Op-Eds

Civil rights remain a struggle in Texas

By Members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus

This week, Texas will welcome four U.S. Presidents and dozens of dignitaries for the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library. It’s a chance to honor an essential movement that’s reshaped, and is continuing to reshape, our great nation.

It’s also a chance to reflect on what “civil rights” — ideas like freedom, fairness, equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — mean to 21st century Texans. There are still unfair laws to fight. But in Texas, the civil rights struggle has expanded to unfair budgets as well.

Make no mistake: Education is a civil right. Healthcare is a civil right. So are the rights to drink clean water, move freely about our communities and, most importantly, vote.

For years, these rights have been undermined, and even openly attacked, in the Texas Capitol. There may not be the same grainy, violent news footage that people associate with the civil rights struggle, but the basic stakes of fairness and equality haven’t changed.

Texans love this state. We settle and stay here to pursue our fair share of Texas’ prosperity. So we rightly demand a fair system that provides real, meaningful freedom and opportunity to each of us — no matter our ethnicity, our gender or where we live.

But when we look to those running state government, Texans don’t always see fairness.

Instead, we see a fixed system that consistently puts well-connected millionaire donors and corporations ahead of middle-class working Texans.

We see a school finance system that’s so unfair and inadequate that most Texas school districts felt compelled to sue the state over it.

We see a sustained attack on health services, women and the poor, along with efforts to revise history, whitewash the record, and ignore the plain fact that Texas leads the nation in its percentage of uninsured residents.

We see a murky, incomprehensible budget that makes it difficult to determine how much of our money is going to school kids and how much is going to billionaire sports team owners.

We see budget writers who piously scold others about “budgeting like a family” while they watch state highways grind to a halt, allow rural areas to fall into drought, and ignore the obvious investments that would keep the state’s infrastructure from crumbling like a neglected house.

And in clear echoes of struggles from 50 years ago, we see repeated efforts to make it harder for Texans to exercise the most fundamental right of all – the right to cast their ballots.

These are subtle attacks. They generally occur in back rooms and behind closed doors. They don’t make for iconic television.

But for children, women and men of all races – for hard-working citizens across Texas – these are attacks on dignity, opportunity for prosperity, freedom, and, yes, civil rights.

For these millions and millions of Texans, the fight for freedom and fairness is as much about the present and future as it is about the past.

We’re glad so many people have come to Texas this week to take part in this critical conversation. Let’s make sure it extends beyond this event, through this year’s elections and into next year’s legislative session.

This article was co-authored by members of the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus, including Senators Kirk Watson (Chair), John Whitmire, Judith Zaffirini, Rodney Ellis, Eddie Lucio, Jr., Royce West, Leticia Van de Putte, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, Carlos Uresti, José Rodríguez, and Sylvia R. Garcia.

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Predatory lending hurts Texas families

By Senator Rodney Ellis, Representative Mike Villarreal, Representative Craig Eiland

In an op-ed published in the Galveston Daily News, Adam Burklund, field organizer for the Consumer Service Alliance of Texas, asserted that we and the “consumer interest groups” we represent defeated the predatory lending reform bill last session. While we would like to revel in any claim that gives us so much power over the Texas legislature, we hate to break it to Mr. Burklund, but the only consumer interest groups we represent are the consumers of our respective House and Senate districts.

To refresh Mr. Burklund’s memory, the bill that he says passed “overwhelmingly” out of the Senate Business and Commerce Committee actually passed 5-3, hardly what we would call a landslide. Furthermore, the compromise bill that Mr. Burklund claims Senator Ellis had a hand in killing on the Senate floor last session actually passed off the Senate floor with  the support of 24 senators − a truly bipartisan piece of legislation. Maybe Mr. Burklund is referring to the death of the version of the bill that came out of the Senate committee that contained a little provision that the predatory lending industry was really banking on: the so-called preemption clause.

