The 2015 Texas Legislative session ended in early June, and last Wednesday representatives gathered at the San Jacinto College North Campus to highlight some of the successes and challenges.
Hosted by the Economic Alliance Port Region, the bi-annual Legislative Wrap-up provided a summary of what convened in Austin and how that will impact core issues related to education, the economy, tax relief and transportation across the state.
Senators Larry Taylor and Sylvia Garcia, state representatives Harry Dutton Jr. Wayne Smith, Carol Alvarado, Greg Bonnen, Ed Thompson, Gilbert Pena and Dennis Paul spoke on what was on the table in Austin and what was accomplished.
Senator Taylor characterized the session as a successful one, emphasizing the healthy condition of the state economy, the attention to transportation issues and tax relief for business owners and home owners, including a homestead exemption increase of $10,000 from $15-$20, 000.
“We did a lot these things at the same time we were able to help keep our economy going and continue the great ride that we’re on,” he said.
Senator Garcia focused on the number of bills passed by the House and Senate, a total of 6,476 with the governor vetoing 42 bills.
“He really didn’t find a lot of bills he didn’t like,” she said. Seven of those 42, she noted, were hers.
Garcia served on several committees, including transportation, education and veterans’ affairs, particularly female veterans’ concerns.
“We have one of the largest women’s veterans populations in the whole country, and we don’t have programs tailored to them,” she said.
The session proved to be ‘distressing’ in terms of local government control, Garcia said.
“I have never frankly seen such an assault on local control as I saw this session,” she said. “There may be some at this table who disagree with me, that they think that there are some things we want to do locally that do have state-wide impact. But there were some things that were just really purely local that need to be decided by the local school boards, city councils, management districts, and not happen in Austin.”
One of the bills passed that Garcia said she was proud of was the Revenge Pornography bill, which would make it a crime to put revealing photos of an ex on social media out of retaliation, an act Garcia characterized as a form of domestic violence and assault.
State Representative Harold Dutton, Jr. zeroed in on education and the need to hold under-performing schools accountable.
During the discussion of bills, Dutton suggested an amendment which states that if a school under performs for three consecutive years, the TEAC (Texas Education Agency Commission) would remove the school board and appoint a board of managers.
In Texas, 297 campuses have been under-performing for at least two consecutive years.
“I think that’s a tragedy because what happens is we never, ever have an opportunity to reclaim those children who have gone through a low-performing campus,” Rep. Dutton said. “I’ve always been searching for a way in which we could address that problem from another perspective.”
The current system, he said, fails to hold these low-performing schools accountable.
“Often in the school district system; we send our less experienced teachers and staff to our schools that need the most attention and as a consequence, nothing prospers,” Dutton said.
Too often, geography and demographics play a factor, he said.
“Most of these low-performing campuses, if you tell me where the school campus is located, what part of the city it’s in, if you tell me what race the students are, I’ll tell you whether its low-performing or not. I don’t think geography ought to decide whether or not you get a good education in the state of Texas.”
State representative Wayne Smith (District 128) focused on the importance of relationships during legislative sessions.
“When you get elected and go to Austin, the relationships you develop make a great deal of difference in how successful your term is,” he said.
Smith demonstrated some of the difficulties of getting a bill through by citing a metal theft bill co-authored by Senators Taylor and Rep. Dutton that got stalled. The collective work of colleagues bolsters a bill’s chance of survival, he said.
“Relationships make a difference, and if you’re going to get something passed, if you’re going to do something for your district, you got to know how to do it, and you’ve got to know who to work with,” Rep. Smith said.
State Representative Carol Alvarado (District 145) spoke about some of the highs during the legislative session, including the boost of a robust state economy and how that translates into investing in key issues such as mental health, education, health and human services and domestic violence.
“We were able to increase funding of health and human services by 3.6 percent. For education, we fully funded enrollment growth, and increased education funding by 5 percent,” she said. “We also increased funding towards Texas study grants, and are very pleased about that.”
Rep. Alvarado cited a bill that became a law to reform the grand jury system, ending the ‘pick-a-pal’ and ‘key man system’ and allows for random selection.
On domestic violence issues, one bill that passed would allow victims of stalking to use pseudonym when filing a report. Rep. Alvarado also noted a bill prohibiting the sale of cigarettes to minors, with Texas becoming the 41st state to do so.
State Representative Greg Bonnen (District 24) talked public and higher education, tax relief and border security.
The state approved $3.5 billion in public education, $4.5 billion for transportation, a 25 percent decrease in state franchise tax and bolstered border security with the funding of an additional 250 DPS troopers.
State Representative Ed Thompson (District 29) served on the land and resource management committee, two items that raised his concerns were bills related to annexation and eminent domain.
“I really gave me a lot of concern about some of the thoughts that were out there about what a city should be able to do and how they should be able to do it,” he said.
On eminent domain: “I saw some of the proposals and I see attorneys being able to be involved in that eminent domain a little more, and that always gives me a little bit of pause as well. I would just say to all of you, keep your eyes open and your ears down because those are things that do pop up, and sometimes you get surprised by them, and it’s something we need to be aware of,” he said.
State Representative Gilbert Pena (District 144) primarily spoke his experience as a new voice in Austin.
“I was told there were two things I couldn’t do: one, I could not beat an incumbent; two: I could not do it with no money,” he said. “I did both, so (I) think that was great in itself.”
He spoke of how communities play a vital role in local control. He called this legislative session a “learning experience”.
“As a new member I am learning new things and I hope to pass more bills when it comes time for my second term,” he said.
State Representative Dennis Paul (District 129) highlighted bills that increased funding for retired teachers and a bill that fights human trafficking along the border, pro-business bills and property rights bills.
“The citizens of Texas can feel safe that we are no longer in Austin, so we can’t hurt you anymore,” he joked.