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Sen. Ellis: Meet the state’s needs before cutting taxes

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s debate on a number of tax cut bills.

“I’m for responsible tax fairness as much as anyone in the Senate,” said Senator Ellis. “But we need to be fiscally responsible and thoughtful about the economic future of our state before we rush to spend billions of dollars today. We have the opportunity and responsibility to invest in better schools and educational opportunities for our children, better paying jobs for hardworking Texas families, and the 21st century infrastructure to stay competitive in the 21st century economy.”

“In 2011, we asked the people of this state to endure tough sacrifices and made drastic cuts to vital needs in this state. We slashed critical resources for schools, health care, transportation, and other integral part of a healthy economic future. Now we have the resources to restore those cuts. We have the opportunity and responsibility to make up the damage we inflicted on hardworking Texas families.”

On Friday, March 20, 2015, a group of business trade associations made a similar argument in a letter sent to the Texas Senate. The group argued that “[f]or once in a generation, you have an opportunity to make progress on the issues that confront our state – congested roads, educational challenges, obsolete infrastructure, high debt and underfunded pensions to name a few. To continue our economic success and job creating machine, we need to address those challenges and protect our business climate. If there is money left over, it is appropriate to consider tax relief.”

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Ellis: Texas should have right to select messages it wants to promote

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that will determine whether the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles must issue Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plates that bear two images of the Confederate battle flag – a flag that never flew over our state and is now closely associated with violent hate groups.

I have been quite vocal in my opposition to the proposed license plates over the past four years. During that time, I received numerous phone calls, letters, and emails from individuals who are excited to tell me the “true” history of the Confederacy, complete with why Texans should be proud to have license plates bearing the image of the stars and bars.

Winston Churchill said that “history is written by the victors.”  This is apparently true except for the Civil War. Confederate apologists have spent 150 years trying to change the Civil War into something that it was not. Here’s what it was: an insurrection against the United States government with the goal of maintaining the institution of African slavery.  Instead of facing that reality, Confederate apologists continue to try to rewrite history, couching it as a war in defense of states’ rights.

Rather than rely on modern interpretations of history, I believe the best source of information for why Texas joined the Civil War is the words of men who actually made the decision to secede. The Texas declaration of secession, issued in February 1861 when the state seceded, provides an illuminating glimpse into their motivations.

The declaration denounces the United States for “proclaiming the debasing doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color — a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”

It goes on: “[w]e hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.”

That is the real Civil War: men fighting to preserve the fundamental wrong of one human owning another. Slavery was not a minor cause – it was an essential part of the call to arms.

That is the backdrop of the legal case that was argued on Monday, when the key issue was whether specialty license plates are government speech. If the Supreme Court finds they are, then Texas has discretion over which plates to issue. Conversely, if specialty plates are found to be private speech, then the government’s power to limit a message is restricted, and as a former Texas solicitor general contends, “[e]verything would have to come in – swastikas, sacrilege, overt racism, you name it.”

Denying Texas the right to disassociate itself from messages that it does not wish to convey would have obvious negative consequences. If the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot exercise some discretion to reject offensive plates and must instead merely act as a rubber stamp, are there zero limitations to what we will soon see on Texas license plates?

I do not want to see a license plate supporting the American Nazi Party any more than I want to see one supporting the Confederacy. In fact, I would rather shut down the entire specialty license plate program than see a swastika on a state-issued plate.

The state government must have a right to select the messages that it will promote. Texans remain free to slap the Confederate battle flag on bumper stickers, but the Department of Motor Vehicles should be able to reject that message on our license plates.

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Sen. Ellis asks DOJ to investigate Texas’ truancy laws

(Austin, TX) // Yesterday, March 18, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) begin an investigation into racial disparities concerning the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

In particular, Sen. Ellis drew attention to Fort Bend ISD, which is in his senatorial district. From his letter:

According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

The problem is statewide. In 2013, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases, more than twice the number of all other states combined. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately impacted.

“I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students,” wrote Sen. Ellis. “Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.”