The preemption clause would have voided any steps that cities had taken or will take in the future to protect their residents against the most harmful practices of the predatory lending industry. At the time that the bill was being debated in the Senate, seven Texas cities had passed similar ordinances to protect their residents, all stronger than what was being proposed in the bill that passed out of the Senate committee. Had that version of the bill passed, those ordinances would have been voided and replaced by substantially weaker statewide legislation. Fortunately, the Senate saw the danger of the preemption clause and unanimously, and overwhelmingly, voted to nullify it.

Since then, eight more Texas cities have passed similar ordinances, including the City of Houston. As of today, 6.7 million Texans are protected by an ordinance that is stronger than what passed out of the Senate committee, and this scares the predatory lending industry to death. This is why the industry showed up in droves and testified for hours against the bill when it was heard in the House committee.  It was at this point that the bill never saw the light of day again.

Our actions have never been devious, as Mr. Burklund asserts in his op-ed. We have been very up front and honest with our efforts to push for strong legislation that offers real protections for Texas consumers and oppose any legislation that would actually hinder Texas cities from passing ordinances that are right for their residents.

Mr. Burklund claims that we want to kill the predatory lending industry as it exists in Texas. This is also untrue. We want to change how the predatory lending industry conducts business as usual and see the most egregious of its practices die. In 2012, the current predatory lending business model drained $1.25 billion in fees from working Texas families for loans at 500 percent interest and higher. Business as usual hurts Texas families.

The fact of the matter is, while 15 states and D.C. currently either prohibit predatory lending or have regulations restrictive enough that the industry chooses not to operate in those states, there are nine states that have sensible limitations on fee rates, loan usage, and terms, and the predatory lending industry still manages to exist.

We have always maintained that we do not want the small loan business to go out of business in Texas. We understand there is a need for it in our communities. What we want is for the businesses providing the loans to operate in a responsible, fair, and honest way. The people of Texas would be better served if the industry supported fair lending practices rather than fighting efforts to better the way they conduct their predatory business by penning misleading op-eds and attempting to change easily verifiable facts.

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Roads need room for cyclists and pedestrians

By Rodney Ellis and Michael Payne

The Houston Chronicle’s recent articles on cycling fatalities highlight the heartbreaking fact that immediate work is needed to enable safe road access for all users. Houston has the unfortunate distinction of being among the cities with the highest cyclist and pedestrian fatality rates in the country.

As avid cyclists, we have certainly had our fair number of close calls, whether from drivers failing to yield to being forced to ride in dangerous streets without sidewalks or bicycle lanes to provide a safe passing distance. We’ve also had friends and colleagues killed and injured. So make no mistake: This is extremely personal to us. As we mourn the loss of these lives, we must work harder on engineering, policy and education at both the state and local level to prevent future tragedies.

We applaud the Houston Police Department and Harris County district attorney for their ongoing efforts in the Chelsea Norman hit-and-run fatality, as well as Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston City Council for passing a Complete Streets Plan and the Safe Passing Ordinance. But more must be done, and it is time to get serious about planning and building legitimate bicycle lanes.

The city of Houston urgently needs to update its Master Bicycle Plan, last done in 1996. This will establish the best and worst streets for cycling and give the Public Works Department a clear set of priorities for improved bike lane development. Channeling cyclists onto the safe routes will improve the experience for all road users. Many cities are learning and changing, and we, too, must address this problem more proactively.

Recent successes include the bond referendum supporting the Bayou Greenways initiative and the passage of House Bill 200 in the last legislative session, which supports the development of paths in utility corridors. These changes will help transform Houston through a system of trails and green space. However, without a well-thought-out network of bike lanes to move people into and away from these linear parks, we will be faced with more riders on streets designed only for automobiles. A master bicycle plan and proper bike lanes will be critical to providing a safe way for people in all neighborhoods to get to and from these paths and use their bicycles for transportation as well as recreation. While a white stripe on the road will not stop an impaired motorist, there is no question that meeting national standards for width or physical separations will decrease the probability of a car colliding with a cyclist.

