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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.

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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.

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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

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

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


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

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Sen. Ellis on State Affairs hearing on “campus carry” and “open carry” bills

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Vice Chair of the Senate Committee on State Affairs, released the following statement today regarding the Committee’s hearing on SB 11 and SB 17, the so-called “campus carry” and “open carry” bills:

“There are an endless number of more pressing challenges facing this legislature, from investing in and improving our state’s neighborhood schools, to providing access to quality, affordable health care for the millions of uninsured Texans, to ensuring economic opportunity for all hard working Texas families. I’m disappointed we’re not working together to make progress in addressing these problems instead of making SB 11 and SB 17 the Senate’s first priorities.”

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Sen. Ellis, DNA exoneree Michael Morton, and advocates push for stronger DNA testing law

(Austin, TX) // Michael Morton, who served 25 years in prison for murder until DNA evidence proved his innocence, joined Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston), Nina Morrison, Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, and Michelle Feldman, an Innocence Project State Policy Advocate, at the Capitol today to urge the passage of SB 487, legislation to improve access to DNA testing for wrongfully convicted Texans.

The bill addresses issues raised by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals (CCA) in its February 2014 decision in State v. Swearingen to deny death row inmate Larry Swearingen’s request for DNA testing on items including pantyhose used to strangle the victim. The CCA ruled that the current law requires those seeking testing to prove the existence of microscopic material on the evidence before testing – which is nearly impossible because it is invisible to the naked eye. However, two months later in State v. Holberg, the court noted an uncertainty in the law and suggested that the burden of proof may be lower than it had articulated in the Swearingen case.  In Swearingen, the CCA also noted the lack of clarity in the law as to whether a potential DNA database match could be considered an “exculpatory result” that could prove innocence.

“I may never have been able to prove my innocence under the current interpretation of the law,” said Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife Christine in 1987. “It was only because DNA testing detected invisible cells that excluded me and matched Mark Norwood’s profile in the DNA database that I was finally exonerated and my wife’s real killer was brought to justice. The law should be clarified so that other wrongfully convicted Texans like me can prove their innocence.”

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“Michael Morton’s case is a tragic reminder that when an innocent person is behind bars the real perpetrators are free to commit other crimes as happened in his case,” said Senator Ellis. “By making small fixes to the law we can ensure that wrongfully convicted Texans have meaningful access to advanced crime-solving technology – such as touch DNA testing and DNA databases – to prove their innocence and assist law enforcement in finding the actual perpetrators.”

In response to issues raised by the CCA, Senator Ellis’s SB 487 would clarify that a court may grant testing on key crime scene evidence “that has a reasonable likelihood of containing biological material” – which may include tape, ligature, fingernail scrapings and other probative items. In addition, the bill makes it clear that the possibility of a DNA database comparison, for the purposes of identifying the true perpetrators, can be considered an “exculpatory result” that would allow an individual to qualify for DNA testing.

“Mr. Morton and the fifty plus other Texas DNA exonerees illustrate how important it is to ensure that Texas is effectively utilizing modern DNA technology to get justice for the wrongfully convicted and to improve public safety,” said Morton’s attorney Nina Morrison, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This proposed legislation would improve meaningful access to DNA testing.”

In 2011, Michael Morton was exonerated in his wife’s murder after DNA testing of a bloody bandanna found some distance from the crime scene detected microscopic traces of male DNA (believed to be from skin, sweat or saliva), which was then uploaded into the state’s DNA database system and revealed a match to Mark Norwood. Norwood has since been convicted of the crime and is now facing trial for allegedly killing another woman while Morton was in prison.

Morton is one of the 52 Texans and 325 Americans proven innocent with DNA testing since 1989. Real perpetrators were identified in 21 of the DNA exoneration cases in Texas. Nationally, real perpetrators were identified in 160 DNA exoneration cases, and these persons went on to commit and be convicted of 145 additional crimes – including 77 rapes and 34 murders – while the innocent person was incarcerated.

Photos from press conference are available here.

