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Fighting for opportunities for all Texas families

Dear Friend:

We deserve a Texas that ensures that all hardworking families can earn a decent living, afford high quality health care, and get a great education for their children.

By investing in better schools and improving educational opportunities for our children, closing wasteful corporate loopholes and relieving the unfair tax burden on Texas families, ensuring better paying jobs and fair and equal treatment in the workplace, and providing access to affordable and quality healthcare, we can reduce inequality, create better paying jobs, and build an economy that works for all Texas families.

Our state works best when every Texan gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same rules. Working together we can make our state a better Texas.

Last week, we had the opportunity to do just that when the Texas Senate passed its version of the state budget. We had a unique opportunity and responsibility to build a better future for our state and make the fiscally responsible investments in the vital needs of Texas. We had a chance to build better schools for our children, better roads for our communities, better jobs for working Texans, and ensure Texas families have the competitive economic future they deserve.

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But unfortunately, those needs largely weren’t addressed in the Senate’s budget. This reflects the fact that dialogue in the Capitol this session has been more about scoring political points than building a better future for the people of Texas, investing in Texas families, and strengthening the Texas economy for the long term.

Even business leaders asked us to do more, urging legislators in a recent letter to invest in the needs of this state before we miss our opportunity to meet the challenges of the future:

Our state government has a substantial budget surplus today largely because of the resurgence in the oil and gas industry and the taxes that our base industries have paid. For 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.

The budget did not do enough to meet those challenges, but I voted for it because there are still incremental steps taken in the right direction. Steps like increased funding for TEXAS Grants, the financial aid program I created in 1999 that has helped over 432,000 Texans pay for higher education, and new money for mental health services help to address long-term needs in the state.

But there is still a great deal of work to be done.  As the budget is negotiated over the final month of session, I will continue to fight for all hardworking Texas families. That’s why this Ellis Express, sent in the spirit of enhancing economic opportunity for all Texans, will discuss on several of the priorities I’ve been focusing on this session.

Honoring hard work with honest pay

Minimum Wage

Texans believe in honoring hard work with honest pay. Unfortunately, hardworking Texans are finding it more difficult to make ends meet – even those working fulltime. In 2013, Texas had the highest number of minimum wage workers in the country and the fifth-highest percentage of workers making at or below the minimum wage. Despite the perception, these aren’t just college kids and part-time workers: these are everyday Texas families who are working hard to put food on the table. Nationally, the average age of someone earning the minimum wage is 35, and more than half work full-time schedules.

Today, the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour yields an annual income of only $15,080 for full time work, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of two or more. This was not always the case: throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a full-time, full-year minimum-wage income was above the poverty line for a family of two.

But the minimum wage has failed to maintain its buying power. The minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.75 today when adjusted for inflation. The result is a growing gap in our society between those who have the most and everyone else. Our state has the fifth worst income gap in the country, with the top 1 percent of the population taking home 21 percent of state income. This trend is exacerbated by stagnating wages, which have not grown in nearly a decade.

While Texas continues to utilize the lowest minimum wage allowable under federal law, 24 states have already set an hourly wage floor higher than this.

How can people be expected to climb the economic ladder if they are not given fair wages for their work? I hear from so many constituents who work hard and play by the rules, but they’re still unable to make ends meet. So this session, I filed two bills related to the minimum wage to help those constituents and millions of other Texans.

SB 67 increases the state minimum wage to $10.10, which will help hardworking families rise out of poverty without requiring a single dollar in new taxes or spending. Raising the minimum wage provides hardworking Texans with income to spend on the basics they need. This, in turn, boosts our economy and eases the burden on taxpayer-funded services. It’s a win-win, with almost 2.4 million Texans receiving a pay increase. A recent study by the Center for Public Policy Priorities shows exactly who would benefit from a $10.10 minimum wage, including:

  • Age: 60 percent are in their prime working years of 25 to 54, and only 3.1 percent are teenagers between the ages of 16-18.
  • Families with children: Nearly fifty percent live in households with children, and 14.7 percent of all workers who benefit are single mothers.
  • Education level: 43 percent have at least some college education, and 15 percent have completed a postsecondary degree.