In addition to a safe infrastructure, more public education on road safety and enforcement of traffic laws will help make certain that all road users are safe. Drivers can save lives by paying attention to the road and refraining from texting. They should also always give cyclists a wide pass, obey the speed limits and be vigilant at intersections.

Cyclists have a duty, too. They can help by making sure they are visible, planning their routes carefully and complying with all traffic laws. It is also important for families to model safe behaviors for their children when bicycling, such as wearing helmets and obeying traffic signs.

Livable communities are important to the improvement of Texans’ safety and health. We must begin planning and developing an inclusive infrastructure that accommodates motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. Adding sidewalks and lanes for bicycles not only makes our roads safer, but also adds economic value to communities and improves the quality of life for residents. Street improvements encourage walking and cycling for health, mitigate traffic congestion for short trips, and help improve air quality.

At the state level, bipartisan legislation has been introduced in multiple legislative sessions to improve street design and operation and establish a safe passing distance around unprotected road users. Unfortunately, these bills have yet to become law. Although some Texas cities and communities have begun to embrace multimodal street transportation, the state should do more to lead efforts and guarantee that each community is uniquely suited to handle its respective mobility needs.

Over time, these engineering initiatives, policy changes and education efforts will reduce fatalities and injuries. Let’s all do our part individually as we work to ensure that all users can safely enjoy the road.

Ellis, a Democrat, represents Houston in the Texas Senate. Payne is executive director of BikeHouston.

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Time to protect consumers from predatory loans

By REP. MIKE VILLARREAL, REP. CRAIG EILAND and SEN. RODNEY ELLIS

We would like to congratulate the City of Houston for passing an ordinance to protect its residents from predatory payday and auto title loans, and we urge other cities in the Houston-Galveston area to do the same.

Last year United Way of Greater Houston and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston successfully joined with faith community leaders and non-profit assistance programs to urge the City of Houston to pass the local ordinance. These organizations are partnering again this Thursday as Catholic Charities in Houston, 2900 Louisiana St., hosts a 3 p.m. forum where Texas Faith for Fair Lending will hear from clients who have been directly impacted by payday and auto title lending.

Why should other cities in the area pass this ordinance?

Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, and El Paso have all passed local ordinances to regulate payday and auto title loans. But now lenders in big cities are sending customers from the regulated cities to their stores in neighboring communities, so it is crucial that those municipalities pass ordinances to protect consumers as well. In the Houston area, South Houston already has done so, and Missouri City has taken action as well.

The stories of payday and auto title loan borrowers – like those that will be heard on Thursday at the Texas Faith for Fair Lending forum – well illustrate the need for immediate action by municipal officials.

In San Antonio, for example, a nonprofit organization described one of their many clients who found himself in trouble with a payday loan. A gentleman in his seventies, living only on his Social Security check, took out a payday loan to cover an unexpected medical bill.

As often happens, he couldn’t pay off the loan and cover his other monthly expenses. Before long he had taken out multiple loans and was skipping meals so he could make loan payments!

Of course we wish he had made a better decision about taking out the loan in the first place. We wish he had negotiated a payment plan for his medical bill, borrowed money from a family member, or chosen one of the other options people turn to in states that don’t have payday lenders.

Yes, we need to do a better job of educating Texans about personal finances. But just as we learned during the nation’s subprime mortgage crisis in 2008, we also need basic regulations that help borrowers avoid loans they can’t afford.

The loans, which often have interest rates over 600%, are marketed as emergency two-week or one-month loans backed by the borrower’s next paycheck or car title. But the truth is that the business model actually relies on giving customers loans they cannot pay back on time.

In fact, a recent study by the new U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau found that nearly half of all payday loan customers have more than 10 refinances or new loans each year. Each time the customer refinances the loan or takes out a new one to pay off the debt, he or she pays a new round of high fees. In Texas, those fees are typically around $22 per $100 borrowed.

