Issues: Communities

Ellis: Veterans courts relieve strife brought home by troops

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Judge Marc Carter

As this Veterans Day approaches, it is appropriate to honor those who have served our country. Veterans Day is not only flags and parades, though. It is a reminder that, every day, we all have a chance to do something to assist those who have sacrificed so much in our name. That is why we are letting our community know that, even in the criminal justice system, there can be a place where compassion and justice meet. That place is called the Veterans’ Court, and this Veterans Day marks the fifth anniversary of the first such court in Texas, which was started right here in Harris County in November 2009.

Like most great ideas, this one had many people who helped give it a start. From folks in the Legislature who drafted and pushed for the bill in 2009 that authorized the creation of treatment courts for returning vets, to the large number of federal, state, county, judicial and nonprofit officials who helped bring the statute to life in the Harris County district courts, to the local private bar associations, prosecutors and court staff who worked tirelessly to make the implementation work on a day-to-day basis – all are owed a debt of gratitude.

This very special court is a labor of love for all involved. For us, it combines two public-policy issues that are near and dear to our hearts: helping veterans and making our criminal justice system more fair and balanced.

The principle behind these courts is simple: If a veteran suffers from a condition related to his or her service, such as traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and that condition leads them to an encounter with the criminal justice system, then our treatment court will ensure they are matched up to the services at the Department of Veterans Affairs to which they are entitled. The court will hold them accountable to use those services and receive the treatment and counseling needed to cope with the residual effects of war. If they complete their treatment honorably, they are given a chance to reclaim their good name and clean record.

To date, 52 veterans of all services, from the Vietnam era to Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, have completed the felony program successfully. Now the Harris County misdemeanor courts are beginning their own program, and today there are 19 such programs across Texas. Each court has chosen to focus on its own unique population. Some have made drug abuse among veterans their priority, as returning vets may self-medicate to cope with PTSD, physical pain from injuries and depression. Other courts focus strictly on the needs of felony offenders and the serious consequences they face in our criminal justice system.

All of these courts are united in their mission to help those who served us. Men and women who might never have gotten treatment to grapple with the profound changes in their lives as a result of military service now have that opportunity thanks to the enacting legislation and the good people from the VA and local governments who put it into practice.

Texas has a long tradition of honoring those who served. Wherever you can, we urge you to ask your local officials to consider such a program so that we can give meaning to the pledge to honor veterans as they return home. We did not march where they marched, yet we can help them carry their burdens back home.

 Ellis, a Democrat representing Houston in the state Senate, is author of the original veterans court legislation in the Legislature. Carter is presiding judge of the Harris County Veterans Court.

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Remembering Mickey Leland

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the untimely passing of Congressman Mickey Leland. While leading a relief mission to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, his plane went down in remote mountains, killing him, his staff, and a group of international leaders.

Mickey was my boss, my mentor, and my dear friend. He died as he lived, trying to end world hunger and serving as a voice for the voiceless. His story is worthy of celebration and remembrance, as the values he embraced still live on a quarter of a century later.

First elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1972, Mickey was unlike anyone who had ever served in that body previously.  Picture an African American with an afro, platform shoes, leather shoulder bag, and bright dashiki walking around the Texas Capitol. He caused quite a stir.

By the time he got elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 – replacing Barbara Jordan – he had traded in the dashiki for a business suit, but that did not change what he fought for. He used his position in Washington to shine the spotlight on the plight of the powerless in this world.

Mickey Leland Ethiopia

Mickey had a motto, quoted from the Talmud: “If you save one life, you save the world.” He put that motto in practice, fighting to bridge the differences in our society, expand diversity, and end world hunger.

One of the first things he did in Congress was create a program that has sent hundreds of students from his congressional district to Israel during the summer of their junior year of high school, helping to broaden their perspective of the world.

He also began an internship program to start casting the net for more minority students to get involved in government service – one that I emulated through the Texas Legislative Internship Program.  Mickey opened the door to students interested in the system and helped them get their foot in the door for training and experience.  His efforts helped change lives, and also – in small ways – helped change the culture and complexion of the professional staff in Congress.