As an alternative to a statewide increase in the minimum wage, SB 68 gives cities and counties the ability to raise the minimum wage themselves. Texas is an enormous state, and local economic needs vary from place to place. Allowing cities and counties the option to increase the minimum wage on their own will provide the same benefits to the areas that choose to take a stand for living wages.

Equal Pay

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. Yet in Texas, the median full-time pay for a woman is $33,689 per year; for a man, $42,044. Even when working full-time and year round, Texas women are paid about 82 cents for every dollar paid to men. This amounts to a yearly gap of $7,859 between men and women.

The gap is even more pronounced when race is added as a factor: African-American women earn only 59 cents per dollar and Hispanic women earn just 45.3 cents per dollar when compared to men.

The continued pay gap between women and men is an enduring shame in our society. This is not merely a philosophical issue – it is a serious economic shortcoming that has impacted the livelihoods of hardworking Texas families and our communities for too long.

I’m proud to partner with my friend and colleague Rep. Senfronia Thompson to give Texas women another tool to fight wage discrimination. The federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 gave American women an avenue to challenge wage discrimination, but Texas’ lagging equal pay laws force our citizens to fight for wage equity in federal courts – typically more expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants than state courts.

SB 65 gives Texas women the ability to challenge discriminatory wage practices in local courts, with locally elected judges, and local juries. Equal pay for equal work shouldn’t be a controversial subject, so it’s time to ensure our mothers, sisters, and daughters have every opportunity to protect their right to earn a competitive salary.

Access to affordable and quality health care

Everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care.  Unfortunately, our state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing over one million hardworking Texans from accessing quality, affordable health care, and making it tougher for Texas families to put food on the table.

Medicaid Expansion

Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, with one in four Texans living without health insurance. Despite this shameful reality, our state continues to refuse to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, preventing over one million Texans from accessing quality, affordable health care. Not only does it make good moral sense to ensure that your ability access health care isn’t dependent on your bank account, but it’s a great opportunity to create more good paying jobs for Texans and grow our economy.

Studies show just how good a deal expanding Medicaid would be for Texas. According to an economic analysis by the Perryman Group, Medicaid expansion would generate over 300,000 Texas jobs per year over the first ten years. Texas would see a return of $1.29 for every $1 spent on Medicaid expansion, and the burden on local governments would be reduced by $1.21 for every dollar the state spent on expanding the program.

Last week, I tried to address this crisis on the Senate floor by offering a floor amendment to expand Medicaid in Texas. My challenge to help those without health insurance in Texas was unfortunately voted down along party lines.

The amendment would have closed the current coverage gap and secured aid for what local taxpayers pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. Accepting $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable health care options for our constituents is just common sense.

Everyone has the right to affordable health care, and the contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care. Expanding Medicaid will reduce local property taxes, create jobs, and provide affordable and quality health care to a million Texans. I will continue fighting and working to convince my colleagues that it is the right thing to do.

Opening educational opportunities

There is no greater way to create better economic opportunities for all Texans than ensuring that every child has access to quality and affordable educational opportunities.

Investing in public education

The state’s 2012-13 budget slashed over $4 billion in state funding from Texas schools and eliminated another $1 billion in public education grants. These cuts meant fewer teachers, crowded classrooms, eliminated bus routes, cuts to extracurricular activities, and more.

Fortunately, our schools fought back against these draconian cuts and the school finance system as a whole. Hundreds of school districts across Texas joined together to fight for their students and the need to adequately and equitably fund public education, arguing that Texas school children and taxpayers are being treated unfairly by the current public school finance system.

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Last year, three years after the legal challenge was first filed, the judge agreed with the schools’ arguments and ruled that Texas’ school finance system was unconstitutional. The decision has been appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, and it may be until 2016 before the court issues a ruling.

For too long, Texas’ school finance system has always been patched rather than perfected, as legislators are seemingly content to see it sputter along another two years in spite of overcrowded classrooms and underpaid teachers. The legislature should treat investing in our children’s schools like what it is: an emergency that must be solved immediately.

Money does matter, after all.  Effective teachers, small class sizes, and intensive interventions for struggling learners all cost money and have been proven to deliver results.  Accountability systems from Austin and Washington, D.C. increase expectations and punish schools that fail to meet them.  Schools’ energy, transportation, and health care costs continue to grow rapidly.  Properly funding public education is not an extravagance – it is an obligation we must meet to ensure the future success of our state.

