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Works In Progress: A Mid-Session Check-In

By: 
Executive Director

 

Are we there yet?

With two months to go in the legislative session, here's a quick overview of where we stand on key issue areas of interest to Texas faith communities: 

Budget

The most important piece of legislation that the Legislature must pass each session is the state budget. The Texas Senate unanimously approved their budget proposal, SB 1, on March 28, appropriating $106.3 billion in state general revenue. The House Appropriations Committee unanimously reported their $106.8 billion proposal on March 29, and the bill will be taken up on the floor next week.

The House budget is slightly more generous than the Senate version, but basically both budgets appropriate about $218 billion in all funds for the 2018-2019 biennium, compared to roughly $232 billion in requests from state agencies to fund their current operations. Both budgets include nebulous assumptions of efficiencies and (they hope) soon-to-be-found federal flexibility in health and human services, allowing appropriators to short-change program funding while insisting there will be “no cuts in services.”

Two major differences between the Senate and House budgets are in the areas of school finance and “method of finance.” The House proposed to use $2.5 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund (ESF--aka “Rainy Day Fund”) to fund their proposed expenditures, while the Senate delayed a diversion of funds to highways in order to free up $2.5 billion. The House bill includes a $1.5 billion increase for public schools, but the increase is contingent upon the passage of a school finance reform bill, HB 21.

Outlook: Texas Impact strongly supports the use of the ESF  to reduce damage to vital programs and services. Taking $2.5 billion out of the balance would leave the state with $9.3 billion still in reserve.

Action Steps: Urge your representative and senator to vote to use funds from the ESF to ensure Texas does not make drastic cuts to critical services and programs.

Health Care

Congressional debate over major health care reform is creating an environment of uncertainty for the Legislature. Nevertheless, there are several areas of progress: for example, committees are considering major legislation in the areas of maternal health, mental health, and balance billing by insurance companies. Texas Impact is part of a broad coalition seeking additional prescriptive authority for advance practice nurses.

Some legislators are sponsoring bills that call on Congress to pass portions of the failed American Health Care Act, while others are working to position Texas to succeed in whatever environment Congress creates. Texas Impact supports SB 1376 by Buckingham that would establish a joint legislative committee to respond to federal health insurance system changes.

Outlook: The Legislature is often at a disadvantage when it comes to changes in federal policy due to our biennial legislative cycle. Given the apparently fluid health policy situation at the federal level, legislators will need to be sure they have provided themselves flexibility to respond to new opportunities if any emerge. Legislators should immediately expand Medicaid as provided under the Affordable Care Act.

Action Steps: Urge your representative and senator to call for immediate Medicaid expansion, so Texas does not miss out on any more federal funds and low-income working adults don’t have to go any longer without health coverage.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 1408 by Cortez would establish 12-month continuous eligibility for children’s Medicaid

HB 1415 by Klick would grant advance practice nurses independence from costly agreements that require them to sign contracts with doctors in order to treat and write prescriptions for their patients

HB 337 by Collier would ensure the continuation of public benefits including health insurance after an individual is released from a county jail

Criminal Justice

As has been the case over the past few sessions, there is a large and vibrant coalition that is built around criminal justice reforms intended to decrease recidivism. Texas Impact is particularly involved in bills at the intersection of criminal justice and mental health. Criminals that are diagnosed with mental illnesses require more attention in the criminal justice system. Once those individuals leave, they often are disadvantaged in their ability to restart their lives. And people who have a mental illness at the time of their crime may not fully understand the effects or consequences of their actions.

Outlook: Texas lawmakers have embraced the “smart on crime” model and can be expected to adopt a number of reforms. It’s important to point out that business interests are key players on these bills, since they are fiscally conservative and improve the business climate in the state.

Action Steps: Encourage your representative and senator to support the “Smart on Crime” bill package, and to support bills that improve access to mental health care for individuals at risk of criminal justice involvement.

A Few Good Bills:

SB 292 by Huffman would create a grant program to reduce incarceration and recidivism for individuals with mental illness

HB 3080 by Rose would create an exemption of the death penalty for those diagnosed with a severe mental illness

Energy and Environment

This session is seeing less highly controversial environmental legislation than is sometimes the case. Much of the environmental and energy focus of the session is around clarifying relationships and processes within existing programs. Among the high-profile environmental bills is the Railroad Commission Sunset, which has passed the House.

In the area of water, Texas Impact is watching closely HB 2948 relating to the regional water planning process. We also are supporting additional funding for water projects and planning. Following the water crisis in Flint, Texas communities have raised questions about local water supplies, and the news is not always good. Texas Impact is supporting bills that would require testing of water quality for vulnerable populations.

As in several other policy areas, Texas may have to adapt to shifts in federal environmental policy. Advocates are concerned about what the President’s recent executive order could mean for renewable energy development and environmental protection. Texas Impact is supporting legislation that would improve climate change mitigation and resilience in Texas.

