Issues: Communities

Press conference on Monday re: school finance decision and treating all Texas students with dignity

(Houston, TX) // At 11 am on Monday, May 16, Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Sen. Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston), Rep. Borris Miles (D-Houston), Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston), Houston ISD Board Trustee Anna Eastman, as well as education, civil rights, and LGBT advocates, will hold a press conference to discuss the Texas Supreme Court’s school finance decision and the state’s response to the U.S. Department of Education’s guidance to prevent discrimination against transgender students.

The press conference will be at Senator Ellis’ district office at 440 Louisiana #575, Houston, TX 77002.

On Friday, the Texas Supreme Court issued its long-awaited school finance decision, ruling that Texas’ school finance system was constitutional despite it being “undeniably imperfect with immense room for improvement,” as the decision stated.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance to schools on how to ensure transgender students are not subject to discrimination. That led to threats that Texas will walk away from more than $10 billion in federal education funding.

“At a time when the Supreme Court admits that Texas’ school finance system is barely scraping by constitutionally, we can’t afford to walk away from $10 billion in federal funding that helps to feed and educate our state’s neediest kids,” said Senator Ellis. “Let’s instead turn our focus to investing in our neighborhood schools and treating all of our students with the dignity they deserve.”

Education, civil rights, and LGBT advocates will be present at the press conference, along with area elected officials.

What:       Press conference with elected officials, advocates, and subject matter experts

When:       Monday, May 16, 2016 at 11:00 am

Where:     Senator Rodney Ellis’ office, 440 Louisiana #575, Houston, Texas 77002

Who:         Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston)
Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston)
Representative Borris Miles (D-Houston)
Representative Gene Wu (D-Houston)
Houston ISD Board of Education Trustee Anna Eastman
Representative from Equality Texas
Zeph Capo, President, Houston Federation of Teachers
Philip Fraissinet, Partner, Thompson & Horton LLP

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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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Federal assistance now available for flood recovery

Yesterday, President Obama declared a major disaster in Harris County andordered federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in the areas impacted by last week’s tragic flooding. The President also issued a disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, and Parker counties.

I want to thank our President for his quick action to help our community in such a time of need. Working together with our local, state, and federal partners, Houston will come back stronger than ever.

Assistance can include grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, and other programs to help individuals and business owners recover from the effects of the disaster.

Residents and business owners who sustained losses in the designated counties can begin applying for assistance today by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers will operate from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week until further notice.

According to FEMA, the following is a summary of key federal disaster aid programs that can be made available as needed and warranted under President Obama’s disaster declaration issued for the State of Texas:
  • Rental payments for temporary housing for those whose homes are unlivable.  Initial assistance may be provided for up to three months for homeowners and at least one month for renters.  Assistance may be extended if requested after the initial period based on a review of individual applicant requirements. (Source: FEMA funded and administered.)
  • Grants for home repairs and replacement of essential household items not covered by insurance to make damaged dwellings safe, sanitary and functional.  (Source: FEMA funded and administered.)
  • Grants to replace personal property and help meet medical, dental, funeral, transportation and other serious disaster-related needs not covered by insurance or other federal, state and charitable aid programs.   (Source: FEMA funded at 75 percent of total eligible costs; 25 percent funded by the state.)
  • Unemployment payments up to 26 weeks for workers who temporarily lost jobs because of the disaster and who do not qualify for state benefits, such as self-employed individuals.  (Source: FEMA funded; state administered.)
  • Low-interest loans to cover residential losses not fully compensated by insurance.  Loans available up to $200,000 for primary residence; $40,000 for personal property, including renter losses.  Loans available up to $2 million for business property losses not fully compensated by insurance.  (Source: U.S. Small Business Administration.)
  • Loans up to $2 million for small businesses, small agricultural cooperatives and most private, non-profit organizations of all sizes that have suffered disaster-related cash flow problems and need funds for working capital to recover from the disaster’s adverse economic impact.  This loan in combination with a property loss loan cannot exceed a total of $2 million. (Source: U.S. Small Business Administration.)
  • Loans up to $500,000 for farmers, ranchers and aquaculture operators to cover production and property losses, excluding primary residence.  (Source: Farm Service Agency, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.)
  • Other relief programs: Crisis counseling for those traumatized by the disaster; income tax assistance for filing casualty losses; advisory assistance for legal, veterans’ benefits and social security matters.

Again, to find out more and apply for aid, visit www.DisasterAssistance.gov or call 1-800-621-FEMA (3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired. The toll-free telephone numbers are operating from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. seven days a week.

If you have any questions, please call my Houston office at 713-236-0306.

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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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Sen. Ellis statement on passing of Commissioner El Franco Lee

Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement on the passing of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee:

“I’m shocked and saddened by the tragic passing of Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee,” said Ellis. “El Franco was a personal friend and mentor – someone I always turned to when considering big decisions in my life, so I’ll miss him greatly.”

“His legacy will be that of public service, as he was always a stalwart advocate for Harris County and Precinct One. He positively impacted the lives of countless residents each year, whether through the Street Olympics, public park upgrades, or senior programs. El Franco used the power of his office for the greater public good, and our community is better off thanks to his dedication and desire to serve.”

