Partnership for the Common Good: Texas Impact’s Guide to the Issues 2013

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Note: In addition to this legislative agenda, Texas Impact holds historic legislative positions based on long-affirmed social principles of our member denominations. Read a brief overview of our legislative principles here.


Introduction

Texas faith communities know that government is essential, but for public programs to be effective we need real partnerships—between local communities and state programs, between concerned individuals and institutions, and between for-profit service providers and the charitable community. Texas can prepare for the future by building robust partnerships that ensure we are moving forward on a strong foundation, with an ethic of shared responsibility and a true sense of community.

Legislators took positive steps toward community partnerships in 2011, and those steps are bearing fruit. Faith and community-based organizations, local governments, business and state agencies are coming together to feed hungry Texans, support at-risk youth, conserve precious resources, and other strategies to advance the common good.

Texas Impact urges the 83rd Texas Legislature to continue its investment in community partnership programs and policies. The following specific strategies will build the capacity of all Texans to work in partnership for a vibrant, prosperous and healthy Texas.

Strategies for Building Community Partnerships in 2013

Promote family financial stability

 Establish reasonable regulation of short-term loan products such as payday and auto-title loans to ensure that Texans have access to a well-    regulated, competitive credit market.

Lawmakers in 2011 laid the foundation of basic regulation for the small-dollar consumer loan industry (“payday” and similar types of loans) by requiring lenders to register with the state and report on their activities.  Industry reported data shows that unlike traditional lenders, restrictive payment options and high monthly fees effectively prevent borrowers from making progress toward paying down loan principal trapping consumers in a “cycle of debt.” In addition to cycle of debt protection, legislators also should identify and remove any barriers preventing traditional community lenders from extending credit to disadvantaged Texans thus increasing price and product competition in the small dollar loan market.

Improve access to healthy, affordable food

 Get the most out of SNAP: oppose restrictions on food purchases, promote use of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, and lift unnecessary barriers to SNAP eligibility.

 Get fresh produce to every community: provide incentives for farm-to-school and farm-to-food bank programs and study “registered vendor” issues for school gardens and farming non-profits.

 Use Texas land and water to feed Texans: establish agriculture valuation for urban farmers, allow unused or underused state-owned land to be available for food production, and authorize incentives for private land owners to allow gardening/farming on their property.

In a state where more than 18 percent of residents are at risk of hunger, the primary goal of food programs should be to ensure food gets to those who need it. Restricting foods available to SNAP recipients discourages retailers from accepting SNAP, creating barriers for individuals who already need help.  Measures such as drug testing for SNAP applicants will create new costs for the state, delays for the hungry, and additional bureaucratic red tape which will outweigh any imagined benefit. As a matter of policy, lawmakers should focus on making healthy food easier to obtain and more affordable for Texans.

It’s particularly important to increase the use of privately owned land for agricultural production, especially in and around population centers. The vast majority of Texas land is privately owned, so providing incentives for large- and small-scale food production should be a key legislative goal.

Ensure Texans have access to quality, affordable health insurance

 Make all necessary state policy choices to ensure that Texans have complete access to the health care benefits provided for through the Affordable Care Act and other existing federal health programs.

 Move quickly to ensure full data coordination between current state health programs and the upcoming Health Insurance Exchange.

 Authorize the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI) to stop any health insurance rate increases that it deems to be unreasonable.

 Promote competition by leveling the playing field for all health insurers and ensure TDI, and not only federal regulators, is empowered to protect consumers in a changing market.

 Get insurance to those who need it quickly and efficiently through expanded consumer assistance and information.

Texas has more to gain than any other state from the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA): one out of every four Texans is uninsured. The ACA includes a host of provisions to address specific health concerns and financial barriers to insurance, but for Texans to receive the most from the new law, Texas legislators must make certain state policy changes. First, legislators should allow low-income adults to receive health coverage through Medicaid. The ACA provides for a full federal subsidy for this coverage for the first two years, with a 10 percent state contribution required after that. Opting-in to the new federal subsidy would reduce the burden on local taxpayers and charitable organizations, which currently foot the health care bill for many low-income adults including county jail and prison inmates.

For individuals at moderate income levels, the ACA provides subsidies to purchase health insurance in the private market and important new quality controls on health insurance products. Texans will benefit from these provisions as well, but they will benefit far more if lawmakers direct the Texas Department of Insurance to protect health insurance consumers by intervening in rate increases and to ensure that consumer health insurance information is accessible and useful.

Strengthen Texas’ public education system

 Restore funds cut from public schools in 2011. 

 Reject policy proposals that would divert public funds assessed to support public schools to other education providers or services.

Public education is a core constitutional commitment. Legislators struggle regularly to maintain balance in our growing state system, and in 2011 did not provide sufficient funds to keep pace with enrollment growth. Now that Texas’s revenues have improved, a primary legislative priority should be to restore cuts to schools made in 2011, so that the system can move forward from the appropriate funding base. Maintaining the 2011 cuts would put the school system permanently behind.

With public education funding already tight, Texas can ill-afford to consider additional costs that would drain existing funding away from the public system. Vouchers and other programs for private schools or other educational services that are funded with dollars previously allocated to public schools would only fragment and further strain school system.

Build capacity for service in local communities

 Establish a permanent advisory body on improving nonprofit-state partnerships.

 Restore funding for the Renewing Our Communities capacity-building grant program for small nonprofits.

