Image: Looking beyond the crisis

We are deep into the COVID-19 crisis in Texas, and more cases appear every day. Many Texas communities have wisely issued shelter in place orders, and the Governor has required all Texans to stay home unless they are “participating in an essential service or activity.” We appreciate the extremely difficult choices federal, state, and local officials are making to slow down this deadly virus and to “flatten the curve” on new cases. 

As we mentioned at the onset of this crisis, CPPP is first and foremost focused on the health and safety of our fellow Texans. Since that time, CPPP has also called on the Texas Governor and other state leaders to take immediate action to improve access to testing, health care coverage, unemployment insurance, financial security, paid sick leave, and food assistance to ensure every Texan is safe and taken care of in this crisis.

Two logistically easy and politically courageous actions that the Texas Attorney General could take right now are dropping the lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act and against the local paid sick leave ordinances in Austin and San Antonio.

Nationally, repealing the Affordable Care Act without a replacement in the middle of this pandemic would be absolutely devastating and would further strain our health care system. Locally, if San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas had been allowed to implement their paid sick leave ordinances it would have allowed workers the peace of mind to take time off and keep their communities safe.  The recently enacted federal paid sick policy has huge gaps that should be filled at the state or local level. The thought that someone with COVID-19 could be serving food at this time or in the near future in a major metropolis like Austin or San Antonio because they fear losing their wages is terrifying and completely unnecessary. 

Once leaders address the immediate crisis as best as possible, it’s time to look at the bigger picture. We know the COVID-19 pandemic will have long lasting ramifications and has exposed long standing policy failures. Lawmakers should address these shortcomings once we get past the immediate danger of the virus spreading and overwhelming our hospitals and providers. 

We look forward to working with policy makers to examine the following issues and address the gaps that COVID-19 has exposed.

Health Care Coverage

  • This crisis has exposed our state for failing to ensure every Texan has health care coverage. Politically, we understand Texas leaders have historically resisted Medicaid expansion in Texas, despite our having the worst uninsured rate in the nation while other “red” states like Arizona see success from expansion. It’s time to put those old reactions aside. COVID-19 is a game changer. Medicaid helps Texas families get care and protects people financially, allowing the lowest-income families to advance economically. We can’t afford to have the worst uninsured rate in the nation any longer. Hospitals, especially rural ones, need reimbursement for treating our most vulnerable Texans. That means we need to expand coverage in Texas in a meaningful way. The Governor could do this through executive action, or the Legislature could pass a bill, or the Legislature could allow Texans to vote on it as many red states have done. Whatever the vehicle, Texas must get this done now.
  • The Texas Health and Human Services Commission was trying to recover from a backlog of work when COVID-19 hit in March. In the months prior to this emergency, there was a significant backlog and delay in processing applications for Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). In February, only 67% of applications for Medicaid were processed within the federally required 45 days. This improved to 83% in March but was still well below Texas’ normal rate of around 95%. The agency has attributed the slowdown in processing to high turnover and a large number of new employees with less experience. Underfunding state agencies limits their ability to provide adequate pay and retain experienced employees, and, in turn, respond when economic conditions create increased need for public benefit programs. We must invest in state agencies so that they are better prepared to respond to the increased needs in an emergency.