The excessive fees charged by payday and auto title lenders drain millions of dollars from the local economy and exacerbate the burden on already over-stretched charitable and social service providers. What’s more, dozens of our friends and neighbors have their cars repossessed by auto title lenders, making it difficult for them to even get to work, much less get ahead.

During the last legislative session, industry lobbyists blocked the reform bill we tried to pass. While the legislature is clearly at a stalemate on this issue, Texas cities are not.

The common sense ordinance we recommend limits payments to 20 percent of the borrower’s monthly income, allows no more than three renewals, and establishes other protections to ensure customers aren’t caught in a cycle of debt.

To protect more consumers, we encourage all cities in the Houston-Galveston area and throughout the state of Texas to pass a payday and auto title lending reform ordinance.

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It’s time to raise the minimum wage

By Sen. Rodney Ellis and Rep. Senfronia Thompson – Special to the American-Statesman

Last month, the nation celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, achievements and his dream for America.

While most Americans recognize Dr. King as a civil rights leader striving for equality of opportunity, he was also an advocate for the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the forgotten. He championed the plight of the poor, organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign,” pushed Congress for a poor people’s bill of rights, and ultimately sacrificed his life standing up for fair wages with Memphis sanitation workers.

In the nearly 46 years since Dr. King’s death, America and Texas have made great strides in some areas, but only small, halting steps in others. Even in good times, Texas has done a very poor job of providing for the poorest among us. Our rich are getting richer while our poor are falling further behind, too often struggling to put food on the table.

Today, even more so than during Dr. King’s life, the dividing line in Texas is just as much about green as it is black, white, or brown. All too often, it’s not the content of one’s character that matters — it’s the contents of one’s wallet.

More than 4.6 million Texans live in poverty each day, including one out of four children. Texans are laboring harder, but hourly wages, when adjusted for inflation, are falling. At the current minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, a parent with a full-time job still does not earn enough to be above the federal poverty line. It’s certainly not a living wage, regardless of Texas’ relative low cost of living.

We’re not talking about an insignificant number of people, either. With 452,000 Texans paid at or below the minimum wage in 2012, far too many can’t make ends meet despite full-time employment. Those nearly half a million Texans give our state the unfortunate distinction of ranking second in the nation in the percentage of hourly workers who earn at or below minimum wage.

If we are serious about honoring King’s legacy, it’s time we did something about it. A bill pending in Congress would do just that by increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 and indexing it to inflation to ensure it preserves its value. After all, the minimum wage has failed to maintain its buying power — the minimum wage of $1.60 an hour in 1968 would be $10.71 today when adjusted for inflation.

Using recent history as a guide, we know the chances are slim that D.C. gridlock will evaporate enough to get this bill passed. Fortunately, Texas can act on its own, just as we pushed it to do seven years ago. When we filed legislation to increase the state’s minimum wage in 2007, we knew it was an uphill climb — and we acknowledge that it still is today, despite poll after poll showing Democrats and Republicans alike support increasing the minimum wage. But an uphill climb alone can never be a reason to not pursue something that will improve the daily life of millions of Texans.

In a recent study analyzing the impact of the proposed increase to $10.10, the Economic Policy Institute found that almost 2 million Texas workers would see their wage increased.

It’s not just teens who would benefit, either. Adults older than 20 make up 88 percent of workers nationwide who would receive a raise if the federal minimum wage were increased to $10.10. More than half work full-time and a full third are older than 40.

Concerns about resulting job losses have largely proved to be illusory, as rigorous research has shown time and time again that that minimum wage increases do not reduce employment.

The bottom line is that the vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountaintop, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.

Raising the minimum wage rewards the strong work ethic that built Texas, allowing someone who works hard at a full-time job to support a family and the opportunity to access a bridge out of poverty.

Instead of merely celebrating the life of Dr. King with rhetoric, let’s stand together and honor what he stood for by taking meaningful action towards the realization of his dream. It’s time to raise Texas’ minimum wage.

State Senator Rodney Ellis and State Representative Senfronia Thompson are both from Houston.