College affordability

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for the jobs of the future, but the rising cost of higher education is pricing many out of that dream. Texas’ failure to invest in providing access to affordable higher education is pushing families to incur enormous debt and pricing others out of higher education altogether. In fact, student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt as the second-largest form of household debt, trailing only mortgage debt

Before 2003, the legislature set tuition rates at public universities. That year, in response to a budget shortfall, the legislature changed the law – something I voted against – allowing colleges and universities to raise tuition on their own and shifting costs away from the state and onto families’ backs. Since then, the average cost of attending a public university in Texas has more than doubled.

Texas’ total growth in tuition and fees since deregulation is the 5th highest in the nation, making it harder for students to attend the schools that were built to serve them.

To fix this problem, my bill to cap tuition, SB 255, was heard last week in the Senate Committee on Higher Education. My bill caps tuition at the amount charged during the 2015-16 school year and returns authority to set tuition rates to the legislature. Any increases in tuition after that point will be legislatively authorized, giving Texans a place to voice their displeasure with tuition rates: the ballot box. SB 255 will rein in costs for students and families and make the legislature accountable for funding of higher education.

Protecting families from predatory lending

Payday lending and auto title loans rely on high-interest rates to trap low-income Texans in a vicious cycle of debt. With no fee or rate caps, these loan products carry annualized percentage rates upward of 600 percent. These lenders drain $1.25 billion from our state annually and exacerbate the burden on already over-stretched charitable and social service providers. What’s more, over 74,000 cars have been lost to these businesses over the past two years, making it difficult for these Texas families to even get to work and school, much less get ahead.  Business as usual for predatory lenders is bad for Texas families.

Senate District 13 is a particular hotbed for these questionable practices. Houston has more than 550 payday and auto title storefronts that bleed around $240 million from the Houston economy annually.

Reforming this system is in the interest of all Texans. In fact, statewide polling shows that 75 percent of Texan voters, across party lines, support meaningful reform of these high-cost, short-term loans. Yet last session, industry lobbyists blocked the reform bill the legislature tried to pass. To fight back, I filed two pieces of legislation that will rein in payday lending abuses.

SB 91 would limit annual interest rates for payday and auto title loans to 36 percent. Federal law already protects military borrowers from triple digit interest rates by limiting loans to a 36 percent cap, and it’s time to extend the same protection to all Texas families.

SB 92 implements numerous reforms to provide fair lending practices to all consumers, making payday loans more affordable to ensure successful repayment in a shorter period of time. Texas cannot continue to allow these predatory lenders to go unchecked, and SB 92 puts in place a number of statewide protections already offered in some of the state’s largest cities.

Closing wasteful corporate loopholes

Review Texas’ tax loopholes

Texas spends billions of dollars on corporate loopholes for special interests without any transparency or accountability. With a tax system rigged with tax breaks and loopholes that only benefit a few, the burden gets shifted onto the backs of Texas families.

These aren’t small numbers we’re talking about: tax exemptions in Texas’ tax code will total at least $54.2 billion in 2015 alone, yet there is no regular assessment to determine the loopholes’ effect on job creation, their cost to the state, and their effect on Texas’ tax burden.

The sad truth is that perks, tax breaks, and loopholes have perverted our tax system and made it blatantly unfair for the average Texas family. That’s why I’ve filed legislation to scrub scores of preferential tax breaks in the Texas tax code. State agencies are subjected to a sunset review every 12 years to determine if their functions need to be continued. The tax code would benefit from a similar periodic review of all its exemptions, exclusions, and special treatments to answer one simple question: are they working?

Texas’ population is predicted to almost double over the next 50 years. That enormous influx of new Texans, both from migration and natural population growth, will require significant investment in our state’s infrastructure. Everything – from our water resources to transportation needs to the number of classrooms – will have to grow to meet our burgeoning population. It’s crucial we meet this need, and to do so we must ensure that our tax dollars are being used as smartly as possible.

SB 80, my bill to review Texas’ tax loopholes, was heard this week in the Senate Committee on Finance. The legislature talks a lot about transparency in the budgeting process, and this bill applies that same principle of transparency to the loopholes that get added to our tax code every session.

