Today is the first day of the 84th Legislative Session. In addition to nine new members of the Senate, Texas also has a new Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, and many other statewide elected positions.
Over the next 140 days, I will be fighting in Austin for my constituents in Senate District 13, pushing Texas to address the significant number of challenges it continues to face. Before the committee hearings and floor votes begin, I want to share with you the priorities that I will be pursuing.
Striving for fairness and equality in our criminal justice system
Though Texas has taken important steps in recent years, we have long way to go on the path to providing all Texans the reliable and effective justice they deserve, and ensuring that all Texans, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law.
Recent media coverage has brought deserving and needed attention to the unfortunate disparity between the promise of equal justice and the reality of unequal treatment under the law. I will continue to fight, as my predecessor Barbara Jordan famously stated, to make “America as good as its promise” and push Texas toward a justice system that is more equitable, reliable, and effective.
Texans deserve an accurate and reliable justice system – one with proper checks and balances and transparency to make sure all relevant facts come to light, evidence based on real science and best practices, and adequate procedural safeguards to ensure dependable verdicts.
Unfortunately, if we measure reliability and accuracy by verified mistakes, Texas leads the nation in the shameful category of proven wrongful convictions. There are essential advances Texas needs to make to ensure we have evidence and results we can trust in our justice system. These include specific changes like SB 181, which would require the recording of interrogations to improve the reliability of confessions, and SB 81, which would create an innocence commission to consistently evaluate wrongful convictions and make recommendations to improve the integrity of justice.
Texans deserve an effective justice system. Our criminal justice policies should effectively improve public safety and efficiently utilize taxpayer dollars. 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 incarceration first and asking questions later, resulting in disparate treatment of the poor and communities of color.
We cannot continue to over-rely on incarceration as the primary means of addressing low-level drug use. I filed SB 82 to be smarter on crime by diverting more non-violent drug possession offenders into alternatives to incarceration that have proven to be successful at reducing crime and drug use. Advancing this smart on crime approach will put Texas on the path to a more effective and efficient approach to justice.
Perhaps most importantly, Texans deserve fair and equitable justice system. 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, have juries of their peers, and are treated equally and fairly by law enforcement when they are suspected and accused of a crime.
Unfortunately, in everyday Texas, quality of justice is too often contingent on your wealth and the attorney you can afford. I filed SB 260 to apply mandatory caseload limits for attorneys taking appointed cases representing indigent defendants. Too many lawyers are taking excessive numbers of cases – often hundreds upon hundreds a year – which inevitably means a lower quality of defense being provided by those lawyers.
Equal justice further requires we all be judged by a jury of our peers, and I will join my colleagues in fighting for reforms to ensure our juries reflect our community’s makeup and values. And finally, I will file legislation to study disparate impacts in our justice system, propose solutions to remedy them, and ensure more transparency and accountability in law enforcement practices.
Invest in Texas’ future
I will fight to ensure we work toward a state budget that is not only fair, responsible, and protects Texas’ most vulnerable populations, but also invests in our future and begins to address the needs of our growing and changing state. We’ve got to find real solutions to the real problems facing our state’s physical and human infrastructure. This includes adequately funding our unconstitutional public school finance system and opposing risky public education voucher schemes that will gut our already underfunded neighborhood schools. It means ending smoke-and-mirrors and diversions in our budget that reduce our state’s much-needed transportation funding. It also means valuing hardworking Texas families over ineffective tax giveaways and loopholes.
High quality educational opportunities for all Texas students
Supporting our neighborhood schools
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. Now that our school finance system has once again been ruled unconstitutional, you may hear some elected officials claim that the legislature cannot act until after the case has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and the justices have had an opportunity to rule.
I firmly disagree. The legislature should treat the underfunding of our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately. Growing by 80,000 students each year, Texas’ public school enrollment is more than 5.1 million – the second highest in the nation. It’s time to provide those students adequately-funded neighborhood schools so that all children have access to quality educational opportunities.
High quality, accessible pre-k
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 begin 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. I filed SB 72and 73 to open up pre-k to all Texas four-year-olds and place class size limits to ensure too many students aren’t packed into a classroom.