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Keeping Dr. King’s Dream Alive

On January 20, we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, achievements, and his dream for our nation.

While most Americans recognize Dr. King as a civil rights leader striving for equality of opportunity, he was also a champion for the dispossessed, the downtrodden, and forgotten.  He fought for the rights of the poor, questioning how a country with so much wealth and prosperity could tolerate and excuse the continued suffering of so many in our nation.  He was dedicated to the goal of eradicating poverty, ensuring economic justice, and achieving access to quality educational opportunities for all our children.  He championed the plight of the poor, organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign,” pushed Congress for a poor people’s bill of rights, and ultimately sacrificed his life standing up for fair wages with Memphis sanitation workers.

Indeed, his dream was to ensure that every American, regardless of race, color, creed or economic circumstance, had real access to the American Dream.

In the nearly 44 years since Dr. King’s death, America and Texas have made great strides in some areas, but only small, halting steps in others.  Even in good times, Texas has done a very poor job of providing for the poorest among us.  We have the highest percentage of uninsured in the country and one of the highest poverty rates.

This is the reality that is not discussed enough today, but Dr. King would be out in front, telling truth to power.  We have become obsessed with the performance of the stock market and 401Ks, but those investments do not reflect the reality of millions of Texans and millions more Americans who see no benefit from a healthy quarterly bottom line.  To echo Robert Kennedy, the Dow Jones doesn’t measure the strength of our families, the health of our citizens, or the quality of our public debate.  Nor does not measure the widening gap between those with and those striving to keep up.

Last month, President Obama gave a stirring speech on the lack of economic mobility and its impact on accessing the American Dream. He said that “a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility … has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain – that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.” The President called it “the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”

We certainly see the impacts in Texas, which ranks among the highest in the country in income inequality. Nationwide, income inequality has been on the rise for decades and is now its highest since 1928, and the impacts of the recent recession have only magnified these inequities. For example, 95 percent of the income gains from 2009-12 were captured by the wealthiest one percent. The top one perfect saw their incomes climb 31.4 percent, while the bottom 99 percent saw growth of only 0.4 percent.

Today, even more so than during Dr. King’s life, the dividing line in America is just as much about green as it is black, white, or brown. All too often, it’s not the content of one’s character – it’s the contents of one’s wallet.

This is obviously not meant to in any way diminish the unbelievable courage Dr. King and all those who led the civil rights cause displayed, or lessen the struggles and tribulations they endured while fighting for that dream. They risked their lives for the ideal that all men are created equal and changed America – and the world – for the better.

But that does not mean the work is done.

The vast majority of Americans have not reached the mountain top, and it is the job of public policymakers to ensure everyone has access to the tools necessary to make the climb.

This means investing in our children’s schools so that Texas no longer must face the specter of an unconstitutional school finance system. This means expanding Medicaid so that our federal tax dollars can be spent here at home on the hundreds of thousands of uninsured Texans that fear the next sickness or spill will result in bankruptcy. And this means raising the minimum wage so that all Texans get an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Instead of merely celebrating the life of Dr. King with rhetoric, let’s stand together and honor what he stood for by taking meaningful action towards the realization of his dream. Today, let us rededicate ourselves to his call to action to shed light on inequality and demand justice for all. Dr. King’s dream is alive and well in our community today, and I am grateful to all who fight alongside me to ensure it is realized.

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Ellis: Key tenets of Mandela’s vision still are unfilled

By Sen. Rodney Ellis | December 12, 2013 | Houston Chronicle

I recently arrived in South Africa to pay my final respects to one of history’s greatest leaders and freedom fighters, Nelson Mandela. A man of iconic strength, grace, and generosity, Mandela will once again unite the world as thousands upon thousands gather to remember his time with us.

Mandela’s story is well known.  Born in South Africa during a time of entrenched racial segregation, he joined other activists and fought for an end to Apartheid rule.  Arrested after fighting for basic human rights for his countrymen, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and endured 27 years captive.  After an international campaign calling for his release, he was freed, negotiated the end of Apartheid, and was elected as South Africa’s first black president.