Property tax fairness

In a session where we are looking to provide tax relief, we can easily provide hardworking Texas families the property tax relief they deserve – while also protecting crucial resources for our schools, roads, and other priorities.

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Under Texas property tax law, all properties are supposed be taxed at 100 percent of their market value so that all Texans are treated equally. Unfortunately, many large commercial and industrial property owners exploit a loophole in the law and avoid paying their fair share of taxes. The result? Hardworking Texas families and small businesses are being forced to pay higher taxes to make up the difference, and crucial resources are being siphoned away from our schools and our hospitals to subsidize these tax breaks for the state’s largest and wealthiest corporations.

Over the last five years, commercial owners’ manipulation of this property tax loophole has diverted billions of dollars from our schools, cities, hospitals, and community colleges, and Texas families have had to carry the burden of approximately $5.6 billion more in property taxes.

By simply closing this loophole we can create a more fair and transparent property tax system, provide Texas families, homeowners and small businesses the much needed tax relief they deserve, and ensure our schools and hospitals receive the resources they need.

As the 84th Legislative Session enters its final month, I hope you will continue to stand with me as we try to steer Texas onto a brighter path. All hardworking families should be able to earn a decent living, afford high quality health care, and get a great education for their children. We have a common responsibility to ensure the Texas of tomorrow is the best state it can be, and there is no better time to rededicate ourselves to moving Texas forward.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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Sen. Ellis offers amendment to expand Medicaid

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) offered a floor amendment to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, but the amendment was voted down on party lines.

“Everyone has the right to affordable health care,” said Senator Ellis. “The contents of one’s wallet should not determine the quality of one’s care. When Texas leads the nation in the percent of our population that’s uninsured, it’s very disappointing that my colleagues have once again passed on an opportunity to provide a million Texans access to affordable health care.”

“Expanding Medicaid simply secures aid for what local taxpayers pay for already: the costs of uninsured Texans who show up in our doctor’s offices and emergency rooms. Accepting the $100 billion in federal funding to address the gap of affordable healthcare options to our constituents is just common sense. It will reduce local property taxes, create jobs, and provide affordable and quality health care to a million Texans.”

According to an economic analysis by the Perryman Group, Texas would see a return of $1.29 for every $1 spent on Medicaid expansion, and the burden on local governments would be reduced by $1.21 for every dollar the state spent on expanding the program. Perryman further estimates that Medicaid expansion would generate over 300,000 Texas jobs per year on average over 10 years, even netting out the impact diverting the state’s required matching contribution.

Billy Hamilton Consulting projects economic activity from Medicaid expansion would generate an estimated 231,000 jobs by 2016, and several times that number in later years.

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Sen. Ellis reacts to passage of SB 9

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding the Senate passage of SB 9, the bill that further restricts the constitutional limit on the rate of growth of appropriations:

“We have vital, unmet needs in our state:  overcrowded schools, underpaid teachers, crumbling infrastructure, and the highest uninsured rate in the nation,” said Ellis. “Instead of meeting those needs, SB 9 will further restrict future legislatures from investing in the next generation of Texans.”

“Texas already ranks 48th in per capita state spending. Rather than cutting critical investments even more, we should take the opportunity 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.”

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Lawmakers, Texas Association of Business, civil liberties groups object to bills discriminating against LGBT Texans

(Austin, TX) // Today, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) joined Representative Rafael Anchia (D-Dallas) and Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business, to discuss their mounting concerns over bills that protect and even promote discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Texans. Representatives from Equality Texas, the Texas Freedom Network, and the ACLU of Texas also expressed legal and civil liberties concerns. Photos from the press conference are available for your use here, and video of the press conference can be viewed here.

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Similar bills in Indiana and Arkansas have sparked intense criticism from across the country. Major companies and national organizations subsequently announced that they would reconsider plans to move to, expand in, or hold conferences and other events in those states.

“These bills allow people to be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, denied public services the rest of us take for granted, and even turned into criminals simply because of who they are and whom they love,” said Sen. Ellis. “The Texas I love is better than that. This debate isn’t about businesses not serving someone they might object to, as that minimizes the seriousness of what’s at stake here.”

Rep. Anchia warned that the proposed bills would undermine or even sweep away nondiscrimination ordinances put in place in major cities across the state – including his hometown of Dallas.

