|It was great to see that you were recognized this year for all of your hard work on criminal justice legislation this session by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. Which bills in particular in this area were you especially proud of?
Perhaps the biggest criminal justice bill this session was the Michael Morton Act, which majorly reformed the way that prosecutors exchange information with defense attorneys in criminal cases. It's a tremendous step in ensuring that wrongful convictions don't happen in Texas.
We also had the opportunity-after several special sessions-to close a serious loophole in our capital murder statutes. Our existing law made life without parole automatic for 17 year olds convicted of our most heinous crime. However, since that was out of line with recent Supreme Court rulings, our state effectively had no way to punish a 17 year old for capital murder. We were able to correct that issue by changing the sentencing scheme to automatic life with parole, complying with constitutional requirements while still appropriately punishing some of our worst offenders.
Finally, I had the honor of authoring some important criminal justice legislation myself, such as a bill I worked with Senator Rodriguez on to finally get El Paso County the medical examiner it deserves. I was also proud to continue my fight against domestic violence with a significant overhaul to our stalking laws that I believe will provide prosecutors with the tools they need to protect survivors and hold stalkers accountable.
How about bills that didn't make it? Any that you're especially ready to reintroduce next session?
I have some criminal justice bills that I plan to reintroduce, such as the graffiti diversion measures and several tweaks in criminal procedure I authored this past session. However, the bills I'm most committed to are about greater transparency and honesty in how our schools are run.
I have a bill that removes that gamesmanship in class size reporting by requiring that actual class size-not some overall educator-to-student ratio for the school-be included on report cards. I also have one that ends the practice of giving financial bonuses for school administrators based on test scores, which hits close to home.
A situation like we had in El Paso ISD, where a superintendent made tens of thousands of dollars based on how students do on a state test, illustrates what a perverse incentive money can be when it's tied to tests. At best, it distracts from true education, and at worst, it encourages the kind of outright manipulation we saw in El Paso. Money needs to be decoupled from testing if we want to get our students back on track.
What about contributions to other bills you didn't author? It seemed like your skills were utilized quite a bit in combination with other legislators.
Some measures were so big that it took a lot of cooperation to get them across the finish line. A good example is the Michael Morton Act by senators Ellis and Duncan. Although the senators' offices did amazing work getting the bill crafted, it took strong leaders in both chambers and both sides of the aisle rowing together to pass the biggest discovery reform in fifty years, which is why I was proud to joint-sponsor the bill. There were also criminal justice bills I was able to contribute my expertise to as a former prosecutor to, such as the crucial changes to our hit-and-run statute that were made this session.
Of course, being an effective legislator means developing expertise in issues important to your constituents, which is what I did with legislation affecting veterans. I spent a lot of time educating myself on the issues and reached out to many other legislators to lend a hand on bills that benefit El Paso veterans. That kind of collaboration helped get bills passed that make it easier for veterans to transition into civilian employment, provide critical mental health services, and fund local veteran assistance programs.
Obviously there were going to be some big changes between the atmosphere in your first session and this one-which were the most noticeable? Any positives and/or negatives for you personally?
Around half the House had one term or less of experience-myself included-and almost a third were serving their first term. Overall there was less institutional momentum driving things and more of everyone figuring things out as they went along. There was also a starker divide within the Republican Party than in previous sessions, with Tea Party Republicans almost acting as a separate entity. It made for some interesting negotiations during session.
For me personally, having a solid team behind me helped me hit the ground running. I was also fortunate to work with some great legislators, and I'm proud of what we accomplished together this session.
I know for myself that trying to talk about and advocate for El Paso to other offices was a struggle due to the simple fact that it's so far away from the rest of the state. It was strange, and sometimes annoying, to have explain how our city really is and break through assumptions a lot of people had about it. What issues did you find especially difficult (in this session and your last) to convey to other legislators about El Paso?
There are lots of misconceptions about El Paso. That's partly because El Paso is so far away from the other urban centers in the state, so it's a place that many Texans visit infrequently, if at all. People who haven't been to El Paso in a few years would be shocked at the city's growth-it's nearly as big as Austin, and while our Capitol is the center of state government, El Paso is a tremendous international hub.
Part of my job is making sure that other leaders at the local, state, and even national level understand the pivotal role El Paso plays in our economy. Our ports-the bridges that connect us to Mexico-are every bit as bustling as the seaports in Houston. I am proud to be in a position where I can promote El Paso's interests, build partnerships to tackle the challenges our city faces, and share our unique and very rich culture.
Now that the session is finally over, what have you been working on in the meantime in HD-78?
My focus has always been the people of District 78, so my first priority now that session has ended has been touching base with them. I've been speaking at community events throughout the district to explain some of the important changes in law that took place this session. More importantly, I've been listening to what my constituents have to say about the issues they're dealing with. My goal is to hit the ground running in the 84th Session with a responsive legislative package that will do some real good for the district.