I certainly knew of Mandela before I went to work for Congressman Mickey Leland, but it was there, as Mickey’s chief of staff, that my true appreciation for him began to grow.  I worked in the midst of an awakening about America’s need to condemn the system of Apartheid.  Mickey was a prominent advocate in the fight against the South African government’s human rights violations, leading boycotts against South African Airways and successfully pushing for congressional override of President Reagan’s veto of economic sanctions against South Africa.

Efforts to join the struggle led by Mandela were also evident in Houston.  While I served on the City Council, we passed an ordinance to forbid city contracts with firms that provided goods to the South African powers enforcing racist policies.  Once Apartheid ended and international investment began to return, I successfully authored a bill in the state legislature to allow Texas to once again invest state funds in businesses that had financial ties to South Africa.

It’s hard to overstate the effect that Mandela has had on my political perspective.  Over the years, I have had the privilege of visiting with him several times, and I cherish each moment.  He stood as a shining example of perseverance and true commitment to reconciliation, justice, and equality.  His journey from prison to president, changing both a nation and the world, remains an inspiration and the gold standard for all who are committed to public service.  That commitment trickles down, too. Through my internship program, Texas has had the pleasure of hosting a number of South African interns, all of whom were moved by Mandela’s leadership to serve the greater good.

His moral compass remains just as relevant today as it was when he was imprisoned almost 50 years ago. As I visit South Africa to pay my respects to the great Madiba, it occurs to me that the only way to truly honor his legacy is to continue his mission by striving to make the goal of opportunity and justice for all a lasting reality.  But around the world, and here at home, we often remain too far from that objective.

It is increasingly apparent that inequality of opportunity is the great moral crisis of our time.  Here in the land of the free, those at the top are enjoying ever-expanding salaries while the middle class dwindles and a growing number of Americans live at or below the poverty level.  In fact, income inequality in the United States is at a historic high, breaking the previous record set in 1928.  In the past decade, Texas experienced a 47 percent increase in child poverty, with over a quarter of Texas children now living in poverty.

Only when we look at the structural causes of inequality can we begin to realize that the game often appears rigged.  Education at its best should be the great equalizer, but Texas’ public school finance system was recently found unconstitutional due to insufficient funding and inequitable distribution.  Justice should be blind, but innocence and guilt in our criminal courts is overwhelmingly dependent on your wealth and ability to afford a private attorney.  Tax policies benefiting those on top still riddle our tax code, but efforts to review even their basic effectiveness are met with fierce opposition.

While the image of Mandela that sticks in our minds is grandfatherly and kind, make no mistake: Madiba was a fierce fighter that proclaimed he was willing to give his life for the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons have equal opportunities.  That ideal has not yet been achieved, so the struggle does and must continue.  He may be gone now, but his vision is as true as ever.

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Texas still has a ways to go for fair justice

By Sen. Rodney Ellis | for the San Antonio Express-News | November 3, 2013

Texas has made significant steps toward improving its criminal justice system in recent years, but we have a long way to go on the path to providing Texans the reliable, effective and fair justice they deserve. Continue Reading »

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Houston must rein in predatory loans

Usury is the practice of lending money at an exorbitantly high rate, so high that any reasonable person would find the rate to be unconscionable, even immoral. Every state in the union has laws to protect its residents from usury. The Texas Constitution limits loans to an annual percentage rate of 10 percent, unless the Legislature specifically sets a different rate. Accordingly, commercial loans are capped at an annual percentage rate of 18 percent, motor vehicle financing loans at 27 percent, and even pawn loans are capped at a shocking 240 percent. Continue Reading »

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Ellis: Legislation would review all preferential state tax breaks

What if every time you looked at your bank statement hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars were mysteriously missing and you had no idea where the money had gone? I think most Texans would want to get to the bottom of the issue. So why does state government allow this to happen with millions – even billions – of dollars every session? Continue Reading »

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