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Standing up for quality, affordable health care

Dear Friend,

For years, our health care system was unfair. Insurance companies charged too much for coverage that was full of holes. Our country had enough, and we demanded a better system. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) important first steps, hundreds of thousands of Texans now have the security of quality, affordable health care. For millions of other Texans that already had coverage, the law has improved it, requiring insurance companies to cover essential health benefits like prescription drugs and mental health services and preventing those companies from kicking you off coverage when you get seriously ill.

Unfortunately, our state has refused to accept billions in federal funding to expand access to quality, affordable health care to all Texans, leaving about one million hardworking Texans in the coverage gap. Other states are getting billions while Texans continue to struggle. So there’s still work to do.

This Ellis Email Express will share information on new health insurance options available to you and your family, update you on what still needs to be done to provide all Texans coverage, and share some of my health legislative priorities for this session.

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New Health Insurance Options

Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the nation with nearly one in four lacking coverage, or more than 5 million people. In Houston, nearly one in three people are without health insurance, and lack of coverage makes it hard for Texas families to get the health care they need.

In fact, study after study has shown that one of the best ways to protect and improve the health of families is by expanding access to quality health insurance. Children do better in school and miss fewer days when they have health insurance. Parents and guardians can also provide a more consistent environment for their children to grow up in when the whole family is healthy.

In Texas, over 730,000 people selected a plan during the first ACA open enrollment period. Texans currently have another opportunity to enroll in coverage as the Health Insurance Marketplace will remain open until February 15, 2015. If you are eligible and don’t get covered, you might have to pay a fine of $325 per adult and $162.50 per child or 2 percent of your income (whichever is greater).

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

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

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

Closing the Coverage Gap

While this is exciting news, we still have more work to do to ensure that all Texans have access to quality, affordable health care. Expanding access to health insurance is such an important issue that I worked tirelessly to amend Medicaid expansion language onto every bill possible this past session.


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Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to take action or provide an alternative plan to cover our most vulnerable populations, leaving about a million Texans with incomes below the federal poverty level without affordable health insurance options. These are low-wage working adults who make too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to get a subsidy on the exchange. An individual making less than $11,670 or a family of four making less than $23,850 will fall into this coverage gap.

Many Texas workers in retail, food service, health care, and construction fall into this gap. In addition, Texas also has the highest number of uninsured veterans and veterans’ spouses in the country with around 200,000 uninsured.

Providing these uninsured Texans with health coverage makes good sense for the health of our communities and the state, and it also makes good business sense. For an investment of $15 billion, Texas could draw down as much as $100 billion in federal funds over 10 years.  In addition, this expansion is estimated to generate more than 300,000 Texas jobs annually over 10 years. According to a well-respected economist, Texas would see a return of $1.29 for every $1 spent on Medicaid expansion, which means it more than pays for itself.

Republican governors and state legislatures across the country are making this work for their states. If Arkansas and Arizona can do it, Texas can, too.

The expansion of Medicaid costs less in four years than what Texas hospitals spend on the uninsured population in one year.  Currently, hospitals absorb more than $5 billion per year in uncompensated care, a loss that is passed on to you in the form of higher health care costs and direct taxes in areas that have hospital districts.

The needs of these uninsured individuals will not disappear if Texas fails to close this coverage gap, but the state will continue to lose out on a nine-to-one match and pass the cost down to local hospitals and taxpayers.

I hope I can count on your assistance to inform your family and friends about these new health insurance options and the importance of expanding coverage in our state.

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Fighting to improve Texan’s health care

Texas’ legislative session is now well underway, and I have already filed a number of bills to help improve Texan’s access to quality, affordable health care.

Closing the coverage gap is an incredibly important issue, so I’ve filed SB 89, which would extend Medicaid coverage to all those eligible under the ACA. As I discussed above, this bill would provide coverage options to an estimated one million adult Texans.

In addition, I have also filed SB 90 to require insurance companies to get approval from the Texas Department of Insurance before they are allowed to increase their rates. Having to justify rate increases will help ensure that rates are fair for consumers and that your money is truly being spent on care and not administrative costs or bonuses.