Burdensome Requirements to Access Basic Needs

  • Food security: For years Texas has added extra barriers and tests that limit access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”). About 3.8 million Texans rely on SNAP to feed their families, and most Texans are required to work at least 30 hours a week to keep their benefits. When the official disaster period ends, economic recovery will not happen overnight. State officials must use their authority to waive our state’s work hurdles in response to this unprecedented crisis, and ensure that families are able to put food on the table. When schools closed, it became apparent to everyone what schools and food banks already knew: many families rely on school meals to keep their children fed. One big way Texas can help struggling families access healthy food is by removing barriers like “asset tests” that prevent working poor families from accessing food through SNAP just because they have a reliable vehicle to go to and from their jobs.
  • Enrolling and keeping children in health coverage: Texas has the highest uninsured rate for children in the country. A major driving factor for this shameful statistic is that so many children in our state are eligible for free or low-cost coverage but not enrolled. An estimated 275,000 to 355,000 children in Texas are eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), but are uninsured. When this public health emergency started in March 2020, our state was already behind in their response because of policy decisions made over the years that keep children from getting and retaining coverage. Our state must remove bureaucratic barriers that prevent eligible children from staying in Medicaid and CHIP. Instead we should be implementing policies that streamline enrollment, reduce administrative costs, and improve continuity of care. 
  • Increasing unemployment or underemployment insurance: As whole sectors of the economy have shut down completely and many more have slowed dramatically, the rate of Texans experiencing unemployment or underemployment is at an all time high. While Congress has passed legislation to address this mass reduction in wages through temporarily expanding unemployment insurance (UI) to many not eligible for traditional state UI, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) still has a heavy lift to process the record breaking number of claims. The TWC should use every option available to them to reduce the time it takes to process claims and expand eligibility. COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in our state and federal UI systems that we must address to ensure the system is able to meet the needs of every Texan, now and in the future. 
  • Support for kinship caregivers: Thousands of Texas grandparents and other relatives are caring  children in what are known as “kinship” families. When COVID-19 hit Texas, these grandparents were part of the population most vulnerable to the virus, but they have the least amount of resources available to them. We need to bolster systems to support these kinship providers, including setting up an easy, one-stop shop to help them find existing resources. 

Texas Should Fund Schools Based on Enrollment rather than Attendance

  • When schools closed, district officials realized that if they reopened schools and only half of their pupils showed due to fear of the virus, they could potentially lose massive funding and be forced into large spending cuts. This is because school funding is currently tied to attendance, not enrollment. Enrollment is a better indicator of school needs than attendance, which fluctuates based on a wide number of factors including illnesses, weather, vacations, and economic conditions. The Texas Legislature should consider changing school finance formulas during the next legislative session to better support schools.

Higher Education Students Need Financial Security

  • Texas students, many of whom received only days’ notice that they were losing their on-campus housing and jobs, are experiencing numerous challenges. In addition to the personal and family housing and financial insecurity exacerbated by the crisis, students confront the additional challenges of adapting to digital classrooms, all under the severe stress caused by a global pandemic. As a result, students may have to reduce academic hours. Some may even have to defer their education to a later time. Texas policymakers must ensure no negative student loan or financial aid impact to students as a result of the crisis.
  • No student should be penalized, lose aid eligibility, or be limited in applying to future aid, as a result of academic action taken during semesters impacted by the COVID-19 crisis.
  • In addition, aligned with action taken at the federal level in the CARES Act, all state and private student loan payments should be suspended until at least September 30, 2020 and accrue zero interest during this period. All involuntary collection activity for state and private student loan debt should be suspended until at least September 30, 2020. Any involuntary collections for state and private student loans since March 13, 2020 should be returned in line with the federal relief. 
  • All 2020 recipients of the Texas College Work-Study Program should continue to receive their work-study funds regardless of the student’s ability to continue employment.

Paid Sick Leave

  • Paid sick leave: 4.3 million (40%) of working Texans do not have access to paid sick leave, a crucial policy safeguard in the best of times, and essential during a public health crisis. The hardships every Texan is experiencing during this pandemic show the importance of taking care of ourselves for the good of others. Our lack of statewide income protection for paid sick leave puts a significant number of Texans in the position of deciding between keeping their community safe and a paycheck. The high level of contagiousness of COVID-19 has also exposed the significance of ensuring greater coverage of paid leave. Current levels of coverage are not enough, and the picture becomes even more bleak when you consider that 78% of Texas’ service-sector workers do not have paid sick leave, meaning those with most contact with others are the least covered. Additionally, access to paid sick leave is less prevalent within certain communities leaving them more exposed to the spread of viruses. About 50% of Hispanic workers lack protection in Texas. This compares to 37% of Black workers lacking paid sick leave, 33% of White workers and 32% of Asian workers. We must start to value people and public health over corporate interests in Texas by enacting statewide protections for people to take paid sick leave. 
  • Paid Family and Medical Leave: Like many workplace policies and protections, too many Texans lack access to Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML). As we grapple with the significant disruption to families from COVID-19, the significance of any working Texan lacking PFML becomes clear. The inability to take extended paid leave when families experience significant medical or family events, is devastating to the stability of households. As we will see in the economic recovery from COVID-19, keeping workers attached to the workforce and their employer is critically important not only for families but for overall stability of our economy.

Immigration

  • Times of crisis are when it is most important to recognize our humanity. COVID-19 does not discriminate on the basis of immigration status or nationality. If anybody in the community is infected, then all of us are at risk. We know immigrants and people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are working in crucial industries like nursing, service and hospitality, and construction. Preventing undocumented workers from accessing testing or treatment not only denies their humanity but puts all Texans at risk. Similarly, holding immigrants in detention centers that increase exposure to the virus jeopardizes the health of everyone. Asylum seekers, the undocumented, and other immigrants seeking a better life for their families and posing no safety threats should not be held in detention centers. Immigrants of all statuses may fear getting tested and treated if it leads to detention, deportation, or shaming. Unfortunately, the Texas law known as Senate Bill 4 creates a climate of fear, and it’s time to repeal this inhumane law that does nothing to increase safety. 

Budget Implications

  • The state budget, taxes and oil prices: Our revenue system does not meet the demands of our growing state. Declining oil prices, which dominate the headlines, will reduce revenue to the Economic Stabilization Fund (Rainy Day Fund), Highway Fund, and Foundation School Fund. But it’s a prolonged drop-off in sales tax revenue, which supplies 60 percent of state general revenue, that could be much more damaging. For years, CPPP has voiced concerns about overly relying on sources of revenue that are volatile and overly dependent on low-income and middle class earners. We need to think outside the box next session to expand revenue sources. Lawmakers should repeal outdated or wasteful tax exemptions to fund expanded homestead exemptions, health care and education spending. 
  • Federal aid: The CARES Act gives an initial round of aid to states and local governments, which are facing unanticipated expenses and diminished revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Texas will receive $11.2 billion through the Coronavirus Relief Fund – up to $3.2 billion of which can go to local general-purpose governments serving more than 500,000 people, the rest to the state. This money is intended for necessary expenditures incurred due to the virus and not accounted for in the state or local current budget. In addition, the Education Stabilization Fund will send $1.3 billion to Texas to distribute to school districts, $1.0 billion sent directly to our public and private universities (based primarily on their share of Pell Grant recipients), and $295 million for the governor to distribute to schools, colleges, and universities particularly affected by the pandemic. Even this aid will fall far short of what the state, cities, counties, and school districts will need to maintain public services. The next Congressional action, already being negotiated, should increase the amount of aid, expand it to cover smaller cities and counties, remove restrictions on its use, and link the expiration of aid to some measure of recovery (such as lower unemployment), rather than the end of the calendar year.

CPPP will keep fighting for the most vulnerable Texans through the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. Visit our blog to see the latest updates on our COVID-19 policy solutions: bettertexasblog.org/covid19.

Luis Figueroa joined the Center in 2018 as the first Legislative and Policy Director. In this important new role, Luis oversees CPPP's comprehensive legislative strategy and leads our distinguished team of policy experts. He was previously General Counsel for Texas State Senator José Rodríguez and Executive Director of the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus. Previously, he served as the Legislative Attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), where he worked from 2004 to 2013. A proud Texan from El Paso, Luis received the 2013 MALDEF Award for services performed on behalf of the Latino community in pursuit of social justice, the 2011 Champion of Equality and Justice Award from LULAC, and the 2009 Spirit of Change Award by State Rep. Joaquin Castro, among other honors. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Speech Communications with a concentration in American Politics and Law from Trinity University in San Antonio, and his Juris Doctorate from the University Of Texas School Of Law. He is licensed to practice law in the State of Texas.