A .pdf of Sen. Ellis’ letter to Attorney General Holder may be downloaded here. The text of the letter is below:

 

March 18, 2015

The Honorable Eric Holder
United States Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I write to urge the United States Department of Justice to use its authority to investigate truancy laws in Texas, where failure to attend school is considered a Class C Misdemeanor and prosecuted in adult criminal court with fines of up to $500.00 plus court costs. Specifically, I have concerns about a potential violation of 42 U.S.C. § 14141(a), which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any governmental authority … to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct … by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Only Texas and one other state criminalizes students for truancy violations. After consulting with juvenile justice advocates at Texas Appleseed and other organizations, I believe the systemic approach to criminalize students for truancy deprives Texas students of their right to an education.

While the criminalization of truancy is an issue throughout Texas, much of my concern stems from the racial disparities in how the law is applied – particularly in Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), which is located in my senatorial district. According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

Racial disparities surrounding the disproportionate application of truancy laws are not limited to Fort Bend ISD, however. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately sent to court statewide for truancy. For example, African American students comprised 20 percent of reported truancy cases filed statewide, but account for just 13 percent of enrollment. Latino students comprised 64 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but account for 52 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 13 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but only account for 8.5 percent of enrollment.

All told, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases in 2013, more than twice the number of all other states combined. This leaves students with criminal records that endanger the prospect of future jobs and higher education. Simply put, these laws hurt students, particularly the African American, Latino, and special education students who are sent to truancy court at rates much higher than students from other communities.

I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students. Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.

Again, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately begin a thorough investigation into the racial disparities associated with the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis on his vote against SB 11, the “campus carry” bill

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s debate on Senate Bill 11, the “campus carry” bill:

“To those who say campus carry preserves our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, I disagree, and I’m in good company. Our founding fathers knew guns had no place on campuses almost 200 years ago, just as they shouldn’t be there today,” said Senator Ellis.

In the minutes of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting of October 4-5, 1824, when Thomas Jefferson was Rector and James Madison was on the board, a rule was established banning certain items and behavior, including keeping firearms on campus. Specifically, the rule adopted by the University of Virginia stated that:

“[n]o Student shall, within the precincts of the University, introduce, keep or use any spirituous or vinous liquors, keep or use weapons or arms of any kind, or gunpowder, keep a servant, horse or dog, appear in school with a stick, or any weapon, nor, while in school, be covered without permission of the Professor, nor use tobacco by smoking or chewing, on pain of any of the minor punishments, at the discretion of the Faculty, or of the board of Censors, approved by the Faculty.”

“This is not a constitutional issue,” said Senator Ellis. “This is an issue of ensuring our young people have a safe place of higher learning as they grow from childhood to adulthood. The fact that Thomas Jefferson and the drafter of the Bill of Rights, James Madison, established these rules is pretty conclusive: guns have no place on our state’s college campuses.”

“As I’ve said before, this bill is a reflection of misplaced priorities. Instead of arming students with guns, we should be arming them with 21st century educational opportunities, better paying jobs and fairer wages, and access to quality, affordable health care.”

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Sen. Ellis comments on today’s debate on SB 17

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s debate on Senate Bill 17:

“I’m disappointed we’ve chosen to concentrate our energy and precious taxpayer dollars on arming more Texans with guns. Instead, we should be focusing on arming the hardworking people of this state with 21st century educational opportunities to compete in today’s economy, better paying jobs and fairer wages, and access to quality, affordable health care.”

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Sen. Ellis files bill to reform Texas’ property tax appraisal system

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding Senate Bill 1084, his bill to create a fairer property tax appraisal system in Texas:

“Homeowners and local communities across Texas are shouldering an unfair burden when large commercial property owners manipulate the property tax system to drive down their property values and property tax bills,” said Senator Ellis. “While most homeowners pay taxes on the real value of their property, many large commercial property owners routinely use appeals and lawsuits to avoid paying their fair share. When large commercial property owners shirk their responsibility, ordinary homeowners pay more property taxes to make up the difference. That’s not fair, it’s bad public policy, and it needs to change.”

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SB 1084 closes the loophole related to how owners of business properties worth more than $1 million present their cases in court. No longer can lawyers for these property owners game the system, “cherry-pick” properties, or make adjustments that do not follow generally accepted appraisal techniques just to drive down their appraised value. Instead, they must select a reasonable and representative sample of comparable properties located within the county and based on similarities in location, square footage, age, and other conditions.