Outlook: At a moment when there is uncertainty around federal energy and environmental policy, Texas should start by committing to “no going backward.” Currently, legislators do not seem inclined to make major environmental shifts.

Action Steps: Tell legislators to protect human health through environmental planning and regulation, and to encourage continued development of renewable energy.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 773 by Johnson would require state agencies to develop plans to meet climate change challenges

HB 1927 by Rodriguez would establish an emergency alert system for toxic emissions

HB 3695 by Farrar and HB 2395 by Collier would require schools to test their drinking water and tell parents if the water is safe to drink

HB 2948 by Larson would strengthen the state’s water planning process

HB 1535 by Farrar would protect honeybees by prohibiting use of certain pesticides in public road right-of-ways

Immigration/Refugees

In light of changing federal immigration policies as seen through myriad executive orders, it is increasingly important that state and local governments work to ensure the safety and preservation of immigrant communities. Unfortunately, our state government is bitterly divided over the status of undocumented people in Texas, and debates on the way that Texas treats its undocumented population happen with regularity.

As in previous sessions, Texas Impact has followed Senator Perry’s SB 4, the “anti-sanctuary cities” bill, closely. We’ve had board members and staff testify in opposition to the bill, and also ensured that the voices of children, desperate for safety and reassurances from their state, were heard by all. SB 4 gives broad latitude to local law enforcement, blurring the line between federal immigration officers and local law enforcement agencies. The bill also contains harsh punishments for cities and local entities that are determined to have violated the policies laid out in the bill. Currently the bill has passed the senate and has been left pending in House State Affairs.

Texas Impact also opposes SB 1018 and its companion HB 2225–a bill that would license family detention centers that are operated by or under contract with United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). While on the surface it might seem that licensing could marginally improve these facilities by creating standards and oversight, the reality is that licensing facilities that detain children is simply a way to normalize these inhumane centers.

Texas Impact is also closely monitoring HB 582, a bill that would amend the driver’s licenses of refugees, asylees, and legal permanent residents to show that they are ineligible to vote. While amended driver’s licenses are not ideal, we want to make sure that this bill does not become a vehicle for harsher amendments throughout the legislative process.

Outlook:  Texas seems poised to take harsh steps to restrict, criminalize, and ostracize immigrants and other sojourners. Nearly every major faith tradition has spoken out against this approach.

Action Steps:  HB 2225 is set for a hearing next Wednesday in House State Affairs. Urge the committee to vote against HB 2225. You can also ask House State Affairs not to add any amendments on HB 582, and urge your representative to oppose SB 4.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 825 by Blanco would prohibit law enforcement from inquiring into the nationality or immigration status of a victim or witness to a crime

HB 278 by Howard would establish a task force on asylum-seeking children

HB 406 by Alonzo would create a driving permit for undocumented persons

Religious Liberty

When any piece of legislation touches or affects religious communities, Texas Impact applies three principles derived from the history and jurisprudence of the the First Amendment. First, government must not prefer or disadvantage one faith relative to another faith, which includes those with no faith at all. Second, government must not force any person to act against their conscience unless there is a state interest that compels it. Third, government must not permit adherents of one faith to harm non-adherents as an expression of faith.

For the second session in a row, Texas Impact is monitoring an unusual number of bills that touch or affect religious communities ranging from firearms on religious properties to education policy to grant programs to various legal accommodations. Texas Impact is working with bill authors to address our concerns about bills that do not yet meet those constitutional principles. There are also a number of good bills that accommodate religious people while maintaining government neutrality.

Outlook: With 27 million residents, legislators represent Texans with remarkably diverse religious beliefs. The religiously egalitarian society that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson pioneered has created a socially, culturally, and economically vibrant pluralistic society by avoiding sectarian strife. Whether the uniquely American experiment continues to be a beacon of light to the world depends on our elected leaders willingness to engage the entire faith community as stakeholders in legislation, or pander to sectarian worldviews for short-term political gain.

Action Steps: HB 2657 was referred to House State Affairs last Thursday, March 23. Urge Chairman Byron Cook to set the bill for a hearing.  

A Few Good Bills:

SB 24 by Huffman would limit the government’s ability to use the discovery process abusively in civil litigation.

SB 911 by Huffman would accommodate a county clerk without placing any discriminatory burden a qualified marriage applicant.

HB 522 by Schofield restricts the ability of a property owners’ association to regulate religious displays.

HB 2657 by Howard removes the preference Texas law currently shows toward which religious holidays state employees may observe by substituting that optional day for a state holiday.

Human Trafficking/Domestic Violence

A University of Texas report in December of 2016 showed that there are 79,000 minors and youth that are victims of sexual trafficking in Texas alone. There are over 300,000 victims of sexual and labor trafficking in Texas in total. The faith community has consistently advocated for policies that protect victims of trafficking and abuse. While many of the solutions to these problems are found in funding and enforcement, there is strong legislative interest in protecting and providing resources for victims of abuse.