It was also his staff that ended up changing my life. I met Licia Green at an event in DC with Mickey. She later moved to Houston to run his district office, we fell in love and got married, and the rest is history.

But the cause that came to define Mickey was the plight of Africa, particularly the children of the continent. He talked frequently and eloquently about how this issue became his defining cause. On a trip to the Sudan in 1984, he watched a young girl die of starvation right before his eyes. He said he saw her face every day.

He knew something had to be done, and he was in a position to do something about it. He worked hard to expand ties and increase aid to the nations of Africa. He championed anti-hunger efforts and helped expand U.S. aid to Ethiopia during the famine in 1985. He traveled frequently to Ethiopia and across Africa and put into practice his deep belief that we are supposed to help “the least of our brothers.”

I still miss Mickey every day, but the lessons that he taught me will always guide my public service.

He taught me that there are no lost causes or unwinnable fights.   He taught me that patience, cooperation, and dedication are the small but vital steps of progress.

He taught me that change comes in constant and consistent action, not in one fell swoop.  He taught me that we are responsible not just for ourselves and our families, not just for our friends or neighbors, but for the people and children of the world.

And he taught me that we can all make a difference if we simply choose to get involved and take a stand.

So I am using the anniversary of Mickey’s passing as a moment to rededicate myself to the values that he espoused: courage, compassion, and a commitment to all people.  I hope today’s solemn occasion will cause more to follow his lead.

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Sen. Ellis calls for TDI to oppose homeowners insurance rate increases

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent a letter (click here for PDF or see below) to Insurance Commissioner Julia Rathgeber calling on her to oppose the recent homeowners insurance rate increases announced by the three largest insurers in the state. Continue Reading »

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Houston must rein in predatory loans

Usury is the practice of lending money at an exorbitantly high rate, so high that any reasonable person would find the rate to be unconscionable, even immoral. Every state in the union has laws to protect its residents from usury. The Texas Constitution limits loans to an annual percentage rate of 10 percent, unless the Legislature specifically sets a different rate. Accordingly, commercial loans are capped at an annual percentage rate of 18 percent, motor vehicle financing loans at 27 percent, and even pawn loans are capped at a shocking 240 percent. Continue Reading »

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Ellis Joins Rep. Turner, Advocates in Support of LITE-UP Texas Enrollment

Deadline for low-income Texans to qualify for help on energy bills looming

(Austin, Texas) – Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today joined Representative Sylvester Turner (D-Houston) and advocates urging low-income Texans to sign up for LITE-UP Texas energy bill assistance before the August 10, 2013 deadline.

The LITE-UP Texas program is designed to help qualified low-income individuals who live in areas where they can choose their own electricity provider to reduce their monthly cost of electric service. During this year’s regular session, the 83rd Texas Legislature made profound changes to this program, increasing the discount from 16.5 percent to 82 percent. The 82 percent discount will be effective for this September and also for May, June, July and August of 2014.

“Time is running out for low-income and elderly Texans to get the help they need to keep the power on in late summer,” said Ellis. “We are here to spread the word to make sure that Texans know there is help on the way.”

In 1999 the legislature created the System Benefit Fund to help low-income Texans pay summer energy bills when Texas deregulated electric utility companies. The Fund’s goal was to assist the least fortunate Texans in braving the summer heat, and as temperatures across the state soar to increasingly high levels, that mission is more critical than ever. Unfortunately, this session, the legislature ended the surcharge on customers’ electricity bills but took steps to provide a discount on customers’ September electricity bills for 2013 and May through August bills for 2014. According to the Public Utility Commission, about 500,000 Texans received aid from the System Benefit Fund to help pay their summer bills.

Since the creation of the System Benefit Fund, the legislature has often neglected to use the full balance to help Texans pay their summer electric bills, instead redirecting the balance to shore up budget shortfalls. For instance, in 2011 $650 million was left in the Fund instead of distributed to senior and needy Texans.