Make higher education affordable again
In 2003, the Texas legislature passed tuition deregulation, which gave authority to set tuition rates to unelected boards of regents at our state’s public universities. Texas stopped investing in our children’s future and instead pushed the cost onto families. Now thanks to tuition deregulation, the cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled in just ten years.
This is pricing hard-working families out of higher education, forcing students to incur enormous debt loads and push back their graduation and eventual entrance into the fulltime workforce. I filed SB 255 to cap tuition and force the legislature to adequately fund higher education. The people of Texas send senators and representatives to Austin to make tough decisions and invest in what is important to our state’s future. Higher education – affordable higher education – is no doubt one of those items.
More paths to four year degrees
In an effort to address both the high cost of getting a college degree and the serious workforce needs across our state, I filed SB 271 to allow community colleges to provide certain four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. This proposal would provide another avenue for working adults and students who want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, and they often have more flexibility to offer courses in the evening and on weekends. Community college graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.
Give families access to affordable and quality health care options
Texas has a historic opportunity to finally do something about its dismal health insurance numbers by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Unfortunately, up to this point, our state’s leadership has simply chosen to say “no.” As a result, about a million poor adults in Texas are left with no real health coverage option.
Closing the coverage gap simply secures federal aid for what your tax dollars pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctors’ offices and emergency rooms. Accepting the $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable health care options is just common sense, which is why I filed SB 89
. Last session, according to the non-partisan Legislative Budget Board, an investment of $50 million would have drawn down $4 billion to insure one million additional Texans through 2016. I will continue to do my part to advocate for closing the coverage gap to ensure that we are creating a Texas where all families have the opportunity to be healthy and successful.
Promoting a fair economy that works for all Texans
Review Texas’ tax loopholes
Tax giveaways and loopholes to special interests have perverted our tax system and made it blatantly unfair for the average Texas family. We need accountability measures, checks, and balances on corporate welfare and tax giveaways. After all, the legislature makes extensive efforts to determine the efficacy of every state dollar spent in our education, health and human services, and criminal justice systems. Yet we still have an astounding lack of knowledge when it comes to tax loopholes – including basic information like how many exist and their cost to the state.
Out of fairness to taxpayers, the Texas Tax Code should undergo a review of all its exemptions, discounts, and special treatments to answer one simple question: are they working? I filed SB 80 so that Texas can step forward, shine a bright light on the Tax Code, and make real reforms to ensure taxpayer funds are protected and wisely invested.
Raising the minimum wage
Texas is a land of opportunity, where we believe that hard work is rewarded with honest pay. If you work hard at a full-time job, you should earn more than poverty level wages.But for too long, Texas families employed full-time at minimum wage have not been able to make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage to $10.10 under my SB 67 will provide Texans with income to spend on the basics they need. This, in turn, generates business for our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win.
Raising the minimum wage helps build an economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthiest among us. After all, Texas has more minimum wage workers than any state in the country. We can help 2.8 million hardworking Texans – including 1.5 million women, 1.5 million parents, and 377,000 people over the age of 55 – by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10.
Strong regulations for payday lending
Payday loans and auto title loans are low-dollar, high-interest loans that target low-income Texans. These predatory loans are usually a last resort for Texans struggling to provide for their families, and they carry annual percentage rates upwards of 500 percent through excess fees and interest alone. Payday and auto title lenders often downplay the risks of their loans, profit from trapping borrowers in debt, and push Texas families deeper into financial hardship. Strong bills like my SB 91 and 92 regulating payday and auto title lenders are essential to improve the economic conditions of Texas citizens, including working families, students, the elderly, and veterans.
Equal pay for equal work
Women make up nearly half the workforce in the United States, and they are the equal or main breadwinner for four out of ten families. But in 2012, Texas women only earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by men. This is legally and morally unacceptable. I’ve filed SB 65, which will allow equal pay cases authorized under federal law to be heard in state courts. Currently, Texans must file in federal courts, which are more expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants.
Over the coming months, I plan to explore these issues in depth in future Email Expresses. I look forward to hearing from you this session as we try to steer Texas onto a brighter path.