Ellis Email Express

Happy Juneteenth and Father’s Day!

Dear Friend,

Today we celebrate Juneteenth and Father’s Day, two distinct, important holidays that hold a special place in our lives. Both represent a day of reflection and pride in our past and renewal and hope for our future.

Juneteenth signifies the day the message of freedom was delivered to the enslaved people of Texas – a message of freedom that was long overdue. On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring all enslaved black Americans free. Union troops never made any significant intrusion into Texas during the Civil War, and Lincoln’s proclamation was lost on the ears of enslaved black Texans for over two years. For this reason, Texas celebrates a date of emancipation separate from most other former slave states.

Juneteenth is a reminder that freedom is always worth celebrating. When the most oppressed heard of their freedom, two and a half years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation, it must have sounded like the sweetest of songs.

So today we remember. We remember the lives that were stolen and the part of our past that must never be repeated. But today we also celebrate the restored freedom that was taken away from far too many.

We also honor African Americans’ contribution to the history of Texas. Later this summer, construction will begin on the Texas African American History Memorial on the Capitol grounds – the end result of more than 20 years of work.

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The monument will serve as a physical testament to the long role African Americans have played in building our state. The central element is a male and female slave having broken the bonds of slavery, looking forward to a future of freedom and justice and holding the Emancipation Proclamation. This portion is dedicated to the 182,500 slaves that were freed on June 19, 1865. Click here to see detailed images of the monument.

Last week, I met with the Texas State Preservation Board to discuss the location of the monument on the Capitol grounds and receive an update on its progress, and I was pleased to learn that the work is on schedule.

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Stay tuned for more information about the unveiling of the monument later this year.

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Today is also Father’s Day. I am so blessed that my father, Eligha Ellis, is still with us at age 94.

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With my dad and my oldest daughter, Nicole, in 1988
When I was young, I applied that lesson to my education, and today it guides my public service. Alzheimer’s has taken its toll on him in recent years, but his presence serves as a daily reminder of the countless lessons he’s passed along throughout my life. More than anything, he taught me the value of hard work and that success comes to those who are willing to put in the time and effort. Of course, as the son of a yard man and a maid, hard work was a basic part of daily life for my parents – so that message came equally from Mom and Dad!

I also emphasize the value of hard work to my children, recognizing that one of the best ways to honor my father is to pass along to his grandchildren the perseverance that he instilled in me.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad!

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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It’s time to fix what’s broken

Dear Friend:

Two weeks ago, Harris County was sued to overturn an unconstitutional bail system that is jailing people just because they are poor. I stood with area leaders and advocates like the Texas Organizing Project and urged the county to work with all parties to fix the problem and settle the case – rather than use our tax dollars to defend this morally indefensible system.

It’s unfortunate that, despite repeated warnings and attempts to work with the County, this lawsuit was absolutely necessary. It’s necessary to protect the rights of Harris County residents who are kept in a modern day debtor’s prison – locked up because they’re poor. It’s necessary to save taxpayer dollars that are paying to ship inmates out of our overcrowded jail. And it’s necessary to spur needed reforms.

 TOP play

Click above to watch Sen. Ellis discuss needed bail reforms


The County’s failure to follow the law and principles of basic fairness when it comes to pre-trial bond and bail practices has translated into more than 70 percent of the jail population consisting of people who haven’t even been convicted of a crime. The vast majority of those people are stuck in jail solely because they are poor – not because they are threat to public safety.

So we’ve created two separate systems of justice: one for the rich and one for the poor. A system that keeps the Sandra Blands of the world, arrested for minor offenses, locked in cages with their lives at risk. And another that lets the Robert Dursts, arrested for murder, walk free just because they’re wealthy.

It’s a violation of our basic constitutional legal principles and our moral principles of justice. It doesn’t have to be this way.

On April 25, I sent a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and Presiding Judge Susan Brown, urging them to advance more effective and efficient approaches to public safety that are proven to make our communities safer, reduce the County’s jail population creating significant savings for taxpayers, and result in fairer and more equitable treatment of our residents.