Texas’ faith and community-based initiative is a successful national model that is providing the opportunity for public-private partnerships that would not otherwise be possible. In 2011, legislators established a 2-year Task Force on Strengthening Nonprofit Relationships to work with state agencies. Results indicate that a standing advisory body is needed to maintain a consistent relationship between the two sectors and leverage the most benefit from existing investments.

Improve law enforcement and criminal justice outcomes for individuals with mental illness

 Expand the Serious and Violent Offenders Reentry Initiative Program.

 Monitor and limit the use of administrative segregation by requiring third party review of administrative segregation placements in TDCJ, and by restricting the use of administrative segregation for youth under 25 in all state and county facilities.

 Establish a task force on adult and juvenile administrative segregation to develop policy analysis and recommendations for the 84th Legislature.

 Establish a task force to examine Texas’ progress in community-oriented policing and recommend strategies for improving law enforcement interactions with individuals with mental illness.

In part because Texas invests relatively little in mental health treatment programs, the state’s criminal justice system ends up the default mental health provider for many individuals with mental illness. In recent years, increasing use of “administrative segregation” (a form of solitary confinement) has presented a new mental health challenge. Prolonged administrative segregation is counterproductive for individuals with existing mental illness, and can produce mental illness in individuals who have shown no mental health concerns previously.

When individuals are released from administrative segregation, they frequently present anti-social behaviors and often require re-acclimation to social life before returning to the community. Improved accountability and transparency in administrative segregation practices and increased support for individuals being released from administrative segregation would improve successful reintegration and safety for the entire community. Examining Texas’ community-oriented policing policies and identifying best practices in law enforcement engagement with individuals experiencing mental illness could also help to make communities safer.

Promote clean, reliable, affordable energy

 Update Texas’ clean energy goals.

 Ensure that Texas’ electric reliability plans include strong consumer-directed energy conservation measures and that consumer-directed programs are structured to provide accountability in their savings to the grid and to consumers.

 Ensure funds intended for low-income energy assistance are used for their intended purpose, and that consumer-directed energy conservation programs include measures to enable low-income and other disadvantaged ratepayers to participate.

Texas continues to have more renewable energy potential than any other state, but clean energy discussions have taken a back seat to concern about electric reliability. Texas families and communities need reliable electricity as well as good health and economic security.  Lawmakers should ensure that Texas has a long-term plan for electric reliability including a commitment to clean energy which promotes long-term energy independence, human health, and care for God’s creation. 

The state’s focus on electricity supply has elevated interest in energy efficiency and other demand reducing measures. Lawmakers should place particular emphasis on consumer-directed efficiency programs that yield benefits for the grid and the individual ratepayer. Too often, energy efficiency programs take a one-size-fits-all approach that rewards the heaviest users while minimizing the significance of small consumers. Legislators should affirm that energy efficiency is a community-wide effort, and craft policies that make energy efficiency attractive and effective for all ratepayers, including those who are low-income or otherwise disadvantaged.

Build an accountable-stewardship foundation for water policy

 Align funding with priorities that advance the common good, including special attention to future water needs of disadvantaged communities.

 Ensure that any state investment in future water infrastructure sets clear priorities, including strong demonstrated conservation.

 Fully account for and create strategies to reduce use of water used in energy production and vice versa.

Texas’ water future has come into sharp focus as a result of the recent drought, but addressing our long-term water needs in a piecemeal, crisis-driven fashion risks our economic vitality and the stability of our communities. In 2013, lawmakers should commit to a systematic approach to ensuring the safety, reliability and affordability of Texas’ future water supply, beginning with an examination of current water-related funding streams and up-to-date project priorities. Legislators should demand realistic and accountable water conservation measures across the economy, and—as with energy—consumer-directed conservation programs should honor the capacity of every Texan, even very small or disadvantaged consumers, to be part of a collective strategy.

Take an appropriate and balanced approach to immigration issues

 Ensure that Texas law enforcement systems are dedicated to protecting Texans, not to enforcing federal civil laws.

 Insist that, in Texas, all people are treated with equal respect and compassion.

 Reject proposals to co-opt faith and community-based organizations into immigration enforcement.

After harsh and unproductive immigration policy debates in 2011, Texas legislators should understand that immigration is a complex issue appropriately addressed at the federal level, and not an appropriate topic for state legislative posturing. Lawmakers should focus on ensuring the safety and security of Texas communities through adequate investment in law enforcement and building trust between law enforcement agencies and local communities. Local charitable organizations such as faith communities can be key players in developing robust community-law enforcement partnerships, but should not be deputized to perform immigration enforcement.

Strengthen the state revenue system

 Modernize the state tax system to stabilize revenues and prevent policy-distorting budget swings.

Over the past decade, legislators have cut billions of dollars from social services and education in response to anticipated revenue shortfalls. In some cases, those cuts have been restored after months or years because the anticipated shortfalls did not materialize; often the restorations have been bittersweet for individuals and communities whose lives have been permanently disrupted. At the beginning of the 2013 session, lawmakers find themselves with a $10 billion Rainy Day Fund balance while school districts across the state are scrambling to save teacher’s jobs and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has launched a private fundraising campaign that competes directly with state and local nonprofit donation drives.

Lawmakers should subject the Tax Code to Sunset review to identify opportunities for modernizing and stabilizing the revenue system protecting the state from budget see-sawing. Lawmakers also should offer Texans an opportunity to consider adopting a state personal income tax to reduce property taxes and volatile consumption taxes.