Relief can only be granted by a court if the appraisal ratio of the property exceeds the median appraised level of the comparable properties by 10 percent.

The bill also requires the Comptroller to adopt rules that establish standards for the equal and uniform appraisal of industrial, petrochemical refining and processing, and utility properties. Lastly, the bill allows courts to award attorney’s fees to appraisal districts that establish that the property in litigation was appraised in an equal and uniform manner.

The Legislative Budget Board examined the issue in the agency’s January 2015 Texas State Government Effectiveness and Efficiency Report. SB 1084 is based on LBB recommendations, as well as numerous meetings with homeowners, appraisers, counties, and cities around the state.

Photos from today’s press conference can be viewed and downloaded here. Video of the press conference can be viewed here.

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Honoring “Bloody Sunday”

Dear Friend,

Today, March 7, is the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” a voting rights march and its savage reprisals in Selma, Alabama, which played a pivotal role in the long and painful struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for all Americans. Hundreds of heroes stood together 50 years ago, willing to sacrifice to make our democracy stronger and truly representative. This anniversary continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.

Selma 3
Unfortunately, that struggle is by no means over. We still have many challenges to face, both nationally and here in Texas, before we can reach our common goal. The advances secured by the sacrifices in the past are still under attack today, including the venerable Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action towards the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.

So on the 50th anniversary, let’s examine why Selma became such a vital milestone on our journey.

In Selma – as in many areas of the deep South – the civil rights movement had been growing since the 1950s, with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, and in 1955, when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white male passenger.

That movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning the unequal application of voter registration requirements and opening public accommodations to all regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin. But when it came to testing the Act’s provisions, especially pertaining to race, and especially in Southern states, proponents were met with extreme, often violent, resistance.

Selma was a prime example. At the time, out of a voting-age population of about 30,000 in the city and surrounding Dallas County, more than 50 percent were black, but only a few hundred of these were registered to vote.

Selma 1
After a young protester was shot and killed by a trooper on February 17, 1965, organizers planned a march from Selma to Montgomery for March 7. On that day, a Sunday, about 600 protesters, people of all colors, religions, and ethnicities, set off on the 54-mile trek. They didn’t get far: at the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River, on the outskirts of Selma, their path was blocked by state troopers and Selma police.

When the group peacefully refused to turn back, they were savagely attacked by the officers, many of them on horseback. The incident, soon labeled “Bloody Sunday,” was widely broadcast by TV cameras on the scene. It focused the nation’s attention on Selma and, at Dr. King’s urging, brought many supporters to the area.

Two days later, a second march was abandoned when it too was blocked by troopers. That night, a white minister, one of the thousands of supporters who had come to Selma after March 7, was killed by a gang of white thugs. The nation was outraged, and another march left Selma for Montgomery on March 21.

That march was finally successful. Once in Montgomery, on March 25, thousands of marchers and a radio and TV audience of millions heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his famous “How long? Not long” speech, including the immortal lines, “We are moving to the land of freedom… How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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Just a few months later, on August 6, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act, and by 1970, more than a million new African Americans had registered to vote.

But many challenges to voting rights remain, and nowhere is that more apparent than here in Texas, where onerous voter ID laws and redistricting inequities are still the subject of lawsuits, countersuits, and pending court rulings.

One major setback was the landmark Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder in June 2013 that overturned an important section of the Voting Rights Act, one that had required states with a history of discrimination to preclear all voting law changes with the Department of Justice or federal courts. The Supreme Court decided that it was unnecessary, and unconstitutional, to single out a state because of its past discriminatory practices.

But the Voting Rights Act wasn’t always so controversial, as it was reauthorized five times, most recently in 2006. During the 2006 reauthorization, the record compiled by Congress showed that unless the law was reauthorized, racial and language minority citizens would be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to vote or would have their votes diluted, undermining the significant gains made by minorities in the last 40 years.

The 2006 reauthorization of the Act passed 98-0 in the Senate, 390-33 in the House, and was signed by President George W. Bush. Given the partisan gridlock that infects all aspects of governance in Washington DC, a 98-0 and 390-33 vote shows the true bipartisan nature – at least then – of the Voting Rights Act.

It’s amazing how that calculus apparently changed once a Democrat lived in the White House.

In the Shelby County decision, five Supreme Court justices were able to ignore that bipartisan support and pretend that deliberate and blatant attempts to disenfranchise people of color at the ballot box do not exist.

The protections afforded by the Voting Rights Act are still vitally important to defending Texans’ right to vote. In August of last year, the National Commission on Voting Rights released a comprehensive national review of voter discrimination over the previous 18 years. It found that Texas was by far the worst offender. Over that period, the commission identified 171 lawsuits that showed discrimination and 113 preclearance denials of attempted changes in voting laws. Texas was far ahead of the pack in both areas, with 82 of the discrimination lawsuits and 22 of the preclearance denials.

Lyndon_Johnson_and_Martin_Luther_King,_Jr._-_Voting_Rights_Act

These are ongoing, long-term battles with little prospect of early resolution.

Since Shelby County, Texas and other states previously covered by the preclearance requirement have implemented discriminatory measures that are infringing on voter rights. Instead of the poll taxes and literacy tests of yesteryear, states now use controversial voter ID laws and gerrymandered districts to suppress the vote.

A federal court ruled last October that Texas’ voter ID law “creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose.” Texas’ redistricting plan passed in 2011 were voided by federal courts after they ruled the maps violated the rights of minority voters. In fact, Texas was the only state in the country that adopted redistricting plans following the 2010 Census that were ruled to be discriminatory against African American and Latino voters.

So the fight continues.

We must honor and fulfill the sacrifice of the men and women of our past, those who paved the way for generations to live the promise of this state and nation. Steps backward dishonor their memory and ignore the blood and tears shed in the pursuit of liberty.

Earlier this week, I filed Senate Bill 990, a far-reaching and omnibus bill to improve and protect voting rights in Texas. For too long, the constitutional right to vote has been subject to partisan efforts that make it more difficult for your voice to be heard in the ballot box. The reforms laid out in SB 990 will eliminate unnecessary barriers to our constitutional right, while also securing the integrity of the vote. My bill does the following:

  • Criminalizes Deceptive Election Practices: Defines deceptive or disenfranchising actions, and sets related punishments in the Election Code. These actions include unlawfully restricting a person’s right to vote and removing the name of an eligible voter from the list of registered voters. This enshrines your right to vote freely and without undue influence from anyone, which before was not fully prevented.
  • Same-day Voter Registration: Allows qualified citizens to register to vote at a polling place on election day. This will allow otherwise eligible voters to register and vote on election day.
  • Youth Preregistration for Voting: Allows a person to preregister to vote on or after the person’s 16th birthday. Engaging young people to vote, who turn out in small numbers, can be made easier if they are registered when they get their first driver’s license.
  • “No Excuse” Absentee Voting: Allows all qualified voters to early vote by mail during the early voting period. This is commonly referred to as “No Excuse” Absentee Voting. This provision will give all people easier access to voting, regardless of their mobility.
  • Election Interpreters: Clarifies that a person can bring anyone of their choosing to serve as an interpreter while voting. If the local county has to provide an interpreter, they must be registered in that specific county or in an adjacent county. This would give flexibility to counties that don’t have enough interpreters and greater access to interpreters for non-English speakers.
  • Statewide Volunteer Deputy Registrar: Grants Deputy Registrars the ability to operate within any county of the state, regardless of where they were appointed. Current law limits Deputy Registrars to only registering voters in counties they are appointed, greatly limiting their ability to register voters at events that draw crowds from across the state.
  • Election Day as State Holiday: Establishes general and primary statewide elections as state holidays. It isn’t fair that working Texans have to either use their lunch break or wait until their shift is over to exercise their democratic rights, and this would fix that.
  • Election Day Law Enforcement: Expands enforceable action against poll workers to include any violation of the Election Code. A fair and open election process can be more easily ensured if poll workers abide by the rules.
  • Voter Registration Receipt: Requires that a voter registration confirmation receipt be given to applicants. This receipt must include the applicant’s and agent’s name, and the date of the registration application. A voter registration receipt would give proof to Texans who might not get their voter registration cards because of relocation or technical problems.

I know that it will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but I owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these common sense election reforms.

I hope you will join me and advocate for common sense reforms to our state’s election laws. Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: education, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis files voting rights legislation; reflects on tomorrow’s 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding tomorrow’s 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” part of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama:

“‘Bloody Sunday’ played a pivotal role in the long and painful struggle for civil rights and equal opportunities for all Americans,” said Senator Ellis. “Hundreds of heroes stood together 50 years ago, willing to sacrifice to make our democracy stronger and truly representative. This anniversary continues to stand as a lasting reminder that when we the people lock arms, stand up for what is right, and make our voices heard, we can move our nation and the quality of our democracy forward.”

“Unfortunately, that struggle is by no means over. We still have many challenges to face, both nationally and here in Texas, before we can reach our common goal. The advances secured by the sacrifices in the past are still under attack today, including the venerable Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s our responsibility – today and in the future – to honor what millions have fought for by taking meaningful action towards the preservation of a fundamental freedom: access to the ballot box.”

Yesterday, Senator Ellis filed SB 990, omnibus legislation to improve and protect voting rights in Texas. The reforms laid out in SB 990 will eliminate unnecessary barriers to our constitutional right, while also securing the integrity of the vote. The bill does the following:

  • Criminalizes Deceptive Election Practices: Defines deceptive or disenfranchising actions, and sets related punishments in the Election Code. These actions include unlawfully restricting a person’s right to vote and removing the name of an eligible voter from the list of registered voters. This enshrines your right to vote freely and without undue influence from anyone, which before was not fully prevented.
  • Same-day Voter Registration: Allows qualified citizens to register to vote at a polling place on election day. This will allow otherwise eligible voters to register and vote on election day.
  • Youth Preregistration for Voting: Allows a person to preregister to vote on or after the person’s 16th birthday. Engaging young people to vote, who turn out in small numbers, can be made easier if they are registered when they get their first driver’s license.
  • “No Excuse” Absentee Voting: Allows all qualified voters to early vote by mail during the early voting period. This is commonly referred to as “No Excuse” Absentee Voting. This provision will give all people easier access to voting, regardless of their mobility.
  • Election Interpreters: Clarifies that a person can bring anyone of their choosing to serve as an interpreter while voting. If the local county has to provide an interpreter, they must be registered in that specific county or in an adjacent county. This would give flexibility to counties that don’t have enough interpreters and greater access to interpreters for non-English speakers.
  • Statewide Volunteer Deputy Registrar: Grants Deputy Registrars the ability to operate within any county of the state, regardless of where they were appointed. Current law limits Deputy Registrars to only registering voters in counties they are appointed, greatly limiting their ability to register voters at events that draw crowds from across the state.
  • Election Day as State Holiday: Establishes general and primary statewide elections as state holidays. It isn’t fair that working Texans have to either use their lunch break or wait until their shift is over to exercise their democratic rights, and this would fix that.
  • Election Day Law Enforcement: Expands enforceable action against poll workers to include any violation of the Election Code. A fair and open election process can be more easily ensured if poll workers abide by the rules.
  • Voter Registration Receipt: Requires that a voter registration confirmation receipt be given to applicants. This receipt must include the applicant’s and agent’s name, and the date of the registration application. A voter registration receipt would give proof to Texans who might not get their voter registration cards because of relocation or technical problems.

“I know that it will be an uphill battle to pass these policies, but I owe it to those who sacrificed so much in previous generations to fight for these common sense election reforms,” said Senator Ellis. “Our state, nation, and democracy are stronger when all of our voices – regardless of race, gender, or economic status – are included in the political dialogue. Eliminating unnecessary barriers to the vote ensures that public servants like myself are accountable to all Texans’ priorities: education, infrastructure investment, and an economy that works for all Texas families, not just a select few.”

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Sen. Ellis on his vote against SB 5 and SJR 5

“Infrastructure investment is key to creating good paying jobs and ensuring Texas remains competitive in the 21st century economy,” said Senator Ellis. “But so is investing in our human infrastructure, through quality educational opportunities and better health care for Texas families. By constitutionally dedicating this funding, we’re creating a new multi-billion dollar hole that’s going to be difficult to fill during years when the budget is tight. So I cannot in good conscience support legislation that will restrict the ability of future legislatures to meet our state’s needs.”