  • Let’s implement a program like Seattle’s successful LEAD program, which diverts non-violent, low-level drug users to community programs instead of jail.
  • Let’s reform our failed bail bond system so that we don’t have a jail where 70 percent of the inmates are sitting there merely because they can’t afford bail.
  • Let’s increase the use of personal recognizance bonds so that folks can maintain employment and support their family before trial.
  • Let’s actually take into consideration – like state law requires – the ability of someone to afford the bail amount before it’s set.

What was the response to this push for criminal justice reforms? Commissioner Steve Radack called me out by my name and told me to “shut up” about this issue. 

Here’s my promise: as long as I have the privilege of public service, I’m not going to shut up. I’m not going to shut up about our broken criminal justice system and people dying in jail. I’m not going to shut up about a bail system that puts people in a cage just because they’re poor. And I’m not going to shut up about the fact that the attorney you can afford too often determines the quality of justice you receive.

I’m going to speak up for the people and the most vulnerable in our society, just as I’ve always done. And I will not be bullied by a Commissioner into going along to get along, regardless of where my public service takes me.

Click here to read several articles about last week’s events.

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A new opportunity for reform: the MacArthur Foundation Grant

In late April, the Harris County Commissioners Court voted to approve a plan to reform the county’s criminal justice system, including accepting a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. As described by the Foundation, the grant is “part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative supported by the Foundation with an initial $75 million to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails” and reducing racial and ethnic disparities.

I first brought the grant opportunity to the attention of the Harris County Commissioners Court via a March 10, 2015, letter to the late Commissioner El Franco Lee, then Chairman of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. In the letter, I urged Commissioner Lee to “consider taking advantage of this opportunity to build upon the progress you made improving public safety and the efficiency and effectiveness of justice in Harris County.”

The county’s plan is a first step toward improving our broken criminal justice system, but the plan disappointingly fails to address the most serious issues including smart-on-crime alternatives for low-level, non-violent drug possession offenses, our bail bond system, and pre-trial release reform.

As the largest county in Texas housing the fourth largest city in the nation, Harris County should be at forefront of advancing a fairer justice system that ensures the innocent are protected, the guilty brought to justice, and all its residents are treated equally and fairly under the law.

With the MacArthur grant, we have a unique opportunity to fix our broken criminal justice system. So let’s do more. I don’t want to sell ourselves short and end up with some of the same racial and income disparities that plague our system today.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Flooding update

Our region continues to be slammed with heavy rains, resulting in more flooding affecting thousands of residents. Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

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Please note that individuals must apply for FEMA Disaster Assistance by Friday, June 24, 2016, to receive aid. The four recovery centers will be open from 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

  • Bayland Community Center, 6400 Bissonnet St., Houston, TX 77074
  • Greenspoint Commercial Office Building, 16800 Imperial Valley Dr. Houston, TX 77060
  • Cypress Creek Christian Church and Community Center, 6823 Cypresswood Dr. Spring, TX 77379
  • Lone Star College Cy-Fair Library, 9191 Barker Rd, Cypress, TX 77433

Come prepared! Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers, by visiting www.disasterassistance.gov, or by calling 1-800-621-3362. If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.

Do you need legal assistance?

The State Bar of Texas, American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division, and FEMA are providing assistance to survivors who need help dealing with issues related to the flooding but have no means to hire a lawyer. A confidential, toll-free hotline (1-800-504-7030) is available 24/7 to help low income individuals with legal assistance on issues such as:

  • Life, medical, and property insurance claims
  • Landlord-tenant problems
  • FEMA and other government benefits available to disaster survivors
  • Help with home repair contracts/contractors
  • Replacement of wills and/or other legal documents lost or destroyed in the disaster
  • Consumer protection issues such as contractor scams
  • Mortgage-foreclosure problems

Additionally, Lonestar Legal Aid is offering free legal assistance to those who qualify.  Please review criteria for obtaining free legal aid by visiting www.lonestarlegal.org or calling 1-800-733-8394.

Texas Workforce Commission Unemployment Assistance

Individuals can apply for benefits by calling a TWC Tele-Center Monday through Friday between 8 am and 5 pm at 1-800-939-6631.

Additional resources can be found at www.houstonrecovers.org.


