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Sen. Ellis on Cuba announcement

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“I congratulate President Obama on this historic step toward normalizing relations with Cuba. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Cuba on three separate occasions, and I am confident that this important change will benefit both Cubans and Texans alike.”

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

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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Giving thanks

Dear Friend,

Despite an abundance of blessings in my life, Thanksgiving is often a bittersweet time for me. My dear friend, boss, and mentor, Congressman Mickey Leland, would have turned 70 years old today. As I discussed on the recent 25th anniversary of his untimely passing, Mickey died as he lived: trying to end world hunger and serving as a voice for the voiceless.

As a member of the Texas House of Representatives and then Congress, he fought tirelessly for those less privileged on issues such as affordable housing, universal access to health care, and civil rights. In the true spirit of Thanksgiving, Mickey wanted to give all people the opportunity to share at the grand table of prosperity and the American Dream.

His inspiration and resolve still motivate my service today. With Texas’ 84th Legislative Session beginning in less than 50 days, I have already filed a number of bills that fight for the same values that Mickey instilled in me:

  • Senate Bill 65, the Texas Equal Pay Act, would ensure women are paid the same as men when they do the same work.
  • Senate Bill 67 would increase Texas’ minimum wage to $10.10 so that if you work hard at a full-time job, you can earn more than poverty level wages.
  • Senate Bill 81 would create a Texas Innocence Commission to investigate post-conviction exonerations, find out what went wrong, and make recommendations to prevent such tragedies from reoccurring in the future.
  • Senate Bill 89 would close our state’s coverage gap under the Affordable Care Act, providing affordable health coverage options to one million low income adults in Texas.
  • Senate Bill 91 would implement a 36 percent rate cap on all payday loans so that Texans aren’t gouged by predatory lenders with 500 percent APR loans.

As I count my blessings this Thanksgiving, the honor of serving as the State Senator from District 13 is not far from the top. I want to thank my constituents, family, colleagues, and staff for making my time in public service meaningful in so many ways.

I pledge to continue fighting for the families of District 13 to make Texas a great place to live, work, and raise a family. Texans deserve a state that gives its residents a fair shot to pull themselves out of poverty, offers all children access to quality educational opportunities, and provides every family access to affordable and quality health care.

That’s the Texas Mickey fought for. Let’s continue the fight.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

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.

Posted in: Op-Eds • Tagged with: , ,

Senator Ellis, Mayor Parker, and others to kick off “Tour de Polls” on Election Day

(Houston, TX) // Tomorrow at 10 am, Senator Ellis will join Mayor Annise Parker, Representative Carol Alvarado, Representative Jessica Farrar, and Houston City Council Member Jack Christie at Market Square Park to kick off a “Tour de Polls” bike ride. The bike ride will take the elected officials to polling locations across the city, allowing them to meet with and encourage Houstonians to vote and have their voices heard.

Press is also welcome to join Senator Ellis when he arrives at his first polling location, First Baptist Church Heights Fellowship Hall (201 E. 9th Street), around 11 am.

Who:           Senator Rodney Ellis

Mayor Annise Parker

Representative Carol Alvarado

Representative Jessica Farrar

City Council Member Jack Christie

What:             Press conference and launch for the “Tour de Polls” bike ride

When:             Tuesday, November 4, 10-10:30 am

Where:           Market Square Park, 301 Milam St, Houston, TX 77002

###

Posted in: Press Releases

Sen. Ellis on 5th Circuit’s voter ID ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“I am extremely disappointed the 5th Circuit has chosen to keep in place a law that just last week was ruled to be a ‘poll tax’ that was ‘imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.’ Near last in the country in voter turnout, Texas should be working to get more folks to the polls – not to turn away legal, legitimate voters.”

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Sen. Ellis on federal court’s voter ID ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

“Texas has a long and sad history of making it difficult for people to vote. Elected officials repeatedly used the law to keep people out of the voting booth. Decades later, history rightly judges those men and women in a harsh light.”

“As the court ruled, the voter ID law is essentially a modern day poll tax and has the same effect as  other laws used in decades past to keep scores of lawful, legal Americans from voting. It was wrong then, it is wrong now, and I’m pleased the court stood up to protect the right to vote for all Texans.”

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Your Voice is Your Vote – “Lift Every Voice”

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and Texans are less than three weeks away from the deadline to ensure their voice can be heard this November. A voice that is often missing in nonpresidential years is that of our community: African Americans. This is an election year during which we simply cannot afford to stay silent and at home.

Fifty years ago, young people traveled to Mississippi to help register African Americans to vote in what we now call Freedom Summer. Huge resistance met them. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner paid for their bravery with their lives. There have been many sacrifices made before and after that summer for our right to vote, which is why we must honor those who fought for this sweet freedom by exercising it.