Lastly, I’ve filed SB 194 to require health care providers that take samples of a person’s blood for routine medical purposes to submit the blood for an HIV diagnostic test unless the person opts out. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one of the most effective measures for preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS is routine testing to determine whether individuals carry the HIV virus. Nationally, more than 20 percent of people living with HIV are unaware of it. This epidemic infects around 4,300 Texans each year, but the CDC estimates the number of new cases of HIV could be decreased by up to 30 percent with routine screening in all health settings. It is time we take steps to offer all individuals, regardless of known risk, an opportunity to know their status and stay protected.

I hope you have found this information helpful. Please contact my office should you have any questions or need additional information.

Sincerely,
Rodney Ellis

Let’s expand the sales tax holiday

I authored the bill that created Texas’ sales tax holiday in 1999. Since then, Texans have saved over $862 million on essential back-to-school items like clothing, shoes, backpacks, and school supplies. But it’s time to bring the sales tax holiday into the 21st century.

Earlier this week, I held a press conference with Rep. Dwayne Bohac (R-Houston) to discuss companion bills we filed to do to just that: SB 426 and HB 1087. You can watch the press conference by clicking here.

Sales Tax Exemption Press Conf
Our bipartisan bills would increase the purchase limit amount for clothing, shoes, backpacks, and school supplies from $100 to $200 – and it would include computers and tablets in the sales tax holiday for the very first time. Texas needs to increase the sales tax holiday amount and add the electronic devices that our students regularly use to succeed in the classroom.

As long as tax cuts remain on the agenda this session, I intend to fight for tax cuts that will go straight to families’ pockets. After all, the sales tax holiday means real tax relief for those who need it most.


Scenes from session

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 With civil rights leader Julian Bond and a great group of interns at the LBJ School of Public Affairs

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 I joined other Houston-area leaders to help honor Marvin Rich’s amazing legacy of service with the Anti-Defamation League

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 With Stafford MSD Superintendent Dr. Robert Bostic

 

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

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

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

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

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

Sales Tax Exemption Press Conf

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

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

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

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: ,

Senator Ellis reacts to Senate rules change

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) issued this statement regarding the changes in the Senate rules:

“This is a sad day for the Texas Senate and one that we will look back on and regret,” said Sen. Ellis. “We’re detonating decades of Senate tradition, tradition which has made the Texas State Senate a great deliberative body.”

“This has been a place where you have to work together to bring a real consensus to move forward on an issue. Sometimes that takes years – believe me, I know – but when the Senate is ready on a controversial issue, that means Texas is ready.”

“Instead, we’ve decided that if you can’t win through debate, you push it through via a rules change. What we’re telling our successors is to run over the other side when you can, and I don’t think that’s what this body is about.”

“As Texas’ longest-serving lieutenant governor, Bill Hobby, wrote, ‘The biggest mistake I made as president of the Texas Senate was trying to circumvent the Senate’s two-thirds tradition in 1979 … Anything that doesn’t have the support of two-thirds of the Senate is seldom a good idea.'”

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Ellis: As we honor King, let’s examine criminal justice reform

Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life on a mission to make America true to its constitutional promise of equal opportunity and justice for all. Unfortunately, recent events are a sobering reminder that 50 years after Selma, the gap between the vision of the dream and reality of disparate justice persists.

Though we have made progress, the need to push for reforms to ensure all people, regardless of race or income, receive fair and equal justice under the law is as important and necessary today as it was that bloody Sunday.

These problems aren’t unique to Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y. Legal scholar Michelle Alexander has appropriately labeled our nation’s criminal justice policies “the New Jim Crow,” and as the Chronicle’s recent coverage tells us, we have the same issues – perhaps even worse – right here at home. They are as persistent and extensive as they are disturbing, and the numbers don’t lie:

In 2012, African-Americans made up only 18.9 percent of Harris County’s population, but they comprised 65.8 percent of those from the county incarcerated in state prison for drug possession and 50 percent of the people detained in Harris County jails, despite the fact that rates of drug use barely differ between racial groups.