Graduation certificates

For many students, the end of May indicates the conclusion of a school year and the start of summer vacation. But for some lucky students, the end of their school year is especially exciting because they will soon be graduating from high school. I was extremely pleased to learn that 7,884 students in Senate District 13 will be graduating this year. I congratulated these accomplished youths by sending each graduate a congratulatory certificate applauding them for their hard work and dedication.

Along with the certificate, I included a voter registration card to encourage them to exercise their right to vote. I want to make it one step easier for people of all ages in my district to exercise their constitutional right to vote and have their voice heard at the ballot box.

I’m so proud of these students for accomplishing the important milestone of high school graduation. Congratulations to all of the graduates across Texas!

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Our kids matter: today’s disappointing Supreme Court ruling

Earlier this morning, the Texas Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision on Texas’ broken public school finance system, ruling that “it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements.”

I am incredibly disappointed that more than five million schoolchildren across Texas are being told they’re not worthy of a school finance system that properly invests in their future.

For too long, Texas has operated as a government by lawsuit: the biggest, most difficult issues facing our state are only addressed when mandated by a court. The 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 its obvious inequities.

But our children deserve better. The legislature must fix the school finance system so that every child across the state – no matter how rich or poor – has access to a quality educational opportunity in their neighborhood schools.

After all, educating future generations of Texans is critical to ensure our state’s success. In 2014, more than five million students were enrolled in Texas’ public schools, and enrollment is projected to reach nine million students by 2050. As a parent with children attending neighborhood public schools and as a product of Texas public schools myself – from elementary school all the way through graduate school – I wholly understand the necessity of a well-funded and effective public school system.

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Regardless of today’s ruling, our state’s public education system is struggling from years of underfunding that peaked with the excessive and unnecessary cuts to local schools that took place in the 2011 legislative session. That year, the state budget cut $4 billion directly from Texas schools and another $1 billion in grants that supported investments like pre-kindergarten.

As school enrollment grows, so should the investment in our children and their educational opportunities. Yet the 2011 cuts were the first time in the history of funding public schools that Texas did not pay for student population growth. So our neighborhood schools were forced to pack students into overcrowded classrooms, fire teachers and staff, and eliminate bus routes.

The impact was real and immediate. Just one year after those historic cuts, Houston ISD, for example, saw a 51 percent increase in the number of elementary school classrooms that required a waiver from the state’s class size cap for kindergarten through fourth grade classes. Statewide, the number of elementary classes exceeding the 22-student cap soared to 8,479 in 2012 from 2,238 in 2011. This occurred despite the fact that studies have consistently shown that smaller class sizes lead to improved academic performance because students are able to receive the individualized attention that they need.

 

Not only does underfunding our public schools hurt students, but it also hurts teachers.  Following the cuts in 2011, a statewide school district survey revealed that approximately 32,000 staff positions were eliminated. Teachers that survived the cuts continued to be underpaid. Texas, then and now, ranks near the bottom of the nation on annual average teachers’ salaries, and low pay for Texas teachers is driving some of our best educators away from the profession.

After the 2011 cuts, hundreds of school districts across the state, including some in my Senate district, sued the state because they lacked the resources to properly educate their students. This lawsuit led to decisions by Judge John Dietz in 2013 and 2014 that the current school finance system “cannot provide a constitutionally adequate education for all Texans.” Yet today, the Supreme Court overruled those decisions and said the status quo is somehow sufficient for our kids.

The legislature should treat the underfunding of our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. Texas schools are clearly underfunded and this lack of investment has real world consequences. It’s not a coincidence that schools ranked “exemplary” by TEA receive more than $1,000 more per student to spend than schools ranked “academically unacceptable.”

I encourage you to stand up for Texas children by rallying to invest in our children’s futures, fighting to raise teachers’ salaries, and rejecting failed, pseudo-reforms like vouchers that hurt our neighborhood schools.

Properly funding public education is not an extravagance, but an obligation. When describing the benefit of a comprehensive education, Sam Houston stated that “knowledge is the food of genius.” I hope you will join me in making sure future generations’ minds are well fed through public education.

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Flooding recovery & Texas Fair Defense Act event

Dear Friend:

These past few weeks have been trying times as our community recovers from the tragic floods that cost eight people their lives and displaced thousands of others. President Obama was quick to issue a disaster declaration for Harris County. Because of his prompt declaration, Harris County residents are eligible to apply for federal assistance to supplement local recovery efforts. Federal assistance can be used on home repairs, temporary housing, replacement of personal property, medication, funeral expenses, small loans and transportation, among other things.