“The voters sent us here to make hard decisions including allocating money to address our state’s needs. If transportation is truly a priority for this legislature, then it should appropriate funding to do so. Just like any other agency which goes through the budgeting process, TxDOT should have to make its case each session regarding its funding needs, and it should be accountable for how those dollars are spent.”

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Investing in higher education

Dear Friend,

Higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree used to suffice when I was growing up, a bachelor’s or associate degree is often a prerequisite for many of today’s best and fastest-growing jobs.

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for these jobs and move up the economic ladder, and an integral part of making those dreams become a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, Texas’ failure to invest in those opportunities has shifted the cost of higher education onto the backs of Texas families, forcing them to bear a significantly greater share of cost of college. Attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten much more expensive over past dozen years. In fact, the average cost of full-time attendance at a public university increased 104 percent from 2003 to 2013 – more than doubling!

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Addressing the Houston Community College commencement in 2014

In an effort to address this spike in cost, Representative Sarah Davis (R-Houston) and I have filed legislation – SB 271 and HB 1384 – to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree. These bills provide the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board with the authority to allow community colleges that meet certain criteria to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied science and nursing programs – provided there’s a demonstrated workforce need, student interest, resources to support the program, and the schools use a measured, phased-in approach.

These bills provide another avenue for students and working adults that want a more affordable higher education experience to complete a four-year degree. Community colleges offer lower costs relative to universities, as estimates put the cost of a four-year degree at around $10,000 to $12,000 at a community college. In addition, community colleges often have more flexibility to offer courses in the evening and on weekends. Their 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.

Texas universities and colleges are incredibly important to our state, and they will continue to provide and produce the majority of baccalaureate degree-educated students in our state. But Texas has some real workforce needs that will require the state utilizing all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree.

I look forward to working with the rest of the legislature to get the state a step closer to ensuring that all Texans who want to obtain a baccalaureate degree have an affordable pathway to do so.

Tuition deregulation leads to an explosion in tuition
The enormous growth in the cost of higher education didn’t happen overnight. In 2003, instead of continuing to invest in our schools, the legislature deregulated tuition and pushed increased costs onto families. I’m proud to have voted against the bill then, arguing that it would “make it more difficult for middle class families to afford to send their children to these public institutions.” That’s certainly proven to be true.

Since then, the average cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled. Our total growth in tuition and fees during that time period is the fifth highest in the nation, making it harder and harder for students to attend the state schools that were built to serve them. It’s pushing families to incur enormous debt loads to attend state schools and pricing others out of higher education altogether. That’s because the state has failed to do its job to invest in higher education. At the University of Texas at Austin, for example, inflation-adjusted state support has dropped by 19.7 percent since tuition was deregulated.

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This session, I filed SB 255 to cap tuition at the current rate and force the legislature to adequately fund our public colleges and universities. Tuition deregulation allows unelected boards of regents to increase tuition completely on their own and without any public accountability.

My bill would remove that power from the regents and put it back in the hands of the legislature, forcing legislators to be held accountable to students and constituents for their decisions on whether to properly invest in Texas’ higher education system. The Texas Senate and House of Representatives are elected to make tough decisions and invest in our state’s future, and higher education has to be one of those investments.

TEXAS Grants: an answer to growing student debt
Reining in tuition will benefit thousands of students, but there will still be those who need some extra help. Many students already turn to loans to finance their educations. Over the past decade, student loan debt has grown more than 60%, becoming the second-largest source of household debt. In 2012, 20.5 percent of all student debt holders in Texas were more than 90 days delinquent. Aside from the risk of default and delinquency, student loan debt represents a large share of graduates’ salaries, requiring them to delay or forgo other opportunities.

Taking on growing debt loads shouldn’t be their only option. In 1999, I authored legislation establishing the TEXAS Grants program, an innovative scholarship program that provides funding for financially needy students to attend college. Since then, the state has invested over $2.98 billion in TEXAS Grants to assist more than 400,000 students in attending higher education. Most recipients have an expected family contribution of $0, so TEXAS Grants ensure that a family’s financial circumstances are not an insurmountable barrier to education.