“I opposed the reverse Robin Hood plan to take from the poor,” said Ellis. “The System Benefit Fund was created for the explicit purpose of helping low-income Texans pay rising energy bills after electric deregulation. That’s where the money should be going and where Texans want it to go. Unfortunately, our side did not prevail, but at least there is the silver lining that Texans will receive a bigger discount this summer and in 2014, so Texans need to take advantage of it while they can.”

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Austinites required to recycle, but not bars

While Austin is trying to save the planet by banning plastic bags, every night thousands of glass bottles are thrown away. A lot of those are beer bottles that could be recycled, but in Austin there’s no requirement to do so. However, that could soon change. Continue Reading »

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Ellis Votes for Improved Payday Lending Plan

(Austin, Texas) – Following a series of consumer-friendly amendments and a pledge by leaders to maintain those protections, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today voted in favor of legislation to enact regulation of predatory lenders in Texas. Continue Reading »

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Ellis Opposes Reverse Robin Hood on System Benefit Fund

(Austin, Texas) – Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) today voted against legislation that would gut the System Benefit Fund and give away funds meant to help low-income and vulnerable Texans pay for rising energy bills. Continue Reading »

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Complete Streets comes back to Texas Senate

A bill to enhance pedestrian and bicycle offerings and make them a greater part of transportation planning in some cities made its return Thursday to the Texas Senate. Continue Reading »

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Voters approve $2.7 billion in bond propositions

Houstonians can look forward to a transformed city with new and improved parks, school buildings, fire stations, libraries and job training sites as voters approved a historic $2.7 billion package of bonds Tuesday.

The money will fund construction projects in the city, the Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College.

Despite early predictions of sticker shock, the bond measures drew strong support from voters. The upgrades for HISD and HCC come with property tax increases, expected to start in 2014.

“All of these bond issues sought money to build Houston’s infrastructure,” HCC trustee Richard Schechter said. “By passing these bonds, Houstonians have sent a message that Houston is going to be a competitor in the global economy.”

Voters approved HISD’s $1.9 billion measure – the largest bond for a Texas school district in at least a quarter of a century – by an overwhelming majority, according to incomplete results.

“We’ll be the only urban school district in the country that all our high schools will be rebuilt from top to bottom since 2000,” HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said. “For the kids, it’s going to change their lives.”

Call for patience

The bond issue will rebuild, renovate and upgrade 38 schools, with nearly every high school getting a makeover.

With so many projects, students, parents and teachers will have to be patient.

Grier predicts construction will be finished on the first school in two years, with all the projects completed in six or seven years.

HISD expects to phase in a tax rate increase of nearly 5 cents by 2017. The first increase, of 1 cent, would start in 2014. The owner of a $200,000 home will pay about $70 more a year in taxes.

Grier said he started election night feeling slightly nervous, but after early vote results showed HISD’s bond issue drawing 66 percent support, he relaxed and his staff gathered at district headquarters applauded.

The city’s five bond measures total $425 million and don’t require a tax increase. The money will enhance parks, expand fire stations, renovate libraries and improve other city facilities.

Sign of optimism

Mayor Annise Parker anticipated victory while watching results with city supporters.

“Houstonians have clearly made a statement that they are optimistic about the future, and they believe in investing back into ourselves, whether that is the city, the school district or the community college,” Parker said.

Polling in the months before Election Day had shown voters generally supported all the bond measures, defying conventional wisdom that a crowded ballot would make voters wary.

Make room for nurses

HCC’s $425 million bond issue, which also passed by a wide margin despite requiring a 2-cent tax increase, will help expand the college to accommodate growing student demand. Roughly one-third of the money will go toward an expansion of Coleman College for Health Sciences, where nine out of 10 nursing applicants are turned away due largely to a lack of space.

Like HISD, the college system will take several years to finish all the projects.

Chronicle reporters Nancy Sarnoff and James Pinkerton contributed to this report.

ericka.mellon@chron.com twitter.com/e_mellon

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