Those seeking federal assistance can receive help at one of four newly opened flood recovery centers in Harris County. These recovery centers will have representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) who can help people register flood damage, apply for aid, and answer questions. City and county officials will also be available to offer referrals to legal aid and local social services.

The four recovery centers will be open 9 am to 6 pm Monday through Friday, and 9 am to 2 pm on Saturday. Please review the list below to see which recovery center is closest to you:

Applicants will be asked to provide:

  • Social Security number
  • Address of the damaged primary residence
  • Description of the damage
  • Information about insurance coverage
  • Current contact telephone number
  • Address where they can receive mail
  • Bank account and routing numbers for those preferring direct deposit of funds

As of Monday, FEMA had already approved $13 million in assistance to flood victims in four Texas counties, including Harris.  Even if you are not 100 percent certain whether you qualify for aid, please apply. You can apply at the new recovery centers or at www.disasterassistance.gov or call 1-800-621-3362.  If you or a loved one is hearing or speech impaired, please call 1-800-462-7585.


Fighting for families

This past weekend, I joined the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) to fight for displaced residents in the Greenspoint area whose apartments were recently flooded. Despite the fact that their apartments are completely unlivable and full of mold, apartment managers are demanding full rent. TOP helped to organize residents to demand that managers allow residents to forgo rental payments until FEMA and insurance payments can be secured.

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As a Houston Chronicle article explains:

State. Sen. Rodney Ellis joined tenants and advocates outside The Woods of Greenbriar, a complex of more than 170 units in the 900 block of Greens Road, to encourage landlords to waive May rent. […]

Ellis, who is running for Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner, implored property owners to go further than a discount.

“It is totally reasonable to ask the landlords to give one month free rent, because there is nothing that they could do with the unit I just left and most of these units while they’re being repaired,” the state senator said. “If these great folks were not in these units, they wouldn’t make a dime. The units would be empty.”

After the managers felt the pressure, they offered tenants a 25 percent rent reduction on May rent, the first such offer from management. That’s a good first start – certainly better than the threats of penalties residents had previously received from landlords.

But let’s be clear: charging residents in crisis to stay in unlivable, mold-filled apartments is cruel. As residents attempt to secure different housing, landlords should recognize the severity of this situation, expedite repairs, and waive rent and penalties for families in unlivable apartments.


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15th Anniversary of the Texas Fair Defense Act

I want to invite you to join me at this Friday’s 15th anniversary celebration of the Texas Fair Defense Act at Houston’s Fourteenth Court of Appeals (301 Fannin St.). The event runs from 12:30 to 3:30 pm, and it is free and open to the public. Plus, attorneys can receive 2.25 MCLE hours from the State Bar for attending.

Click here to RSVP and get more information.

Fifteen years ago, I passed the Texas Fair Defense Act to improve our state’s criminal justice system and ensure that poor Texans are not sentenced to a poor defense. While the Act has helped to move Texas’ justice system forward, quality of justice is still too contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. We have long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve, which is why this symposium is so important.

After all, the promise that every person, rich or poor, stands equal before the law is at the root of the American ideals of liberty and justice. Ensuring that promise is a reality requires that all people have their rights equally protected by quality legal representation when they are accused of a crime.

From 12:30 to 3:30 pm, the event will include two panels and a keynote address from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Director of Access to Justice, Lisa Foster. Also in attendance will be Sen. Chuy Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, as well as numerous legal leaders throughout the state.

Following the symposium, there will be a reception at Hearsay Gastro Lounge (218 Travis) from 3:45 to 5 pm.

I hope to see you there.

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Resources for Houston flood recovery

Yesterday, our community was slammed by historic rains that caused immense flooding throughout the area. Houston remains under a flash flood watch until 7 am on Wednesday due to the potential for additional rain. Many locations are still experiencing extremely high water that may not subside for a few days.

As our community continues to deal with flooding, please keep in mind these important tips to stay safe:
  1. Follow evacuation orders and do not attempt to return until officials say it is safe to do so.
  2. Head for higher ground and stay there.
  3. Stay away from floodwaters. If you come upon a flowing stream where water is above your ankles, stop, turn around and go another way.
  4. Turn around, don’t drown. If driving, turn around and go another way. If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground. Most cars can be swept away by less than two feet of moving water.
  5. Keep children out of the water.
  6. Be especially cautious at night when it’s harder to see flood danger.
Area services
These services will help you as you begin to recover from the flood’s impact.
  1. Report flooding: the City of Houston Office of Emergency Management is asking any residents who experienced flooding inside their home or business to report it to the Houston 311 Help & Information Line by calling 311 or submitting the report online here.
  2. Legal assistance: the State Bar of Texas offers a legal hotline to help connect people with legal aid providers following disasters: 1-800-504-7030. Additional resources are available at texasbar.com/disasters and texaslawhelp.org.
  3. Abandoned car: if your car was towed during the flood, call 713-308-8580 or visit findmytowedcar.com to determine where it is currently located.
  4. No power or downed power lines: please report a power outage or downed power lines to CenterPoint Energy at 713-207-2222.
  5. Food: if you need food or water, please contact the Houston Food Bank at 832-369-9390.
  6. Free storage: U-Haul is offering 30 days of free storage and U-Box container usage to flood victims. Call one of the Houston offices for more details: U-Haul of East Houston 281-377-3380; U-Haul of West Houston 281-495-6683; U-Haul of Gulf Coast Texas 713-750-7701; U-Haul Storage Centers of Houston 281-531-4022
Shelters
There are designated American Red Cross shelters available across the city if you or your family have experienced flood damage and need a place to stay:
  1. Chinese Community Center: 9800 Town Park Dr. 77036
  2. Willow Meadows Baptist Church: 4300 W. Belfort. 77035
  3. Johnston Middle School: 10410 Manhattan Dr. 77096
  4. Jersey Village Baptist Church: 16518 Jersey Dr. 77040
  5. MO Campbell Education Center: 1865 Aldine Bender Rd. 77032
  6. South County Community Center: 2235 Lake Robbins Rd. 77380
  7. Acres Home Community Development Corp: 6719 W. Montgomery Rd. 77041
These shelters are open 24 hours, providing a place to stay, food, and support.

Interested in volunteering?
Families across our community are still in desperate need of assistance even after they are out of immediate danger. If you are interested in volunteering and helping those in need, please visit the Red Cross website.

State of disaster
Yesterday afternoon, Governor Greg Abbott issued a state of disaster for nine counties impacted by the torrential rains and subsequent flooding, including Harris and Fort Bend counties. This action activates the disaster recovery and rehabilitation aspects of the state emergency management plan and allows our communities to move forward as quickly as possible with recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Other questions?
Please call our Houston office at 713-236-0306 should you or your family need assistance. Additionally, operators for Houston’s 311 system are standing by to assist you with non-emergency questions.

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Houston flooding update

Dear Friend,

Here in the Houston area, we are experiencing extreme flooding after enormous amounts of rain passed through last night and this morning. As I write this, portions of Harris County have received more than 17 inches of rain in the past 24 hours – and more is expected in coming days. The National Weather Service has issued a Flood Warning for Houston until 6:45 pm tonight.

Thirteen bayous and creeks are currently flooded, and more may flood as rain water drains into the bayous. For up-to-date information on the status of local bayous and creeks, please visit the Harris County Flood Warning System website.

In an effort to keep you and your loved ones safe, I urge you to follow emergency management personnel’s recommendations:

  1. Stay at home. Unless you are escaping flood waters, the safest place for you right now is at your home. Houston police and firefighters have put their lives at risk today rescuing hundreds from high water, and you don’t need to risk both your life and theirs by heading out into the flood waters.
  2. Turn around – don’t drown. If you must leave your home, plan where you drive carefully. Do not try to drive through high water, as moving water can quickly submerge a car and push it off the road.
  3. Call 911 if you are experiencing a life-threatening danger. Emergency personnel are there to help you and your family if you believe your life is threatened by rising water or other threats.

State of disaster
Earlier today, I sent a letter to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that he consider issuing a state of disaster declaration for Harris County and surrounding areas. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has already issued a disaster declaration for the county, and I know that the Governor and his staff are monitoring the Houston area closely.

Shelters
There are designated American Red Cross shelters available if you or your family have experienced flood damage and need a place to stay:

  • M.O. Campbell Educational Center
    • 1865 Aldine Bender Road
    • Houston, Texas 77032
  • Jersey Village Baptist Church
    • 16518 Jersey Drive
    • Jersey Village, Texas 77040

Additional information
Operators for Houston’s 311 system are standing by to assist you with non-emergency questions, so please reach out to them for additional information.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Voting rights: the fight continues

Dear Friend,

Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the historic voting rights march at Selma and the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There were thousands of dedicated citizens and grassroots organizers who sacrificed their blood, tears, and too often their lives fighting discriminatory tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and brutal acts of terrorism in order to ensure that all eligible Americans can participate in our democracy, regardless of race, ethnicity, or economic background. Their sacrifice and achievement continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.

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The 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights 


The right to vote and ensuring every eligible citizen has the freedom and ability to elect leaders who reflect their values are the fundamental foundation of our democratic process. But we are unfortunately reminded on a regular basis that it remains a work in progress to fulfill the constitutional promise that each and every eligible Texan has the right to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

Earlier this month, voters in Harris County and elsewhere around the state were forced to wait in unnecessarily long lines to cast their ballot, the state has continued its efforts to push a discriminatory voter ID law through the courts, and a lawsuit had to be filed against the Texas Department of Public Safety for failure to comply with the Motor Voter Law that allows Texans to register to vote when renewing their driver’s license.

These battles have regrettably become the norm, as we continue to face campaign finance laws that give corporations more of a voice in elections than the people, gerrymandered districts that dilute communities’ voices at the polls, and numerous other tactics to suppress the vote. As a result, Texas often ranks last or near last in the country in voter turnout, and our elected officials too often don’t truly reflect the values of the people.

So the fight continues.

As Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, the committee which handles election-related issues, I sent this letter to the Texas Secretary of State, the state’s chief election officer. In the letter, I asked the Secretary to “begin a dialogue with the legislature, county election officials, and county party officials about the extremely long lines in Harris County” and “investigate what went wrong and provide a list of specific recommendations – both legislative and otherwise – on how best to prevent this from occurring again in the future, including best practices across the country to estimate accurately the likely turnout at a given voting location.”

My letter continued:

I understand that no lines and no wait on Election Day are unrealistic expectations for any election, much less one that captivates the public and turns out thousands of new voters. But as you know, Texas already struggles with voter turnout, often ranking last or near last in the country. Adding long lines to the numerous barriers Texas already puts in place to make voting more difficult threatens to further decrease our disturbingly low levels of civic participation around the state and the overall health of our democracy.

Harris County and the State of Texas have a duty to do everything in their power to ensure the freedom to vote is protected, unnecessary barriers to the ballot box are eliminated, and the voting experience encourages voters to return to the polls in future elections, rather than discourages them.

Voting billboard 2015

Throughout my years in public service I have pushed for commonsense solutions to increase access to the ballot box and protect Texans’ freedom to choose elected officials who reflect their values. I authored the amendment that created Texas’ Motor Voter Law. I fought the Texas voter ID law at every stage and argued in court against Texas’ discriminatory redistricting maps. I have consistently pushed legislation for same day voter registration, automatic voter registration, making Election Day a state holiday to encourage voting, ensuring volunteer deputy registrars can operate in multiple counties, and numerous other reforms to advance and protect the right to vote.

It will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but we owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these commonsense election reforms. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action toward the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.

I hope you will join me. Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in the political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: high quality education regardless of where you live, an honest and fair justice system, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Vote. Vote. Vote.

Dear Friends:

President Barack Obama put it best: “I have got a simple message: we’ve got to vote … Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote.”

I’m writing to echo my President’s call to action. Today is Election Day for Texas’ Primary Election, and your voice is needed more than ever to help move our nation, state, and community forward.

Polling sites will be open from 7 am to 7 pm, and remember to bring your ID. If you’re in Harris County, you must vote at your specific polling location – click here to find your Election Day polling place and see a voter-specific ballot. If you’re in Fort Bend County, you may cast your ballot at any vote center location, which you can find listed here.