There are those who would stand in the way of our constitutional right to vote in this state. They call for repeal the Voting Rights Act. They support discriminatory redistricting maps so that our voices are drowned out on the issues that matter to us like the education of our children, health care for our families, and the right to a fair wage.  They would bar us from access to the ballot with strict new voter identification laws akin to a poll tax.

In the end, far too many Texas voters simply don’t show up, causing our state to consistently rank near the bottom of the country in voter turnout. In 2012, turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation. In 2010, we were dead last.

But Texas is stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, and class – are included in the political conversation. Speaking our priorities through our votes holds those we elect accountable for the work they do on our behalf. We must lift every voice before the October 6th voter registration deadline and ensure that we are heard in the discussion about Texas’ future.

This National Voter Registration Day, make sure that you are registered to vote and your registration is up-to-date. Then push your family, your friends, your neighbors, and everyone else you can think of to register or update their status as well.

There is much at stake this November. Honor the memories of those who fought to assure we have this important right by making our voices heard louder than ever at the ballot box. We cannot afford to stay silent any longer.

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Sen. Ellis on Texas’ school finance ruling

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) released the following statement:

 “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,” said Sen. Ellis. “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.”

“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 nine 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. In fact, there’s ample precedent for us working to solve this issue prior to the Texas Supreme Court weighing in. In 2004 and 2005, the last time the constitutionality of Texas’ school finance system was in court, the legislature worked on school finance for three special sessions and one regular session – all before the Supreme Court finally ruled the system was unconstitutional.”

Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Sen. Ellis and Sen. Garcia team up for voting rights

Today at Houston City Hall, Senators Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Sylvia Garcia (D-Houston) were joined by the NAACP, LULAC, and Texas Civil Rights Project at a press conference to promote voter registration and engagement in Houston and the state of Texas.

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Thanks to a partnership with Clear Channel Outdoor, the Senators will post over 40 billboards in English and Spanish in the greater Houston area to encourage citizens to register and vote ahead of November general elections. Advertising space is being donated by Clear Channel Outdoor to the NAACP and LULAC for the campaign and is valued in excess of $75,000. Hundreds of thousands potential voters will view these messages over the coming six weeks prior to the registration deadline.

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Senator Ellis’ speech from the press conference is below:

Thank you all for attending this press conference.

I want to thank the City for opening up its doors for us here today.

Senator Garcia and I will be teaming up with the Houston NAACP, LULAC, Texas Civil Rights Project and a host of other groups some of which are here today, to promote voter registration and engagement in the Houston area.

There will be billboards posted throughout Senator Garcia’s and my district with various civil rights organizations to encourage people to register and vote, thanks to space donated by Clear Channel Outdoor.

The billboard campaign will begin on this Monday, August 18th and will run for six weeks leading up to the voter registration deadline on October 6th in order to vote in the November 4th election.

It is only fitting for the NAACP, LULAC, and Civil Rights Project to join us in this effort because they have led the fight for voting rights for a long time, and they continue to lead the charge to protect them.

My billboard has a simple message “We Shall Overcome, Register and Vote.”

The phrase “We Shall Overcome,” like these civil rights organizations, embodies our country’s journey to encourage and protect the right to vote.

As we celebrate the 49th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and the 51st anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we must take action to preserve what earlier generations fought to secure. The easiest first step is to vote,”

We have come a long way to ensure our citizens’ right to vote is preserved, but we still have a long way to go.

This September, I will be going to Corpus Christi to testify in the trial to determine the fate of Texas’ voter ID law.

This law’s attempt to impose stringent voter ID restrictions is nothing more than a 21st century poll tax on legitimate, legal voters.

We have already seen the negative impact of the voter ID law in the 2013 November election.

The New York Times reported 200 voters statewide and 90 here in Harris County cast provisional ballots because of an ID issue and never returned to their local election office within six days after the election to show the proper ID for their vote to count.

Many others had to sign a similar name affidavit, particularly women who changed their names after getting married or divorced, because their name didn’t exactly match their ID – including both gubernatorial candidates.

Texas repeatedly ranks in the bottom of the country in regard to voter turnout. In 2012, turnout was barely over 50 percent, ranking 48th in the nation.

Even though Texas is now 54.1 percent minority, making it one of four majority-minority states in the country, our Legislature and our Congressional delegation does not reflect that diversity.

That is why I am honored to participate in this campaign to increase voter engagement in our community.

I want my constituents’ voices to be heard by making sure they’re registered to vote. Thank you.

Posted in: Press Releases, Speech • Tagged with: