2017 Legislature out of Sync with Texas Values and Needs

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With a few notable exceptions, the 85th Texas Legislative session was one of the ugliest and least productive in recent memory. The hateful words toward immigrants and the clashes we saw on the last day of the legislative session were just the latest example of this year’s rancor.

Lawmakers spent precious time and energy on discriminatory responses to manufactured problems, instead of focusing on the real challenges facing our state. They missed countless opportunities to adopt policies that would have made Texas healthier, better educated and more financially secure. While a few sensible policies managed to make it through, overall the session pitted Texans against their neighbors while failing to invest in a strong future for hard-working people and their families.

One of the most spectacular tragedies of the session was the failure to enact school finance reform. The 5.2 million students in Texas public schools deserve a quality education, regardless of where they live or what their background. The House worked hard and crafted a reasonable plan, but zealots in the Senate poisoned it with school vouchers and woefully inadequate funding. The promise of expanded pre-K led only to a mandate that will force schools to use existing funding to pay for pre-K, resulting in a net loss for districts.

Another casualty of the session was Texas’ long-held reputation for sensible immigration policies. Immigrants and their families, without whom the Texas economy and culture would collapse, became the targets of fear-mongering and bias. Despite hours of testimony against the bill from law enforcement, local officials, educators, and faith leaders, the Legislature passed a “show me your papers” law that requires local law enforcement to comply with all federal immigration detainer requests, and bars local police — including campus police — from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. LGBTQ Texans were the victims of other priorities driven by fear rather than facts, including the so-called bathroom bill.

Touting a “tight budget” mostly created by the Legislature’s own short-sighted tax cuts and revenue diversions last session, the state continued its record of underinvesting in health care, education and other critical services. Despite the growing population and changing needs of our state, the Legislature inexplicably left billions of dollars sitting in the Rainy Day Fund – a foolish policy choice that threatens our future prosperity. And despite the revenue shortfall, lawmakers continued to push for more tax cuts, which so far have failed to pass. The harm to Texans from state cuts to critical services is likely to be exacerbated by looming federal threats to health care, food and education programs.

At the same time the Senate was refusing to pay the state’s fair share of public school funding – the real way to control property taxes – it was pushing hard to limit the ability of local governments to raise the revenue they need. That was one of many state efforts to usurp local control from Texas cities – the engines of our economy.

Though the scheme to cut revenue from local governments and the “bathroom bill” failed to pass during the regular session, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is still pushing Gov. Abbott to call a special session.

There were some silver linings, and CPPP’s data and advocacy helped lawmakers get good policies across the finish line. Mental health in Texas got a big boost when both houses passed bills that make coverage more accessible and equal, and bolstered programs that help people living with mental illness get the treatment they need and stay out of jail. Texans who receive surprise medical bills after visits to emergency rooms will now have better protections, and grandparents and other kinship caregivers will receive some additional financial support to help children stay with family.

In addition to the good bills that passed, CPPP helped block or reduce the harm from several terrible bills – including efforts to subsidize private school tuition through vouchers, eliminate the state’s main business tax, restrict the ability of cities and counties to raise revenue, and remove a key source of financial aid for 87,000 Texas students.

Why was the session so ugly this year? A few themes emerge. First, the rancor and hate didn’t take place in a vacuum. Federal policy proposals – from school vouchers to the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act –emboldened ultra-conservative Texas lawmakers. Second, there was visible friction between the Texas Senate and House. Lt. Gov. Patrick rammed through his ideological agenda while Speaker Joe Straus took a more measured approach, though he was unable to contain all the bad bills and amendments coming from extremists in his party. Finally, state lawmakers fought Texas cities and counties, instead of working alongside local leaders to advance policies that could help all Texans succeed.

CPPP expresses deep gratitude to the many lawmakers, legislative staff, partners and supporters who persisted in the face of daunting odds to fight for hard-working Texans and their families. As lawmakers return to their districts across our great state, CPPP will continue to analyze what passed and what didn’t, explain the implications for Texas, and build momentum for policies that enable Texans of all backgrounds to reach their full potential.

A renowned social justice lawyer, former philanthropy executive, and frequent public speaker and writer, Ann Beeson joined the Center in 2013. She was previously the Executive Director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations, where she promoted human rights, justice, and accountability nationwide. Beeson was the national Associate Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union, where she worked from 1995-2007. She argued twice before the U.S. Supreme Court, litigated numerous cases around the country, and launched groundbreaking programs to stop the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security and to protect free speech and privacy on the Internet. Beeson has been recognized as one of the nation’s top lawyers by American Lawyer Magazine and the National Law Journal. A proud Texan, Beeson has embraced a wide range of innovative strategies to advance social change. Before joining the Center, she launched a new non-profit to involve the creative sector in social change. In 2012-13, she was a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas, where she co-produced a public media series to inspire more people to get engaged in their communities. She grew up in Dallas, Texas, and received undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Texas. Beeson obtained her law degree from Emory University School of Law, and served as law clerk to the Honorable Barefoot Sanders, then chief judge of the Northern District of Texas.

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