to allow for the use of sunscreen in schools. Believe it or not, this bill was needed after some school districts banned the use of sunscreen – despite the fact that childhood sun exposure has been associated with a significant increase in risk for skin cancer.

I also passed a bill to allow Texas applicants for need-base assistance to opt-in to being contacted by community and faith based organizations. This will connect applicants for public assistance to charitable organization that can provide additional wrap around services and help them move toward self-sufficiency.

Fair Economy

I believe in a Texas that gives everyone a chance to compete and succeed in life. But too often this session efforts to make our state’s economy work for all Texas families fell short of passage. My bills to increase the minimum wage, provide avenues to fight wage discrimination, and review and close wasteful tax loopholes did not pass, and my efforts to end the disastrous Driver Responsibility Program passed the Senate but ran out of time in the House.

Texas works best when everyone gets a fair shot and everyone plays by the same rules. Working together we can make our state a better Texas. I hope that the successes from this past session confirm that, by working together toward a common goal, we can move Texas in the right direction. And where we fell short, I hope it provides a renewed vigor to push all the way to the finish line.

As always, it’s a pleasure representing the constituents of Senate District 13, and I look forward to continue fighting for you.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Happy Juneteenth

Today marks the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day the long overdue message of freedom was delivered to the oppressed people of Texas.

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. But since Union troops never made any significant intrusion into Texas during the Civil War, Lincoln’s proclamation was lost on the ears of enslaved black Texans for over two years. So Texas celebrates a different date of emancipation from most other former slave states.

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On June 19th, 1865, Union Major General Gordon Granger landed on the shores of Galveston with news that the war was over and that all enslaved people in Texas were free. He issued General Order Number 3, which read in part, “[t]he people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.” News quickly spread across the state, eventually reaching the approximately 250,000 slaves in Texas at the time.

150 years later, we see more clearly that new challenges have replaced the old. Freedom now represents something much broader than emancipation from bondage. Too many continue to live in poverty, suffer in prisons, and lack equal educational opportunities. The battle is not over; it has just changed with the times.

With Wednesday’s mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, we’re reminded yet again that racial animus against African Americans is still firmly rooted in certain segments of our society. The tragic loss of nine innocent lives in what appears to be an act targeting black churchgoers cannot be condemned strongly enough. As President Obama said yesterday, “[t]he fact that this took place in a black church also raises questions about a dark part of our history.” It serves as the strongest possible reminder that “the past is never dead – it’s not even past.”

So I hope you will use this Juneteenth as a day to recommit to support one another and join together in an effort to weaken the forces of oppression in our society – so that one day we can celebrate Juneteenth as the achievement of a promise fulfilled.

Happy Juneteenth.


Supreme Court ruling on Confederate license plates

Yesterday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas can ban the Confederate battle flag from its specialty license plate program. I’m pleased that Texas will not be put in the position of issuing state-sanctioned license plates glorifying oppression and bigotry.

The battle flag is a symbol of Ku Klux Klan repression and violence, not heritage. After all, the battle flag never flew over the Texas Capitol and is not one of the Six Flags of Texas.It was instead adopted by the Klan and segregationists as their symbol of hate and opposition to civil rights and equality in the South. This is not a symbol that is worthy of the state’s honor, and I’m glad the Supreme Court ruling gives Texas the ability to make that decision.

Here’s more information on the Court’s ruling, and here’s an op-ed I wrote for the Austin American-Statesman arguing that Texas should be allowed to select the messages it wants to promote.

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