Houston Police Department officers shot 121 civilians between 2008 and 2012, yet not a single officer was indicted or disciplined.

Seventy percent of people in the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of any crime, the majority of whom merely cannot afford to post bail.

These aren’t just statistics – they are real lives affected. We must decide whether we care enough about those lives to take action, right now, to move us forward toward a more fair, equitable and effective justice system we can rely on.

We can start by advancing smart-on-crime diversion alternatives for low-level, nonviolent drug possession offenses, which are proven to be more effective at improving public safety, and move away from our ineffective and wasteful over-reliance on incarceration. It’s equally important to reform how these laws are enforced by moving toward community policing and away from “broken windows” policing and practices like “stop-and-frisk” that disproportionately target the poor and communities of color.

Most of our police officers do honorable work, and their service is to be praised and respected. But as with any profession, we must have transparency and accountability to ensure public trust. An independent police review board with subpoena power should be established; independent prosecutors should be required in any case with a law enforcement-related death; body cameras, with proper policies regarding their operation and accessibility, should be mandatory; and all police interrogations should be recorded.

We need to advance reforms to ensure every person, regardless of color, rich or poor, stands equal before the law if they are accused of a crime. Our right to be judged by a jury of our peers must be protected through measures to eliminate the broken key man grand jury system, prevent outside influence and bias, and eliminate barriers to community participation. Everyone in a free society deserves that their constitutional right to counsel be protected by access to quality legal representation, which we can help through the expansion and funding of public defenders and managed assigned counsel systems.

People should not be imprisoned simply because they are poor, so it’s imperative we fix our bail bond system to stop locking in jail those who have yet to be convicted of a crime because they cannot afford bail.

We should establish an entity to consistently oversee and compile data on our criminal justice policies to evaluate their effectiveness at reducing crime and the reliability, efficiency, and fairness in their application.

As we celebrate King’s birthday this week, let’s dedicate ourselves to honoring his legacy with more than rhetoric and commit ourselves to making his dream a reality through meaningful action.

King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It’s our responsibility, each and every one of us, working together, to dedicate ourselves to advancing the cause of equality and justice for all. We can start today, and we’ll be a better city, state and nation as a result. What better way to honor a true American hero?

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate.

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Sen. Ellis responds to indigent defense caseloads study

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) issued this statement following the release of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission’s caseload study.

“Texas has a problem with attorneys handling so many criminal cases that they cannot provide effective representation to their indigent clients,” said Sen. Ellis. “Taking over 1000 appointed cases in a year, for example, makes effective representation nearly impossible. This report offers recommendations that are an integral first step toward making sure all Texans have their constitutional rights protected.”

Through a Senate floor amendment to Rep. Sylvester Turner’s HB 1318 (83R), Sen. Ellis required the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to conduct a study to generate caseload recommendations that enable the state’s criminal defense attorneys “to give each indigent defendant the time and effort necessary to ensure effective representation.”

According to the study’s findings, a Texas attorney should handle an annual full-time equivalent of no more than 236 Class B Misdemeanors, 216 Class A Misdemeanors, 175 State Jail Felonies, 144 Third Degree Felonies, 105 Second Degree Felonies, or 77 First Degree Felonies.

“I applaud the work of the Commission,” said Sen. Ellis. “It’s time for us to get down to the serious work of implementing these guidelines.”

This session, Sen. Ellis continues to tackle the issue of high caseloads by filing SB 260, which . As the bill moves through the legislative process, Sen. Ellis will incorporate the study’s recommendations to ensure that Texas has the proper checks and balances in place to protect against abuse of our valuable criminal justice resources.

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with:

Ready to fight

Dear Friend,

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sincerely,
RE Signature
Rodney Ellis

Posted in: Ellis Email Express • Tagged with:

Senator Ellis announces billboards to increase health insurance enrollment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Posted in: Press Releases • Tagged with: , ,