While the ongoing presidential primary has generated the majority of media coverage, local primary elections are critical to our community’s success. Yet so frequently, Texas ranks among the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2012, voter turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation.

I pledge to continue fighting for voter engagement in our community because I know we can do better, but I need your help. I am asking you to do your part by voting today and encouraging your friends, family, and coworkers to do the same. Make sure your community reflects your values by having your voice heard. Your voice is important. Your vote is important.

Know your rights!

If you have any questions about voting or concerns about your experience at the ballot box, please call the Voter Protection Hotline at 1-844-TXVOTES. It’s a free, public hotline that Texas voters can call with voting questions in English or Spanish. Hotline operators are lawyers or law students who have been specially trained in election law, and they’ve already helped thousands of Texans navigate the electoral system.

Voter ID: what you need to know

While ongoing litigation sorts out the future of voter ID, the law is currently in effect and you must comply in order to vote. Voter ID requires all voters to present one of the following forms of photo identification in order to be eligible to vote:

  • Driver’s license, election identification certificate, personal identification card, or concealed handgun license issued by the Texas Department of Public Safety;
  • U.S. military identification card containing the person’s photograph;
  • U.S. citizenship certificate containing the person’s photograph; or
  • U.S. passport.

With the exception of the U.S. citizenship certificate, all of the forms of identification must be current or have expired no more than 60 days before being presented at the polling place.

If you or a family member do not have one of the forms of photo identification listed above, there is a free option available. The voter ID law created a new form of photo identification called an election identification certificate, which the Texas Department of Public Safety will issue for free at any driver’s license office.

More information may be obtained by clicking here or calling the Texas Secretary of State’s office at 1-800-252-VOTE.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Honored and humbled to be named Texan of the Year

Dear Friend,

I am honored and humbled that the Dallas Morning News named me Texan of the Year, along with Sen. John Whitmire and Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, for our work on criminal justice reform. I have dedicated much of my legislative career to closing the gap between our nation’s constitutional promise of equal justice for all and the reality of disparate justice that persists to this day, so the recognition of my colleagues’ and my work is truly appreciated.

The article talks about our commitment to seeking justice by working together and rallying both sides of the aisle to our cause. It provides information on how we have been able to sway skeptics and advance reforms in a legislature that, historically, has been more about being “tough on crime” than “smart on crime.”

DMNAbout my efforts, the News wrote: “The measures [Ellis] championed this year – and in previous legislative sessions – have targeted every major facet of flawed criminal justice, from prosecutors’ reliance on junk science (such as bite-mark evidence) and flawed eyewitness testimony, to holding overzealous prosecutors accountable and improving public-defender funding so indigents can’t be railroaded into prison.”

Texas has made significant steps toward improving its criminal justice system in recent years, and what we have accomplished is a testament to years of hard work and dedication on our part, as well as our staffs, advocates, and fellow members.

But we have a long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective, and fair justice they deserve. Just this week, it was announced that “a record-setting 149 men and women were exonerated last year after spending an average of 14.5 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit … [and] Texas again topped the list of overturned convictions, with more than one-third of the total.”

There are essential advances Texas needs to make to ensure we have evidence and results we can trust in our justice system, including requiring the recording of interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions and establishing better scientific standards for what we accept as evidence in our courtrooms.

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People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail folks who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and determine the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Remembering Dr. King

Dear Friend,

Today, the nation pauses to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King. Across the country, the deeds and words of this great man will be highlighted and given their rightful praise. Dr. King gave his life to the struggle of ensuring every man, woman, and child had the opportunity to achieve their own personal American Dream.

Just six days ago, I sat in chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives and listened to President Barack Obama give his final State of the Union Address. U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson invited me as her guest, and it was a privilege and pleasure to hear the President defend his legacy and lay out the challenges and opportunities that America will face in coming years.

President Obama’s election and re-election are testaments to the battles King waged to create a better, more inclusive, and freer America and the product of the struggle he and countless thousands endured. His efforts played an essential part in making it possible for someone who looks like me to be elected President of the United States. King’s work provided the foundation for change that continues to this day.

