A Preview into Possible Issues Tackled During the 86th Legislature

The Texas Capitol in Austin, via Google Street View.

The 2018 election season was different from any midterm in recent memory. A polarizing national political climate spurred many retirements among incumbent officeholders, and produced competitive races in unexpected places, including Texas. From the top of the ticket down, races were very close, record numbers of Texans turned out to vote and significantly changed the makeup of the Texas Legislature. Texans voted for change, and with the 86th session of the Legislature beginning on January 8th, 2019 it is time for elected officials to deliver for the people of the Lone Star State. There are several key policy areas that should be the focus.
Property Taxes/School Funding
If you’re a homeowner in Texas, there’s a good chance you cringe every January when it comes time to pay property taxes. It’s not hard to see why: Texas ranks near the top of states with the highest property taxes. A study conducted by financial website WalletHub ranks Texas sixth out of 51 for states (including Washington D.C.) that pay the most in property taxes. And high property taxes are directly related to the state’s public education funding.
Public education supporters have been sounding the alarm for years about the slow-moving disaster that is school finance in Texas, but policymakers in Austin have failed to meaningfully address this problem. The hard truth is the state’s share of school funding has steadily decreased, while local property taxes have skyrocketed, leaving millions of Texans paying more but getting less from their local public schools, whose funding get shortchanged.
Recent attempts to address this problem in Austin have failed. During the last legislative session, there were competing House and Senate bills, which had wide disparities in state funding, but a dispute over private school vouchers wrecked any possible reform. Even the subsequent legislative special session called by Governor Abbott in July 2017, largely sidestepped school finance reform, and instead focused on divisive social issues and undermining local governmental control.  
While some members of the Texas Legislature are committed to reform this issue, the pressure is on at the Capitol to finally fix the state’s school funding system. Hopefully, the new class of legislators will be able to Reform Austin and properly fund our schools.
Special Education
Texas has a history of undercutting special education programs and resources, with a $33 million reduction in 2012 and a $41.6 million reduction in 2017. The massive decrease in funding over the past decade led to federal government intervention, which cited Texas school districts for denying over 200,000 students special education eligibility, and forcing over 150,000 students to leave the public school system due to a lack of resources and staff. This year Texas is pleading for an additional $20 million in grant money for struggling special education programs and a lack of resources across the state. Although the Texas Education Agency has made efforts to create a new plan to reform and adequately fund special education programs across the state, the federal government still may not provide additional funding in 2019 due to the state’s history of cutting funding for special education. It is past time the Legislature comply with the federal government’s order and fix the state’s special education system.
Veterans’ Education Benefits
The Lone Star State is home to the country’s second largest population of more than 1.5 million veterans. While Texas is generally considered a low services state, it does offer veterans and their dependents some benefit programs, including one via the Hazelwood Act which dates back to 1923. The Hazlewood program provides qualified veterans, spouses and dependent children with an education benefit of up to 150 hours of tuition exemption at public colleges and universities in Texas.
However, last year Texas lawmakers filed a bill, HB 3766,  which would have denied thousands of Texas veterans and their families an opportunity to further their education.
In the upcoming 86th Legislative session we need our elected officials to see, hear, and serve our 1.5 million veterans living in Texas and their families, and to act with their best interest in mind.
Teacher Pay
Texas has the most operating public schools, teachers, and second-most students in the country, yet teacher pay is comparatively low. For more than a decade Texas teachers have consistently been paid below the national average, and too many divert time and attention away from students to additional jobs they must work to earn a livable wage.
Politicians routinely sing teachers’ praises but do not actually treat them with the respect they deserve. Each session there are multiple bills filed to address teacher pay, but each year nothing gets passed. For example, during the 85th Special Session, SB 19 would have given teachers raises, but it ultimately went nowhere and died.
For the upcoming 86th session, multiple bills have been pre-filed to increase teacher salaries, and limit class sizes, including Senate Bill 95 and House Bill 197. These bills are a start and if legislators are listening to Texans wanting more for our teacher, they will make change happen.
Pre-Kindergarten Funding
In 2017, Texas legislators voted against continuing to fund pre-K despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s successful push for a high-quality program two years earlier, which set aside $118 million for pre-K to go to 573 school districts and charter schools. By failing to fund pre-K today, however, the Legislature continues to put Texas school districts in a bind, forcing them to scramble to make up the shortfall. The well-documented benefits of pre-K programs in Texas include improved children’s literacy, numeracy and overall better education performance. These positive impacts may lead to more students graduating from high school, less welfare use, and better overall health.
Currently there are three filed bills for the upcoming 86th legislative session regarding improvements to pre-K funding including House Bill 55, House Bill 189, and House Bill 272. If state legislators are sincere about improving the lives of Texans, they will take Gov. Abbott’s cue and fully fund statewide pre-K.
School Safety
School safety is never far from the minds of parents today. As school shootings become more common, parents and students notice lawmakers are not doing everything they can to prevent them from happening in Texas. After the Santa Fe School Shooting on May 18, 2018, legislators sent thoughts and prayers but took no meaningful action to improve safety. In fact, the Legislature has a history of passing bills which increase the risk of violence at school. Movements such as the March for Our Lives, however, demonstrate Texans want action to reduce school violence.