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Sen. Ellis and Rep. Bohac file bills to expand Texas’ sales tax holiday

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Representative Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) held a press conference to discuss SB 426 and HB 1087, companion bills to expand Texas’ sales tax holiday.

“It’s time to bring the sales tax holiday into the 21st century,” said Senator Ellis. “Texas needs to increase the sales tax holiday amount and add the electronic devices that our students regularly use to succeed in the classroom. As long as tax cuts remain on the agenda this session, I intend to fight for tax cuts that will go straight to families’ pockets. After all, the sales tax holiday means real tax relief for those who need it most.”

“I am committed to making tax relief for hardworking families a priority this session,” said Representative Bohac. “Preliminary budget proposals have afforded us the opportunity to offer meaningful tax relief for consumers, homeowners and business owners.  Over the years, the back-to-school sales tax holidays have offered  consumers significant spending relief, but we need to make it reflective of ‘inflation creep’ and modernize it to represent what students and consumers are buying in 2015.  I am happy to have worked with Senator Ellis to get backpacks added to the list of tax exempt items, but now we have to work to help fill them with the electronics that the 21st century classroom requires.”

Sales Tax Exemption Press Conf

The bipartisan bills will help Texas families save money on sales taxes in two ways. First, the bills increase the sales tax holiday’s purchase limit amount for clothing, shoes, backpacks, and school supplies from $100 to $200. The $100 amount for clothing and shoes has not been changed since the holiday was originally created in 1999, and increasing the amount will allow families to continue to utilize the sales tax holiday for items that have substantially increased in cost over the past 16 years.

Second, the bills will add certain electronic devices to the list of items that are tax-free during the sales tax holiday. This includes e-readers, personal computers, and tablet computers. Today’s students rely on much more than pens, paper, and calculators to get prepared for school.

Both members have a long history of working to provide tax relief for Texas families through the sales tax holiday. In 1999, Senator Ellis passed SB 441, which created the back-to-school sales tax holiday for shoes and footwear. In 2007, Senator Ellis amended HB 3314 to add backpacks to the list of items eligible for the sales tax holiday. In 2009, Representative Bohac passed HB 1801, which added school supplies.

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Senator Ellis announces billboards to increase health insurance enrollment

(Houston, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) announced the unveiling of billboards across the community aimed at increasing the number of insured Houstonians.

Thanks to a partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, Senator Ellis will post a dozen billboards in the greater Houston area to encourage citizens to enroll in affordable health insurance options provided by the health insurance marketplace and the Affordable Care Act. Advertising space is being donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to the Houston Area Urban League for the campaign. Thousands of uninsured Houstonians will view these messages over the coming six weeks prior to the February 15 enrollment deadline, creating 10.2 million market impressions over the course of the display.

“Our state does better when all Texans have access to quality, affordable health care,” said Senator Ellis. “That is why I am co-sponsoring this public service outreach effort to ensure all eligible Houstonians receive the information and assistance they need to select a quality health plan that works for them and their families.”

“I’d like to join Senator Ellis in encouraging the community to enroll and get covered,” said Judson Robinson, President and CEO of The Houston Area Urban League. “Investing in your health care is one of the best things you can do for yourself and your family. Become empowered and get covered.”

“The billboard campaign gives a boost to our collaborative’s efforts to educate the many uninsured people of our area about the benefits of enrolling in a low-cost ACA health plan,” said Stephen Williams, director, Houston Department of Health and Human Services. “Its timing is perfect as we need to convince the uninsured to take steps to enroll now to avoid missing the February 15 deadline.”

The billboard images are available for download by clicking here and here.

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Texans stands to benefit greatly from the Affordable Care Act, as one in five – more than five million people – lack health insurance coverage. In Texas, over 730,000 people selected a plan during the first open enrollment period.

Texans currently have another opportunity to enroll in coverage as the Health Insurance Marketplace will remain open until February 15, 2015. If you are eligible and don’t get covered, you might have to pay a fine of $325 or 2 percent of your income (whichever is greater).

Financial help is available for individuals and families between 100-400 percent of the federal poverty level ($11,670 to $46,680 for individuals or $23,850 to $95,400 for a family of four). Eighty-four percent of people in our state who previously received coverage through the exchange received help paying for their insurance. In addition, health insurance on the exchange is affordable, as the average monthly cost for those who enrolled in coverage in Texas is $72.

Plans purchased on the exchange will also have new consumer protections and cover all ten essential benefits such as emergency services, prescriptions drugs, and preventive care. Many of these preventive services are covered with no additional costs to consumers.

Information about where to get free local in-person assistance, new health insurance plans, and how to apply for Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program can be found at links on www.enrollgulfcoast.com or by calling 832-393-5423.

