Before any more of 2015 passes us by, I want to take a moment to reflect on this year’s legislative successes and the many challenges that still remain.
Texas works best when everyone, regardless of race, gender, or who they love, gets a fair shot and plays by the same rules – goals that will set our state on the path to progress and equality of opportunity for all. While we took some steps in the right direction, the legislature missed far too many opportunities to create better schools for our children, make college more affordable, close corporate giveaways and create better paying jobs for hardworking Texas families, provide access to quality, affordable health care, and work toward a fairer criminal justice system.
I’m disappointed where we fell short, but I’m looking forward to continuing to fight for policies that make our communities and democracy stronger.
Recent tragedies in Waller, Charleston, Ferguson, and elsewhere are an unfortunate and sobering reminder of how far we still have to go to create a state and nation as good as their constitutional promise. We have work to do. But as heartbreaking as those events have been, I remain dedicated to pushing forward. The successes from this past session and throughout our history confirm that when we are willing to dedicate ourselves and work together toward a common goal, we can move Texas and the nation in the right direction.
I want to take this opportunity to share my 2015 Legislative Update with you. In the update, you can read about my efforts to stand up for the people of Senate District 13. We did not succeed at every turn, but I remain as committed as ever to advancing worthy causes that ensure every family, in every community, has the opportunity to succeed and be a strong voice in our democracy.
As always, it’s a pleasure representing the constituents of Senate District 13, and I look forward to continue fighting for you.
Highlights from the Legislative Update
The budget is the one bill the legislature is constitutionally required to pass. It’s often referred to as a moral document, as where the state invests shows where its priorities lie. With a large surplus and a long list of neglected needs, Texas had a unique opportunity and responsibility to build a better future for our state and make fiscally responsible investments in the vital needs of Texas.
Unfortunately, the final budget only took halting steps in that direction. It includes increased funding for mental health services and reduced waiting lists for programs that serve Texans with disabilities and their families. It also increased funding for TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program Senator Ellis created in 1999 that has helped over 432,000 Texans pay for higher education.
But the budget can also be described by what’s not in it. Instead of investing in better educational opportunities by reducing the overcrowding in our classrooms, paying teachers a fair salary, and funding full-day pre-kindergarten, the legislature hoarded $18 billion and refused to invest it in our state’s future. Instead of investing in a stronger economic future for all Texans by making college more affordable and fixing our overcrowded and crumbling roads, the legislature chose to spend their time and money on tax giveaways for companies that spent millions lobbying the Capitol. Texans deserve better.
A fairer justice system
Our criminal justice policies should effectively improve public safety, efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars, and treat all people and communities equally and fairly. That seems basic enough. But Texas has historically been criticized for its wasteful, ineffective, and overly “tough” approach to criminal justice that has too often relied on mass incarceration first and asking questions later.
Fortunately, the legislature took some important first steps to create a fairer and more accurate criminal justice system. After 14 years of struggle, Senator Ellis and Representative Ruth Jones McClendon were finally able to pass a bill creating an exoneration review commission to study wrongful convictions. Texas takes away the liberty of more citizens through incarceration than any other state. With that power comes the responsibility to make sure we are locking up only the guilty, protecting the innocent, and continuing to make our justice system as reliable, fair, and effective as possible.
The bill creates the Tim Cole Exoneration Review Commission to bring together trusted criminal justice experts to review proven wrongful convictions, identify the main causes of those convictions, and recommend more reliable practices to improve public safety and prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future. Prior to the bill’s passage, when an innocent person was wrongfully convicted, our system did not have any institutional mechanism to evaluate the conviction, identify what went wrong, and correct those mistakes to ensure it does not happen again.
There were other successes. The legislature ended the broken “key man” – or “pick-a-pal” – grand jury system in Texas and required grand jurors in most cases to be picked randomly, just as we select trial jurors. It also passed legislation to promote and expand the use of police officer body cameras, complete with proper checks and balances on their operation and accessibility. Finally, the legislature reformed the state’s truancy system that had resulted in thousands of Texas children with criminal records simply because they couldn’t afford to pay their fines.
However, it failed to take action on numerous measures that would have reduced Texas’ overreliance on mass incarceration, reduced racial disparities in our justice system, and made our communities safer. This shows there’s still a long way to go to have the justice system Texans expect and deserve. With the news of continued injustices in Waller, McKinney, Baltimore, Ferguson, and elsewhere, there are still essential reforms that are needed to close the gap between the constitutional promise of equal justice under the law and the unfortunate reality of disparate justice in too many of our communities.
Strong community schools
Attending high-quality pre-kindergarten has a lasting impact on a child’s success both in school and life. Early childhood education creates learning foundations and allows students from all backgrounds to establish the skills that will last the rest of their lives. Children who attend high-quality programs are less likely to be held back a grade, less likely to need special education, and more likely to graduate from high school. The legislature passed legislation promoting high-quality pre-kindergarten, but the bill unfortunately does not expand the eligibility of pre-k – something Senator Ellis has long advocated for. Additionally, following up on reforms from 2013, the legislature took further steps to scale back the use of high-stakes tests, and pseudo-reforms like vouchers and efforts to privatize our community schools were killed.
Unfortunately, despite a court decision finding Texas’ public schools are woefully – and unconstitutionally – underfunded, the legislature took no steps to address the funding inadequacy. Instead, the state budget’s funding for public education does not even keep pace with inflation and leaves neighborhood schools struggling with overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers.
Without adequate and equitable funding, it becomes extremely difficult to provide children from all neighborhoods with equal educational opportunities. Effective teachers, small class sizes, and intensive interventions for struggling learners all require investment and have been proven to deliver results. It shouldn’t take lawsuits to solve a problem that affects so many Texas families. Weakening the state’s investment in schools and failing to find a permanent solution to this critical challenge only makes the lives of Texas students, families, and teachers that much harder.
Application for Spring 2016 Texas Legislative Internship Program released
Earlier this week, I released the application for the Spring 2016 class of the Texas Legislative Internship Program (TLIP). TLIP is an educational internship program sponsored by my office and administered by Texas Southern University. TLIP provides opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students to serve as interns in the Texas Legislature, various state agencies, and local government. Applications are available on my website and must be submitted by October 30, 2015.
I was inspired to create TLIP in 1990 because my mentor, the late Congressman Mickey Leland, stressed the importance of using one’s individual success to provide opportunities for others. As Leland’s Chief of Staff, I established an internship program in Congressman Leland’s office and carried on that tradition when elected to public office.
What began as a small group of students 25 years ago has blossomed into one of the most successful legislative internship programs in the nation. TLIP has provided more than 670 students valuable experiences in the Texas Legislature, the offices of the Texas Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, city and county offices, and even Texas Monthly magazine. Past TLIPers have gone on to work in the White House, Congress, various state agencies, and the private sector, and three – Ana Hernandez, Armando Walle, and Ron Reynolds – are current members of the Texas House of Representatives.
The 65 interns in the Spring 2015 class worked in offices both inside and outside of the Texas Capitol, including the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Speaker of the House, Texas Supreme Court, Senators, Representatives, advocacy organizations, and elsewhere.
Students receive a minimum of six and a maximum of fifteen academic credit hours for participating in the program, which combines academic study and research with supervised practical training. Undergraduate and graduate students interested in the political process and the kind of humanitarian service exemplified by Congressman Leland are encouraged to apply for admission to TLIP. A TLIP internship lasts for one academic semester, provides a $7500 stipend, and affords students an opportunity to experience public service firsthand.
To learn more about TLIP, please visit www.rodneyellis.com/tlip or call my district office at (713) 236-0306.