Protecting the lives of our students should be a top priority in Austin and legislators have an opportunity to do so in the 86th legislative session. Gov. Greg Abbott introduced a plan to increase security, resources, and mental health counselors. House Bill 357 has also been filed to create tougher penalties for unlawful carrying of firearms. But the Legislature must act and create a safer school environment for Texas students, teachers and staff.
Ethics Reform
During the 2018 general election campaign, Reform Austin reported on multiple politicians being bought by special interest money, while continuing to ignore the need for ethics reform.
Ethics reform has been a topic in the Legislature for many years, but has received mostly lip service from lawmakers. Since 2015, at least 40 bills dealing with ethics were filed with only a small percentage becoming law, while most either died in committee, failed to pass, or were vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott. When Abbott called the 85th Legislative Special Session in 2017, he declined to add ethics reform to the agenda.
Transparency keeps politicians honest and Texans informed about the elected officials who work for them. The Texas Ethics Commission website has tracked seven bills filed so far relating to ethics. However, filing bills are not the same as passing them. The Legislature has a responsibility to Texans in the 86th session to work together to actually pass bills which increase transparency and ethics reform, rather than skirting around the problem and preserving the status quo.
Sexual Assault
On July 20, 2018, 140 survivors of disgraced doctor and convicted felon Larry Nassar were honored with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYS for their courageous stand against sexual assault. Their appearance brought more attention to the growing #MeToo movement, which focuses on survivors holding sexual predators accountable for their actions. The movement goes beyond sports, extending to movie executives, public officials and others (usually men) who abuse their positions of power. There are even reports of abuse at the State Capitol in Austin, where female staffers, lobbyists and reporters have complained of unwanted advances, and even alleged non-consensual physical acts committed by state legislators.
2018 was a pivotal year in the fight against sexual assault as Americans across the country have raised their voices to protest the silencing of survivors. In Texas, in response to allegations of misconduct in the Legislature, the State Senate revised its sexual harassment policy last year, which mandates in-person anti-sexual harassment training for elected officials and offers more guidance for reporting inappropriate behavior. The upcoming 86th legislative session offers the Legislature the opportunity to protect the vulnerable and take a stand against sexual abuse and harassment.  
Healthcare Coverage
In 2018, Texas continued its shameful distinction of having the worst insured rate and the highest number of uninsured residents in the nation. 17.3% of all Texans and 10.7% of Texas children lack health care coverage — nearly five million people. The uninsured rate and number increased in the last recorded year in Texas after significant progress made lowering the rate in the prior three years, in no small part due to the Legislature’s refusal to accept federal funds for expanding Medicaid over the last five years. Estimates show expanding Medicaid would cover more than one million Texans. In addition, it would help keep rural hospitals open that serve largely Medicaid patients and Texans in the coverage gap, who are uninsured because they make too much to be eligible for Texas Medicaid and not enough to receive federal subsidies on the exchanges.
The 2018 election saw voters in three conservative states pass Medicaid expansion, and two new governors elected running on a platform of expanding Medicaid. Texas was not among them. In fact, the Lone Star State is one of just 14 holdover states not to expand Medicaid. Ahead of the 86th Legislature, State Rep. Garnet Coleman (D – Houston) has filed HB 565 that would expand Medicaid and ensure the protections of the Affordable Care Act into state law. Lawmakers in Austin have another opportunity this upcoming session to do the right thing and cover more working Texans.
Medical Marijuana
32 states now allow access to medical marijuana. In 2015, Texas passed a law making it available for a very small number of residents with intractable epilepsy. Although helpful to those with that particular condition, it excludes many other medical conditions like chronic pain, trouble with appetite from chemotherapy, or other neurological conditions. In the 86th session, the Legislature has the opportunity to expand the compassionate use program to many more Texans who need it.
For the upcoming 86th Legislative Session, multiple bills have been filed to create medical marijuana programs and to reduce penalties for doctors recommending it to patients, as well as criminal penalties for marijuana possession. Gov. Greg Abbott, who is concerned about the potential for marijuana abuse, nevertheless has also spoken to parents and veterans who made compelling arguments for its expansion and shown some flexibility on the issue.
Maternal Mortality
The Lone Star State ranks among the worst states for maternal mortality and low overall for women’s health. Since 2016, the state of Texas has seen a nine percent increase in the rate of maternal deaths, with the current rate standing at 34.2 per 100,000 live births. This increase isn’t an accident. The Texas Legislature has actively dismantled women’s access to healthcare in recent years, cutting family planning funding from $111 million to $37.9 million in 2011, and refusing to address mounting evidence of a maternal mortality crisis. The results have been devastating. At least 82 clinics have closed or discontinued family planning services, and the remaining clinics report serving only 54 percent of the clients they have served previous to the cuts.
Texas legislators can lower Texas’ high maternal mortality rate by expanding Medicaid. The expansion would provide coverage to more than a million Texans who currently lack medical insurance. Many Texas legislators claim they support families, and this upcoming legislative session they will have the opportunity to show their support for Texas mothers by investing our tax money in better healthcare outcomes.
As the 86th session of the Texas Legislature begins, these highlighted issues are critically important to the state’s future and are long overdue for action by lawmakers in Austin. We need to push our elected leaders to make Texas safer, stronger, and more prosperous than ever before. To ensure it happens, Reform Austin will be watching legislators closely – constantly driving change, making sure they listen to what Texas truly need, and holding them accountable for their actions. If they didn’t know, they will soon learn, you don’t mess with Texas.
 

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