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Report: Texas Payday Lenders and Prosecutors Team Up to Criminally Pursue Borrowers

by  Published on 

In March 2012, Margaret Jones, a 71-year-old Austin great-grandmother, found herself in a financial crisis. Her husband had recently passed away, she’d lost a temporary job and she was struggling to live on a Social Security check of $1,160 each month. Jones, who asked that her real first name not be used, had moved in with her daughter but was looking for her own place. She had just enough to cover utilities, groceries, gas for her car and rent, but not enough left over for a deposit for an apartment. Cash Plus, a California-based payday loan franchise, had recently opened a location near her home in South Austin, so one day Jones went in and took out a $225 loan. In a month, she would owe Cash Plus $271.91—an effective APR of 245 percent. Jones hoped to be settled in her new place by then and have her finances in order enough to pay the loan off. But a month later, her financial situation had worsened.

The deposit on her new place was tied up. The electricity bill was much higher than expected. And she’d also taken on an auto-title loan; not keeping up with the payments would mean losing her car. She explained all this to a Cash Plus manager, who persuaded her to renew, or “roll over,” her payday loan by carrying the balance forward and paying $50 in fees.

But then the next month Jones faced the same hopeless prospect. This time she didn’t even have the cash to pay the renewal fees.

“I was in an impossible situation,” she said, “but at the same time I wanted to keep my obligations with these people.” She pleaded for a payment plan but the store manager demanded the full amount.

“What I thought was going to happen was they would have some kind of sympathy for a senior who was living on a fixed income of Social Security and that they would allow me to make some kind of monthly payment.”

Instead, the manager began haranguing Jones over the phone for the full amount of $271. Jones kept asking for a payment plan. One day, he told her, “I hate to do this to you,” but didn’t explain what he was planning to do. After that she didn’t hear from him for a few weeks, until the day he called to give her a “case number” and a telephone number to call. As she would find out later, the man had filed a criminal theft by check complaint against her with a Travis County justice of the peace.

“I was just terrified to the point that I couldn’t eat, my blood pressure went up,” she said. “I was just nervous, scared.”

Jones hunkered down, waiting for something to happen. But nothing came in the mail, no threatening letters or legal notices. In February, almost two years later, she called the Department of Public Safety to see about getting her driver’s license renewed—but DPS refused. That’s how she found out that a warrant had been issued for arrest. As she later discovered with the help of a pro bono attorney, the justice of the peace court had sent her paperwork to a previous address and she’d missed a court hearing. In her absence, the judge had ordered her to pay $981 in court fees and restitution, and issued a warrant for her arrest.

Pursuing, or even threatening, criminal charges against payday and title borrowers is strictly prohibited by Texas law, with very few exceptions. The Texas Constitution unequivocally states, “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.”

But new research released this morning by Texas Appleseed shows that criminal charges against payday borrowers for missing payments is common in Texas. Texas Appleseed documents more than 1,500 criminal complaints of bad check and theft by check allegations filed by payday loan companies in Texas between 2012 and the spring of this year. Many of them resulted in fines, arrest warrants and even jail time.

The research builds on reporting by the Observer published in July 2013, which found 1,700 instances in which payday lenders in Texas have filed criminal complaints against customers. The Observer story prompted an ongoing investigation by the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner, which regulates the industry in Texas, into one payday loan business, Cash Biz. It also led regulators to issue an advisory bulletin to lenders warning them to stop pursuing criminal charges against their customers.

Texas Appleseed found 13 different payday loan companies pursuing criminal charges in eight different counties, including Travis, Dallas, Harris and Collin. Texas Appleseed filed a complaint today with the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission, the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the state Office of Consumer Credit Commissioner. The complaint letter, which includes 700 pages of supporting documentation calls for state and federal authorities to launch an investigation and take enforcement action against lenders abusing the law and their customers.

“In addition to their outrageous rates and lending practices, payday loan businesses are illegally using the criminal justice system to coerce repayment form borrowers,” said Ann Baddour of Texas Appleseed. “This directly contravenes state and federal law, which eliminated debtor’s prisons long ago.”

In one justice of the peace court in Harris County, the group found that arrest warrants were issued in more than 42 percent of the cases and at least six people served jail time. In Collin County, there were 740 documented criminal cases against payday borrowers—636 from a single lender, PLS Loan Store—and $132,000 collected from borrowers.

Consumer advocates say district attorneys and courts are—intentionally or not—acting as debt collection agencies for predatory lenders. A letter from a DA threatening steep fines, arrest and jail time can be a highly persuasive tool. In Margaret Jones’ case, a Travis County constable paid her two visits. The first time she wasn’t home; the second she hurried him inside before her neighbors could see. The constable urged her to contact the court.

She said she fell apart. “I was scared. I cried. I kept saying, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I was just devastated. Hurt and devastated.”

Eventually, through Texas Appleseed, Jones found a pro bono attorney who agreed to take her case. The lawyer was able to persuade the Travis County Attorney’s Office to dismiss the charges.

Jones said she thinks Cash Plus knew that she would be unable to pay from the get-go.

“If they couldn’t get their money one way,” she said, “they’ll get it another, even if it hurts the poor. That’s what I am. I’m a poor person. And it saddens me” how many people “have become prey to such predatory lenders.”

Because record-keeping is spotty and hot check cases are handled by a patchwork of hundreds of DAs, county attorneys and justices of the peace, it’s likely that the problem is more pervasive, said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed.

“We believe that the cases we documented are just the tip of the iceberg.”

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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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