“By undoing these protections, the Legislature would be sending a message that local control isn’t as important as some of my colleagues have long said that it is,” Rep. Anchia said. “They would be saying to the rest of the country that discrimination against our neighbors, our friends, our family members is more important. My own city and many others across the state have decided against that kind of discrimination, and the Legislature shouldn’t undermine our cities’ economic wellbeing or our citizens’ civil liberties.”

The message to the rest of the country particularly concerns business leaders, according to Bill Hammond, CEO of the Texas Association of Business (TAB). TAB has not taken positions on all of the bills but does oppose the proposed constitutional amendments, SJR 10 and HJR 125. The two amendments are similar to “religious refusal” bills in Indiana and Arkansas that prompted major companies and organizations to withdraw plans to expand or hold major events in those states.

“Either of these two amendments would bring the same backlash to Texas,” Hammond said. “They also would lead to potentially enormous litigation costs, hurt our efforts to attract businesses and tourism dollars that keep out economy growing, and make it harder for employers to enforce laws and company policies barring discrimination against their workers and customers. Texas is a magnet for new businesses, talent and visitors. This legislation would immediately threaten our solid brand.”

A total of 20 bills discriminating against LGBT Texans have been filed this session in the Texas Legislature. The Texas Freedom Network has an overview of the bills here: www.tfn.org/discriminationbills

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Let more community colleges offer four-year degrees

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Sarah Davis

All hardworking Texas families should have the opportunity to compete for today’s best and fastest-growing jobs in order to move up the economic ladder, and an integral part of making those dreams become a reality is access to affordable educational opportunities.

After all, higher education is more important than ever. While a high school degree once sufficed in previous generations, a bachelor’s degree is often a prerequisite for jobs in today’s 21st century economy. Texas leads the nation in job growth, and economic indicators point to continued growth and the rising need for a skilled workforce, particularly in the critical fields of nursing and applied sciences.

Unfortunately, attending a public four-year college or university in Texas has gotten considerably more expensive over the 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.

In an effort to address the ongoing need for a skilled workforce and the spike in the cost of higher education, we filed legislation this session – Senate Bill 271 and House Bill 1384 – to carefully implement an alternative pathway for students to obtain a four-year degree.

These bipartisan 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 either applied science or nursing – provided the schools use a measured, phased-in approach, and meet other safeguards we include in our legislation.

Proposed community college baccalaureate degrees would be reviewed according to the same standards used for baccalaureate program approvals at universities. This would include demonstrating short- and long-term workforce needs in the field, adequate faculty and library resources to meet accreditation standards, sufficient funding to support the program without harming existing programs, and regular review processes to ensure quality and effectiveness.

The proposed legislation offers 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 a community college around $10,000 to $12,000. In addition, community colleges often have more flexibility by offering courses in the evening, on weekends, and hybrid classes making it much easier for folks with fulltime jobs to continue their education. Community college graduates are also more likely to remain and work in their local community, ensuring that the same public that invests in their education also reaps the benefits.

Community colleges can and should be leveraged to provide limited and affordable four-year degrees in areas of the state where needs are the greatest. Seventeen states, including Texas, already allow some community colleges to offer four-year degrees.

Currently, three Texas community colleges are authorized to offer a maximum of five baccalaureate degree programs in applied technology. The experience of South Texas College, Brazosport College, and Midland College suggests that these programs can be rolled out in a gradual, thoughtful manner. This experience has already put those regions of the state in a better position to meet local workforce needs.

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 still has real workforce needs that are not being met – needs that will require the state to utilize all alternative pathways to build and maintain an educated, skilled workforce for in-demand occupations that require a four-year degree.

We look forward to working with the legislature to prepare Texans to participate in today’s competitive global economy.

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Sen. Ellis responds to DOJ investigation into Texas truancy laws

(Austin, TX) // Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) releases the following statement regarding today’s announcement that the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) would begin an investigation into Texas truancy laws:

“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has begun looking into Texas’ truancy system,” said Senator Ellis. “I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions 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 and avoiding the school-to-prison pipeline. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of school and further away from those opportunities.”

On March 18, Senator Ellis sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the DOJ begin an investigation into racial disparities concerning the application of Texas’ truancy laws. According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, 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.

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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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