Outlook: In the past, the Texas Legislature has passed strong anti-trafficking legislation, and seems ready to support provisions and protections for victims of human trafficking and abuse this session as well.

Action Steps: Urge the Senate Committee on Business and Commerce to hear SB 666. Also amend SB 666 to include a Vietnamese translation of the contact information. You can also urge the House Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures to hear HB 1104.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 29 by Thompson is an omnibus bill that would require junior colleges that offer commercial driver’s licence training programs to include training on the recognition and prevention of human trafficking, increase provisions for prosecuting racketeering, and increase protections for victims of sexual violence who are minors.

SB 666 by Kolkhorst would require sexual oriented businesses to post contact information for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center in every bathroom stall.

HB 1104 By Hernandez would require cosmetology license applicants to complete a sexual assault and domestic violence education program to be eligible.  

Foster Care

Since a federal judge’s decision declaring that Texas’s child welfare system unconstitutionally places children at an unreasonable risk of harm, and that rape, abuse and psychotropic medication are “the norm,” elected officials have begun to undertake what looks like a couple sessions worth of reforms. However, tax cuts over the last several session have created artificial budget woes which has led appropriators in both the House and the Senate to propose budgets that fund far less than what the agency says is necessary to correct the systemic issues at the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).

Earlier this session, the House passed HB 4 and HB 5. Currently, the state does not provide any support to kinship families where children have better outcomes compared to foster care. HB 4 would provide kinship families at 300 percent of poverty or below a payment on a sliding scale that is a percentage of what we pay foster care families. HB 5 makes DFPS an independent agency to reduce the bureaucracy that being under the large Health and Human Service Commission creates.

Earlier this session, the Senate passed SB 11 which would continue to reform the state’s “legacy system” by expanding “Foster Care Redesign.” Foster Care Redesign desires to keep kids closer to home by integrating services through a single contractor in a designated geographic region. A similar bill, HB 6, will be heard in committee for a second time on Monday, April 3.

Outlook: Despite inadequate funding which the federal judge is likely to address, the current House budget raises the provider’s reimbursement rates to 95% from 80% of actual costs. Paying eighty cents on the dollar has not resulted in private, charitable funds reducing the cost to the taxpayer as previous legislatures had hoped. Nevertheless, the state continues to turn to the private sector, notably faith-based institutions, to assist the state. Faith certainly has a role to play, as it always has, in caring for children. However, the state should not overestimate the faith community’s financial capacity as we have been running children’s homes dependent upon private, charitable giving since the late nineteenth century.

Action Steps: Let your representative and senator know that you support additional spending to correct the systemic failures of Texas’s child welfare system. Urge them not to wait for a federal court to make them act because foster children would suffer.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 249 by Hernandez would require that foster care facilities would be held to the same standards the state holds biological parents to when it comes to abuse and neglect.

HB 132 by Minjarez would allow aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters that serve as kinship parents to be eligible for a one time TANF payment upon taking custody of a child.

HB 2335 by Miller would require training in trauma-based care for certain child care and CPS caseworkers.

Education

The House and Senate possess very different views regarding the future of Texas’s educational system. Late last spring, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that although Texas’s school finance system was “byzantine,” nevertheless it “washed its hands” of prescribing changes the Legislature needed to make and declared that it met the minimum required to be constitutional. The House has undertaken the responsibility of addressing Texas’s inadequacies in how we finance our public school system. The House Committee on Public Education took testimony on the future of Texas’s school finance system early in the session. Chairman Huberty then filed HB 21 which would make major reforms to the mechanisms that finance our schools and would add an additional $1.5 billion for public education.

The Senate, by contrast, has proposed privatizing the public school system. Senator Larry Taylor, chair of the Senate Education Committee, filed SB 3, an expansive school voucher bill which would provide taxpayer money to private and parochial school and created an entitlement program for homeschoolers. After failing to gain support from enough rural legislators, Chairman Taylor scaled the bill back in order to get the 19 votes necessary to pass the bill on Thursday, March 30. Nevertheless, the bill still provides money the state collects from taxpayers of one faith to parochial schools which religiously educates children in another faith. It also takes money from the schools of rural taxpayers and gives it to suburban private schools. Lastly, SB 3 provides for no accountability as taxpayers currently enjoy with public schools.

Outlook: Texas Impact strongly supports fully restoring the funding that was cut from public schools in 2011, however the rift between the House and the Senate may be too great to be resolved by the 85th Legislature.

Action Steps: The representatives in the House need to know that their constituents have their back. Urge your representative to vote no on SB 3, and yes on HB 21.

A Few Good Bills:

HB 21 by Huberty would add $1.5 billion to public education, would rework the financing mechanisms to ensure that every district sees an increase in funds, would establish an allotment of funds for public school children with dyslexia, and would establish a grant program for school districts undergoing hardship.