As President Obama spoke, I was reminded about how far we’ve come as a country in the seven years of his presidency. America has enjoyed 70 months in a row of private sector job growth, creating more than 14 million new jobs. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, more than 17 million Americans have health care coverage they didn’t previously have, no one can be turned away for preexisting conditions, and our country’s uninsured rate is the lowest ever recorded. Today, Americans are free to marry the person they love, proving that all of us – and our marriages – are created equal.

But there’s still much more to accomplish.

During the State of the Union, President Obama outlined the policy proposals that he intends to pursue over the next year: “Fixing a broken immigration system. Protecting our kids from gun violence. Equal pay for equal work. Paid leave. Raising the minimum wage. All these things still matter to hardworking families. They’re still the right thing to do.”

The President is right. We need to keep America moving forward by pursuing Dr. King’s goal of “equality of opportunity” and economic justice – building an economy that gives everyone a fair shot. That requires affordable higher education, increasing the minimum wage, and closing wasteful corporate loopholes that make the tax system blatantly unfair for the average family.

We need to renew the protections in one of Dr. King’s most enduring successes: the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices and upheld the principle of one person/one vote in this country. Yet, the voting rights advances secured by Dr. King and thousands of others are still under attack today through controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts aimed at suppressing the vote.

We need further investments in clean air, water, and energy to protect the safety, security, and health of our children and grandchildren. Dr. King’s legacy helped give birth to the environmental justice movement, which promotes the right to a clean environment for all people, no matter where you live or how much you earn.

As President Lyndon Johnson said, “[y]esterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.” Dr. King and thousands of others risked their lives for the ideal that all men are created equal and changed America – and the world – for the better.

But that does not mean the work is done. The vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountain top, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.

Today, let us rededicate ourselves to his call to action to shed light on inequality and demand justice for all. Dr. King’s dream is alive and well in our community today, and I am grateful to all who fight alongside me to ensure it is realized.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Liberty and Justice For All

Yesterday, the LBJ Foundation, on which I serve, awarded its most prestigious prize, the LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award, to former President Jimmy Carter in recognition of his leadership in public service and his tireless efforts toward peace and human rights. What a privilege it was to be with President and Mrs. Carter!

The LBJ Liberty and Justice for All Award honors those, like President Carter, who personify Johnson’s belief that the mission of public service is “to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man.” At age 91, President Carter epitomizes Johnson’s passion for justice and dream of bridging racial and economic divides.

Though Johnson and Carter never met, as governor of Georgia, Carter wrote former President Johnson a handwritten note in December 1972, after a Civil Rights Symposium Johnson had convened at his presidential library. It read in part, “I have long admired you personally and deeply appreciate your tremendous and unprecedented achievements as president.” Johnson died a month later.

“It is a great personal honor to be given the Liberty & Justice for All Award in the name of Lyndon Johnson, a man who helped shape my life and for whom I have the greatest admiration and appreciation,” said Carter.

When Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, he appointed a record number of minorities to high federal positions, created the Department of Education, strengthened Social Security, and negotiated a historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, which remains in place today.

Carter is one of four American presidents to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he received in 2002, and the only one to do so as a former president. The recognition furthered his international reputation as a humanitarian and peace broker.

You can see more photos from the event by clicking here.


Do you have health insurance?

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” – millions of uninsured Americans now have access to new health insurance options through a Health Insurance Marketplace. If you don’t have health insurance, you have about two weeks to check out available coverage options atwww.healthcare.gov and select a plan before this year’s open enrollment ends on January 31.

We will all get sick at some point in time, and access to health insurance is a critical part of ensuring that individuals and families are healthy and successful. Plus, if you are eligible and don’t enroll in coverage by January 31, you might have to pay a fine at tax time of $695 dollars per person or 2.5% of your income, whichever is more.

Many people are able to get a plan that works for them and is not too expensive because financial help is available for individuals who make between $11,670 – $46,680 and between $23,850 – $95,400 for a family of four. According to estimates for Houston, a 27 year old with an income of $25,000 might be able to purchase coverage with assistance for as a low as $81 per month. A family of four with an income of $50,000 may be able to get coverage for $52 per month after tax credits.

These plans purchased on the exchange will have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care – ensuring consumers get comprehensive coverage instead of a bare bones policy.

Information about these new health insurance plans, where to get in-person assistance, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found atwww.healthcare.gov or by calling 1-800-318-2596.

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