This session, I’ll be fighting to ensure full funding for the TEXAS Grants program so that all eligible students that qualify for a grant can receive one. The legislature must continue to place a high priority on making higher education an accessible option for all Texans. Click here to see if you qualify for a TEXAS Grant and learn more about the program.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis


Reforming Texas’ DNA testing law

On February 9, I joined Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for murder until DNA evidence proved his innocence, and Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, to urge the passage of SB 487, my bill to improve access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans.

Fair access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans is a matter of justice and public safety. The numbers demonstrate this. DNA evidence has exonerated 325 wrongfully convicted Americans, and while the innocent were behind bars the real criminals went on to commit and be convicted of 145 additional crimes – including 77 rapes and 34 murders.

In Texas, DNA testing exonerated 52 innocent people, and the real criminals were later identified in 21 of these cases. Michael Morton is one of those proven innocent after DNA testing revealed the actual perpetrator. His case shows the importance of a strong DNA testing law that allows the wrongfully convicted to prove their innocence.

RE DNA presser
 

SB 487 will improve Texas’ DNA testing law with minor technical fixes to better enable testing of key crime scene evidence and to enhance the use of DNA databases in innocence claims. Almost exactly one year ago, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals asked for clarity in both of these areas of law, and that’s what this legislation provides.

First, it clarifies that a court can grant DNA testing for key pieces of evidence that have “a reasonable likelihood” of containing biological material that may not be readily visible. Modern DNA technology can generate results from saliva, skin, and sweat cells that are invisible to the naked eye. We want to ensure that critical evidence that may prove innocence and guilt is eligible for testing.

Next, the bill makes it clear that the possibility of a match in the DNA database system could prove someone’s innocence by identifying the real criminal. The Combined DNA Index System or CODIS is the federal and state DNA database that contains over 10 million DNA profiles of known offenders. It’s a critical crime-solving tool that has helped identify actual perpetrators in 104 of the nation’s DNA exoneration cases.

These changes are simple, and would provide the courts with the clear guidance they’ve asked for. This is about making sure the right person is convicted, and making sure our communities are safe.

Since the press conference, a number of newspapers across the state have editorialized in support of the bill’s passage, including the Houston Chronicle, Austin American-Statesman, and Fort Worth Star-Telegram.


Immigration news

Last Tuesday, a federal judge in South Texas temporarily halted President Obama’s executive order, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  The President’s executive order would have provided immediate relief to millions of families that work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to our thriving community.

This move is politically motivated and damaging, but it is important for our community to know that this federal lawsuit does not invalidate DAPA or DACA – it is only a temporary setback. The Department of Justice will appeal the court’s decision and we expect it to be reversed affirming that the programs are on sound legal footing.

In the meantime, eligible family members in our communities should continue undeterred preparing for the administrative relief.

immigration_news
En español

Este martes pasado, un juez federal en el sur de Texas temporalmente detuvo la orden ejecutiva de Presidente Obama, Acción Diferida para los padres de los estadounidenses y residentes legales permanentes conocida como DAPA y la expansión de Acción Diferida para jóvenes conocida como DACA. La orden ejecutiva del Presidente hubiera previsto alivio inmediato para millones de familias trabajadoras, que pagan impuestos y contribuyen a nuestras comunidades.

Aunque esta demanda es dañina, es importante que nuestras comunidades sepan que esta demanda es temporal y no invalide DAPA o DACA. El Departamento de Justicia apelara la decisión de la corte y esperamos que reversan la decisión y se afirme que las órdenes ejecutivas del Presidente, DAPA y DACA tienen base jurídica y podrán efectuarse.

Por lo mientras, familias elegibles en nuestras comunidades deberían de continuar de prepararse para aplicar a los programas.


Scenes from session

Ron Kirk - Virgil Lott Award dinner

Celebrating at the University of Texas with friends after former Ambassador Ron Kirk received the Virgil C. Lott Award

El Paso Group

Introducing Harris County Judge Ed Emmett to El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez and El Paso City Representative Claudia Ordaz


IMG_0764

At the Barbara Jordan exhibit in the Capitol with Texas Southern University President Dr. John Rudley

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